Narendra Modi was head of Gujarat state when Hindu militants committed one of the worst anti-Muslim massacres in modern Indian history. Now he’s Indian prime minister — and his US allies are busily ensuring the Hindutva leader’s impunity.

Supporters of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi cheer before the Howdy Modi event at NRG Stadium, September 22, 2019, in Houston, Texas. (Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

February 27, 2002, was a normal Wednesday for five-year-old me. I woke up, put on my Cinderella backpack, and spent the day at school learning about bumblebees. On the other side of the world, in my parents’ homeland, the sun was setting over burning, bloody streets in the north Indian state of Gujarat, where one of the most horrific cases of mass anti-Muslim slaughter in modern Indian history was unfolding. Earlier that day, Muslims had been accused — with no evidence — of setting fire to a train full of Hindu pilgrims. By nightfall, Hindu militant mobs were ravaging Gujarat’s cities, slaughtering scores of innocent Muslims in “revenge.” Over the course of the next few weeks, an estimated two thousand men, women, and children would be murdered amid disturbing stories of gang rapes, mutilations, dismemberings, electrocutions, and lighting of bodies on fire. International human rights groups and news outlets alike would later recognize that the state government — led by then chief minister Narendra Modi and his far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — was complicit in orchestrating the violence.

At five years old, I was too young to be told about such horrors. What I did realize was that something big had shaken my Indian Muslim parents. They rushed to the phone to ask about family friends in Gujarat. They sat me down one day after kindergarten and explained Islamophobia to me. I noticed that my father seemed more muted, saddened when he talked about India. I didn’t find out why until years later. He couldn’t unsee those headlines, couldn’t shake the fact that so many Indians were completely apathetic to Muslim suffering. Gujarat 2002 was the turning point, he told me years later, when he realized the pluralistic India of his childhood was gone, and it was only a matter of time before the BJP created an India where Muslims were no longer welcome.

Twenty-one years have passed since the Gujarat pogrom, and I can now see how right he was. The India of my parents is not just gone; it’s ruled by the man who helped orchestrate the pogrom, and in the years since he came to power, anti-Muslim hatred and violence has only skyrocketed into a genocidal crescendo. While Muslims in India are most directly affected, the hate stretches into the diaspora too, where Hindu far-right supporters celebrate the pain of Indian Muslims, whitewash Modi’s crimes, and work to mainstream the supremacist ideology that fueled the Gujarat pogrom in the United States.

The reverberations of the Gujarat pogrom must be understood through the rise and spread of the ideology called Hindutva — also known as Hindu nationalism or Hindu supremacy, which Modi and his protégés proudly wear on their sleeves. Hindutva purports that India should be a Hindu ethnostate instead of a secular democracy, where minorities — especially Muslims — should be stripped of their rights and subjected to mass violence.

The Gujarat pogrom was what allowed Modi to sell Hindutva to the masses during his reelection campaign, exploiting the death of Hindu pilgrims in the train fire to invoke fear of Muslims, and justifying the mass anti-Muslim slaughter that followed. His popularity swelled among a rapidly growing Hindu far right. By 2014, Modi had become prime minister. By 2023, his government — which openly flaunts its connections to the Hindu militant groups that lynched and arsoned their way through the Gujarat pogrom — had overseen skyrocketing anti-Muslim violence and human rights abuses.

These included discriminatory policies aimed at stripping Muslims’ citizenship rights, punitive home and mosque demolitions, bans on hijabs in schools, and the criminalization of Muslim religious expression. Just like during the Gujarat pogrom, Modi’s government has allowed impunity for Hindu extremist violence, turning a blind eye to mob lynchings, attacks on Muslim women and minors, targeted riots in Muslim-majority areas, and rising hate speech by BJP politicians and Hindu extremist leaders alike.

Impunity

This climate of impunity and normalized violence is at the core of why Muslim victims of the pogrom have had justice cruelly withheld from them for decades. In one case, multiple pleas to investigate Modi’s complicity were filed by survivor Zakia Jafri, whose parliamentarian husband was killed and dismembered by a Hindu mob. He had telephoned Modi for help as the mob surrounded his home, where he was sheltering around seventy women, children, and men, only to be sneered at. “You’re still alive?” Modi reportedly taunted, before hanging up.

Time and time again, the courts ignored the horrors of this story, and every one of Zakia Jafri’s petitions was dismissed. In another case, the Indian government used emergency powers to ban social media users from sharing the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question, which explored Modi’s complicity in the Gujarat pogrom and shared the stories of multiple survivors.

In other cases, the judiciary directly retraumatized survivors by releasing dozens of Hindu extremist perpetrators from prison. In October 2022, the Modi government approved the release of eleven Hindu extremist men who gang-raped a pregnant Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano, and murdered seven members of her family, including her three-year-old daughter. Just months later, in April 2023, a Gujarat court acquitted sixty-seven Hindu extremists and militant leaders accused of burning eleven Muslims to death — including one Babu Bajrangi, a Hindu militant who boasted on camera about how he had murdered a pregnant Muslim woman.

How does this affect the Indian Muslim diaspora? The specter of impunity has empowered the American Hindu far right, too. Similar to its Indian counterpart, it works to whitewash Modi’s image, kill conversations about human rights abuses under his government, and disenfranchise Muslims here in the United States.

At the forefront of this effort are American offshoots of the same Hindu militant groups responsible for the Gujarat pogrom, who work with the American right — including white supremacists — to promote Hindutva and its anti-Muslim narratives. Groups like the massive Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), whose overseas counterparts were found guilty of “aiding and abetting a mob that killed 105 people, injured several others, destroyed property, and sexually assaulted women,” have worked with hateful actors like Robert Spencer, Avi Davis, Laura Loomer, and Pamela Geller to flare up anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States. Other branches of Indian militant groups, like the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), have worked with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) to push Hindu supremacist and anti-Muslim narratives into California textbooks, and operate training camps modeled off those of the Nazi-inspired Indian paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Some of these groups have also vehemently defended the 2002 mass slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat. In the words of Gaurang Vaishnav, a leader of the VHP-A: “Hindus of Gujarat have not killed in the name of religion. Hindus have reacted to the ‘Aat-tayee’ [rapists or plunderers] as any society would after years of impotence and tolerance. . . . Our scriptures are very categorical about the punishment to be meted out to the Aat-tayees. It is punishment by death.”

As such, it’s no surprise that Modi — the face of Hindutva, and by extension the pogrom — is also given an adoring platform by these groups when he visits the United States. Most notably, in 2019, American Hindu supremacist groups pulled a crowd of fifty thousand Indian Americans for a “Howdy Modi” event (featuring Donald Trump) in Texas. That’s fifty thousand people cheering for the overseer of mass murder.

US Islamophobia

While whitewashing human rights violations in India, these same actors also work to push Muslim disenfranchisement in the United States. In the Illinois Senate, the Hindu right attempted to pass a law barring Muslims from joining a proposed Indian American Advisory Council. In Chicago, it has interfered in democratic processes to kill a city council resolution condemning human rights violations in India. Specifically, Hindu right leader Bharat Barai boasted on a VHP-A Facebook livestream about how local Hindu supremacists employed hired lobbyists, collaborated with anti-Muslim groups like the Middle East Forum, launched targeted attacks against elected officials, and amplified misinformation to influence city council members to vote against condemning India’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which aims at stripping Muslims of their citizenship en masse.

A Texas Hindu supremacist group, the Global Hindu Heritage Foundation (GHHF), plays a direct role in crimes against minorities in India, partnering with Hindu extremists to ban the Muslim call to prayer in Indian cities, promote literature on anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, and run coercive programs aimed at converting Muslims and Christians to Hinduism. On its website, GHHF has posted articles encouraging violent attacks against Muslims for eating beef and being in interfaith relationships, while it demonizes Islam as “the enemy of humanity.”

Other right-wing Hindus show their Islamophobia through blatant displays of Hindutva, which have become increasingly bold over the years.

In academic spaces, Hindu supremacists from across the United States regularly send emails full of anti-Muslim slurs, death threats, and rape threats to those who criticize Modi and Hindutva. In 2022, Muslims in New Jersey faced a string of attacks and dog whistles from the Hindu right, from the parading of a bulldozer emblazoned with Modi’s face down the streets of Edison, to Islamophobic messaging on digital trucks being driven around Piscataway. A student who helped organize a screening of India: the Modi Question at her university in Chicago told me that a Hindu professor disrupted the event to declare that “the Muslims were responsible for starting the [Gujarat] riots.”

In 2024, a crowd of Hindutva supporters gathered in Times Square to celebrate the inauguration of a Hindu temple in Uttar Pradesh state, on the grounds where a historic mosque, the Babri Masjid, was destroyed in 1992 by a mob of BJP leaders and Hindu militants. At a gas station in Virginia last year, my family was asked by a grinning cashier who identified himself as a Hindu, “Are you ready for the war against Muslims?”

Hindutva hatred is material. It had consequences in 2002, and it has consequences now. And in both India and America, it makes all of us unsafe.

In the twenty-one years since the Gujarat pogrom, Hindutva supporters have worked to whitewash Modi and the blood on his hands — but we Indian Muslims will never forget, nor will we allow them to take our narrative away. And like Bilkis Bano, Zakia Jafri, and all the Muslims who have had the courage to share their story, we will never stop calling for justice.

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