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Hindu Nationalists Blamed For Igniting Culture War


Let's turn now to India, where Hindu nationalists are being blamed for igniting a culture war. They're accused of using vigilante violence and intimidation to promote a Hindu way of life for all Indians. Let's hear more now from NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: At this buffalo market in central Rajasthan, gusts of hot wind blow dust and dung through the air. The animals look forlorn. A couple hundred stand beneath a canopy shielded from the sun, twitching. Young men tug the beasts onto trucks, contorting their girth into every available inch. Mohammad Salim, a Muslim driver, had a harrowing journey two weeks ago bringing buffalo to a slaughterhouse near the capital, New Delhi.

Mohammad, could you describe what happened to you when you were driving?

MOHAMMAD SALIM: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "A car intercepted me, and a girl got out and said, what's in your truck?" Soon, some 15 men were on him, he says - self-appointed cow protectors, according to Salim, who insisted he was transporting cows. They beat him and stole his money. The police who came to the scene extorted more, he says.

SALIM: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "I've been doing this for seven years, and I was never attacked before," says the bruised 32-year-old. "Now it is happening, and we're scared." Mohammad Salim blames Yogi Adityanath. Adityanath is the newly elected chief administrator in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he is a self-avowed Hindu nationalist. The creation of a Hindu Rashtra or state is a central tenet for this Hindu priest.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch says that his devotion to protecting the cow has helped spur recent vigilante violence. Earlier this month, a mob in Rajasthan lynched a 55-year-old driver. The state of Gujarat, meanwhile, made slaughtering a cow punishable by life in prison. Most parts of India ban the slaughter of cows, an animal many Hindus consider holy. For Sadhvi Kamal Didi, it's a giver of life. The president of the women's wing of the national cow protection group, she says her members will take the law into their own hands when the police don't.

SADHVI KAMAL DIDI: (Through interpreter) We are not going to allow cow smuggling. And we won't allow them to be slaughtered. Whoever wants to stay here in India, they can stay here as a Hindu. This is our country. We should dominate, and things should happen according to us.

MCCARTHY: Anyone who doesn't like it, she says, can go to Pakistan. Yogi Adityanath once led purification drives converting Christians to Hindus. He founded a group to advance, critics say violently, a Hindu way of life. The Hindu Yuva Vahini, or Hindu Youth Brigade, recently disrupted a church service alleging that Christians were converting Hindus. Nagendra Tomar is a leader of the brigade and makes similar charges against Muslims.

NAGENDRA TOMAR: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "In Muslim-dominated areas of India," he says, "Hindu girls are lured into having sexual relations with Muslim men. And then they convert them." Historian Romila Thapar says there's been no outright condemnation by either Narendra Modi or Yogi Adityanath of this growing zealotry. Thapar says the two leaders who rely on the allegiance of Hindu nationalists may feel no need to speak out.

ROMILA THAPAR: Now there is a much greater perception that the majority is in power. And the majority, therefore, can do what it pleases.

MCCARTHY: But author and historian D.N. Jha says Hindu nationalism cannot succeed in a country whose population is nearly 15 percent Muslim.

D N JHA: Are we going to throw them out into the Bay of Bengal? Why don't these jokers realize this - that this can't be possible?

MCCARTHY: Thapar sees a larger significance in the current vigilantism that goes beyond acting outside the law.

THAPAR: It's an alternate claim to being legal. You defy the laws of the state, and you do it on the base of having community support. And that is what gives it, in their eyes, legitimacy.

MCCARTHY: Cow protection advocate Sadhvi Kamal Didi is in no doubt about where India is heading. And in Narendra Modi, she believes man and moment have met.

DIDI: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "For the first time we've got a very good ruler in Modi," she says, "and between the prime minister and Yogi Adityanath, we will regain our greatness." Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rajasthan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.