Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub is among the most tenacious chroniclers of the rise of authoritarian Hindu nationalism in India. For over a decade, she has doggedly scrutinized prime minister Narendra Modi and his BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) associates, who, since coming to power in 2014, have elevated once-fringe Hindu supremacist ideology and aggressively worked to redefine the idea of India, from a secular and multicultural democracy to a Hindu nation in which minorities are subjugated and communal hatred is normalized.
Ayyub’s personal history and journalistic orientation are deeply intertwined. She grew up in a Muslim household in Mumbai, where, at age nine, she experienced the fallout from the 1992 Hindu-Muslim riots, incited by the destruction of the Mughal-era mosque, Babri Masjid, to make way for a Hindu temple. As violence flared, she and her sister went into hiding, and her family was forced to relocate from their diverse middle-class neighborhood to a Muslim slum. Ten years later, she traveled to Gujarat as a relief worker following the state’s infamous 2002 riots, during which Hindu mobs, allegedly condoned by the government of then-chief minister Narendra Modi, slaughtered and displaced thousands of Muslims.
Witnessing the toll of the carnage, and the lack of accountability in its aftermath, helped catalyze an interest in journalism for Ayyub, and a few years later, at the English-language magazine Tehelka, she began tackling corruption and misconduct in the ranks of the BJP. In 2010, she returned to Gujarat undercover, disguised as an Indian-American Hindu filmmaker, and infiltrated Modi’s circle in an effort to expose official complicity in the 2002 carnage and the state’s Hindu nationalist agenda more broadly. Though her reporting was widely deemed groundbreaking, she struggled to place it in the Indian press, which was growing increasingly skittish in the face of lawsuit threats and censorship. She eventually self-published the investigation in a book called Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, which has since sold some 600,000 copies, been translated into 13 languages, and landed Ayyub numerous international awards.
Much of the conversation that follows took place in late February 2020, shortly after several days of violence in Delhi triggered by ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a new federal policy that excludes Muslim immigrants from a fast-tracked route to citizenship. As Modi conducted a state visit with president Donald Trump, the nation’s capital saw largely Hindu mobs target Muslim businesses and homes and kill several dozen people.
In the weeks since, the coronavirus pandemic has put the nation of 1.3 billion on lockdown and laid bare India’s staggering inequality, with millions of now-jobless migrant workers fleeing cities for their villages on foot and the vast population of urban poor trapped in congested, unsanitary slums where, as Ayyub recently wrote, “social distancing is a curious privilege.” As with regimes around the world, this pandemic will likely only provide fodder for Modi’s autocratic tendencies and the government’s brazen attitude toward not just minorities, but the impoverished. “It has never been more important than now to repeat the same thing over and over again,” she says. “We need to remind the world about India’s downward slide into this majoritarian abyss.”
Adi: Most of this interview took place before the coronavirus outbreak. What’s the world you’re living in now?
Rana Ayyub: Well, I am ensconced in my upper middle class life in Mumbai, living in a complete lockdown, but with all essential commodities stocked. That’s my privilege, but unfortunately that is not what life looks like right now for the vast population of Indians who are living in either abject poverty with a hand-to-mouth existence, or worried for their sustenance in the days to come. At the moment, I am quarantined because I had been reporting from Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. I met daily wage workers in the slums who believe social distancing is an obscene concept. There are 1.5 million people living in a square mile. Each slum dwelling has an average of five occupants with no access to basic sanitation. Many workers I met believe starvation will kill them before the virus does. Our streets are empty, our hospitals are full. It is an apocalypse no one imagined.
Adi: Last month, you were in Delhi and Gujarat covering President Donald Trump’s visit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and alongside that, one of the worst outbursts of communal violence in Delhi’s recent history. Police looked away as Hindu mobs targeted Muslim shops and houses; dozens were beaten and killed. Tell me about how that unfolded.
Rana Ayyub: During the Trump-Modi visit, it was very disturbing right from the beginning. When Trump spoke about eradicating Islamic terrorism, the loudest cheers came from the stadium. I asked people, “Why are you cheering when it comes to Islamic terrorism?”And they said, “Oh, the only two people who know how to fight Islam are Modi and Trump.”
And then in Delhi there was just carnage. I never expected this to happen right in the national capital. Riots burned for three or four days. Muslims were beaten and detained. And Trump was dining with the president of the country and everybody was pretending like nothing had happened. Important journalists were asking ridiculous questions at the press conference about trade between India and America, and at the same time, carnage was unfolding in the backyard.
I went on CNN, and liberals pounced on me for calling the violence an anti-Muslim pogrom. Yes, of course Hindus were killed, but there is an overwhelming number of Muslims who were killed with state complicity. There are two sides, but there is one side which is being enabled by the state, with police acting on behalf of the mobs. That is the very definition of a pogrom.
You see ministers giving anti-Muslim hate speeches on television. You have minister Giriraj Singh saying two days before the riots that all Muslims should have shifted to Pakistan in 1947. You have locals arming themselves and chanting Jai Shri Ram [a phrase that has become a Hindu nationalist rallying cry]. The NIA, the National Investigation Agency, arrested a Muslim couple saying they were running an ISIS module and were responsible for the Delhi carnage. And the media buys into this entire thing. There is no questioning. I’m disappointed at various levels: with journalists, with the state, with us as a society.
Adi: It seems as though there’s a dissonance between what is being chronicled in the international media, where we are seeing detailed reports of anti-Muslim violence and the role of the state, versus the pro-state narrative in the Indian media.
Rana Ayyub: Yes, absolutely. If you see the narrative on Kashmir, if you see the narrative on CAA, if you see the narrative on Delhi, there is a huge difference between the way Indian media and the international media are covering it. Especially Kashmir, which Indian media were covering through the prism of patriotism. None of the Indian journalists were entering the city. They were just doing their live reports right near the airport. When I landed there, we just had to find a driver and go and actually see what was happening. The international media were doing it. Their work on Kashmir and on the Delhi carnage has been remarkable. If they can do it, why couldn’t Indian journalists in their own publications do it?
Adi: What is allowing for this kind of willful blindness in the Indian media, which in turn permits a complacency among the broader public?
Rana Ayyub: This apathy started sometime in 2013, when the Indian media began self-censoring—even before Modi could censor them. I wrote a piece around that time about Amit Shah being elected as the president of the ruling party of the BJP, describing how it was a new low for Indian politics for a man who was called an extortionist and a murderer by the Central Bureau of Investigations to be the president of the ruling party. Within four hours, the piece was pulled out. And this was even before Modi came to power. I could see that the same journalists who were covering the 2002 carnage in Gujarat and talking about the complicity of Modi on national television, were now bending over backwards to accommodate him, to interview him, to access Modi and his team.
And meanwhile serious journalists who were full-time suddenly became freelance. The finest minds in India right now are either consulting editors or independent journalists or have to find foreign publications to publish themselves. I had to wait from 2013 when I left Tehelka magazine until 2019 to be employed by the Washington Post. I was jobless. I was jobless because journalists and editors would tell me, write about everything but don’t write about Modi.
I remember in 2016, after I released Gujarat Files, almost every major journalist and editor was at my book launch. I read excerpts from the book, and they all sent me text messages saying, “You’re the bravest person that exists in this country.” And I thought, “Okay. The book is going to be headlines in the newspapers the next day.” And there was not a single line, except for in a few [English-language publications] like Scroll or the Caravan. And the same journalists who used to meet me in public in coffee shops would now ask me to come to their homes.
Adi: What’s behind this? Is it all fear, or are there other incentives?
Rana Ayyub: Most of the television channels and publications are owned by business groups or big industries like Reliance and the Jains. They’re not ideologically inclined; they’re opportunistic. If the Congress party were in power, perhaps they’d be doing the same thing.
Having said that, the Congress government was less vindictive than the present regime. The present regime is brazen and petty. When I was reporting for Tehelka, I wrote scathing articles about [Congress party Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh and other members of the administration, but there was never any backlash. Now, you cannot write for an Indian publication if you have been critical of the regime.
And then, of course, they build this narrative of fake news through WhatsApp and the right wing press that journalists like me who write for the Washington Post are a part of some conspiracy trying to pull India and its international image down. OpIndia, effectively run by the BJP, and Swarajya magazine—these right wing outlets publish one article about me every day. Their millions of subscribers get a story every day of Rana Ayyub selling out the country, of course, with religious connotations, with the fact that I am Muslim. They delegitmize my work for a majority of this country. And that’s true for a lot of other journalists also.
Adi: So they just ground you down.
Rana Ayyub: Absolutely. There’s a reason so many of us are seeking therapy. It’s particularly difficult when, as a friend recently said, your own colleagues try to pull you down. You think, “Am I really wrong?” You question, “Perhaps I am being too critical of Modi?” Because everybody else is just talking about Modi as this man who has done so much development for the country. And then you realize that no, this government is actually vindictive. Because they’re attacking the international press too.
The New York Times publishers came to India in October and their appointment with Modi was cancelled. Jeff Bezos came to India and Modi did not meet him and the foreign minister put out a tweet that Jeff Bezos has hired jihadis and Islamists to write for the Washington Post. It doesn’t get more explicit than what they’re doing right now.
Adi: How would you begin to describe what it feels like to be a Muslim in India today?
Rana Ayyub: I’ve never really worn my faith on my sleeve in the past. But the way bias has been mainstreamed—as I wrote in a piece for the Washington Post, as a Muslim, it’s a nightmare living in this India.
Over the course of my life I have witnessed three of the worst communal carnages in the country. At the age of nine, during the Bombay riots, people came to my home with swords and wanted to take me and my sister. A Sikh family saved us and we took refuge in their house for two months, with no idea where our family was.
I was 19 when the Gujarat riots took place, the first televised carnage. I went to Gujarat as a relief worker. I remember wearing a bindi there, and I wouldn’t tell people my last name; I’d just tell them Rana because there’s a bit of ambiguity. That was the first time I felt majority privilege, the privilege of being a Hindu in this country.
I was very helpless when I was nine and at 19 I thought I could do my bit, that I could bring about a change. And then I see what’s happening in Delhi right now for the world to witness. It feels like anti-Muslim hate has been normalized in this country. Thanks to Modi there are no more closet bigots. The bigotry is out in the open. The stuff that people used to speak about in WhatsApp groups and at families dinners is now being spoken in the streets of this country. That Muslims produce eight children, that they want to take over this country, that they have four wives, that they’re dirty people. This language is now mainstream. Ministers speak openly about this. Friends speak about how regressive Islam is as a faith. Individuals are being called out for their Muslimness on social media and asked to assimilate themselves into Indian culture.
I know how othering feels; I was made to feel it at a very young age. But I thought that with this new generation, there would be no space for hate or class-related problems or religion-related bias. But the more India is progressing, the more minorities are being pushed against the wall.
Muslims are shying away from wearing skull caps; they’re shaving off their beards. Muslims are moving out of the city into Muslim-dominated areas. They’re not being paranoid or alarmist; the fear is real.
Every day in this country is a reminder to the Indian Muslims that we made a mistake by choosing India over Pakistan in 1947. But millions of Indian Muslims chose India when they had an opportunity to move to Pakistan because they believed in the idea of India.
I’m so attached to this country. I’d always get goosebumps listening to Lata Mangeshkar singing Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon [a patriotic Hindi song]. But now, patriotism is an abusive word being hurled at us. I have to prove day in and day out that I’m a patriotic Indian. I never felt this when I was nine years old, even at the peak of anti-Muslim hatred.
Adi: When you say you’re attached to this country, what do you mean?
Rana Ayyub: Whatever happens, I can’t leave this place. I need to be amongst my people. I was offered various fellowships in the last couple of years, but I did not leave the country because I felt that as a journalist, I needed to be here. I felt that some of us could protect the sanctity of the secularism and the beauty of this country that we so believed in. But despite your love and despite your dedication, it feels like today, you are being asked, “What have you done for this country? What is your contribution?”
The privilege of the majority is staring me in the face every day. A politician giving hate speech, like Kapil Mishra, gets extra security, while a man who is calling the police for help, Tahir Hussain, has been called a mastermind [of the Delhi carnage] and put behind bars. Tahir is arrested because he’s a Hussain and Kapil is given security because he’s a Mishra.
And in their silence, the majority of India has been complicit in enabling Modi’s fascist Hindu agenda. People in this country need to take accountability for that. Modi and the BJP won with a massive majority in 2019 despite the lynchings and hate crimes and hate speech, which means the majority community in India needs to introspect. Where do we want India to head? I cannot recognize India anymore.
Adi: You talk about an attachment to the idea of India as a secular, multicultural project. What’s left of that idea?
Rana Ayyub: I see it in bits and pieces. I see it in the form of hundreds of thousands of people who turned up at protests against the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act]. They were majority Muslims, but there were people standing in solidarity. There are people who believe in the idea of India. But many are being silenced because the moment they speak, they know there’s going to be a backlash.
In Bollywood for instance, three of the biggest superstars are Muslims—Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, and Shahrukh Khan—and they have not spoken out during the anti-CAA protests. They have not spoken out on Kashmir. There’s carnage in the national capital. They have a massive following; they could have given calls for peace. But they can’t do that because the moment they do that, there will be multiple cases slapped against them. On the contrary, you see them taking selfies with the prime minister and enabling him.
The idea of India is being ridiculed in our schools, in our colleges, where Modi is now taking over Nehru as our founding father and abusing Nehru and Gandhi has become a fashionable new phenomenon. Schools focus on Nehru’s debauchery and the fact that he had affairs white women. You see the narrative changing. You see the freedom fighters suddenly becoming these debauched liberals who were ruining the idea of India. This new generation in school, their idea of India is restricted to Modi. There’s Modi everywhere. Our history is being reimagined. And our children are accepting this as the new reality. They are being told every day that the history they had previously been taught was changed by the Congress party to appease minorities, and this Hindu nationalist agenda is the real history.
The right wing used to operate in a parallel universe where they imagined India to be a Hindu nation. Suddenly, that imagination is being realized. Friends will now say, “But yes, India is a Hindu nation. We are a predominantly Hindu nation.” We never spoke in that language before. The last I checked India was a democracy. And we all spoke about India as a democracy. The number of people who are now asserting that India is a Hindu nation is surprising. Modi is stoking the victimhood of the majority, the idea that Muslims are taking what the majority rightly deserves.
Adi: This rewriting of history seems deeply important, in that in addition to outbursts of anti-Muslim violence, there is a very strategic and long-term vision for this new version of India.
Rana Ayyub: Absolutely. There was a time when Hindu nationalists would talk about the Taj Mahal being Teju Mahale [a Hindi-cized version of the name] and we would joke about it. Now, BJP politicians say that there is a Shiv temple [Hindu temple] underneath the Taj Mahal. People even say that Mecca was built on top of a Shiv temple.
We used to laugh about these conspiracy theories, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we have calls for the Taj Mahal to be demolished because it was supposedly built on top of a Hindu temple and is a symbol of Mughal savagery in India. All sorts of icons—Aurangzeb or Akbar or Shah Jahan or Mother Teresa—are now being tainted. We are now making way for this new wave of history wherein right wing terrorists and right wing nationalists are the new heroes of India. It’s another form of violence, violence that breeds in our textbooks, our literature, our films.
Bollywood films of the last five years are so Islamophobic. Take Padmaavat, wherein you have Rajputs [historic Hindu royals] fighting these debauched Mughal emperors with kohl in their eyes. Every time the Mughals are about to commit an act of savagery, the azaan [Islamic call to prayer] plays in the background. The indoctrination is happening systematically. They are building this image of the Muslim as the villain.
Everybody now wants to make a nationalistic film about wars we’ve never heard of. And they have full houses in theaters. What viewers are being taught is that Muslims were invaders, that Gandhi was a flawed hero and he should not be worshiped, and that our real leaders were the Hindu nationalists, the Rajputs, the Marathas, who saved India from the Islamists. The damage will be irreversible.
Adi: What does resistance look like right now?
Rana Ayyub: There is resistance in various pockets. That resistance is in the form of voices that do not want to be quoted. That resistance is in the form of filmmakers like Zoya Akhtar, who made the award-winning Gully Boy, in which a Muslim protagonist does not shun his identity to be accepted as a part of the mainstream.
You have student leaders like Aishe Ghosh [president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union] and Umar Khalid. But there is a systematic silencing of these voices. Activist Kanhaiya Kumar has been slapped with a sedition case. Umar was shot at in public; he survived. Aishe was attacked at JNU.
There is some hope in the form of publications like the Caravan, Scroll, The Wire. Their journalism is like a backlash against the backlash. And NDTV [New Delhi Television Limited], which despite being muzzled is still trying to speak whatever little it can. But again, there are two cases against NDTV. Founder Prannoy Roy’s residence was raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Given the chance there would be more voices of resistance. But the cost of speaking up is something that many cannot afford at this point of time. And we also cannot afford to exhaust all the dissenting voices. Some of us still need to be there. Some of our famous activists are behind bars. [Trade unionist and civil rights activist] Sudha Bharadwaj is behind bars; many lawyers are behind bars. The Supreme Court of India, when it was petitioned to act on the Delhi carnage, gave the example of the 1992-3 Bombay riots and said, “When we acted against the rioteers in Bombay, there was a backlash, so we will not act against this.” If the Supreme Court says this, where do we go?
Our prime minister indulges in dog whistle politics, our Home Minister gives hate speech, our ministers give hate speech, our police force goes along with the mobs to attack Muslims in videos that are now viral. Our judges do not want to act against these ministers and criminals. Where do we go?
Adi: Can you imagine what a political challenge to the BJP could look like?
Rana Ayyub: There’s a purge in the Congress party at this point in time. Big leaders are resigning and joining the BJP. The way they are doing that, you wonder if there was ever an ideology, because a shift from Congress to the BJP is a radical shift, and it’s happening every day.
If Congress leaders are shifting to the BJP, who speaks for Muslims then? If a leader like Owaisi, who wears a skullcap, speaks, he is called a radical. So where is the space for a dissenting political party?
There are protestors, but there’s not a single voice yet that consolidates these protestors. The only opposition will now come from the people. Student groups, activists. It cannot come from a pre-existing political party.
Adi: Can you forsee a new political party being formed?
Rana Ayyub: I can’t imagine it right now, but I will not be surprised if by 2024 that happens. Tyranny cannot last. There’ll be a backlash. This country can’t feed the poor a temple all the time. At some point it will have to feed them grains. It will have to give them a livelihood.
There are leaders in corners of India who are not talking about the Hindu-Muslim issue; they’re talking about the agrarian crisis. That’s one of the biggest challenges facing India. The prices of grains have skyrocketed. Inflation is at its highest. Our banks are going bankrupt every day. Farmer suicides are high. These are issues that the government has not addressed or let reach the front pages of newspapers for quite some time.
But you can’t feed people communal hatred all the time. There is a threshold, and at some point Indians will ask questions and seek answers, because there will be rampant unemployment and people dying of hunger. And resistance will come from these existential questions. Voices that represent the farmers of this country, the trade union workers. That’s the voice India needs at this point of time. Not a voice that divides on the lines of the religion.
And now, the virus. What’s happening in India is actually a dystopian film, you know? People are killing each other in the name of religion and then there’s a virus that comes in and everybody goes silent.
Adi: What effect do you think the pandemic might have on Modi and the BJP, longer term?
Rana Ayyub: Muslims are being held responsible for the spread of the pandemic in India. A Muslim congregation from March is being held responsible for committing Corona Jihad. The Union Minister for Minority Affairs has called it the Talibanisation of the virus by Muslims. Despite the fact the government has found itself lagging in response to the pandemic, it has sought to reinforce its majoritarian agenda to ensure it keeps a tight leash on power and on its core audience.
I fear that in the absence of real solutions, the Modi government will distract the attention of the country through gimmicks like standing on the balcony and banging plates or turning off the lights in a symbolic show of fighting the virus.
Adi: What stories do you feel need to be amplified in this moment?
Rana Ayyub: As a journalist, I really hope that the world knows about what’s happening in Kashmir. I hope the world talks about the thousands of Kashmiri children who are detained in jails across the country, who have no basic access to legal services. And the Delhi carnage, but also the unemployment in this country, and the discrimination against not just Muslims but also against the poor. This government is pro-rich; it is on the side of the industrialists.
I feel I’m repeating myself in every column I write. But that’s what it is. It has never been more important than now to repeat the same thing over and over again because public memory is short, and we need to remind the world about India’s downward slide into this majoritarian abyss.
Muslims are 13% of the population, 220 million people. When you attack and alienate the biggest minority in the country, you are weakening the very foundation of this country. We need to reclaim India from the fascists. That’s a story that needs to be told across the world.