Tandav and the dogwhistle of 'Hinduphobia' in Bollywood

Tandav and the dogwhistle of 'Hinduphobia' in Bollywood

'Hinduphobia' is a modern repackaging of anti-Muslim and anti-Congress sentiments during the Modi regime.
20 Feb, 2021

In the recent Amazon series Tandav, a college student named Shiva is introduced as the eponymous Hindu deity in a mock-mythological play. With the celestial sage Narada, he devises social media strategies to counter the increasing popularity of Lord Rama in contemporary India, while the on-screen audience of the play bursts into roars of laughter.

Real-life Hindu nationalists in India, on the other hand, were enraged by this satirical sequence. Soon this video clip was made viral on Twitter by Hindutva groups, influencers and their followers as evidence of the show’s ‘Hinduphobia’. The ‘profane’ prospect of a Muslim actor-activist, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, caricaturing the deity intensified the social media agitation. In the following days, the show’s director issued a public apology, and the scene was removed from the series.

Despite that, multiple FIRs [police reports] have been registered in different states against the makers of Tandav. The Supreme Court (SC) has declined the show’s creators any interim protection from arrest. When Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s lawyer explained to the SC bench that he was only playing a character, Justice M. R. Shah reminded him, “You cannot play the role of a character which hurts the religious sentiments of others.”

From ‘love jihad’ to ‘Urban Naxal’, a vicious vocabulary of hate against minorities and dissenters has powered the Hindu right-wing ecosystem in India. ‘Hinduphobia’ is a new American import into the Indian right-wing lexicon. The term has been coined by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian-American Hindutva ideologue, and popularised by US Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

Hindutva groups in India and overseas have identified ‘Hinduphobia’ in four major sites — Muslim-majority countries in South Asia, anti-caste and Left politics in India, Western academia and Bollywood. These four sites reflect geopolitical, ideological, academic and cultural anxieties within the Hindu right.

Bollywood is presently undergoing a structural shift with the dawn of the digital. Over-the-top (OTT) streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon, as well as local platforms such as Hotstar and SonyLIV are reconfiguring Bollywood’s production, exhibition and distribution models. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this transition by keeping Indian audiences away from theatres and largely restricting them to their phones, computers and smart televisions. The rise of religious nationalism in India under Narendra Modi has coincided with a boom in internet consumption. However, OTT platforms have mostly promoted secular entertainment à la Bollywood and often pushed anti-establishment content.

Tandav’s case is a recent addition to a long history of Hindu audience anxieties with the depiction of divinity in visual culture. From its earliest years, Indian cinema relied on audiences’ familiarity with puranic (Hindu mythological) tales and their devotional fervour for Hindu deities. The darshan (sight) of Hindu gods outside exclusive religious spaces was enabled by Raja Ravi Varma and Dadasaheb Phalke’s pioneering endeavours in mass culture. Late 19th century chromolithography and early 20th century cinema made Hindu gods more visually accessible and undermined rigid caste hierarchies.

Despite its emancipatory potential, the ubiquitous visual representation of Hindu divinity in the colonial era raised alarm among staunch devotees. In 1921, a letter to the editor of the Times of India titled ‘Who Insults Hindu Gods?’, complained how “people of all races” could not only see Hindu deities on clothes, matchboxes, cinemas and sweetmeat shop boards, but also perform as Hindu gods and goddesses on stage.

While Hindu mythology paid great dividends at the box office, films with Muslim actors playing Hindu gods faced incessant agitation. During a screening of Bilwa Mangal in 1932 in Lahore, a group of Hindu men protested against the casting of a Muslim actor for the role of Lord Krishna and “tore the screen with a knife during the interval.” Some years later, a Bombay-based film magazine raised concerns about how the North Indian film press had interpreted Sardar Akhtar’s portrayal of Lord Krishna in the film Bharosa as “an insult to Hindu religion.”

With the post-Independence rise of ‘social’ films, the mythological genre largely faded into the background. Calls for stricter censorship for films based on Hindu deities were met favourably by the Congress government under Jawaharlal Nehru. There was an ulterior motive at play, especially in Madras, where a complete ban on the portrayal of Hindu divinity was seen as an opportunity to elevate the status of local ministers. The cantankerous Baburao Patel of Filmindia declared that “the Indian screen has mostly murdered our gods” and feared that “once the Hindu gods of mythology are destroyed, secular deities of the Congress can be installed on the vacant altars.”

‘Hinduphobia’ is a modern repackaging of anti-Muslim prejudices and anti-Congress sentiments that originated in the late colonial period and has taken root in the current Modi regime. The old cultural politics of hurt has resurfaced, only this time ironically ensconced in the liberal language of ‘phobia’.

Due to few theatrical releases, the OTT platforms are bearing the brunt of this onslaught. Like Amazon’s Tandav, Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy on Netflix recently came under fire for an inter-faith kissing scene inside a temple’s precincts. Last year, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting brought all OTT platforms under its ambit. The increasing mob censorship of web content is likely to translate to more official forms of regulation as ‘Hinduphobia’ rears its ugly head.

Despite Bollywood’s liaisons with the BJP, the film industry’s privilege and popularity make it a soft target for rank political opportunists masquerading as warriors of the Hindu faith. Bollywood professionals, especially its Muslim stars, have been targeted by far-right Hindu groups such as Shiv Sena and Karni Sena from time to time. However, with an unprecedented rise of media-manufactured hate, the film industry’s popularity has perhaps never been this vulnerable.

Last year, the Indian news media’s crusade against Bollywood — in the wake of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death — became an underhanded tactic to divert people’s attention from the Modi government’s poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Online portals of unbridled disinformation and hate speech catered to similar political opportunism.

Bollywood is India’s biggest creative industry and recognised as a major influence on South Asian public culture. It remains immensely popular among Indian diasporas and has also been acknowledged widely as a soft power for India. Mining Bollywood films for ‘Hinduphobic’ content is therefore a strategic move, intended to reorient both national and international Hindu audiences in the era of global streaming.

A right-wing leaning Twitter account, Gems of Bollywood, has decided to undertake this mission. It excerpts and annotates ‘Hinduphobic’ sequences from yesteryear Bollywood films as well as contemporary web content “to comprehensively bring out truth of Urduwood” — unmistakably a jibe at the secular workings of Bollywood, the unparalleled stardom of the three Khans, and the historical influence of Urdu writers in the film industry.

Gems of Bollywood’s painstaking curation could seem convincing to the converted but a Bollywood buff would find it laughingly embarrassing. Hindi films from the 1980s and 90s are retro reservoirs of cringeworthy content. Gems of Bollywood exploits films from this period in particular to mischaracterise Bollywood as an ahistorical and homogeneous underworld of ‘Hinduphobia’, rape culture, casteism and so on.

While the Twitter account with over 80,000 followers has dodged media attention so far, a fact-checking website has revealed significant bot activity on its posts, which may indicate a high count of fake followers. Gems of Bollywood and its followers repeatedly shared ‘anti-Hindu’ clips from A Suitable Boy and Tandav with the hashtags #BoycottNetflix and #BoycottAmazon respectively. Right-wing politicians in power pick up these cues and have bullied these streaming platforms with legal action for ‘insulting’ the Hindu faith.

The oft-heard phrase “Hindu khatray mein hai” (the Hindu is in danger) has long indicated the minority complex of Hindus who constitute around 80 percent of India’s population. Allegations of ‘Hinduphobia’ weaponise such unfounded fears to attack influential institutions and industries that do not always toe the government line. Under a Hindu nationalist regime, the film industry’s long history of secularism, from the Nehruvian to neoliberal era, has become a threat to itself.

But charges of ‘Hinduphobia’ have not been levelled against Bollywood stars alone. Stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui had been incarcerated for jokes on Hindu deities that he was “going to” say in his act. The legal sway of such allegations is significantly greater against vulnerable artistes with less financial and legal muscle.

As the term ‘Hinduphobia’ gains wider currency outside far-right networks, Bollywood and other cultural bodies that provide secular entertainment remain increasingly susceptible to the dangerous fictions of Hindutva.

Rakesh Sengupta is a film scholar pursuing his doctoral research on early Indian cinema in SOAS — By arrangement with The Wire

Originally published in Dawn, ICON, February 14th, 2021


Nikhil Feb 20, 2021 12:09pm
At least they won't be beheaded for mocking the Hindus
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Gopal Patel Feb 20, 2021 12:10pm
There is nothing like hindu phobia in India. It has been a bogey created by some of the left leaning political parties to garner non -hindu votes.
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kp Feb 20, 2021 12:34pm
Hindus are being targeted in Modi`s India
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Raju Feb 20, 2021 12:38pm
Hindu phobia is absurd and irrelevant concept.
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Dan Feb 20, 2021 01:11pm
No mention of Satanic verses or The DaVinci Code or Kamlesh Tiwari.
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Zak Feb 20, 2021 01:18pm
RSS will try anything but they will fail.
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Zak Feb 20, 2021 01:19pm
@Nikhil At least they won't be beheaded for mocking the Hindus' Even worse they will be lynched by mob while RSS police stands ideally by.
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Abdul Feb 20, 2021 01:27pm
@Nikhil Yes they will be lyched by a fascist mob. Much better huh?
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Zak Feb 20, 2021 01:31pm
@Gopal Patel There is nothing like hindu phobia in India. It has been a bogey created by some of the left leaning political parties to garner non -hindu votes.' Ayodhya, Gujarat, Delhi, Muzafarnagar were also bogey, you presume.
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Zak Feb 20, 2021 01:32pm
These are signs of Indian union heading for same fate as Soviet union.
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SATT Feb 20, 2021 01:41pm
Hinduphobia is real.
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Dr. Salaria, Aamir Ahmad Feb 20, 2021 01:52pm
Tangible sights and solid sounds of Hindutva obsessed India and Indians.
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M. Saeed Feb 20, 2021 01:56pm
" Bollywood professionals, especially its Muslim stars, have been targeted by far-right Hindu groups such as Shiv Sena and Karni Sena from time to time", is the crux of the problem created by Hindutva India.
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mumtaz Feb 20, 2021 02:06pm
@Nikhil What about daily lynchings, mass murders of Indian Muslims on suspicion of killing cows?
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Hamid shafiq Feb 20, 2021 02:13pm
@Gopal Patel why people killed on the name of cow saving if you are right?
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Shriram Yadav Feb 20, 2021 02:27pm
apne girewaan me bhi dekho kitne gire jo kachare mei before raising imaginary fingers on others...... Hundu is way of life...Sanatan.....kuch google kar le gadhdhe
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MG Feb 20, 2021 02:45pm
Just forwarding a message or reporsting a post is a criminal act now and you guys are supporting a team of ill-minded folks who made a movie to hurt religious sentiment?
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Chrís Dăn Feb 20, 2021 02:53pm
Rightists always work against secular values and exploit religious and racist feelings of human beings. Trump did it. Mody is doing it now.
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Khalil Feb 20, 2021 02:55pm
Bollywood has been destroyed by the Hinduphobia. Its a sinking ship now.
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Jai Mahakaal Feb 20, 2021 03:31pm
Very nice attempt. Very well encashed by Pakistan media. Good luck guys!
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joe Feb 20, 2021 05:08pm
In the recent Amazon series Tandav, a college student named Shiva is introduced as the eponymous Hindu deity in a mock-mythological play." In this case, a case has been filed for hurting sentiments of a perticular community. On the other hand sometimes back we saw beheading of a person who hurt Religious sentiments of another community. Now the difference,where beheading was carried out , culprit belonged to a Minority community,and where a case has been registered ,so called culprit also belongs to a Minority community. Is the community in majority taken for granted in both cases ?
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joe Feb 20, 2021 05:17pm
Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy on Netflix recently came under fire for an inter-faith kissing scene inside a temple’s precincts. "" Foes dhe realy have guts to show a similar kissing scene inside a Mosque ? She dare not .She knows the conquences. Why not stop this trend of hurting religious sentiments of any community for that matter.
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Abhay Feb 20, 2021 05:39pm
Look who’s talking
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Hansoti sh Feb 20, 2021 05:43pm
@Gopal Patel = 3rd rate GOEBBELS
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Ibrahim S Feb 20, 2021 06:07pm
No Religion is based on hate or bigotry , it’s the so called religious bigots who do this .
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Dr malaria Feb 20, 2021 06:35pm
Islamophobia exists but not Hinduphobia ??
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JC Feb 20, 2021 06:56pm
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M Feb 20, 2021 07:04pm
Why Islamic people are so concerned? Pakistan was created on the basis of religion, right? So why you expect India to be secular?
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Critic Feb 20, 2021 07:12pm
@Nikhil But lynched for eating beef, you hypocrites.
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Sanjeev Sharma Feb 20, 2021 07:45pm
They should also create similar puns on other religious characters. Secularism means you treat all religion equally.
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Zargar Asad Feb 20, 2021 07:49pm
As Pakistani Muslims we have for long complained about Islamophobia and liberal extremists...doesn't mocking the Hindus, in effect, weaken our stance?
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Chrís Dăn Feb 20, 2021 08:05pm
@M your constitution majes you Secular.
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sri1 Feb 20, 2021 08:07pm
@Critic "But lynched for eating beef, you hypocrites" Single digits of those cases in 1.4 billion means fractional percentages of lynching in Hindustan. While it is a way of life in certain countries for even mere allegations. Enough said,
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joe Feb 20, 2021 09:58pm
@Zak Even worse they will be lynched by mob while RSS police stands ideally by." So lycnhing is worst than beheading. Are you trying to suggest better way to getting rid of someone , whose thoughts are not of your liking. A very sorry suggestions I must say so
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Hema Feb 20, 2021 10:00pm
@sri1 It has become a way of life in Modi’s India as well. Why isn’t anyone reporting how Muslim population has reduced due to frequent genocides and lynchings in the past 7 years?
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Hema Feb 20, 2021 10:19pm
@joe Almost all Bollywood movies as well as Indian news channels are anti Muslim and have hurt their sentiments by constantly demonising them and calling them terrorists. However Muslims have remained silent and never complained against them.
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Sarcasm Feb 20, 2021 11:05pm
Witnessing the same denial that Pakistani muslims had in early 2000’s. Dear Indians, wake up! - there was a time we looked up to you but not any more. Modi has ruined diverse and tolerant factor of India. But ok, Modi ji is great! - keep doing what you are doing.
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A Mandal Feb 20, 2021 11:58pm
Islamophobia is real, but Hinduphobia is fake. Any takers ?
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Pathanoo Feb 21, 2021 12:42am
How many Muslims have left India for Pakistan? How many Muslim girls have been forcibly married to Hindus? How many Musims, girls or boys, have been forcibly converted to Hinduism in India? And, then ask the same question, in reverse, to Paksitan.
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Naqeebullah Mehsud Feb 21, 2021 12:43am
@Critic , remember Mashal Khan
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Indoaryan Feb 21, 2021 01:30am
if Pakistan can become The Islamic State of Pakistan what is wrong India becoming Hindustan ? If Myanmar can become Budists why is it such a big deal India becoming Hindustan ? Gives minorities lots of time to move to a country that will accept them .
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Naqeebullah Mehsud Feb 21, 2021 01:34am
@Zak lynching is what you do with Mashal Khan
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Indoaryan Feb 21, 2021 01:35am
@Critic when in India do as the Indians do. The law of the land forbids beef eating, plenty other animals can take the place of beef . No? Having created Pakistan Muslims lost the right to live in Hindutan. We fully support muslim's right to live in Pakistan .
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Dr. Ramesh K Sharma Feb 21, 2021 02:44am
@Zak In your dreams. Nobody has done anything like this.
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Dr. Ramesh K Sharma Feb 21, 2021 02:54am
@joe Agree
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Humanity first Feb 21, 2021 04:13am
@Zargar Asad very good point. The hypocrisy rat is coming out of it's hole.
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JustSaying Feb 21, 2021 05:56am
@Zak " These are signs of Indian union heading for same fate as Soviet union... " Hearing this for the Past Many Decades... ( in fact it is getting Stronger Day by Day... More states joining.. Kashmir..)
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JustSaying Feb 21, 2021 05:59am
@Critic " But lynched for eating beef, you hypocrites.." The whole World understands who are the number one Hypocrites on the Planet...
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Well wisher Feb 21, 2021 08:06am
The pot calling the kettle black
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Sach baat Feb 21, 2021 10:03am
@Zak Doomsdayer, do you live in a bubble?
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johnpapa Feb 21, 2021 10:22am
Irony muslim Pakistan and Hindu India or Bharat. wasn't this the dream of Pakistan founding farther. Will it be virtuous to relook at the partition, boundaries and complete the agenda to solve this problem permanently
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Uzm4 Feb 21, 2021 01:42pm
Obviously, none of these brave filmmakers do such jokes for another 'peaceful' religion although it likes to keep women and people down much more.
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babu Feb 22, 2021 12:54pm
Every Religion needs to Protect itself from Zealots of other religions.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 03:19pm
Blasphemers needs to be dealt like what Pakistanis do to them.. But Still we shall bring all the blasphemers to justice.. Why you guys should have any problem??
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 03:41pm
@Zak "RSS will try anything but they will fail." Yes I will also consider them a failure if they failed to wrest back Kashmir held by Pakistan illegally for the past 73 Years.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 04:01pm
@M. Saeed You are ignorant.. you, me and the whole world is suffering the consequences of Islamism.. control that.. everything shall be fine.. good luck.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 04:23pm
@Chrís Dăn You are ignorant.. 'Leftist' & and so called 'Civil Society' in India are a dishonest lot. they controlled Media, Bollywood, Policy Making and portrayed/portraying Hindus as regressive ones, following primitive ideology and practices. Which is far from the Truth. May be 'Leftist' & and so called 'Civil Society' peoples' inferiority complex made them to behave this way. Real Hindus are Real Left - Loving & Respecting Every faith and living with them in harmony and following rule of Law. Isn't these are values, left espouses? BUT same can not be said about the followers of Islam & Christianity who claim that only they are following 'True' Path and all others, either must be converted to their way or must be slaughtered. How Long peace can be maintained with such people??
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 04:25pm
@Jai Mahakaal The Author of this article is Hindu Phobic. He is denying facts which are being exposed by @gemsofbollywood on twitter.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 04:42pm
@Chrís Dăn Constitution is self-imposed by Indians not Pakistanis.. and 'secular' word inserted via 18th amendment.. originally it was not there.. India was always a Hindu Rashtra, is Hindu Rashtra and shall Remain a Hindu Rashtra for Ever. Anybody having problem with this fact, could be always welcomed by Pakistan or where ever he may like.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 04:51pm
@Hema -- Yea sure, it is a Good idea. An Study in the 'Reduction of Muslim Population' should be welcomed by all concerned. - How many Died in Genocides and cause of it, Judicial punishment to criminals meted or not -How Many left India out of fear of Hindus/Modi/RSS -How Many Left to/Returned from Pakistan to India -Economic/Social Status of Muslims in India And this Study should be juxtaposed with the similar Study conducted about Hindus of Pakistan. And ultimately suggestions about ways to maintain ratios of Population of Majority to Minority, similar to that of Pakistan.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 04:59pm
@Sarcasm You are being fed Propaganda.. India is on the Right Path.. and Progress & Development of India is a Good News for the world, Because India means well for everyone, notwithstanding propaganda. Case in Point, India helping the Poor of this world with Corona Vaccine and you should expect such good deeds from India.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 05:00pm
@Pathanoo "How many Muslim..." They dare not as if they do.. they will be exposed.
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Blue Knight Feb 24, 2021 05:05pm
@Indoaryan " what is wrong India becoming Hindustan ? " No one should be concerned, if India declares itself a 'Hindu Rashtra', as there is no concept of Dhimmis and Jijiya in Dharma. Dharma treats every one with equal respect so why should anybody complain? More over it is imperative for India to safeguard its' ancient culture for future generations, which is being attacked by Abrahamic religions.
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