NEW DELHI • The head of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist party took his invective against illegal Muslim immigrants to a new level last week as the general election kicked off, promising to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah referred to such illegal immigrants as "termites", a description he also used last September, when he drew condemnation from rights groups. The US State Department also noted the remark in its annual human rights report.
"Infiltrators are like termites in the soil of Bengal," Mr Shah said last Thursday at a rally in the eastern state of West Bengal, as voting in India's 39-day general election started.
"A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal," he said, referring to illegal immigrants from neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
Mr Shah nevertheless reiterated the BJP's stance on giving citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs from Bangladesh and Pakistan. India is already working on deporting an estimated 40,000 Rohingya Muslims living in the country after they fled Buddhist-majority Myanmar. New Delhi considers them a security threat.
The comments from Mr Shah, the right-hand man of Mr Modi, drew criticism from the main opposition Congress party as well as minority groups. On Twitter, some users likened his speech to a suggestion of ethnic cleansing.
"The statement is a direct attack on the identity and integrity of the nation as a secular state," the Kerala Christian Forum, a group from the southern state, said in a statement. It demanded an apology from Mr Shah.
A BJP spokesman declined to comment on the speech.
Congress spokesman Sanjay Jha said Mr Shah's remarks were a deliberate attempt to polarise voters along sectarian lines.
"The political business model of the BJP is to raise the communal temperature, keep it at a boil, and to keep India in a permanent religious divide," Mr Jha said.
Over the past five years, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, has been spreading an us-versus-them philosophy in a country already riven by dangerous divisions. The Hindu right has never been more enfranchised at every level of government.
The emboldening effect became apparent within months of the 2014 election. Hindu lynch mobs began to pop up across the landscape, killing Muslims and lower-caste people suspected of slaughtering cows, a sacred animal under Hinduism.
Most often, the mobs have got away with it. Indian police said yesterday one man was killed and three injured in an attack by a mob while they were skinning a dead ox in the eastern state of Jharkhand last Thursday, in the latest case of so-called cow lynching.
After the BJP came to power, hate speech began to proliferate. So did the use of Internet trolls to shut down critics. Government bodies began rewriting history books, lopping out sections on Muslim rulers, changing official place names to Hindu from Muslim, and more aggressively contesting holy sites.
The consensus among Indian activists and liberal political analysts is that their society, under Mr Modi, has become more toxically divided between Hindus and Muslims, between upper and lower castes, between men and women.
Mr Modi's supporters say the Prime Minister and his allies are simply restoring Hinduism to its rightful place at the core of Indian society. They argue that there is nothing wrong with emphasising India's Hindu history and traditions in a more muscular way.
REUTERS, NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE