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As Narenda Modi’s India gears up to celebrate its 75th anniversary, it is still in the grip of a troubling pro-Hindu sectarianism

Seventy-five years ago, modern India was formed when it declared independence from the British. The country was partitioned, creating Pakistan to amalgamate the Muslim-majority eastern and north-western regions of British India. Sectarian violence flared with Hindus and Sikhs on one side, and Muslims on the other. At India’s border with Pakistan, in Punjab and Bengal, the violence was particularly intense with massacres, arson, forced conversions, and more. Over 75,000 women were raped – many disfigured and killed. 

Now, as India plans to celebrate its 75th anniversary, its prime minister, Narendra Modi, is being blamed for turning his country back into its fractious old self. Strongmen aren’t fashioned overnight. In Modi’s case, his indefatigable image – that of a powerful and populist Hindu saviour of its national identity – was born through an accumulation of quips and actions. In 2014, he famously boasted that he had a 56-inch chest. His constant criticisms of Pakistan have been followed by with threats of military action over the disputed Kashmir border. 

His robust embrace of the Hindu nationalist movement, Hindutva, appeals to a Hindu majority country, but has been to the detriment of India’s almost 200 million-strong Muslim population who have been targeted and beaten, often without repercussions. But how seriously does these still-smouldering sectarian divisions threaten the country’s future?

The rise of modern Hindu nationalism 

After its independence in 1947, India’s post-colonial leadership made a policy of equally recognising all religions. They feared that touting one above the others could damage its fragile democracy. That’s not to say that Hindu nationalism hasn’t always been bubbling away under the surface. Proponents see India as being the fundamental homeland of the Hindu community and are fearful of the influence of Christianity and Islam. Thus they have sought to marginalise and ostracise other religions. 

The nationalist movement has gone through many incarnations over the years. However, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's 21-month period of emergency rule starting in 1975 was a pivotal moment. Many of her far-right Hindu opponents were imprisoned and persecuted. After emergency rule ended, a coalition of opposition parties based around the BJS (Bharatiya Jan Sangh) party rose to power. It marked the first time in India’s post-colonial era that a non-Congress group of parties had held such a position. 

Though the coalition faltered, when the BJS became the BJP party in 1980, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it realized that its message needed to change. To attract disillusioned Congress party members, it had to move away from a more secular approach to governance in favour of a platform that championed Hindu identity-building. This dovetailed with a national feeling of Hindu vulnerability in the 1980s following the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the decline of the Congress party.

In the 1990s, the rise of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement – whose goal was to reclaim the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram to the detriment of the Muslim holy site, the Babri Masjid in Ayodya – was a major flashpoint. Deadly violence sparked as religious riots erupted across the country. It ignited a Hindu nationalistic fervour that eventually saw the Babri Masjid razed to the ground by a roving mob of religious zealots in 1992. All this played into the hands of the BJP, and they gained popularity throughout the 1990s.

Though the BJP came into power in 1996 under prime minister Vajpayee, it wasn’t until he was re-elected in 1999 that he served a full term. Temporarily, at least, BJP relented from stoking division to gain popularity as India’s economy grew. 

After another decade of Congress rule, though, the BJP party mobilised like never before; in the 2014 election, it won a famous victory, garnering its highest ever vote share (31%) since its inception in 1980. It did this, in part, by forming allies with the Hindu nationalist movement. Although the BJP didn’t run on a policy of Hindu nationalism, Modi invoked such rhetoric when it suited him. It proved effective in western Uttar Pradesh, where ethnic violence between Muslims and Hindus sparked in 2013.

The economic downturn of 2012-2014 and allegations of corruption against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), coupled with Modi’s charisma also enabled the BJP to reach a level of popularity it had never previously enjoyed. 

Muslim second-class citizens

In April of this year, during the Hindu festival of Hanuman Jayanti, 140 people were arrested during violence between Hindus and Muslims in the states of Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. In the previous weeks, during the festival of Rama Navami, religious violence sparked against Muslims in states as far-flung as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Dozens of Muslim-owned shops were set alight, and mosques were desecrated during Ramadan. To add insult to injury, Muslims say that the police refused to file cases against Hindus. Instead, they arrested Muslims with some allegedly attacked by the police.

This sectarian bias has been an ongoing trend during Modi’s tenure, and many blame him for inciting a nationalistic fervor that has divided the country and relegated Muslims to second-class citizens. Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The BJP’s embrace of the Hindu majority at the expense of minorities has seeped into government institutions, undermining equal protection of the law without discrimination. The government has not only failed to protect Muslims and other minorities from attacks, but is providing political patronage and cover for bigotry.”

Hindu vigilante groups such as VHP have been able to operate with seeming impunity from the law. There have been verbal threats from prominent Hindu figures, calling for outrages such as genocide against Muslims (in December 2021 at a meeting held in Haridwar, Uttarakhand), mass rape against Muslim women (by Bajrang Muni Das, a Hindu priest who was since arrested). The prospect of a wider ban on hijabs in the classroom has also been welcomed by top federal ministers from the BJP party. 

Though Muslims have borne the brunt of the attacks and discrimination from Hindu nationalists and authority figures, they are not the only ones being marginalised. Thousands of farmers of different faiths began protesting against the government’s new agricultural laws in November 2020. The BJP was quick to point the finger at Sikhs by using social and pro-government media, accusing the minority religion of having a “Khalistani” agenda – a reference to a Sikh separatist insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s and 90s; Modi himself called the protestors “parasites”.

The roots of Hindu nationalism

Hindutva dates back to the Hindu reform movement Brahmo Samaj (1828) and the Arya Samaj (1875). However, by far the biggest influence on modern-day Hindu nationalism is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement, which is very active today. It’s a vast, all-male network celebrating 5,000 years of Hindu culture. However, RSS is not all yoga and Hindu catechism classes; it also runs summer camps where volunteers train with rifles. It’s best known through its political wing, the BJP party, which ruled the country for the last eight years. Prime Minister Modi is a longtime RSS member.

RSS was formed almost 100 years ago in 1925 when India was still under British rule, by a doctor named Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a contemporary of Mohandas Gandhi. However, while the latter believed in non-violent protests, RSS promoted military discipline and Hindu scripture. The group started in Hedgewar's family home in the city of Nagpur. It now claims to be India’s largest all-volunteer group, with a membership estimated to be around 5 million, and it is funded privately.

Alarmingly, an early leader of the group, MS Golwalkar, referred to Christians and Muslims as "internal threats". He also praised Nazi Germany as an example of "race pride" from which India could learn. In 2006, the RSS attempted to distance itself from those opinions.

But the group’s recent rise in popularity has alarmed those who believe in India’s promise of being a secular country. One of Hindutva’s key tenets is that India should essentially be a Hindu nation, something embraced by the RSS and its longtime leader, Mohan Bhagwat. This is contrary to the Indian constitution, which provides equal rights to its millions of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. 

That's an ethos that RSS wants to change. The group’s mission statement describes it as being "firmly rooted in genuine nationalism” and opposes what it sees as the "erosion of the nation's integrity in the name of secularism”. Many members view its mission as a call to bring Hindu scripture into law, while depriving Muslims of equal rights or expelling them from India altogether. The RSS’s critics blamed it for a rise in hate crimes against Muslims, violence against women, and a general atmosphere of intolerance.  

A threat to the Indian coalition 

There’s no doubt that India’s shift towards the far right by advocating for a Hindu-centric nation has greatly endangered the pillars of secularism upon which the country’s independence was founded. Its ethno-religious coalition is now more fractured and fragile than ever, and in danger of breaking apart.

But it would be naive to think that the country’s rulers prioritise religion over power at all costs. While a nationalistic doctrine might have won Modi his position, he is acutely aware of his country’s image on the international stage, particularly with Muslim nations with whom he does business. In June 2022, many of them – including Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt – expressed outrage to India over derogatory remarks by BJP figures about Islam. 

The Indian government was forced to distance itself, saying that it did not endorse the views which were made by “fringe elements”. It made a rare statement denouncing the actions of the BJP spokespeople, Nupur Sharma, who was suspended, and Naveen Jindal, who was expelled. The party stated that was “strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion”.

While this may well have been lip service to appease business partners, the episode also serves as a warning to the BJP. If it embraces all-out extremism to the detriment of its Muslim population, there will be a price to pay. If that price is economic, it will affect every Indian, regardless of faith; when that happens, governments tumble. It’s hard to believe that a career politician like Narendra Modi would be so reckless.

Written by: Olivium staff


The New Yorker: The great divide

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Religious nationalism and India’s future

The Guardian: The verdict on India’s strongman, Narendra Modi

NPR: The powerful group shaping the rise of Hindu nationalism in India

Human Rights Watch: India: Government policies, actions target minorities

The Times of India: PM Modi speaks about 56-inch chest, but lacks a heart 

The New York Times: As officials look away, hate speech in India nears dangerous levels

Reuters: Hindu hardliners seek wider India ban on hijab in class after court verdict

The Guardian: ‘Hatred, bigotry and untruth’: communal violence grips India

Bloomberg: Modi can’t afford to alienate the Middle East

The BBC: Police case after outrage in India over anti-Muslim hate speech

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