The founding fathers of modern India were remarkably perspicacious when it came time to designing a constitutional and political order for the new country. They recognized that a very large and populous country with innumerable ethnic and linguistic groups could only be governed as a federation of states, each enjoying a considerable measure of local autonomy. They also recognized that India was home to adherents of a vast array of religious faiths: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsees. They therefore decided that the new state should be secular, and that the population should be bound to the state by virtue of citizenship rather than by creed or caste. In this they made a very wise decision. India’s secularism is one of its great strengths. Along with democracy and federalism, it has allowed an extraordinarily diverse country to survive united for nearly 70 years.
The secular nature of the state did not, of course, put an end to sectarianism in India. Quite the contrary. At various times, the country was confronted by at least two major ethno-religious separatist movements. Sikhs in the state of Punjab mounted a significant armed campaign against the central government with the intention of creating an independent state of Khalistan. Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir carried out an armed campaign lasting more than 15 years and requiring the Indian government to deploy up to 600,000 security personnel in the state. In both instances, the secessionist movements were finally conquered by brute and sometimes grossly excessive force.
India’s secularism has also been contested in less spectacular, but perhaps somewhat more profound, ways. The question that almost inevitably arises is whether India’s masses buy into secularism or whether it is a preserve of the country’s elites. The BBC’s longtime correspondent in New Delhi, Mark Tully, addressed the question in these terms: “The elite’s so-called secularism inevitably degenerates into disrespect for religion. But the vast majority of Indians who do not enjoy the benefits of modernity, still believe that religion is one of the most — if not the most — important factors in their lives. … What I think is manifestly wrong is to disturb the religious beliefs of those who have no hope of any other comfort, which is what we have taught and are still teaching the Indian elite to do. Not surprisingly, this is producing a backlash in India — Hindu fundamentalism.”
The Hindu fundamentalism to which Tully refers has manifested itself well beyond the realm of religion. It has fed into what is usually called Hindu nationalism. Now, Hindu nationalism is not a new phenomenon. Movements dedicated to it have existed for well over 100 years, starting with the Gaurakshini Sabhas, which in the 1890s agitated for laws preventing the slaughter of cows in India. With India’s independence in 1947, the Hindu nationalists became politically proactive and found themselves at loggerheads with the country’s founding fathers. (Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist extremist.) They nevertheless continued to grow in importance through organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). While proclaiming itself a cultural organization, the RSS is organized into cells whose members practise martial arts. And the RSS has spun off political parties, most recently the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now in power in New Delhi.
The ideas of Hindu nationalists are a mixture of the positive and the negative. On the one hand, they seek to promote the glories of Hindu civilization, its culture and its history. They think that India should abandon its commitment to secularism and proclaim itself a Hindu state. On the other hand, their discourse is strongly anti-Muslim. They deliberately stoke anti-Muslim sentiment by dwelling on the injustices suffered by Hindus at the hands of Muslim rulers in bygone centuries and by portraying India as a country surrounded by hostile Muslim nations. Some of these nationalists go so far as to suggest that all of India’s Muslims should be obliged/forced to convert to Hinduism. (A formidable task given that there are more than 160 million Muslims in India.)
The Hindu nationalists are not merely the promoters of ideas, but are active on the ground in efforts to delegitimize Indian Muslims and to destroy symbols of Muslim religious faith. Their activities have greatly alarmed one of the Western world’s leading authorities on modern Indian politics, Prof. Paul Brass of the University of Washington. In a book published 20 years ago, he wrote: “The current state of Hindu-Muslim relations, exacerbated by the crisis at Ayodhya, the demolition of the Babari Masjid, the ghastly slaughter of several thousand persons, mostly Muslims, in cities and towns throughout northern and western India, is worse than at any time since 1947. The intensification and brutalization of Hindu nationalism under the RSS family of organizations, largely responsible for these events, constitute the gravest danger to the future of Indian unity.” He went on to say that “it is past time to note that Indian politics and society display many of the symptoms of a murderous pre-fascist stage.” (Prof. Brass was writing well before the Gujarat massacre of 2002 in which between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims were killed by Hindu fanatics.)
Over the years, Hindu nationalists have made remarkable strides on the political scene, first at the state level and then at the national level. Their moment of greatest triumph came in 2014. In the general election held in April and May that year, the BJP inflicted a humiliating defeat on the ruling Congress Party (BJP 282 seats, Congress 44 seats). The BJP government that now sits in New Delhi is led by the highly controversial Narendra Modi. Not only has he long been associated with extremist movements such as the RSS, but he is widely believed to have been complicit in the Gujarat massacres of 2002, which occurred when he was chief minister of that state. (The American government barred Modi from visiting the United States for many years because of his involvement in that event.)
The accession to power of a BJP government led by Modi does not bode well for the future relations between India’s Hindu and Muslim communities. Nor does it bode well for India’s relations with Pakistan, and for any prospect of a negotiated settlement of the longstanding conflict over Kashmir. The only consoling thought in all of this is that the BJP came to office having secured only 32% of the popular vote in the 2014 election, thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system. That means that the vast majority of Indians were not prepared to endorse a Hindu nationalist party such as the BJP. That fact alone may be sufficient to give heart to India’s more secular parties and may well temper the BJP government’s enthusiasm for pursuing a divisive Hindu nationalist agenda.
Louis A. Delvoie is a Fellow in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.