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India’s secular state faces a crisis

Sonia Gandhi, former president of the Indian National Congress (the Congress party), recently admitted that the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) had somehow managed to convince the people that her party is a Muslim party.

“Now I ask,” Mrs Gandhi said, “in my party, the great majority is Hindu … but yes, there are Muslims [too]. So, I fail to understand this branding us as a sort of Muslim party”.

It is not very often that we hear leaders speak so candidly. Observers were quick to point out that with Mrs Gandhi expressing her fears, the abandonment of the Muslims in India is complete. For a leader like Mrs Gandhi, who has spent almost two decades at the helm of a political party that ruled India for over six decades since independence in 1947 to make such an observation, demonstrates how risky it is today for a political party in India to be labelled pro-minorities.

One nation, multiple identities

India is a tapestry of multiple socio-cultural identities woven beautifully into a single nation. However, the seams of these identities are distinct. It is true that India’s unique strength as a nation has been in its willingness to allow each of these multiple identities to flourish, a view represented in the adage “unity in diversity.” But diversity breeds discomfort. These different identities, at times, prove to be India’s greatest weakness.

For a nation that was torn apart by religious strife at the time of its independence, it is crucial to maintain a delicate balance. Maintaining this among the various religious denominations is the Indian concept of secularism. In India, secularism means equal respect for all religions by the state — unlike the Western principle which implies the separation of state from religious institutions. Although the 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1976 asserted that India is a secular nation by inserting the term in its Preamble, the relationship between religion and state is not clearly defined.

The fact is that India’s definition of secularism comes from its liberal Hindu value system which for ages has held diverse views on the concept of God and divinity. It is starkly different from the monotheism that Islam and Christianity preach and propagate.

Theological underpinning of religious conflict

Hinduism is a faith that originated in India and India is a nation with a Hindu majority. Islam and Christianity are foreign faiths even though Muslims and Christians owe the same allegiance to India as its Hindu majority.

The real challenge for both Islam and Christianity lies in the monolithic nature of their belief system, which is contrary to the Hindu model of religion. So when political Hinduism took root in India, its points of conflict with Islam and Christianity became pronounced. This difference forms the theological underpinning of the religious disputes that have played out in India for the past several decades.

Political Hinduism and the Hindu nation

“Hindutva” is the fundamentalist Hindu political ideology which right-wing nationalist organisations like the BJP have sought to propagate. “Hindutva” is a term popularised by Hindu nationalist leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. In a 1923 book, Savarkar defines who a Hindu is. “A Hindu means a person who regards this land of Bharatvarsha [India], from the Indus to the Seas as his Father-Land as well as his Holy-Land that is the cradle land of his religion.” The Hindu Mahasabha — a right-wing Hindu outfit, and the harbinger of the demand for creation of a Hindu Rastra (Hindu Nation) in India predating independence — promoted Savarkar’s ideology. However, spearheading this demand since the time of independence is another organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is the ideological fountainhead of India’s present ruling party, the BJP.

The RSS is a long and virulent opponent of the Congress party’s ideals of secularism and minority rights. Leaders like M. S. Golwalkar (1906-1973) have asserted that “non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and languages, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture…” Non-Hindus he said, “must cease to be foreigners; or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizens’ rights.” Although the RSS has now officially disownedthe strident views expressed by Golwalkar, they have not been able to distance themselves from his notions of the Indian nation completely. RSS and BJP leaders thus continue to speak in harsh and divergent tone spreading fear and anxiety among India’s minorities.

Apart from its debate with Islam and Christianity, right-wing fundamentalist Hinduism faces another serious challenge from proponents of liberal Hinduism. These ideological conflicts within Hinduism have often turned violent with the killing of rationalist thinkers and secular scholars.

Conspiracy theories galore

For decades, fundamentalist Hindu organisations have been raising the myth of a minority takeover of India — through population growth and conversion. Making a distinction between “religions of Bharatiya [Indian] origin” and others like Islam and Christianity, these groups have repeatedly blamed “infiltration and conversion” as reasons to allege “higher growth” in Muslim and Christian population. With the BJP in power, these voices have become even more shrill, with some leaders even calling upon Hindu women to have more children. Experts, however, have repeatedly called out their bluff, pointing out to these speculations as uninformed, foolish and absurd.

One such absurd notion is the concept of “love jihad” a purported conspiracy theory which alleges an organised ploy by Muslims men to woo non-Muslim women to convert them to Islam. The hysteria created by the propagation of this theory of “love jihad” has been so vicious that it inspired one of the most gruesome murder shot on video, and circulated through social media. Another one is the concept of “land jihad” which is an alleged appropriation by minority groups to take over majority-dominated residential areas by stealth.

BJP: the communal agenda

Secularism versus communalism has been a raging political and ideological debate in India since independence, but it assumed a feverish pitch since the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 by Hindu mobs spearheaded by the BJP demanding the construction of a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Lord Ram.

For several years, following its temple movement, and communal violence that followed, the BJP found itself on the back foot, almost a pariah in the political landscape of India. Parties became sceptical of tying up with it for fear of antagonising their voter base. The BJP used the opportunity to consolidate itself against secular-minded parties like the Congress  which the BJP derided as “pseudo-secular” — which meant “minority appeasers” to its followers.

Minority appeasement: political hoax or strategic myth

What Mrs Gandhi referred to is a prevailing narrative in India that the Congress party is pro-Muslim — involved in playing vote-bank politics by appeasing minorities. However, these notions of minority appeasement are just a political hoax or a strategic myth that has long and meticulously been crafted by the Hindu right-wing (Hindutva) groups.

There are examples of community leaders arm-twisting governments into accepting community-specific demands, but this tendency is not specific to either the Congress party or the Muslim community. Like trade unions and caste organisations, religious groups of all kinds have played the role of pressure groups and pushed governments to meet their demands.

BJP, from pariah to dominance: the Modi factor

The BJP is today the dominant party in the political landscape of India, the credit for which goes to the leadership combination of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. With the BJP’s accession to power in 2014, Modi became the Prime Minister and his protégé Shah the party president, together becoming a winning combination. Their ability to shift the paradigm of political discourse in the country from secularism to the issue of development, without shedding their Hindu nationalist outlook at the same time, has helped their party to consolidate not only their traditional right-wing Hindu voter-base but also to capture the imagination of significant sections of otherwise liberal Hindus.

Having discredited secularism, the BJP led by Modi and Shah has seen unprecedented electoral victories in recent years. However, the broader goals of Hindutva are not dependent on the successes achieved by the BJP because the party is only a cog in this wheel called the Sangh Parivar designed to carry forward its political agenda. The Hindu nationalist framework of the Sangh Parivar is a much more extensive, well-oiled mechanism, the components of which have already made massive inroads into the body politic of India.

Secularism discredited: India faces an existential crisis

The Indian notion of secularism is today in a serious bind as the country’s famed social ethos faces its worst existential crisis. With the BJP’s success, secularism as a tool for political mobilisation does not seem to be relevant any longer and its relevance as a nation’s identity is definitely at high risk. However, the onus of defending India’s secular credentials was never on the BJP. It is the Congress party leadership of India that believed in these high ideals, and promised minorities to do all it could to defend their rights despite suffering the pangs of partition. Faced with the political onslaught of BJP, the question now is, will secular India survive?

Sunny Peter writes from India.

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