THE seeds of Hindu nationalism in India began to sprout in the 1980s and after nearly four decades of ethnic and religious tension, Indian secular politicians started adopting a more centralized stance. This shift in public opinion leaned towards right-wing ideology and Hindu nationalism gained substantial traction. At the core of the Hindu nationalist ideology lies the concept of Hindutva which seeks to strengthen and impose a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu nation. This movement exhibits a lack of tolerance towards religious minorities and its followers have been involved in communal violence across India. A recent case that captured widespread attention is the series of riots that unfolded in the India’s northeastern State of Manipur. These violent clashes resulted in the loss of over 70 lives and forced approximately 3,000 people to flee from their homes. The conflict emerged between the tribal Christian community known as Kukis, who represent a minority and the non-tribal Hindu community called Meiti, who constitute the majority. The root cause of the violence was a proposed plan to grant the Meitei community the status of a “scheduled tribe,” which would entitle them to government jobs and college quotas under India’s affirmative action policy.
Tribal leaders argue that the Meiteis already hold a more advantageous position and exert dominance in various spheres such as the government, police and civil service. Granting them further privileges would be perceived as unfair by the Kukis. Additionally, the Kukis raise concerns that such privileges would enable the Meiteis to encroach upon the forest lands that have been inhabited by Christian tribes for centuries. The consistent trend of Hindu infringement on the rights of minorities can be observed in various regions of India where Hindus form the majority of the population. Taking a closer look at the ethno-religious violence in the country, it becomes evident that India’s administrative structure inadvertently fuels divisions between Hindus and non-Hindus. This structure is characterized by the presence of Hindu Brahmins occupying influential positions in government and civil services, often leading to discrimination against non-Hindus. The concentration of power in the hands of a particular religious group contributes to an inherent structural imbalance.
Moreover, the rise of Hindu nationalism in India’s political landscape has further strengthened this structural imbalance. The growing influence of Hindu nationalist ideologies and political parties has had significant implications for religious minorities. The prioritization of Hindu interests and the promotion of Hindutva as a political agenda have perpetuated a climate where the rights and freedoms of non-Hindus are frequently compromised. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) serves as the political face of the Hindutva. Since 1996, India’s political landscape has witnessed the ascent of Hindu nationalism through the successive victories of the BJP in elections. The BJP’s political agenda revolves around the promotion of Hindutva and the establishment of a Hindu nationalist state. Furthermore, the party has faced allegations of marginalizing religious minorities and suppressing dissenting voices, raising concerns about the future of India’s secular democracy.
According to a report released in 2021 by the US Office on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), it was emphasized that Hindu nationalist groups in India are actively engaged in a concerted effort to “Saffronize” the country. This campaign involves the perpetration of acts of violence, intimidation and harassment against people belonging to non-Hindu communities. In a significant portion of India’s state governments, approximately one-third of them, specific laws pertaining to anti-conversion and/or anti-cow slaughter have been implemented and enforced. These laws carry legal provisions and regulations aimed at controlling or restricting religious conversions and the slaughter of cows. It highlights the worrisome trend of targeted violence and coercive tactics employed against individuals practicing faiths other than Hinduism.
In 1947, as secular nationalists took charge of the Indian Government, they embraced three fundamental principles: secularism, federalism and democracy which were pivotal in shaping their vision for the newly independent nation. These principles were intended to ensure a society where individuals of all religious backgrounds were treated equally, power was decentralized to accommodate regional diversity and citizens could actively participate in the decision-making processes. However, over time, the commitment to secular values by Indian political parties became compromised due to calculated political considerations. Even the founding party, Congress, known for its secular stance, began to deviate from its initial principles. Additionally, political expediency led some parties to manipulate religious sentiments to serve their changing political interests. In certain instances, religious appeals were made to mobilize support from specific religious communities or to consolidate a vote bank, disregarding the principles of secularism that aimed to ensure equal treatment and respect for all religions. The profound transformation witnessed in the political landscape of India raises compelling concerns about the future of secular democracy in the country. Given these developments, it becomes essential to ponder upon the trajectory of secular democracy in India and speculate on what it might encompass in the years to come.
—The writer is a research officer at the Centre for International Strategic Studies (CISS) AJK.