Making India Great Again?
NATIONALISM HAS become a formidable force in India, the world’s most populous democracy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party) portrays India as a once-glorious Hindu civilization whose identity and power were eroded—first by successive Muslim invasions that culminated in the establishment of the Mughal Empire (1526–1857), and thereafter, until 1947, by British colonialism. For more than half a millennium, in the BJP’s telling, many Hindus were forcibly converted to, or duped into adopting, Islam and Christianity. English became the intelligentsia’s lingua franca. Civilizational self-confidence gave way to feelings of weakness and inferiority—or so goes the Hindu nationalists’ narrative.
Independence did not, in the BJP’s view, eliminate this pathology, because Indian leaders (the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, remains the nationalists’ prime example) and intellectual class remained in thrall to Western ideas and institutions. Hindu nationalists believe that India can reclaim its greatness only by advancing economically and militarily, while drawing on the past, Hindu civilization in particular, for inspiration, pride, identity and political principles. Modernity severed from history, religion and tradition is, in their eyes, a recipe for deracination and submissiveness, not glory. The BJP proclaims that its elixir, combining modernity and tradition, will make India great again.
This is the narrative of India’s past and vision of its future to which Modi, the BJP and its kindred cultural organizations are committed. The consequences of their efforts to realize their goals will matter—and not just to Indians. With an area of nearly three million square kilometers, India is the world’s eighth-largest country. Its population of 1.3 billion people will soon surpass China’s, and the Indian diaspora numbers thirty million, including four million in the United States, about half of them Hindus. (This in itself says nothing about the attitudes of people of Indian origin in the United States—whether citizens or not—toward the BJP, but the party and its affiliated organizations have certainly sought to cultivate them.) At $2.3 trillion, India’s GDP ranks seventh worldwide, and its economic power is supplemented by nuclear weapons and a powerful conventional military force. Thus the reverberations, good and bad, of BJP-style Hindu nationalism are likely to reach well beyond India’s borders.
WHEN INDIA won its independence from Britain in 1947, it lacked any of what are now commonly considered the prerequisites for a strong new democracy. The overwhelming majority of Indians lived in villages, and were dirt poor to boot: per capita GDP then was around $618 (in 1990 constant dollars), compared to $6,600 in 2016, which still places India in 160th place worldwide. Back then, Indians could anticipate an average lifespan of thirty-two years, versus 67.8 years now, and only 12 percent were literate, compared to 74 percent today.
Yet Indian democracy, despite its shortcomings (many traceable to endemic corruption), has proved remarkably resilient, defying the early obituaries. At all levels of India’s political order, power changes hands regularly through elections. Voter turnout (64 percent in the 2014 national election) is generally higher than in the United States (55 percent for the 2016 presidential election). India’s central and local legislatures are forums for raucous debate, if not always for efficient or enlightened lawmaking. The Indian press operates in numerous languages and with remarkable freedom. The army, the bane of democracy in many developing countries—including India’s neighbor and cultural kin, Pakistan—has stayed out of politics.
Sixty years on, this record is remarkable, particularly for a country that remains largely poor and is a kaleidoscope of languages, religions, castes and cultures. True, Indian democracy has appeared in peril at times—notably during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency” rule (1975–77), when she curtailed democratic rights and jailed opposition leaders, relying on constitutional provisions available to the largely symbolic Indian presidency. But her confidence, based on the claims of sycophantic advisers, that she would achieve a sweeping electoral victory that would enable the consolidation of an illiberal polity, proved misplaced. The voters handed her a stunning defeat, preserving India’s democratic political trajectory.
Now, however, Indian democracy faces a new threat.
THE PRESENT danger does not emanate solely from the pinnacle of the political order, as was largely true during the Emergency. Nor can it be reduced to the personality and proclivities of one political leader. To be sure, the ruling BJP, headed by the charismatic, silver-tongued Modi, champions Hindutva, which effectively conflates being authentically Indian with being Hindu—per a distinctive, rigid definition of what Hinduism entails and represents. But the Hindutva project is also being pushed from below, especially by an organization linked to the BJP from which many of its top leaders, including Modi, have emerged: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Society). Complementing the BJP and RSS (Modi joined the latter in 1971 when he was twenty-one, and rose through the ranks to become its national general secretary) are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council), established by some RSS leaders in 1964; its militant youth wing, the Bajrang Dal; and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP, or All-India Student Council), a powerful presence on university campuses. These and other like-minded organizations constitute the Sangh Parivar (loosely, the Family of Societies).
In ideological coherence, organizational resources and popular appeal, the Hindutva movement commands greater resources than Indira Gandhi could muster during the brief Emergency years. The acolytes of Hindu nationalism have also proven fervent and skillful in spreading their message, through persuasion as well as occasionally force. Their commitment to religion-based nationalism presents a greater hazard to Indian democracy than the Emergency did, because India contains 170 million Muslims (more than any other country save Indonesia), as well as Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Zoroastrians. Although Hindutva has encountered resistance from other Indian political parties, the press and civil society, non-Hindus in particular cannot but feel threatened by its words and deeds, which slyly cast doubt on their status as authentic citizens without denying it outright.
Imagine being an Indian Muslim who hears of coreligionists being beaten up, even killed, by Hindu nationalists who consider the cow sacred and do not want a country in which those so inclined can eat beef. Or consider what non-Hindus of any religion, and Indian Hindus who believe that the state should not owe fealty to any single faith—which, incidentally, the Indian constitution stipulates—feel amid cultural campaigns to rewrite curricula and to memorialize a once-glorious Hindu era during which Vedic mathematics and science dominated the world, and the Aryans, whom Hindutva presents not as a people who migrated to India but as indigenous, spread enlightenment far and wide. If you are a journalist, college student, scholar, writer, or activist in a civic group who condemns the chauvinism of Hindutva, you could face vilification and death threats, or even murder.
In short, the specter of Hindu nationalism haunts BJP-ruled India. Attacks on minority communities have become common, and academics, students and journalists who highlight the harassment and intimidation are subjected to public calumny, and have occasionally been killed. Yet top BJP panjandrums make no secret of their animus toward Muslims, as well as other minorities and ideological adversaries, regardless of what religion they practice. The RSS, with its trademark white shirts and khaki shorts, martial drills, patriotic slogans and songs, and distinctive salute (right hand on the chest, the palm facing down), serves as the party’s force multiplier and base. It now feels at liberty to demonize Muslims—essentialized despite being divided by class, language, culture and cuisine, as well as interpretations of Islam—and even paint them as a virtual fifth column for India’s archfoe, Pakistan.
THE FOUNDERS of the modern Indian republic understood that a country of such religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity required a political order suited to fostering harmony through the habit of compromise. They designed a secular constitution that could accommodate and manage India’s heterogeneity. Yet the Indian conception of secularism differed from its Western counterparts. Instead of creating a wall of separation between temple and state, India’s leaders, most notably its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress (INC), forged a constitutional order that respected all faiths. Seventy years after the country’s independence, those arrangements are now under frontal assault. To understand how India arrived at the BJP moment, it helps to identify the historical catalysts and turning points—including an acknowledgement that the Congress Party has itself undermined the principles with which it was long identified.
From the outset, a small but vocal minority within the Indian political class rejected the constitutional commitment to secularism. Especially in the post-independence era, this staunchly anti-secular element found a home in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), an anticommunist, pro-business party that stood for the creation of a Hindu polity. Given the extraordinary role that the INC had played in the national independence movement, and its success in folding a range of political viewpoints into an inclusive structure, the BJS made only limited electoral headway. So did the RSS, which was established in 1925.
The political weakness of the BJS and Nehru’s towering influence within the INC ensured that there were few serious challenges to India’s secular ethos and practices during the first several decades of Indian independence, and that the country made progress on a range of social issues that could have easily rent the nascent republic apart. Between 1952 and 1956, for example, under Nehru’s tutelage, the Indian parliament passed four bills that significantly reformed a range of Hindu customs and practices. Quite predictably, the BJS insisted that Muslim personal laws relating to matters such as divorce and inheritance also be modernized. However, Nehru demurred, arguing that Muslims had just emerged from the trauma of the subcontinent’s partition and that the issue should be deferred. In consequence, Indian Muslims retained a separate legal code on personal matters.
Despite Nehru’s own initial opposition, the country also resolved, through the States Reorganization Act of 1956, another issue: the demand that India’s states be organized on a linguistic basis. Nehru had originally opposed this idea, fearing that it could balkanize the country. However, he changed his mind when faced with relentless pressure, including the death of Potti Sreeramulu, an activist who fasted to death in December 1952 during the struggle to gain statehood for what would later become Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh. The success of this legislation laid the groundwork for the accommodation of similar demands based on cultural diversity and distinctiveness, and mostly without violence. Notable among them is the persistent requirement that a proportion of admissions to educational institutions and governmental job openings be earmarked for India’s disadvantaged castes and tribal peoples.
Despite these successes, the first few decades of Indian independence were hardly free from ethnic and religious tensions. Hindu-Muslim riots erupted periodically, Muslims faced discrimination in various walks of life (as did lower-caste Hindus), social intermingling among the communities was limited and the push to declare Hindi the official language provoked riots in the south. Still, the apparatus of the Indian state did not regularly harass or intimidate Muslims, nor give Hindu zealots license to demonize or persecute them. That it does so now is owed to the atrophy of the Congress Party, which controlled the central government almost continuously from 1947 to 1977, when Indira Gandhi’s electoral gambit backfired and led to a coalition government headed by the Janata Party.
It was Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, who opened the floodgates to the anti-secular tide now sweeping India despite a personal commitment to secularism (she married the parliamentarian Feroze Gandhi, a member of the miniscule Zoroastrian community known as Parsis). Her father had carefully fashioned and nurtured a range of institutions suited to reconciling India’s great cultural and religious differences through bargaining, promoted mores of civil discourse, and cultivated a nationalism unmoored from religion and ethnicity. In marked contrast, his daughter eventually undermined many of these institutions and values, sometimes in response to crises and at other times driven by electoral opportunism.
Worse, as her popularity dwindled and Congress declined as a political force, she pandered to sectarianism. Perhaps the most momentous example was her promotion of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a violent but charismatic Sikh preacher in the state of Punjab, in order to undermine the Akali Dal, a local political party and member of the Janata Party–led coalition government. Her ploy boomeranged to deadly effect once the Congress Party regained power in 1980. By then, Bhindranwale had become a formidable political persona and a proponent of a separate Sikh state. He and his followers commandeered the Golden Temple, one of the holiest Sikh shrines, turning it into a command post for a statewide ethnoreligious insurgency. Unable to quell the rebellion using the police and paramilitary forces, in June 1984 Gandhi deployed the Indian Army to evict Bhindranwale and his acolytes from the temple. Bhindranwale was killed during the shoot-out, but became greater as a martyr than he ever was in life.
Worse was yet to come: two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards took revenge by assassinating her on October 30, 1984, which in turn unleashed a pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi, leaving three thousand Sikhs massacred and many dead in other cities. Their property was pillaged, and Sikh women were raped. Key individuals within the Congress Party egged on or even joined the attackers, and police failed to protect the victims—or, some say, were even complicit.
Indira Gandhi’s political heirs did little to roll back the forces she had unleashed. Her son and immediate successor, Rajiv Gandhi, a political neophyte and former airline pilot, made a feeble attempt to restore the Congress Party’s vitality and original spirit. However, once he encountered resistance from party stalwarts he quickly abandoned those efforts. Moreover, he too had a tendency to indulge divisive impulses. For instance, when the Indian Supreme Court issued a judgment in 1986 granting an indigent Muslim woman, Shah Bano, alimony, he used his parliamentary majority to overturn the judgment—a decision made with an eye on the orthodox Muslim vote.
The successor to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP, promptly attacked the legislation as another example of the Congress’s “pseudo-secularism” and propensity for “minority appeasement”—the latter term a dog whistle for churning up resentment against Muslims. Still, even those committed to secularism saw Rajiv Gandhi’s move for what it was: a blatant attempt to garner Muslim votes. This was not the only example of Rajiv Gandhi’s pandering to obscurantist religious forces. In 1988, when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, and even before Iran issued its infamous fatwa against the author, Gandhi, responding to the outraged demands from Muslim clerics, banned the novel.
Meanwhile, the BJP was busy mobilizing its base. Among the high points was the September–October 1990 Rath Yatra, or Chariot Journey, by the party’s leader, Lal Krishna Advani—which Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s general secretary in Gujarat, played a major role in organizing. In a Toyota decked out to resemble an ancient chariot, Advani started his trip in Somnath, where, in 1026, Mahmud Ghazni destroyed a temple during one of his invasions from modern-day Afghanistan. Advani’s destination was Ayodhya, where, according to Hindutva lore, an ancient temple consecrating the birthplace of Lord Rama stood until it was destroyed in the sixteenth century under the Mughal emperor Babur to build the Babri Masjid (Mosque of Babur). Though Advani was arrested before reaching Ayodhya, the fanfare surrounding his stunt allowed the BJP to further publicize its Hindutva project.
Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991, and his principal successor, Narasimha Rao, inherited a problem that the slain prime minister had created. Under attack for blatant pandering to the Muslim minority, Rajiv Gandhi had tried to mollify his critics by unlocking the gates to the Babri Masjid, thereby giving Hindu activists unfettered access to the site on which they had been campaigning to erect the Rama temple. Muslim outrage increased in 1990, after members of the VHP damaged part of the mosque. Rao’s efforts to appease Hindus while averting a violent Hindu-Muslim clash failed. Militant Hindus (many belonging to the RSS, VHP and related groups) stormed the mosque on December 6, 1992, and leveled it within a few hours. Some two thousand people were killed in subsequent violence throughout India, mainly Muslims.
Against this backdrop, in 1998, the BJP formed a coalition government. The party failed to make much headway on its anti-secular agenda, partly because it had to rely on various other political parties to maintain a parliamentary majority. Nevertheless a second anti-Muslim pogrom took place under the BJP’s watch, in February 2002—this time in the western state of Gujarat, where Modi was the chief minister. The chain of events leading to the bloodshed began with a fire (in the Gujarati city of Godhra) on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya after commemorating the anniversary of the Babri Masjid’s destruction. (The precise circumstances that produced the fire remain contested; word spread that Muslim vendors at the station had set it after an altercation with the pilgrims.) A number of pilgrims died in the blaze, and Hindu mobs rampaged through Godhra and other cities in Gujarat, attacking Muslim communities. As many as two thousand people, the vast majority of them Muslims, were killed, and many more were displaced. As during the 1984 anti-Sikh violence in New Delhi and elsewhere, local police mostly stood by.
Modi rejected any responsibility for the pogrom, and to this day he has expressed little to no remorse. In speeches given after the violence he appealed for calm, but focused on expressing outrage over the deaths of the pilgrims and attacking the unfair press coverage that Gujarat was receiving. Notable was the absence of any sorrow over the rampage during which many Muslims were killed. On at least one occasion Modi was downright callous: asked during a June 2013 interview with Reuters whether he felt remorse, he replied that he had experienced sadness—just as a passenger in a car would have, had the driver inadvertently run over a puppy. The analogy was invidious: the mass murder of Muslims in Godhra was likened to an accident, the victims to a puppy. Reuters translated kutte ka bachcha as “puppy.” While that word choice is not incorrect, it fails to convey that in Hindi Modi’s words also carry an offensive connotation—all the more because Muslims regard dogs as unclean. This did not go unnoticed.
Various court cases were launched against Modi, and the Indian Supreme Court eventually created a commission of inquiry. The report was submitted to a court in Gujarat, which concurred with the commission’s finding that there was insufficient evidence to charge him. Other than one or two members of his cabinet, who were implicated in the events, there have been no other indictments against the pogrom’s perpetrators.
THE BJP-LED coalition government, known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), lost power in 2004, and a Congress Party–dominated coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), then managed to complete two successive terms. Though the quality of the UPA’s governance was mixed, there were few instances of egregious violence between Hindus and Muslims. In the latter part of its second term, numerous financial scandals came to light. These malfeasances aggravated an already disaffected public and tilted voters toward the BJP, which, under the leadership of Modi, pledged to restore fiscal probity and deliver effective governance.
During the 2014 election, aside from a few swipes against illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh, Modi downplayed the BJP’s Hindu nationalism and instead touted his economic record in Gujarat—a choice that may have contributed to outright victory for the BJP, which won 282 seats in India’s 543-member parliament. But following the victory, Modi, as prime minister, quickly got down to business on the cultural front. One of his first, and most misguided, directives required that all official correspondence involving the national government, including on social media, be in Hindi, which is mostly spoken in northern India, and is the native tongue of only 41 percent of all Indians. The status of Hindi had for all practical purposes been dormant. Modi not only resuscitated a volatile dispute that had produced bloodshed in years past, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, but also challenged the national consensus that the Indian state should respect linguistic diversity. Modi, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, however, consider Hindi the national language, and making that status official remains central to their mission of safeguarding Indian culture and unity. This objective ignores the sentiments of non-Hindi speakers, and risks reviving the unrest that erupted in the 1960s.
Not surprisingly, the reaction from the state of Tamil Nadu to Modi’s edict was swift and negative. Muthuvel Karunanidhi—whose party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK, or Dravidian Progress Federation), was at the forefront of the 1960s protests against enshrining Hindi as the national language—remarked that “the pm should focus on development rather than on promoting Hindi,” adding that the BJP’s stance on language policy “amounts to an attempt to treat non-Hindi speakers as second-class citizens.” Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, likewise warned Modi that his linguistic directive was “against the letter and spirit of the law” and “causes disquiet to the people of Tamil Nadu who are very proud of and passionate about their linguistic heritage.”
While the BJP’s fervor for recognizing Hindi as the national language may have diminished, the consequences of its victory on other cultural fronts are disturbing. Since Modi’s election as prime minister, there has been a sharp increase in attacks on Muslims (as well as Dalits, who occupy the lowest rung in India’s caste system) accused of eating beef or selling cows to the beef industry. According to Indian press reports, there have been sixty-three attacks since 2010, with twenty-eight people killed (the vast majority of them Muslims). 97 percent of the murders occurred after Modi’s election in 2014, more than half of them in states ruled by the BJP. Even a casual survey of Indian newspapers shows that violence by self-appointed guardians of the cow has been on the upswing and become a prominent topic of public debate. Opposition to slaughtering cows has been a longstanding priority for the BJP, the RSS and the rest of the Sangh Parivar. While Modi and other BJP leaders have certainly not ordered any violence, or even encouraged it directly, their Hindutva project and related cultural campaigns by the RSS and others have undoubtedly created a political atmosphere suited to a rise in vigilantism by Hindu extremists.
Modi has warned that resorting to violence to defend the cow violates the law and will not be permitted. But missing, just as it was after the 2002 bloodletting in Godhra, has been a forthright defense of Muslim rights or even an acknowledgement that the vigilantes’ victims have overwhelmingly been Muslim. As observed by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one India’s most prominent public intellectuals, dwelling on the tally of attacks misses the point. “These lynchings,” in his view, “are fiendishly redefining citizenship. The significance of this violence is not just the number: Whether it is 15 incidents or 50. . . . This violence establishes a new political dispensation, where a group of people claim direct sovereignty: They act above formal law and order institutions, they feel entitled to enforce the morality, and their impunity comes from the fact that they can now stand in for the ‘authentic people.’”
The result has been the emergence of “a monstrous moral order . . . irrigated by the blood of our citizens.”
THE COMMITMENT of the BJP and other groups to revamping the school curriculum and rewriting textbooks is a second front in the culture war. Soon after the 2014 election, Modi appointed Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, a historian active in the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (BISY, or All-India History Reform Project) as the head of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the main governmental organization that funds research and scholarship in history. Rao—whose credentials have been questioned by some of India’s most eminent historians, including professors Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar—soon added three historians, all members of the BICY, to the historical research council. The motive underlying such appointments is clear. Mahesh Sharma, the minister for education, vowed to
“cleanse every area of public discourse that has been Westernized and where Indian culture and civilization and culture need to be restored—be it the history we read or our cultural heritage or our institutes [i.e., cultural and educational institutions funded by his ministry] that have been polluted over the years.”
One can be forgiven for concluding from this statement that India’s cultural heritage, thousands of years old, faces a mortal threat.
The BJP’s cultural revolution has not been limited to purging Western ideas. In BJP-ruled Rajasthan, textbooks featuring British writers and poets have been replaced with ones including (justly celebrated) authors such as Rabindranath Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. But also dropped were the writings of Ismat Chughtai, a feminist who wrote in Urdu (the language of Indian Muslims), despite being part of Indian culture, as well as Hindi stories deemed to contain too many Urdu words. The revised schoolbooks on political history give short shrift to the role of Jawaharlal Nehru and even Mahatma Gandhi in India’s struggle for independence, portrays the Congress Party as initially ambivalent about the end of British rule, and elevates the role of Hindu nationalist personages such as Veer Savarkar, Gandhi’s rival. In Gujarat, which is also run by a BJP government, schools use textbooks on moral education suffused with Hindu philosophy at the expense of India’s other religions, authored by Dinanath Batra. Batra, for some of whose books Modi has written the foreword, drove the campaign that bullied Penguin India into withdrawing acclaimed University of Chicago historian Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, in 2014, on the grounds that she presented a sexualized interpretation of the religion. Similarly, Batra hasn’t shied away from redrawing maps of India to include the rest of South Asia (plus Tibet and Myanmar), in keeping with the Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) concept associated with Hindu nationalists.
No less insidious has been the outright falsification of educational materials. Some examples include the exaltation of Vedic science to the point of having children learn that it invented airplanes, with Rama’s flight from Sri Lanka to Ayodhya in the Hindu epic Ramayana constituting proof; that stem-cell research originated in ancient India; and that the Hindu monarch Maharana Pratap was not defeated by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the 1576 Battle of Haldighati—in which, incidentally, Akbar’s troops were led by a Hindu warrior, Raja Man Singh of Amber—but emerged victorious. Another textbook fails to mention that Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister, or that Gandhi’s assassin was for many years a member of the RSS (as well as of the Hindu Mahasabha, another Hindu nationalist organization)—and indeed may have remained one, despite the movement’s insistence that he resigned in 1946.
Another feature of the Hindu nationalist cultural campaign has been attacks on intellectuals and students deemed to be “anti-national,” which effectively means that they dare to condemn the BJP and other Hindu nationalist organizations, or express ideas that supposedly besmirch Hinduism. What’s dangerous about the “anti-national” tag is that it verges on depicting criticism of a political party, its government, its leader and the idea of Hindutva as tantamount to treason. Figures well known in the West, such as novelist Arundhati Roy and the Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen, have been vilified. But so have those who are well known in India but not necessarily abroad, like the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. After the RSS demanded that he be arrested and that his novel Maadhorubaagan (published in English as One Part Woman) be banned, the harassment and intimidation that followed led him to announce that he would stop writing altogether, urging his publishers to cease issuing his works and his readers to burn them.
The historian Malleshappa Kalburgi, a critic of Hindu nationalism and religious superstition, suffered a worse fate: he was assassinated in 2015. So were two other writers—Narendra Dabholkar, in 2013, and Govind Pansare, in 2015. Most recently, in September 2017, the journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead outside her home in Bangalore for likening RSS-style Hindu nationalism to fascism. The promiscuous use of the “anti-national” label to demonize the BJP’s critics, on occasion to deadly effect, has led dozens of Indian writers, filmmakers and artists to return their official awards, and others to protest the climate of intolerance. Hindu nationalist organizations have not been formally charged for these deaths, and may well not have been involved—but as with the attacks on those suspected of eating beef or raising cattle to supply the beef industry, their charged rhetoric has fostered an enabling climate of intolerance.
PREVIOUS INDIAN governments have certainly contributed to the Indian secular state’s erosion. Yet their decisions, though corrosive, were aimed at winning votes. The BJP’s Hindutva project, by contrast, is an ideologically driven movement to remake India’s polity and society by taking aim at its cultural, religious and intellectual pluralism.
Some of Modi’s critical political appointments make this abundantly clear. For example, in March 2017, Modi chose Yogi Adityanath—a firebrand Hindu priest with a number of criminal cases pending against him, including a charge of attempted murder—to serve as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, which contains nearly thirty-nine million Muslims, more than any another Indian state. Infamous for his inflammatory statements, Adityanath has, among other things, compared the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to a terrorist, declared that if a Muslim kills a single Hindu then a hundred Muslims will be killed in retaliation, and claimed that Mother Teresa “was part of a plot for [the] Christianization of India.” Within hours of becoming chief minister, Adityanath ordered the closure of two slaughterhouses in the state. Ostensibly he did so on environmental grounds. But the real reason was all too apparent: these slaughterhouses were owned and operated by Muslims. Not surprisingly, online applications for RSS membership soared soon after his appointment.
The atmosphere of hostility toward Muslims that has emerged under Modi has seen a rash of attacks on hapless Muslims transporting cattle in various parts of the country, even when the animals were not intended for slaughter—which most Indian states ban. Among the egregious examples was the killing of a Muslim man, Pehlu Khan, in Rajasthan in April 2017. Even though he and his associates were legally transporting dairy cattle, a mob attacked their trucks and proceeded to beat them. Khan succumbed to his injuries. The police then registered cases against Khan’s associates, as well as his assailants. Modi has spoken out against such attacks, but has also made clear that he adamantly opposes the slaughter of cattle for beef—even though cow-slaughter bans in every BJP-ruled state deprive Muslims, Christians and a substantial portion of Dalits of a vital source of cheap animal protein.
Although the BJP’s anti-secular offensive operates at multiple levels (political, social and cultural), it is alarmist to draft requiems for Indian liberal democracy. The BJP has doubtless acquired considerable clout, but it nevertheless faces a range of obstacles. One is Hinduism itself. Ironically, the Hindutva faithful seem blind to the pluralism that marks their religion. Unlike most other faiths, Hinduism lacks a common scripture or universally agreed upon places of worship, and its capacious pantheon accommodates as many as 330 million deities, many confined to particular parts of India and unknown beyond them. As the American anthropologist Milton Singer argued decades ago, while some Hindus in northern India pay homage to the Sanskritic “great tradition” of Hinduism, what animates the lives of millions of Hindus across the country and beyond are the religion’s “little traditions.” They cannot easily be effaced or even absorbed into the monolithic Hinduism envisioned by the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar.
The BJP’s efforts to create a Hindu state have also faced vigorous resistance from many quarters within India—and will continue to do so. Prominent Indian writers, public intellectuals and courageous journalists have spoken out against its anti-secular agenda despite risk to their own professional reputations and even personal safety. The new stories and nationwide protests that followed the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh attest to the continuing feistiness of India’s civil society and press. Hindutva-inspired efforts to restrict Indians’ freedom of speech, religious practices and diets will encounter legal barriers as well. In August 2017, the Indian Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the right to privacy constituted a constitutional right, and is moreover essential for securing other freedoms. In a similar vein, in a 2016 judgment totaling more than one hundred pages, the Madras High Court rejected the petition to ban Perumal Murugan’s book. The jurists declared archly, “If you don’t like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary—what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others.”
The BJP also faces a range of powerful regional political parties, reflecting India’s political and cultural diversity, that have gained prominence in recent decades. The sharp reaction in Tamil Nadu to Modi’s directive that Hindi should be used for official communication shows that the state will resist the BJP’s cultural program, precisely because it embodies the centralization and uniformity they reject. And because these parties have strong regional roots, the BJP will find that they are formidable opponents and, indeed, that it cannot govern effectively without their cooperation.
HINDU NATIONALISM can only do so much for Modi and the BJP. Their staying power will depend on whether they can deliver on the bread-and-butter issues that matter most to Indians. In the run-up to the 2014 election, Modi touted the “Gujarat miracle” and promised to do for the country what he had done for the state. It was not an empty boast: India’s economic growth averaged an impressive 7.5 percent from 2014 through 2017, and foreign investment increased substantially. But economic growth slowed to 5.7 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (from a peak of 9.5 percent in 2015). While most countries would envy even this lower rate, India’s economy must grow more quickly, because twelve million people enter its job market each year. Even if the economic slowdown proves to be a blip, a revival must produce substantial increases in job creation. Modi’s record on this front has not matched his rhetoric, and the outlook is not promising.
That’s not the only problem: economic reform has stalled. Indian national banks have $180 billion in bad debts on their books. The country’s infrastructure remains decrepit. Most notably, the BJP’s sudden move in 2017 to stanch corruption by suddenly invalidating five-hundred- and thousand-rupee notes (roughly 86 percent of the total in circulation) proved to be a blunder; shops refused to accept them, people swarmed banks to exchange the suddenly useless notes and employers were unable to pay workers. Slogans about a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Polity) won’t count for much if the BJP cannot meet the expectations created by Modi’s economic promises.
The BJP’s threat to Indian secularism, though serious, may not prove fatal. India’s cultural and political diversity, the robustness of its press and civil society, the continuing strength of its judiciary, and its strong regional opposition parties and plethora of civic groups serve as counterweights. Much has been written about the ways in which India’s size and unwieldiness hamper thoroughgoing reform and efficient governance. Thankfully, they also provide a powerful defense against chiliastic schemes of homogenization and centralization such as Hindutva.
(Views expressed are those of writers.)
By Sumit Ganguly & Rajan Menon