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How Hindu nationalism overshadows secularism

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
August 14, 2022

India is gradually being transformed from a secular multicultural nation to a Hindu supremacist state, activists and minority groups say.

A board saying entry of Muslims is banned is placed by supporters of a Hindu organization at the Dasna Devi temple in Ghaziabad
There have been growing calls in recent years from religious right-wing groups to declare India a Hindu nationImage: Hindustan Times/imago images

When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, its founding fathers envisioned the newly free nation as a secular multicultural state. 

Over the next 75 years, the South Asian country has transformed from being poverty-stricken into one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

It has also emerged as a democratic counterweight to its authoritarian neighbor, China.

India has held free elections since its independence and had peaceful transfers of power, boasts an independent judiciary and a vibrant media landscape.

But many dissidents say that under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, which has been in office since 2014, there has been some backsliding when it comes to the country's secular character.

The defining credo of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 1989 has been "Hindutva," a political ideology that promotes the "values" of the Hindu religion as being the cornerstone of Indian society and culture. 

"The Modi regime is making legislative, administrative and cultural changes that seek to transform India from a secular democratic republic to an authoritarian Hindu-supremacist one," Kavita Krishnan, of the All India Progressive Women's Association, told DW.

"That's why I prefer the term Hindu supremacy to describe Modi's politics," Krishnan said.

Hindu nationalism on the rise

Since its independence, India has been proud of its multiculturalism, even though it has occasionally struggled with bloody sectarian violence.

Hindus make up the overwhelming majority of India's 1.4 billion people, and there have been growing calls in recent years from religious right-wing groups to declare India a Hindu nation and enshrine Hindu supremacy in law.

The demands, coupled with the BJP's pursuit of a Hindu nationalist agenda, have alienated religious minorities, particularly Muslims, critics say, pointing out that there has been a marked increase in hate speech and violence targeting the nation's 210 million Muslims in recent years.

India: Tensions between Hindus and Muslims

Some groups say the BJP's aggressive Hindutva policies treat religious minorities as "second-class citizens." 

The 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) fast-tracks citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who arrived in India before 2015.

Critics say it excludes fast-tracking rights for Muslims.

In 2020, Muslim-majority neighborhoods in Delhi were the scene of violent riots that were set off by protests against the CAA.

More recently, a state's  ban on the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, in schools and colleges has sparked tension and protest in southern India between Hindus and Muslims. 

Some states ruled by the BJP have used bulldozers to demolish the homes and shops of alleged Muslim protesters, a move decried as a form of collective punishment.

Hindu groups have also laid claim to a number of Islamic sites that they say were built atop temples during Muslim rule.

BJP denies religious discrimination

Saira Shah Halim, a writer and activist, told DW that the old liberal order was struggling in the face of a rising ethnic nationalism, undermining India's standing as the world's largest democracy and raising doubts about its future as a secular state.

"Hindu nationalism should not be accompanied by hating fellow citizens from the minority community. This hatred is being encouraged by authorities and carried out with impunity where oppression of Muslims has become so pervasive," Saira said.

The BJP, however, has consistently denied that it discriminates against Muslims.

Shazia Ilmi, a BJP spokesperson, dismissed the criticism that the party is trying to create a national identity in a manner that excludes or marginalizes religious minorities.

"India is home to diverse cultures where people of different faiths and sects have been living in harmony. India has the moral and spiritual authority to lead the world on path to peace," Ilmi told DW.

The BJP argues that it was the opposition Congress party — which ruled India for over five decades following independence — that was responsible for undermining secularism in the country by pandering to extremist elements in various religious communities.

India's school hijab controversy

Growing divisions and mistrust

The growing religious divide has stoked mutual suspicions between Hindus and Muslims, contributing to deteriorating personal relationships, as well as rising intolerance. 

Qurban Ali, an engineer in Kanpur city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, told DW that every year Hindus in his locality had gathered at his house during the Islamic festival of Eid al-Fitr to celebrate and feast together, part of a tradition they cherished for years.

"But this time, no Hindu came to greet us," Ali said. "It was strange when every year they have been an important part of the festivities. Life has changed in the country."

Hasan Suroor, author of the recently published book "Unmasking Indian Secularism," told DW that there is an urgent need for a new road map to restore communal harmony before it's too late for a course correction.

"The idea that Hindus have first claim over India has become deeply ingrained, even among many liberals," Suroor said. "Any sustainable solution will require the recognition of the de facto 'Hinduization' of India over the past decade."

"This is not a plea for abandoning secularism altogether or suddenly embracing a theocratic Hindu state," Suroor said, "but to look for a model in tune with contemporary political and social realities."

Suroor said a new deal underpinned by realism, rather than idealism, would mean finding the right balance between minority rights and the majority population's sensitivities.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru