Minorities in ‘Secular’ India

After gaining independence from the British Empire in 1947, India aspired to be a secular nation where people of all faiths could live in peace. Constitutionally, India is a sovereign socialist, secular democratic republic.

By Bilal Aslam

In December 2022, a large gathering of right-wing activists, fundamentalist militants, and Hindutva organisations was held at an event called “Dharma Sansad,” or “religious parliament.” During the event, there was an unprecedented outpouring of hate speech calling for the genocide of India’s Muslim population. Pooja Shakun Pandey, a senior member of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party, provoked her supporters to kill Muslims to “protect” the country and make it a Hindu nation.

Similarly, in December, the right-wing Hindu nationalists’ confronted Muslims praying on the streets in the city of Gurugram, just outside of Delhi. They prevented Muslims from praying while shouting slogans and carrying banners in protest. Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a human rights organization based in India, termed 2022 the year of othering and violence for religious minorities in India.

As the year 2022 came to an end, outgoing democratic congressman Andy Levin said in his last speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, “I have been a vocal advocate for human rights in places like India, which is in danger of becoming a Hindu nationalist state rather than a secular democracy, the world’s largest democracy.” In January 2023, a 16th-century historic mosque was demolished in Prayagraj, and six madrasas were bulldozed in Gujarat, India, under a “road widening” project.

After gaining independence from the British Empire in 1947, India aspired to be a secular nation where people of all faiths could live in peace. Constitutionally, India is a sovereign socialist, secular democratic republic. However, there have been concerns in recent years that India is moving away from its secular foundations and towards a more fundamentalist Hindu-centric ideology, referred to as Hindutva. According to Deepankar Basu, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, hate crimes against minorities in India skyrocketed by 300 percent from 2014 to 2019 since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government took charge. Since the 2014 election, the Congress Party, and secularism in general have been on the back foot because of the rise of Hindutva ideology.

Many Indian scholars agree that the BJP is now the most powerful party in India. A growing number of people seem to agree that Hindu nationalism has grown at the expense of secularism to the point where it is seen as the only valid position a national political party can take and still win elections. Hindutva as a political ideology was introduced by V. D. Savarkar in the 1920s, and it emerged as a response to British colonization based on politics of resistance. The ideology gained popularity in the post-partition era, especially in the 1980s, when it evolved into a politics of domination by a particularly extreme construct of “Hindu nationalism.”

Hindutva supporters equate Indian identity with Hindu identity, and Muslims are construed as an internal threat as they resist this forced homogenization and continue to assert a separate identity for themselves. Consequently, Hindutva ideology has become the basis for right-wing extremism and the radicalization of Indian society, and the influence of the ideology at the grassroots level grows with the tacit support of the state apparatus.

The ideology also impacted the other political parties of India during the 2014 general elections when the Congress party sought to downplay its secularist roots and embrace pro-Hindu sentiments. The Congress party nominated only 27 Muslim candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, just 5.6 percent of its total candidates.

The Congress party, like the BJP, has also been using religion for political gains and pursuing a “soft Hindutva” that is against their political ideology of secularism. This phenomenon was also observed during the campaigns of Rahul Gandhi, the former president of the Congress party, in 2017 at Gujrat and in 2018 in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. He visited dozens of temples and presented himself as a Shiv bhakt (disciple of the Hindu god Shiva). He also discussed his Brahmin background and his gotra (clan) in response to BJP leaders who repeatedly brought up the Italian heritage of his mother, former Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi.

Since Modi consolidated power in 2014 by activating religious polarisation, minorities, especially Muslims in India, who comprise about 14 percent of the population, have faced increased violence, discrimination, and government persecution. There has been a steady increase in anti-Muslim sentiments, extremism, hate speech, and advocacy of ethnic cleansing in Indian society that has posed a grave threat to secularism and endangered the lives of millions of Muslims and other minorities. Hindu nationalists have carried out attacks ranging from fatal lynchings to the destruction of property and disruption of religious services. Today, the so-called sovereign socialist, secular democratic republic of India is on the verge of transforming from a secular state to a Hindu Rashtra. The situation presents a bleak picture of the future of minorities living in India and is headed in a direction where the very integrity of the state would be at stake one day.

The writer is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore. He can be reached at: casslahore@gmail.com

Courtesy: Daily Times

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance

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