The Erosion of ‘Secular India’
Modi is implementing his Hindutva project
Right after its independence in 1947, India did two crucial things: it gave all citizens the right to vote, and it adopted a secular constitution that enshrined equality before law. Over the decades, some of that high-mindedness has eroded. Corruption and “goondah-raj” (thug rule) politics have become some defining features of Indian democracy. The enduring reality of caste and class privileges has undermined the ideal of equality. Under the populist rule of Narendra Modi, India has also drifted away from secularism. That shift has accelerated since his re-election in May 2019 to a second five-year term, with the 20% of Indians who belong to minority faiths, as well as secular-minded liberals, increasingly concerned that Hindutva-follower Modi is hell bent on making India an explicitly Hindu state. This is why a seemingly small change to citizenship rules introduced in December last year, which grants adherents of some religions fast-track naturalisation, but specifically bars Muslims, has provoked nationwide protests.
The controversy has roots in the era of the British Raj. Whereas the mainstream of India’s independence movement envisioned a secular, inclusive republic, Hindu nationalists saw religion as the strongest base for a new national identity. They resented the creation of Pakistan, the new state demanded by Muslims which Hindus called separatists, yet in effect they wanted India to be a Hindu version of such a religion-based nation. It was the secular vision which prevailed and which remained pretty much unchallenged until the 1980s. But in the 1990s a mixture of fatigue with the long rule of the Congress party, plus a wave of local sectarian disputes, began to consolidate more Hindus behind the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
PM Modi, who before entering politics had served for more than a decade as a monk-like acolyte of India’s biggest Hindu-nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has repeatedly made political profit by posing as the champion protector of “endangered” Hindus. As chief minister of Gujarat state, he made little effort to stop communal rioting in 2002 that left more than 2,000 dead, mostly Muslims. Soon afterwards, he was re-elected by a bigger margin. After leading the BJP to national power in 2014, Mr Modi oversaw a quiet purge of secularists from top positions, but otherwise generally shied from divisive rhetoric. That has changed in his second term. His government, three-quarters of whose ministers once served in the same Hindu-nationalist group as Mr Modi, is now pursuing a more explicitly ideological agenda. Repeatedly, his government has pushed policies that make India’s 200m Muslims feel weak. These include stripping India’s only Muslim-majority region, Jammu and Kashmir, of special status granted under articles 370 and 35-A of the Constitution of India, and cheering a court ruling that granted Hindus ownership of the site of Babri Masjid, claimed by Hindu zealots to be the birthplace of the Lord Ram—a fanatical mob had torn down the 16th-century mosque in 1992. BJP officials have also grown blunter, issuing periodic dog-whistles of sectarian incitement.
In isolation, none of these changes might have caused great fuss; after all, the BJP holds a crushing 56% of parliamentary seats. But Muslims’ cumulative resentment, compounded by wider fears of creeping autocracy, has stirred stronger resistance. As a result, India is growing dangerously polarised. Modi’s partisans increasingly see their opponents as saboteurs of a grand civilisational project. His growing number of enemies sees the Hindu nationalists as wreckers of the constitution, who may be sowing the seeds of long-term strife.