Multipolar World

The end of secularism in India?

Jorge Costa Oliveira

Since the era of Ashoka (250 BC), with pauses during the Mughal era, there has been religious freedom and a separation between the state and religious organizations in India’s vast multiethnic and multicultural tapestry. The Constitution of India enshrines secularism (explicitly since 1976). One might debate whether the implementation of secularism in India is identical to that in the West, but it clearly entails treating religion as an entirely private matter, separate from the state and its political organization.

However, the rise of Hindu nationalist movements, especially the ascension of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in the Republic of India and in many states of the federation, has increasingly driven a wedge between Indian communities based on religion. Hindu “religious nationalism” originates from the concept of “Hindutva” by VD Savarkar – leading to the creation (in 1925) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – which envisioned India/Bharat as a homeland (“matri bhoomi”) and a “holy land” (“punyabhoomi”) exclusively for Hindus, where Christians, Muslims, and followers of other religions (altogether 20% of India’s population) would not belong.

In the 1930s, one of the early leaders of the RSS, MS Golwalkar, modeled the movement on Mussolini’s paramilitary organization and embraced the views of European fascists about minorities, stating that the “final solution” in Nazi Germany was a model for how India should treat its minority groups.

The BJP, a product of the RSS, first came to federal power (in coalition) in 1998. But it was only when it secured an absolute majority (in 2014) under the leadership of Modi – a lifelong RSS member who became a “pracharak” (organizer) of the group and was elected chief minister of Gujarat state in 2001 – that it began to enact RSS ideology, adopting religious-based apartheid with legislation that relegates Muslims (200 million in India) to second-class status and enacting laws that could strip many Muslims of their citizenship.

States controlled by the BJP have been passing laws that make it difficult for Hindus and Muslims to marry, convert to Islam, or purchase property in Hindu-dominated areas, aiming to make full citizenship dependent on being Hindu. Many of these laws also affect Christians. Similarly, as during Modi’s tenure as state governor when the Gujarat police turned a blind eye to pogroms where hundreds of Muslims were killed, the federal authorities have also allowed waves of persecution based on a mix of ultra-nationalism and religious sectarianism, particularly anti-Islamic, as well as the spread of extremist Hindu militias, accused of acting similarly to the Nazi SA.

If, in the ongoing national elections, the BJP (and its allies) strengthen their majority in the lower house (“Lok Sabha”) and achieve it in the upper house (“Rajya Sabha”) of the Indian Parliament, it is quite possible that they might amend the Constitution and secularism may no longer have force of law in India, paving the way for the marginalization of hundreds of millions of Indian citizens.

Categories Multipolar World Opinion