A Clear and Present Danger to India’s Secularism
Image Credit: flickr/Al Jazeera English

A Clear and Present Danger to India’s Secularism


Now that Hindu nationalist politician Narendra Modi has assumed power as the 15th prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, there are pertinent questions about his human rights record and the future of religious pluralism and secularism in India.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) counts Modi among the most divisive figures in Indian politics. Modi has always denied involvement in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots, in which more than 1,000 people, mainly Muslims, were killed. However, many accuse Modi, who was the chief minister of the northwestern state at the time of the riots, of ordering the police not to intervene in the violence.

For most Indian voters who made Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory possible, the Gujarat massacre was a non-issue. For them, the economy was more important than the future of secularism in India.

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India’s economy – despite showing positive signs during former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first term – has been faltering for quite some time now. 63-year old Narendra Modi, who is admired by his supporters for spearheading the economic success of Gujarat, promised development and jobs during the campaign. The voters who brought him to power don’t care whether a nationalist or a progressive leader gets them jobs. They viewed Modi as the candidate most likely to produce jobs, and therefore cast their ballots for him.

But what are the costs of Modi’s development agenda? Does it initiate a process of breaking down India’s centuries-old secularism?

An ‘exclusive’ development model

Most middle-class Indians want unbridled capitalistic growth, and are unconcerned about the nature of the development model. That being said, many economists believe that Modi’s model excludes the poor. Already, about a third of India’s population lives on less than $1.25 a day, thus falling below the international poverty line.

Prior to Modi’s oath-taking ceremony on May 26, around 75 academics from universities across Britain expressed their collective concern over Modi’s economic agenda and human rights record in a letter published in The Independent newspaper.

“We are deeply concerned at the implications of a Narendra Modi-led BJP government for democracy, pluralism and human rights in India,” the group wrote.

Commenting on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s development agenda, the letter said that “the Modi-BJP model of economic growth involves close linking of government with big business, generous transfer of public resources to the wealthy and powerful, and measures harmful to the poor.”

Amartya Sen, the Indian Nobel Prize winner in economics, has expressed similar concerns. “As an Indian citizen, I don’t want Modi as my PM…. He has not done enough to make minorities feel safe…. There is a problem in understanding the issues of education, especially school education and healthcare. But I don’t see this understanding in Mr. Modi’s program.”

It is unlikely that Modi will promote an all-inclusive economic agenda during his time in power, and that, more than anything else, will contribute to the weakening of pluralism. The communities and groups who will be left behind economically might develop a grudge against the majority and the state, and this doesn’t augur well for India’s future. Several Indian states are already demanding greater control over their resources and wealth. Apart from Kashmir, in other states – including Bihar, Jharkand and Andhra Pradesh – armed struggles are not sectarian in nature but rather are primarily about control over resources. But economic conflicts could instigate religious disputes in the years ahead. And, as the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index points out, in India “the politicization of ethnicity for the purposes of popular mobilization often takes place through the emphasis of groups’ religious characteristics.”

Modi: ‘I don’t know the meaning of secularism’

It is important to note that, 12 years after the Gujarat riots, around 25,000 of the 200,000 people who were displaced during the riots are still languishing in relief camps in the state. And this despite the state’s unprecedented economic success in the interim years.

In 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report that “in the past decade increasing evidence had emerged of the complicity of Gujarat state authorities in the anti-Muslim violence.” The human rights organization went on to note that instances of harassment, threats, and intimidation against activists and lawyers involved in the 2002 riot cases are being reported.

Modi’s Gujarat government, of course, rejected HRW’s claims. Its anti-secular politics, however, continued unabated after the 2002 riots.

In fact, Modi has barely tried to hide his disdain for secularism. In a January 2008 speech, for instance, Modi declared: “I do not know the meaning of the secularism… There was a time when people were talking about the secularism they were talking about religious harmony. … Then it meant lip sympathy to the minorities… Then, secularism meant appeasement of the minorities… Then it focused only on the Muslim vote … Then the secularism changed the color: Then ‘hate Hindu’ meant secularism.”

Modi has never been apologetic about his Hindu nationalist politics. In a 2006 essay, he wrote, “Looking at the terrorism that had been encouraged to spread in the last few years, Hindus would have to be aware of their need for self-defense. Else the coming days would be dangerous for them.”

Shakuntala Banaji, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, believes that India will see a sharp rise in similar human rights violations against Muslims under the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government in New Delhi, and that a crackdown on religious minorities, government critics and whistleblowers is imminent.

“Modi’s election campaign and the vociferous anti-humanism of his supporters on and offline have already been undermining secular pluralism in India for several years. I have heard people say things like how they don’t care about mass murder as long as their family enjoys certain privileges, and how they like to see a strong man at the helm who can ‘put the Muslims in their place,’” Banaji told The Diplomat.

Complexity of national politics and international relations

The Western approach of secularism calls for the separation of religious institutions and clergy from the state. In India, however, secularism is based on religious pluralism, promoting not a strict separation of church and state but the state’s active promotion of religious equality. At the same time, the Indian state plays an active role in religious matters either by hindering the emergence of religious organizations that promote discrimination based on religion, or by equally assisting religious groups on a non-partial basis.

This model of Indian secularism is therefore threatened by Modi’s rise to power. His ruthless economic policies, his dismal human rights record during his time in Gujarat, and his explicit aversion to secularism all jeopardize India’s secular achievements. Although communal conflicts have always existed in the South Asian country, democracy hampered their expansion into a countrywide problem.

But we can hope that Modi as prime minister of the country will be different from Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The dynamics of ruling the whole of India and of governing a small state are completely different. India is a sub-continent where many religious and ethnic minorities have lived for centuries. Modi knows that to implement his development model, he needs stability and peace. He cannot afford an escalation of violence either inside India or in the country’s neighborhood. His meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – who shares a similar economic-centric viewpoint – soon after his swearing-in ceremony in New Delhi is a sign that the Hindu nationalist leader is coming to terms with the complexity of national politics and international relations. On the other hand, secular opposition in India has weakened but is not totally defeated. It exists on multiple levels of the Indian society. These factors will make it difficult for the Modi-led BJP to irreparably damage India’s secularism.

Shamil Shams works for Deutsche Welle’s Urdu and Asia English services in Bonn, Germany. He contributed on the Secrets of Transformation multimedia series, a joint project of Deutsche Welle and the Bertelsmann Stiftung. The series examines the winners and losers of transformation.

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