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The Myth of Secular India

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The Pulse

The Myth of Secular India

India claims a secular identity, but has a long history of oppressing religious minorities.

The Myth of Secular India

Indian rioters wave sticks as they stand next to a bonfire on the streets of Ahemdabad, the main city of the western state of Gujarat (February 28, 2002).

Credit: Reuters

Ever since India’s liberation, successive Indian government have made passionate efforts to project their country as a progressive secular state upholding equal rights for all religious minorities. But the fact remains that on balance India is a closed society where the concentration of deep-rooted Hindu fanaticism has ebbed and peaked over time. This Hindu fundamentalism poses a grave threat to India as a nation.

Hindu fundamentalism is not a new phenomenon. It has taken diverse shapes within India’s sociopolitical structure. Such beliefs define the state as a land of Hindus, with all other communities as outsiders having no right to enjoy citizenship. Under this framework, Hindus are the only indigenous people of India and form a solitary national group. By the same token, a person is considered a Hindu only if he or she has faith in India as a holy land. To spread this narrative, attempts have been made to prejudice young minds, Hinduize the native culture/heritage, twist history, abolish the holy places of Muslims and Christians, and rename cities founded by Muslim rulers. Engineering communal riots has been an essential part of this philosophy and operational strategy. Persecution serves several objectives, including preventing missionary activity, seizing land and property from Muslims, and purging Muslims and Christians out of particular areas.

The extremist Hindu narrative had something of a rebirth in 1980, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was launched as a political face of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Since then, the BJP, along with extremist outfits, spearheaded a hyperactive communal campaign against minorities. Anti-Pakistan and anti-minority propaganda were their main tools to strengthen both the BJP’s image and vote bank.

RSS heads the Sangh Parivar – the family of Hindu extremist or, as they call themselves, Hindu nationalist organizations. Sangh Parivar has significant political clout in the power corridors and state affairs of India. Through its loyalists in the parliament and other prominent fundamentalist leaders, the bloc was able to keep successive governments under effective check on many policy matters. The endorsement of Narendra Modi by Sangh Parivar and induction of indoctrinated young members into the BJP speaks for this.

The Sangh Parivar decided to contest the 2014 election on the plank of Hindutva ideology. The term “Hindutva” was coined and propagated by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar around 1923. It is a political ideology of “one nation, one culture, and one country,” which necessarily casts minorities as the “other.”

This mindset has perpetuated an extremist narrative marginalizing India’s minorities, including Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. Since 1946, Indian Muslims have suffered heavy losses of life and property during 45,000 communal riots (including more than 23,000 major ones), which in total massacred many thousands of Muslims. On December 6, 1992, Babri Mosque was demolished by RSS and BJP loyalists. After the Babri Mosque episode, Hindu-Muslims riots flared up in many parts of the country. Bombay was the worst affected area; over 1,500 Muslims were killed and properties were looted, leaving 1,829 injured and 165 missing. The official machinery acted as a silent spectator and sometimes supported the Hindu extremists.

In February 2002, the worst ever anti-Muslim riots took place in Gujarat, where Modi was then the chief minister. The violence was ignited by the alleged torching of the Sabarmati Express by Muslim mobs at Godhra, causing death of 57 Hindus. The forensic report later showed that the fire was set from inside the train compartment, rebuffing the conjecture that Muslim rioters poured gasoline on the train from outside. The resulting trail of well-organized carnage led to the killing of over 2,000 hapless Muslims over the next month. Hiren Pandey, a minister in Modi’s Gujarat cabinet, confessed later that the riots were pre-planned and the police were ordered not to interfere.

Christians, which constitute about 2.4 percent of the Indian population, have also seen their sufferings compounded ever since the BJP first grabbed power in March 1998. During the period from 1998-99 Hindu zealots carried out over 100 violent attacks against the Christian community. That figure shot up further to at least 200 incidents annually from 2001-05. The number of attacks on Christians rose to 1,000 for the first time in 2007. Christian nuns were sexually assailed, missionaries killed, churches were burnt or bombed, and holy books dishonored in places across India. Christian leaders and organizations have blamed extremist Hindu extremists, particularly the RSS along with its close allies, the VHP, the Bajrang Dal (BD) and the Hindu Jagaran Sammukhya (HJS). The RSS, for its part, terms Christians as “Euro-Indians” and Christianity is perceived as more politics than religion.

The religious identity of more than 20 million Indian Sikhs is also under siege. The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, also known as the 1984 Sikh Massacre, was a series of pogroms targeting Sikhs by anti-Sikh mobs, most notably by members of the Congress party, in response to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Official Indian government reports admit to about 2,800 deaths across India, including 2,100 in Delhi. Other independent sources estimate the number of deaths to be around 8,000 including at least 3,000 in Delhi.

The Sangh Parivar has been trying to prove that Sikhs are a sect of Hinduism and not a distinct religion. On April 29, 2000, KS Sudarshan unilaterally launched a sister organization of RSS named Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, declaring that Hindus and Sikhs believed in the same faith and that Sikhs were created to protect Hindus. Reacting fervently to the move, different Sikh religious, political, and social organizations of denounced the new RSS as a challenge to Sikh identity.

In Indian politics today, minority issues are gradually captivating the country, whether in the form of demands for enlarged political representation or calls to safeguard India’s many religions and cultures. India nevertheless appears content to continue with the status quo, because this division favors the interests of the country’s elites. Subsequently, the elites and their interests make the state a party to the marginalization of minorities. At present, the ruling BJP seems to follow a soft Hindutva philosophy but there is a very thin line that can be easily crossed toward hard or extremist Hindutva.

It would be in the interests of both India and the BJP to bring the minorities into the fold by allowing them to maintain their distinct identities rather than following soft or hard Hindutva. The challenge for India will be to establish a process that addresses the concerns of minority groups. Doing so will lead to much needed stability at home and an improved image abroad. In a nutshell, the era of increasing interdependence demands weeding out parochial thinking and embracing an attitude of acceptance with regards to the many differences that together compose a country.

Saddam Hussein is pursuing an M Phil. in Public Policy from School of Public Policy, Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad while working as a research intern at Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.