What Hindu Nationalism Means for India's Future

8 MINS READJun 6, 2016 | 12:32 GMT
The Rise of Hindu Nationalism Strains India’s Fault Lines
Right-wing Hindu activists burn an effigy during a 2012 protest in India. Hindu nationalist sentiment in the country is increasingly influencing its politics.
Forecast Highlights

  • The polarization in Indian politics between the secular left and the Hindu nationalist right will increase as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will exploit Hindu sentiment to galvanize support ahead of upcoming state elections.
  • To cater to the Hindu nationalist wing of his voter base, Modi will continue to offer muted responses to social controversies, especially those related to the Hindu faith, such as the consumption of beef.
  • Ultimately, the intensifying clash between Hindu nationalism and Indian secularism will undermine Modi's already languishing reform agenda and higher economic growth this year.

One of the world's most ancient religions is a force in modern Indian politics. Hinduism, the avowed faith of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, forms the philosophical bedrock of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is also the religion of 80 percent of India's nearly 1.3 billion people, making it the third-largest faith tradition globally, after Christianity and Islam. Of course, despite its overwhelming demographic presence, Hinduism never became India's official religion. Instead, India, as outlined in its constitution, has remained an officially secular nation, home to a dizzying array of philosophies and interpretations, movements and sects, and significant communities of religious-minority Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. The architects of the secular and pluralistic concept of Indian nationhood that sought to embrace this diversity were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. The Indian National Congress (INC) party that they led has generally followed, if not perfectly, the founders' philosophy to this day.

However, in recent months a surging wave of Hindu nationalism has challenged this bedrock philosophy, touching off a raging national debate about the fundamental nature of India's political identity. This so-called intolerance debate, which has pitted traditional pluralism against a more strident, conservative, religious-based conception of Indian nationhood, has counted among its controversies the February arrest of doctoral student Kanhaiya Kumar, a political activist, on charges of sedition. The arrest sparked nationwide protests, with activists accusing the BJP of undermining democracy and free speech by imposing a divisive and heavy-handed brand of right-wing Hindu nationalism.

According to its more hard-line proponents, Hinduism should supplant secularism as the guiding principle of Indian society. Taken to its extreme, this would entail the political and cultural subordination of the country's Christian and Muslim populations. While this is unlikely to happen in the near term, even a partial implementation of this vision is cause for concern in a country whose history is punctuated by gruesome episodes of religious violence — often between its Hindu majority and Muslim minority. The intensifying clash between the philosophies and the resulting political ramifications will undermine Modi's already languishing reform agenda, deepen the country's political polarization, and temper economic growth this year.

The Origins of the Current Dispute

One of the most coherent responses to British colonialism in India in the early 20th century came from the Hindu right. Some Hindus believed that the decentralized nature of their religion had enabled outside powers, including the Mughal and British empires, to rule India for a combined 421 years until independence in 1947. In 1925, an Indian doctor named K.B. Hedgewar formed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to promote a more centralized and assertive interpretation of Hinduism. The RSS believed that the 1947 partition of India that created Pakistan exemplified the inadequacies of Nehru's secular policies, leading India to sacrifice a part of its territory to appease Muslims. The RSS feared that Indian secularists would further partition the nation to give other minorities self-determination, leading to the disintegration of the holy land.

Hedgewar envisioned India as a distinctly Hindu nation in which the populace was united around a common and defensible interpretation of Hinduism. One RSS member, Nathuram Godse, was so incensed by the appeasement of Indian Muslims and the thought of a religiously pluralistic society that he assassinated Gandhi, its leading proponent, on Jan. 30, 1948. Afterward, the ruling INC banned the RSS, a prohibition that lasted only until 1949. Today, the RSS operates thousands of national chapters called shakas and claims 2 million to 5 million members. RSS members complete a 30-day curriculum of activities meant to enhance character, physical discipline, martial skills and religious devotion. The RSS is part of the Sangh Parivar, a conglomerate of Hindu nationalist organizations spanning religion, politics and defense of the faith.

Hindu Nationalism and Modi's Challenges

Modi embodies the past, present and future of the Hindu nationalist movement. When he was 8 years old, Modi joined the RSS youth wing and became a full-time volunteer at 17. The role that Hindu nationalists play in Modi's constituency explains in part the difficulty he has had in advancing his economic reform policies. Broadly, the membership of the BJP can be divided into two wings: those with pragmatic concerns and the ones focused on religion. To maintain the support he needed to reach office, he must balance the interests of the two. Business owners and middle-class party members are generally most interested in economic reform. Ideological and religious-minded Hindu voters, while also concerned with economics, skew toward social and cultural issues.

Modi must balance the interests of both groups. If he abandons his message of economic reform, he risks alienating pragmatic voters. Yet if he remains silent on those issues important to the Hindu vote — the slaughter of cattle, the status of Kashmir, the demolition of the Babri mosque — he risks the same outcome. Modi is slow to criticize his party members' more zealous and outlandish comments, such as when Sakshi Maharaj, a BJP lawmaker, characterized Gandhi's assassin as a patriot or when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called for the sacred Hindu text Bhagavad-Gita to be enshrined as India's national scripture.

In some instances, Modi himself has exploited religious fault lines for electoral gain. For instance, in early 2015 he warned that an INC win in state elections that year would possibly lead to an increase in the slaughter of cattle, which are sacred to Hindus. These comments, which followed an old electoral tactic in Indian politics, were meant to galvanize the Hindu vote by stigmatizing Muslims, who eat beef. The issue continued to simmer, and in October, a mob of Hindu villagers beat 50-year-old Muslim laborer Muhammad Ikhlaq to death with bricks after accusing him of slaughtering a cow and storing beef in his refrigerator (cattle slaughter is illegal in Uttar Pradesh, the state where Ikhlaq lived). Ikhlaq's death was followed by two more lynchings in connection with the issue of cattle slaughter. Around the same time, Manohar Lal Khattar, chief minister of the state of Haryana, said India's Muslims should stop eating beef altogether out of respect for Hindus.

Implications for India's Future

Modi's strategic exploitation of Hindu nationalism will likely continue. Currently, the BJP holds a majority in the lower house of parliament. But if Modi is to pass the land, labor and tax reform needed to stimulate economic growth and provide jobs for the 1 million people entering the market every month, he needs to increase his party's representation in parliament's upper house, where the opposition holds a large-enough voting bloc to block legislation. To gain the majority, the BJP must win state assembly elections.

There are five such elections scheduled this year. However, the lack of progress on major economic reform means that the BJP will feel compelled to campaign on issues important to Hindu nationalists instead. The BJP has already raised the issue of Muslim migration into Assam state, which holds elections next month. Of course, Modi recognizes that by taking this approach, he will deepen political polarization and empower the INC, which will exploit the inevitable backlash arising from these campaign tactics, using it as political cover to block legislation without appearing to be obstructionist. But this is a price he is willing to pay to win elections.

The euphoria surrounding Modi's 2014 election to prime minister has waned, and the challenges of governing a nation as fragmented and diverse as India have endured. In the end, Modi will choose politics before economics and aim to preserve his voter base by appeasing both his party's pragmatic and ideological wings. He will be unable to advance his key pieces of economic reform this year, suggesting that the Indian economy, which grew at a 7.5 percent annual rate in 2015, will not reach the 8 percent growth desired by some officials this year. Moreover, Hindu nationalist sentiment will not dwindle, but rather flare up during the state assembly election campaigns. Modi will seek to temper these sentiments by offering occasional words of support, such as his remarks on the peaceful nature of Islam at the recent World Sufi Forum.

The pluralistic and tolerant side of Modi's faith is perhaps best expressed through an ancient Hindu verse that reads "truth is one, but the sages call it by many names." But if Hindu nationalism continues to grow under the BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh might be the name that matters most in India.

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