Rising religious intolerance is increasingly visible; be it from ghar wapis (Hindu home coming ceremonies) of religious minorities to the open incitement of hate against Muslims and Christians by senior government officials; from mob lynchings over beef consumption to attacks on places of worship; and from the distortion of historical facts in text books to the murder of renowned rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M. M. Kalburgi, who questioned certain Hindu practices in their writings.
The debate about the religious intolerance sweeping India is mainstream and has drawn international news coverage as India’s distinguished scientists, rationalists, actors, academics, and historians have voiced their concerns. Some have even returned their national awards in protest, including scientists, who unlike artists are not routinely engaged in public cultural critique and protest.
A Historically Secular State
One year after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, declaring in its preamble the universality of the innate nature of human dignity, the Constitution of India was written in 1949.
The founding fathers envisioned an India where freedom of conscience would be respected by all citizens and that every Indian would live freely and without fear according to their conscience, exercising the choice to adhere to a religion or not.
The Constitution in its 42nd amendment established India as a secular state. In India, religion was intended to be kept separate from the body politic, although today the reality on the ground is starkly different as communal and religious politics are being used to polarise society.
The influence of Hindutva nationalist ideology
At the centre of this polarisation is the Hindutva ideology, which was coined by V.D Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist leader who propagated an exclusionary political ideology and promoted religious nationalism of “majoritarianism”. The aim: to make India a Hindu ‘rasthra’ (nation).
India’s secular space is shrinking.
The principle argument by the proponents of the Hindutva ideology is that India was always a Hindu nation and that the imposition of foreign religions on the inhabitants, namely Christianity through Western missionaries and Islam through trade, had robbed the Indians of their true identity.
Alienation of ‘the other’
India, the world’s largest democracy, has a population of over 1.25 billion, an estimated 162 million of which are Muslims and Christians. That’s the equivalent of over half of the total population of the USA who, if the Hindutva agenda is not prevented, are increasingly vulnerable to persecution, along with those who try to exercise their right to free speech. Worryingly, the Hindutva ideology is gaining ground in India and among the Indian diaspora in the USA and UK.
The political and religious arms of the RSS
Formed between 1925/6 by K.B Hedgewar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is devoted to mainstreaming the Hindutva agenda. It is the largest voluntary non-governmental organisation, with an estimated population of 5.6 million members.
The political arm of the RSS – The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – won India’s general election in 2014 and Narenda Modi became Prime Minister. Since then, the RSS has become emboldened in pursuing the Hindutva ideology, with the aim of making India 100% Hindu.
Fears of a ‘new’ India
India’s Minister of Home Affairs, Rajnath Singh recently argued that the term ‘secularism’ should be removed from the preamble of the Constitution as it was the most misused word in politics, which has resulted in tensions in society. If this argument prevails, it may lead to the end of secularism in India, giving way to a Hindu “rashtra” taking shape in a “new” India, which would be at odds with the intention of the drafters of the Indian Constitution that was intended to keep religion and state separate.
By CSW’s India Desk Officer