India: Striving for Hindu rashtra at the expense of democracy

Recognise that restrictions on public freedoms, extreme inequalities and the mainstreaming of hate around the world are “shearing off the protections that maintain respect”, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein pleaded with Member States at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC).

This sentiment is usually associated with states experiencing severe human rights violations, but the remark is equally relevant to states where human rights violations take place but appear less visible and fail to make news headlines.

The world’s largest democracy

The words ‘largest democracy’ are synonymous with India as a nation state with an electorate of 1.25 billion people and growing. The choice of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to lead the country may have come as a result of Modi’s election promises of a market orthodoxy for economic revival and open trade.

As such, any proposition that religious freedom in India is deteriorating is deflected by the ‘democracy’ rhetoric despite research showing that understanding freedom of religion or belief is good for business; it comes as no surprise that this defence is readily used by those who have trade and business interests in India, thus casting a cloak of invisibility about the violence against minorities based on religious grounds.

The Hindu Rashtra Agenda                                

The election outcome also presents a troubling vision of India. Now, with the BJP at the helm of power, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological arm of the BJP are determined to take their exclusivist, nationalist agenda to the masses both within and outside India through the Sangh Parivar (family of organisations under the RSS).

The RSS’s aim is to create a global movement in support of its drive to make India a Hindu rashtra by any means possible – even if it means violating the fundamental rights afforded to India’s minority population, which are entrenched firmly within the Constitution of India.

Consequences of the RSS Campaign

Calls to take advantage of the favourable political conditions to establish a Hindu rasthra were made soon after the BJP came into power by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat.

Numerous initiatives have been set in place to fulfil this aim, such as the appointment of RSS office bearers or affiliated organisations into key posts in India’s top historical institution, the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and appointments in the Censorship Board, the Central Board of Film Certificate (CBFC).

In education, there has been a move to rewrite India’s history and attempts at propagating ideas about science, including suggesting the Hindu god Ganesh was the creation of ancient plastic surgery. Efforts have also been made to introduce prayer rituals in schools, in which students who belong to the religious minorities are compelled to participate. Within the broader literary community, writers who question certain religious practices have received harsh retribution by far right groups.

Non-state actors who are affiliated with the RSS have become increasingly embolden to disrupt places of worship belonging to the minority communities and to police their religious observations. In the midst of all this, the campaign of hate and attacks against Muslims and Christians continue to increase.

“Non-state actors who are affiliated with the RSS have become increasingly embolden to disrupt places of worship belonging to the minority communities and to police their religious observations.”

The RSS narrative is not explicitly against the beliefs of Christians or Muslims; rather that their very freedom to manifest their religion is a threat to the Hindu identity and therefore the ideal of a homogenous Hindu nation.  The ideological persuasion presented to the Hindu majority is that they are really the victims in this situation and that the freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion enjoyed by Christians and Muslims of India are a threat to the collective survival of the majority.

The nebulous side of ‘democracy’

While democracy is good, it also carries with it the possibility that the majority might tyrannize the minority.

The question then is if the people who are ruled under a democratic State are defined by a religious identity based on communal fundamentalism, what happens to those who belong to different religious identity? The outcome could be devastating if a space is being meticulously created for the majority to subscribe to a totalitarian religious ideology based on communalism.

The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reportedly observed that incidents against Christians jumped 55% since the BJP came into power. Human rights and civil society groups reported that between May 2014 and March 2015 at least 43 deaths and over 600 cases of violence, 149 targeting Christians and the remainder targeting Muslims. More worryingly, Mr Modi has been silent on the rise of religious intolerance acted on with impunity by fundamentalists groups.

The true measure of a democracy goes beyond majority rule to the treatment of its minorities; in this case, religious minorities. It is time we addressed human rights violations for what they are, no matter where in the world they arise. This will mean an end to the culture of impunity in India, conveniently hiding behind the veil of democracy.

By CSW’s India Advocacy Officer