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.

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A ‘New’ India? From a Secular to a Hindu Nation.

Orissa September 2009

These women and their families are among several who share a single tent in a displacement camp housing 45 Catholic families. These families had been accommodated in five separate places since being displaced by the communal violence in August 2008. Kandhamal District, Orissa. Marcus Perkins/CSW 2009.

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).

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