India approaches the Lok Shaba (parliamentary) election this year, the
right-wing Hindu organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS) and its
affiliates (collectively known as the Sangh
Parivar) are likely to take stock of their progress in realising their dreams
of making India a Hindu Rashtra (Nation).
Constructed on M.S Golwakar’s ideology that since time immemorial, ‘mother India’ was formed of ‘one culture, one religion,’ the RSS pursues a narrative that the Hindu has fallen ‘victim’ to foreign religions, namely Islam and Christianity, and that the protection of the ‘faithful’ is imperative.
It has been two months since Persia Jacob was repeatedly kicked in the face when she resisted a mob of Hindu extremists who tried to snatch her Bible away from her. She wakes up with a heavy head every morning, having to take medication to relieve her of the trauma, even if temporarily, so that she can get on with her day.
The 38 year-old Christian remained persistent that she would die and couldn’t be without the Bible as they pushed and slapped her, stripping off her saree as they tried to grab it [the copy of Bible] from her. The Bible was then set ablaze along with several other copies of Christian literature.
As well as attempting to force her to convert to Hinduism, the mob of men raided four other prayer halls in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu state, as Christians gathered for Sunday worship.
Kandhamal district is among the poorest and most marginalised in Odhisa (formerly Orissa) state, India. On 25 August 2008, it was the epi-centre of communal attacks against the Christian community in India. Local monitoring groups have estimated that over 90 people were killed with at least 54,000 displaced and over 300 churches destroyed by groups belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that espouses the Hindutva ideology.
Ten years on, attacks on religious minorities and on freedom of expression by groups belonging to the RSS continue. The lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence has further empowered these groups. As with recent attacks against religious minorities in India, the carnage that unfolded in Kandhamal was not a one-off isolated incident devoid of a historical narrative.
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.
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).