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Amit Singh

February 2nd, 2024

Hindutva is at war with secular democracy in India

0 comments | 19 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Amit Singh

February 2nd, 2024

Hindutva is at war with secular democracy in India

0 comments | 19 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently consecrated a Hindu shrine in Ayodhya at a site with a contested religious history. Amit Singh takes a look at the secular foundations of India and how this clashes with Modi’s Hindutva.

Religion can be easily manipulated by political leaders and religious extremist organisations to demonise and alienate religious minorities in order to gain political power. In a society where religious animosity between the majority and minorities is deeply rooted, religion can certainly play a crucial role, be it for good or for bad. India is a perfect case in point! India gained independence from British rule on August 15, 1947 and chose to be a secular democracy. However, the Hindu nationalists, followers of Hindutva ideology who believe in the supremacy of the Hindu religion, were troubled by the secular idea of religious equality, which gave equal constitutional rights, including to Muslim religious minorities. The small but influential Hindu nationalists rejected the idea of secularism, religious equality, and cultural diversity — an essential element of secular democracy.

Hindu nationalism (also known as Hindutva) is ideologically a combination of religion and nationalism; it is a form of cultural nationalism that emphasises the supremacy of Hinduism and the Hindu majority. Hindu nationalism has continuously reproduced exclusionary practices toward other religious communities since its beginnings in 1925. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a Hindu militant organisation, fiercely divided Hindus along religious lines and reaffirmed its belief in Akhand Bharta (United India) with Hindus as rulers. Hindu nationalists have used religion more successfully than others for their goals. The function of Hindu religion in nationalism and its negative impact on secular democracy and human rights are also well known, especially the use of religion by Hindu nationalists in large scale anti-Muslim riots.

Why do Hindu nationalists view Indian secularism as a hostile discourse against a Hindu majority? Secularism in an Indian context allows for the equality and respect of all religions, whereas Hindu nationalism being an ‘ethno-centric’ discourse rejects secularism, enforces supremacy of Hindu religion, rejects cultural diversity, remains intolerant to dissenting views and justifies violence against dissenters. Secularism promotes freedom of belief and qualified freedom to express one’s beliefs while respecting the rights of others. Secularism also supports democracy, the rule of law, and individual freedom and liberty. The ideology of Hindutva, however, propagates the supremacy of Hindus over religious minorities, denies the latter any special rights and enforces the idea of one nation, one religion, one language, and one culture. In the Indian context, secularism instead promotes religious pluralism, religious tolerance, and cultural harmony between different faiths. Secularism strives for a society based on reason and rationality, while Hindutva promotes pseudo-science, myths and miracles as facts. It seeks to create an obedient society for the Hindu nation without the possibility of questioning unjust social dogmas.

Hindutva supporters have consistently attacked secularism as a state policy and weakened it through their communal practices of religious polarisation. According to Juli Gittinger, Hindu nationalists’ target is not the Muslim community, but rather ‘secular nationalism’. The ideology of secular nationalism poses a significant challenge to the project of homogeneity pursued by Hindutva organisations such as the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha.

The conflict between Hindu nationalism and secular democracy has become more apparent during the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist who was previously denied entry to the US due to his complicity in Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat when he was the Chief minister. Religion plays a significant role in the politics of Hindutva. Hindutva proponents have used Hindu religion to polarise the Hindu majority against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, resulting in their public demonisation, societal marginalisation, and being victims of mob violence.

 

Procession of Hindutva followers on the Hindu festival of Ram Navami in Varanasi 2022. Photo by Amit Singh.

 

In the process of religious-political polarisation, the sentiments of Hindu masses have been turned against Indian secularism because they perceive it as a ‘policy of appeasement of minorities’ that protects the special constitutional rights of religious minorities. In the Indian context, secularism would create a democratic environment where

religious minorities can freely practice their faith both in private and in public. Whereas, Hindutva aims to establish Hindu domination over religious minorities, and the Hindu way of life in India’s social and political arrangements, denying the right to religious freedom to minorities. Hindu nationalists hold that a homogeneous identity is a necessary foundation of nationhood, and only a shared cultural outlook can produce such cohesion. Indian secularism advocates for religious tolerance and cultural diversity.

Secularism provides a secure environment for religious minorities to live a dignified life equal to that of the Hindu religion. Hindutva ideologues do not accept this as they believe in the hegemony of Hindus over other religious minorities, treating Muslims and Christians as second-class citizens. However, in principle, secularism protects the constitutional rights and welfare of marginalised groups from a hegemonic Hindu majority. Therefore, Hindutva extremists, mainstream media, and party leaders in power have labelled the idea of secularism and those who defend it, such as the National Congress Party, secular academics, and activists, as anti-national and anti-Hindu. The Hindutva government of Modi has removed chapters on secularism, democracy, and citizenship from school textbooks, leaving no space for alternative interpretations of history.

Hindutva proponents affirm Hindu supremacy in India which would not be possible in a secular democracy, because religious pluralism and respect for religious diversity are the hallmarks of Indian secularism. In principle, secularism does not allow for the domination of any particular religion but treats all religions equally. Secularism is currently the greatest obstacle to the Hindutva government of Narendra Modi transforming India into a Hindu nation. Religion and religious self-identification have played significant roles in the development of Hindu nationalism. Under the Modi regime, Hindutva is routinely ‘reproduced’, ‘reinvented’ and being ‘imagined’ in violence against minorities, such as in the renaming of places with Hindu names, securing the Babri mosque site for a Hindu temple, and currently in the establishment of Ram temple in Ayodhya. The use of Hindu religion by Modi has consequently increased Hindutva hostility towards religious minorities. As part of his efforts to recover the lost glory of India, Narendra Modi has participated in religious ceremonies at Ayodhya and the Kashi Vishwanath temple. All of which indicates that India is gradually moving towards becoming a Hindu nation and thus abdicating its secular identity.

 

Procession of Hindutva followers on the Hindu festival of Ram Navami in Varanasi 2022. Photo by Amit Singh.

 

The weakening of secular democracy can strengthen religious fundamentalists and their influence on society, leading to a decline in the protection of human rights for religious minorities, and in general. The rising influence of Hindutva since the 1990s has had a demonstrably negative impact on civil liberties, limited the space for civil society, and currently poses a clear danger to Indian secular democracy. Hindu nationalists are currently attempting to remove secular democracy from both the political arena and society.  However, a resistance against Hindutva has emerged, and secularism seems to bring together political groups and individuals in opposition to the dominance of Hindutva, who aim to establish India as a Hindu nation.

Photo by Prime Minister’s Office (GODL India).

About the author

Amit Singh

Amit Singh holds a PhD in Human rights from the Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal. Currently, he is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Coimbra. His research interests include Hindu nationalism, secularism, human rights, religious minorities, religious populism, and right-wing extremism in India. Amit is the author of 'The Conflict of Freedom of Expression and Religion- A Case Study from India (People's Literature Publication, 2018). His latest article is 'Human rights and secularism in conflict with Hindutva: the Water controversy' (Anthropologia Portuguesa 2023).

Posted In: Empire Religion and Legacy | Populism and Religion

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