By Eric Vandenbroeck
Update 27 Febr. 2020: During the past several days, more than thirty people have been killed in mob violence primarily targeting Muslims in the Indian capital of New Delhi. Whereby it appeared that the authorities were playing a role in protecting and enabling only pro-government mobs to stay on the streets.
“Jai Shri Ram!” Those were the words 25-year-old Kapil Gujjar shouted as he pointed his semi-automatic pistol at hundreds of unarmed women and children at Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly Muslim colony in New Delhi, on Saturday, Feb. 1. It was a cool, smog-infused afternoon, and Indians from all walks of life had gathered in a peaceful protest against a controversial new citizenship law that especially affects the country’s poor, women, and, perhaps most of all, Muslims. Gujjar fired three bullets in the air. The crowd scattered. Later, while being handcuffed by the police, Gujjar explained his motive: “In our country, only Hindus will prevail.”
Jai Shri Ram literally translates as “Victory to Lord Ram,” a popular Hindu deity. But while this seemingly harmless phrase originated as a pious declaration of devotion in India, it is today increasingly deployed not only as a Hindu chauvinist slogan but also as a threat to anyone who dares to challenge Hindu supremacy.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party suffered a major defeat in elections for the Delhi state legislature. The election in Delhi was held while India has been witnessing continuous protests against a citizenship law passed by Mr. Modi’s government in December that makes religion the basis for citizenship. The new law discriminates against Muslims and advances the Hindu nationalist agenda of reshaping India into a majoritarian Hindu nation.
At a Delhi election rally, Anurag Thakur, Mr. Shah’s colleague and India’s minister of state for finance, raised a sinister slogan: “These traitors of the nation! Shoot them!” A few days later, two Hindu nationalist activists opened fire on students and protesters at Jamia Millia Islamia and in Shaheen Bagh.
To interpret defeat of Modi’s party in Delhi with his project of Hindu majoritarianism would be a grave misreading of the verdict. In a recent survey, four-fifths of Delhi’s voters favored Mr. Modi and three-fourths of Delhi’s voters expressed satisfaction with his federal government.
Since its inception, the Hindu nationalist movement, of which the B.J.P. is the electoral branch, had a single goal: Hindu supremacy.
The context of what is happening in India.
In cities all across India, secular and pro-democracy Muslims and Hindus have joined hands to rise up against Hindu supremacy and, more specifically the Narendra Modi Government’s anti-Muslim citizenship laws, which seek to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the country’s 200 million adherents of the Islamic faith.n cities all across India, secular and pro-democracy Muslims and Hindus have joined hands to rise up against Hindu supremacy and, more specifically the Narendra Modi Government’s anti-Muslim citizenship laws, which seek to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the country’s 200 million adherents of the Islamic faith.
Also, for decades India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party and its affiliates have struggled to control one of India’s most fertile ideological recruiting grounds: university campuses.
That project erupted in violence last weekend, as masked men and women stormed the New Delhi campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of India’s premier liberal institutions.
Witnesses said police officers stood by as students were attacked with rods and bricks. Some assailants shouted slogans associated with Modi’s governing party and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or R.S.S., which for decades has aspired to turn India into a Hindu nation.
Students and faculty at the university said freedoms there had eroded since the election of Modi, whose government has appointed R.S.S.-affiliated administrators to the university. In the hours after Sunday’s attack, staunch supporters of Modi’s party called for the university to be closed.
The current vilification of supposed ‘foreigners’ fits with the nationalist politics of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the subject of the country’s ‘illegals’ played a prominent part in the campaign for the May 2019 elections, in which the BJP won nearly two-thirds of seats in parliament. Addressing crowds in West Bengal in April, the home minister, Amit Shah, pledged that a BJP government would "pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal." Since coming to power in 2014, the party, aided by the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteer organization, which effectively serves as a shadow state, has kept communal tensions at a steady simmer. At campaign rallies and in media appearances it has fed a steady stream of rumor into mainstream discourse.
With the gradual rise of the BJP, particularly Muslims are being marginalized politically and pushed out of public institutions such as the police and the judiciary. Muslims hold just 4 percent of seats in the outgoing parliament, down from a peak of 9.6 percent in 1980. During Modi’s first term, expressions of anti-Muslim hatred have grown more common, and acceptable, in public life.
One symptom of this is a growing number of lynchings of Muslims in relation to cows, animals considered sacred by orthodox Hindus. In September 2015, a Muslim laborer, Mohammad Akhlaq, was murdered by his neighbors in a village outside New Delhi on suspicion of eating beef. Afterward, officials seized meat samples from the victim’s home to determine if it was beef, which extremists argued would be a mitigating factor in his killing.
Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people, 36 of them Muslims, were killed across 12 Indian states. Over that same period, around 280 people were injured in over 100 different incidents across 20 states.
The attacks have been led by so-called cow protection groups, many claiming to be affiliated to militant Hindu groups that often have with ties to the BJP. Many Hindus consider cows to be sacred and these groups have mushroomed all over the country. Their victims are largely Muslim or from Dalit (formerly known as “untouchables”) and Adivasi (indigenous) communities.
According to a survey by New Delhi Television, there was a nearly 500 percent increase in the use of communally divisive language in speeches by elected leaders, 90 percent of them from the BJP, between 2014 and 2018, as compared to the five years before the BJP came to power. Cow protection formed an important theme in a number of these speeches.
Underneath supporters of the Vishva Hindu Parishad:
The BJP added a caste approach to its Hindutva politics. In India, there are several parties whose main support base is in the lower castes who are oppressed by the higher castes and who demand some equity (such as reserved places in government jobs and educational institutions). The BJP launched a demagogic attack on these parties on the grounds that they have caste-biases, but at the same time appealing to those castes that the caste-based parties have traditionally ignored.
The BJP also gave political cover and recognition to brazenly communalist candidates associated with the RSS and its affiliates, including some accused of terrorism. This was done in order to valorize Hindu chauvinism and to suggest that violence against non-Hindus is legitimate. They included one, Pratap Sarangi, who is the former leader of a hardline right-wing group, the Bajrang Dal. Members of the group were convicted of the brutal murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in 1999.
The road to a Hindu only nation
In their conception of the nation, which was enshrined in India’s liberal constitution adopted in 1950 and set the tone of public life for decades after the end of colonial rule, India should be a secular state that belongs equally to all members of its complex multifaith society, whether from the large heterogeneous Hindu majority or smaller communities that follow the Semitic religions of Islam and Christianity, which have also flourished for centuries in the subcontinent. But the militant Hindus who tore down the Babri Masjid, and their powerful political patrons from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), saw things differently.
Influenced by Hindutva, a word that literally means Hindu-ness but has come to stand for the Hindu nationalist political ideology, they believe that India belongs first and foremost to Hindus.
The January 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, a rightwing Hindu nationalist who blamed Gandhi for capitulating to Muslim pressure and allowing the partition of India to create Muslim-majority Pakistan, cast a long shadow over the RSS, which was briefly banned and struggled for decades to regain public legitimacy. But today, the debate is once again intensifying, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a dedicated RSS activist since his youth, won a second five-year mandate from India’s estimated 900 million eligible voters.
And to judge from the results of the election, the pluralist idea of India is receding into the past. At the polls, 44 percent of Hindus, a larger proportion than ever before, voted for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seeks to transform India into a Hindu nation. According to public opinion surveys conducted between 2016 and 2018 by researchers at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Azim Premji University, a majority of Hindus, including those who vote for other parties, now profess support for some of the BJP’s most important Hindu nationalist positions. This was also the first Indian election in which no major political party challenged the BJP’s position that India’s Hindu majority constitutes a single community that can rightfully claim ownership of the nation. Today, the basic struggle in Indian politics is not over whether Hindus and Hinduism should enjoy privileged status but over the precise legal and constitutional forms that privilege will take.
Seeing these developments in the context
In 1997, the historian Sunil Khilnani described "the idea of India,” usually attributed to the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as an imagined secular, pluralist, polity that belonged to all Indians and not to any one group. In particular, India did not belong to the Hindu majority, which constituted 80 percent of the country’s population according to the last official census. It was this secular idea that created India in 1947, not as the Hindu mirror of a Muslim Pakistan, but as the pluralist opposite of majoritarian nationalism.
Now, things have changed. With the BJP’s rise to become India’s governing party, the idea of India is being redefined to mean a Hindu polity. Through acts of violence as well as words and laws, India is debating not whether the country’s political system should recognize Hindu identity, but the precise way in which it should be recognized.
The BJP, which has for decades called upon the government to recognize the special rights of Hindus in a Hindu majority country, has been the single most important force in shifting the terms of the debate.
As a committed RSS man, Modi believes in turning India into a theocratic Hindu state, where citizenship is defined on the basis of being a Hindu.
Thus after promises on the campaign trail, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come true to his word, energizing his supporters and exasperating his opponents in equal measure. On Aug. 5, Modi began a process to revoke the special autonomous status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, igniting a political firestorm in New Delhi and, potentially, tensions with nuclear archrival Pakistan. In line with Modi's directive, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind issued a presidential decree supplanting the Indian Constitution's Article 370, which grants Jammu and Kashmir autonomy in managing its internal affairs with the exception of defense, foreign affairs, and communications. What's more, the decree will also impact Article 35A, which restricts non-Kashmiris from buying land in the state, potentially opening the way for non-Kashmiris and Hindus to migrate to the state and alter its Muslim-majority demographics.
Reflecting its Hindu nationalism, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has renamed Allahabad, a Hindu holy city bearing a distinctly Muslim name, with the Hindu-inflected "Prayagarj." He has also renamed the Faizabad district after one of its towns, Ayodhya, a locality in which Hindu nationalists have demanded to construct a temple to Ram over the ruins of the 16th-century Babri Mosque.
The idea that some form of Hinduism should be recognized in some way by the Indian state resonates among both the cosmopolitans and the dispossessed. What is at issue is how it should be recognized. The BJP is the main political party addressing this concern. Prominent leaders in the party and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have offered four proposals, all of which raise the crucial questions not just of what place non-Hindus should have in India’s political system, but also of who counts as a Hindu, and what counts as legitimate Hinduism. The label “Hindu” encompasses a great range of communities, beliefs, practices, and languages. If Hinduism is to be recognized by the state, whose Hinduism should it be?
The first argument on offer holds that the Indian state should recognize Hinduism as at least symbolically pre-eminent, while guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens, including those from the many religious minorities. This first-among-equals view calls for India to recognize Hindus in a way that is roughly comparable to the way in which the United States recognizes Christians, for example: by privileging Christmas as a national and official holiday while not privileging the rights of Christians as a religious group.
This soft pro-Hindu view, often found among those who have joined the BJP directly (that is, not by way of the RSS or its affiliated organizations), challenges the above mentioned Nehruvian idea of a state equidistant from all religions. That idea is currently enshrined in law: the Indian state does not privilege Hindu religious holidays. Government offices closed for the holidays of all major religious groups.
If the first-among-equals view was to become law, it would not necessarily entail inequality in legal or material rights and entitlements, but it would leave non-Hindus lesser owners of their country in a symbolic sense. In addition, it would place those Hindus who do not follow whichever branch of the religion the state ended up recognized in the same position. If the state is going to mark Hindu holidays, for instance, it would have to decide whether to privilege Diwali (the biggest festival of the year for many north Indian Hindus), Durga Puja (the major festival of Hindus in West Bengal), Ganesh Chaturthi (for those in the west of India), or Onam (the major Hindu festival in Kerala). The pluralist idea of India avoided this problem entirely.
The second argument, call it majoritarianism, goes further. India, it holds, should adopt laws that privilege its Hindu majority while giving non-Hindus diminished legal status. This is the standard position the BJP and many of its leaders have articulated over the last two decades. If majoritarianism were to prevail, India’s non-Hindu minorities would become second-class citizens. Many Hindus might become second-class citizens, as well.
To see this, consider the BJP’s position that the Indian state should ban the slaughter of cows because the cow is sacred to Hindus. This idea has assumed a new urgency following a recent spate of lynchings of those, as pointed out above mostly often Muslims, accused of killing cows. Some senior BJP leaders have openly backed the killings. But as with most beliefs associated with Hinduism, some Hindus hold cows sacred and others don’t. There are many perfectly traditional beef-eating Hindus, especially in southern and northeastern India. It should be no surprise that many of those lynched for cow slaughter have been Hindus. A rough count conducted by the Hindustan Times of 50 cases of “cow-terrorism attacks” since 2010 in which the identity of victims was discernible found that in at least one out of every four cases, the victim was Hindu, including Dalits (mostly Hindu groups who were once treated as untouchable). There are also many non-traditional atheist Hindus who do not hold the cow sacred. A ban on cow slaughter would discriminate against these Hindus and non-Hindus alike.
According to the third argument, Hindus constitute not only a religious majority but also a nation in themselves. This nationalist view has long been the position of the RSS and of RSS traditionalists within the BJP. It is also the position reflected in the Citizenship Amendment bill, a proposed law introduced by the BJP in 2016 and now under consideration by parliament, which seeks to covertly privilege Hinduism through amendments to India’s citizenship laws. This position would demand the assimilation of India’s non-Hindu minorities and has already been by used by the RSS and its affiliates to justify forcing Muslims to convert to Hinduism, a process euphemistically termed “ghar wapsi” or “homecoming.” It would require the assimilation of many Hindus, too, into whatever interpretation of Hinduism the state espouses.
Hinduism as a nation
The fourth argument is the most extreme. Its proponents believe that not only should Hinduism form the basis of the nation but India should be a theocratic state with religious leadership. The BJP and the RSS are not sympathetic to this view. But in 1964, as part of an effort to mobilize the Hindu majority, the RSS created the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or “World Hindu Council,” whose professed goal is to unite the Hindu clergy on a single ecclesiastical platform. Although this is not part of the official platform, many in the VHP espouse a theocratic idea of the Hindu nation and have now developed an independent popular base. Last year, Modi appointed the religious leader and VHP member Yogi Adityanath to be the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The selection demonstrated the degree of pressure that this theocratic tendency and its constituency exert on the RSS and BJP.
Viewed along this spectrum, Vajpayee, an advocate of the majoritarian view, was no moderate. He sought to privilege Hindus over other religious groups, in a radical departure from India’s founding ideology. Only the emergence of even more extreme versions of Hindu nationalism allowed Vajpayee’s position to come across as middle-of-the-road.
Take Vajpayee’s reaction in 1992, when a mob aligned with the BJP destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in the town of Ayodhya, in North India. The BJP had previously campaigned to replace it with a Hindu temple. Unlike some BJP leaders, Vajpayee was not present at the demolition and apologized in the days that followed. But he apologized only for the spontaneous and uncontrolled destruction of the mosque, not for the original position that a temple should replace the mosque. He had always supported that view and made a speech saying as much just the day before the mosque was demolished.
Vajpayee’s “moderation,” such as it was, came from his personality and his love of poetry, which often overcame his ideology. He had a large heart, a poet’s eloquence, and a poet’s indiscipline in sticking purely to ideological matters. These traits helped him build and sustain relationships across ideological lines. They also allowed him to connect instantly with a crowd. For example he told stories of the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi between 1975 and 1977, during which many opposition leaders were jailed. Vajpayee had been one of them, and he spoke of undergoing surgery in prison that had permanently injured his back. “Now,” he said, “I am incapable of genuflection, even if Mrs. Gandhi were to order me to bow before her.” The crowd roared with laughter. They liked and respected him. But eloquence and an affable personal style do not add up to ideological moderation. Vajpayee’s words and actions often transcended ideology. But when he did take an ideological position, it was unswervingly majoritarian.
Vajpayee’s lack of moderation does not mean that there is no moderate way of responding to the search for a Hindu identity in the symbols of the state. The pluralist idea of India that Sunil Khilnani wrote about contains the ingredients for such a moderate response since it offers equal respect not only to India’s non-Hindu minorities but also to the many different ways of being Hindu. And that "Constitutional democracy based on universal suffrage did not emerge from popular pressures for it within Indian society."
But Nehru’s successors gave up on that pluralist idea long ago. His daughter, Indira, stoked the anxieties of the Hindu majority in her election campaigns in the early 1980s. His grandson Rajiv Gandhi courted the Hindu majority by launching his 1989 election campaign from the town of Ayodhya and calling for “Ram Rajya,” the rule of Lord Ram. Now, his great-grandson Rahul Gandhi, the current leader of the Congress Party, has begun to flash his own pro-Hindu credentials. During regional elections last year, he made conspicuous visits to temples. In September, in anticipation of the 2019 parliamentary elections, he set off on a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Tibet, which many Hindus consider to be the home of the deity Shiva. On the way, he tweeted that “Shiva is the universe,” and published Fitbit data showing each of his steps along the pilgrimage route, turning what could have been a private visit into a political spectacle. Days later, the Congress party put up election-related posters declaring Gandhi a devotee of Shiva. This half-hearted attempt at beating the BJP at its own game ensures that some form of Hindu majoritarianism will win in India’s 2019 parliamentary elections, no matter who loses.
Kashmir and the International aspect
the BJP yoked its Hindutva agenda to its nationalist (mainly, anti-Pakistan) agenda. The impact of nationalism and Hindutva peddled separately would be less than when they are made to work in their mutual interaction. The BJP’s portrayal of Pakistan as the mortal enemy is related to the perceived loyalty of Indian Muslims to Pakistan: Pakistan was used as a euphemism for Indian Muslims.
It is also to be expected that during the rest of 2020, Narendra Modi will tighten the central government's control over Kashmir by enforcing a counterinsurgency campaign to keep violence manageable while encouraging the migration of non-Kashmiri Hindus into the region and drawing investment from outside the state.
After promises on the campaign trail, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come true to his word, energizing his supporters and exasperating his opponents in equal measure. On Aug. 5, Modi began a process to revoke the special autonomous status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, igniting a political firestorm in New Delhi and, potentially, tensions with nuclear archrival Pakistan. In line with Modi's directive, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind issued a presidential decree supplanting the Indian Constitution's Article 370, which grants Jammu and Kashmir autonomy in managing its internal affairs with the exception of defense, foreign affairs, and communications. What's more, the decree will also impact Article 35A, which restricts non-Kashmiris from buying land in the state, potentially opening the way for non-Kashmiris and Hindus to migrate to the state and alter its Muslim-majority demographics.
The Kashmir dispute furthermore contains overlapping domestic and international components. Domestically, it highlights the tension between the central government in New Delhi, which is trying to assert its authority over a peripheral state that harbors a deeply ingrained culture of autonomy that predates independence in 1947. India's only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir's special constitutional status under Article 370 has always been a point of contention for the BJP, whose Hindu nationalist base has agitated for the state's greater integration with the country.
Kashmir thus also lies at the heart of India and Pakistan's decades-old rivalry. Each country governs the state in part but claims it in full. Following the independence of both countries from the United Kingdom in 1947, Kashmir's then-Hindu ruler ultimately joined India in exchange for military protection against a Pakistan-backed domestic uprising aimed at wresting control over the state. What began as a proxy conflict soon morphed into the first of India and Pakistan's three wars over the territory. Today, Pakistan administers two regions (Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan), India three (Jammu, Ladakh and, Kashmir) and China two (Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract). Pakistan claimed Kashmir on the grounds that its Muslim-majority population justified its inclusion in Pakistan, the homeland for the Muslims of British India. India, however, argued that a Muslim-majority state was at home in the new country's secular framework, which sanctioned no official state religion in spite of the country's Hindu majority. Then there's the strategic aspect of the countries' conflict over Kashmir, as the territory, which borders China, Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Punjab provides the Indian Armed Forces with a critical staging ground in any potential conflict against China or Pakistan, India's two most serious rivals. At the same time, Kashmir also has added importance for Pakistan, as the country's key waterways, run through the state.
For people today who forget that ‘map is not the territory’, it is easy to see why Kashmir is typically understood as a territorial dispute between two belligerent neighbors in South Asia.
Jammu and Kashmir is a former princely state partitioned since 1949, yet still regarded as a homogeneous entity. India and Pakistan control almost half of its territory a small portion is occupied by China), with both claiming jurisdiction over the whole. The line of demarcation is called the Line of Control. Nevertheless, developments in the Pakistani part (made up of Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas) simply do not figure in the debates on Kashmir, while stories of Kashmiris seeking to break away from the part administered by India distort reality by overlooking the region's complexities. The political construct of a Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state pitted against a majoritarian Hindu India-or of an Islamic bond cementing the relationship between Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas with Pakistan-is, at best, misleading.
Since 1989, the state has witnessed an insurgency tacitly backed by Pakistan that seeks to separate Kashmir from the union. In February, a militant belonging to one such Pakistan-based group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, rammed a truck packed with explosives into an Indian security convoy, killing 44. That attack prompted India to retaliate against Pakistan by sending warplanes into undisputed Pakistani territory to hit a militant training camp, a shift in India's military strategy that involves striking deeper into Pakistan territory, both to exploit gaps in its air defense and to heighten the costs for Islamabad with the aim of deterring future cross-border attacks. Pakistan responded with its own airstrikes the next day. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's release of a captured Indian pilot gave both countries an off-ramp, but the BJP used the incident to prioritize national security in the run-up to the general elections that began in April. Khan, who chaired a National Security Council meeting over the weekend prior to the 5 Aug. announcement, has called the Modi government's decision "illegal," while the Pakistani National Assembly will hold a joint session of parliament on 6 Aug., though this was a largely symbolic gesture aimed at drawing attention to the Indian announcement.
Going forward, a variety of factors are likely to be in play, including possible troop movements and new cease-fire violations between the Indian and Pakistani militaries along the Line of Control, the de facto border separating the region. The great powers, too, might take an interest in the issue. U.S. President Trump has already offered twice to mediate on Kashmir while China could also become involved given that it is Pakistan's strongest ally, but also a country that wants to maintain calm relations with India. Of perhaps greatest concern, however, is the question of how Kashmir's militants will respond to the decision. If New Delhi experiences another attack that it blames on militants from over the border, has recently accused Islamabad of disrupting the peace by laying landmines to target Hindu pilgrims, it could call for an even more forceful response against Pakistan. That, naturally, would bring the subcontinent's nuclear-armed rivals closer to the edge of a conflict that would reverberate far beyond disputed Kashmir.
The BJP-led government's attempt to bring Kashmir closer into the fold ultimately fits into its broader project to solidify the political and economic unity of India, a country of 1.3 billion people whose immense linguistic, cultural and demographic diversity has meant its states resemble countries in their own right. Nevertheless, legal challenges, possibly involving the Supreme Court, could yet hamper the government's efforts in Kashmir, while opposition politicians will seize on the opportunity to chastise the government on amending the constitution without encouraging a democratic debate.
Foreign policy going forward
Finally India's fears of Chinese strategic encirclement will accelerate its investment and defense overtures to neighboring countries in South Asia, marking a central plank of Modi's foreign policy in 2020. However, Beijing's funding advantages over New Delhi and its willingness to renegotiate debt with Sri Lanka and the Maldives explain why its political and economic relationships with these countries, as well as with Nepal and Bangladesh , will only grow, particularly as the countries wish to diversify their foreign relations beyond India, the regional hegemon.