We are witnessing a battle for the rational soul of India. It has long been the conventional wisdom that the country’s historic and admirable diversity and tolerance would prevent the creation of a Hindu-first nation. But it seems increasingly likely that the narrative of India as a Hindu democratic state will prevail.
There is a danger that India’s secular political culture and pluralistic state for all citizens, regardless of religion, may cease to exist. The world, fixated on India’s ascent as a confident and thriving global economic and military power, has been slow to appreciate a seismic shift in its politics. The country has rapidly moved away from the values of non-violence and secularism espoused by eminent leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Although seen from another perspective, India is coming of age. At some stage, all nations have to move forward and leave the past behind. India’s attraction to majoritarian nationalism and national greatness is also consistent with global political trends. And Prime Minister Modi’s broad popularity attests to the fact that India expects decisive leadership and that the end justifies the means.
However, even as India slowly dispenses with secularism, Indians should know that sustaining a progressive country by a slogan of religion is fraught with hazards. Pakistanis have found this out at enormous cost. Nationalism is a political strategy, one of the many that politicians have in their kitty to win popularity and elections.
Feeling slighted since Independence – the Hindu majority – rebelling against minority appeasing corrupt elites, and cutting across caste and class lines has jumped on the nationalist bandwagon. Taking advantage of these beneficial conditions, Modi has built a formidable following. As a charismatic populist, he has promised the Hindu masses salvation from poverty and misrule. Modi’s detractors say that his success will be short-lived as it works on exploiting divisions in society.
While we can’t take issue with Modi’s quest to make India great, we hope that he can avoid incendiary politics to achieve his goal. After two successful elections, for a consummate politician like Modi, his vilification of the opposition Congress party’s corruption and Pakistan-inspired terrorism, are winning themes. But he should be mindful that inciting his Hindu nationalist base doesn’t trigger deadly violence against Muslims and other vulnerable minorities.
There are telling signs that the dark lurking forces of hyper-nationalism and communalism are determined to crush pluralism and tolerance. It is part of the alarming Hindu-only agenda feared by minorities. In a sign of the changing times, the Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse who assassinated Gandhi in 1948 for selling out to Muslims is a revered figure in rabid Hindutva “Hindu nationalist” circles today.
More recently, 800,000 soldiers holding 9 million, mostly Muslim civilians in Indian Kashmir in siege conditions, for over two months, is a blot on Indian democracy. This flagrant denial of human rights can’t be whitewashed or forgotten. It seems too glib and disingenuous for Indian officials to describe the change in the status of Kashmir, as mainstreaming the disputed territory into India’s thriving and vibrant democracy.
We shouldn’t view the projection of power and self-belief, by the modern Indian state, based on significant achievements entirely negatively. For example, India’s growing scientific prowess confirmed by a near landing on the moon is a matter of pride for all South Asians. But India ought to be especially careful that it doesn’t crush criticism, dissent, and debate on its path to progress, which we have seen happen elsewhere.
But all is not lost as secular Indians keep reminding us. They place their faith in India’s inclusive constitution, considered one of the best that has been written and enacted. We hope that any attempt to subvert it will fail as that would be a disaster for Indian democracy.
The other promising factor is that Hinduism doesn’t naturally lend itself to authoritarianism. Unlike Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Hinduism isn’t bound by strictures. A Hindu can be deeply or mildly religious an agnostic or an atheist – and yet can call himself a Hindu.
Moreover, India does pass the diversity test. Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs don’t view themselves Hindus, neither do a substantial number of Dalits; some South Indians consider parts of Hinduism as an imposition of Aryan North on Dravidian South.
Ultimately, it is for Indians to decide if they want to sacrifice their rich culture and democratic values on the altar of nationalism. A firm rejection of a Hindu state or temperance of its excesses will send a clear message, beyond India’s borders, particularly neighboring China and Pakistan, that the land of Emperor Asoka and Emperor Akbar has room for all Indians, not just Hindus. We hope they make the right moral choice.