Making India Great Again?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacts as he speaks to members of the Australian-Indian community during a reception at the Allphones Arena located at Sydney Olympic Park in western Sydney November 17, 2014. Modi is on a three-day offcial visit to Australia following the G20 leaders summit which was held in Brisbane over the weekend. REUTERS/Rick Stevens​

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is merely the champion of a larger movement that seeks to push India in a more nationalist direction.

January-February 2018

THE PRESENT danger does not emanate solely from the pinnacle of the political order, as was largely true during the Emergency. Nor can it be reduced to the personality and proclivities of one political leader. To be sure, the ruling BJP, headed by the charismatic, silver-tongued Modi, champions Hindutva, which effectively conflates being authentically Indian with being Hindu—per a distinctive, rigid definition of what Hinduism entails and represents. But the Hindutva project is also being pushed from below, especially by an organization linked to the BJP from which many of its top leaders, including Modi, have emerged: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Society). Complementing the BJP and RSS (Modi joined the latter in 1971 when he was twenty-one, and rose through the ranks to become its national general secretary) are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council), established by some RSS leaders in 1964; its militant youth wing, the Bajrang Dal; and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP, or All-India Student Council), a powerful presence on university campuses. These and other like-minded organizations constitute the Sangh Parivar (loosely, the Family of Societies).

In ideological coherence, organizational resources and popular appeal, the Hindutva movement commands greater resources than Indira Gandhi could muster during the brief Emergency years. The acolytes of Hindu nationalism have also proven fervent and skillful in spreading their message, through persuasion as well as occasionally force. Their commitment to religion-based nationalism presents a greater hazard to Indian democracy than the Emergency did, because India contains 170 million Muslims (more than any other country save Indonesia), as well as Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews and Zoroastrians. Although Hindutva has encountered resistance from other Indian political parties, the press and civil society, non-Hindus in particular cannot but feel threatened by its words and deeds, which slyly cast doubt on their status as authentic citizens without denying it outright.

Imagine being an Indian Muslim who hears of coreligionists being beaten up, even killed, by Hindu nationalists who consider the cow sacred and do not want a country in which those so inclined can eat beef. Or consider what non-Hindus of any religion, and Indian Hindus who believe that the state should not owe fealty to any single faith—which, incidentally, the Indian constitution stipulates—feel amid cultural campaigns to rewrite curricula and to memorialize a once-glorious Hindu era during which Vedic mathematics and science dominated the world, and the Aryans, whom Hindutva presents not as a people who migrated to India but as indigenous, spread enlightenment far and wide. If you are a journalist, college student, scholar, writer, or activist in a civic group who condemns the chauvinism of Hindutva, you could face vilification and death threats, or even murder.

In short, the specter of Hindu nationalism haunts BJP-ruled India. Attacks on minority communities have become common, and academics, students and journalists who highlight the harassment and intimidation are subjected to public calumny, and have occasionally been killed. Yet top BJP panjandrums make no secret of their animus toward Muslims, as well as other minorities and ideological adversaries, regardless of what religion they practice. The RSS, with its trademark white shirts and khaki shorts, martial drills, patriotic slogans and songs, and distinctive salute (right hand on the chest, the palm facing down), serves as the party’s force multiplier and base. It now feels at liberty to demonize Muslims—essentialized despite being divided by class, language, culture and cuisine, as well as interpretations of Islam—and even paint them as a virtual fifth column for India’s archfoe, Pakistan.

THE FOUNDERS of the modern Indian republic understood that a country of such religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity required a political order suited to fostering harmony through the habit of compromise. They designed a secular constitution that could accommodate and manage India’s heterogeneity. Yet the Indian conception of secularism differed from its Western counterparts. Instead of creating a wall of separation between temple and state, India’s leaders, most notably its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru of the Indian National Congress (INC), forged a constitutional order that respected all faiths. Seventy years after the country’s independence, those arrangements are now under frontal assault. To understand how India arrived at the BJP moment, it helps to identify the historical catalysts and turning points—including an acknowledgement that the Congress Party has itself undermined the principles with which it was long identified.

From the outset, a small but vocal minority within the Indian political class rejected the constitutional commitment to secularism. Especially in the post-independence era, this staunchly anti-secular element found a home in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), an anticommunist, pro-business party that stood for the creation of a Hindu polity. Given the extraordinary role that the INC had played in the national independence movement, and its success in folding a range of political viewpoints into an inclusive structure, the BJS made only limited electoral headway. So did the RSS, which was established in 1925.