Vulnerabilities of religious minorities in India: Unmasking Impact of rising Hindu nationalism

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India is famous for its cultural diversity and known as the largest democracy in the world. The ascendancy of Hindu nationalism under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) threatens this diversity and the religious minorities within its territorial boundaries.

India is officially a secular country with a dominant 80 percent of Hindus in its bulging over one billion population. Since the Narendra Modi-led BJP government has taken control of the country, the secular democratic Indian government has been increasingly converging with Hindu nationalism, incorporating an extremist approach to Indian society and order. The erosion of secular values is evident through discriminatory laws and policies that disproportionately affect non-Hindu communities.

The BJP is an electoral front for the “Sangh Parivar”—a consortium of Hindu Nationalist outfits who firmly believe in a religion-based political ideology, or “Hindutva,” which seeks an exclusive homeland for Hindus. Under this framework, other religious communities can only maintain a second-class citizenship. The surge in Hindu nationalism, guided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—a right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organisation founded in 1925—has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of religious minorities. Founding members of the RSS, like Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar and Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, drew inspiration from the ideologies of Mussolini and Hitler, advocating the supremacy of their respective races through the annihilation of “other” impure races and cultures. They referred to Christians and Muslims as “internal threats.”

The BJP’s political agenda, rooted in the Hindutva ideology, has sought to undermine India’s principles of equal citizenship and religious pluralism. Prime Minister Modi’s overwhelming success in the 2019 general elections, and his re-election for a second consecutive term, makes it difficult to gauge the election results. Is it a vote for BJP by those who are frustrated with other political options or is it an endorsement of broader Muslim persecution, such as the pogrom in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister there? Recent acts of physical and sexual assault on Christians in Manipur, wherein women were paraded naked and villages burned and looted, further demonstrate Hindu extremist tactics against Christian minorities. The demolition of churches and mosques has become the new normal in shining India.

The emergence of religious nationalism in India and its impact on the country’s democratic and secular ideals is not a new phenomenon; however, it has intensified under BJP rule. According to Christophe Jaffrelot, a French political scientist, the rise of Hindu majoritarianism is not an abrupt change but rather the outcome of a persistent campaign of Hindu nationalist ideologies, supported by both fundamentalists and self-proclaimed non-partisan Hindus. One of the founding members of the RSS, V. D. Savarkar, introduced the concept of religious nationalism in India and authored a book with the same central theme: Hindutva: Who is Hindu? According to him, only Hindus are the true sons of the soil, thus advocating for India to be declared a state exclusively for Hindus. Meanwhile, non-Hindus, such as Muslims and Christians, are considered impure and should leave the country.

Hindutva is a term that refers to the belief that Hindu culture and civilization are the foundation of Indian identity. It is a broad ideology that encompasses a variety of views, but some of its key tenets also include the belief that Hinduism is a superior religion, the belief that the Hindu community is under threat from other religions, particularly Islam, and the belief that the Indian government should be based on Hindu principles.

There are 220 million Muslims and 30 million Christians in India that daily endure systemic discrimination, violence, and socio-economic marginalization. Hindu nationalists allege that Christian missionaries and Muslim preachers are using force and at times monetary incentives to attract the lower-caste Hindus and, therefore, government legislation should prevent any further conversion. It is essential to note that in a secular democracy, religion is a personal choice without any governmental influence. The government cannot impose any restriction on its citizen’s choice of religion.

Hindu nationalists see Muslims as invaders who formerly conquered India and ruled for centuries. Similarly, the Christians are viewed as former colonial rulers who occupied their country for an extended period, leaving a negative impact on their culture and religion. Other minorities such as Sikhs, Buddhists, and those from scheduled castes or Dalits also live under constant fear. Communal violence and institutional bias persist despite India’s secular constitution.

Scholars like Ashok Swain, CJ Werleman, Katherine Adeney and Christophe Jaffrelot have provided excellent detail on how the Hindutva is constricting the political space for minorities. They argue that the rise of Hindu extremism has become increasingly evident through the acts of hate speech, violence, and exclusionary policies. The divisive phrase “Jai Shri Ram” – a Hindu religious chant that means “Victory to Lord Rama” – has become a rallying cry for extremists and a tool of intimidation. Derogatory rhetoric from BJP leaders, mob violence targeting Muslims, and cow vigilante violence (mob lynching under the pretext of protecting cows) have contributed to an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. The Christian community has also borne the brunt of Hindu extremism, facing accusations of forced conversions and attacks on churches. Since Modi came to power (2014), the following laws have been introduced in India under the Hindu nationalist vision, with some in the process of becoming acts or having already been passed and incorporated into the Indian constitution: Revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir, which means India has officially annexed the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and annulled the distinct separate identity of the J&K; Citizenship Amendment Act 2019; the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment (UAPA) Act; the Indian Supreme Court verdict on Babri Masjid, which validated the demolition of a mosque and the building of a temple instead; a National Register of citizens (NRC) in Assam; and Family laws (like divorce and inheritance issues). Each of these policies or acts of parliament eat away at the few rights that exist for religious minorities in India.

The influence of the RSS on BJP’s policies and leadership appointments underscores the intertwined relationship between Hindu nationalism and governance. The erosion of interfaith harmony and the rise of majoritarianism (representing the darker side of democracy that silences minorities’ voices) have intensified discrimination and violence. The adverse effects of majoritarian politics and unequal representation of Muslims in the Indian parliament has stagnated at only 5 percent despite their population being almost 15 percent.

The growing influence of Hindu nationalism in India raises urgent concerns for the safety, dignity, and rights of religious minorities. As the socio-political landscape evolves, it is imperative to scrutinize the implications of this phenomenon on India’s democratic fabric and the stability of the region at large.

Dr S. Khan focuses on South Asian domestic politics vis-a-vis international relations in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. She teaches and writes on Human Rights in World Politics.

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