Think white Christian nationalism is the most dangerous form of identity politics in the democratic world?
Meet Hindu nationalism, which is systematically destroying secular democracy — and civil society — in India.
I sincerely regret raining on the parade of modern India’s 75th birthday, which it celebrated Aug. 15, marking the stroke of midnight on that day in 1947 when the nation finally gained independence from nearly 200 years of British colonial rule.
It was one of the most historic moments of the tumultuous 20th century. England, exhausted and cash-strapped from the destruction of World War II, began to shed its former colonies. India, long the crown jewel of the British empire, was perhaps the hardest to let go. But the determined independence movement led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and others triumphed at last.
“A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance,” declared Nehru, India’s first prime minister, at the birth of the nation.
Then and now
Nehru’s latest successor, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, celebrated the national birthday in a grand ceremony in New Delhi Aug. 15. “The way the world is seeing India is changing,” he said. “There is hope from India, and the reason is the skills of 1.3 billion Indians. The diversity of India is our strength. Being the mother of democracy gives India the inherent power to scale new heights.”
To be sure, India has made huge strides since 1947. Life expectancy has doubled, to 70. The land once known mostly for poverty and famine now boasts a $3 trillion annual GDP (2021), fifth largest in the world. Grinding poverty still stalks India’s vast network of villages, but a huge urban middle class now produces legions of highly educated young professionals. India seeks to lead the world in high-tech and other fields.
India will surpass China as the world’s most-populous nation next year, according to U.N. projections. And it has a much better chance to provide a decent living for its people than in past generations.
In his address, Modi called on young Indians to make India a fully developed country within 25 years and realize the nation’s “dreams.”
But what are those dreams? If you look at current Indian politics, you won’t find much of the diversity Modi trumpeted.
Gandhi and Nehru, modern India’s founding fathers, both were Hindu. But they envisioned a free, secular democracy, liberated from religious and sectarian violence, where the Hindu majority would live in peace and prosperity beside Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and other minorities within India’s staggering ethnic and religious kaleidoscope.
Article 25 of the Indian constitution, adopted in 1949, enshrined “freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” Sounds almost like the religious freedom provision of our own First Amendment, championed by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson after they witnessed the persecution of Virginia Baptists by the then-state religion, Anglicanism.
But those ideals haven’t prevented 13 Indian states from passing “anti-conversion” laws in recent years, which bar Indians from converting anyone from their “indigenous” religion to another faith — to say nothing of the increasingly systemic discrimination and hatred directed toward India’s Muslims nationwide.
The two founding giants of modern India are barely mentioned these days. When they are mentioned, Gandhi and Nehru often get sneers of contempt from political leaders. Modi, whose ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) won landslide reelection in 2019, leads an aggressively populist, Hindu nationalist movement that has little use for secularism or diversity. Modi claims to be focused on economic and social progress for all Indians but increasingly styles himself as the all-wise, all-knowing leader of a quasi-religious cult of personality.
Rather than Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns — which inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and fueled the U.S. Civil Rights movement — Modi and other BJP politicians celebrate the militant freedom fighters who broke with Gandhi and fought the British with guns. Bollywood is following their lead. A recent three-hour movie blockbuster, RRR, broke box office records by celebrating a fictional hero who uses a bow from a shrine to the Hindu god Ram to kill the British oppressors. In the obligatory song-and-dance climax, he glorifies actual Indian revolutionaries. No mention of Gandhi.
History, hate and Hindutva
What happened to India’s idealistic march toward peace, unity and ethnic and religious equality? Hindutva.
That’s the political-religious philosophy of Hindu nationalism as codified by Indian politician V.D. Savarkar in his 1928 book, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Hindus are the “true sons of the soil” and India is their holy land, he declared. All other people in the nation are second-class citizens at best — especially Muslims, the one-time rulers, (read: oppressors) of the Indian subcontinent during the Mughal Empire of the 16th to 19th centuries. The Mughals exercised their own brand of religious intolerance, and Hindus never forgot it.
“Hindus and Muslims have struggled for power for centuries in India, and that enmity couldn’t be swept aside by a wave of modernity’s magic wand.”
Hindus and Muslims have struggled for power for centuries in India, and that enmity couldn’t be swept aside by a wave of modernity’s magic wand. Neither could modernity cleanse the poisonous legacy of Hinduism’s 2,000-year-old caste system, one of history’s most rigid class structures, which sentenced whole layers of humanity to eternal servitude below the priestly Brahmins and a few other high castes. The caste system was officially outlawed in India in 1950. But its pervasive influence persists, even among the Indian diaspora scattered around the globe.
Hindutva in its current, virulent form is essentially a modern repackaging of the Hindu domination of old. It’s designed to work the masses into violent hysteria in order to preserve high-caste Hindu rule from New Delhi to the villages — and advance the careers of Hindu nationalist politicians. (In this sense it’s similar to American racial hatred and the anti-immigrant campaigns ginned up to convince working-class whites they are losing their jobs and social position to minorities and “foreigners.”)
And never forget Partition, the division of India, which also occurred on that historic day of independence in 1947. With England’s and India’s agreement, the new nation of Pakistan was born under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All-India Muslim League. Millions of Hindus flowed south from Pakistan as Muslims moved north across the new border. As many as 2 million people died in that bloody upheaval as neighbors who once had lived in relative peace attacked each other in spasms of ethnic-religious slaughter — partly due to ancient animosities and score settling, partly due to England’s hasty exit and even hastier drawing of the new India-Pakistan border. The two nations remain hostile, have fought several wars, and now possess nuclear weapons.
After Partition, some 35 million Muslims remained in India. They now number 200 million, or 15% of the population, by far India’s largest minority. They have become the primary — but not the only — target of Hindu nationalists.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extreme Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization formed in 1925, has long terrorized non-Hindus.
It was banned once during British rule and three times since independence — including 1948, when former RSS member Nathuram Godse assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. Narendra Modi, by the way, joined the RSS in 1978. The now-ruling BJP, formed in 1980, is closely linked to the RSS.
The BJP has steadily gained national power as the once-dominant Indian National Congress party of the Gandhis (Indira and Rajiv) has weakened. Until Congress rises again, or another power center emerges, the BJP runs the show.
Meanwhile, Hindu mobs regularly attack Muslim communities and mosques. Local governments use “bulldozer justice” to flatten Muslim homes and businesses in areas where Muslims are accused, on any pretext, of making trouble. Muslims face discrimination in housing, employment, access to health care and education, and political representation.
In 2019, the government revoked the “special status” autonomy of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, split the state in two and increased its repressive rule there. That same year, the government amended the National Register of Citizens, which observers say could render millions of Muslims stateless if it is applied nationwide. Muslims were widely — and unfairly — blamed for spreading the COVID virus, which led to a harsh national shutdown that drove millions of poor urban workers to walk long distances to their home villages.
Ominously, some BJP politicians — most notoriously Amit Shah, minister of home affairs — regularly make statements that seem to promote hatred and even genocide against Muslims. Modi, who was denounced in 2002 for inaction (or tacit support) when at least 1,000 Muslims were massacred in the state of Gujarat during sectarian riots under his chief ministership, rationalizes such statements — or changes the subject.
Christians haven’t escaped
Christians, who number about 28 million, are a far smaller minority in India. But they haven’t escaped persecution from Hindu extremists, which they warn is getting worse by the day. Churches in some areas face mob attack when they meet for worship. Often, the pastors are arrested after the attacks, not Hindu mob leaders.
“We are very much afraid because of this BJP government. We are not able to openly share the gospel, not able to go and distribute the Bibles.”
“For the past nine years, we have faced a lot of persecution in India,” reports an Indian Christian friend of mine who leads village evangelism efforts. “A lot of pastors have been killed. We are very much afraid because of this BJP government. We are not able to openly share the gospel, not able to go and distribute the Bibles. We don’t have freedom as Christians. So pray that God will open the doors, that we will have freedom to share openly.”
The latest “anti-conversion” law, recently issued by decree in the state of Karnataka despite opposition from Christians and others, bans religious conversions that are “forced, under undue influence, by coercion, deception or any fraudulent means” — which offers an absurdly wide latitude for interpretation. Offenders face up to 10 years in prison.
“The government attempt to get this bill passed despite strong opposition from the Christian community and the united opposition parties who opposed the bill on the house floor, shows the government’s intent,” said Atul Aghamkar of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. He charged the government action would “allow the vigilante groups to have the freedom to attack Christians, destroy Christian institutions, and create an atmosphere of fear to subjugate the Christian community.”
Such laws began to appear when Hindu groups grew alarmed at the rapid spread of Christianity among lower-caste Hindus, Dalits (“untouchables”) and tribal peoples across India. Many areas have seen forced reconversions of Christians to Hinduism, called “homecomings.”
“The situation is different in each state,” says another Indian Christian leader I know. “In states where conversion is banned by law, believers do continue to share the gospel. My sources tell me many Hindus are turning to Christ despite the opposition in both rural and urban settings. The nation is moving fast toward Hindu nationalism, and the impact of that can be felt everywhere. But the work of the Lord continues in the midst of all this.”
A failing experiment?
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently called for an end to extremist attacks on Indian religious minorities. But don’t hold your breath for the Biden administration to exert any real pressure on the Indian government to take action. Joe Biden is working hard to strengthen “The Quad” (or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), a strategic partnership between the United States, India, Australia and Japan to counter China’s growing assertiveness in Asia. He’s also trying to woo India away from buying Russian oil and gas as the Russia-Ukraine war unfolds. Modi will play his geopolitical hand for all it’s worth.
“India is engaging in a very, very dangerous experiment in religious populism, with the future of Indian democracy and many millions of lives at stake.”
For the time being, then, India is engaging in a very, very dangerous experiment in religious populism, with the future of Indian democracy and many millions of lives at stake.
Renowned Indian author Arundhati Roy, who has fearlessly denounced Hindu nationalism and BJP rule for years, sees it as an experiment that inevitably will fail.
“India’s tragedy is not that it’s the worst place in the world — it’s that we are on our way there,” she said in a June interview with CNN. “We’re burning down our house. India is an experiment that is failing dangerously. …
“You cannot be a democracy when 200 million people who constitute a religious minority are expected to live without rights. When you can lynch them, kill them, incarcerate them, economically and socially boycott them, bulldoze their homes with complete immunity and threaten to strip them of citizenship. When the murderers and lynchers can aspire to move swiftly up the political ladder.”
To hold power, she warned, the BJP must “create an artificial majority out of a very diverse Hindu community that consists of thousands of castes and ethnicities. The cement for that is engineering hatred of a common enemy.”
For the sake of human freedom and religious liberty everywhere, let us pray that the Hindu nationalists fail — and that the 1947 dream of a free and democratic India prevails.
Erich Bridges, a Baptist journalist for more than 40 years, retired in 2016 as global correspondent for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board. He lives in Richmond, Va.