Excerpt | Politics Of Hate: Religious Majoritarianism In South Asia

Excerpt | Politics Of Hate: Religious Majoritarianism In South Asia
The rise of hardline ‘hindutva’ and rise of majoritarianism (2014–Present)

With a Congress-led government in power between 2004 and 2014, the BJP’s majoritarian push was briefly halted. Despite propelling high economic growth, a series of scams and scandals and most importantly, the party’s cynical use of identity politics against the purported threat of right-wing violence, created critical openings for the Hindu right in the decisive 2014 elections.

The BJP’s unprecedented electoral victory in 2014, where it secured a majority of seats in the lower house on its own, breaking a three-decade trend in coalition politics, suddenly gave a new lease of life to Hindutva and its majoritarianism agenda, which were always in the party manifesto and slogans.

It may be noted that during its rule between 1998 and 2004, lacking a full majority, the BJP had toned down its Hindu nationalist rhetoric. Due to coalition compulsions, Prime Minister Vajpayee had made relatively subtle moves to advance the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s ideological agenda. However, after the 2014 electoral landslide, the BJP, under Narendra Modi, emerged as an unapologetic advocate of Hindutva and the majority community’s primacy in social, political and economic life.

In power, the BJP began rewriting Indian history to emphasize the country’s Hindu heritage and its glorious past, aggressively promoted Sanskrit and packed important historical and cultural institutions with party ideologues or supporters.

The real game changer was the spectacular rise of Narendra Modi, who skillfully combined promises of economic development with Hindu nationalist appeals. A three-time chief minister in the state of Gujarat, Modi was known as an able administrator, a strong leader and a pro-growth politician who single-handedly turned Gujarat into one of India’s top investment destinations.

Modi’s pro-development record gave the BJP formidable electoral appeal, and the rising ‘aspirations of the new Indian masses’ contributed significantly to the party’s landslide victory in 2014. Yet, the single biggest factor explaining the BJP’s phenomenal performance was sharp religious polarization in the Hindi heartland states.

Modi was a deeply polarizing figure for his strong stance on Hindutva and his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Critical to the BJP’s phenomenal rise was Modi’s image as an unapologetic Hindu nationalist—his followers fondly address him as Hindu Hriday Samrat, or ‘ruler of Hindu hearts’. Not only has Modi reversed the gradual slide of the Hindu right from its back-to-back electoral defeats in 2004 and 2009, but the BJP under him witnessed unprecedented electoral success across many regions of the country.

In the 2019 general elections, the Hindu right under Modi won another spectacular mandate, much bigger than that in 2014. This was largely achieved by campaigning on the Hindu nationalism and national security planks. Prime Minister Modi campaigned in a Presidential style making the elections a sort of referendum on his leadership, and chose to deploy every means to polarize the election processes for electoral gains.

The high point of the ruling party’s polarizing tactics was the nomination of Pragya Singh Thakur, a controversial sadhvi or saffron-clad preacher and a terror-accused in multiple cases, including the Malegaon serial blasts in 2008, as a candidate for a parliamentary seat. Further, the 2019 general elections saw an extreme level of polarization and majoritarian consolidation based on Hindu nationalism, heavily benefitting the right-wing party.

In short, within a span of six years, the BJP under Modi has become the central pole of Indian politics, with a hegemonic presence in every aspect of the republic, particularly the religious and cultural spheres.


Implications of Hindu Majoritarianism

The implications of Hindu nationalism and the growing ascendancy of majoritarianism are very much visible in terms of altering the nature of Indian politics and society. The rise of divisive political rhetoric and the increasing deployment of polarization tactics by the Hindu right have brought about sharp changes in the national conversation. However, the most worrisome outcome is the growing trend of religious violence and the gradual marginalization of minority groups.

The growing culture of intolerance and the rising number of attacks of secular traditions by right-wing idealogues and their foot soldiers are threatening the very idea of a plural and secular India.


Breaking of the social and cultural fabric

The most damaging outcome of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the consequent majoritarianism is the breaking of the social fabric. Through daily abuse, stigmatization and demonization, sometimes taken to the extreme of violence and intimidation, minorities have been sent into a severe state of insecurity.

Majoritarian violence orchestrated by vigilante Hindu mobs with impunity is creating deep anxiety and insecurity among minorities and groups that are opposed to the Hindu right’s ideology. The biggest casualty of such majoritarianism is that it is eating away the social capital, which is vital to maintaining a cohesive social fabric in an extremely diverse and large country.

What is more worrisome is India witnessing a rising tide of violence perpetrated by vigilante groups behaving as a sort of ‘moral police’. In several instances, vigilante groups are allowed (by state silence) to determine what people should think, write, eat, drink and wear. Writers, scientists and intellectuals are being attacked and routinely derided with abusive language for expressing even the slightest difference in perspective.

The scale and degrees of intolerance witnessed in India today are alarming. Majoritarian mobs have attacked minorities, human rights advocates and activists with impunity. For instance, as the data portal IndiaSpend indicated, as many as 97 per cent of cow-related violence reported between 2010 and 2017 has occurred since the BJP government assumed power in May 2014. In 2017 alone, as many as eleven Muslims were killed in incidents of cow vigilantism across the country, the highest toll on record in recent years. Those who oppose this are often taunted with slogans like ‘go back to Pakistan’.

However, intolerance is not restricted to divisions over the status of cows. Even personal life and personal liberty are under attack. This is most vividly seen in the case of a spate of legislations passed by BJP-ruled states to regulate interfaith marriages after raising the bogey of love jihad. Love jihad is used to discourage interfaith relationships and marriages by claiming that Muslim men are deliberately wooing Hindu women in order to force them to convert to Islam upon marriage.


Increasing irrelevance of Muslims in electoral process

The most serious outcome of Hindu nationalism is the rapid shrinking of minority rights and their political representation. Since the 2014 general elections, Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha (lower house) of India’s Parliament and in several state assemblies has fallen drastically.

To expand, although Muslims represent more than 14 per cent of India’s population (as per the 2011 census), in 2018, they held only 4 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the lowest since 1957.  In the 2019 general elections, the number of MPs from the community improved marginally. There are only twenty-seven Muslim MPs in the current Lok Sabha, none of them from the ruling party. The BJP fielded just six Muslim candidates in various states, and none won the elections.

Further, Muslims also have negligible representation in the ruling BJP: of the party’s 1,418 state assembly members, only four are Muslim. Even more troubling is that during the 2014 general elections, the BJP chose not to field a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh, a state where Muslims constitute more than 20 per cent of the population. As a consequence, the largest minority community’s representation in the state assembly fell from 17.1 per cent to 5.9 per cent. There is only one Muslim minister in the entire Uttar Pradesh cabinet—which is headed by a Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath of the BJP.


Constitutional routes to majoritarian state

After it won by another electoral landslide in May 2019, the BJP unveiled the real face of its majoritarianism by introducing a series of major constitutional changes to alter the secular nature and character of the republic. The first major legislative move, soon after it won the mandate, was the passage of the Triple Talaq Bill (The Muslim Women [Protection of Rights on Marriage Bill]) in July. The Bill, which criminalized instant divorce by Muslim men, had been one of the core aims of the BJP and its sister organizations, or the Sangh Parivar, for many decades.

However, the most decisive step towards a majoritarian state was taken in August, when the Hindu right government, fresh from its massive electoral success, decided to repeal Article 370 of the Constitution, which had granted the only Muslim majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, semi-autonomy and certain specific constitutional guarantees.

This had been a long-standing demand of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar and the move received overwhelming approval from the foot soldiers of Hindutva. Not only was the state dismantled into three Union Territories, the key leaders of the state were put under detention for over a year.

In the same month (August 2019), the BJP-led central government implemented the NRC in Assam, which required all the residents of the state to furnish physical proof of citizenship. Many analysts suspect the NRC was deployed as a tool to deny citizenship to Muslim migrants from Bangladesh and render them stateless.

However, the much bigger constitutional changes towards the majoritarian project came in December 2019, when the central government passed the CAA, which allowed fast-tracking of citizenship to all Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Christians facing religious persecution in neighbouring countries. Analysts claimed that by dividing these immigrants or refugees into Muslims and non-Muslims, the new law openly discriminates against citizens based on their religion. Thus, the CAA and NRC combo has the potential to turn India into a majoritarian state.