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In 1947, after the brutal and devastating partition of British India, India emerged as a state comprising diverse communities and people. “Unity in diversity” was a central pillar of the newly founded Indian government. They had to efficiently govern a melting pot of communities from different cultures, communities, and religions. The majority of the population of India after partition was from the Hindu community. While Jawaharlal Nehru committed to idealizing tenets such as secularism in Indian society, there was no doubt that Hinduism and generally religion would remain essential to many people’s lives.
Unfortunately, the government has had difficulty protecting religion and religious practices across India. India’s marginalized religious communities, especially in the last few decades, have begun facing increased scrutiny, prejudice, and mistreatment at the behest of the state and its policies. In the 21st century, as India emerges as one of the world’s most powerful countries, both economically and politically, it finds itself at a crossroads with how to tackle religious diversity and freedom in India.
History of the BJP
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Narendra Modi swept their way through the elections and rose to power. In an unprecedented result, the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) party was thoroughly defeated by the BJP, losing its place as the head of government for the first time in 2010. The BJP has close ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing paramilitary organization whose policies are linked to white supremacism. The election was a pivotal moment in Indian history, for the crowning of Modi as India’s Prime Minister represented the rise to power of Hindu ultranationalism in Indian politics.
Over the past few decades, before and during the BJP’s reign, there have been many times when the issue of religion has come front and center. These moments have brought into question the religious policies of the Indian state.
Two notable examples in recent memory where there were clear instances of the infraction of religious freedoms in the country are Operation Blue Star and the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The first instance occurred under the reign of INC in 1984 when the Indian Army attacked the Golden Temple and more than 40 other Gurdwaras across Punjab. The operation, known as “Operation Blue Star,” preceded the implementation of policies in Punjab that systematically targeted and violated the human rights of many Sikh communities. This period was a dark time for India, known as the emergency, where their political opponents accused the INC government of violating the same constitution they had implemented years earlier. This period should have been a lesson for India, yet many years later, the issue of religious freedoms came to the forefront.
Eight years later, on December 6th, Babri Masjid was destroyed. Allegedly, the Mughal Emperor Babar built the Masjid after he first destroyed a Hindu temple that lay there. However, there is insufficient evidence to prove this claim propagated by Hindi right win groups, including the BJP. By this time, many conversations regarding religious freedoms reopened and have remained at the centre of national attention.
Temple desecrations are not a novel concept in South Asian history. It is a policy that predates the rise of the Indo-Islamic states in India and is utilized as a political tool by many rulers, regardless of their religion. Temples have meaning for their patrons and are seen as symbols of their brilliance. They were often attacked and looted by rival rulers or invaders to weaken their opponents politically.
However, today, temples and other religious places of worship represent the religious freedoms many have fought so hard for. Through the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the BJP elicited a strong response from many Hindus across India. They appealed to the minds and hearts of these people through the propaganda of patriotism and nationalism and successfully used the people’s support to do their bidding. It is a testament to the BJP ideology; they use their patriotic ideas relatable to many people to raise a solid support base of borderline mob mentality.
BJP vs. Indian National Congress
When India became a state in 1947, it was the Indian National Congress (INC) who were the incumbent ruling party. The INC stands on the opposite political spectrum to that of the BJP. While it also advocates for nationalism, it is staunchly socialist and secular. It is the party that had won back the freedom of the Indian people and was dominantly popular in the political scene up until the 1980s.
During the INC’s reign, they passed Article 25, defending religious freedom. Article 370, which gives special status to the region of Kashmir, was also ratified during their early reign. The international community, however, opposed the cancellation of Article 370. Indian security services were already accused by many global human rights organizations of human rights violations in the province, and the revocation of the age-old article was proof of the influence of right-wing Hindu ultranationalism in the government. Many media outlets and rights groups accuse the BJP government of attempting to change the demographic nature of the province by encouraging and allowing non-Kashmiris to buy land in Kashmir.
In 2019, Modi also signed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allowed for the fast-tracking of citizenship for Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Notably, Muslims, India’s most significant religious minority, have been omitted from this list. His opponents claim that the law is discriminatory as it uses religious criteria in the question of citizenship. Moreover, his promise to complete the National Register of Citizens (CRC), a database created initially to determine if the residents of Assam were migrants from Bangladesh or citizens, rendered nearly 2 million people stateless.
Muslims are the second largest religious minority group in India but the most targeted and affected by the BJP’s policies. Both the Citizenship Amendment Act and the revocation of Article 370 mainly target the Muslim population in India. The BJP is open about its views on Muslims in the region, with many anti-Muslim protests and demonstrations endorsed by BJP officials. The issue stems from the BJP ideology, which seeks to establish a unitary Hindu-centric India. By creating a common enemy and appealing to people’s patriotism and nationalism, the BJP can quickly garner support from most residents in India.
Current Political Situation of India
Article 25 of the Indian constitution states that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion.” Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent, six groups received the status of a religious minority: Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Sikhs.
While theoretically, the Constitution calls for the protection of religious and ethnic minorities, it practically has a limited utility. 20% of the population of India is a religious minority, yet they still face systematic issues and state prejudice. Modi’s ultranationalist government does not bat an eye when vandalizing religious spaces and blurs the line regarding other aspects of religion, such as clothing. BJP can appeal to various people mainly through propaganda. To accomplish this, they utilize the media to propel their ideology to the one billion people in the country.
One of the significant issues that have risen to the forefront of national attention is the Supreme Court case on the Hijab ban. This issue originated in the Southern state of Karnataka, where a government college in the Udapi district banned six Muslim girls from wearing a hijab in the classroom. The Supreme Court failed to deliver a clear verdict, with one judge claiming that the Hijab was not essential to Islam. The case elicited a strong response from Muslims and Hindus alike, with many protests and demonstrations from both sides. The use of mob mentality was notable here as the BJP quickly garnered the support of thousands of Hindus across India. In India, mob mentality is a phenomenon that has flourished under BJP rule. It is a simple concept where people, often out of ignorance or coercion, will follow how the majority acts and what they do. The BJP can utilize its most boisterous supporters to rally those to their cause who are on the fence, a dangerous tool used to a lethal extent.
The Future of Marginalized Communities in India
India faces a very murky road moving forward. It is at a pivotal point in its history, rising as a global power while seeing much of its internal issues escalate. India did not form based on religion, yet it is what takes centre stage more often than not nowadays. The rise of Hindu extremism poses a significant challenge to the marginalized religious minorities of India. The BJP uses powerful tools, such as social media and literature, to perpetuate their ideology to a wide variety of the Indian population. They effectively produce robust responses to their ideology and, in turn, use the support to fuel anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiments across the nation. Not only do they see their places of worship under attack, but also their values, beliefs, and character.
Edited by Hamad Abdullah