India has seen a rise in nationalism throughout the last few decades, which has had an important influence on religious relations between the majority religion, Hinduism, and the second-largest religion, Islam. These tensions in India underline the danger of nationalism when used to isolate specific groups from society, sometimes going as far as depriving these isolated groups of human rights. When first approaching this topic, it is easy to be distracted by the politics of the situation. The main political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and their leader Narendra Modi, have been a driving force behind the Hindu nationalism that has emerged over the last twenty years in India. However, after piecing together the many factors that led to the BJP gaining power, there is a lot more to the story than just political parties. This article attempts to untangle the complicated relationship that India has with both Hinduism and Islam and why it has led to a rise in Hindu nationalism.
The most recent census in India was taken in 2011, showing that almost 80% of its 1.3 billion population identified as Hindu, followed by Islam at around 15%. Many Hindu nationalists are of the opinion that only Hinduism should represent India because it is the native religion of the region. In contrast, Islam was brought by foreign influence over the centuries. The most recent historical example of this was by the Mughals, who conquered much of India in 1526. During the rule of the Mughals, there were policies that punished non-Muslims, like the Jizya tax, which taxed non-Muslims. Although the tax was applied to all non-Muslims: Hindus, Christians, and Jews alike, Hindu nationalists tend to overlook this fact and focus solely on the taxation and brutalization of the Hindu population. In addition to the Jizya tax, the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb has been pointed to time and time again by Hindu nationalists since Aurangzeb is known for his brutal religious policies and destruction of Hindu temples. Hindu nationalist groups use these historical examples as modern evidence for why Islam should not be practiced in India, since the religion was brought by conquerors, rather than born of Indian roots.
These policies likely laid the foundation for the resentment that the British Raj cultivated when the British empire colonized India in 1858. The British often used a method labelled as “divide and rule” when asserting control over an empire. They implemented this method after the Revolt of 1857, which saw Muslims and Hindus band together to revolt against British rule. After the revolt, the British attempted to sow seeds of mistrust between Muslims and Hindus through policies like the Indian Council Act of 1909, which separated the Muslim electorate from the Hindu electorate. These acts pushed the idea that Muslims were separate from the rest of India; therefore, as the idea of Hindu nationalism developed, Muslims were left out of this definition. This sepa ration was made clear with Partition, the event that literally divided India between Muslims and Hindus in 1947, resulting in the modern-day Muslim majority countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Partition was pushed by Britain as they were turning over control to a newly independent India. This led to the largest forced migration in the world not due to famine or war, with more than 15 million people displaced. During Partition, there was a lot of violence in India, West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which resulted in an estimated death toll of over 1 million people. The policies of the Mughal and British empires heavily influenced the direction of Hindu nationalism and laid the foundation for the exclusion of Islam from the modern definition of what it is to be “Indian”.
Hindutva and the RSS
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a militant, far-right, Hindu-nationalist volunteer organization in India that is a key proponent in the growth of Hindu-nationalism in the last century. The RSS was founded in 1925, before Indian independence in 1947. It propagated the idea of “Hindutva”, which is an ideology that seeks to base the Indian identity off of Hindu values. The RSS was briefly banned in 1948 after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by an RSS member who believed that Gandhi catered too much to Muslim and Hindu reconciliation. The ban on the RSS was lifted by 1949. Until the 1980s, the RSS remained out of the mainstream media. They returned to the mainstream media by advocating for the construction of a Hindu temple where a Muslim mosque was already built because it is believed that the Hindu god Ram was born there. Tensions erupted in 1992 when a mob entered Babri Masjid, the 16th-century mosque, and tore it down. This led to a riot which ended up killing thousands, mostly Muslims.
This rise in anti-Muslim violence coincided with the downfall of India’s reigning political party, the Indian National Congress party. They had been the majority political party for most of India’s independence, but in 1996 and 1998, they were defeated by the BJP. The BJP is a far-right, Hindu-nationalist political party. The BJP was the majority party until 2004 when Congress took over, until 2014 when the BJP was voted back in as the majority once again. 2014 is also when Narendra Modi was first elected as the Prime Minister of India, a position that he still holds today. The BJP and Modi have continued to campaign as Hindu-nationalists. Many attribute the success of the BJP to the party’s pursuit of a religious divide between Hindus and the rest of India. The BJP has associated itself politically with the RSS after Modi attended an RSS meeting in 2016 and announced to the crowd that he was proud to be a member of the RSS.
BJP’s Hindu Nationalist Policies
The BJP demonstrated its anti-Muslim tendencies after passing the Citizenship Act in 2019. The Citizenship Act provides Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The religious minorities protected by this bill are Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists, and Parsis. The BJP asserts that the bill will help protect minorities, while opponents of the bill bring up the interesting point that protecting minorities would mean including marginalized groups like Rohingya Muslims. Policies like the Citizenship Act demonstrate the power that the BJP holds in perpetuating anti-Muslim sentiments. Probably most prominent in world news was the Jammu and Kashmir changes that occurred in 2019 with the Reorganization Bill. Jammu and Kashmir was the only Muslim-majority state in India with special status granted in the Indian Constitution until the Reorganization Bill demoted it to a Union Territory and imposed harsh restrictions.
The Citizenship Act and the Jammu and Kashmir debacle both signal the danger of Hindu nationalism’s effects on religious freedom and discrimination. The Citizenship Act allows for explicit religious discrimination in gaining citizenship to India under certain circumstances, while the Jammu and Kashmir situation shows the willingness of the BJPJ to revoke special status’s given to majority-Muslim areas. If the BJP continues to be in power, there may be a continued pattern of diminishing the rights of Muslims within India to further the exclusion of Muslims from the Indian definition of nationalism.
The definition of “being Indian” that Hindu nationalists are trying to push explicitly excludes Muslims, which has led to dangerous retractions in human rights for Muslims. More worrisome is the possibility of what is to come for Muslims living in India with RSS sentiment rising and the BJP still in power. The exclusion of Muslims from the nationalist definition has heightened the mistrust between the two majority religions and has brought into question the future of religious freedoms within India. It will be important to observe India’s actions in the next three years leading up to the 2024 General Elections to see if public sentiment shifts away from the BJP and Hindu nationalism.