Manoj Joshi, a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
In recent years, India has seen a dismaying and dangerous trend of aggression and physical attacks on its Muslim and Christian communities. According to a Pew Research study, India has one of the highest levels of social hostilities involving religion in the world. But in recent years, the trend — which includes a sophisticated yet vicious social media campaign to demonize Muslims — has intensified. Top politicians, mainly from the ruling party, not only ignore the developments but encourage it through dog whistling.
Indians view secularism quite differently than many Europeans do. The French “laïcité” makes the state neutral and even a bit sceptical towards religion. In India, however, the state is supposed to view all faiths as equal, therefore, it regularly intervenes in matters related to religion.
The preamble of India’s Constitution proclaims the state to be a “sovereign socialist secular Democratic Republic.” But the phrase “socialist secular” was interposed in 1976, as an authoritarian act since all civil liberties had been suspended and the principal Opposition was in jail. The original wording had read “sovereign democratic republic.”
However, the state under Jawaharlal Nehru — India’s first prime minister after its independence from Britain — evolved its own brand of secularism by not hesitating to intervene on matters relating to religion and religious practice. It instituted laws to ban the Hindu practice of untouchability and insisted on codifying laws relating to marriage, divorce and inheritance to make the practices of the hugely diverse Hindu community uniform.
By and large, it deliberately left the Muslim and Christian family laws alone to provide them reassurance that the massive Hindu majority would not be used to encroach on their cultural space. The small state of Goa is the only state which has a uniform civil code, derived from the Portuguese Civil Code of 1867. Everyone in Goa, Hindu, Christian or Muslim comes under its ambit.
Impact of 1947 Partition
The Indian experiment, if we may call it that, must be seen in the context of the country’s partition in 1947 which saw the creation of India and Pakistan — the latter being a self-professed homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. But the notion that religion could be the basis of nationality did not work and, in 1971, East Pakistan broke away and formed the country of Bangladesh.
Partition was traumatic. Massacres, loss of property and displacement were widespread. What was worse were the social and psychological consequences of Partition on the 30 million or so Muslims who remained in India and chose not to go to what was supposed to be their homeland.
This is where the astuteness of India’s post-independence leadership came in. Theirs was a different vision of a nation where everyone was equal regardless of ethnicity or religion. To this end, they gave shape to a federal polity that celebrated ethnic and religious diversity and gave minorities space to evolve.
It was not an easy task. In the decades that followed there were tensions and riots which often targeted Muslims. Wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971 opened the wounds of Partition, but India’s secular principles stood firm. However, today they are assailed by new and dynamic forces of Hindutva that threaten to overturn all this.
The Hindutva Movement
Hinduism has often been defined as being more of a way of life than a religion. It has no central authority or even established code of conduct that binds all its adherents who are divided by language, ethnicity and caste. The Hindutva movement, on the other hand, has sought to establish the political and cultural hegemony based on the demographic majority the Hindu community enjoys.
By itself, the movement could have been unexceptional, but the mobilization strategy has involved demonizing the faith and practices of Muslims and Christians. The Hindus consider the cow as sacred whereas Muslims, Christians and Dalit (untouchable) Hindus eat beef. In the name of cow protection, Muslims have faced random violence, including lynching.
Hindutva advocates push the myth that Muslims and Christians in India originate from forced conversion of their ancestors and that this practice continues, endangering the Hindu faith. This has, of late, led to attacks on Christians and even their observance of Christmas.
The origins of the Hindutva project go back to the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s that saw the rise of Fascism and Nazism. The man responsible for the term “Hindutva”, V. D.Savarkar sought to “Hinduize all politics and Militarize Hindudom” and is an icon of the BJP today. He influenced the rise of the Rashtraya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha.
The RSS is led by Mohan Bhagwat who, as per tradition, was nominated by his predecessor. He works through a small team of aides and pracharks or full-time volunteers. The RSS is the head of the Sangh Parivar (Organizational family) and its cadres founded what is today India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as a number of Hindutva outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Forum) and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, India’s dominant trade union, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the student organization Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and a clutch of other professional, economic and social organizations spread across the country and at all levels of society.
The RSS is organized into shakhas or branches, mainly in the Hindi-speaking heartland of the country. These feature uniformed volunteers with batons who meet every day or once a week for a baton drill, discussions and the extolling of Hindutva ideas. RSS pracharaks are placed in various front organizations, like the BJP and form the steel frame of the Hindutva movement.
Overwhelmingly, the RSS is dominated by the upper caste Brahmins, but as a matter of strategy, it has reached out and gained the support of numerous intermediate castes that are electorally powerful. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, belongs to one such grouping and has played major role in breaking Hindu caste barriers and shaping the BJP’s rise.
India, itself, went through an acute phase, in 1992, when the forces of Hindutva powered their rise by demolishing a 16th century mosque claiming that this was the birthplace of the mythical god, Lord Rama. In retaliation, the Muslim underworld in Bombay (now Mumbai) carried out a series of blasts killing over 250 people. At the same time, India’s only Muslim majority state of Jammu & Kashmir was wracked by a separatist rebellion.
Yet, India’s huge Muslim population remained largely quiescent. The sense of grievance that gave rise to Islamism in Europe, the Middle East and Pakistan was absent in India. In fact, many terrorist acts, including the Bombay blasts, were part of a Pakistani covert war against India. A great deal of the Indian Muslim attitude had to do with their perception that the Indian state, by itself, was indeed neutral and instances of violence against them were isolated.
The Modi Impetus
However, since 2014, things have been changing. The election of Modi was special in that it was. the first time in 30 years that a single party had a clear majority in Parliament. Modi, an RSS pracharak, had been chief minister of the state of Gujarat and his rise is connected to a Muslim pogrom of 2002. He is intrinsically linked to the Hindutva movement as well. Modi has deployed considerable political skills in constructing local coalitions cemented by the Hindutva ideology, to enhance the “Hinduness” of India’s polity and culture.
While the BJP outwardly swears by the Constitution and upholds the flag, this is largely seen as tactical since the task of mobilizing votes on the basis of religion is undertaken by Hindutva cadres. The party may have a few token Muslims, but not a single Muslim Member of Parliament. Effectively they have been consigned to a second-class status in India’s governance system.
From the outset, the Sangh Parivar — the umbrella term to describe various Hindu nationalist organizations — has criticized the country’s secular polity and its Constitution. It even had reservations about the national flag. However, the long-term vision of Hindutva forces is deliberately clouded.
Restricted Future for Minorities?
Just what place the Sangh Parivar has for the minorities is not clear. The RSS chief spouts a lot of mumbo jumbo about the DNA of all Indians being the same and that all Indians are Hindus, regardless of religion and culture. He and his acolytes also speak of “ghar wapisi” or a reconversion of minorities. The BJP, on its part, has advocated for the abolition of family laws based on religion and their replacement by a Uniform Civil Code. This may sound reasonable but is aimed at restricting the cultural space of the minorities.
If the Sangh Parivar is able to establish its majoritarian dominance of the country, secularism based on all Indians having the equal right to practice their faith could remain. However, in practice, Muslims and Christians would have a distinct second-class status. A structured underclass of citizens would undermine India’s stability, a problem that would intensify when you look at projected population numbers. By 2050, according to Pew Research, India will have 1.3 billion (76.7%) Hindus, 311 (18.4%) million Muslims and 37(2.2%) million Christian. Therefore, India will be home to the world’s largest Muslim population.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
 “India has very high levels of religion-religion-related social hostilities,” Pew Research Center June 28, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/2018-06-28_religionindia_shi_420px/
 Portuguese Civil Code, 1867 Official translation with notes. (Government of Goa, August 2018) https://www.indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/8312/1/ocrportuguesecivilcode.pdf
 Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, “Militarising Hindus is a long-standing unaccomplished project of Hindu nationalists,” The Wire, February 14, 2018 https://thewire.in/communalism/militarising-hindus-unaccomplished-project-hindu-nationalists
 Walter K. Anderson and Shridhar D. Damle, The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism, (Boulder, Westview Press, 1987).
 See Christopher Jaffrelot, The Sangh Parivar: A reader, (New Delhi, OUP, 2005).
 Christopher Jaffrelot, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2021). Translated by Cynthia Schoch.
 Conrad Hackett, “By 2050, India to have world’s largest populations of Hindus and Muslims,” Pew Research Center, April 21, 2015 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/21/by-2050-india-to-have-worlds-largest-populations-of-hindus-and-muslims/