This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.
- India’s population is approximately 1.35 Billion – making it, by far, the largest democracy in the world.
- According to the last census (2011) the religious make up of India is: 80% Hindu, 14.2% Muslim, 2.3% Christian, 1.7% Sikh, 0.7% Buddhist.
- India overtook the UK and France in 2019 to become the world’s 5th largest economy.
- India was twice under Muslim rule (Delhi Sultanate; 1206-1526 and the Mughal Empire, 1526-1857) before direct British rule (1857-1947) and, eventually, Independence in 1947.
- Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India assumed office after a crushing victory for his BJP Hindutva party in the 2014 Indian Election
- The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a direct political off-shoot of the RSS.
- The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) was founded in 1925.
- They were inspired by Hitler and Mussolini, seeking to purge India of non-Hindu influences, although they did not adhere to Nazi’s anti-Jewish ideology: indeed, the RSS were supporters of the creation of the state of Israel.
- It was one of their number (Nathuram Godse) who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi (after which the RSS were band for a time).
- Prime Minister Modi has a history of decisions which have been seen as anti-Muslim:
- When he was chief minister of Gujarat he was slow to put a stop to the Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002.
- He revoked the ‘Special Status’ of the Muslim majority (and strategically important) state of Jammu and Kashmir, bringing it under direct Indian government federal control and dividing the state into two separate states.
- The recently passed ‘Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019’ which Modi’s government proposed, determines eligibility for Indian citizenship based upon religious identity and how long they have resided in India.
- It contains within it the commitment to offer citizenship to any non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who entered India illegally on or before 31st December 2014.
- The act sparked weeks of unrest based upon accusations that Modi was violating Article 4 of India’s secular Constitution.
- The Ayodhya site has been a long-time cause of controversy in India as a long-running lawsuit has sought to determine whether the religious site was originally a Hindu temple before it was demolished and a mosque built upon it in the early Mughal period. The Mosque was demolished in 1991.
- Muslim campaigners had sought permission to build a new mosque at the same site.
- Hindutva campaigners won and work has started on building the temple dedicated to Ram.
- Modi had visited the site in 1991 promising to return only when the temple had begun construction. He returned for the ‘breaking ground’ ceremony to begin building the temple on 4th August 2020. (Dhillon, 2020)
- It is expected that the temple will be completed in time for the 2024 Indian general election.
The breaking ground ceremony at Ayodhya in Northern India, attended as it was by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, was a significant moment in the journey that the country had been on over the past thirty years. Over that period there had been a steady rise in mainstream support for Hindutva politics on the back of the RSS party and the BJP (which is a more populist form of the RSS party). The BJP’s Atal Vijpayee was elected to the premiership (1999-2004) and then Narendra Modi (2014 – Present). The Congress’ Manmohan Singh had enjoyed a 10 year tenure as Prime Minister (2004-2014), but, although personally popular as one of the chief architects of India’s economic rise, the Congress Party which Singh lead became increasingly unable to answer the concerns raised by Indian Hindus about perceived rising Muslim influence and terrorism. (Deb, 2020)
Hindu nationalism in response to fears over Islamic influence had both historical elements and short-term concerns.
The historical elements arose from the two (consecutive) periods of Islamic rule over the Subcontinent starting in the 13th Century. For present-day Hindu Indians therefore, Muslim Indians are not simply a large religious minority, they are also the remnant of former oppressors. (French, 2011) For that reason, Modi and other Hindutva politicians have been able to harness fears of growing Muslim birthrates in the country (as compared to Hindus) to create the spectre of a new ‘Islamic domination’ of the country through demographic influence.
In the short-term, the ongoing tensions (indeed conflicts) with Pakistan ever since Independence, along with recent memories of Islamic terrorist atrocities in the country (such as the Lashkar-i-Taiba operation in Mumbai in 2008) have stoked Indian Hindu’s fears. When these high-profile events are added to the ongoing concern about Muslim birthrates, the potential for worry about the ‘threat’ posed by Muslims in India is understandable.
The high-profile contest over the Ayodhya site has therefore become hugely important not just in relation to the religious nature of the site itself, but also as a symbol of ‘protecting’ the country from non-Indian (i.e. synonymous with non-Hindu in their eyes) influences.
This narrative has impacted Indian Christian communities as well, as was seen in the violence against Christians in Odisha, Orissa in 2008. It has been argued that the violence against Indian Christian communities were ‘collateral damage’ in relation to the primary Hindu-Muslim conflict. (Anon, 2020) But, whether ‘collateral damage’ or specifically targeted, the Orissa violence was testament in its own right to the potency of the RSS narrative about the fundamentally Hindu nature of India. As such it is further evidence of the apparent capture by the RSS and BJP of the public perception of Indian citizenship as being one and the same as being Hindu from the secular inclusive narrative around citizenship of the Indian National Congress party that dominated India’s first 40 years of self-rule. For that reason, it seems fair to argue that the fear around the threat posed by, and potential impact of, Islam in India has become an important tool for advancing the religio-nationalist agenda pursued by the RSS.
Modi’s actions in relation to Ayodhya, the CAA (2019) as well as Jammu and Kashmir demonstrate that, despite his attempts to forge improved diplomatic links with Pakistan, he remains deeply committed to the Hindutva narrative and goals. For that reason, it seems likely that Muslims in India will become increasingly marginalised at least for the short to medium term whilst the BJP retains power. Furthermore, it is likely that Muslim communities will move to an even more isolationist or separatist stance for protection which, in its turn could both increase suspicion of it from a Hindu perspective, but might also encourage more Muslims to seek to either move to a Muslim majority country or support more identity-driven politics, even terrorism.
Signs of this drive towards Muslim identitarian politics in India have certainly been growing. Advocacy for more direct Muslim representation to government and increasingly frequent protests by Indian Muslims are but two examples of the phenomenon. (Talukdar, 2020) The fact that there is a government which is openly against it, in the minds of Muslim Indians, will further fuel an antagonism which is born of an assumption of government injustice.
Talk of some form of civil war is premature and alarmist, but the direction of travel in the country lends itself to serious concern. This issue should be of importance in the states of the West, where significant Indian diaspora communities exist, both Hindu and Muslim. So, should widespread violence erupt in India, there is the possibility of contagion through diaspora communities. For that reason, it is important that Western governments try to use their soft power influence (especially between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi) to encourage a different narrative from the BJP Indian government.
Anon, (2017) ‘Militant Hinduism rules India today: Christians are collateral damage’ www.thecsf.org 20th August
Deb, Siddhartha (2020) ‘Modi’s acolytes have reminded India’s Muslims just what he thinks of them’ www.theguardian.com 6th August.
Dillon, Amrit (2020) ‘Ayodhya: Modi hails “dawn of a new era” as work on controversial temple begins’ www.theguardian.com 5th August.
French, Patrick (2011) India: A Portrait London: Allen Lane.
James, Lawrence (1997) Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India London: Abacus
Robinson, Francis (2000) Islam and Muslim History in South Asia Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.
Talukdar, Sreemoy (2020) ‘Muslim identity politics over the Citizenship Amendment Act has alienated allies and is problematic for idea of India’ www.firstpost.com 4th January.