The Impact of Hindutva Ideology on India’s Democracy and Social Cohesion

Yucel Bulut

* Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Karadeniz Technical University.

India, a nation boasting a population of over 1.5 billion, proudly upholds its democratic principles. Nevertheless, this cherished status faces a looming challenge, not from its sheer populace, but rather from the rise of far-right Hindu supremacist groups, which have exerted significant influence over the country’s governance through the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014. Central to the ideology of these Hindu supremacists is Hindutva, a belief system that deeply permeates India’s ruling party, the BJP. Many prominent leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, have roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization staunchly advocating Hindu supremacy through Hindutva—an ideology that has shaped Indian politics for over a century.

The RSS, acting as the guiding force behind the BJP, provides its members with political and ideological education. Hindutva’s core tenet asserts that those who do not regard India as their sacred homeland do not truly belong to the nation and should be confronted until they are eradicated as vestiges of foreign invaders. This ideology particularly targets Muslims and Christians, who are perceived as outsiders by the proponents of Hindutva, as they claim exclusive ownership of the country.

Groups such as the RSS and Bajrang Dal envision the transformation of India into a “Hindu Rashtra” or Hindu State through Hindutva. This poses a significant concern, as India, a democratic and secular nation with a diverse religious and ethnic fabric, risks deviating from its cherished values of secularism and democracy due to the increasing influence of Hindu supremacist organizations.

Since the BJP’s rise to power in India, the Hindutva ideology’s detrimental effects on the ruling party have led to heightened challenges for minorities and non-Hindu groups. Concerns were raised when Narendra Modi assumed power, given accusations of his inaction during the Gujarat Riots of 2002, which resulted in the deaths of over 2000 Muslims at the hands of Hindu groups. Critics argued that he overlooked the violence when he was governing the state of Gujarat.

Under Modi’s leadership, significant changes have been observed in the lives of Muslims and Christians, particularly concerning religious and political freedoms. The ascent of Hindutva ideology became evident from 2014 onwards, signifying a departure from historical governments’ neutral stance that adhered to the country’s secular principles. Gradually, the Hindu right-wing ideology gained ground, leading to its first major attack on Kashmir’s special status, which was guaranteed through Article 370 and 35A. These provisions granted autonomy to the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly, allowing them to govern internal affairs and permitting only Kashmiri residents to buy property and invest in the region. This prerequisite was essential for the integration of Kashmir and its ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, into India, primarily to safeguard the socio-economic and political interests of the region’s 77% Muslim population. Despite some discussions, this system had remained largely unchanged since 1947.

However on August 2019, India made a significant decision by revoking the special status of Kashmir, a move that had been instrumental in its integration into the country. Subsequently, in October 2019, the region was reorganized, renamed, and merged into the Indian system as Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh Union Territories. To quell resistance from the local population, a strict curfew was imposed, accompanied by a communication blackout and a heavy military presence. This curfew persisted until February 2021, causing immense hardship to the people of Kashmir, compounded by the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Human rights organizations criticized India for its handling of the situation, expressing concern over the lack of basic facilities for the people in the region. Many viewed these actions as a severe blow to democracy and freedom, driven by religious tensions.

Following these incidents and lacking significant repercussions for their actions, the BJP sought to consolidate more Hindu votes, even at the cost of social harmony and exacerbating Hindu-Muslim tensions. In 2020, a highly contentious case, the Babri Masjid verdict, favoured the Hindus amidst the prevailing political climate. The Babri Masjid, a historic mosque built in 1528, had been a subject of conflict between Muslims and Hindus since the 1980s. In 1992, a mob, including some BJP leaders, attacked and demolished the mosque. On November 9, 2019, under the influence of the BJP and Hindutva groups, the verdict ruled in favour of demolishing the Babri Masjid and constructing a Ram Temple. The temple’s completion in 2020 was marked by an opening ceremony led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

These consecutive victories brought jubilation among far-right wing organizations and their leaders, leading to open threats against non-Hindus and their places of worship. BJP politicians at various levels made unfortunate and threatening remarks targeting Muslims, Christians, and other religious groups, posing significant threats to the country’s social harmony and secular values. Hate crimes against these communities escalated dramatically with the tacit support of the government.

Recently, starting in May 2023 and continuing as of the time of writing, religiously motivated attacks by Hindu groups targeted Christian Kukis in Manipur, perpetrated by Hindu Meiteis. These attacks have resulted in the burning down of over 350 Christian churches, forcing more than 50,000 Kuki people to flee their homes and seek shelter in the mountains. Tragically, over 150 of them were killed by Meitei Hindus, and numerous reports of rape and beatings have emerged. Despite ongoing violence, the central government has shown limited efforts to control the situation.

In addition to the violence and hatred, the Hindu-led government has undertaken a campaign to rename cities and places with Muslim names to Hindu ones, claiming that the previous names were symbolic of foreign invaders and colonial legacies. Notable examples include Allahabad, renamed Prayagraj, and the Mughal Gardens, renamed Amrit Udyan. Such renaming extends to train stations and stadiums as well. Furthermore, there have been discussions among right-wing politicians to officially change the country’s name from “India” to “Bharat.”

India’s diverse society must avoid conflicts arising from religious identities and preserve its secular image to maintain peace and harmony. Straying from its secular principles to favour one majority religious group may lead to significant disturbances in the country. A steadfast commitment to secularism is vital for India’s social cohesion and stability.

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