The recent election of the Hindu nationalist BJP seems likely to further erode cultural pluralism and minority rights in India.
In India’s recent national elections, a single party gained the majority of the seats in the lower house of parliament for the first time since 1984. That party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has consistently aimed to consolidate the Indian nation around certain elite Hindu cultures and marginalize religious minorities, gained its highest ever vote share (31.0%, compared to 18.8% in the last elections of 2009) and now rules the country on its own for the first time. Its majoritarian goals contrast with the way the Congress Party, which preceded the BJP in power, presents itself. The Congress party’s rhetoric upholds pluralism and the formation of India from diverse yet overlapping religious and ethnic cultures. The ascent of the BJP could seriously erode pluralism. Without the potentially moderating effect of operating in a coalition with other parties, the BJP seems likely to heighten the Hindu majoritarian tendencies that have existed since independence, and increase minority marginalization and religious violence.
The BJP upheld the experience of the state of Gujarat when the new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, governed the state from 2001 to 2014 as a model for India. It highlighted the record of high economic growth in Gujarat through this period, and suggested on this basis that it would focus on economic development, state-building, and the adoption of a more prominent international role for India rather than Hindu majoritarianism. Modi’s slogan that he would build toilets rather than temples encapsulated this promise. Moreover, Modi suggested that he would accommodate minorities, for instance by adopting a Uniform Civil Code drawn from different religious cultures, that would replace the distinct religious personal laws that are an important aspect of Indian multiculturalism.
Posters in support of Narendra Modi put up in Mumbai pic.twitter.com/Kwxfb9AhTI— ANI (@ANI_news) July 18, 2013
Ruling party propaganda does not acknowledge that the benefits of economic growth in Gujarat were very unequally distributed, generated little new employment at middle and lower income levels, and resulted in limited human development. However, many major corporate leaders were encouraged by the freer play they were given in Gujarat through the dismantlement of labor and environmental regulations, and extended the BJP strong support during the election campaign. If the governance of India is to be guided by the Gujarat experience of the past decade and a half, the neoliberal economic strategy pursued since the early 1990s will be reinforced and poverty alleviation measures will be curtailed. The government’s initial steps suggest that it is set on such a course. The rhetoric of following the Gujarat precedents also suggests, less directly, that the state may support or remain indifferent to attacks on minorities. After all, soon after Modi came to power there, Gujarat witnessed India’s biggest anti-Muslim pogrom of the past generation, which Hindu nationalists led and many state officials aided. Crucial BJP campaigners justified some smaller instances of violence against Muslims of the past year, and certain architects of these riots were made party candidates. Many Hindu nationalist activists no doubt feel encouraged as a result to act against groups at the margins of their social vision—not only Muslims and Christians, but also lower castes and tribal groups, or at least those of them that resist assimilation.
The BJP’s socio-cultural agenda has a complicated relationship to previous patterns of governance. Indian nationalism and the Congress party had both pluralistic and majoritarian features early on. Their pluralistic features are better known. Their most influential leaders such as Mohandas (“Mahatma”) Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru visualized the Indian nation emerging through the amalgamation of various religious and ethnic cultures, and were inclined to recognize certain distinct aspects of these cultures. Based on such an orientation, the postcolonial state adopted a multicultural policy frame; it developed a form of secularism that engaged closely with religion, which it recognized as a basis for various socio-cultural rights; it gave various indigenous languages official status; it formed states largely along lines of language use; it extended a degree of autonomy to some states; and it adopted preferential policies and special civil rights laws in favor of the formerly untouchable castes and tribal groups.
Nevertheless the most influential leaders primarily engaged certain Hindu initiatives and mainly championed Hindu norms. For instance, Hindu figures, both historical and mythological, occupied the lion’s share of the curricula of schools attended by all religious groups. Further, the state accommodated autonomist and secessionist forces that emerged among predominantly Hindu groups, such as the Dravidian and the Assamese movements, far more than those that grew largely among religious minorities, such as the Kashmiri, Naga, and Sikh movements. Hegemonic inclinations also influenced the application of preferential policies and special civil rights laws to the formerly untouchable castes following religions of South Asian origin and to tribal groups, but not to ex-untouchable Christians and Muslims—although the latter groups faced much the same constraints and indignities as the former. Political elites focused their visions of the modern family on Hindu law that they changed extensively from the 1950s, and changed the minority laws only much later and to a limited extent, although support for personal law reform was not stronger among Hindus.
Thus, Hindu nationalist efforts to consolidate the Indian nation around Hindu norms only made explicit some assumptions that were shared by certain early Congress Party leaders. However, the latter leaders found ways to reconcile their Hindu-centered construction of India with giving religious minorities some recognition and public access. Hindu nationalists on the contrary have shown a consistent determination to limit the rights and power of the religious minorities, and sometimes of the tribal groups and lower castes as well, and periodically unleashed violence against these groups especially since the 1980s. Other parties also promoted such violence at times, but this was not central to their projects.
Some analysts consider the current government to be faced with a choice between cultural nationalism and economic growth, but in doing so they take their cue too much from recent BJP rhetoric. The assertion of Hindu hegemony and economic deregulation may prove as compatible throughout India as they were in Gujarat, particularly as the groups likely to be most affected by these two BJP agendas have limited socio-economic power. The economic agenda would abridge the rights of the lower and lower-middle classes most; and of the groups at the receiving end of the socio-cultural agenda, Muslims, the lower castes, and tribes are predominantly poor, Christians belong largely to the tribes and lower castes, and many Muslims are of the lower and lower-middle castes. The socio-economic weakness of these groups renders the BJP’s project more viable—though the increased mobilization of the lower and lower-middle castes, as well as the continued ethno-linguistic and tribal solidarity in some regions, may limit this agenda somewhat. As India is an increasingly important economic and political player, corporations and powerful international governments may tolerate minority marginalization so long as violence is not extensive enough to arouse their concerns about social stability. Having ascended to power on its own for the first time, the BJP seems very likely to vigorously promote Hindu hegemony, as it has been inclined to do since it was formed, and promote corporate-led inegalitarian economic growth as it has aimed to over the past two decades. These efforts may damage democratic citizenship that much more as the constraints they face are rather weak.
Narendra Subramanian is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University and author of Nation and Family: Personal Law, Cultural Pluralism, and Gendered Citizenship in India, and Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens, and Democracy in South India.