India’s tilt to the Hindu-right will not be easy to reverse

  • K S Dakshina Murthy
  • 7 May 2019

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, the BJP, doesn't win the election, there are still no guarantees that society will be able to moderate itself.

Supporter of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wearing cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party president Amit Shah walk during an election campaign in Ahmedabad, India, April 11, 2019. ( Reuters )

Indian opposition parties and their supporters are hoping for a change in the federal government when results come in on May 23 in the ongoing nationwide elections.

Among the reasons for wanting a change is a perceptible deepening of the religious divide in India with the ruling federal Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Delhi pushing an agenda that aims to give primacy to the majority Hindu community at the expense of the minority groups mainly Muslims and Christians.

But the question is whether a change in government in Delhi can bring the situation to an even keel. From all indications, it looks like the communal polarisation is deeper and may take much longer if at all, to re-secularise the country.

Since 2014, when the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to office, several unprecedented events have almost irrevocably altered the way various communities lead their lives. For instance, the country’s burgeoning cattle trade that made it possible to generate meat affordable to the poor and fuel the leather industry has all but come to a halt. The reason is that cows are considered sacred by the Hindu community and various BJP-led state governments including Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra have outlawed trading for cattle slaughter.

The Muslim community which largely has been in the cattle business has found to its dismay that they are unable even to engage in trade for legitimate purposes. A Human Rights Watch report said at least 44 people have died in cattle-related violence in the last five years.

Lynchings on this scale were unheard of until 2014. Even the marginalised Dalit community which engaged in skinning dead cattle for leather has come under attack with several in the community being beaten up for their activity.

What makes the situation worse is the perpetrators of the lynchings, who are close to the BJP and its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the National Volunteer Service,  have all but been let off with action equal to a mere rap on the knuckles. A union minister Jayant Sinha even visited one group on bail and garlanded eight of the convicts.   

Many amongst educated middle-class Hindus support the Modi government and see no problem in the dilution of constitutionally-guaranteed secularism. The RSS has over the years successfully sold the idea of the majority religion being under threat and of being victimised. It is another matter that rarely has this premise been logically explained. 

More often than not, when questioned, proponents accuse earlier governments of appeasing the minority communities to the disadvantage of the majority. In this context, the word “appeasement”  has over the years been drilled into India’s political lexicon by the Hindu-right to mean favours done for the minorities while conveniently leaving out the majority community.

For instance,  in 1985  the federal Congress government amended the constitution to protect Muslim men from paying maintenance to their divorced wives in the Shah Bano case. The RSS-BJP trumpeted this as minority appeasement. Soon after, the very same government allowed the opening of the locked down structure of the disputed heritage Babri mosque in the ancient city of Ayodhya to satiate demands from Hindu religious groups. But this was not projected as appeasement of the majority community.  

Before 2014, it would have been unthinkable for a religious head of an institution to be the chief minister of a state – but this was what happened when the BJP came to power Uttar Pradesh. 

Much to everyone’s surprise, even within the BJP, Yogi Adityanath a rabid Hindutva proponent was chosen to lead the government by Narendra Modi. This move made it eminently clear that the BJP's divisive agenda was in overdrive. 

Muslims and Christian communities are concerned. Many of them including top Hindi film stars like Aamir Khan and Naseeruddin Shah have publicly expressed worry.  So too Christian leaders like Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto and Mumbai’s top retired police officer Julio Ribeiro. Such expressions of concern have resulted in widespread trolling on social media by rabid supporters of the BJP-RSS.

No one knows how deeply this has affected Indian society, but people are asking questions. If a more secular one replaces the federal government, will that dilute the sharp religious divisions that have emerged in society?

One indication that this may not be immediately reversible was seen in Madhya Pradesh where the Congress defeated the BJP in last year’s Assembly election. Led by Chief Minister Kamal Nath, the government in February prosecuted three Muslims accused of slaughtering cattle under the draconian National Security Act, something that even the BJP had not done earlier.  

Another was the controversy over the ban on the entry of women in the menstruating age group (10-50) into the Hindu Sabarimala temple in southern Indian Kerala state. The Supreme Court ruled that the ban was illegal and that all women should be allowed to enter the temple. The BJP’s opposition to the ruling was not surprising but what took one’s breath away was the state unit of the Congress backing the BJP on the issue.  

In the past too, as in the Shah Bano case mentioned earlier, Congress has never been committed to its stated secular position. In 1992, when a mob was demolishing the heritage Babri Masjid structure, the federal Congress government under P V Narasimha Rao looked the other way for six hours without intervening to stop the destruction. Clearly, it had decided to appease the majority Hindus. 

With such a questionable past, Congress cannot be fully trusted to keep India’s secular credentials aloft. Possibly the Left could have done that, but today the various Communist parties including the major Communist Party of India (Marxist) have been defeated in their strongholds of West Bengal and Tripura. Their only toehold is in Kerala state and is in no position to politically challenge the BJP anywhere else in the country.

If the BJP is unable to form the next government, it will be a setback to its Hindu project, but that may yet be temporary given that there is underlying support for its endeavour especially among the urban middle class. 

Unless the opposition mounts a committed counter-offensive to reinstall the liberal secular narrative in the nation’s polity, the country seems destined to sail further into uncharted waters that have the potential of wrecking the idea of a liberal secular India as we know it.

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