When India got its independence from Britain 70 years ago this week, it was founded as a secular democracy – secular because it acknowledged the status and rights of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other religious minorities as equal to those of the Hindu majority. Mahatma Gandhi, the great hero of the independence movement, was a devout Hindu, but he was murdered by a Hindu fanatic for defending Muslim rights after Partition.
It was one of the most fortunate assassinations in history, because Hindu radicals had been using Pakistan’s declaration that it was a “Muslim state” to demand that India be declared a “Hindu state”. After Gandhi’s murder, Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was able to round up tens of thousands of Hindu extremists and exploit popular reverence for Gandhi to nail down India’s identity as a secular state.
India is still a democracy, but a portrait of one of the men who conspired to assassinate Gandhi now hangs in India’s parliament. The prime minister, Narendra Modi, leads the BJP (Indian People’s Party), which was created as the political wing of the RSS (National Volunteer Organsation), a Hindu supremacist paramilitary organisation. And secular is now spelled “sickular” by the Hindutva trolls on Twitter.
Hindutva is Hindu exceptionalism of the kind that gives rise to the trope that “to be Hindu is to constantly take offence”. It sees India as a “wounded civilisation” because it has spent most of the past thousand years under the rule of various foreign invaders (hardly a unique experience), and proposes to remedy that with a highly simplified, almost kitch version of politicised Hinduism.
It’s just another brand of populism, in other words, but its chief Indian proponent, Narendra Modi, must deal with far deeper divisions in society than his American counterpart, Donald Trump. He is a much more disciplined man, however, and he does not waste his time in tweeting insults and picking fights with random people.
Modi is relentlessly focussed on economic growth, and in particular on raising the living standards of the lower-middle-class Indians who are his strongest supporters. But to get and keep the parliamentary majority that would let him carry out his programme he must appeal to a broader audience.
For more than half a century India got along with the secular principle that religion is a private matter, but Modi supported a national ban on cow slaughter (many states already banned it) when he took office. More recently he banned the slaughter of buffalo as well. So it’s hardly surprising that “cow protection” vigilantes have been attacking people suspected of trading in beef; half a dozen have been beaten to death in the past couple of years.
Modi supports the ban because high-caste Hindus (the group from which the BJP draws most of its support) believe that cows are sacred and must not be eaten. However, lower-caste Hindus, the so-called Dalits (untouchables), do eat beef, and they make up about a quarter of India’s voting population. This poses a serious political problem for the BJP.
Muslims, who dominate the beef and leather trades, make up another 14 per cent of the voters, but Modi doesn’t worry about losing their votes because they were never going to vote for the BJP anyway. He cares very much about the Dalit vote, because they are the key to making the BJP the natural party of government.
Modi won a landslide majority in 2014 in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament), but he did it on only 31 per cent of the popular vote. The first-past-the-post system regularly delivers such lopsided results. But the Rajya Sabha (upper house or senate) is elected by the state legislatures, where Dalits are often quite prominent politically. The BJP will never get a majority in the senate without Dalit support.
So Modi walks a tightrope on the issue of sacred cows, promoting their protection to appeal to his upper-caste voters, while weakly condemning the murder of butchers and leather workers by “cow protection” vigilantes (who are backed by the RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation).
Indeed, Modi’s whole take on Hinduism is quite ambivalent. Two years ago, for example, talking about health care in India, he got off track and started talking about the elephant-headed god Ganesha: “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
It is certainly not Hindu orthodoxy to suggest that Ganesha was a chimera created by ancient plastic surgeons. On the other hand, the idea that India led the world in plastic surgery a few thousand years ago will appeal to the more naive Indian nationalists. It’s a bizarre mixture of ideas, but not untypical in populist politics.
The bottom line, alas, is that the “sickular libtards” are in retreat, the religious minorities are being marginalised, and the people who define India as a “Hindu country” are in charge. It’s too early to say that this is an irreversible change, but it’s a radical departure from the country’s founding values. It’s still a democracy, but it’s starting to look a lot more like Pakistan.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries