Since 2014 and the advent of a BJP Hindu nationalist government under Prime Minister Modi, Indian politics has seen a departure from secular constitutional values and a new salience given to issues surrounding religious identity. Whilst mob violence and caste lynchings are nothing new in India, it is certainly arguable that the language of an emboldened Hindu political elite has helped inflame old wounds and exacerbate new ones.
The rise of this new far right Hindu nationalism has shown no clear sign of slowing down, as demonstrated by the 2017 election of Yogi Adityanath the new BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Adityanath epitomises a new convergence of Hinduism and politics, in a country which set aside clear constitutional measures to ensure separation of church and state and values of non-discrimination upon independence. Indeed Adityanath’s campaign was met with heavy criticism based on his position as a hardline religious zealot, and use of divisive language targeting the Muslim population. Similarly Prime Minister Modi, prior to his election to this position was faced with widespread international criticism for his handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was chief minister of the state, with many claiming he was far too passive in challenging the violence.
These religious divisions have too been redefined in a way that tries to unify Hindus through traditionally upper caste sentiments which aim to criminalise and stigmatise consumption of beef. This is a topic discussed by prominent Indian sociologist M.N Srinivas in his work on caste in the 1950’s. He observed a tendency for lower caste Hindus to adopt the customs and traditions of upper castes, much of which related to dietary restrictions. This process Srinivas described as ‘Sanskritization’, which saw mainstream Hindu beliefs taking on a more homogenous character more representative of upper caste practices. The BJP party has traditionally been comprised of an upper caste leadership, so perhaps the Mofdi government’s crackdown on the production of beef is unsurprising. Indeed the issue has become far more important on both a national and grassroots level during his time in office. This too has laid foundations for a rise in communal violence, largely in the form of vigilante mobs which target Muslims. Recurring incidents like the recent mob murder targeting a 17 year old Muslim boy shopping for Eid in Delhi demonstrate how polarising this issue has become, with politicians stoking sectarian divisions arguably holding some responsibility.
The rise of Hindu nationalism, and increased distancing from secular values also have more international consequences. Modi’s recent meeting with US president Donald Trump may represent a global rhetorical shift in which the divisive language of exclusionary nationalism has garnered some degree of acceptability. Amongst Hindu political hardliners in India, Trump’s use of language targeting Muslims on the campaign trail certainly helped make him into a respectable figure, and both Modi and Trump have arguably ascended to power on the coattails of division. With this in mind Modi may be far less likely to face the brunt of international scrutiny within a global context where divisive and inflammatory rhetoric seems more acceptable.
With a country as diverse as India a constitution based on secular values serves an important democratic function in upholding pluralistic values. It also serves a pragmatic function in promoting social harmony, and preventing the marginalisation of minority groups and those at the fringe of society. Within the current political context however these values seem to be under threat. Indeed Modi and the BJP’s right-wing style of Hindu nationalism has made a successful transition from being a fringe radical perspective, toward cementing itself into the mainstream Indian political arena. It cannot be said in any deterministic fashion that Indian politics will continue on this path, given the widespread grassroots movements against Hindu mob violence and the lack of BJP support that exists in much of South India. Nevertheless even with this in mind the 2017 election results in Uttar Pradesh seem to suggest that the BJP, and Hindu nationalism will remain an important driving force in Indian politics for the time being. This means that as of yet the future of Indian secularism appears unclear, with the boundaries of constitutional secularism being continuously stretched and undermined by the Modi BJP government.