Politics and Religion in India 11 May 2014

Hindu God Patanjali StatueThe sheer size of India is sometimes difficult to grasp. This is a sprawling and ancient nation, full of high-rise urban centres, fertile farmland and holy temples that date back millennia. Its population of 1.2 billion makes it one of the most populous countries in the world, second only to its near-and-distant neighbour China. The roaring economy of India, the growth of which has outstripped Western counterparts, has kept it in the headlines – few have any doubt the nation is emerging as a global superpower.

India is also the world’s largest democracy with around 800 million eligible voters. That is a number so large that elections themselves take nearly two months and cost several billion rupees. The election promises to be one of the most hotly contested yet in India, and it may prove to be the most important election in Indian history, setting the nation upon new paths.

The war of the Indian election is a battle of many fronts.

Indian Secularism

India came into being in 1947. It had previously been a British colony, controlled first by proxy through the East India Company and then later directly incorporated into the British Empire. Before the British, it was a diverse collection of princely states that had once been united under the Mughal Empire. Hindustan, as it was known, had always been a religiously plural land. It was in India that the Hindu traditions, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism all first took root.

Jewish and Christian communities were also present in the first century CE. Islam joined the mix as early as the seventh century, with the first mosque, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, being built in 629 CE. Islam’s influence continued growing through the activities of missionaries such as Shah Jalal and a variety of sultanates that eventually gave way to the Mughal Empire. The era of colonialism that followed the decline and fall of the Mughal Empire also made a substantial impact on India’s religious make up, increasing the Christian population and cementing its place as India’s third religion after Hinduism and Islam.

When India won independence from Britain, secularism seemed to be the only possible means by which to maintain a peaceful state, at least to Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was India’s first Prime Minister and the architect behind the political infrastructure that is modern India. In one of his powerful and most famous speeches (A Tryst with Destiny), Nehru announced the birth of India, and outlined a vision of India’s future: –

“All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”

Nehru’s notion of India was one of plurality, and for much of his tenure as Prime Minister, he fought for secularism. Indian secularism, by no means, is something that can be compared to other, more Western forms of secularism. In the United States, secularism separates church and state, but religion is given a place in public life and Christianity especially has a privileged role. In France, laïcité insists upon removing all traces of religion from the public sphere and rejecting any communal claims of identity. Quite by contrast, Indian secularism sought to recognise the various religions of its citizens, granting them all a role in the public sphere, but attempting not to privilege one over another.

Statues of Ancient gods buddhaIndian secularism also recognised religious communities, granting groups rights and not just individuals. It was a brave experiment, and one that may be coming to an end in the 2014 elections with the rise of Hindutva, or Hindu fundamentalism. Hindutva argues that India is a Hindu nation, and thus Hinduism should be privileged. Debate and polemic about whether India should remain secular (as Nehru had hoped) has been a central aspect of the elections, as well as how minority religions should be treated in a ‘Hindu nation’.

The Establishment Versus the Upstart

India, though a parliamentary democracy, is dominated by personality politics. Charisma, charm and celebrity are as important to the elections as politics and policy. The two candidates for Prime Minister hail from two very different backgrounds, represent two very different visions for India, and both draw on a celebrity culture to win votes.

On one side is Rahul Gandhi, candidate for the Congress party, a young politician barely in his forties. Rahul is the establishment figure. His father, Rajiv Gandhi, was the sixth Prime Minister of India, and his maternal grandmother, Indira Ghandi, was the third Prime Minister, whose father was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru. The role played by the Nehru-Gandhi family in Indian politics has no comparison in the modern world. Their celebrity and romantic allure has been compared to the British Royal Family, and Rahul Gandhi will be drawing on this to win voters. He is shown to be a young face for an old India, raised for leadership with the acquired wisdom of his Prime-Ministerial family.

He also represents a belief in the status quo. His father, grandmother and great-grandfather were all members of the Congress party. He is arguing that the successes of modern India are a result of the party’s policies, and whatever troubles face India today, the only way to overcome them will be a resolute belief in the principles upon which India was founded.

This very strength is also Rahul’s weakness. The Congress party is the grand-old-party of India, and many voters have lost hope in their ability to deliver promises. The Nehru-Gandhi family is also not immune from controversy and criticism, and the political sins of the previous generation are passed to Rahul – this is not only economic or policy failures, but for example, includes the Amritsar Massacre which led to Rahul’s grandmother’s assassination.

Rahul’s opponent is the polar opposite, Narendra Modi.

Modi’s father was chaiwalla, a tea-seller, at an Indian railway station. Modi’s childhood was one of poverty – more familiar to the average Indian than Rahul Gandhi’s wealth and Oxbridge education. He studied at local school during his formative years, helping his father serve tea to travellers in the evening.

It was as a young teenager Modi left home to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a network of young individuals associated with Hindutva. The RSS gave him a new family, a new home, a sense of belonging, and set him on the path to becoming a politician.

the temples of shatrunjaya, palitana, indiaIn 2002, he won the seat for the representative of Gujarat, a north-Indian state of 60 million. He was a powerful orator with a rags-to-riches story that appealed to lower-classes. His economic reforms in Gujarat increased the state’s prosperity and have since become a model for other Indian states, as well as being a key part of his election promises for India. He promises to cement India’s economic growth as he did in Gujarat. His role in Gujarat however is deeply marked by the Gujarat riots of 2002, in which he is implicated.

Modi is running for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a far-right Hindu national party that has become an incredibly popular alternative to the Congress party. He is currently favourite for Prime Minister, and the BJP party is poised for electoral success.


Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religious traditions. Its longevity is testament to the virtues and values it espouses, and the world has been enriched by its diverse teachings on everything from asceticism to environmental ethics.

Hindutva on the other hand is a very modern phenomenon. It is sometimes described as Hindu nationalism, or Hindu fundamentalism. It is a combination of a Hindu religious and cultural heritage and a distinctly European brand of fascism. It has more in common with Nazism than Hinduism.

The term Hindutva was coined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a British-educated Indian campaigner and thinker. He was a radical from his earliest days, and when arrested for his involvement in anti-British resistance, he turned to writing. His work ‘Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?’ is the founding document of the movement. Penned in 1923, it argued for a redefinition of national and religious ideals.

Savarkar argued that the Hindu peoples bordered by the Hindu river, the Indian Ocean and the Himalayan mountains, were descendants of an ancient Aryan people – a superior race. Savarkar recounts a romanticised history of these Aryan peoples populating India and spreading the Vedic religion. It is a folk history, one that is reminiscent of the works of European fascists in describing the purity of European tribes. And just like the narratives of European fascism, there arrives the foreign ‘other’ who invades, conquers and dilutes the pure race: “But here India alone had to face Arabs, Persians, Pathans, Baluchis, Tartars, Turks, Moguls— a veritable human Sahara whirling and columning up bodily in a furious world storm!” Muslims and Christians of India were, for Savarkar, race traitors: –

“Their Holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided”

This belief in Hindu cultural, racial and religious superiority coupled with a deep antagonism towards Muslims, and to a lesser extent Christians, is perhaps the most distinctive part of Hindutva. Since the early 1920s when the movement began, it has grown into a significant political force. Many of its political claims rest on the argument that India is a Hindu nation, and Hinduism should be given a privileged position in society.

A key moment in the formation of Hindutva took place in the nineties. For several decades, there had been an ongoing dispute regarding Babri Mosque, between Hindus, Jains and Muslims. Babri Mosque was built in 1527 by the first Mughal emperor, Babur, in the city of Ayodhya. The city is generally regarded by Hindus as the birthplace of the Lord Rama, and since the nineteenth century there had been claims that Babri Mosque was built on the ruins of a Hindu Temple. Some Jains dispute this and claim it was on the site of a Jain Temple. Historical records themselves offer nothing conclusive, but the strength of feeling was such that thousands of Hindus, under the banner of Hindutva, marched on the mosque in 1992 and destroyed it.

The destruction of the mosque cemented Hindutva as a political force in modern India, and since then, it has been implicated in riots and violence across the nation, most notably in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Today, Hindutva is present in many parts of Indian society and it is represented in parliament by the BJP. Critics worry that not only does it promote a divisive religious extreme, but that its politics are authoritarian and oppressive.

The Gujarat Riots

Gujarat is a north-western state of India that has played an important role throughout Indian history. It lies south-east of the Hindus River, and is the gateway to India for the West. Its religious and cultural history is extensive. Gujarat has also produced some of India’s most famous leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Jinnah. It is also the home nation of Narendra Modi, who became the state’s Chief Minister in 2001 and has been serving in the position ever since. 


In 2002, 58 Hindu pilgrims in Gujarat, many of whom were returning from Ayodhya, died in a fire on the train that was carrying them. Even today, after several investigations and commissions, there are no conclusive findings as to whether the incident was an accident or intentional and who was responsible. Regardless of what happened, the immediate perception was that Muslim arsonists were responsible, this belief being encouraged by Modi’s public comments on the issue in which he implicated Muslims in the burning.

What took place next was one of the darkest episodes in Indian history. Hindu mobs, numbering in the thousands, took to the streets and carried out mass murder, rape and destruction against Muslims. The violence lasted three days, during which the state’s official apparatus, the police and national army, did not intervene.

Over 1000 Muslims were killed in the violence, and the systematic rape and violence against women that took place is still being quantified by aid agencies. 230 mosques were destroyed and an estimated 130,000 Muslims displaced by the violence. Hindus were also killed in the violence, either having been mistaken for Muslims or intentionally targeted for being ‘Muslim-sympathisers’.

In the years since the riots, there has been an increasing case against Narendra Modi and the state, that the violence was not an unexpected outburst, but a premeditated campaign against the Muslim minority in Gujarat. This has led many to call the riots a pogrom, in reference to the early 19th and 20th century riots against Jews in Europe; others still refer to it as an instance of attempted genocide.

The level of organisation of the violence (which included co-ordinated petrol bombings of Muslim homes and properties by teams mobilised through trucks) as well as evidence that many of the rioters had electoral lists with Muslim names and addresses highlighted, indicated that the violence was planned in advance. During the three days of violence, no police responded to Muslim calls for help and no attempt was made to control the rioters. Modi has been accused of not only inaction towards the violence, but complicity in it.

Campaigners have been repeatedly attempting to indict Modi regarding the Gujarat violence, but thus far Modi has avoided being taken to court over the accusations. Modi’s success in avoiding the accusations and making his way up the political ladder, have been bitter disappointments to those who consider him guilty of instigating mass violence against Muslims.

As the BJP and Modi gain power, Muslim minorities in India (there are less Muslims in India than in Pakistan) are increasingly concerned about the implications it will have for them, not just in Gujarat but in all of India.

Amritsar – The Cloud Over Gandhi

If Modi is unlikely to win over Muslim voters for his association with Gujarat riots, then Rahul Gandhi is unlikely to win over Sikh voters for his association with the Amritsar massacre. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was prime minister during the incident, which saw hundreds or perhaps thousands of Sikhs killed. Following her assassination by her Sikh body guards, anti-Sikh riots swept over India during which many more Sikhs lost their life.

So how did the massacre come about?

In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, approved a number of military operations against Sikh activists. These included raids on rural gurdawaras, but most significantly, an attack on the Harmandir Sahib (better known as the Golden Temple). This attack has come to be known as the 1984 Amritsar massacre but also goes by names such as the Golden Temple Massacre or Operation Blue Star. The operation was deadly. Official estimates by the Indian Army reported that 492 civilians and 136 military officers had been killed. These figures are considered by many to be wildly conservative, with civilian deaths estimated to be around 3,000-5,000 by human rights organisations and Sikhs themselves.

The Indian government argues that the incident was foremost an operation to remove Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple. Bhindranwale was a charismatic and conservative Sikh leader who vehemently opposed many of Prime Minister Gandhi’s policies. The Indian government accused Bhindranwale of amassing violent supporters and weapons during his prolonged stay in the Golden Temple, and felt it essential to remove him and any threat he posed.  Some Indian Sikhs argue differently, and believe the Indian government sought to violently undermine the increasingly vocal, but largely peaceful, protests from Sikhs. These protests aimed to achieve greater civic rights and representation in the public sphere for Sikhs, and were gaining momentum in the 1980s under the banner of ‘Dharam Yudh Morcha’.

Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, India.

 The Harmandir Sahib is the holiest temple in the Sikh tradition, and the very heart of Sikhism. Operation Blue Star coincided, many argue intentionally, with the Sikh pilgrimage to the temple in honour of fifth Guru, thus greatly increasing the presence of Sikh civilians. The symbolic resonance of such an attack, as well as the sheer violence and loss of life, stunned Sikhs across India. Thousands of Sikh soldiers mutinied from the Indian army.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for Operation Blue Star. The assassination had serious ramifications, specifically through anti-Sikh rioting by Hindu supporters of the Prime Minister. These riots led to the deaths of thousands more Indian Sikhs.

Rahul Ghandi’s familial and political associations with this messy and destructive period are a stumbling block to winning key voters in the Panjab, particularly Sikhs, for whom the memory of Amritsar is still raw. 

India’s Future

Particularly worrying is Modi. Both the US establishment and the UK government have been building links with the politician over the past few years, anxious to win the lucrative trade agreements that would allow the US and the UK to benefit from India’s growing economy. Modi and his association with Hindu fascism is not something that can be overlooked however.

India is at a crossroads. The next election will decide what path it takes in the future. The crossroads are of even greater importance due to India being at the cusp of global leadership. Whether it is the Hindu fundamentalist BJP or the Congress party that leads India for next few years, India will be having a global impact that is felt by all, even here in the UK. Many then, will be watching anxiously, to see what the nation decides.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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