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Narendra Modi and the Question of Hindu Nationalism in India- Part I

The emergence of India as a rising economic power with over 137 million people lifted out of poverty between 2005 and 2012, which is a long overdue and welcome development. Despite this, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term from 2009 to 2014 was characterized by endemic corruption, economic stagnation and political infighting between the various coalition parties in the Indian National Congress-led government.

Under Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) capitalized on the weaknesses of Singh’s second term and swept to power in May 2014’s General Election. Over 550 million votes were cast, making it the biggest democratic exercise in the world. The election saw the National Congress party, India’s traditional party of government, effectively wiped out giving India its first majority government since 1984.

Narendra Modi in a BJP National Executive Meeting.

The BJP’s electoral mandate was to reverse perceptions of India as the economic ‘sick man’ of Asia, driven in part by the major role being played by neighbouring China in the global economy. The business-minded vision Modi presented in 2014 appealed to an increasingly aspirant, dynamic and youthful electorate who set aside concerns regarding Hindu nationalism in favour of an economic agenda that pushed “Brand India”. The hope of many Indians was that Modi could bring to India the same dynamism which helped turn Gujarat into the country’s fastest growing state during Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister from 2001 to 2014.

Since Modi’s election, the mood has distinctly shifted. Minority religious groups including the Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities have reported incidents of violence by Hindu nationalists, among them supporters of the BJP and proxy parties such as the Shiv Sena. As Modi aggressively pushes internationally the image of a dynamic economy and multicultural democracy crying out for foreign investment, trouble is brewing domestically. There are now concerns, especially amongst mainstream Hindu opinion, that Modi is passive or indifferent to extremist elements that seek to inflict an assertive form of Hinduism on Indian minorities.

Hindu nationalist attacks in India

In recent months, multiple incidents have been brought to the attention of the Western press, shedding light on a situation that has been brewing since Modi’s election. On September 28, Mohammad Akhlaq, a 52-year-old Muslim man, was brutally lynched in Dadri village just 45km from the capital New Delhi. The targeting of Mohammad Akhlaq and his nine family members by Hindu mobs armed with makeshift weapons was driven by untrue rumours that they had been storing and consuming beef at home.

The slaughter and consumption of cows is anathema to Hindus, who make up 80% of India’s 1.2 billion people. The animal is considered sacred due to the belief that over a million Hindu deities reside in a cow’s body. Thus to extremist Hindus, the death of a cow is viewed as a national crime. It is worth highlighting that Uttar Pradesh is among the 24 of India’s 29 states that has recently tightened the laws banning cow slaughter and the transportation, sale and consumption of beef. These laws are concurrent with Indian state legislatures where the BJP party has a sizable presence.

On October 8 Hindu nationalist violence erupted in the parliamentary assembly of the disputed region of Kashmir. On live television, representatives from the Bharatiya Janata Party set upon Rashid Ahmed, an independent Member of Parliament (MP) and Kashmiri Muslim, simply on the accusation that he had served beef at a social gathering the previous night.

Later on October 12, Hindu nationalists from the Shiv Sena political party, the coalition partner for the BJP in the Maharashtra state government, attacked Sudheendra Kulkarni, the former head of the Observer Research Foundation think tank in Mumbai. Kulkarni was doused in industrial black ink that required hospital treatment to be removed, simply for inviting a former Pakistani foreign minister to discuss an upcoming book. The Shiv Sena party was founded in 1966 to keep south Indian migrants out of Maharashtra state and to halt the spread of Islam, and was involved in sectarian violence during the 1984 Bhiwandi riot and the 1992-1993 Bombay riots.

In each of these attacks, there is a disturbing affiliation between the perpetrators and the Bharatiya Janata Party. This problem has been exacerbated by a perceived indifference on Modi’s part to publicly condemn actions by party members. In context, political and religiously motivated violence is nothing new in a society as vast and diverse as India. The 1984 massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi occurred under the National Congress government, souring Sikh and Hindu relations in India ever since. Likewise, there have been recent protests by Sikhs after a torn-up copy of Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikhism’s holy book, was found in Punjab state. However the governing BJP is an explicitly Hindu nationalist political force.

While this is no way suggests that the BJP is a theocratic party (it is after all a democratic party). There is nonetheless a concern regarding the party’s interpretation of pluralism and the creation of a climate in which extremist elements may further push a Hindu nationalist agenda.

Part II will look at the legacy of Gujarat, which fuels this concern.

John Pollock
John Pollock holds a Master of Arts in International Security and Terrorism from the University of Nottingham. Since graduation he has worked in Brussels and London focusing on international relations. His areas of research are on security and foreign policy issues facing China, Japan and the wider Asia-Pacific.