Modi’s Religious Nationalism Hurts India’s Hindus, Too
Islamophobic policies harm not just Muslims, but the poor and marginalized.
The motto of the modern Indian state, printed on every note and coin, is Satyameva Jayate, a Sanskrit phrase meaning “Truth Alone Triumphs.” But the current Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come to power on a dangerous lie that they have been selling to India’s Hindus: that in a country where they make up 80 percent of the population, Hinduism is under threat—and will only prosper if they support the ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism.
I am a co-founder of a progressive Hindu organization, Hindus for Human Rights. Most of our board members and our sole staff member are Hindu Indians in the United States, and we have a deep love for India. Our ardent wish is to see our fellow Hindus freeing their hearts and minds from the hateful and harmful ideology of Hindutva, and the Islamophobia that often accompanies it.
Chain reactions sparked by Hindutva ideologies have claimed the lives of innocent people—a Muslim lynched on the suspicion that he eats beef, a Hindu woman who suffered a miscarriage while imprisoned for marrying a Muslim man, an 8-year-old Muslim girl raped and killed in a Hindu temple, and countless others. The lie has transformed nearly every aspect of Indian society beyond recognition.
Now, as India is ravaged by COVID-19, it faces the latest casualty of this lie: the official and likely undercount of 4,000 lives lost every day to a deadly second wave that was precipitated and exacerbated at every turn by Hindu nationalism.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hindu nationalists jumped on the opportunity to link the virus to Muslims, inventing the conspiracy theory of “coronajihad.” That had real consequences: Muslims were beaten and denied hospital beds, and Muslim health care workers were ostracized.
The Modi government and right-wing media particularly seized upon a conference hosted in Delhi in March 2020, by a Muslim organization, the Tablighi Jamaat. This conference with just 9,000 attendees took place before any government COVID-19 restrictions were in place, at the same time as India’s largest Hindu temples were welcoming tens of thousands of devotees. The Tirupati temple, the world’s richest and most visited Hindu temple, limited its visitors to 4,000 people per hour on March 17, and it did not fully close until March 20.
Yet, unlike Hindu temple officials, organizers and attendees of the Tablighi Jamaat’s conference were met with widespread hate and criminal charges for hosting a superspreader event. Many were arrested, and some are still awaiting trial. All of this was done in the name of public health.
One year later, the BJP is directly responsible for putting millions of Hindu lives at risk—and it doesn’t have a convenient Muslim scapegoat to pin the blame on. In the name of upholding Hindu traditions and beliefs, the BJP government decided to hold the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious gathering, in the middle of a pandemic. The Kumbh was scheduled for 2022, but the BJP government of India’s Uttarakhand state moved it forward to 2021 based on the recommendations of astrologers. Many, including some ministers in the BJP itself, argue that the true reasons were political and economic. In advancing the Kumbh by a year, the BJP allowed 9 million Hindus to gather without masks and social distancing, ushering in the deadliest phase of the pandemic.
Thanks to the BJP’s claim of protecting Hindu interests, India has been plunged into its biggest crisis since the bloodbath of the 1947 Partition, which took the lives of as many as 2 million people. Just as the violence of 1947 targeted Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs alike, today’s coronavirus is wreaking equal-opportunity havoc on all faith communities, with the poorest being the hardest hit.
India is the only vaccine-producing country in the world where citizens are having to pay for COVID-19 vaccinations and medicines, and all citizens except the super-elite are scrambling to get their loved ones the life-saving resources they need. I have friends and colleagues who have resorted to getting the antiviral medicine remdesivir on the black market at exorbitant rates. As in any crisis, the poorest and most marginalized are the hardest hit. If middle-class, upper-caste Hindu Indians are scrambling for medicines and hospital beds, I shudder to think of the situation that most marginalized in India—the Dalits (the community that was relegated below the Hindu caste system and formerly called “untouchables”), Adivasis (India’s Indigenous communities), or the 134 million living in on less than $2 a day—are facing.
India’s COVID-19 crisis is a clear indication that under Hindutva, India is on a dark and dangerous trajectory that serves only the tiniest cohort of elite citizens. But this is by no means the first warning. Looking back at the Modi government’s record, there is no example in which Hindus have benefited from Hindu nationalist policies.
Much like other far-right ethnonationalist political parties, the BJP is fixated on illegal immigration—in India’s case, from Bangladesh. Although earlier Indian governments had initiated a process of creating a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam, the Modi government took to the NRC project with great gusto, eager to capitalize on a supposed invasion of Bangladeshi Muslims in order to win Hindu votes. BJP President Amit Shah repeatedly referred to Bangladeshi migrants as “termites,” promising that the BJP “will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”
Yet, when the dust settled and the NRC list was completed, it turned out that the majority of those in Assam who could not prove their citizenship and were assumed to have immigrated illegally were Hindus and other non-Muslims. Out of nearly 2 million people, 1.2 million of them were Hindus and other non-Muslims.
To safeguard against the possibility of Hindus being stripped of Indian citizenship, the Modi government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which offers an expedited path to citizenship for people of all faiths from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—except Muslims. That way, even if non-Muslims were excluded from NRC lists, they would still have a pathway to Indian citizenship.
The potential threat of a nationwide NRC, coupled with the exclusionary criteria of the Citizenship Amendment Act, sparked massive protests across India, which were halted only because of COVID-19. In the meantime, even the people the BJP claimed would benefit from the new citizenship law have not seen any benefits. India’s home ministry hasn’t even drafted guidelines to put the law into effect, meaning that to date no religious minority refugees from India’s neighbors have actually been given citizenship under the act. Instead, hundreds of Hindu and Sikh refugees have returned to Pakistan.
In the disputed Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir, the Modi government’s actions have been wide-ranging and destructive, including jailing political leaders, denying internet access to 12.5 million people for 18 months, and revoking the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy.
Modi and the BJP justified these policies by claiming that they were “integrating” Kashmir with the rest of India and creating a safe environment to facilitate the return of Kashmiri Pandits: Kashmir’s Hindu population, many of whom were forced to flee from the region following threats and violence in the 1990s.
Yet nearly two years after the Modi government revoked Kashmir’s autonomy, Pandits living in Kashmir argue that they have not benefited in any way from BJP policy on Kashmir. Three decades after their forced exodus from Kashmir, tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandit families are still living in squalid conditions as internally displaced people in refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi. Just last month, Kashmiri Pandits told a fact-finding delegation that they face even more resentment now from their fellow Kashmiri Muslims, who blame them for the abrogation of Article 370, which stipulated the territory’s autonomy, and call them a “Trojan horse” of New Delhi.
When asked why they support the Modi government, many advocates of Hindu nationalism point to medieval history, particularly the destruction of Hindu temples by Muslim rulers that the government has pledged to rebuild. The best-known example is the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir (Rama’s Birthplace Temple) in Ayodhya, which is currently being built over the remains of a 500-year-old mosque that was demolished in 1992 by a Hindu nationalist mob. In a decision celebrated by Modi, the BJP, and right-wing Hindus worldwide, India’s Supreme Court decided in November 2019 to hand over the site of the demolished mosque to Hindus who wished to build a temple to the god Rama.
And yet the BJP has been accused of demolishing temples to Rama and other deities in various parts of India. The BJP demolished a temple to Rama in Nagpur, as part of a city development project, in 2018. Despite Varanasi being a holy site for many Hindus, the BJP has demolished many temples in the city, which also happens to be Modi’s constituency, enraging many residents of the city. Hindutva proponents have also been desecrating temples to the spiritual leader Shirdi Sai Baba, worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike.
As the Urdu poet Jagan Nath Azad wrote after the mosque destruction in 1992, “Your deed has not harmed Islam a bit / But you have stabbed a knife into the heart of Hindu religion.”
The BJP government’s platform, since its election in 2014, has been based on the false promise that Hindu nationalism is the path to “acche din” (good days). The ongoing COVID-19 crisis reveals a truth that many of us have known all along: You cannot build a thriving society on a foundation of hate.
Hindus are taught to see the divine in everyone they encounter. This radically inclusive philosophy is diametrically opposed to Hindutva. By allowing Hindutva ideology to become so entrenched in our communities, in religious and social spaces as well as in politics, we have suffered a loss even deeper than the material losses: We have betrayed our faith itself.
Update, May 27, 2021: This article was updated to more precisely define Dalits.
Sunita Viswanath is a co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights. The views expressed are the author’s alone.