The Slow Death of Gandhi’s India
Narendra Modi is sacrificing inclusive democracy for Hindu supremacism.
By Debasish Roy Chowdhury
Early in the life of India’s republic, a public confrontation broke out at the very top of the Indian establishment. The nation’s president, Rajendra Prasad, had accepted an invitation to inaugurate the newly renovated Somnath temple. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was furious on learning the news. He wrote to provincial chief ministers with word of his dissent. “It should be clearly understood that this function is not governmental,” he declared. “We must not do anything that comes in the way of our state being secular. This is the basis of the Constitution and governments.”
India’s founding leaders gave the country a secular constitution guaranteeing equal citizenship for all. Its design was intended as an ideological rebuttal to the claim that Hindus and Muslims could not work within the boundaries of a single nation — a contention that had cleaved the subcontinent in 1947 into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.
Nehru stood for complete separation between the state and religion. India’s traumatic partition had sparked enormous religious riots. One of history’s greatest refugee crises followed, and up to 2 million were killed. A state-led inauguration of a restored Hindu temple once destroyed by Islamic invaders, now seemed to Nehru a potentially divisive exercise in Hindu revivalism. But his concerns did not prevail — on May 11th, 1951, Prasad opened the temple anyway.
The episode illustrated independent India’s troubled relationship with religion. Prasad had gotten his way. But the secular ideals of Nehru and Gandhi remained the new state’s guiding principle: while still alive, Gandhi had ensured the Somnath temple’s renovation would be funded exclusively by private donations, rather than government funds, to maintain the state’s distance.
Seven decades on, such debates seem grimly redundant. Under Narendra Modi, secularism has lost. An unapologetic Hindu nationalist who rode to national power in 2014, Prime Minister Modi has dispensed with any pretense at impartiality in a quest for a Hindu state. “Sickulars” are mocked by his supporters as the relics of an old era, as distinctions between party, government, religion and nation are systematically erased. Last December, Modi unveiled a project to modernize the ancient Hindu temple town of Varanasi. In a day-long spectacle, the Prime Minister performed on live television a series of Hindu religious rites, complete with a ritualistic dip in the Ganges draped in Hindu monastic colors. This January, he inaugurated a government rest house for Hindu pilgrims: It would serve visitors to Somnath temple.
Inclusive no more
Modi is the culmination of an almost century-long Hindu nationalist movement by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a giant right-wing paramilitary organization. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is its political arm. The early ideologues of the RSS viewed India’s inclusive constitution as a grave mistake. Equal citizenship for all appeared to them as an unthinking imitation of Western ideals, led by Anglophiles like Nehru.
India’s secularism, in the RSS formulation, has reduced Hindus to “second-order citizens.” It advocates remaking India’s republic as a Hindu-supremacist state, restoring what it sees as a glorious Hindu civilizational past prior to the arrival of Muslim or British invaders. Through Modi’s back-to-back election victories, the RSS sees its best chance of executing this majoritarian project.
At the heart of this campaign lies the humiliation and othering of minorities, in particular Muslims. Constituting only 14 percent of the population, they are easily outnumbered by Hindus, who account for 80 percent of Indians. But Hindu nationalism depends both ideologically and strategically on Muslims’ subjugation and exclusion, rallying a disparate Hindu voter base with the bogeyman of Islam.
A new law piloted by the BJP has for the first time linked nationality to religion, excluding Muslim refugees from seeking citizenship. Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, has been stripped of its autonomy and statehood, and cleaved into two federally administered regions without any consultation with its elected representatives, who were thrown into jail en masse. BJP-ruled states are legislating a raft of new laws against interfaith marriages, cow slaughter and proselytization by non-Hindus, legalizing discrimination against Muslims.
History is being rewritten to erase India’s syncretic past and reinforce a Hindu nationalist narrative. Muslim public figures are being silenced and public spaces cleansed of Muslim names by replacing them with Sanskritised words. Cross-faith representation in Indian politics is under systematic assault too. Of the BJP’s 301 members in the directly elected Lower House of Parliament, not one is Muslim.
While the state flaunts the religion of the majority, Muslims are being prevented from praying and excluded for displaying their cultural markers. Students wearing hijabs, or headscarves are being barred from attending classes, while Hindu scriptures are included in school and college curriculums. Muslims are frequently lynched by mobs animated by a vicious disinformation campaign run by the BJP, and their businesses face attacks and boycotts. Open calls of genocide by Hindu supremacists aligned with the governing party have become commonplace. These degradations offer a daily reminder of the Hindu-dominated hierarchy that Modi is trying to engineer, dismantling the constitutionally mandated equality envisioned by Gandhi and Nehru.
The contrast between Muslims’ public humiliation and the state’s Hindu pageantry reinforces a message of Hindu primacy. Such triumphalist displays go to the heart of the BJP’s politics. The party’s rise to national prominence in the 1990s sprang from a project with similar majoritarian symbolism — to demolish a mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya and replace it with a Hindu temple. Without clear proof, the party claimed Muslim rulers had built the 16th century mosque after destroying an ancient temple of the Hindu god Ram that originally stood in its place. In 1992, the movement reached its apogee when a frenzied Hindu mob tore down the mosque, launching the BJP from the fringes of Indian politics onto its center stage.
A year after being re-elected in 2019, Modi laid the foundation stone for a grand temple to Ram at the site of the razed mosque, cementing the symbolic triumph of Hindu majoritarianism over the secular state. He was helped in no small measure by the country’s Supreme Court, which handed the land to the same groups behind the mosque’s destruction, and ordered a temple be built at the spot. The judges had in effect ruled that Hindus’ belief that a temple once existed at the site outweighed material proof of the mosque’s centuries-long existence.
Descent into illiberalism
The Ayodhya ruling by the country’s highest court is but one example of the institutional rot precipitated by Modi’s ascent to power. The collapse of secularism has been accompanied by a broader process of democratic decline, since the very creation of a Hindu state demands the subversion of India’s secular constitution. State capture of democratic institutions is thus a feature of “Hindutva,” as the politics of Hindu nationalism is called. The judiciary, designed as a counter to majoritarian impulses, is among the institutions that have capitulated to Modi’s illiberalism. Just this week, a state High Court upheld a ban on hijabs in classrooms. India’s media is degenerating at a similar pace.
The Ayodhya event was marked by Modi’s signature, telegenic pomp, enabled by fawning television channels. The Prime Minister has used a mixture of intimidation, inside access and business favors to turn some of the biggest media houses in India from barking watchdogs into supine poodles. Today, India ranks a lowly 142nd out of 180 territories in the World Press Freedom Index, behind the military-ruled states of Myanmar (140) and Thailand (137). Nowhere is this decline more evident than in the primetime news shows where obsequious anchors laud the government’s brilliance and harangue its critics. Some of them blatantly echo the BJP’s Islamophobia.
Government institutions are undergoing a similar partisan makeover. Federal investigative agencies are brazenly used against opposition figures. The election commission looks away as BJP leaders masquerade hate speech as legitimate canvassing. Even the once apolitical military has been appropriated as a political prop, and branded “Modi’s army” by his party leaders.
Modi’s targets go well beyond India’s core institutions. As with all strongmen, first in his firing line is the constitutional right to dissent. The country’s jails have been filled with political prisoners on trumped up charges of sedition. India also leads the world in internet blackouts: last year it made more content removal requests to search engines and social media networks than any country bar Russia. As Modi sees it, India’s focus on rights has made the nation weak.
Little wonder then that since 2014, India has fallen 26 places in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index to join the ranks of “flawed democracies.” Sweden’s V-Dem Institute goes further, now classifying India as an “electoral autocracy.”
‘Temple of democracy’
Modi’s centralization of power and growing personality cult is more becoming of a Central Asian dictatorship than the world’s biggest democracy.
One in three BJP voters in the 2019 general election said they had voted for the party purely for Modi, and would have voted differently had another candidate been on the ballot. Personal popularity isn’t dangerous in and of itself — but Modi has weaponized it to quash dissent and build a cult of personality. Dependent on his political magnetism for electoral victory, the BJP’s ministers and legislators exist and serve at Modi’s pleasure. All executive decisions are his; the cabinet is a sideshow. So is the legislature, where the BJP’s brute majority allows Modi to railroad laws without consensus or debate. The government before Modi sent 71 percent of bills to multipartisan committees for closer examination. Today, that figure is 12 percent.
India’s representatives now have little role in legislation, reduced to merely rubber-stamping the decisions made by Modi’s close circle of political strategists and technocrats. In 2019, as India’s Parliament passed a spate of laws with little or no debate, one exasperated opposition parliamentarian tweeted: “Are we delivering pizzas or passing legislation?” Modi likes to call the Parliament the “temple of democracy.” Hollowed out of substance, it now exists merely to consecrate the path ordained by the supreme leader.
As its institutions weaken and fail, Indian democracy has a difficult path ahead. In search of hope, its supporters might look to the past. Modi is not the first Indian leader to try and play god, and Indians have fended off egregious attacks on their constitutional rights before. In 1975, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency, which suspended fundamental rights, censored the media and arrested her political opponents. When she allowed elections to resume almost two years later, her party was routed.
Modi’s creeping destruction of democracy, which his critics often describe as an “undeclared emergency,” has proven to be more resilient so far. The flames of communal hatred fanned by his party blinds its supporters to the Prime Minister’s many failures — most obviously his epic mishandling of the Covid situation. His government provides a constant drumbeat of supremacist provocations to keep supporters on side: it is currently promoting a film on a “genocide” of Hindus supposedly perpetrated by Muslim terrorists during the 1990s.
As a rudderless opposition struggles to contest his supremacist ideology or dent his popularity, Modi’s radicalization of India’s Hindu majority looks set to continue unchallenged. In the worst case scenario, the nation’s institutions would become entirely captured, the constitution rewritten, the Parliament reduced to an ornamental façade of democracy, and elections transformed into a ritual for validating the hegemonic power of Hindutva.
Indians’ deeply ingrained democratic instincts and the nation’s extraordinary diversity provide some counter currents to the political and cultural homogeneity that Modi’s illiberalism seeks to impose. But recent elections suggest the politics of Hindutva is prevailing nonetheless. In contests held across five states, the BJP triumphed in four when the results were announced this month. The fifth was won by a party that subscribes to a softer version of Hindutva and studiously avoids speaking up for minority rights.
The most spectacular of the BJP’s victories was in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Its chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-clad monk-cum-politician, has built his career on encouraging the persecution of Muslims. A BJP hardliner who makes Modi look like a liberal, Adityanath rose to power on the back of a vigilante Hindu army with a long history of violence and sectarian incitements. In January, he framed the election as a fight between “80 percent and 20 percent,” a thinly veiled reference to Uttar Pradesh’s religious makeup. Armed with fresh validation for his politics of hate, he is now seen as a potential future prime minister.
In his victory speech, Modi declared “2022 has decided 2024,” referring to the national election in two years. But with Hindutva on the ascent, it may have decided the fate of India’s secular republic as well.
Debasish Roy Chowdhury is co-author of To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage To Despotism.