Narendra Modi and the future of Neheruvian secularism

Muhammad Mahmood     | Published: June 09, 2019 21:29:18 | Updated: June 14, 2019 21:32:11

Narendra Modi led his Hindu supremist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) to a spectacular second term victory to power winning 303 seats in a parliament of 543 giving his party absolute majority to rule India. The federal election in India itself is a monumental task and considered to be the world's biggest electoral process taking almost a month to complete it, involving 900 million voters. The voter turnout was impressive at 67 per cent giving him the clear mandate to carry though his project to turn India into a fully-fledged Hindu nation. The noted Indian journalist Saeed Naqvi said "with election verdict, the majority Hindus have given vent to their unfulfilled aspiration for a Hindu India. This process is going to intensify in the coming decades''. In effect the 2014 election manifesto of BJP contained the pledge to transform India into a Hindu Raj (Hindu state) and also included building a Hindu temple on the site of the razed Babri Mosque (it was razed while the Congress was in power). The BJP does not have a single Muslim member among its 303 members of the federal parliament. 43 per cent all newly elected members of parliament face criminal charges up from 32 per cent before.

This electoral victory was won when India was experiencing its highest level of unemployment in the last 45 years of the country's history. In rural India, where two thirds of the population live are faced with falling commodity prices, rising debt and drought despite Modi's promise of rejuvenating the rural economy. This mass unemployment, chronic poverty and squalor, agrarian distress seemed have had no impact on the voters to give the BJP a resounding victory. The election resulted in the Congress Party's  dynastic head Rahul Gandhi to lose  his seat in the family constituency of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh despite his visits to Hindu temples and putting on colours on his forehead and his party's championing of cow protection and other Hindu causes in various state elections, however he retained a seat from Kerala.

The voters also seemed have opted for BJP's jingoistic election campaign. To further add fuel to the fury, the insurgency in the India-administered Kashmir killing many Indian security personnel in February gave Modi to give his spin to fight on terror and the implicit message to his base was not lost, "Islamic terror". Kashmir has been experiencing armed rebellion since the partition of British Colonial India. An estimated close to 100,000 Kashmiris has been killed since then. Almost 500,000 Indian security personnel are stationed in Kashmir to fight rebels who want an independent Kashmir. In Assam the BJP based its campaign on expelling Bengali Muslims not Hindu Bengalis form the state. BJP president Amit Shah described Bengali Muslims in Assam as "termites'' and "infiltrators''.  Shah further added if re-elected he would throw these Bengali Muslims into Bay of Bengal.  In Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath in election rallies whipped anti-Muslim rhetoric describing them as "green virus''. These are the rhetoric that his base wanted to hear and he gave it to them. In certain states such as West Bengal a party like CPI (M) seems to have made a Faustian bargain with BJP to undermine the current state government there to pave the way for a BJP victory. The BJP won 18 seats in the state up from two seats before. One of the successful BJP Candidate from West Bengal is a former CPI (M) state legislator, Khagan Murmu.

VICTORY OF HINDUTVA IDEOLOGY:  Modi's electoral victory is also considered as the victory of Hindutva ideology. The ideology's   proponent is the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an all-male organisation established in 1925. The RSS is the world's largest voluntary organisation and its membership now stands at around 5 million, and the BJP is the political wing the RSS established in 1980. Modi started his political career in the RSS as a Pracharak, then moved onto join the political wing of the RSS. During 2019 election the Sangh Parivar the organisation of Hindu nationalist organisations such as the World Hindu Council (VHP), Bajrang Dal, BJP and its predecessor Jana Sangh spawned by the RSS has provided the full organisational weight behind Modi. Also, a pliable mainstream or more precisely the corporate media also played a very positive role in catapulting the BJP to get re-elected.

The BJP and its history are mired in espousing militant Hindu activism. Two of the founding leaders of the RSS Madhav Sadashiv Golwaker and Vinayak Damodar Savakar were known to be admirers of Hitler and Mussolini. Savakar purportedly even took inspiration from Hitler's genocide against the Jews and said "if we Hindus in India grow stronger, in time these Muslim friends of the (Muslim) League type will have to play the part of German Jews instead'.  In 1938 when Hitler accelerated anti-Jewish legislations in Germany, Savakar openly advocated a similar fate for Muslims in India. Golwaker enthusiastically advocated for an India completely dominated by Hindus. In fact, such refusal of the RSS against an inclusive India can be found in his saying about Muslims in India. If one replaces the word German with Hindu, Golwaker's words would match Hitler's words almost exactly. The founder of the RSS Keshav Baliram Hedgewar also openly agitated for the strict segregation of Hindus and Muslims.

The RSS and by implication its political wing the BJP have always stood against an inclusive Indian social and political order and staunchly remain committed against liberal values. The BJP now has embarked on a mission to create a Hindu India which will now further strengthen with rhetoric more opposed to Muslims in India.

Under the BJP rule the holy cow and its dung and urine have taken a central position in espousing the Hindutva ideology and in the persecution and murder of Muslims. Mobs of cow vigilantes styled as "cow protectors'' in India have murdered and lynched Muslims suspected of eating beef and the scene has become increasingly common in India. Worse even in "secular'' India some states even legislated to ban slaughter and eating of beef adding fuel to the cow vigilantes mob frenzy against Muslims. India under the BJP rule, indeed, has socially become the most polarised country.

NEHRUVIAN SECULARISM: Meanwhile, Modi's agenda of creating a singular identity of India based on Hindutva is creating a great degree of anxiety among Indian liberals for discrediting and destabilising the Indian state. In particular, these liberals are concerned about secularism in India as envisaged by Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. In fact, the word "secularism" is incorporated in the preamble of the Indian constitution. What does exactly the word secularism mean remain unclear given that in Hindi (official language of India) or for that matter any other Indian languages including Bengali, there is no word for secularism. Therefore, it is not something that the people in the country can relate to. It remains a mystery to me how Nehru could convey that idea of secularism to vastly illiterate Indians both Hindus and Muslims when they do not have a word corresponding to secularism in their vocabulary.  This is why many termed it as the Nehruvian secularism because it was Nehru's idea of secularism and he never elaborated that idea at least for those who could grapple it. But many Indian Pundits and liberals have given their interpretation to it in such terms as religious neutrality, opposition to communalism and more or less similar types of interpretations by others espousing a secular India but nothing really convey the idea of secularism. From the perspectives provided on Nehruvian secularism by Indian liberals and academic scholars, the rise of Hindu majoritarianism is something very opposed to the idea of Nehruvian secularism.

That India is a secular state or has been one, is just stretching the imagination too far. The idea of Hindu majoritarianism has always been very alive in the Indian National Congress led by Nehru. It is not something the BJP has invented in the recent past. Nehru's rejection of Jinnah's very realistic federated India was basically premised on the Hindu majority of the newly created India out of British colonial India. He could not stand for anything that would dilute Hindu majority in any form or shape. In a country made up of very large disparate ethnicities and with linguistic differences, Hindu identity was seen as the only glue that could enable the country to remain united. The Congress even during its hey days including the period under the leadership of Nehru never tried to rein in Hindu nationalist organisations like the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal or other similar ones who have been very vocal in demanding a Hindu state.

The holy cow and its symbolism were not far from Nehru also.  Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India was reported to have asked his staff to cleanse the kitchen of the presidential palace with cow dung before he could move in, but when Nehru found it out, he put a stop to it. If the report is correct, Nehruvian secularists have a problem that Prasad was a close political associate of  Nehru and Gandhi.

In post-independent India, the rich Muslim cultural heritage and traditions have effectively been neutralised in an effort to create a unitary nationalist polity in India within the framework of the understood ideology of Hindu majoritarianism. And this is in summary Neheruvian secularism if one wishes to call it that way. No wonder Narendra Modi in his victory speech clearly spoken out to update "the Indian secularism'' and claimed that his updated version of "appeasing majority'' is shared by all political parties as reflected in the recent election campaigns conducted by these parties. Commenting on the 2019 election manifesto of the Congress, the Indian Express noted in an editorial " In comparison to its earlier manifestos in 2009 and 2014, the Congress is less forthcoming on minorities, which have felt besieged in the BJP led regime''.

In effect, the impoverishment of Muslims in India and their culture and identity and identifying them as the "other'' started right on the day India emerged as an independent state. The Hindu majoritarianism has taken such a firm root in the country that Muslim representation in democratic institution has been on the decline for a considerable period of time, and that process has further accelerated with the ascendency of the BJP as the main political force in the country. Muslims in India account for about 15 per cent of population, already very poor and badly educated have been excluded from the caste-based reservation system for state patronage. The Hindu majoritarianism under Nehru was understood but not spoken, but under Modi Hindu majoritarianism is spoken and spoken loudly leaving behind no ambiguity. In effect, the BJP has not created the fault line of religious divide, it just further deepened it.

Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.


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