The Politics of Hindutva in India

Asian Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2003

The outcome of recent legislative elections in India’s western state of Gujarat could define the future of politics in South Asia in terms of religious polarization. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won last month’s polls in Gujarat by a landslide. But that victory was achieved by whipping up sentiment against India’s religious minorities, mainly Muslims. Gujarat was the scene last year of religious riots that caused the death of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, and forced several thousands more to leave their homes. The Gujarat BJP leader, Narendra Modi, won the majority’s support by creating the specter of “Hindus in danger.” For this dubious achievement, he earned the title “The Master Divider,” conferred by a leading Indian newsmagazine.

Mr. Modi’s success has received little attention outside the region. But given the turbulent history of South Asia, a region that has witnessed two partitions and several violent insurgencies during the last five decades, the developments in Gujarat must not be ignored.

The 1947 partition of British India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India was the result of the two-nation theory that emphasized the separate religious identity of Hindus and Muslims. Pakistan underwent division in 1971 with the emergence of Bangladesh, indicating that ethnic and linguistic differences could overcome religious unity. But the rise of Hindu nationalism (termed “Hindutva”) in India is reviving the religious confrontation of the 1940s. With Islamists defining Pakistani nationhood and Hindu ideologues in the driver’s seat in India, there is little prospect of dialogue or peace in South Asia.

As is often the case, extremism on one side is encouraging extreme ideas on the other. Moderates are gradually being squeezed out of the political arena, leaving hardliners to set the terms of the discourse. And the fact that India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons complicates this rivalry between religiously driven forms of nationalism.

The founders of modern India, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, identified with a secular nationalism that was the basis of India’s constitutional democracy. But the BJP and an assortment of Hindu political groups emphasize the communal identity. They speak of creating a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu nation, and criticize what they believe is the privileged status of religious minorities in India. They saber rattle against Pakistan, which is itself witnessing a rise in Islamist sentiment. Polarization — rather than reconciliation — and the fear of “the enemy” — rather than that of poverty, ignorance and disease — drive Hindu nationalist politics in India and Islamist politics in Pakistan.

A global war currently is under way against extremist Islamists who feel that their historic grievances justify terrorism. But the seekers of Hindu Rashtra are not yet seen as a serious threat internationally because they are confined to India and their extremism is not seen as having international ramifications. This might prove to be a grave miscalculation.

The rise of Hindu extremism serves as a catalyst for recruitment by extremist Islamists in South Asia. For that reason alone, it is and should be a cause for concern, both in India and in the international community. Hindu-revivalist organizations have defined Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra in a manner that renders adherence to minority religions and loyalty to India incompatible. Their ideology has a lot in common with that of the extremists that are the object of U.S. President George W. Bush’s war against terrorism.

Al Qaeda’s supporters attribute the weakness and backwardness of the Islamic world to the rise of the West. They justify violence, including terrorism, as a means of overcoming the weakness imposed by the colonial and post-colonial experience. They refuse to recognize the virtues of democracy or tolerance. For them, eliminating the symbols of Western power and influence are means of Islamic revival. They define Islam in a particular context and do not accept the right of others to practice it differently. The Hindutva leadership that is emerging in India also demands uniformity of belief and conformity in narrative that is similar in essence to the extremist Islamist mindset.

Extreme beliefs end in the mindset that led to Taliban rule in Afghanistan and last year’s mayhem in Gujarat. As a phenomenon, the politics of Hindutva should not be ignored merely as electoral expediency. Religious fever can in the long run only tear apart the various communities of India and harm the country’s stability. It will inspire a Muslim reaction, which will undoubtedly engulf Pakistan and Bangladesh in addition to affecting India’s own Muslim population.