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Hindu Nationalism: Is the world’s largest democracy in danger?


Videos going viral on social media were pouring out of the north-eastern Indian state of Assam earlier this month, where the ruling party has amounted an incredibly brutal, violent, and objectively disturbing eviction campaign against Muslims. It is tempting to see images of policemen murdering unarmed civilians as a reflection of the tortured psyche of an unhinged individual. But as George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin revealed America’s structural problems of racial inequality and systemic violence, the shocking scenes in Assam conform to India’s state-sponsored culture of religious antagonism and violence. His question is on the lips of foreign policy advisers around the globe: is Prime Minister Modi going to commit democratic suicide?

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which Modi heads, has never tried to hide its aim of creating a Hindu rashtra – a nation, and government, almost exclusively containing and representing Hindus. And, to no one’s surprise, the rhetoric which accompanies this policy aim will only inflame communal divisions. In the last few years, the BJP, and the even further right-wing Hindu nationalists at its base, have branded intercommunal relationships as part of a “love jihad”, where Muslim men marry Hindu women to erode India’s Hindu numerical superiority. More recently, right-wing extremists have rallied for the eradication of Islam from the subcontinent, while in Chhattisgarh state, thousands of Hindus armed with weapons attack the people and property of a Muslim neighbourhood. Violence is only causing more violence, and this cycle is proven to not stop itself.

In truth, India has never really recovered from the arbitrary 1947 partition, which divided British India into Modi’s India, West Pakistan (Pakistan), and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) along religious lines. The problem is, British colonialists pedalled an incredibly selective view of history with a deliberate policy of ‘divide and rule’, inciting communal divisions in an attempt to make overseeing the most populous country on earth more manageable. Unfortunately, it was incredibly successful. Ever since, myths such as Muslims being foreign invaders intent on conversion and domination ever since the 8th century have scoured the political landscape. In reality, for much of the past millennia, whether it be in the Delhi Sultanate of the 13th century or the Mughal courts of the early modern period, Hindus in the royal harem, a high level of religious tolerance and acceptance, and peaceful co-existence have been consistent themes of Islamic polities and their adaptation to Hindustan. Without a return to an unselective, bipartisan view of history, I see little chance of popular myths being disproved. But don’t hold your breath, for it is the Pakistani and Indian states themselves who benefit from and uphold them.

You might find it strange, then, that Boris Johnson was so willing to claim that “the UK and India share many fundamental values” at a virtual summit earlier this year. As the self-proclaimed 21st century Churchill, you can imagine his paternalistic pride when following it with “The UK is one of the oldest democracies. And India is the world’s largest”. But this kind of flattery of Modi isn’t unique, with President Biden cosying up in a similar manner with the benefits of India’s potentially huge economy and role as China’s geopolitical counterweight in mind. 

Yet as they do, the world’s largest democracy is fundamentally changing, raising the question whether the West can continue to champion liberal democracy, while getting into bed with a country that, some say, is no longer democratic at all. Recently, the V-Dem Institute, which tracks the health of democracies, has reclassified India as an “electoral autocracy”, citing its declining civil liberties and its increasingly corrupt, non-secular institutions. Elsewhere, Christophe Jaffrelot’s new book ‘Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy’ identifies a new authoritarian Hindu Raj, while Debasish Chowdhury and John Keane’s ‘To Kill a Democracy’ suggests India’s democratic system has been decaying from its inception in 1947. These three recent publications all come to the same conclusion: that India is part of the global tide of “autocratisation” which brought in the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. 

Yet Trump got voted out, and Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have plummeted of late, yet it seems highly improbable that Modi and the BJP won’t win the 2024 election. It is because their appeal goes beyond politics. Modi has succeeded in embodying, for millions, India and Indianness, with his selfless and fearless commitment to national interest. But if a continuation of “autocratisation” continues for the rest of the decade, relying on India to champion the West’s democratic ideals in the face of Chinese authoritarianism could become an awkward paradox. Time will tell.

The country’s political future is uncertain, with huge ramifications for geopolitics over the next decade. But of one thing we can be sure. That liberal secularism, championed by Gandhi, Nehru, and even Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, is a thing of the past.

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