Religion in South Asian politics
I will start with a discussion of India before continuing but briefly on their nations of the subcontinent. After striving to create a nation out of extreme diversity, India initially succeeded. This is the conclusion reached by Indian-American historian Sunil Khilnani in his book The Idea of India. The thesis developed in the book was based on the assumption that India had created a system of governance that had, by and large, integrated religion, language, caste and ethnic adversity into inclusive political economic structures. The Indian constitution whose principal author was the untouchable lawyer Ambedkar granted several rights to people who were not traditional Hindus. This started to change, first gradually and then quickly when Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to political power.
Modi, after serving as chief minister of Gujarat in western India, became prime minister in 2014. By winning the majority of seats in Lok Sabah, the lower house of India’s parliament, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) of Modi was able to form a full-fledged government. Previous administrations were multi-party coalitions led by Congress. Modi came to Delhi with a reputation as a Hindu community leader. In 2002, a train fire killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. Although there was uncertainty as to the cause of the fire, violent Hindu mobs targeted the Muslim community, leaving over 1,000 dead, including several burned to death. Modi, as chief minister, could have prevented the massacre, but he looked the other way, allowing the crowd to collect the Muslims from their homes.
By winning a larger majority in the 2019 elections than in 2014, Prime Minister Modi and the BJP decided that India was ready to adopt Hindutva as its governing philosophy. This approach held that India was a Hindu nation and should, therefore, base governance on the Hindutva concept of governance. Adopting this as a governmental approach, India began to accord lower status to minority religions even when their numbers were large, as was the case with the Muslim population. In 2021, the number of Muslims was estimated at 200 million out of a population of 1.4 billion.
Hindu extremists in Indian politics have stepped up their attacks on Muslims, encouraged by senior officials in the Modi government and the BJP. According to a February 8, 2022 report filed by New York Times reporters from the city of Haridwar, “In front of a packed house and thousands of onlookers online, the monks had called for violence against the country’s Muslim minority. Speeches by monks in one of the holiest cities promoted a genocidal campaign to “kill two million of them” and called for ethnic cleansing of the type that targeted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The event was organized by Yati Narsinghanand, a Hindu extremist, who continued to deliver speeches deemed to spread hatred. He viewed Indian Muslims as the enemies of the Hindu state and, given their higher than Indian average birth rate, was likely to turn India into a Muslim state within a decade or two.
Once seen as fringe elements of Indian politics, extremists were spreading their message more blatantly into the mainstream. This provoked hatred with the aim of transforming the constitutionally protected secular republic of India into a Hindu state. Modi remained silent. “You have people who are giving hate speech, in effect calling for the genocide of an entire group, and we see that the authorities are reluctant to book these people,” said Rohinton Fali Nariman, a recently retired Indian Supreme Court justice. , at a public conference. “Unfortunately, the other upper echelons of the ruling party are not only silent on hate speech, they are almost approving of it.”
Hindu extremists celebrated Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi. Pooja Sahkun Pandey, a temple monk in Haridwar, staged re-enactments of Gandhi’s assassination, firing a bullet into his effigy as blood flowed. Godse was a member of the Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh, RSS, a century-old right-wing Hindu group that borrowed heavily from the Nazi Party in Germany. Modi is also a member of RSS. The current campaign has been led by Narsinghananad, an extremist, who gained attention after parliament passed a citizenship amendment seen as discriminatory against Muslims. When the Muslim community protested, Narsinghananad called for violence using the language of a “final battle”. He had no problem encouraging his followers to murder Muslims. “They are jihadists and we will have to finish them off.” His program, and that of those who agreed with him, was to rework the Indian political system. “This Constitution will be the end of the Hindus, of the billion Hindus,” he said in a speech. “Anyone who believes in this system, in this Supreme Court, in these politicians, in this Constitution, in this army and this police, will die like a dog.”
The next test for the rise of Hinduism came in February 2022 when Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state and one of the poorest, began a month-long voting process to elect a new provincial legislature. Modi had given the post of chief minister of the state to Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk. He was seen by some as a potential successor to the Prime Minister. He went on TV to frame the election in terms of “80 to 20” – a thinly veiled reference to the rough percentage of Hindis in the state compared to Muslims. Would this approach work for the BJP? It made. The BJP won the state albeit with a narrower majority than it had in the previous provincial assembly.
Coinciding with the elections in Uttar Pradesh were those of several other Indian states, including that of the state of Punjab, neighboring Pakistan. There, the BJP lost to a small political party, the Aam Adami Party, which governed Delhi, the Indian capital. It is no surprise that the appeal of Hindutva did not work in Indian Punjab as the state has a strong presence of Sikhs in the population. India’s Sikh population has been restless for decades. Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time, was assassinated by her Sikh guards after ordering the military to take over the Sikh temple in Amritsar which, along with several locations in Pakistan, are the holiest sites of the Sikh religion.
The holiest is the Kartarpur temple, two miles inside Pakistan from the Indian border. Pakistan has decided to rebuild parts of the Kartarpur gurdwara and allow Indian Sikh citizens to approach it without having to obtain a visa to enter Pakistan. The move was well received by the Sikh community. Members of the larger Sikh diasporas, including those in Canada and the United States, are also drawn to the site.
Religion has not only caused a major upheaval in Indian politics, it has also entered into India’s relations with Pakistan. The religion has also made an appearance in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s neighbor in the northwest of the country. There, the new Taliban government has declared that it will be governed according to the principles set out in Sharia. A third neighbor, Iran, is already a state ruled by Islamic clerics. Religion, in other words, has become an important player in the political development of South Asia.