Inaugurating a dam in the 1950s, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it the temple of modern India. For Nehru, factories, research institutes, universities, irrigation dams, and power stations were the temples of modern India. As the first premier of a nascent nation, he wanted to keep India away from the deep religious divide that marked the country’s independence. Nehru consciously steered clear of divisive agendas and tried to navigate India towards a new trajectory of development to establish it as a secular and modern nation where religion was not to be used as a marker for defining nationhood.
In the second decade of the 21st century, Narendra Modi’s idea of India is the opposite of what the founding fathers of independent India envisioned. He wants to define India as a Hindu nation and not as a modern, progressive, secular state where nation-building means a focus on developing a scientific temperament, keeping religion out of political discourse and forging unity in diversity.
By laying the foundation of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya where the Babri mosque once stood, Modi on August 5 announced loud and clear that Indian nationalism could not be separated from Hinduism. He compared August 5 with August 15, signaling clearly that August 5 held the same significance for Hindu nationalists that Independence day holds for all Indians. He even called the foundation day of the temple a liberation day for India’s majority community.
The undercurrent of rightwing majoritarian politics has been a constant presence in Indian politics since independence. But the leadership of the Congress party with Nehru at the helm kept such forces in check and the fringe Hindu groups could never get the political and moral legitimacy in independent India as they enjoy now. There had however always been a constant fear of what will happen to India if and when the fanatical Hindu nationalist fringe took over political power.
That fear is a now living reality in India.
The political agitation to build a temple at Ayodhya in place of the mosque started in the 1980s and reached its crescendo in 1992 with the demolition of the Babri mosque by a fanatic Hindu crowd.
After the humiliating defeat of the BJP in the 1984 general elections where it got just two parliamentary seats out of 545, the new party president Lal Krishna Advani decided to launch an aggressive political campaign in the name of temple building and mobilizing people in the name of Hindu pride. It was also advertised that the 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya was built on the site where the Hindu mythical god Ram was born. Advani established an emotional chord with Hindu nationalists and the BJP started to gain traction in India for the first time.
The temple movement polarised the entire society and wherever the Advani campaign reached, religious tension and violence took place. The campaign became so vicious and emotionally charged that in 1992 the majoritarian mob razed the mosque and riots took place at many places with Mumbai witnessing one of the worst communal unrest in modern times.
The deepening polarisation catapulted the BJP to the national mainstream and by 1996 it secured 161 seats in the Indian parliament and in the subsequent mid-term elections in 1998 the party secured 182 seats, for the first time forming a government in New Delhi, albeit with the support of other parties.
The rise of the BJP has also seen growing political marginalization and societal otherisation of India’s 15% Muslim population.
Furthermore, while the nation-building that started after India’s independence focused on inclusive growth and bridging religious faultlines, BJP thrives on these exact faultlines, and to it nation-building only means majoritarian consolidation.
The otherisation of Muslims got new momentum after BJP’s thumping victory in two subsequent general elections — in 2014 and 2019 — and subsequently, a new phase of Hindu nationalist consolidation got underway. And it is not surprising that for the first time in the last two general elections, a ruling party in India does not have a single elected Muslim parliamentarian in its camp. Before this, it was pretty much unthinkable for a ruling party in India to run without adequate representation from the largest religious minority in the country.
The 2019 mandate further emboldened the BJP, which launched an aggressive push for Hindu consolidation.
The criminalization of triple talaq among Muslims was the first major change the BJP brought in after returning to power. Under this law, any Muslim man would face a jail term if he utters triple talaq. By criminalizing a civil law, the BJP is sending a message to its Hindu constituents that it is punishing Muslim men and not so much that it’s protecting Muslim women, which it claimed the law aimed at doing.
The abrogation of the special status of Muslim majority Jammu and Kashmir was another step in the same direction. From the 1950s, the right-wing group has had the agenda to abolish Kashmir’s special status and it has always seen the issue from the prism of religion.
So blinded is the BJP in pursuing its majoritarian agenda that it fails to take into account the long term consequences of its actions in Kashmir when it comes to regional peace and geopolitical stability.
Similarly, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are open attacks on Indian Muslims. The CAA grants citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis from neighboring countries but denies the same option to Muslims. Meanwhile, the NRC aims to prepare a registry of genuine citizens of India and if a Muslim fails to find a place in the NRC because of a lack of documents, he or she will be declared stateless, unlike people from other religions who will be assimilated through CAA.
The humiliation of Muslims didn’t end there. The communal violence in New Delhi in February further reinforced the divisive mindset of the regime. Media reports and fact-finding teams clearly blamed pro-CAA elements for inciting violence against Muslims who had been protesting against the controversial law. The majority of the lives lost and properties damaged belonged to Muslims. But the tragedy is such that the government instead of reaching out to Muslims and other victims got busy in arresting those who agitated against the CAA. Many students and civil society activists belonging to different religious groups, mostly Muslims, have been arrested under draconian terror laws.
On the other hand, those associated with the BJP and other similar right-wing elements, who the fact-finding teams identified as being actively involved in fomenting violence, are roaming free.
Aiding and abetting the BJP in its design are some of the so-called independent institutions of democracy. Commentators question the silence of the judiciary on some of the crucial issues, such as the change in Kashmir’s status as well as a lack of concern on mass arrests of civil society activists and students after the violence in New Delhi. Prominent experts and jurists have also questioned the apex court’s one-sided verdict on the temple where the judge gave the disputed land to Hindu plaintiffs without conclusively deciding the charge that the mosque was built after demolishing a temple.
A large section of the media is an active participant in promoting the divisive agenda of the Modi regime. They have turned communal and openly promote hatred and division in society, thereby further legitimizing majoritarian rule and majoritarianism.
Today, India is not living the dreams of its founding fathers but in fact their nightmares.
Sanjay Kumar is a New Delhi based journalist covering South Asia. A keen observer of politics in India and the subcontinent, Kumar in his 15 years of journalistic career has worked with both national and international media. A news reporter, columnist, commentator, producer, and blogger, Kumar does not confine himself to one particular genre in journalism.