Hindu Nationalism: How India is Backsliding in Democracy and Secularism

The recently passed legislation which would begin to upend the balance of power between the Israeli executive and judiciary, caused the largest protests ever to been seen in the history of the state of Israel. The implications of abolishing the “reasonableness doctrine” - a backsliding in democracy and a widening rift within Israeli society - are beginning to emerge as the so-called “judicial reform” attempts to proceed through the legislature. As the protestors across Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv and throughout the country rally around the cry for “Democracy,” questions regarding the fundamental character of the country are bracing Israel for what could be unprecedented transformations. Similar questions are also being asked in India. 

By introducing bills which diminish the autonomy of the Indian judiciary, as well as passing legislation that defines Indian citizenship on the basis of religion, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has undermined the ideals of a “Sovereign, Social, Democratic, Republic” of India, as stated in the preamble of the country’s constitution. With its ideological roots in Hindu nationalism, the BJP has worked to increase communal disharmony, consolidate its power 
within the executive, censor the press, and to have its say in judiciary appointments. As in Israel, mass mobilization has recently appeared in India against the BJP government’s policies. However, the party continues to enjoy success at the polls, and both nations are witnessing intense polarization.

At parliamentary, judicial, and societal levels, India’s upheaval is the first of its kind in its 75-year history, with the balance of power shifting towards the executive and away from the judiciary. Both India and Israel, which find themselves at a crossroads due to new legislatures, have not only infringed upon the human rights of minorities, but will further crack down on the status of these minorities as equal citizens of their respective countries. Often labelling itself as “the world’s largest democracy,” the circumstances in India aren’t too dissimilar to those Israelis perceive in “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

What is Hindu Nationalism? 

Hindu nationalism is an ideology that suggests that India is inherently a Hindu country, due to the country’s history and majority Hindu population. The BJP works in conjunction with its ideological wing, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization which believes each individual religious group in India shares a common cultural and spiritual heritage, embedded in the land’s ancient civilization. The RSS has been banned several times in its history, most notably after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, an erstwhile member of the RSS who believed Gandhi made concessions to India’s Muslims while undermining the Hindus during the partition of India in 1947. 

Territorially, a Hindu nationalist believes in the idea of an “Akhand Bharat” or “Undivided India,” which envisions the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and other neighbouring countries as one unified entity. In Kashmir, Indian troops are stationed in numbers that make the region the world’s most militarized zone. The BJP government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave Kashmir a semiautonomous status, in an attempt to manifest their idea of a unified India.

The era of Mughal rulers in the Indian subcontinent, a Muslim dynasty of Turkic-Mongol origin between the 16th and the 19th centuries, is seen by a Hindu nationalist as an era of great plunders which subjugated the Hindus. It is alleged that during that period, military campaigns, taxes on non-Muslims, and the destruction of temples and holy sites of Hinduism occurred, and Mughals are seen as tyrants and “enemies” of Hinduism. This affects the perception of the Hindu majority against the country’s minority Muslimswho still number 200 million of the 1.4 billion of India’s total population. Policies, incarcerations, and mainstream media rhetoric frequently alienate and target Muslims and other caste-based minorities, in a country which is falling back rapidly in human rights and press freedom indexes.

One Rule for All

Nine months before the next general election in 2024, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reignited debate on the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code, or UCC, a proposal to implement uniform personal laws for all citizens irrespective of their religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Currently India is governed by various sets of personal laws, particular to Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, etc., which define their rights regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and polygamy. The BJP suggests the UCC will help assure gender equality and a unification of the people, while critics argue this will disenfranchise minorities and erode cultures of tribal groups that live in fragile communities. 

Political scientists in India however argue that the need for a UCC is urgent as it will promote equal rights for women in cases of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Under the current Muslim personal law, in the case of inheritance Muslim women get half of what their male siblings would get. Under these laws Muslim men and women can marry after puberty, and this exacerbates cases of child marriage and child abuse. Men are also allowed to marry up to four women, and enjoy favourable laws in the cases of marriage and divorce. A UCC would allow Muslim women far more equitable rights, but those arguing against the UCC suggest the timing of presenting these laws in an election climate would only be used to demonize Muslims by faking concern for Muslim women’s rights.

The UCC has drawn flack in India’s north-eastern states, where a majority of the population are tribal and are protected under the country’s current constitutional frameworks for citizens belonging to tribes and recognized casts. They view the UCC as threatening to their customs and traditions while homogenizing them into a single culture. The groups in the northeast enjoy special provisions due to their endangered status as minorities. Constitutionally they enjoy land protection rights as well, but with the implementation of the UCC, anyone from outside the community would be able to purchase land on reserved sites, creating further reasons for disharmony in the fragile north-eastern states.

Activists, writers and others protesting against Citizenship Amendment Bill, at Mysuru Bank Circle. December 2019, source: thehindu

Using Religion to Define Citizenship

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) were bills passed in 2019, which defined Indian citizenship for nationals of neighbouring countries on the basis of their religion. These bills explicitly excluded Muslims, and also imprisoned those who could not prove their Indian nationality. The CAA is viewed as a citizenship providing mechanism for refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who belong to common South Asian religious groups. This is seen, in conjunction with the NRC, as a method to disenfranchise Muslim citizens of India should they find themselves unable to prove their Indian nationality. Rights groups say that those living under the poverty-line in India are unable to possess documentation such as passports, voter ID cards etc. Thus Muslims, who are the poorest religious group in India, could have their citizenship revoked based upon the CAA and NRC bills. 

In the state of Assam, there are six detention centres where refugees from Rohingya, as well as those on trial still trying to prove their citizenship, are detained in overcrowded facilities with little access to legal aid. These facilities are expected to house more detainees, and given the provisions of the CAA, Muslims will be most likely to suffer, since the clause that prevents Muslims from receiving citizenship could render them stateless.

The introduction of the CAA and NRC bills in parliament led to nationwide protests condemning the bills as violating the fundamental founding principles of India, as they discriminate on the basis of religion. In New Delhi, CAA/NRC protests turned violent when New Delhi police broke into the campuses of universities and used excessive force, injuring 200 students and damaging university infrastructure. The 2020 New Delhi riots occurred as a result of a Hindu mob targeting anti-CAA protestors at a sit-in rally, a majority of whom were Muslim. Violence intensified over a span of six days in which 53 individuals were killed. Most businesses destroyed in the event were Muslim owned, and the event was preceded by hate speech and incendiary language targeted by BJP leaders at the protesting Muslim groups.

Undermining the Judiciary

Ever since coming to power in 2014, the BJP has been suspected of interfering with how judicial appointments to India’s Supreme Court function. Currently appointments to the Supreme Court work through a system known as the “collegium,” where a group of senior judges nominate individuals to be approved by the Law and Justice Ministry, and pending security checks these candidates are usually approved. However, the Indian government has motioned for a greater role in the selection of these candidates, taking power away from the collegium, and effectively disqualifying the appointment of any judges if they have been critical of 
the government in the past. 

By having its own say in nominees for judicial appointments, the government of India is seeking to install judges who are more aligned with the interpretation of the Indian constitution as a Hindu document. This is part of its larger scheme to take India away from its secular ideals towards those that favour Hindu majoritarianism. The implications of this were seen in the hijab ban case in Karnataka, where a high court judge ruled in favour of banning hijabs in all schools and colleges. In November 2019, as part of the settlement of the Ayodhya land dispute, the Supreme Court allowed the construction of a Hindu temple on the land where the Babri mosque had stood – the mosque that was demolished in 1992 by a mob of far-right Hindus on suspicion that it had been built by the Mughals after demolishing a Hindu temple. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Hindu majority, despite the fact that there is no archaeological evidence of a Hindu temple existing prior to the mosque.

Recently in August of this year, the Home Minister of India Amit Shah introduced three new bills in parliament which effectively replace existing criminal laws. Under these provisions, if any public servant in India, including High Court and Supreme Court judges, validates a law which is deemed unconstitutional by the government, he or she could face imprisonment of up to seven years. With these new bills, the government of India will have the power to decide which decisions are constitutional, and which aren’t and can sentence those it sees as belligerents. This move has been widely flagged by political scientists and civil society members as a method to stifle the independence of the Indian courts and carry out verdicts which favour the majoritarian views of the current government.

Two Nations at a Crossroads

India and Israel are rapidly facing erosion of their democratic institutions and a shift to the far-right that is unparalleled in both their histories. Mass protest and mobilization has been a shared feature, with rallying cries of democracy and gender equality, but polarization within the state and consolidation of power within the executive have so far allowed Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi to remain in power. 

Already second-class citizens, frail minorities in both regions, the Muslims in India and the Palestinians in Israel, are facing increasing demonization and violence as a result of policies and rhetoric spurred by their respective nation’s governments Systematic discrimination and oppression are also the fate of the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, who together with the Palestinian citizens of Israel are actually equal in number to the Israeli Jews. 

The suppression of minorities, combined with an erosion in democracy, point to the beginnings of an autocracy in India and Israel. It still remains to be seen whether power will be consolidated to the point where elections are a mere farce, and how much religious and ethnic minorities will be made to suffer. The big question is - will the protest movements in both countries be able to reverse these negative trends?