Hari Prasad, Research Associate at Critica Research
Hari Prasad is a research associate at Critica Research and Analysis where he focuses on South Asian politics and security.
He earned his MA in international affairs from George Washington University, and has been published in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Wire (India), and Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.
This article is part of a series in which leading experts reflect on emerging trends for cities seeking to address hate, polarisation and extremism.
The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 marked a seminal event in India’s post-independence history, setting the stage for the rise of the Hindutva-aligned Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to national prominence. At the time, then chief-minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi cemented a national image defined by two narratives; first as a staunch Hindutva leader who allowed one of the deadliest incidents of anti-Muslim violence in post-independence India, and second as a pro-business reformer. Both catalyzed his rise to Prime Minister in 2014. Modi’s premiership and the BJP’s dominance of national politics has ensured both are able to implement their vision of transforming India into a Hindutva state.
As Modi approached his re-election campaign in May 2019, India’s GDP growth was at a six-year low and unemployment at a 45-year high. Modi’s BJP turned to a strong grassroots mobilization to spread Hindutva, effectively normalizing it. This theme has carried through Modi’s second term, where his BJP is flexing its parliamentary muscle to push through long-standing Hindutva priorities. It has essentially harmonized a Hindu identity with the Indian state through education, law, culture and demography, bringing the ideology further into the mainstream and increasing polarization and disunity in the world’s largest democracy.
At its basis, Hindutva is a religious-nationalist identity which maintains that India should be a homeland for Hindus above all other religions. Unlike Modi’s first term, in which he portrayed himself foremost as a pro-business reformer, Modi’s second term has been defined by the embrace of Hindutva-friendly policies using his BJP parliamentary majority. To this end, the party has embraced policies such as the criminalization of ‘triple talaq’ in July 2019, revoking Article 370 which gave autonomy to Kashmir in August 2019, the construction of the Ayodhya temple at Babri Masjid in August 2020, and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019 which expedites citizenship for non-Muslim individuals from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
It was the latter, combined with a proposed National Citizenship Registry (NRC), that would effectively guarantee a significant chunk of India’s Muslims would face difficulty in keeping their citizenship. This caused some of the largest protests in post-independence history, prompting harsh repression from police in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. This cultivated with a horrific anti-Muslim pogrom in February 2020 instigated by BJP officials, with strong evidence of coordination by the mobs and police to attack Muslim localities. Instead of arresting those instigating the violence, police have arrested activists.
Alongside the use of the state to further their agenda, Hindutva organizations have built an environment to promote their narrative. Whether it is through pressure on the media, interference with the supreme court, or empowerment of local vigilantes, India is going through ‘saffronization’, a transformation of the secular state into a nation for Hindus at the expense of marginalized groups and secular people. Other Indian parties have incorporated majoritarian messaging to keep up with the BJP. Whether it is the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy, or adopting ‘pro-Hindu’ talking points, this has sped up the normalization of Hindutva. Polarization has been exacerbated as majoritarianism has taken hold.
Despite the force of Hindutva, there have been multiple movements working against it. From the states that fight against the BJP’s will, to the activists contesting anti-minority legislation, the normalization of Hindutva does face some resistance. States like Kerala, Punjab, and West Bengal have passed resolutions vowing to oppose the CAA and the NRC. Dalit and Muslim activists have been some of the loudest voices against Hindutva and defenders of a secular India, with the adoption of Indian symbology noticeable at many of the anti-CAA protests. But while these subnational and activist movements continue, they face arrest and repression at the hands of BJP governments. Anti-Hindutva states like Kerala also faced increased pressure from the Hindutva movements’ vast grassroots power, and the spread of Hindutva at the national level. Even if the BJP loses power in the next election, without a strong national party to contest them they will continue to dominate the system.
This is not to say it is a fait accompli; Hindutva is not necessarily an unstoppable force. At the state level, strong regional parties and coalitions have so far been successful at denying the BJP additional seats. The Indian Congress Party, once the foremost party of the country, needs to organize at a grassroots level to rebuild itself as a national party and escape the dynastic trappings of the Gandhi family. So far, it has been resistant to reform despite its declining electoral clout, and a failure to contest Hindutva at the central parliament only guarantees the transformation of India into a Hindutva state. There is also a need to build networks and coalitions to counter grassroots Hindutva organizing and combat the spread of disinformation and hate. Despite the violence unleashed upon them, the anti-CAA protesters had remarkable success at mobilizing segments of the public and at least temporarily halting the NRC and encouraging states to fight against the CAA.