This article was written by Drishti Suri, a staff writer for Shield. Drishti is an aspiring barrister and human rights activist. She is currently pursuing a BA in International Relations at the War Studies department of King’s College London, and has been awarded the Desmond Tutu Scholarship. Her research interests include issues of nationalism, human rights and separatist movements.
In August 1947, India became a newly independent country and sought to move past the horrors of the brutal communal riots of 1946-47. Emerging from this shadow, the Indian government attempted to preserve the diverse social fabric of the nation by assuring the inclusion of all, and equity of treatment for minority groups, in the Indian Constitution. Today, however, India is on the brink of losing its secular credentials and jeopardising its security in the process. The Indian government is doing little to militate against the trend towards a new, radical movement known as Hindutva nationalism. Although this violent form of nationalism is often brought up while discussing whether secularism is good or bad for India, the security implications of Hindutva nationalism have, to date, been largely ignored in Indian political discourse. Moreover, politicians have done nothing to indicate they understand the security implications of their inaction. Yet, as India increasingly moves towards this extreme form of nationalism, key domestic security risks are heightened.
Hindutva nationalism, which is religiously based, focuses on preserving the ‘Hindu-ness’ of India (which has a majority Hindu population). The movement seeks to create a universal national identity among Indians based on a shared language, a collective religion and a common enemy – usually understood as Pakistan. Since Hindutva nationalism focuses on creating a shared cultural identity, it treats ‘outsiders’ – such as those following Abrahamic religions – as second-class citizens who serve as a threat to Hindu culture. Hindutva nationalism concerns itself with the security of the Hindu majority community while ignoring, and sometimes condoning, vile acts against minorities.
Right-wing extremist Hindutva nationalist groups have attacked non-Hindus and lower caste Hindus, both physically and culturally. The government has turned a blind eye to these attacks, increasing these minority groups’ sense of alienation from society. The spread of Hindutva nationalism has made questioning the army’s actions an illegal act of sedition, and convinced many Hindus that temples and cows are more important than the lives of minorities. Accordingly, an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, discrimination and violence has accompanied India’s shift towards this exclusive and intolerant brand of nationalism.
The move towards Hindutva nationalism has developed gradually since the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in the 2014 elections. The changing mood first became apparent, however, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on 9 February 2016. The students’ union had organised an event protesting the 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a former member of a Kashmiri separatist militant group called Jaish-e-Mohammad. Guru had received the death sentence for his role in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack. Although the protest seems to have been forgotten by most Indians, it marked an important turning point. Those students (both Hindus and Muslims) questioning Guru’s execution found themselves being labelled as anti-nationals, and the leaders of the students’ union were arrested on charges of sedition. The latter charges arose partially due to the protest, and partially because the students questioned the Indian army’s actions in Kashmir. This incident demonstrates the extent to which Hindutva nationalism had penetrated Indian political and judicial structures during the first two years of the BJP government’s rule. This article now examines two critical security risks that Hindutva nationalism poses to India’s domestic security.
First, Hindutva nationalism threatens the human security of non-Hindus and lower caste Hindus, who together make up around 40 per cent of India’s population. In recent years, India has witnessed several cases of lynching of lower caste Hindus by upper caste Hindus. The avowed reasons for these attacks, which occurred in Gujarat, range from watching a dance performance, to not complying with an order to collect rubbish (a task requested of that individual purely because of their caste).
With beef at centre stage in domestic politics since the BJP came to power, over 100 Muslims have been attacked, lynched, murdered, harassed and gang raped on mere suspicion of consuming beef. The government has spent the last four years ignoring these vigilante actions, leading the attackers to conclude that they are operating with the tacit permission of the authorities. Indeed, on 29 June 2017, a cabinet minister awarded garlands to eight men who were released on bail after being convicted of lynching a Muslim man. The notable absence of any condemnation from the government for the minister’s actions has increased fear levels among India’s minorities.
The spread of Hindutva nationalism became further evident when Hindu nationalists belonging to the majority community, including a few local members of the BJP and opposition parties, came together and held a rally to condone the brutal gang rape of an eight-year-old Muslim girl by Hindu men. The media publicity surrounding the case led to political in-fighting at the central government level. Some politicians of the ruling BJP party accused the opposition parties of attempting to garner electoral support by unduly pressuring the government to hand over the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (India’s main investigative agency). Other BJP politicians, however, claimed that the girl’s religion was incidental to the attack. What was forgotten or ignored in the political rhetoric, however, was that it was not ‘only’ a case of gang rape, but of a well-planned gang rape aimed at driving the tribal Muslim community out of Kathua. The media hardly discussed this key information, and also failed to publicise the rally condoning the rape. The aftermath of the attack demonstrates the extent to which Hindutva nationalism has permeated not only the majority Hindu consciousness, but has also contaminated political and media institutions.
While Indian minority groups now experience an omnipresent sense of threat to their physical safety, the Hindu majority regards their own culture as being endangered by the mere presence of minorities in India. This perception gap merely serves to reinforce the tensions, which are usually organised around issues such as whether people should stand for the national anthem in movie theatres, the extent to which blind support for the army is expected, and whether a Hindu temple can be built at a disputed site following the demolition of a mosque. Minorities, and those advocating for their human rights, have been harassed and arrested under counterterrorism and sedition laws. These actions are justified by the BJP government in terms of the threat that such minorities and activists supposedly represent to the nation. This selective interpretation of the law is dangerous. It tramples upon human rights, including the right to free speech, under the guise of nationalism.
Second, the human insecurity generated by Hindutva nationalism has wider implications for a nation that struggles to safeguard its diversity. India grapples with separatist movements (which are all led and supported by people from Indian minority groups), riots and terrorism. Minorities are becoming increasingly disengaged from local and national forms of social and political community, and the violent extremism of the nationalists, along with the corresponding inaction of the Indian authorities, continues to inflame the situation. These factors combine to raise the risk of individuals from minority groups engaging in violent protest or separatist movements. This is most visible in the insurgency-affected areas of Kashmir, Manipur and Punjab, where a number of young people have joined militant separatist movements. Given the animosity that now characterises majority-minority relations in India, it is likely that more young people from parts of Jammu and Kashmir will join the militant branch of the Kashmiri separatist movement. Consequently, the next few years will probably see an increase in the number of armed attacks carried out on the Indian security forces stationed in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the Hindu majority’s belief that they are under constant threat, coupled with the oppression and fear experienced by minority groups, presents innumerable opportunities for trivial disagreements to escalate into communal violence, as the frequent religious riots in the state of Uttar Pradesh demonstrate. India prides itself on having maintained its diversity over many decades, but the attractive title of a secular democratic country is now proving difficult to maintain in practice. The risk of violent separatist movements taking advantage of the situation is significant, and domestic security conditions will continue to deteriorate in the absence of constructive action from New Delhi.
Of all the wider security implications of Hindutva nationalism for India, however, the threat of terrorism is the most dangerous. As minority groups find themselves isolated by the current intolerant nationalism – that not only fails to provide a forum for questioning and dialogue, but actively and violently excludes them from society – some of their members are becoming vulnerable to radicalisation. In recent years, terrorist groups including Daesh and Al-Qa’ida have made their presence felt the most in the Kashmir valley, but Daesh is also slowly increasing its influence within India. Since 2013, 75 Indians have reportedly travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh. Today, there are 82 active investigations into individuals suspected of supporting Daesh’s Khorasan branch within India.
While Indian politicians and journalists continue to argue about whether it should be mandatory to stand for the national anthem, and whether everyone must prove their love for India by chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ (victory to Mother India), they remain seemingly oblivious to the great dangers India is being exposed to in the name of nationalism. Most patriotic Indians devote their energy to discussing the supposed danger posed to India by Pakistan, but ignore the threat to non-Hindus and lower caste Hindus, as well as the increased likelihood of radicalisation among alienated minorities. India must look beyond its historic rivalry with Pakistan and the desire to vehemently assert its national pride and power. New Delhi must focus instead on understanding the security implications of radical nationalism and act, not only to prevent continuing domestic hostilities, but to ensure a stable internal peace. All parts of society must be protected by the law, and able to engage in civil and political life. As things stand, however, the BJP government is moving away from the vision held by freedom fighters like Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Far from the ‘tryst with destiny’ that Nehru spoke of in his inaugural speech on 15 August, 1947, India today is failing to fulfil the dreams of ‘justice and fullness of life for every man and woman’ that he envisaged.