SYLHET, Bangladesh: India is in turmoil from an historic clash between two “nations.” Most Indians and most of the rest of the world are waiting to see which of the two triumphs in the “world’s largest democracy.”
The latest clash between the two types of nations has centered on a couple of pieces of legislation, passed by the Hindu nationalist Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These laws would relegate the country’s 200 million Muslims into second-class citizens. If implemented, they would also drastically erode India’s foundational ideology of secularism. Widespread public protests against these a ti-Muslim laws have led to violent police action and the death of a score of protesters and bystanders. So far the Modi government has shown no sign of quashing or amending those parliamentary acts. The question is whether India will endure as a secular, pluralist nation, or relapse into a religious one.
India’s Hindu nationalists are represented by Modi’s ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). These zealots consider Hinduism, or rather a manufactured version of it, as the only legitimate source of Indian nationhood. Adherents to Islam, Christianity, and other faiths that did not originate in India do not, according to them, belong to the Indian nation. A Hindu nationalist state can be compared with the early Islamic caliphate, Byzantium under its early Christian rulers and the present-day “Jewish nation” of Israel, propagated by its ruling Likud and Haredi parties.
Challenging this credal concept of nationhood in India are a cluster of secular political parties – the Indian National Congress, Trinamool Congress, Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPI-M), and so on – which view India as a “civic nation” in which all citizens – irrespective of their faith, ethnicity and membership of other groups – are equal members of that territorial nation. The United States of American, the United Kingdom, Japan, Malaysia and Bangladesh are among secular, civic nations, some with obvious shortcomings.
I have long been wondering whether India would endure as a Western-style secular, pluralist nation. India’s secular democratic model was chosen by its Oxford-educated founders – Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru – who knew of the deep religious affinity of the everyday Indian and the bigotry of Hindu nationalists. But they and some other Westernized leaders of the Indian independence movement believed that in course of time Indians’ religious passion and sentiments would, to use Nehru’s words, “dissipate” and “recede into the background.” The Hindu nationalists believed, on the other hand, that it was the secular, pluralist system, which they said was alien to Indians’ religious and cultural tradition that would eventually wither away.
On the sunny afternoon of Jan. 30, 1948, Hindu nationalist firebrand Nathuram Vinayak Godse, outraged by Gandhi’s stubborn opposition to anti-Muslim riots in India, pumped three bullets into the heart of the father of the nation, eliminating Gandhi physically. The BJP’s rise to power and many Indians’ unswerving support for it make me wonder if the Hindu nationalists finally would snuff out his soul? Could they replace his creed of a secular democracy with a Hindu theocracy of sorts?
~Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator, hosts this blog.