Majoritarianism and Communal Polarization in India


H Srikanth

IN 1947, when British India was bifurcated into Pakistan and India, the Muslim League leaders who fought for Pakistan declared their country as a theocratic state. In contrast, although the Hindus were in majority, Indian national leaders refuted the idea of Hindu Rashtra and gave shape to a liberal constitution that declared equality of all citizens, guaranteed the Right to Religion and recognised the minorities’ right to preserve and protect their culture and traditions.

These principles laid down in the Indian Constitution by its founding members now appear to be at stake with the rise of majoritarian politics. Ever since the Rama Janmabhoomi movement started, India is gradually witnessing the consolidation of ideology and politics that seeks to build a Hindu variant of the much-criticised theocratic rule in Pakistan. While BJP is riding the Hindutwa chariot, the process of Hindutvaization of the India polity is facilitated by the RSS family and also by the state organs, corporate media and the monopoly houses. While blaming the present dispensation for the sorrow state of affairs, one should not ignore the fact that the ideological and political roots of majoritarianism were sowed long back by the forces mistakenly assumed to be secular.

To make sense of history, it is necessary to look back at Indian history. As in medieval Europe, religion played an important role in ancient and medieval India. Religion then sanctified the authority of the kings or emperors, be they Hindus, Muslims, or Sikhs. Although some rulers were tolerant toward the people of other religious faiths, there were some fanatic rulers who tried to impose their religion on others. There were instances of attacks of Hindu rulers on the Buddhists, Shaivites against the Vaishnavites and the Muslims against the Hindus. Some rulers who were not religious fanatics also made use of religious beliefs and superstitions to consolidate their political power.

The Mughals entered India by displacing the Muslim dynasty, which was already in existence. Some Hindu rulers fought the Mughals, but many also cooperated and worked with the Mughal rulers. During this period, the confrontations were not always over religious issues; the kings also fought for wealth and personal glory. While criticizing the religious bigotry by some rulers, we also need to acknowledge that at the ground level there was also cooperation and coexistence of different religious communities, and communal riots as we see today were almost absent.

There is little truth in the colonial categorization of ancient India as Hindu India, medieval India as Muslim India and modern India as one that started with the British occupation. It makes little sense to identify and group the rulers based on their religion, as there were all feudal rulers and what they all exploited the peasants and other laboring masses for their glory. As in the Europe, even in India, there was the need for overcoming feudal and religious domination of all sorts.

In the Europe, the Renaissance, the Reformation, scientific and technological innovations that culminated with the Industrial Revolution brought about a change in the polity’s nature and its relations with religion. The ideas of individualism, nation state and secularism could neutralize religious hold and confined religion to the private sphere. Democratic revolutions brought in the idea of popular sovereignty and put an end to feudal authority. However, the secularization process that Europe went through could not take place in India for various reasons. The British rule no doubt exposed the English educated Indians to the ideas of nationalism, democracy and secularism.

Reformers like Ramamohan Roy, and national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar, etc., denounced communal thinking and tried to free the society and politics from the influence of religion. However, secular thinking that they advocated could not make deep inroads. The British had their vested interests in keeping the Indians disunited, and hence propagated a communal view of Indian history. Although they were no religious fanatics, the leaders like Tilak and Gandhi used Hindu symbols and imageries during the freedom struggle to unite the Hindus against the British rule. Because of the weakness of the secular forces in the Indian national movement, the Indian National Congress could not escape from Hindu orientation.

Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Congress, was a liberal Hindu, who had a soft corner for the peoples practicing other religious faiths. He wanted the unity of all Indians against the British rule. But within the Congress platform there were also hardcore Hindu leaders whose openly declared the Muslims as their prime enemy. The Hindu orientation of the Congress made a section of the Muslims start the Muslim League professing to fight for the Muslim cause. On the other side, Hindu Maha Sabha and RSS started espousing the idea of the supremacy of the Hindu race and the need for Hindu Rashtra. The fear of Hindu domination compelled the Muslim League to advocate the idea of separate Pakistan.

Instead of fighting against the British imperialism, both Hindu and Muslims fundamentalists spent their energies fighting against each other. After the World War II, when it became clear the British rule would end, the Muslim League pitched its demand for Pakistan and communal situation in the country worsened. Unable to reconcile the competing claims and interests, the British proposed the idea of bifurcating British India. Gandhi had to accept the proposal reluctantly and the colonial India was artificially divided, causing so much of bloodshed, exodus and agony for both Hindu and Muslim communities in Bengal and Punjab regions. Mahatma Gandhi worked for dousing the communal flare up and subsequently shot dead by a Hindi fanatic who believed that Gandhi was appeasing the Muslims.

The death of Gandhi brought discredit to the Hindu fundamentalist forces in the country and gave some opportunity for leaders like Nehru to secularize the Indian society. However, his attempts could not bear fruits as there were many hardcore Hindu leaders within Congress opposed to any radical reforms. After Nehru’s death, the leaders started mooting the idea of Indian secularism, which is distinct from Western secularism. In the West, secularism meant non-recognition of any supernatural entity and strict separation of religion from temporal affairs. It acknowledges the right to religion, but makes religion a private affair of the individual.

In contrast, the advocates of Indian secularism propagated the idea of ‘Sarva Dharma Samabhav’, meaning respecting and recognizing the role of all religious faiths. Indian secularism led to appeasement of all religiosities and did not fight against communal beliefs and practices. The Congress party, projecting itself as secular, used the minorities as vote banks. They also normalized the practice of Hindu religious rituals in education and government institutions.

However, India witnessed a change since 1980s. During her second term as the PM, Indira Gandhi found it electorally beneficial to give up the secular burka and project herself as Kali, fighting the Islamic and Sikh fundamentalists in Kashmir and Punjab, respectively. The RSS then welcomed the change and worked for the victory of Congress in 1984 elections, ignoring the BJP, which was then toying with the idea of Gandhian socialism and positive secularism. The religious appeasement reached a zenith during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, when the government overturned the court judgment in Shah Bano case to placate the Muslim fundamentalists, and also opened the gates of Babri Masjid to appease the Hindu fundamentalists.

BJP took advantage of these developments and Advani went ahead with Rath Yatra to polarize the communities and garner Hindu votes. And that was the beginning of the process that led to consolidation of majoritarian rule in India. By glorifying the real or imaginary past, by whipping up the sentiments against the minorities, by carrying against the appeasement policies of the Congress, by exaggerating the fear of Bangladeshi refugees and religious conversion, BJP made inroads in different northern states and could capture political power at the centre, and also in many states.

Unlike other political parties, which are interested only in capture of government power to execute its political and economic policies, the new regime has as its agenda the transformation of the whole of India to suit its ideology of ‘Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan’. With the help of government machinery, corporate media and leading industrial monopolies, it could marginalize opposition parties. By effectively using social media, the regime propagated hatred against the Muslims and the Christians. By encouraging blind obedience, it seeks to make the people believe that what is good for the leader and that party is good for all Hindus and all those who oppose the regime are necessarily urban naxals, anti-nationals and belong to so-called ‘tukde-tukde gang’.

What is unfortunate is that the so-called centrist forces failed to articulate alternative ideology and politics. Advocating soft-Hindutva is no alternative to hardcore Hindutva. The Dalit and tribal resistance were also co-opted using the money and muscle power. The leftist parties are so divided and marginalized that they cannot give an alternative to the majoritarian regime. Apparently, the prospect of democratic revival appears to be very bleak. Despite all these adversities, there is still a silver lining.

Considering the fact that BJP won a thumping majority in   2019 parliamentary elections, it should have bulldozed all opposition and implemented all its neo-liberal agenda. Although it could push through the abolition of Article 370 and the bifurcation of J&K state, afterwards if failed to push through its pet agenda such as Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the three Farm Laws, because of stiff resistance from the minorities, the women, the students and youth, and the farmers. While it can keep reigns over the northern states, it still could not make a substantial dent in southern and eastern states.

At this stage of history, it is difficult to say whether the majoritarian regime can realize its political and social goals. However, the regime could divide the people and polarise them on communal lines, like no other political regime could do in the history of India.


The author teaches Political Science in North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, Meghalaya. The article has been taken from CounterCurrents.

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