India at the Mercy of Hindu Nationalism, 1 July 2002
More than one thousand Indians, a large majority of them Muslims, have been killed in rioting since last February in Gujarat State. The carnage sheds a cold light on the rightward shift in India’s political landscape.
Thousands of people have lost their lives in the numerous religious wars that have marked India’s history; murderous conflicts have broken out time and again between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. But this time, the Gujarat massacre goes beyond interreligious squabbling: it gives indications of a new government-condoned strategy based on ethnic cleansing.
Rise of the Far Right
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has controlled the governing coalition in New Delhi since 1998, and also leads the Gujarat state government. The BJP is imbued with a far-right ideology that has its roots in the fascism of the 1930s. Trumpeting the slogan "one nation, one people, one culture," the party promotes Hindutva or "Hindu identity," a concept based on Hindu racial purity. The Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, have been the main victims of this recrudescence of right-wing violence.
That the government condones the carnage in Gujarat has been clearly shown. For example, the Chief Minister of Gujarat ordered the police not to intervene to stop the violence. All high-ranking BJP members in the federal government, including Prime Minister Vajpayee, have stood by him. Rumours are circulating to the effect that the riots had been in the planning for a long time. Clearly, the interreligious massacres in Gujarat are more than an outburst of sectarian violence related to Hindutva: they are a tool serving the political interests of the BJP.
Since January, the BJP has watched its popularity drop precipitously, losing seats in the Indian Parliament. The events in Gujarat are directly connected to the attempted imposition of Hindutva, and observers suggest that the BJP is trying to shore up its sagging position by exploiting them.
Shifting Political Winds
The carnage in recent months revealed not only the rise of Hindu nationalism but also the weakening of India as a nation-state. The Indian National Congress Party, which held power prior to the BJP, had promoted secularity for India as the founding vision of the country. (Note that in India, secularity connotes pluralism and cultural multiplicity rather than separation between religion and state). For four decades, from independence in 1947 until the 1990s, the Congress Party had managed to maintain a degree of national cohesion despite the country’s great cultural diversity.
During its initial years in power, the Congress Party was able to build on the foundation laid by the unified national movement that had fought for India’s independence. But over the years, national sentiment faded, scandals and corruption came to light, and public confidence in the Congress Party eroded - as did its strong governing majority. As a member of a coalition, it could not maintain the national cohesion necessary or the country’s political stability. India no longer had a shared political project around which all citizens could rally.
Capitalizing on the discredit into which the Congress Party had fallen, the Hindu nationalists gained ground. The BJP’s rise filled a political void; Hindutva was its blueprint for society. Arriving in power, the BJP substituted an essentially Hindu Indian state for the secular one. As Romain Maitra, a journalist based in Calcutta, explains in Le Monde diplomatique, "The manoeuver was clear: to replace constitutional democratic nationalism with nationalism based on race and pedigree."
What happened in Gujarat did not come out of nowhere. It is the direct consequence of the political shift taking place in Indian society. The events exposed an ideological undercurrent which had been repressed by the Congress Party, but is now being exploited by the BJP. But Gujarat is not India. Alternative regional political movements are building steam, and could soon provide a counterweight to the BJP, putting a damper on its plans for Hindutva.