Narendra Modi’s India has been praised for its efforts to open itself to wider markets and allow greater foreign investment. Although this may be more pertinent to those looking in on India from the outside, the internal struggles that have bubbled to the surface reveal a lot about Modi’s vision, or at least his ambivalence, towards certain issues. These internal struggles primarily revolve around the issue of religion; chiefly, the Hindu versus Muslim divide.
Following British India’s 1947 partition into the two independent countries of Pakistan (mainly Muslim) and India (with a Hindu majority), India drafted and created a remarkably secular constitution, thanks to the foresight of the Indian National Congress. They realized that in order to keep the new nation united they would need to ensure that all religious groups – Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jains, and Buddhists – would be able to live together lest the nascent nation face infighting that could lead to full out civil war between provinces of differing religious majorities. India is no rookie to dealing with a divided society and has dealt with a vast amount of diversity in the past. For centuries, the Indian Ocean trade routes brought Indians in contact with Muslims from Arabia and Africa, and Christians from Europe. This exposure does not even include the vast amount of religions that derive from within the Indian sub-continent. Yet now it seems that Modi’s India is becoming a place less focused on coming together and more on separation and distinction, as his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is nationalistic and biased towards the enormous Hindu majority.
While Modi is not directly at fault for the following cases presented, his ambivalence allowed for these events to unfold. One of the most notable anti-Muslim pro-Hindu attacks occurred before Modi became Prime Minister, while he served as Chief Minister of Gujarat. In 2002, under his reign, riots instigated by Hindu Mobs resulted in the death of an estimated 1,000 Muslims, and Modi was blamed for not doing anywhere near enough to quell the violence. Naturally, this ambivalence was not at all comforting to Indian Muslims once Modi rose to the role of Prime Minister. If one were to look at the percentage of Muslim Indians, they may believe that 13.4 per cent is not enough to cause a full out civil strife; however, that percentage is equivalent to about 138 million people, a Muslim population second only to Indonesia. The main fear that Muslims have is the possible connection between Modi’s party, the aforementioned BJP, and another more radical nationalist one: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This party has a long term goal of Hinduvta, which envisions a sort of cleansing of India and the creation of a national Hindu identity. The RSS is by no means a fully peaceful organization either, as it has been banned three times in India after independence due to its actions. Presently there is evidence of ghostly connection between these two parties, especially with the introduction of the beef ban by the BJP, which seems to target Muslims.
Muslims in India largely rely on beef as a source of food (Islam dictates that they are not authorized to eat pork), whereas Hindus are not allowed to eat beef, as the cow is believed to be sacred. Now it is argued that the beef ban will not only cause the loss of countless jobs and harm public health, but in addition put a strain on what Indian Muslims can eat. Sarjerao A. Thombre, a member of many RSS councils and boards, argues that the RSS doctrine expresses that the traditional Indian diet is largely vegetarian, unlike that of the Muslims original climate, and is more environmentally friendly than ones which are more meat focused. He does, however, also suggest that Muslims living in India must in certain ways adapt to the ‘Indian philosophy’. A good example of how opponents to this ban have reacted was displayed by Aziz Afroz, an unskilled laborer, who stated, ‘They didn’t ban alcohol, even though both religions forbid it. They didn’t ban cigarettes. They know that Muslims depend on beef’. Though the party-line may be that it was not intended to harm or make Muslims feel discriminated against, it seems almost impossible that the BJP or RSS will be able to convince those who feel victimized that it was unintentional. Again it would be erroneous to claim outright that Modi is working behind closed doors to help the RSS achieve their dream of a national Hindu identity. There is, however, a trail of evidence that could suggest Modi is sympathetic to their cause.
An important question to consider when understanding the religious divide in India is why do Muslims, who largely feel suppressed or somewhat discriminated against, not turn to extremism as often as Muslims in other countries such as Pakistan? The best answer is surprisingly simple – India has a democracy with true power, whereas nations such as Pakistan largely give power to the military. Indian people do have the ability to vote for a party that can vouch for their interests. It is pretty clear that Indian Muslims are not winning elections at the moment, apart from a few scattered local ones, but they do seem to believe in the system in which they are participating. This sort of legitimacy that is placed into the Indian democracy is the crucial bit that seems to have been able to ensure that the country does not factionalize based upon religious lines altogether, but rather, with the exception of a few groups, still strive to be a multi-cultural state or have the ability to do so. For Modi is a politician not a dictator, he is accountable (despite what some may say), and therefore he is not going to marginalize at least 13.4 per cent of the population for the sake of a Hindu state. He seemingly realizes that to make the country a better place he cannot put too much pressure on other groups without possibly inciting violence – violence which could push the country’s progress on the international stage back decades.