Hindu Religious Populism Against Christians and Muslim minorities in India
AN Original
By Amit Singh

Religion can be exploited for populist politics. Due to its multifaceted role, religion is easily manipulated by right-wing populist leaders to divide and alienate religious minorities in order to gain political power. Populism is majoritarian in nature and calls for majority rule at the expense of minorities. Consequently, the religion of minorities may be targeted by the majority, which could have serious human rights implications for them. Concerns over the rise of religious populism by the right-wing politicians and its negative impact on secular democracy and human rights in Western democracy is growing. Scholars such as Olivier Roy, Roger Brubaker, Nadia Marzuki, Duncan McDonnell have written extensively on religion and populism offering insights how in the West some views religion as a marker of identity, enabling populist parties to distinguish between the good ‘us’ and the bad ‘them’; and how populist hijack Christian religion, to build a golden national past, ‘othering’ Islam (which is a religious minority in the West) as a foreign culture. In the views of Roy and Brubaker, the role of religion in populism seems to be almost entirely identitarian and negative. To certain extent, this could be seen in the Indian case.

In India, the employment of religion with populism in Hindu nationalism has aggravated a human rights crisis. Hindu religious populism is the use of Hindu nationalism and religion as a basis for populist politics. In secular democratic India, persecution of Christian and Muslim minorities has reached to a critical stage under the Hindu right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Cases of vandalization of churches, mosque, police harassment, mob lynching, public demonization of religious minorities by the Hindu nationalists are well documented. Rights groups record more than 300 attacks on Christians and their religious places in year 2021. Most of these attacks have been carried out by the ultra-nationalist right-wing Hindu groups such as ‘Hindu Sangathan, Hindu Vadi Sanghatan, Hindu Yuva Vahini, Hindu Jagran Manch, members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and Visha Hindu Parishad’. These groups are linked to the ruling party, Bhartiya Janta Party (Indian Peoples Party) which uses the Hindu identity, culture and religion to polarize Hindu majority to exclude Christian and Muslim minorities from Indian citizenship in their pursuit to capture political power and transform India into a Hindu nation. Along with Christians, Indian Muslims are their primary target. They are on the verge of impending genocide.

Hindu nationalists under the current right-wing Prime Minister have created ‘ontological insecurity’ among the Hindu majority by making appearing Hindu identity threatened by foreign cultures, particularly Islamic and Christianity in India. And it seems, religion and nationalism are in a particularly advantageous position to supply these populist cultural master narratives of ontological insecurity to Hindu majority. Hindu nationalists spread the propaganda that Indian Muslims are taking over India by populating and capturing the economic resources, and Christians are converting Hindus to Christianity, and spreading the Christian culture thus presenting an imminent threat to Hindu religion and cultural identity. Hindu nationalist also targets Indian Constitution particularly Indian secularism which, in principle, protects the rights of religious minorities and their religious and cultural freedom.

By creating a ‘divisive binary’ and ‘ontological insecurity’ among Hindu majority, right wing Hindu religious populist, ‘sacralise’ the Hindu people by appealing to Hinduism thereby weakening secularism, which protects the rights of religious minorities and allows them to maintain their distinct religious rituals and heritage such as churches and mosques. Linking of populism to religion helps populists to turn religion into an instrument for consolidating power in societies in which religion already plays an important social role such as India. Religious symbols, feelings of belonging, difference and entitlement can be selectively used by populist politicians in their calls to ‘the people’ against ‘elites’ and ‘outsiders’.

Indeed, religion in its various forms not only provides fertile ground to create a receptive audience ‘the pure people’ (Hindu majority in this case) of populists but it also provides relevant references (by choosing episodes of historical trauma and humiliation under the foreign religious rulers such as so called oppression of Hindus under the Muslim rulers in medieval age in India) that helps populists create dichotomies between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and, in perpetuating these divisive binaries leading the alienation of religious minorities by the Majority population. In the Indian context, Hindu religious populists often invoke historical vendettas to take physical revenge against Muslims and Christians, whom they accuse of defiling pure Hindu culture and the nation. The use of Hindu religious populism under the Prime Minister Modi, who once was banned from the West due to his complicity in the massacre of Muslims in 2002, has reached to a new height consequently increase in Hindu majority hostility towards religious minorities. As part of state-building, historical architectures are being shaped in Hinduness, the identities of religious minorities are being erased, past events are being retold to create an 'official' Hindu state history. To make a populist appeal to the Hindu majority’s nostalgia for ancient Hindu greatness, India is becoming ‘Bharat’.

The hindu right-wing party, Bhartiya Janta Party, has ‘hijacked’ Hinduism; in the building of the fantasy narrative of the great Hindu nation while excluding Indian Muslims and Christians from Indian civilization as adherents of a foreign culture, similar to the argument put up by Roy in the western context. Hindu nationalist has singled out religious minorities, the ‘others’ as threat to the ‘the Hindu people’ and their culture. Hindu nationalists have made Hinduism into a ‘thick ideology’ which is used by Hindu populists in current Indian politics. Saleem noted that increase in Hindu populism in India has targeted towards the exclusion of religious minorities asserting the claims of ‘authentic people’ of the land by the Hindu nationalists. In general, elements of populism in Hindu religious populism, such as its 'anti-pluralistic' attitude towards religious diversity, and tendency to eliminate civil society, presents a true danger for secular Indian democracy and for the rights of religious minorities in India. If the influence of Hindu populist nationalist leader such as Narendra Modi, on the Hindu majority and the Hindu religion increases, the state of human rights, especially freedom of religious minorities, such as Christians and Muslims, is likely to decline.