Lurching toward theocracy
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an absolute majority in India's Parliament last month, a rare event in a country where most governments have been coalitions of parties. The BJP promotes Hindutva ("Hindu-ness"), a vague ideology which opposes the traditional secular character of India's government in favor of defining India in terms of the Hindu religion. Over time Hindutva has taken the form of growing hostility toward Muslims, the largest non-Hindu religious minority (Hindus are 80% of the population, Muslims 13%). The new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has a murky past in this regard; as governor of the state of Gujarat, he was suspected of passivity or worse in the face of mob violence there that killed 2,000 Muslims in 2002. But an anti-Muslim stance carries little electoral cost in India, where repeated Islamic terrorist attacks have frayed tolerance and infuriated the public.
The BJP's rise to power has been helped by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) a militant Hindu organization which first arose in 1925 under British rule, partly inspired by the rise of fascism in Europe. The relationship between the BJP and the RSS is somewhat like the relationship between the US Republican party and the various fundamentalist organizations which have supported and helped define it since the late 1970s, starting with the Moral Majority -- except that the BJP always had a religious identity and did not need to be seduced in that direction. The RSS has a history of mob violence against non-Hindus and attacks on mosques.
The Hindu religion itself has historically been rather vaguely defined; the militancy of the RSS and BJP has gradually reshaped it into an instrument of social order and potential theocratic domination, as our Christian Right and Dominionist movements have done with Protestant Christianity. An RSS leader recently remarked that there is room in India for non-Hindus "who accept that India is a Hindu nation", echoing the chilling "Christian nation" rhetoric heard in some quarters here.
One shouldn't be too alarmist or push analogies too far. India's democracy and official secularism will impose some constraints on the actions of the BJP. Hinduism has historically not been as rigid or aggressive as Christianity. But one also shouldn't be blind to the obvious signs of where this is heading. If I were a secularist or non-Hindu Indian, I'd be terrified.
[Image at top: RSS paramilitary]