Dyer: Modi’s Hindu nationalism puts Indian democracy at risk

We’re not surprised when religious zealots in the American heartland ban teaching evolution in schools, but what could have possessed the national government of a grown-up country like India to do the same?

The National Council of Educational Research and Training, which develops Indian school curriculum and textbooks, didn’t stop there. It also ended mention of the periodic table in texts and removed chapters on democracy and diversity, political parties, and challenges to democracy.

Why would the Indian government want the average student to be ill-informed about science, democratic politics, and respect for diversity? Well, that’s exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aiming for.

His party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People’s Party), seeks to transform India, the world’s most populous country, from a secular democracy where all religious and ethnic groups enjoy equal rights to a Hindu nationalist state where religious minorities are second-class citizens.

This would seem to be quite feasible, since 80 per cent of the population is Hindu and minorities are quite divided: mostly Muslims, but also Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. But India has been a fully functional democracy for 76 years, and a lot of people (including many Hindus) want it to stay that way.

In fact, it’s a monumental task to turn India into a “soft” dictatorship (like Turkey or Hungary) where the ruling party controls the media and courts and always wins “free” elections. Modi, who honed his anti-Muslim tactics in his home state of Gujarat, waited a full term before going full Hindutva at the national level.

‘Hindutva” (literally ‘Hindu-ness’) has been variously described “cultural hegemony,” “ethnic absolutism” and “almost fascist in the classical sense.” In Modi’s hands, it’s been a political strategy to build BJP support by demonizing Muslims and encouraging attacks on them.

After a landslide second-term win in 2019, Modi ended Kashmir’s special status as India’s only Muslim-majority state. It’s now effectively occupied territory (one Indian soldier for every seven inhabitants).

Then he announced a National Register of Citizens that would effectively deprive many Muslims of Indian citizenship (though it met such widespread protests  it is still in abeyance).

Indian courts in Modi-friendly states are banning documentaries showing BJP complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms, and authorizing police raids on producers of programs (including the BBC) criticizing Modi’s personal involvement in them.

Bit by bit, and quite quickly now, the BJP is chipping away at the rights and rules that make India a flawed but genuine democracy.

“There is a movement away from rational thinking, against the enlightenment and Western ideas” in India, says Jawaharlal Nehru University historian Sucheta Mahajan. Evolution conflicts with Hindu creation stories that play a big part in BJP propaganda, so it has to go. Even science in general undermines the myths, so children must be protected from it.

That’s not to say that Gujarat and Modi are like Bavaria and Hitler, but there is a resonance there. That matters, because by 2029, India will overtake Japan and Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy. But the game isn’t over yet.

Huge numbers of Indians reject their democracy’s destruction, and have a new weapon: a caste census. Bihar state (population 126 million) is holding one.

Caste is a rigid system of social stratification peculiar to Hindus, and the BJP is led by Upper Caste members. But they depend on a coalition with the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), the middle level in the system, to win majorities. (The Scheduled Castes, formerly “untouchables,” know their enemy and aren’t interested.)

If the census reveals (as it probably would) that Upper Castes are only a tiny minority of Hindus, BJP’s caste coalition might collapse, so it’s trying to block the census. It may fail, and so might the BJP’s takeover strategy.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England

Source: The London Free Press