Modi or the worrying advent of Hindu nationalism

Modi or the worrying advent of Hindu nationalism

Who else but Modi? He is our king! » Ghanshyam Dass Bansal, 58, becomes animated in his shop when asked who he is going to vote for in the legislative elections. We could have guessed it from its storefront overloaded with saffron flags, the same ones that saturate the streets of the New Kondli market all around. Here as everywhere in New Delhi, these emblems of Hinduism were installed en masse last January, in the run-up to the inauguration of a large temple dedicated to the god Ram in the city of Ayodhya, approximately 600 kilometers, by none other than the Prime Minister himself. An unprecedented break with contemporary India's tradition of treating religions equally.

Having remained there ever since, these flags materialize the ” new era ” promised by Narendra Modi when he inaugurated this temple built on the ruins of a mosque destroyed in 1992 by Hindu extremists. An era where India would finally break “the chains of the slave mentality“. According to this interpretation of history carried by the head of government and his party the BJP (“Indian People's Party”), India would have been enslaved for twelve centuries by Muslim and then British leaders. To regain its sovereignty and identity, it would therefore be important to return “to the source” by affirming the cultural primacy of Hinduism, first and foremost over Islam and Christianity.

Reshaping India's identity

Symbols of the penetration of this vision, no less than a million orange pennants and standards have been raised since January in the capital's markets. And no one knows how many millions more have appeared on the roofs and windows of apartment buildings. A stunning inscription of Hindu nationalism in the public space, the end of which no New Kondli merchant seems to envisage. “I will never take down these flags!” “, swears Ghanshyam Dass Bansal who, like many here, sees the Ayodhya temple as Narendra Modi's greatest success. They fill us with pride. They will stay here as long as God pleases!»

These flags are not the only signs of the BJP's ambition to reshape the country's identity. In New Delhi, streets evoking the city's Muslim past have been renamed. Elsewhere, in states governed by the ruling party or its allies, towns with names marked by Islam have found a toponym of Hindu tradition presented as “original”. Thus Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, renamed Prayagraj, or Osmanabad and Aurangabad in Maharashtra, renamed respectively Dharashiv and Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar. The historic stronghold of Narendra Modi, the city of Ahmedabad has so far escaped this treatment, with the authorities fearing that it could cause it to lose its status as a “world heritage city” awarded by UNESCO.

“I don’t hate Gandhi…”

This rereading of history does not spare the founding figures of contemporary India, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The ethno-nationalist project of the BJP is in fact directly opposed to that, secular and pluralist, of these two fathers of Indian independence, who are also criticized for the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. This does not It is therefore no coincidence that the Nehru Memorial Museum, an important social science research institution in New Delhi, was renamed “Prime Minister's Museum and Library” in August 2023.

Conversely, the Modi government has strived since coming to power in 2014 to promote other historical figures. Among them, the very controversial Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Born in 1883, he is the founder of Hindutva, this ideology advocating the supremacy of Hindus over India. In November 2022, ahead of India's presidency of the G20, Indian officials invited foreign delegations to visit the prison cell in which this scandalous personality had been incarcerated by the British. Part of the world of culture also participates in this enterprise, as illustrated in March by the release of a large-budget hagiographic film devoted to Savarkar, in which we hear him declare: “I don’t hate Gandhi, I hate non-violence. »

“Savarkar is important for Hindu nationalists because it allows them to fill a big historical gap: that of not having participated in the anti-colonial struggleexplains Christophe Jaffrelot, research director at CNRS and specialist in India. So Savarkar helps them legitimize themselves. In the past, such a reference would have been a stain, because of its proximity to Gandhi's assassins. »

However, in recent years we have seen the disappearance from history textbooks of the mention of the allegiance of Nathuram Godse – the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi – to the RSS (National Volunteer Association), the paramilitary organization from which the BJP emerged… and within which Narendra Modi made a career before accessing political office. “The authorities' speech on the Mahatma is of great hypocrisyadds Christophe Jaffrelot. Modi continues to pay tribute to him to give assurances to the West, but internally his lieutenants systematically criticize him and make a hero of his murderer. »

“Even in opposition, we must show that we are Hindu”

Sitting on a broken sofa, in one of the low buildings set with lawns which form the historic headquarters of the Congress Party in New Delhi, a leader of the movement deplores this new political universe saturated with religion, in which the traditional proponents of secularism struggle to find foot. “Now, even in the opposition we feel compelled to publicly show that we are Hindu, sighs this former member of Parliament on condition of anonymity. As if to be a doctor you had to walk around all day with your stethoscope around your neck!»

Several figures from the party vying for the legislative elections were thus accused of practicing “soft Hindutva” for having increased visits to temples and appeals to the Hindu faithful during their campaign. Way of reacting to the incessant arrows of the BJP, which regularly accuses the opposition of being “anti-Hinduism”.

Elections in India: Modi or the worrying advent of Hindu nationalism

But faced with this trap which pushes the opposition to also situate its discourse in a religious register, this politician recommends another strategy: emphasizing the “bad governance” of the Modi government. “Unemployment, inflation, endemic corruption in the administration, the arrogance of leaders, the indigence of public serviceshe lists, It is on these fault lines that we must press, and propose an alternative.»

Is he intentionally failing to mention attacks on Muslim rights? The man assures me no. “The BJP is working across all divisions. Look at their silence in the face of what is happening in Manipur.» In this state bordering Burma, more than a hundred people have died since 2023 in inter-ethnic clashes between the Hindu community of Meiteis, the majority, and the minorities of Nagas and Kukis, most of whom are Christian. “Their projectfinishes the former parliamentarian, it is Hindu Rashtra. »

Hindu Rashtra: the expression means “Hindu nation”. Conceptualized by Savarkar, it is today used by some Hindu nationalists to demand the inclusion in the Indian Constitution of the pre-eminence of Hinduism in the country. Such a measure would bring about a radical redefinition of India's political identity since its independence. The Modi government has never officially set it as a goal. But some observers of Indian political life interpret his declared ambition to obtain a sufficient majority in Parliament to be able to amend the Constitution.

Second class citizens

“Why do we need 400 seats (in the lower house of the Indian Parliament) ? Because the leaders of the Congress Party, in the past, have made changes in the Constitution which do not give first place to Hinduismlaunched MP Anantkumar Hegde, a veteran of the BJP in the southern state of Karnataka, in March. We must change this and save our religion. » Some saw it as a trial balloon, quickly deflated by the authorities. After ensuring that the elected official's statements only reflected “his personal opinions”the lotus party clearly disavowed him at the end of March by not renewing his nomination.

End of the affair? Even. Met in New Delhi in a conference center popular with opponents, Professor Apoorvanand summarizes the situation. “The direction in which Modi and the BJP want to take India is very clear. If they don't do it by changing the Constitution, they will do it by promoting laws that will make the Constitution obsolete.“, predicts this professor of Hindi at the University of New Delhi and regular commentator on Indian politics.

In his eyes, this project is already well underway. Laws like the one preventing Muslims from buying certain lands or the one prohibiting foreign Muslims from obtaining Indian nationality are already helping to make them second-class citizens.

Muslims, first targets of Hindutva

Muslims represent approximately 15% of the Indian population, or nearly 200 million people, making them the largest religious minority in the country ahead of Christians (2.3% of the population), Sikhs (1.7%) and Buddhists (0.7%). They occupy only 5% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament.

Discrimination and violence against the Muslim minority have existed for decades, but have increased under Modi, encouraged by a climate of impunity, and the adoption by the government and local authorities of laws and administrative practices that discriminate against Muslims.

Adopted in December 2019, the citizenship law marks a breakthrough by applying for the first time a religious criterion in the granting of Indian citizenship. Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are now excluded.

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