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Is religious dogma taking hold of democracy in India?

Hindu fanaticism seems to be on the rise in India with the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi turning a blind eye. Is the world’s largest democracy on a slippery slope?

Not a day goes by in which we are not reminded of the growing threat posed by religious extremism and fanaticism. There is a silver lining, though. 2015 will be remembered as the year of mass migration, but it will also be remembered as the year in which the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday coincided with Christmas Eve. A rare occurrence, especially at a time when the world’s major religions are at loggerheads and extremist violence is on the rise. Moderates are exploiting the occasion as an opportunity. And it would surely help if believers took it as a sign straight from the gods.

Meanwhile, as we take stock of the grim reality, we observe that radical forces seem to be gaining ground across the world. Bombs have been hurled at mosques and refugee shelters have been burned down across Europe, where the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment is rising. Right-wing political forces such as Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West, or Pegida, are calling for stricter controls on Muslim immigration in Germany. Donald Trump, who is running for the 2016 presidential elections in the US, has not shied away from making controversial remarks such as proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States.

Growing influence of religion on politics

The new edition of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index, BTI 2016, shows that the influence of religious dogmas on the internal functioning of political systems is increasing worldwide. Analyzing and comparing 129 developing and transition countries, the BTI experts found that “in 21 states, legal systems and political institutions were more strongly subject to this influence than was the case two years ago, with reductions evident in only five countries.”

This disturbing trend was also observed in India, a secular state that has seen a rise in the influence of Hindu nationalists since May 2014, when the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an absolute majority in the country’s general elections. The Bertelsmann experts consider Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “highly divisive figure” due to his alleged role in the communal riots that shook the state of Gujarat in 2002 during his tenure as Chief Minister.

The Modi government’s electoral success is partly attributed to the support of hardline Hindu-nationalist groups. The BTI 2016 India report states: “While the new government does not openly call into question the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution, its first months in office were characterized by an intensification of signals hinting at the incipient establishment of a Hindu majoritarian culture.”

This process began slowly, initially termed “cleansing” and “removing the traces of Western culture”. Valentine’s Day celebrations were banned, kissing scenes in films were censored, and Sanskrit, the primary sacred language of Hinduism, was reintroduced into the school curriculum.

Subsequently, the country’s leading cultural and academic institutions underwent a transformation as the new government appointed scholars who emphasized the superiority of Hindu values. “Foreign-funded” NGOs were de-registered for promoting “un-Indian” activities. Now, the saffron-clad Hindu activist brigade has officially gained power, fervently taking up the role of the country’s moral police.

According to Cedric Prakash, an Indian Jesuit and founder of the Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace in Gujarat, “The cancer of communitarianism is destroying the model of diversity and pluralism that our land is renowned for. Radical groups want to turn the whole of India into a Hindu State: despite being minorities, these groups make themselves seen and heard. And under Modi, they have regained strength and courage.”

The rise of a Hindu Taliban?

But has the Hindu brigade gone too far? In September of last year, a mob killed a Muslim blacksmith, Mohammed Akhlaq, because they believed that he and his family had eaten a cow. Cows are deemed sacred in Hinduism, and meat and beef bans have been imposed across the country as a result. Free speech, too, is no longer a given in India. Famous Bollywood actors Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan (both Muslims) came under the scrutiny of the Hindu moral police for voicing their opinions on the “intolerance in the country”. As famous British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor recently wrote in the Guardian “This alarming erosion of democracy is a slippery slope that may end up targeting not just minorities and ‘outsiders’ but any dissenting ‘insiders’. What I’ve seen happening is a spirit of fear taking hold, which threatens to silence activists, artists and intellectuals alike. We’ve never known that before.”

The fragile equilibrium of Indian society is under serious threat in the light of recent developments. As the BTI 2016 report concludes, the trend towards the establishment of a majoritarian Hindu discourse poses the risk of polarizing the country along religious lines in the future:

“This will be the main challenge for the government in the coming years: finding a balance between the pressures of hardline Hindu-nationalist groups that have contributed to the electoral victory of the BJP and are gaining strength, and the need to abide by the principle of secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution.”

Let’s hope 2016 will see India striking this balance.

Roma Rajpal Weiß is a freelance journalist and blogger from India, currently based in Bonn, Germany. She may be followed on Twitter @romarajpal. She writes for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s SGI News and BTI Blog.

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