Modi’s Victory and the Future of Religious Freedom in India

On this day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the United States for the first time since his visa ban was lifted. On this momentous occasion, Cornerstone revisits the implications of Modi’s rise to power. 

By: Chad Bauman

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent landslide electoral victory in India was extraordinary, not only for its proportion, but also for the astoundingly meteoric rise of the BJP’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a man to whom the United States had until recently denied a visa (even though no Indian court has yet convicted him) because of his alleged complicity in a series of deadly riots primarily targeting Muslims in Gujarat, the state he ran since 2001.

The BJP’s triumph is relevant to discussions of religious freedom in India because of the party’s ideological stance. The defeated Indian National Congress (INC), heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and dominant political power since India’s independence 67 years ago this week, is popularly associated with secularist ideals and the protection—critics say appeasement—of ethnic and religious minorities. The BJP, however, is one among the many organizations of the Sangh Parivar, a loose-knit collection of religious, social, and political organizations known for espousing the ideology of Hindutva, or “Hindu-ness,” as the special genius and sine qua non of India’s future flourishing. 

“Foreign” religions, like Islam and Christianity, represent a potential threat to the nation, according to the Sangh, because they do not possess this essence, and because of their putatively foreign loyalties. While the BJP tempers its rhetoric, at least at the national level, it draws significant support from other Sangh organizations more openly hostile to India’s minorities, the members of which are somewhat regularly implicated in incidents of intimidation and violence against India’s religious minorities. 

Many Muslim and Christian communities responded to the BJP’s victory with alarm. One Indian mission organization announced on its website, before pulling the post down, that the election portended the Indian Church’s “Second Great Persecution” of the century. 

Others argued, with Christian and minority rights activist John Dayal, who testified to US lawmakers just before the election, that a BJP victory would lead to greater governmental harassment of religious minorities, the removal of pro-minority affirmative action schemes, an increase in mass violence against religious minorities, and the passage of a national law like those active in several Indian states, which forbid conversion through force, fraud, and allurement, sometimes require that those converting others secure the permission of local authorities beforehand (as in the “Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act of 2003,” signed into law by Modi), and are frequently used to hound and intimidate Christians (and only Christians, as some have complained).

Not surprisingly, India’s religious minorities have been desperately trying to read the tea leaves of the former tea seller’s first moves as prime minister. Deeply concerning to many, in this regard, is Modi’s recent appointment of the controversial Amit Shah as the party’s President. Shah is Modi’s long-time advisor and problem solver, and has been accused of abusing his power and ordering extrajudicial killings, though it should be noted that 30 percent of those who won seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, have criminal cases lodged against them, and at least some of them are politically motivated. 

The naming of Shah was in no small part a reward for his effective engineering of an overwhelming electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh. But in the early stages of the campaign there, Hindu-Muslim riots many believe were manufactured by the Sangh to consolidate the Hindu vote against the INC killed around 60 people (roughly 2/3 Muslim and 1/3 Hindu). Afterwards, Shah was briefly banned from the campaign trail for a number of inflammatory statements, among them that the Jat Hindu community affected by the riots should consider voting for the BJP a way of “voting out the government that protects and gives compensation to those who killed Jats. It is about badla (revenge) and protecting izzat (honor).” 

Modi’s own campaign speeches, however, struck a different tone. Candidate Modi feigned ignorance about church burnings and managed to express only a bumbling kind of regret about those killed in the Gujarat riots that took place under his watch. Nevertheless, though some detected an underlying cultural nationalist tone, his campaign focused on his development record, and struck many as subdued and secular-minded. He avoided publicly expressing concern about or making fun of Muslims’ high fertility rates, as he had been known to do earlier in his political career. And while he sent a certain kind of message to India’s religious minorities by appointing Shah, he has sent a very different one by so far excluding from his cabinet two figures who had at one time been considered frontrunners: Arun Shourie and Subramanian Swamy, both of whom have frequently spoken and written in ways fierce
ly critical of India’s Muslims and Christians. 

There are other reasons to believe that Modi’s government may not be as bad as feared for India’s religious minorities. Post-election analysis suggests that the BJP was returned to power less because of its Hindutva ideology than because of popular dissatisfaction with the corruption-plagued INC, concern about India’s flagging economic growth, and the galvanic allure of Modi himself (1 in 4 said they would not have voted for the BJP’s political alliance if Modi had not been its candidate for PM). 

Moreover, while statistical research I conducted with Tamara Leech on violence against Christians lends support to the popular assertion that such violence is more common in states where the BJP is politically strong, it also suggests that the BJP may be more likely to lose political power in states that experience it. In addition, while the number of Lok Sabha seats won by the BJP was overwhelming, the party secured only 31 percent of the popular vote. If voters who thought they had voted for a charismatic development guru find instead that they’ve elected an anti-minority ideologue in a party that has over-read its mandate, the BJP’s support could dwindle down once again to its ideological base. Knowing this, Modi and the BJP may determine that now is the time to consolidate, rather than divide. Only time will tell.

Chad Bauman, an associate professor of religion at Butler University, is an expert on religion and society in India. 

This piece was originally authored on September 26, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.