India’s Shrinking Religious Freedom

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: Khalid Azam

India, a country of over a billion people with a constitution that is celebrated for its commitment to secularism, has undergone some deeply troubling changes that bode ill for the future of religious freedom in the country. The recent victory of the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Narendra Modi has evoked fear and concern among religious minorities. Such fear is not without basis, when one analyzes the track record of the BJP, as well as of Mr. Modi. Both have their worldview firmly rooted in the supremacist ideology of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

It is an obfuscation of facts to state that Mr. Modi came to power based entirely on a campaign for economic development and good governance. While his campaign ads may have touted Mr. Modi’s administrative skills and apparent yearning for economic growth, the BJP and its parent organization, the RSS, tactically polarized the electorate. In states they do not rule, such as UP and Assam, the BJP’s ultra-nationalist rhetoric stoked sectarian violence against minorities. The Gujarat government’s witch-hunt against human rights activists and whistleblowers, and inflammatory statements by Mr. Modi himself, such as comparing the victims of the Gujarat pogrom to a a puppy inadvertently run over by a car, made it clear that Mr. Modi’s vision of India does not differ much from that of the RSS, where religious minorities would be relegated to the status of second-class citizens.

Mr. Modi’s 12-year tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat should leave no doubt about his hardline Hindu nationalist credentials. The Gujarat pogroms of 2002 in which over 2,000 Muslims were killed, and over 150,000 people displaced, unfortunately do not represent the only brazen violations of religious freedom under the Modi administration. Gujarat’s former deputy inspection general of police D. G. Vanzara has gone on record to state that the fake encounter killings of Muslim minorities were carried out by the police, as a matter of executing state policy. The BJP campaigned to bring a Gujarat-style, national anti-conversion law if it were elected to power. 

While corporate India may continue to wax eloquent about the new prime minister’s grand vision, based on his penchant for easing regulations on big business, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other religious minorities have much to be alarmed about. 

The victory celebration for Mr. Modi by the BJP resulted in violence against minority individuals and places of worship. RSS supremo, Mr. Mohan Bhagwat, recently reiterated his movement’s claim that considering Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs as non-Hindus, amounted to engaging in conspiracy against Hinduism. Given the size and sway of the RSS, this is no less than a threat to the right of self-identification by a religious community. Mr. Modi’s Education Minister, Smriti Irani is now pursuing “Hinduization” of education curricula, to instill pride in ancient Hindu glory and paint Muslims and Christians as invaders and plunderers. 

What makes the situation truly precarious for minorities is not only the deeply divisive agenda of the Hindu nationalist movement but also the “saffronization” of the law enforcement, and a broken judicial system. In Gujarat, scores of youth were arrested on trumped up terror charges and later acquitted, after having spent several years in prison for crimes they had not committed. In the infamous Akshardham temple attack case, India’s Supreme Court acquitted all six Muslims of terror charges, three of whom had been sentenced to death by the Gujarat High Court. Likewise, in the case of the 1993 Surat blasts, all eleven accused were acquitted by the Supreme Court this year. 

Most individuals unjustly incarcerated do not have the wherewithal to pursue such a long struggle against the system. India’s broken judicial system takes decades to conclude on charges. According to the statement made by former prime minister Manmohan Singh to the Indian Parliament, India has the largest backlog of cases in the world. There are 30 million cases pending in Indian courts, 4 million of which are pending in high courts and 65,000 in the Federal Supreme Court itself. It takes an average of 10 years to adjudicate a case in a court. Once a verdict is given in the lower court, the appeal process to the Supreme Court can take several decades. This makes any remedies to human rights violations such as judicial redress impractical. In most cases of mass violence against minorities, the masterminds of the pogroms continue to roam free with many gaining political power. The decay within the judiciary has effectively robbed the minorities of even the means to pursue justice. Many of these acts of terror were carried out by Hindu nationalist groups while the law enforcement systematically scapegoated minorities. It is feared that Mr. Modi’s rise will only amplify this practice given his own Hindutva leanings. 

Safeguarding religious freedom in India starts with securing the life and liberty of all citizens and keeping the promise of equality before the law enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Unless religious freedom is ensured, the radicalization of minority youth will accelerate and pose a debilitating threat to the economic progress of the nation. India veering towards Hindu nationalism has the potential of sending the subc
ontinent into instability and chaos.

Khalid Azam is a founding member and trustee at the Indian American Muslim Council, a group dedicated to promoting and preserving the tolerant and pluralistic ethos of India. 

This piece was originally authored on August 12, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.