Hindu nationalism alarms minorities in India on 75th anniversary of independence



On the banks of the holy river Ganges, a Hindu priest quietly utters his threat: his religion must be at the heart of India’s identity, 75 years after its independence.

“We must adapt to the times,” says Jairam Mishra, “we must cut off the hand of anyone who rises up against Hinduism.”

Hindus are the majority religious group among India’s estimated 1.4 billion people, but when the country gained independence from the British in 1947 it did so as a secular, multicultural state.

Now, calls from right-wing groups to declare the country a Hindu nation, with greater weight in the laws for this religious group, are growing fear among the estimated 210 million Indian Muslims.

These demands are essential to understand the popularity of the nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the actions of his government, such as the construction of a pharaonic corridor that connects the Ganges with the temples of the holy city of Varanasi.

Mahatma Gandhi was a devout Hindu but he insisted on the need to create a secular India in which “every man enjoys the same status, whatever his religion.”

He was assassinated just a year after the independence and partition of India and Pakistan by a Hindu fanatic who considered him too tolerant of Muslims.

For Jairam Mishra, Gandhi’s ideals are out of date.

“If someone hits you on the cheek,” he told AFP, “Ghandi would say we have to put the other one (…) Hindus are generally peaceful and calm, they even hesitate before killing a mosquito.”

“But other communities are taking advantage of it and will continue to subject us if we don’t change our mentality,” he adds.

– Temples and statues –

For many, change is already underway, as evidenced by the major projects linked to Hinduism promoted by Modi’s party, the Indian People’s Party (BJP), which has been in power for eight years.

In the holy city of Ayodhya (northeast), where Hindu fanatics destroyed a Mughal-era mosque three decades ago, sparking sectarian violence that left more than 1,000 dead across the country, a large temple is under construction.

The BJP also supported with 300 million dollars the construction on the coast of Bombay (southwest) of a 210-meter-high statue of the Hindu king Chhatrapati Shivaji, who faced the Muslim Mughal Empire.

Even critics recognize Modi for the boost he gave to “infrastructure, roads, cleanliness… Everything is better,” says a 44-year-old resident of Benares (north), Syed Feroz Hussain.

But this Muslim also claims to be very “concerned” about the future of his children.

“There is more religiously motivated violence and killing than ever before, and a constant feeling of hatred and tension between communities,” he says.

– Attacks against minorities –

In the city of Allahabad (north, renamed Prayagraj in 2018), the authorities tear down the houses of those accused of crimes (mostly Muslim), which activists see as an unconstitutional attack on minorities.

In Karnataka, the BJP supported a ban on the hijab (a scarf that covers the head but leaves the face visible) in schools, prompting Muslim protests in the streets.

For King’s College London professor Harsh V. Pant, the rise of the BJP was inherent to the long period of power of Gandhi’s Congress Party which, while preaching secularism, catered to the extremists of the two main religions for electoral purposes. .

The BJP took advantage of the revival of Hindu sentiment after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992, and has managed to impose its narrative: “Everyone buys it, so they are here for the next two or three decades,” explains Pant. .

– ‘Growing divide’ –

The BJP’s position of strength is a boon to those who want to see India transformed into a Hindu nation, such as the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad movement.

The “double face of secularism” had become “a threat to the existence of India,” its leader, Surendra Jain, told AFP.

“This does not mean that the others have to leave,” he adds, “they can live in peace, but the character of India will always be Hindu.”

As prime minister, Modi’s actions, according to his critics, amount to appeals to a Hindu nation, albeit without explicitly endorsing it.

And he often ignores inflammatory comments from figures in his own party.

What worries Muslims like Nasir Jamal Khan, 52, a guard at a mosque in Varanasi: “There is a feeling of growing division,” he says, even though “our ancestors were born here.”

Jamal Khan hopes that a day will come when India’s leaders stop talking about religion: “For me the prime minister is a family man, it is not his place to treat his children differently.”

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