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Don’t Fear the Modi: Hinduism Makes India Great

Westerners who don't know what they're talking about should avoid falling prey to simplistic caricatures.

India, soon to be the world’s most populous country, has been booming economically, while also trying to tackle other problems, especially grinding poverty. The country is bewilderingly complex, home to thousands of religions, castes, ethnicities, languages, and cultures that somehow manage to interact with each other through a complicated and messy political and social system.

Yet ever since the Hindu right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014, the dominant media narrative in the United States has focused on the dangers of Hindu nationalism and the alleged plight of minorities, especially Muslims and Christians. As India awaits the results of its 2019 national elections (most exit polls currently predict a big win for Modi and the BJP), a plethora of articles have appeared in the American press arguing that India is at a dangerous crossroads. These pieces say the BJP must be defeated for India to survive and be “great,” as Doug Bandow argued at The American Conservative. Reading Bandow, one gets the impression that India is a hellhole with no freedoms, populated by bigoted Hindu mobs braying for blood. Nothing could be further from the truth. Simply put, most Westerners do not know much about India and should avoid falling prey to simplistic caricatures.

While there are many problems with the BJP’s ideology and policies, it should nonetheless be given credit for the enormous economic improvements it’s made. Yet this story is almost always sidelined in favor of warnings about alleged religious intolerance in India. It bristles to read of the unidimensional manner in which the Western press portrays India and Hinduism. Because of the pantheistic nature of their religion, Hindus believe that the divine (or “God”) can take on many forms and approach in various ways. This openness is the basis of India’s greatness and freedom. Religious groups persecuted elsewhere, from Tibetan Buddhists to Persian Zoroastrians, have throughout history found a safe haven in India. Of course, Muslim and European empires have given much to India, especially cuisine, architecture, and administration. But these have ultimately been integrated into the country’s 5,000-year-old civilization.

Nevertheless, Western media often take a reductionist view of India based on a few narratives available to them in English. These narratives are not necessarily factually inaccurate, but they frame issues in alarmist ways. For example, a recent article in Al Jazeera posits that the title of a new Bollywood movie, Kesari—meaning “saffron”—is evidence of rising Hindu bigotry because the “colour [is] associated with the ruling party and the right wing in India.” Never mind that the flag of India, designed by the left-leaning Congress Party, contains saffron, in homage to the robes of ancient sages. Saffron is also a traditional color of Sikhism: the movie Kesari is actually about a last-stand battle between 21 Sikh soldiers and 10,000 Afghans.

India is also not on the brink of a genocide. Mobs are not running rampant lynching people. The idea that the rise of the Hindu right has led to Jim Crow-like conditions against Indian minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, is not borne out by the evidence. It is true that life in rural India is in many ways pre-modern and often characterized by private violence, some of which has a communal angle. But there are no formal, legal barriers to minority rights, just social ones.

Of course, attacks against minorities should be absolutely forbidden, and the perpetrators punished. But it is important to keep in mind how relatively minor these incidents are in proportion to India’s population. Only 28 people were killed in vigilante attacks against Muslims between 2010 and 2017. According to a data analysis, the nature of crimes between Hindus and Muslims has also been frequently misinterpreted in the name of sensationalism: “Muslim crimes against Hindus were simply ignored, or not counted as hate crimes. Conversely, Hindu crimes against Muslims for non-religious reasons were counted as hate-crimes.” In addition, Hindus in the majority Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir have essentially been cleansed by Pakistani-sponsored militants. In Pakistan, the remnants of the Hindu population are subject to constant humiliations and persecutions, such as girls being kidnapped and forcibly married to older Muslim men.

The distortion of what’s really happening in India is enormous. It would be as though Asian media framed events at Charlottesville and Ferguson as proof that the United States was being run by white mobs. While some level of bias against minorities exists in both the U.S. and India, and there are sporadic episodes of violence, most minorities go about their daily lives normally.

There is no denying that many Hindus, regardless of their political affiliations, are deeply anti-Muslim, which probably leads to a systemic bias in some areas. But other minorities are much better off. In fact, BJP-allied governments serve in all three of India’s majority Christian states, and there are almost no communal problems involving minorities that aren’t Muslim.

The answer to the problem of bias against Muslims isn’t to separate them from Hindus. Yet some of this ghettoization of Indian Muslims is self-imposed. Muslim community leaders in India have not pushed for liberal and modern values. Rather they have demanded special laws that allow their communities to retain a separate legal system, including the right of a man to take four wives and to instantly divorce a wife by uttering the Arabic word talaq three times. Hindus, meanwhile, are governed by a more modern civil law code that was passed over opposition by more traditional Hindus. The push for a common law for all Indians should be seen as a push for Enlightenment values.

Finally, there is the question of caste. Yes, the traditionally “lower” castes have historically faced discrimination. They’ve also been the target of Christian proselytizing, and there is some problematic anti-proselytizing sentiment among politicians in India. Yet since traditional Hinduism encountered European value systems, interpretations have been put forward that are emphatically anti-caste, at least in the hereditary sense. No major political party or intellectual group in India advocates hereditary caste. While caste persists socially, especially in rural areas, and is taken advantage of politically, there is no institutionalization of it. The breakdown of caste is ultimately the goal of the Hindu right, because it wants to form a united Hindu society.

The “lower” castes for the most part have never sought to leave Hinduism for Christianity or any other religion, despite the emergence of a neo-Buddhist movement associated with this demographic. The civil rights movement in the United States did not seek to radically overturn the political system or undermine its premises; rather, it wanted to extend its benefits and rights to all. Similarly in India, the spread of European Enlightenment ideas have led not to the replacement of Indian religions and culture with Western ones, but to reformist ideas within the Indian religious context. At the elite level, British-educated Indian intellectuals have sought out universal, pan-Indian ideas that transcend old ways of thinking. Hinduism has evolved and changed in many ways over the past two centuries as a result of contact with the West, while remaining true to much of its philosophy.

Meanwhile, women, untouchables (Dalits), and other groups that have faced discrimination in traditional Hindu society have organized in order to make Hinduism work for them. For example, during the early 20th century, Dalits in today’s state of Kerala led and won a temple entry movement, gaining access to sanctums traditionally open only to higher castes. They did this because they wanted to be accepted within their cultural-philosophical tradition, rather than convert to Christianity.  

There is no doubt that India is in a ferment, and that relations between its various ethnic and religious groups are changing. Unlike in many European countries, India’s many minorities, including Muslims and Christians, are natives, genetically and culturally, descendants of converts to those religions. They are just as Indian as followers of Indian-origin religions. Reconciling this with the genuine desire of the Hindu majority for recognition is a task that will require compromise and a halfway meeting point. India, like most countries in the world, is not as post-modern and post-identitarian as globalized elites would like to believe.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an international relations writer and analyst of Indian history, culture, and politics. Follow him at Twitter @AkhiPill.