The results of India's month-long elections, expected this weekend, will clarify at least one political fact: the world's largest democracy faces a disruptive cultural force that will not easily fade away, a tidewater of Hindu nationalism. Popularly known as "Hindutva," it is a political ideology that seeks to create a Hindu state at the expense of minority rights and freedoms. Hindutva not only inspires the campaign platform for the nation's leading opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It represents a fearsome threat to India's democratic ideals and political stability.
During the general-election campaign that ended Wednesday, saffron-colored flags--the symbol of Hindutva--were visible throughout the country. In Raika, in India's eastern state of Orissa, the flag was ubiquitous. "There it means one thing: this is a land for Hindus, from which the 'foreign' religions of Islam and Christianity must be expelled," says David Griffiths, a South Asia Team Leader with the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide UK. "For many Hindus, the flags symbolize a narrow, exclusivist and violent vision of India."
Extremists are working hard to propagate this view. Though the BJP is unlikely to outperform the secular Congress Party in the elections, the real potency of Hindu nationalism lies in the grassroots mobilization work of its vast organizations, adept at instigating religious hatred and exclusivism. Chief among these is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which claims to operate in roughly 50,000 villages and towns across the country, and is believed to be the largest non-communist social organization in the world. An election defeat could be manipulated to fuel chauvinist and sectarian resentments.
If so, expect a continuing proliferation of persecution against Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities. The BJP ostensibly offers a progressive platform of "good governance, development and security." In reality, the party is pushing "anti-conversion" laws in several Indian states, restricting the right to propagate one's faith and convert to another religion other than Hinduism. In a 2008 report, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief warned that anti-conversion legislation was being used to vilify Christians and Muslims. "Such laws or even draft legislation have had adverse consequences for religious minorities," writes Asma Jahangir. "Organized groups claiming adherence to religious ideologies have unleashed an all-pervasive fear of mob violence in many parts of the country."
The February 2002 massacres of nearly 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat--apparently with BJP government complicity--put the problem of militant Hindu nationalism on the international radar screen. Less noticed has been the precipitous rise in discrimination and violence against the nation's Christian community, which makes up about 2.3 percent of the population, or 25 million people. A report released earlier this year by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) confirmed the findings of the U.N. Special Rapporteur, and noted a pattern of religiously motivated violence against Christians. Attacks included mob violence, murder, rape, theft, and arson. Many of the assaults--on church leaders, evangelists, nuns, and charitable workers--were linked to allegations of "forcible" or "fraudulent" conversions among lower-caste Hindus. In several states, police negligence or complicity in religiously-motivated violence has become pervasive.
Christians in the Orissa state have been particularly hard hit. Following a fact-finding trip to the region, CSW's Griffiths concluded that militants perpetrated "the worst spate of communal violence ever faced by the Christian community" since 1947, the year India gained independence. In 2008, Christians were blamed for the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, a radical Hindu nationalist leader, setting off violent reprisals. (The murder, in fact, was committed by Maoist insurgents.) Shouting Hindu nationalist slogans and anti-Christian epithets, rampaging mobs set up road blocks and looted and destroyed homes, shops, and local churches. Over a month-long period, about 70 people were killed and over 50,000 displaced.
India's constitution explicitly rejects Hindutva ideology. It describes the nation as a "socialist secular democratic republic" and offers clear provisions for religious freedom. Article 25, for example, protects "the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion." The country's penal code criminalizes "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs." Nevertheless, the laws are being ignored by national and local officials. Human rights advocates increasingly complain of police complicity in BJP states, where Hindutva sympathies have taken hold.
It would be a mistake, these observers say, to regard the latest violence as the product of "ethnic tensions" or inherent animosity between Hindus and Christians. Prominent Hindus committed to a multi-faith society are vocal critics of the violence--and often themselves threatened with reprisals. Rather, it results from a campaign of sectarian bigotry, inflamed by anti-conversion laws and assisted by government complicity. Thus the election results in India--a nation in which half of its 714 million registered voters went to the polls--are not merely about rival political parties. They involve competing moral visions: a liberal democracy that upholds pluralism and equal rights, or a thuggish religious nationalism that punishes nonconformity and tramples fundamental freedoms.
On a recent trip to the Kandhamal district in Orissa, David Griffiths met two victims of the Hindutva version of Indian society. They were widows, both with young children, whose husbands had been murdered by extremists. One was buried alive and the other beaten to death with iron rods and axes. They had lived under the shadow of the saffron flag. "All they ever wanted," he told me, "was to live in peace."
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and is a contributor to the forthcoming book, Christianity and Human Rights: Christians and the Struggle for Global Justice.