Since September 11, 2001, the world’s attention has properly been focused on the violence of Islamic extremism, but there are also major violent trends in Hindu extremism that have largely been ignored in the United States. In India, this violence is supported by Hindu extremists and their allies in the Indian government, which is currently led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
One reason for our lack of attention here is that India is not a religiously reactionary state like Saudi Arabia or Iran, and in fact faces its own threats from Islamist militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir, as well as Islamist terrorist attacks throughout the country, most notably the dramatic storming of the Indian parliament in 2001 and the deadly bombing in Bombay that killed fifty-two people in August 2003. India is a strong ally in the war on terrorism and continues to have strong democratic traditions and institutions. It has developed friendlier relations with America and Israel; Ariel Sharon made a state visit in September. The Indian government has also loosened the previously heavily regulated economy to produce one of the highest growth rates in the world, and the Bombay stock market rose 50 percent in 2003. Yet despite these strengths, there is much sectarian hatred in India and it is expressed in frequent, sometimes programmatic, violence.
In the past decade, extremist Hindus have increased their attacks on Christians, until there are now several hundred per year. But this did not make news in the U.S. until a foreigner was attacked. In 1999, Graham Staines, an Australian missionary who had worked with leprosy patients for three decades, was burned alive in Orissa along with his two young sons. The brutal violence visited on Muslims in Gujarat in February 2002 also brought the dangers of Hindu extremism to world attention. Between one and two thousand Muslims were massacred after Muslims reportedly set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists, killing several dozen people.
These attacks were not inchoate mob violence, triggered by real or rumored insult; rather, they involved careful planning by organized Hindu extremists with an explicit program and a developed religious-nationalist ideology. Like the ideology of al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists, this ideology began to take shape in the 1920s as a response to European colonialism. It rejected the usually secular outlook of other independence movements; in place of secularism, it synthesized a reactionary form of religion with elements of European millenarian political thought, especially fascism.
Until the nineteenth century, the word “Hindu” had no specific religious meaning and simply referred to the people who lived east of the Indus River, whatever their beliefs. (The Indian Supreme Court itself has held that “no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism.’”) It was only when the census introduced by the British colonial authorities in 1871 included Hindu as a religious designation that many Indians began to think of themselves and their country as Hindu.
Twentieth-century agitation against the British led to the rise not only of the secular and socialist Congress movement but also of the rival Hindu nationalist movement collectively known as the Sangh Parivar (“family of organizations”). The Parivar proclaims an ideology of “Hindutva,” aimed at ensuring the predominance of Hinduism in Indian society, politics, and culture, which it promotes through tactics that include violence and terror. Its agenda includes subjugating or driving out Muslims and Christians, who total some 17 percent of the population. It castigates them as foreign faiths, imposed by foreign conquerors—even though Christians trace their origins in India to the Apostle Thomas in the first century and Islam came to India in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The Sangh Parivar’s central organization is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded by Keshav Hedgewar in 1925. Hedgewar was influenced by V. D. Savarkar, who believed that Hindus were the descendants of the ancient Aryans and properly formed a nation with a unified geography, race, and culture. Savarkar’s 1923 book Hindutva—Who is a Hindu? declared that those who did not consider India as both fatherland and holy land were not true Indians —and that the love of Indian Christians and Muslims for India was “divided” because each group had its own holy land in the Middle East.
M. S. Golwalkar, the RSS’s sarsangchalak (supreme director) from 1940 to 1973, sharpened these themes. In 1938, commenting on the Nuremberg racial laws, he declared: “Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us . . . to learn and profit by.” In an address to RSS members the same year, he also asserted: “If we Hindus grow stronger, in time Muslim friends . . . will have to play the part of German Jews.” He insisted that “the non-Hindu . . . must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and revere Hindu religion. . . . Or [they] may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges.” On March 25, 1939, the Hindu nationalist Mahasabha Party, an RSS ally, likewise proclaimed: “Germany’s solemn idea of the revival of the Aryan culture, the glorification of the swastika, her patronage of Vedic learning, and the ardent championship of Indo-Germanic civilization are welcomed by the religious and sensible Hindus of India with a jubilant hope.”
This racism and religious and cultural chauvinism brought the Sangh Parivar into conflict with other strands of Hinduism, especially those taught by Mahatma Gandhi. Golwalkar castigated Gandhi as being soft on Muslims, while Gandhi in turn called the RSS “a communal body with a totalitarian outlook.” Hindu nationalists blamed Gandhi for the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947 and accused him of dismembering Mother India. The conflict did not stop at words: Gandhi’s assassin was Nathuram Godse, a former RSS member and Savarkar associate.
The RSS is now a major paramilitary organization with millions of members. Its educational wing, the Vidya Bharati, has some twenty thousand educational institutes, with one hundred thousand teachers and two million students. The Vidya Bharati schools distribute booklets containing a map of India that encompasses not only Pakistan and Bangladesh but also the entire region of Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, and parts of Myanmar, all under the heading “Punya Bhoomi Bharat,” the “Indian Holy Land.” The RSS also has separate organizations for tribal peoples, intellectuals, teachers, slum dwellers, leprosy patients, cooperatives, consumers, newspapers, industrialists, Sikhs, ex-servicemen, overseas Indians, and an organization for religion and proselytization, as well as trade unions, student and economic organizations, and a women’s chapter.
Other Sangh Parivar organizations include the Bajrang Dal and the Vishnu Hindu Parishad (VHP-World Hindu Council), which engage in propaganda, virulent hate campaigns, and sometimes violence against religious minorities. The VHP was formed in 1964 to unite Hindu groups and serve as the RSS’s bridge to sympathetic religious leaders. It has sought to radicalize Hindus by claiming that Hindus are under threat from an “exploding” Muslim population and a spate of Christian conversions, and it organized the 1992 nationwide demonstrations that culminated in the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque by Hindu mobs.
In January 2003, the head of the RSS described the Jesuits in India as the “pope’s soldiers” and alleged that they had taken an oath to use “violence and barbaric means to decimate all those who don’t follow the Roman Catholic religion.” Sangh Parivar groups have also been pressing for a ban on religious conversions from Hinduism, which they allege are being done by “force, fraud, and inducement.” They accuse Christian missionaries (who comprise about one half of one percent of the Christians in India) of converting people by offering them money, medical help, and education. Because of this widespread Hindu extremist propaganda, it now appears that a majority of Hindus support a ban on Hindus changing their religion.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has since 1998 formed the national government of India at the head of a coalition of centrist parties, is tied to the RSS, VHP, and Bajrang Dal, and functions as the Sangh Parivar’s political wing. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly praises the RSS, attends its functions, and has feted the organization’s leadership at his residence. Other senior BJP officials, such as Home Affairs Minister L. K. Advani, are RSS associates. At the national level the BJP advances the ideology of Hindutva through propaganda, the manipulation of cultural institutions, undercutting laws that protect religious minorities, and minimizing or excusing Hindu extremist violence. At the state level its functionaries have abetted and even participated in such violence.
The BJP appoints school officials who alter textbooks and curricula to emphasize Hinduism; they also require that Hindu texts be taught in all schools. Moreover, it has appointed Sangh Parivar adherents to key positions in autonomous bodies such as the Prasar Bharati, which controls the official media, the National Film Development Corporation, the Indian Council of Historical Research, and the National Book Trust.
BJP lawmakers have also attempted to restrict minority religious groups’ international contacts and to reduce their rights to build places of worship. It works to pass anti-conversion laws and to alter the personal laws that govern marriages, adoptions, and inheritance. It practices legal discrimination against Dalits (“untouchables”) who are Christian and Muslim, but not against those who are Hindu. With BJP support, laws have recently been adopted in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat states that restrict the ability of Hindus to change their religion, and proposals for national restrictions have been made. Pope John Paul II described these developments in June 2003 as “unjust” and said they prohibited “free exercise of the natural right to religious freedom.”
The current legal status of religious conversion in India is ambiguous. In a 1977 judgment, the Supreme Court ruled that “converting” people was not a fundamental right, that conversions could potentially impinge on freedom of conscience, and that, if conversions disrupt community life, they could amount to “disturbing public order.” The states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and Arunachal Pradesh have a legal ban on “forced conversion.” Officials of the National Commission for Minorities, a government body with the mandate to protect minorities, believe that such laws are unconstitutional; and despite many investigations into allegations, no “forced conversions” have ever been documented or proven.
While restrictions on conversion—or, more precisely, restrictions on the legal recognition that someone has in fact converted—affect all Indians, they are particularly onerous for Dalits. Because of their desperate status in Indian society, many lower-caste Hindus have considered converting in order to escape their religiously defined plight (most Christians in India are from Dalit background). In 1956, B. R. Ambedkar, a Dalit leader, declared that he had converted to Buddhism to escape Hinduism. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand Dalits have followed his example. In 1981, about a thousand Dalits converted to Islam in Tamil Nadu. In August 2002, 250 Dalit youth from the same area converted to Christianity. Apart from their directly religious significance, such conversions erode the dominance of traditional Hinduism’s higher castes, especially the Brahmins, and undercut the power of landowners, generally higher-caste, over their laborers, who are frequently lower-caste. The attempts to forbid religious conversion are also attempts to keep the underclass in its place.
The BJP policies on Hindutva and conversion coincide with increasingly violent attacks by Hindu militants on religious minorities. Attacks on Christians, especially in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Orissa, have surged in recent years. India’s Home Ministry (internal security) and its National Commission for Minorities officially list over a hundred religiously motivated attacks against Christians per year, but the real number is certainly higher, as Indian journalists estimate that only some ten percent of incidents are ever reported. These attacks include murders of missionaries and priests, sexual assault on nuns, ransacking of churches, convents, and other Christian institutions, desecration of cemeteries, and Bible burnings.
The other major target of Hindu extremists is the Muslim community, which is haunted by the fear of recurrent communal riots that have taken the lives of thousands of Muslims and Hindus since Indian independence. During the outbreak of violence in Gujarat in February 2002, many of the victims were burned alive or dismembered while police and BJP state government authorities either stood by or joined in. The mobs had with them lists of homes and businesses owned by Muslims, lists that they could have acquired only from government sources.
After the massacre, state BJP officials also impeded the investigation. In the high-profile “Best Bakery Case,” a judge dismissed charges against twenty-one defendants on trial for setting fire to a Muslim-owned bakery and killing and injuring its owners because the main witness, a nineteen-year-old girl, stated that she could not identify any of the attackers. She later told the press that “she testified falsely after local Hindu politicians repeatedly threatened her family . . . and after concluding that prosecutors, who made no effort to meet with her before the trial, were not serious about gaining convictions.” On September 12, 2003, the Chief Justice of India’s Supreme Court expressed his disgust with the situation by declaring publicly that he has “no faith left in the prosecution and the Gujarat government.”
Following the violence, Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, a BJP member, called upon his supporters to “teach a lesson” to those who “believe in multiplying the population,” referring to Muslims. Other Sangh Parivar officials were even more explicitly threatening. VHP International President Ashok Singhal described the Gujarat carnage as a “successful experiment” and warned that it would be repeated all over India. After the December 2002 BJP election victory in Gujarat, VHP General Secretary Pravin Togadia declared, “All Hindutva opponents will get the death sentence, and we will leave this to the people to carry out. The process of forming a Hindu rule in the country has begun with Gujarat, and VHP will take the Gujarat experiment to every nook and corner of the country.”
To maintain the political coalition that enables it to rule at the national level, the BJP downplays its specifically religious goals and portrays itself as a moderate party. But it also allies with the Sangh Parivar to appeal to its base. In its 2004 recommendations, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom proposed that India be included on the State Department’s official shortlist of the worst religious persecutors for its “egregious, systematic, and ongoing” violations of religious rights.
Since it is the world’s largest democracy, good relations with India are important to the U.S. It is also a growing trading partner, a possible geopolitical counterweight to China, and a strong U.S. ally in the war on terrorism. But the growth of often-violent Hindu nationalism threatens India’s tolerant traditions and pluralistic democracy. If religious extremism continues to grow, it will, as we have learned elsewhere, drag India’s democracy, economy, and foreign policy down with it. In the face of such a threat, we cannot afford to be silent.
Paul Marshall is a Senior Fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom. Among his recent books are Islam at the Crossroads (2002); God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics (2002); and the Center’s recent report, The Rise of Hindu Extremism.