At the 2021 International Summit for Democracy, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi launched his address by stating he was “proud to represent the world’s largest democracy.” That same year, V-Dem Institute, a Swedish political research group, ruled that India was no longer a democracy at all, but an “electoral autocracy.” Similarly, the Economist Intelligence Unit reported that India had become a flawed democracy, moving from 51st to 53rd on their Democracy Index. The culprit of this downgrade? Modi and his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP, and its Hindu-nationalist platform, has been blamed for the increasing censorship of the press and speech and heightened Islamophobia in the country, degrading the freedoms once enjoyed by the nation’s 1.37 billion people. The BJP’s faith-inspired agenda in a nation founded on secularism erodes the liberties that characterize its democratic system.
By 1947, the tide had finally turned for India. After nearly 200 years of British rule, independence was imminent. But a major question remained: what to do about India’s religious diversity? The nation was, and still is, home to a multitude of religious groups. Most prominent are Hindus—which under Indian law, consist of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists—and Muslims, which at that time constituted 24.3 percent of India’s population. Between the groups lay centuries of tensions. Although one perhaps infamous answer to this question was partition—dividing the former British Raj into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan (now Pakistan and Bangladesh) in order to protect the political voices of the Muslim minority— another answer was secularism. In Article 16 of the country’s newly minted constitution, the nation promised that “No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office under the State.” The concept is considered core to the identity of India as a nation-state and was designed to give religious minorities a place in post-Independence Indian society.
At least initially, the promise of secularism proved true. Mahatma Gandhi’s party, the Indian National Congress, prioritized the protection of secular India. The country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, passed laws such as the Representation of the People Act, which forbid politicians from campaigning on religious themes. Nehru fought against communalism, or dividing India on religious lines. And the early government’s efforts worked. Muslims and other religious minorities were well-represented in government. Although religious tensions still existed, riots based on these tensions were low.
But, despite the government’s best efforts, Hindutva (the idea that being Indian is synonymous to being Hindu) persisted. Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist in 1948. By the 1980s, the Congress party, under leaders such as Indira Gandhi, began to pander to specific religious communities. But it was not until the BJP that Hindutva became the core of politicians’ political agendas.
Although the BJP was founded in 1980, it traces its roots to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh movement of the 1950s, which advocated for a Hindu India. The party formed in opposition to the Indian National Congress and its secular policies. By capitalizing on lingering anti-Muslim feelings in the majority Hindi-speaking north, the BJP made small electoral gains throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But it was not until 2014, when Narendra Modi capitalized explicitly on growing anti-Congress sentiment, that the party could gain full control of the nation’s government, marking the first time since 1989 that a non-coalition ballot won the Lok Sabha (India’s parliament).
Under the BJP, the rights Indians have enjoyed under their democracy have slowly dwindled. Under the party’s explicit Hindu Nationalist ideology, laws attacking religious minorities have become commonplace. One notorious law, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), sparked nationwide protests in early 2020. Under the law, the Indian government promised to give Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh migrants who are Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, or Christian citizenship. Notably, the law excludes Muslims, which the BJP defends by stating that the religious groups are minorities in their nations of origin and thus need protection. To this, many protesters have pointed to religious minority groups in neighboring non-Muslim nations, such as the Rohingya Muslims, who are also under persecution. These exclusions have led many to assume that the real intentions of the CAA are more sinister. Plans for a National Register of Citizens, which would require all Indians to prove their citizenship, could have devastating consequences for Muslim Indians who lack the official paperwork to prove their citizenship. Although the initiative has not been conducted nationally, in 2019, it was conducted in Assam, a state bordering Bangladesh. 1.9 million people in the state lacked the documentation to support their citizenship, rendering them stateless and deported. When, as the BJP promises, the NRC is conducted nationally, millions more will be left stateless. But, as protesters point out, non-Muslims excluded will easily be able to obtain citizenship under the CAA.
In 2019, the Indian government also revoked the autonomy of the only Muslim-majority state in India, Jammu and Kashmir. Three BJP-majority states, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh, have outlawed the conversion to Islam through marriage. In the state of Karnataka, schools have banned girls from coming to school wearing a hijab. Laws surrounding the trade and consumption of beef also are used by the BJP government to selectively attack Muslims, as it criminalizes a practice allowed in Islam but banned in Hinduism.
Due to the government’s openly Hindutva beliefs, civilian attacks against religious minorities have also increased. Cow vigilantism, a practice in which Hindu mobs attack Muslims accused of harming cows is supported by many BJP politicians and led to nearly 300 people being injured and 44 people being murdered between 2015 and 2018. Another practice, “bulldozer justice,” involves the bulldozing of Muslim homes, often without notice, for crimes such as “instigating riots.”
To maintain their ability to carry out such persecutory acts, the BJP has enacted practices that affect all Indian citizens. Press freedom has declined drastically in India, with the World Press Freedom Index reporting that the nation has dropped 70 places since its first publication in 2002, making India 150th out of 180 nations. The right to peacefully protest has also been curbed. During the aftermath of the CAA’s passing, the government attempted to use Section 144, a colonial-era law preventing the gathering of four or more people, to stop peaceful protests. In the first 10 days of the protest, at least 23 people were killed, and more than 1,500 were arrested.
India’s government was founded on a promise of a secular democracy to its people. Yet, due to the increasing ties between political party ideology and religious nationalism, the nation has experienced an erosion of religious freedom and, in India’s case, a fall from democracy itself. In order to preserve democracy, the government succeeding the BJP must reprioritize the separation of church and state.