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India’s religious nationalism

A Hindu nationalist party suffers a setback at the polls but remains a powerful force


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets supporters at a campaign event in New Delhi, India, on April 14. Associated Press/Photo by Manish Swarup

India’s religious nationalism
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During his recent campaign for reelection, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, attacked Islam, which includes about 15 percent of India’s population or over 200 million people. Election results show Modi was reelected but his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) unexpectedly lost its single party parliamentary majority, implying his religious attacks failed to work as he intended.

Christians in India, who likely number over 30 million people, are also disturbed by Modi’s Hindu triumphalism. And Christians in America also should be concerned and reflect on the example. Modi’s religious nationalism that conflates nationhood with religion is dangerous. Minorities of all sorts are endangered.

Earlier this year, Modi dedicated a new Hindu temple in northern India, built where a mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob over 30 years ago. In 1993, riots across India followed, killing hundreds of people, mostly Muslims. In 2002, when Modi was regional chief minister, he was accused of not protecting hundreds of Muslims who were killed in Hindu-Muslim riots related to the mosque/temple controversy.

Modi has ominously hinted that the opposition Congress Party would redirect state funds towards Muslims, cited as “infiltrators” and “those who have too many children.” BJP videos have amplified these warnings by recalling the ancient Muslim conquest of India, portraying Muslims as thieves.

In January, after eleven days of visiting other Hindu temples in ritualistic preparation, Modi led the grand opening of the new $217 million Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ram, amid chants from Hindu priests. A military helicopter dropped flower petals over the celebratory crowd. Many government offices closed as the dedication was broadcast nationally. After the dedication, Modi declared: “Our Lord Ram has arrived after centuries of wait.” Indian Hindu nationalists portray Hindus, although the overwhelming majority in the 1.4-billion-person nation, as the historic victim of Muslim invaders and Western colonialists. The new temple, Modi said, evinces “breaking the shackles of slave mentality” and opens a “new era.”

But a “new era” to what? Critics fear Modi wants to end secular government in India—which offers equal citizenship to all—in favor of a de facto confessional state privileging Hindus over Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and others. An impartial secular state was the dream and creation of modern India’s founders, including Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu militant. After ten years in power, Modi and the BJP had hoped for, but failed to attain, a parliamentary super majority, which would have empowered them to make constitutional changes.

About a dozen states in India, most under the BJP, have enacted anti-conversion laws.

Hindu nationalism under Modi mostly targets Muslims as the nation’s largest minority. But Christians are also marginalized and disdained. Although numbering maybe less than 3 percent of the population (data may undercount their numbers), in Hindu nationalist mythology Christians are seen as agents of Western imperialism, funded by Western dollars, deployed to convert vulnerable Hindus.

Last December, Modi hosted a Christmas party at his residence in Delhi to which church leaders were invited. It seemed like an inclusive gesture. But some Christians saw the attending prelates as sell-outs for pandering to the prime minister while not addressing attacks on Christians. One Christian group that monitors human rights in India reported 598 attacks against Christians in 21 states last year, an increase of 81 percent since 2020. This year there have been large demonstrations in New Delhi and Mumbai led by Christian groups with Christians, Muslims and Hindus protesting attacks on religious minorities. The Christian groups specifically complained about “false accusations of forced and fraudulent religious conversions.” About a dozen states in India, most under the BJP, have enacted anti-conversion laws, which Christians complain fuel vigilante violence against Christians.

The BJP’s electoral setback perhaps will forestall more so-called anti-conversion laws. Although U.S. Christians typically see “secularism” as an adversary to Christianity, in India Christians and others see a secular government as a safeguard against Hindu nationalist hegemony. To his credit, at his 2023 Christmas party for church leaders, Modi himself credited Christianity’s role in generating political freedom and justice. Christ “worked on making an inclusive society that had justice for everyone,” Modi said. “These ideals are working as a guiding light for the development journey of our country.”

But the Hindu nationalism of Modi’s BJP, by diminishing the citizenship of some to privilege others, contradicts the Christian ideal of “an inclusive society” with “justice for everyone.” The Christian ideal is for legal equality for all, regardless of religion or caste. Any politicized religious nationalism, in India or anywhere, seeking favor for some at the expense of others grossly violates this ideal.

India is a vital strategic partner for the United States as a balance against China. The U.S. government does not have the luxury of ostracizing Modi. But U.S. Christians can watch and learn from India’s distressing religious nationalism. Hopefully, Modi’s electoral setback will inhibit further Hindu nationalist advances.


Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.


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