The erosion of Indian secularism

February 11, 2024

Making sense of the creeping vine of Hindu supremacy

The erosion of  Indian secularism


mong many things, it began innocuously with the then globally popular trope ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim’ about which scholar Mahmud Mamdani has written an entire book. During the first term of Prime Minister Modi, they changed the name of one of the streets of central Delhi from Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Road in 2015, after the person who is credited to have given India its stategi weapons.

Predictably, that had to be given up quickly as the idea eventually was to prove the entire community as villains. Very soon after that, the re-institutionalisation of ‘bad Muslims in history’ began to get translated into the present ones and Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim, was lynched by his fellow villagers on the suspicion of keeping meat in his home, a place very close to the same capital, Delhi. This led to a spate of bloodthirsty mobs roaming around the streets all across the country. Many more examples were made.

Truth didn’t matter. Even small boys weren’t spared. Many were stabbed and killed in full public view.

Since then, the character of the current state has grown bolder and bolder in its barely concealed avatar of a democratically elected Hindu authoritarian state - and the ambition of establishing Hindutva supremacy is finding various symbolic as well as substantial arenas for imprinting the might of the Hindu state. This is done not only through a capture of the institutions supposed to hold the state accountable according to the principles of the constitution but also through a re-imagining of physical symbols of authority through new architecture as in the complete re-imagination and building of a new parliament inaugurated by Modi holding a Senghol in the presence of Hindu priests.

The move was preceded by a rush to build the largest statues dotting the Indian landscape, from Sardar Patel to Ram and Shivaji and many others. In its hysteria of ‘decolonising history,’ not just from the British colonial past, but also from a much older Muslim past, the idea is to constantly invoke a ‘historical wound,’ but quickly claim to repair it with new symbols of Hindu victory, a lot of it inspired by invented myths.

It is here that, right after the inauguration of the Ram temple, we come back to the ‘baddest’ of the Muslims, Aurangzeb, who is supposed to have destroyed the Shiva temple in Banaras and built a mosque over it, Gyanvapi. Addressing this historic wound has been on the to-do list of Hindutva fanatics for several decades. And as another evidence of how our judicial system is compromised to say the least, the latest court order allowing the opening of the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi for Hindu prayers adds just one more chapter to the remoulding of the visual re-creation of this new Hindu state. This ruling, in direct contradiction to the Places of Worship Act of 1991, which aimed to maintain the status quo of religious places as they were at the time of independence in 1947, has once again, profound implications for the protection of minorities, especially Muslims, and their religious sites, just as Ayodhya showed. It sets another dangerous example by prioritising the interests of one religious community over another and completely undermines the spirit of religious tolerance and coexistence that has been upheld in the Indian constitution.

All this is happening ironically just around the time, when the prime minister in his closing speech of the latest session of the parliament, called the opposition indulging in ‘divisive politics.’

The sentiment encapsulated by the decades-old slogan “Yeh to pehli jhanki hai, Mathura Kashi baaki hai“ [This is just the first glimpse, Mathura and Kashi are next] reflects the trajectory of the Hindu right-wing’s agenda, particularly evident after the inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

Journalist Raghu Karnad’s recent observation that this quest is not about reviving old temples but about constructing grand new ones quickly atop existing ruins or mosques underscores the aggressive approach taken by the Hindu communal groups. This aggressive pursuit of Hindutva ideals predictably belies previous assurances made by figures like RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who had claimed that the Ram Temple issue was an exception and that there was “no need to look for a temple beneath every mosque.”

While all this may be seen happening in a rush to garner as many brownie points as possible before the upcoming elections, one can’t discount the fact that it is also happening in the backdrop of the recently held G20 Summit last September which Modi and his acolytes tried to showcase brazenly as India having arrived on the world stage as a Vishwaguru (World Teacher).

The implications of these actions, therefore, extend beyond India’s borders, particularly concerning its foreign policy and relations with Islamic states. India’s friendly relations with Islamic nations (also intrinsically tied to economic interests) are increasingly likely to be strained as they observe these developments with growing alarm.

The erosion of secularism in India not only undermines its domestic stability but clearly tarnishes its international reputation as a pluralistic and inclusive democracy with large minorities within its borders.

The slience of India’s Western allies on these issues raises questions about their commitment to liberal democratic values and human rights. While they may prioritise economic interests and the containment of China in the name of realpolitik, their reluctance to speak out against the erosion of secularism in India undermines the very principles they claim to uphold, to say the least. Question is, for how long they will continue to ignore all this, at a time when the USA and Canada are also investigating killings (or conspiracy to kill) of their Sikh citizens allegedly at the behest of Indian authorities?

The rolling juggernaut of Hindutva, fuelled by an insatiable hunger for power and dominance, threatens to consume not only minority communities today but also its own constituents. The latest introduction of a bill like the Uniform Civil Code in the state of Uttarakhand (ruled by the BJP), which not only targets minorities but also imposes restrictions on personal freedoms and choices of people around things like live-in relationships cuts across religions, illustrating the double-edged natue of Hindutva ideology. It is just one more instance of a python swallowing its own tail in its insatiable hunger.

The author has been in the development sector for more than a decade. He currently works with an international non-governmental organisation based in Delhi. He may be reached at:

The erosion of Indian secularism