In India, Parties Overlap; Hindu Nationalism, Secularism Converge

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 31, 2004 | Go to article overview
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In India, Parties Overlap; Hindu Nationalism, Secularism Converge


The defeat of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the recent 2004 national elections, and the return to power of the Indian secularist Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, does not suggest a major reversal in religious ideology. Congress and BJP were never far apart, except to reflect the changing times after capitalism triumphed over socialism by the early 1990s. Hindu nationalism and Indian secularism overlap.

* The three Indian secularisms:

Following independence in August 1947, Congress Party governments under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors declared India to be a secular democratic state, distinguishing itself from Pakistan, which was judged to be a theocratic authoritarian state. However, interpretations of secularism in India have not been consistent. Nehru's interpretation was that of the West. The state will not engage in religious activities nor promote any religion. Mahatma Gandhi's interpretation suggested that all religions are equal, and that the state will encourage the practice of all religions equally. According to the Hindu nationalist perspective, Hinduism acknowledges different pathways to God and, therefore, all Indians are Hindus. This view threatened to overwhelm the identities of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

All three interpretations of secularism prevailed concurrently in independent India. But it was Nehru's Western concept that was overriding on the grounds that the separation of state and religion was an essential prerequisite for the conduct of Western democracy. But the concurrent prevalence of the Gandhian interpretation implied that Western secularism could easily slide into the Hindu nationalist variant. It is not a big step from "all religions are equal," to "all Indians are Hindus whatever their faith." This interpretation began to be imposed by the Hindu nationalists in the 1990s.

* Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism, represented by the BJP, failed to be an election winner despite the fact that 82 percent of Indians are Hindus. Instead, Indian secularism represented by the Congress Party won. However, apart from Sonia Gandhi being a Christian who has embraced the Hindu way of life, Congress Party leaders were equally Hindu as the BJP. The question was which party represented the real Hinduism. The problem was that the demands of some of the more radical Hindu nationalists, such as that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for a "Hindutva," appeared not only "un-Indian" but also "un-Hindu.

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In India, Parties Overlap; Hindu Nationalism, Secularism Converge


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