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Ruling Party’s Push for a Hindu Revival Imperils India’s Secularism

VARANASI, India – Amid a noisy whirring of machines at a sari workshop weaving gilded patterns on the six yards of traditional Indian wear, Ramzan Ali speaks anxiously about how communal tensions between the Hindu majority and Muslim minority has spiked dangerously since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party formed a national government in 2014.

“In this government, the relationship between the Hindus and Muslims is under threat. The communal hatred has increased,” said Ali, his speech interrupted by the rhythmic clanking of weaving machines at his home-cum-workshop in the northern city of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities for Hindus, who believe it the eternal home of Lord Shiva, their Supreme god.

The city, previously called Banaras, is known for the Banarasi sari and happens to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political constituency.

Ali admits that Modi, who is seeking second term in the office, has done some good work for the country but fears that if he is re-elected the simmering undercurrent of Hindu-Muslim situation may worsen even more dangerously.

The BJP is considered one of the standard-bearers of the extreme Hindutva ideology, or Hindu-ness, which defines the politics of Hindu majoritarianism and places it at the very center of the idea of India.

In the marathon elections that concluded on Sunday, and whose result will be out May 23, Modi, according to exit polls, is considered the most favorite to return to power for five more years.

Fueling the Hindu nationalism with strong religious overtones is an all-male Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – once a banned outfit of millions of volunteers – which is also the ideological mentor of Modi’s BJP.

The rightwing forces, also called Sangh Parivar or the family of Hindu nationalist organizations, have a political agenda that goes beyond the economic progress of the country struggling with joblessness.

The Hindu nationalistic idea, according to its critics, is the cause behind the growing communal tensions because it basically it proposes to transform the secular India into a theological state and impose Hinduism as the state religion.

Journalist and writer Akshaya Mukul told EFE that the Hindutva ideology was developed in the 20th century because of the growing conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian sub-continent.

It rejects the secularism of the Indian state and paints an idyllic past of the region that existed before 12th to 16th century Muslim conquests and the 19th century British colonialism.

The idea to impose Hinduism as the state religion is likely to come at the detrimental cost of all minority communities identified as “foreigners” – the largest chunk of which forms Muslims, representing 14.6 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population.

The RSS, the fountainhead of radical Hindu supremacy whose seeds were sown in the early 20th century, and all its affiliates, promote a belief that everyone living in India must accept and abide by the Hindu point of view.

“... all those who live in Bharat (India), irrespective of their caste, region, religion or language, subscribe to this view of life,” Manmohan Vaidya, one of the top RSS leaders, wrote in a column in a local English daily, Indian Express, in early May.

RSS head Mohan Bhagwat in September last year said that that “Hindu Rashtra (Hindu state) doesn’t mean there’s no place for Muslims because Hindutva talks about Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” which means “the world is one family.”

Ritvik Shridhar Joshi, a young playwright who writes from the terrace of his house in one of the historic palaces that dot the banks of the river Ganga in Varanasi, asks what was “wrong with wanting to create a Hindu nation” even if people from other faiths have to live as second class citizens.

“This is Hindu Rashtra (state), it belongs to Hindus, and everybody is welcome here but they should know that this is the land of Hindus and you are, right now, living here with the permission of Hindus and with some kind of ties of collaboration with them,” said Joshi.

At a distance from Joshi’s home are funeral pyres that burn incessantly in the Manikarnika ghat, a riverfront with stairs that descend into the holiest river of Hindus where Hindus believe that dead human’s souls find salvation and free itself from the cycle of reincarnations.

At the edge of the river, some men sift through the mud searching for gold ornaments belonging to the deceased thrown into the river along with the ashes of the dead.

Amid chanting of sacred hymns alongside the bodies burned on pyres of wood, a BJP flag, planted by someone, is waving in the wind on the riverfront.

From the tea stalls in old part of the city, where locals gather daily to discuss politics, there is little doubt that Modi will be re-elected to the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Indian parliament, from the northern city.

However, will the Hindu nationalist icon will be able to win enough majority to return as the prime minister? The will be known once election results are out on Thursday.

But the country appears already divided over religious lines.

There have been scores of cases of lynchings of people on a mere suspicion of eating or possessing beef or of carrying cattle to clandestine slaughterhouses in states where their slaughter is banned.

Hindus consider cow a sacred animal, and murders, many of which have been caught on cameras, in the name of cow protection have multiplied since Modi came to power

The tension is palpable in the Muslim community of Varanasi.

But Ali, from his workshop, still has a hope because in this ancient city, where saris made by Muslims are sold by Hindu traders, the relationship has survived harmoniously “like the inter-woven threads” of the famous traditional attire.


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