Religious and Communal Tensions in Indian Politics

August 27, 2018

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The exacerbation of Hindu-Muslim animus was one lasting effect of British imperial policy that employed a “divide et impera” (divide and rule) strategy to incite religious conflict to aid continued imperial rule. When Britain declared war on Germany on India’s behalf without communicating with the Indian National Congress, the elected ministries quit in protest. The British then appointed unelected Muslim Leaguers in their place, and this helped the Muslim League to exercise influence and garner support while their opponents were in jail. The British divide and rule policy promoted these political divisions between Hindus and Muslims and served to define them as monolithic communities that they had not been before. Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalist party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government rules the country and campaigns with a strident Hindutva agenda. Ever since it initiated the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1986, the BJP has posed as the sole spokesperson of Hindus—defined expansively as everyone born in India, regardless of religious practice. However, the party is worried that this monopoly could come under threat. The Congress Party in India is trying to rid itself of the pro-Muslim classification bestowed on it by the political right; leader Rahul Gandhi wants to demonstrate that he is no less Hindu that BJP leaders but also will not demonize Muslims. The expanding influence of social media has also helped challenge the BJP’s message by raising awareness of communal violence against India’s religious minorities.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How has the legacy of British colonialism, particularly in the legal realm, continued to aggravate animosity between Hindus and Muslims in India? In what ways is the BJP’s Hindutva agenda serving to inflame tensions between the two groups? Is there room for non-sectarian parties to gain political traction, either at the state or federal level? What role does social media play in bridging—or deepening—religious and communal divides?

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