India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), energised by its second consecutive parliamentary majority in mid-2019, quickly took advantage of its strengthened position to launch a set of policies that fulfilled long-held ideological proposals of both the party and its Hindu nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). While scattered protests over some of these initiatives took place, it is uncertain how these policies, such as abolishing autonomy for the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, will impact on the country’s social stability.

These initiatives address key elements
of the RSS’ Hindutva ideology, such as national unity and a culture rooted within South Asia. Playing a significant role in formulating and implementing these policies appears to be Amit Shah, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s closest adviser and confidant for the past 30 years, who provided strategic shape to Modi’s rise to power, first in Gujarat two decades ago and then as PM in 2014. Moreover, he shaped the strategy for the BJP’s victory in 2019. He is now the
powerful home minister and the de facto head of the BJP, even though he is no longer the official president.

The first major policy initiative, announced in early August 2019, just months after the BJP’s parliamentary victory, was a bill revoking the constitutional provisions of Article 370, which granted limited autonomous powers to Kashmir, an old demand of the RSS and BJP aimed at integrating the state more deeply into the Indian Union. Also revoked was Article 35A, aimed at preserving the state’s Muslim majority by excluding non-Kashmiris from owning property and holding public jobs. Tapping nationalistic support for these moves, the bill garnered support from a wide range of regional parties, thus easily passing a vote in the Rajya Sabha where the BJP and its allies still lack a majority.

To forestall anticipated violence both from within and from across the border in Pakistan, strict security measures were promulgated that included the dispatch of thousands of additional troops, a media blackout, prohibition of assemblies of more than four people and the arrest of Kashmir’s largely Muslim political leaders. Some of these measures have been relaxed. Yet as recognised by BJP general secretary, Ram Madhav, who, in 2015, put together a coalition government in Kashmir with BJP participation, a stable government in the state requires the eventual restoration of a popularly-elected coalition government that somehow results in the cooperation of the largely Sunni Muslim Kashmir Valley with the Hindu-majority population of Jammu.

The second project is built on the unanimous November 2019 five-person panel decision of the Supreme Court in favour of a Hindu group claiming a site on which a five century-old Muslim religious structure at Ayodhya had stood before being demolished by a Hindu mob in late 1992. The Court mandated the formation of a Hindu trust that would supervise a national cultural and religious pilgrimage centre. The BJP and RSS applauded the decision, though the head of the RSS warned his members to avoid public celebrations. Yet, the larger issue of “redeeming” mosques built several hundred years ago on the sites of major temples could rise again as there remains considerable support within the RSS to convert two mosques at Kashi and Mathura into Hindu temples.

The third and probably most contentious issue is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, amending an earlier 1955 Act. The new act provides a path to citizenship for “illegal” non-Muslim refugees (possessing no legal entry papers), fleeing alleged religious prosecution from neighbouring Muslim majority states of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Supreme Court is now reviewing the Act to clarify several complex provisions regarding applicability. Further complicating the larger issue of who is legitimately a citizen were announcements of bringing the National Register of Citizens up to date, a move many interpret as an attempt to deny citizenship rights to Muslims because of a lack of documentation (The government later said NRC is not on the agenda). More than the other actions, these moves were criticised at home and abroad as a blow to the secular foundations of the Indian State. These initiatives, in addition, complicate the chances of Muslim legitimately seeking refugee status because they are adherents to groups under attack in neighbouring states, such as the Ahmadiyas and Sufis in Pakistan and the Hazara ethnic group in Afghanistan.The protests may have delayed plans to create a common civil code, which has considerable support within the BJP and RSS — and considerable opposition within the Muslim community.

Curiously, the government has been far more cautious on economic reforms, even though many in the RSS and BJP view economic well-being and equity as key elements of Hindutva. Populist economic themes have been major elements in the RSS chief’s recent Vijayadashmi speeches, occasions for the RSS to inform the public of its national concerns. The relative lack of bold innovative steps on economic issues might be because Modi, a more cautious policy-maker than Shah, has retained control of economic policy (and foreign policy). With an economy declining at home and internationally, cultural-nationalist issues such as a Ram temple might at least in part represent an effort to divert attention from economic stress. Polling data, however, suggests that such cultural-nationalist issues have much less influence on local and state elections than on national parliamentary contests. Recent elections in Delhi (where the Aam Aadmi Party won a large majority), for example, indicate that policy regarding roads, schools and water shaped the popular outcome.

The long-range social impact of the surge of recent Hindutva initiatives is still unclear. If they result in increased social instability, the prospects for economic investment are likely to decrease, a development that could have negative political implications for the BJP and diminish India’s attractiveness as a strategic partner for the US and other countries concerned by the rise of an assertive China. One indication of this potential is the rioting that suddenly broke out in northeastern Delhi (apparently triggered by public intemperate remarks of a failed politician regarding the citizenship issue) during the visit of President  Donald Trump to India — and thus attracted international attention. This may be the time for the government to consider how Hindutva initiatives impact the country’s social fabric.

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