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India is still an officially secular nation, but maybe not for long

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

Secular India appears on its way to becoming a Hindu state.

Last Monday, India witnessed the spectacle of millions watching on television as Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a temple to the Hindu god Ram built upon the ruins of a historic 16th-century mosque demolished by a mob in 1992 in the northern city of Ayodhya.

Erasing the distinction between church and state, Modi called it a “divine moment” that marked “Ram’s rule again” and the end of a “slavery mindset.” With the building of the temple, he said that 1,000 years of slavery was finished.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always taken the position that India is a Hindu nation that was enslaved by Muslims in the 11th century and then later by British conquerors. It has portrayed secular opposition parties — namely the Congress party that ruled India for decades — as having a “colonial mindset” of looking down on Hindus and being preoccupied with seeking the votes of Muslims and Christians, who together constitute about 17% of the country’s population.

Yet secularism is still enshrined in the Constitution of India. Until recently, only a fringe section of the BJP publicly demanded a shift to official Hinduism, but the notion now seems to be moving centerstage with more BJP politicians embracing the idea in the media.

The Ram temple embodies this quest. For decades, Congress and other parties rejected demands from Hindu groups to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya based on their claim, amid scant evidence, that an ancient Ram temple had been destroyed to make way for the mosque’s construction by Babur, the founding emperor of India’s Mughal dynasty. Their argument relied in part on the notion that the site was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram.

That is not something that can be empirically proven, so the BJP was left to insist that faith is more important than evidence amid disputes over the ownership of the site. The Supreme Court of India resolved the matter in 2019 by awarding control of the site to Hindus in the interests of communal peace, while condemning the 1992 mosque demolition as illegal and ordering that another plot be provided for a replacement mosque. Construction has yet to begin for the new mosque.

While the BJP played down its antipathy to secularism when it was part of coalition governments in the 1990s, an emphasis on Hindu culture has been a core element of the party’s pitch under Modi, who became prime minister in 2014.

The court’s move to allow construction of the Ram temple further buttressed the party’s dominance, as Modi portrayed opposition to the temple as hostility to Ram, a label no party wanted. To ride the Hindu tide, even parties that opposed the building of a temple began to sing Ram’s praises.

In recent years, even Congress has stopped emphasizing secularism and started to woo the Hindu vote. Party leader Rahul Gandhi, whose mother is Christian, declared that he was a follower of the Hindu god Shiva and began visiting temples and wearing a sacred Hindu thread. This strategy, however, has failed to revive Congress’ electoral fortunes.

While many opposition politicians attended last week’s temple consecration, Gandhi declined to do so. Instead, he sought to visit a Hindu temple in the state of Assam. But Himanta Biswa Sarma, the state’s BJP chief minister, halted the plan, citing logistical complications with crowds expected to gather at the temple to celebrate the Ayodhya event.

The Hindu festival Diwali, which in part commemorates the return of Ram to Ayodhya from battle with a demon king in Sri Lanka, has long been marked with firecrackers and the distribution of sweets.

At the temple launch, Modi declared that Ram had returned once more and that people should immediately celebrate another Diwali. Indeed, celebrations were held around the nation and in diaspora communities. Television news channels set new viewership records.

Yet despite this wave of enthusiasm, the BJP still faces some obstacles to making India an officially Hindu state. Amending the Constitution will require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament plus approval from a majority of the country’s state legislatures.

The BJP currently has the numbers it needs in the lower house of Parliament and in state legislatures, but not enough in the upper house. It is possible though that some regional parties could support a constitutional amendment to avoid being labelled anti-Hindu.

Modi is now said to be the most popular leader in the democratic world. The BJP looks set to win big again when parliamentary elections are held sometime in the next four months. For now, Hindu nationalism is looking like a clear vote winner.