Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Hindu community here.
For the last decade, I have been focused on developing interreligious understanding, after being excluded from the city-sponsored National Day of Prayer event in my family’s hometown of Troy, MI – all because the organizers didn’t want Hindus and others who didn’t exclusively believe in the Nicene Creed involved in their annual event. Because of my interfaith activism, and advocacy for Hindus in America and around the world, I know that Hindu and Hindutva – used to mean a political ideology known as “Hindu nationalism” – are considered synonymous. Thus the question “Will the defeat of the Congress Party and the rise of the BJP lead to a rise in sectarianism and marginalization of non-Hindus?” indicates that I have decades to go before I can make headway in helping people understand the basics of Hinduism. Just as the concept of religious freedom is ensconced in our American constitution and a heavily Christian understanding of the world, the Indian constitution is informed by the concept of religious pluralism, which is deeply rooted in Hinduism.
It is this pluralism that lends itself to secularism – ensuring that people of different religious beliefs are equal in the eyes of the law. India’s history is testament to this respect for all faiths. Three other major world faiths were “born” there (Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism) and others found refuge there (Syrian Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians or “Parsis”, and Ahmadi Muslims). Boston University religious studies professor and author of “God is Not One,” Stephen Prothero, told me that he stresses Hinduism’s “both/and” approach – not “either/or.” Hinduism does not require that anyone be convinced that their religion is the one true path – or that others should be saved, converted, or killed. India’s path to independence from the British is a also testament to the Hindu practice of nonviolence, and contrasts starkly with America’s road to revolution – and provides a new way to confront social injustice. It is common knowledge, after all, that Martin Luther King Jr. took up Mahatma Gandhi’s methods for the Civil Rights movement. The civil disobedience that Gandhi preached, when the subcontinent was fighting for freedom from the British. was rooted in the Hindu concept of ahimsa.
Attempting to attribute sectarian divisions in India to the BJP or Hindu nationalism does not take into account the complex history of the subcontinent and diminishes Hinduism to something that only fuels political ideology, not inspire the deeply sacred. The Lucknow Pact of 1916 between the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League – two parties which had marked hostilities to one another – guaranteed separate electorates for Muslims. The Partition of the subcontinent,proxy wars during the Cold War,discrimination against Hindus and other religious minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Muslim-majority Indian state of Kashmir have all led to violence and in some cases, genocide of Hindus, which are rarely reported or referenced. Reporting on India has focused primarily on the 2002 violence against Muslims in Gujarat – making it the centerpiece of any story on India or its newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi. All the violence that occurred is deplorable – the Hindus burnt alive by a Muslim mob on the Sabarmati Express, and the retaliatory violence in Gujarat, where both Hindus and Muslims were killed. Despite the efforts to implicate then-newly elected Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, he was acquitted of having been responsible for the riots in 2012, when the opposition party was in power. No similar violence has occurred in Gujarat since 2002 and in fact, every Gujarati, regardless of religion, meanwhile flourished as per person GDP rose and industry boomed.
According to Google, the key concerns of the electorate were corruption, the scams that had embroiled the government led by the Congress party (the BJP’s main rivals), and public policy. A cross-section of Indians elected the BJP to an overwhelming majority in the legislature, and Modi as a leader of the nation, because they were seeking positive change. The BJP’s platform was not one of Hindu-Muslim rivalry, despite the Indian and Western media’s focus on this, with antagonistic headlines like “Modi – India’s Savior or Its Worst Nightmare?” in the months leading up to the Indian elections – and even after the BJP’s resounding victory, with “For India’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory.” The persistently contentious labeling of religious fundamentalism of Modi and the BJP is not something that leaders in the West, such as theUK’s David Cameron and former US President George Bush and presidential candidate Romney have had to face, in spite of clearly acknowledging that their Christian faith, the majority religion, informs their public policy. These Christian leaders with a clearly exclusivist religious ideology are not questioned for being considerate of minorities – so why should a pluralist Hindu in the political realm be portrayed so negatively?
Soon after his election, Prime Minister Modi looked for a way forward by reaching out to his neighbors in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Because of this and because Modi and his new government are focused on India’s economy – reducing poverty, building infrastructure, creating jobs and making it easier to do business in India – the stability of the entire region should improve.
As an American Hindu, I hope that India’s new government and leader live up to the expectations of the electorate. Given my exhilaration each November when I cast my ballot, I was glad that 500 million Indians voted, and that they were able to throw an incredibly inept and nepotistic group of politicians out of office. I look forward to seeing India led by someone who can follow through on campaign promises like “build toilets first, temples later” and who continues to build relationships with neighbors. I hope for a time when Hindus around the world can showcase how the fundamentals of pluralism support secularism, and can be advocates and activists as we pursue the path of dharma without being accused of Hindu nationalism. Ultimately, it matters to me that Prime Minister Modi can help India be more peaceful, prosperous, stable, and secular, for the same reason it should matter to all Americans, not just Hindu-Americans — because the world’s oldest and largest democracies should be tied closely to one another.