The Growing Indian Middle Class and the Rise of Hindu Majoritarianism

DURING the mid 1980s, when India was ruled by Congress under the Premiership of Rajiv Gandhi, the country took many steps which, in the subsequent years proved pivotal in the country’s divorce from Nehruvian Socialist model. This diversion worked both on the political and the economic front. Though his Govt took some baby steps on the economic front, they definitely marked a diversion from India’s decades old economic doctrine. On the political front, the 80s proved to be a watershed decade in forming the subsequent political mobilization and discourse in India. During that decade, Punjab witnessed violent secessionist militancy, which was contained by brute force by the Indian State. In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Operation Bluestar, carried out by the Indian Army to establish control over the Harminder Sahib Complex in the Golden Temple Amritsar, and remove Bhindrawale and his followers from the complex. The operation lasted five days and caused severe damage to the Gurdwara, which led to serious resentment among the Sikhs throughout India. This resentment culminated with the killing of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards. In the days following that killing, thousands of Sikhs were butchered in the streets of Delhi, under the watchful eyes of a callous, indifferent and often complicit administration. Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the Prime Minister marked the unleashing of the monster of Hindu majoritarianism. It was during his rule that the gates of the Bari Masjid were opened and Shilanyas was allowed. This laid the foundation for the subsequent demolition of Bari Masjid in Dec 1992, and the spread of rightwing, chest thumping Hindu majoritarianism.

In 1991, India was facing a serious economic and balance of payment crisis. The country’s forex reserves were at historic lows and the then Congress Govt, led by PV Narasimha Rao opened up the economy to foreign investors. Free market became the buzzword and this policy shift lead to a change in political economy and culture in India. Over the years, the private sector in India has not only grown in size but started to exert a strong influence on the State, its policy and the public discourse. A new and expanding middle class, of more than 400 million has taken shape whose lifestyle and consumer choices are defined by the global marketplace and emerging consumer trends. The emergence of this cacophonic middle class is important to understand the emergence of a new religious culture in India, given that this class is not only receptive to the global capitalistic movement but has also become the torch bearer of Hindu nationalism. The triumphalist Hindu nationalism has created its own version of Us Vs Them, where the Abrahamic faiths, mainly Islam and Christianity, and the Dalits are deemed the other. Interestingly, worldwide, Islam and Christianity often represent two antagonistic ideas, but for the Hindu nationalist, they form the ideal other, perhaps because of their global nature and their ‘’outsider’’ tag. There is a new found obsession with ancient Indian culture and civilization, which is often presented as Hindu culture. India’s accomplishments in the economic sphere over the years are being attributed to India’s ‘’civilizational advantage’’.  None of the emerging economies in the world, be it China or Brazil attribute their new found power and status to their civilizational virtues as India does. The media narrative all along has been a virtuous and victorious India, which owes its success to the ‘’tolerance’’ of Hinduism.

The experience of South Asia has been somewhat unique in that religion has taken center stage as the region has opened up to global capital, increased urbanization and has seen economic prosperity. India, Pakistan and even Sri Lanka have fallen to this bug, in different ways and to various degrees. India is a far cry from the days when Hinduism was more a philosophic construct than one based on detailed rituals. Hinduism has not only become more ritualistic but political as well. There is a growing trend of religiosity among the middle class, abetted in part by the emergence of satellite TV and a mushrooming of religious and ‘’spiritual’’ gurus. Many of these Gurus have assumed a cult status and have been instrumental in spreading the growing cult of religiosity in Corporate India as well. New, but ostentatious rituals are on the rise, a glimpse of which can be seen in popular cinema and TV serials.  The public institutions are slowly giving up their secular nature and one is noticing Hindu culture and religiosity getting embedded, both in the private and public sphere. That the perpetrators involved in various acts of mass killings against Sikhs in 1984 or of Muslims in 1993 or even Christians remain free and many of them hold public offices as well, points to the deep rooted communal bias prevalent in administration and various public institutions.

Over the last two decades, there has been a rising trend of religious pilgrimage among Indians, both Hindus and Muslims. Within India, the religious pilgrimage accounts for more than fifty percent of the package tours. Big Temples like Vaishnodevi in Jammu, Balajai Temple in Tirupati etc have not only attracted huge number of pilgrims, but many of these big Temples, managed by Trusts have got celebrities donating extravagant sums of money and gold. Even the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir has over the years turned into a more fervent demonstration of nationalist fervor, given the nature of politics around the Yatra.

The economic boom in the US in the 1960s and ‘70s and the spread of TV as a medium of news and entertainment lead to the rise of Christian evangelism, which over the years, has turned into a multi billion industry. It was the perfect marriage of capitalism and religion. Even in India, the mushroom growth of godmen has coincided with the economic boom and rapid urbanization. A large number of religion based channels have come up, claiming viewership in millions. These godmen not only have a following in millions among the Indian middle class, but many of them rub shoulders with the who’s who of Indian politics, corporate world and the entertainment industry.  

The influx of Hinduism in Indian politics and culture is subtle but real. Over the years, the State has increased its funding of the religious institutions of the Hindu community, despite India’s claims to being a secular republic. Notwithstanding India’s expanding services sector, an increasing number of professionals working in these industries seem to be quite receptive to the idea of Hindu nationalism and increased religiosity. The Hindu nationalist party, RSS has started a separate wing which organizes IT milans, which act as a platform for IT professionals to brainstorm issues which are part of the RSS ideology.

There are visible attempts at homogenizing Hinduism, an attempt that is similar to what is happening to Islam in South Asia. Over the last few decades, the folk Islam in South Asia is giving way to a more puritanical, standardized, textual form of Islam, propagated and financed by oil money emanating from the Middle East. Even in Hinduism, the local cultures and deities across regions in India are being pushed to the fringes with an emphasis on more centralized deities like Lord Ram and Krishna. Noted Indian historian Romila Thapar noted that traditional Hinduism was quite varied, both in theology and practice, but modern Hinduism looks more like Semitic religions and allows fewer variations. This is driven by a need to have a uniform and single identity so that it merges with their idea of nationalism. The way Hinduism is being preached by the practitioners of and followers of modern Hindu nationalism clearly shows there is an emphasis on a monolithic and uniform Hindu religion across India, obliterating the more local and indigenous variants. In fact this process of standardization of Hinduism into a more centralized nationalist ideology started in the 19th century by ideologues like Vivekananda. The expanding middle class in India in the last two decades has become the catalyst it needed to achieve a wider and more nationalized character, acceptance and appeal.

There is a constant emphasis in the hype about India’s achievements and to somehow attribute these achievements to Hinduism. This is an attempt at monopolizing the idea of India. This can help develop a sense of identity and some pride among its adherents, but can be counterproductive over the longer run to the development of a tolerant and broad based culture in India. This mindset encourages looking down upon the minorities in India. Given that there are inherent and historic communal and caste faultiness in India, the rise of this market driven variant of Hinduism can further accentuate this sense of alienation and resentment among other communities and even within Hindus who don’t subscribe to this worldview.

—Tariq Jameel is a regular columnist for the Kashmir Observer. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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