India's Explosive Mix of Religion & Politics (speech summary)
Religion and politics have been mixed together in Indian society for so long it’s senseless to talk about them separately today, said Indian journalist Vishal Arora in a presentation to The Media Project's "Religion & Politics" conference in Washington, D.C.
With 1.1 billion people, India is the second most populous nation and the largest democracy in the world. The population is divided among a Hindu majority of 80.4%, a Muslim minority of 13.4%, a Christian minority of 2.3%, and the remainder composed of various religions. This makes for a very volatile political environment, though it was not always this way.
“The use of religion in Indian politics can be linked to the country’s pre-independence era,” argued Arora. “It is believed that the British, who ruled India for more than 100 years around the 19th century, pitched one community against the other to weaken the freedom struggle.”
The religious divisions affect both party organization and voting habits. For Arora’s study, the key political players are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is the party most closely tied to the Hindu-nationalist agenda.
Arora maintains that the Hindu nationalist agenda is not theocratic. It is more like civil religion, with an understanding that the nation-state “”belongs”to Hindus. The political problems arise out of the Hindu nationalist’s violent fringe, which rejects “encroachment” by non-Hindus.
The BJP’s primary political opponent is the Indian National Congress (also called “the Congress”), which advocates for “secularism” or the notion that all religions should be treated equally before the law. The Congress advocates a public square that functions more like the religiously “neutral” public square of Western, industrialized democracies.
India’s political-religious divides are in turn cross-cut by caste loyalties. The caste system is poorly understood outside of India, but it is primarily a cultural rather than religious phenomenon. Caste loyalties do get picked up in the religious divisions, since many from the poorest castes are more likely to convert out of Hinduism. Christianity has made big gains among the Dalits and among those formerly known as the “untouchables”.
As might be expected, the Hindu population tends to support the BJP. Likewise, the Muslim and Christian populations tend to support the Congress and its commitment to protect pluralism. With these divisions showing no signs of disappearing, separating politics from religion is nearly impossible and might not even be desirable.