Indians have voted to save the world’s largest secular democracy

The Constitution of India | Library of Congress

The voters of India have finally decided to come to the rescue of their secular and democratic Constitution.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been returned to power in the world’s largest secular democracy — but only just. In fact, the Hindu nationalist formation he heads, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has fallen short of a majority in its bid for a third term and to hold on to power will have to rely on regional entities that do not share its majoritarian, intolerant vision. The BJP’s ambitions — barely concealed — to amend the Indian Constitution and make India an overtly Hindu nation will have to be kept in abeyance.

The plan to torpedo Indian secularism has been a longtime project of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization with fascistic inspiration founded almost a century ago. The BJP, which has governed India for a full decade, is its electoral arm.

If there’s an image that symbolizes what was at stake in this election, it would be that of opposition leader Rahul Gandhi holding up a copy of the Indian Constitution. “The Prime Minister, [Home Minister] Amit Shah and various of their Members of Parliaments have made up their mind that if they win the elections, they will tear up and throw away this book,” he stated on the election trail, and requested his party members to carry around copies while campaigning.

This fear of Modi and his underlings getting rid of India’s secular, democratic founding document was in the minds of even many Hindus — especially those from oppressed castes that fear a return to the bad old days if an openly Hindu constitutional dispensation is put into place. “They want to implement Manu ka vidhan,” (the ancient Hindu laws that prescribe a caste-based order), the Indian news portal Scroll quotes one Dalit woman — Dalits are the “outcastes” in the traditional Hindu hierarchy. Her sister-in-law adds: “So that [upper-caste Hindus] run the government and lower-caste people have no say.”

The Dalits are often the most ardent defenders of the Constitution, since it was none other than a Dalit, a remarkable figure by the name of B.R. Ambedkar, who was the chief drafter of the Indian Constitution. In partnership with Jawaharlal Nehru, an agnostic who was India’s first prime minister, he ensured that the ideals of secularism and social justice would be guiding independent India.

Certainly, economic issues such as massive unemployment and inflation also played a major part in the ruling party’s near defeat. Modi’s attempts at distraction, with several distasteful references to Indian Muslims and his trumpeting of a temple he got built on the site of a demolished mosque, did not quite work. In fact, his party lost the very parliamentary constituency where the temple was constructed.

Here, it must be said that a good reason for the relief of Indian secularists is that the polls were forecasting a thumping majority for the Hindu nationalists. Activist Shabnam Hashmi, whose amazing work on behalf of secularism was recently chronicled in the New York Times, correctly dismissed the polling in an interview with Freethought Radio and provided a prediction that proved to be much more accurate.

Modi has done a lot of damage to India’s secular, multicultural fabric. Discriminatory laws have been introduced with the purpose of disenfranchising Indian Muslims, the major oppositional voting bloc to the BJP. There have been several murders of rationalists by Hindu nationalists, with at best half-hearted attempts to punish the perpetrators. The lynchings of individuals for allegedly possessing beef or trafficking in cattle has been condoned, if not encouraged. The law and order machinery has been transformed into a blatantly majoritarian hammering force. Media outlets have been muzzled, and critics have been harassed and worse. The special status of India’s only Muslim-majority province, Jammu and Kashmir, has been revoked, and no elections have been held for the state Assembly since the move a full five years ago. The list goes on and on.

These appalling regressions may not be fully reversed — but, hopefully, there will not be further backsliding. As Harsh Mander, an outspoken social worker, put it in an interview to be broadcast on Madison community radio station WORT’s “World View” show this Sunday evening: Hate may not have been defeated in India, but at least it has been checked.

Well-wishers of Indian secularism around the world will have to take comfort in this for now.

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