WASHINGTON – Multicultural and secular at the time of independence in 1947, India is now moving towards what in South Asia is the norm – majoritarianism, says Professor Ramachandra Guha, an eminent historian of post-independence India.
“All our neighbours see religion as a primary marker of national identity,” Prof Guha told The Straits Times in the video series Conversations on the Future.
“We didn’t, because people like Gandhi and Nehru, who founded the Indian state, were bitterly opposed to religious majoritarianism. But now, that generation has passed.”
Prof Guha mentioned Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar as majoritarian states.
Mohandas Gandhi, the practitioner of non-violent resistance who challenged the British Empire, transfixing the imagination of India and the colonised world, is regarded as the father of the Indian nation. Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister.
India is heading into a general election in 2024, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in power since 2014, is seen by pundits as likely to win a third term.
“I think if they (the BJP) win a third successive majority, they will push even harder in the direction of making India a Hindu-first country,” Prof Guha said.
The 65-year-old author of some dozen books on India, including the seminal India After Gandhi – first published in 2007, with an updated edition in 2017 – however, warned of the dangers of majoritarianism, one being the imposition of language.
“We should not lose sight of... the question of language,” he said.
“Our major languages all have literary traditions going back hundreds of years, sometimes thousands of years. And it is a very important marker of... identity.”
He gave the example of the Tamil people. “Whether they are Hindu or Christian or Muslim, they are also Tamil, sometimes Tamil first.”
He said: “What the BJP wants to do is to not just make Hinduism a kind of marker of first-class citizenship, but also to impose Hindi on other parts of the country...
“And that is also very dangerous, because in Sri Lanka, it was the imposition of Sinhala and the marginalisation of Tamil; in Pakistan, it was the elevation of Urdu and the marginalisation of Bengali that led to, in one case, a civil war; in the other case, actually separation and the successful birth of Bangladesh independence.”
Prof Guha warned of democratic backsliding in India as well.
“This (the BJP government) is an authoritative regime trying to impose its will on a country with 70 years of democratic history,” he said.
“In history, nothing is inexorable. It can be reversed, but at the moment, the situation is grave.”
India does have some advantages, he conceded.
He cited Turkey, Russia and Hungary as examples of countries that technically are democracies, but are essentially autocracies.
“India is going in that direction, but because we have a longer history of multi-party competition... (and) a tradition of intellectual debate and so on, we are not yet there. But there are signs of it.”