Reflections on Religious Intolerance: India and America

A couple days ago I posted about Ramesh Sharma’s film Final Solution, which depicts the ways in which the ultra-right wing Hindu nationalists (BJP, VHP, and RSS) propagate and thrive on the politics of hate. The situation in India is, of course, quite dramatic, with communal violence claiming thousands of lives during flair-ups and insidiously bleeding many hundreds more year-in and year-out. The advocates of hindutva espouse the disquieting rhetoric of genocide with the alacrity of the Nazis.

How fortunate for us, then, to be ensconced in America: land of the free and home of the brave.

Certainly things are different here. In a land of affluence, there are far fewer socio-economic stressors to test the cohesiveness of an essentially diverse people. Thus, twenty-first century hate crimes in America tend to be individual incidents rather than the work of entire communities pit against each other. This is one of the incidental tragedies of poverty. As if hunger, vulnerability to disease, and incessant discomfort weren’t sufficient injustice, life at the margin entails a catalogue of other social ills and perils that are difficult, if not impossible to escape. Violence is endemic in lands of scarce resources.

In our relative comfort, it is quite easy to feel a world apart from the communal tensions that tear at the fabric of Indian society. It is easy to rest our minds on the shibboleth of our celebrated multi-culturalism. E pluribus unum. But how self-satisfied should we be with American pluralism?

In truth, we are moving rapidly away from the mythic liberal society for which America has earned what remains of its once-great standing in world esteem. How different are American and Indian religious demographics and hegemonic attitudes?

The insecurity of the Indian Muslims is, in large part, a matter of numbers. Hindus comprise slightly more than 81% of the population; Muslims make up 12%; and religious minorities including Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Jews make up a combined 7%. It is in some sense fair, then, to describe India as the RSS would: it is a Hindu country.

If it even needs to be said: Intolerance and bigotry are not essential features of Hinduism. Hatred and xenophobia are not features of Vedic teaching. There is no doctrinal reason to suspect that prejudice would infect Hindu society in any greater proportion than it plagues any other culture. How many Indian Hindus, then, appear willing to give support to the politics of hindutva? This is a difficult question; but the recent national elections provide some interesting data. Congress, which draws its support from liberal Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, scheduled castes, and certain rural populations narrowly defeated the ruling BJP, whose base consists of the economically privileged and the ultra-right Hindu Nationalists. Believing that the electorate would reward their stewardship of the economy, the BJP ran on slogans of economic well-being (“India Shining!”) and temperate discourse on social issues. This economic boastfulness misfired with rural voters, however, who failed to see how relative prosperity in the urban centers made their lives any richer. Analysts like Ramesh Sharma have no doubt that had the BJP run its campaign on a hard-line hindutva platform, it would have won re-election handily. It is estimated that as much as one-third of the voters supporting the BJP do so primarily as a result of hindutva philosophy.

The pie-chart of Americas religious demography is remarkably similar to Inida’s, thought the coloring may be of different hues. Christians comprise 78% of the population; religious minorities make up 12%; and those describing themselves as non-religious account for the remaining 10%. America is, without a doubt, a Christian country.

We too have recently been through a national election cycle. Exit polling suggests that nearly one half of those casting ballots for President Bush (24% of all voters) represented “evangelical Christians” for whom social issues determined their votes. And what were those social issues? Outlawing same-sex marriage, breaking down separations between church and state, and criminalizing abortion. The common aspects of the items on this agenda are the intolerance of diversity and the reinforcement of orthodoxy. As with the Hindu supremacists in India, the Christian right in America brooks no deviation from its ideology.

The numbers are amazingly similar. In both countries, the religious majority makes up approximately 80% of the population. The political parties catering to the religious extremists (Republicans and BJP) can count on support of approximately 25% of the voting public based on religious sentiment alone. In both countries, the subtext of religion-based voting is the vanquishing of the liberties and rights of religious minorities. As the Reverend Bob Jones, president of the university which bears his name, described the agenda in an open letter to George W. Bush:

In your re-election, God has graciously granted America–though she doesn’t deserve it–a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate. We the people expect your voice to be like the clear and certain sound of a trumpet. Because you seek the Lord daily, we who know the Lord will follow that kind of voice eagerly.

Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ. Honor the Lord, and He will honor you.


It is easy to rejoice today, because Christ has allowed you to be His servant in this nation for another presidential term. Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years–a brief time only–to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God.

America has had roughly four times as long as India to absorb the liberal, pluralistic lessons of constitutional democracy. This tradition, and the correlative stability of our institutions of social justice, make it unlikely that the Christian right will be leading religious pogroms through the cities of America any time soon, as the cadres of hindutva pillaged the Muslim communities Bombay in 1992 and 1993, Coimbatore in 1997, and Gujarat in 2002, and the Sikh community of Delhi in 1984. The trend-lines of intolerance, however, are disturbing.


5 Responses to “Reflections on Religious Intolerance: India and America”

  1. 1 diana 16 January 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Hi, I got here through Pr3rna’s blog. Interesting post, I have never seen a parallel between India and America been drawn on this issue before. So do you agree with Ramesh Sharma’s view that the religion issue is a stronger base to build on (hindutva with the BJP) than economic growth?


  2. 2 mbjesq 16 January 2007 at 5:28 pm


    I certainly (and sadly) agree that religious division is a better issue for the BJP that economics, just as Christian “values-voting” has been more reliable for the Republicans in America.

    Sure, there will always be a kernel of affluent voters who will see that their bread is buttered by the Republicans or the BJP. But this is a small segment of the population. More pernicious is the fact that, in America at least, middle class voters generally have little sense of where they stand in the economic strata. When it was clear the Bush tax cuts would benefit only the top10% of income earners, polling data showed that well over 50% of the population (more than a majority, in electoral terms) identified themselves as believing they fell within the top 10%.

    Still, politicians, like senior corporate management, take way more credit for economic good news than they probably deserve. The business cycle rises and falls, often in spite of government policy, rather than because of it. George Bush (Senior) hit an economic downturn that he and his advisors were powerless to mitigate. Bill Clinton rode the glassy wave of the technology boom and, through savvy management and prudent budgeting was able to build a $200 billion dollar surplus, and left the national debt at $5.6 trillion. Little George has blown through that surplus and then some, running the national debt to more than $8.6 trillion. Still the Republican party is seem as the party that will help the rich build their wealth.

    So too with the BJP. The problem for them is that middle class Indians are far less deluded about where they stand in the pecking order, and the poor in this country vote in much larger numbers than in America. Thus, Bush could get reelected, in part, by promising to extend tax cuts for the rich, while the BJP lost an election they might easily have won on the absurd slogan, “India Shining.” For most Indians, India doesn’t shine. Moreover, they can see very well that it is shining for the elite few, and are resentful. And what is the BJP to say about the fairly good economic run Congress has had since taking power?

    When you add all this up, it means that while in the ebb of an economic cycle a party can win election on economics alone (Like Ronald Regan asking: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” or the Clinton election committee staff’s famous mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid!”), in good or middling times a party needs a bigger hook. For the BJP, that hook is hindutva. And Karl Rove would approve of the strategy.

    To be fair to the BJP – much as it pains me to do so – it is completely abetted in its strategy by Congress. It is as though a secret agreement was worked out long ago that ugly, sectarian, divide-and-conquer politics would be the agreed method of voter appeal in Indian elections. Perhaps the saddest thing about the complicity of Congress is that it still bears the name and lineage of the party founded by Gandhi-ji’s lieutenants on secular, unifying principles.

    So my short answer is: yes, hindutva will continue to be the calling card of the BJP, and its right-wing feeder-parties. But it will be interesting to watch this develop in the post-Vajpai era. The BJP could get a way with a lot of ugliness in the good-cop-bad-cop days when the mannered, scholarly, avuncular Vajpai sat on the throne, and the scummy likes of Advani and Modi could do the party’s dirty work. It is quite possible that this go-to strategy may alienate some voters in the absence of a seemingly moderating figure.


  3. 3 diana 16 January 2007 at 6:41 pm

    Thanks for that. I see your point… I’m currently working on some research about freedom of religion in India so this stuff is really interesting. I’m focusing more on the Constitutional side of it though and of the recent state enactments against forced conversions, I was surprised that Himachal Pradesh joined that group. Well lets see how that works out.

    Diana :-)

    • 4 anup 30 December 2009 at 11:39 am

      Hello, if you are still doing research, you should also look at the acutal practice than the constitution, or rule books. Law is only in play as an arbitor, not as a practice. For example, you may want to look at how the indian politicians, BJP included, behave on religious holidays of various religions, and then comapre that to US politicians. To understand religious freedom, you have to first understand the practice of Hinduism (or Sanatan Dharma, or Vedic Practices, or many varians) and the practitioners (there are too much core religious texts, and continually evolving, so practice you must look at). For a majority of Hindus, in north India at least, Buddha and Mahaveera (Jaina), are not a part of a different religion, nor are the Sikh Gurus. You can’t understand BJP’s rise, without what existed before. There is a reason they get votes, and not only for religious reasons, but also for religious reasons (they voted APJ Abdul Kalam to be President; what is the parallel in US, Obama; but republicans did not vote for him, look at the Health care bill vote, all party line.). Most of their leaders have not gotten wealthy by shady means–that is a big appeal in a poor country like India. Which is the same appeal that Manmohan Singh has — I think the young people voted for him in unprecedented numbers. He inspirs them. They want to be a learned person like him, with a glorious career like him. He is the only Indian politician who had a career, and made something of it. It will be interesting to see what happens to Congress after him. It is funny to have americans discuss religious freedoms, they don’t even think Mormons are Christians. Yes, you read they correctly. I have heard that much more than once.

  4. 5 Siddharth Singh 22 February 2009 at 10:12 am

    What happened in Gujarat might repeat itself in other states:

    This is what I personally saw (though after this post was written) in my ancestral village in Rajasthan. To be fair, it’s the Congress under a very secular Gehlot who is the Chief Minister of Rajasthan now, and such activities might see some official resistance.

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