August 12, 2021

IntelBrief: Tensions Regarding National Identity Heighten Long-Term Security Risks in India

(AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)


  • On August 10, Indian police arrested six men in connection with alleged violent anti-Muslim slogans shouted at a weekend protest in Delhi. 
  • The Hindu nationalist approach adopted by India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gained broad acceptance in recent years.
  • A recent Pew survey shows that many Indians limit social interactions to their own religion and caste and oppose interreligious and inter-caste marriage.
  • The Pew survey results reveal that roughly 64% of Hindu respondents believe that it is very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian, challenging the foundational identity of the state as a secular democracy.

On August 10, Indian police arrested six men in connection with alleged violent anti-Muslim slogans shouted at a weekend protest in Delhi. One of the men arrested is Supreme Court lawyer and former Delhi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Ashwini Upadhyay, who is also believed to be one of the event organizers. Videos from the event released on social media show people shouting inflammatory and violent anti-Muslim slogans, which included calls to kill Muslims. 

The protest’s threat of communal violence follows on a series of incidents demonstrating simmering tensions in India, even as it continues to seek recognition as a global power and makes the case for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The future of India as a multicultural and tolerant society has been challenged by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing BJP government, which has made Hindu nationalism a core tenet of its platform. This Hindu-centric vision stands in direct contrast to the secular democracy envisaged by the authors of India’s constitution at independence. However, despite its divergence from constitutional principles, BJP’s Hindu nationalist approach has gained broad societal acceptance in recent years, growing alongside interreligious communal tensions that have been exacerbated by the government’s mismanaged response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The depth of India’s religious segregation was revealed in a recently published Pew Research Center survey on religious identity, nationalism, and tolerance in India. The survey—which included interviews in seventeen languages with 29,999 adults across the country between late 2019 and early 2020—offered paradoxical results. While 84% of respondents believe that it is very important to respect all religions to be “truly Indian,” subsequent survey answers indicate the extent of entrenched caste-based and religious divisions in India. For example, respondents generally claim to have little in common with members of other religious groups; most Indians surveyed say their close friends come mainly or entirely from their own religious community and share their caste; and most respondents oppose both inter-caste and interreligious marriage. Interreligious marriages, especially between Hindus and Muslims, have been weaponized politically by the right-wing Hindu nationalist parties, to the extent that many states have enacted legislation to stop the so-called “love jihad.”

The Pew survey results provide a glimpse into how the ruling BJP has successfully managed to both exploit and champion the symbols of Hindu nationalism to its advantage. Roughly 64% of Hindu respondents believe that it is very important to be Hindu to be truly Indian, and 80% of this group say it’s also very important to speak Hindi to be truly Indian. According to social scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, this sentiment of Indian identity goes hand in hand with “Hindi, Hindu, and Hindustan,” the slogan started by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist, paramilitary organization and the BJP’s ideological mentor. This push for the Hindi language has helped BJP’s popularity in the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan, where Hindi is the main spoken language. However, this pro-Hindi tactic has failed to gain traction in southern India, where Hindi is far less prominent, and where BJP has only managed to make political inroads in the state of Karnataka.

Another aspect of majoritarian dominance has meant the rejection of anything that is not Hindu. Nearly two-thirds of Hindus and Muslims don’t feel they have much in common with one another, reflecting the rejection of syncretic traditions and values that were once a core part of Indian culture. This rejection is most apparent in the decline of Dargah culture, where many Hindus could be seen praying or offering Chaddar (scarves) at the tombs of Sufi saints. According to the survey, only 3% of Hindu respondents say that they have prayed at a dargah. The specter of intercommunal riots looms as one of the “big problems” facing the country. Nonetheless, very little progress seems to have been made to mitigate such societal divides. More than one-third of Hindus are unwilling to accept a Muslim as a neighbor, and 43% of Hindu respondents consider partition of the country in 1947 (in order to create Muslim-majority Pakistan) a good thing, whereas most Muslims believe that partition damaged Hindu-Muslim relations in India.

The sharp segregation highlighted by the Pew survey and recent events, including the divisions exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, risk deepening inter-communal divisions. Polarizing politics, where parties continue to deliberately leverage grievances and divisions in such a large multi-ethnic country, will likely continue to enflame tensions in India for the foreseeable future. Rising Hindu nationalist sentiment has given BJP two consecutive electoral victories despite the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic and resultant losses across the country. It has also deepened identity and faith-based divisions in India, where violent extremists and regional tensions, especially following on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, can provide an enabling environment for longer term security risks.