Religion a punchbag for Indian poll

Fears that communal violence will be orchestrated during a national election campaign stressing Hindu nationalism
Religion a punchbag for Indian poll

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the 10th BRICS summit on July 27 in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has been accused of using divide-and-rule tactics on religious lines in India. (Photo by Mike Hutchings/AFP)

India's secular ethos is being eroded by the politicization of religion ahead of a general election due in May next year.

Opposition parties during the latest session of parliament accused the federal government led by the pro-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of trying to manipulate religious sensitivities.

The Congress Party said Prime Minister Narendra Modi is copying divide-and-rule tactics used by British colonial rulers to foment antagonism between Hindus and Muslims. This included BJP leaders branding Congress as a "Muslim party".

Controversy erupted in mid-July after Congress Party President Rahul Gandhi met with Muslim intellectuals in the city of Aurangabad in northern Maharasthra state.

One newspaper quoted Gandhi as saying that Congress is a party for Muslims.

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Prime Minister Modi sought to add fuel to the political flames by telling a July 15 rally that Congress had in the past sought to win over Muslim voters with similar claims.

However, Congress maintained that Rahul Gandhi actually said that the party belongs to followers of different faiths, including Muslims.

Pavan K. Varma, a senior member of the center-left Janata Dal political party, said the current debate over expressions of political support for Muslims is an example of how religion will be divisive during election campaigning.

The BJP had sought to portray the raising of issues of concern to Muslims as being against the best interests of the majority-Hindu population, he said.

Varma noted that for more than 70 years as an independent nation India held itself up to be a modern, democratic and secular republic, but this self-image was being tarnished by politicking.

"The only agenda being virulently posited before the voters is simply this: are you a Hindu or a Muslim?" Varma wrote in a blog.

Political commentator Arun Kumar told ucanews.com that religious feeling was being inflamed to distract electors from issues such as price inflation, women's safety and a large number of farmer suicides.

The BJP recorded a landslide victory in 2014 when it promised improved living standards as well as support for Hindu nationalism.

"Four years have passed and the country continues to plunge into crises," Kumar said. "The only way out is to stoke religious passions and widen the wedge between Hindus, Muslims and other religious communities."

There are 966 million Hindus in India or 80 percent of the total 1.3 billion population. Muslims account for 172 million or 14 percent while Christians comprise 29 million or 2.3 percent.

A.C. Michael, a Christian leader, said that in most northern Indian states BJP activists are accusing Christians of being anti-Hindu.

And he added that false claims of wrongdoing have been made against various priests and nuns. "It works for BJP in two ways," Michael said. "For one, it keeps people away from Christians, then it projects the BJP as defenders of Hindu interests."

Sahil Showkat, a political commentator and journalist, complains that many politicians are focusing on religious issues rather than economic management.

She added that Rahul Gandhi clearly hopes he has favorably impressed Muslim voters in the row with the BJP over Congress standing up for practitioners of all faiths.

Rights activist Sujata Singh said that mob violence and vigilantism, including killings in the name of cow protection, have worsened since the BJP came to power.

She predicted that violence linked to religion would be meticulously orchestrated, including through patronizing extremists, in an attempt to make Hindu supremacy a key election issue.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report in April maintaining that the Indian government does too little to prevent violence against religious minorities and poor Dalits, formerly known as untouchables.

The report cited promotion of exclusionary Indian national identity based on religion.

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