The Triumph of Hindu Majoritarianism

A Requiem for an Old Idea of India

Participants light earthen oil lamps on the banks of the Sarayu river on the eve of Diwali, Ayodhya, November 2018. Pawan Kumar / REUTERS

In August, former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee died at the age of 93. India’s first prime minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vajpayee is often held up as an exemplar of moderate Hindu nationalism, especially in contrast to the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who espouses a more strident ideology. Vajpayee’s obituaries have been written as obituaries not only of the man but also of that ideological moderation.

Yet what has gone unnoticed in Vajpayee’s death is the passing of an older, pluralist idea of India. In 1997, the historian Sunil Khilnani described "the idea of India,” usually attributed to the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as an imagined secular, pluralist, polity that belonged to all Indians and not to any one group. In particular, India did not belong to the Hindu majority, which constituted 80 percent of the country’s population according to the last official census. It was this secular idea that created India in 1947, not as the Hindu mirror of a Muslim Pakistan, but as the pluralist opposite of majoritarian nationalism.

Now, things have changed. With the BJP’s rise to become India’s governing party, the idea of India is being redefined to mean a Hindu polity. Through acts of violence as well as words and laws, India is debating not whether the country’s political system should recognize Hindu identity, but the precise way in which it should be recognized. 


The BJP, which has for decades called upon the government to recognize the special rights of Hindus in a Hindu majority country, has been the single most important force in shifting the terms of debate. But that call now goes beyond the BJP. It has become part of a zeitgeist that animates a diverse collection of Indians, from global professionals looking for an identity to arm themselves with in a world where everyone else seems to already have one; to the small town graduates who see themselves reflected less in an

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