Thursday, February 29, 2024

Why India’s Rising Hindu Nationalism Is Bad for Its Democracy and The Economy

Author: Dr. Robin Dhakal

January 22, 2024, marked the official inauguration of one of the most expensive religious projects in the world- the Ram temple in Ayodhya, India. This temple sits on a 70-acre land and the temple itself covers 2.7 acres of space. The project took 3.5 years and a whopping $217 million to complete. The inauguration ceremony was attending by some of the most prominent celebrities, cricketers, and politicians including the Prime Minister of India- Narendra Modi and it was broadcasted live by most major Indian TV networks. The temple's construction and inauguration have been a source of celebration for many Hindus, as well as a symbol of Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda. However, the temple's history and location have also been marred by controversy, violence, and legal disputes, as the site was previously occupied by a 16th century mosque that was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Here's a brief history.

On December 6, 1992, a large crowd of Hindu hardliners, led by the leaders of one of the largest political parties, Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), stormed the Babri Masjid (the mosque) and razed it to the ground. The demolition sparked widespread communal riots across India, killing more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. The incident also triggered a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993, killing over 250 people, and a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, killing 14 people. The demolition also led to a long and complex legal battle over the ownership and status of the disputed land, involving various parties. In 2010, the Allahabad High Court divided the disputed land into three parts, giving it to different Hindu and Muslim groups. However, in 2019, the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous verdict, giving the entire disputed land to the Hindus for the construction of the Ram temple, and allotting a separate five-acre land to the Muslims for the construction of a mosque elsewhere in Ayodhya. This verdict was a big victory for devout Hindus because lord Ram is believed to have been born at the site in the disputed land.

How did Hindu nationalism gain traction in India?

The origins of this ideology can be traced back to the 19th century, when India was under British colonial rule. During this time, a number of Hindu reform movements emerged, seeking to revive and modernize Hinduism in response to the perceived threat of Westernization and Christian missionary activities. Over the course of the 20th century, Hindu nationalism continued to grow in India, fueled in part by the partition of India in 1947 and the subsequent creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim nation. Today, Hindu nationalism remains a significant force in Indian politics, with the ruling BJP espousing many of its key principles.

The political landscape of India has been undergoing significant changes in recent years, with the rise of Hindu nationalist leader Narendra Modi. Modi, who was first elected as Prime Minister in 2014, has been credited with ushering in a new era of economic growth and development in India. Modi's rise to power has coincided with a surge in Hindu nationalism, which has led to a number of controversial policies, including the revocation of Kashmir's autonomous status and the introduction of a controversial citizenship law that many argue discriminates against Muslims. Despite these controversies, Modi and the BJP continue to enjoy widespread support in India. Many see him as a strong and decisive leader who has brought much-needed economic and social reforms to the country. Others, however, worry about the erosion of India's secular fabric and the growing divide between Hindus and Muslims.

“Separation of Church and State”

The implication of this rising Hindu nationalism in India is huge and it goes against some of the basic fabrics of a true liberal democracy. Pluralism (and tolerance,) and respect for human rights- which includes civil liberties such as freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, are important components of a democratic society. This basic principle is what led the Founding Fathers in the US to profess the idea of separation of church and state. While the exact phrase "separation of church and state" is not explicitly found in the US Constitution, its principles are derived from various documents and speeches. That phrase is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson because of the letter he wrote in which he said: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Here's what it means and why it is important for India’s democracy.

The term simply represents the idea that there should be a clear distinction and independence between religious institutions and government authorities. It means that citizens are free to practice their religion or hold secular beliefs without interference or coercion from the government. It means that the state should treat all citizens equally, irrespective of their religious affiliations, to foster a society that values diversity and pluralism. It means that policy decisions are made based on rational and secular considerations rather than being influenced by religious dogma which helps in crafting laws and policies that are more inclusive and reflective of the diverse beliefs within a society. It means that laws should be based on legal principles and the common good rather than religious doctrine. These ideals are important because when religion is not intertwined with political power, the potential for religious groups to vie for control or dominance diminishes, promoting social harmony and cohesion. In addition, when religious institutions are separate, they are less likely to wield undue influence over political decisions which helps in holding public officials accountable for their actions and policies without the cloud of religious bias. A secular government encourages individuals of different religious beliefs and non-believers to engage in public discourse, contributing to a more vibrant and inclusive democratic society.

We have seen several incidents of religious violence in India that occurred, in part, because religion plays a big role in politics and government. In 2002, more than 1000 people were killed and thousands more injured in Gujarat. In 2020, more than 53 people were killed and hundred injured in Delhi. More recently in 2023, 6 people were killed and 50 injured in Haryana. And there are countless more. These were all conflicts between Hindus and Muslims.

India is the largest democracy in the world. It is one of the only three Hindu majority countries in the world besides Nepal and Mauritius. It is a country with diverse ethnicity, language, and religion. While 80% of the Indian population are Hindu, close to 286 million people in India practice other religions. By advancing Hindu nationalism, the government is alienating its 286 million citizens. It is important to note that I am not criticizing or singling out Hinduism. I am a Hindu and I have utmost respect for its history and its teachings. But as Thomas Jefferson said, religion lies solely between man and his god. Hindu (or any other religion) nationalism goes directly against the basic tenets of a healthy democracy. India has to make a decision- will it be a Hindu nationalistic state or will it be a democratic state. It cannot be both.

This has a potential implication for India’s economy, too.

I’d argue that India’s push and acceptance of Hindu nationalism has major implication for its economy. There are several different ways that this could hurt or stifle India’s economic progress. First, it has the potential to shape investor perception and confidence. Individuals may be more likely to invest in companies that align with their religious beliefs and values. This could mean investing in companies that only support causes that are important to them from a religious perspective. There is also evidence to suggest that religious identity can influence how investors approach risk. Some research has suggested that individuals who identify strongly with a particular religion may be more risk-averse when it comes to investing, as they may be more concerned with avoiding financial losses than with maximizing gains.

Investors often look for stability and predictability in the political and social environment of a country before committing to long-term investments. The promotion of Hindu nationalism can create an atmosphere of uncertainty and instability, which can lead to a decrease in foreign direct investment, hindering India's economic potential and impeding its ability to compete on the global stage. For instance, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have sparked controversy, with critics arguing that such policies might exacerbate social divisions and create an unwelcoming environment for investors. Companies may be hesitant to invest in a country where discrimination is prevalent, as it can lead to negative publicity and damage their reputation. Additionally, religious nationalism can lead to policies that favor local businesses over foreign ones, which can further discourage foreign investment.

It can also have a significant impact on the business environment, particularly when it comes to minority-owned businesses. In many cases, religious nationalism can lead to discrimination against certain groups, making it more difficult for businesses owned by members of these groups to succeed. This can include everything from difficulty securing loans and funding to outright harassment or violence. Another way it can impact commerce is through the rise of protectionist policies. These policies are often put in place to protect local businesses and industries, but they can also have unintended consequences. For example, they may lead to increased tariffs on imported goods or restrictions on foreign investment, which can make it more difficult for businesses to operate and succeed in a global economy. Additionally, discriminatory practices within the workplace may discourage a diverse workforce, ultimately hindering the creativity and dynamism needed for a thriving economy. When certain groups are marginalized or discriminated against, it can be challenging to create a work environment that is welcoming and supportive of all employees. This can lead to high turnover rates, difficulty recruiting top talent, and a negative reputation in the broader business community.

Diplomatic relations and international trade are very important for any country trying to compete in a global market. But the influence of Hindu nationalism on India's policies may strain economic ties with its allies and neighboring countries. For instance, strained relations with Pakistan have the potential to disrupt trade routes and hinder the regional economic ecosystem. In addition, India’s diplomatic and economic relation with the United States might take a toll as the US’s stance on religious liberty and democratic values do not align with India’s Hindu nationalism. Furthermore, the prioritization of religious identity in policymaking may lead to isolationist tendencies, affecting trade agreements and alliances, which are crucial for India's economic prosperity in an interconnected global economy. This shift in international dynamics poses a risk to the stability of India's economy and its standing in the global economic community.

Policies are important.

India has an awesome opportunity to be the global economic superpower. It has abundance of labor, capital, natural resources, and technology- all of the ingredients necessary for a long term sustainable economic growth. However, this is only possible if its economic and social policies are inclusive. Hindu nationalism risks it. Supporters of the BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups argue that their policies are aimed at promoting the interests of the Indian people and strengthening the country's economy. While such ideology and policies may cater to a specific voter base, they risk neglecting the broader economic interests of the nation. For example, a focus on religious-based welfare programs might divert resources from more inclusive initiatives that address the economic needs of all citizens, irrespective of their religious affiliations. Decisions driven by religious considerations rather than economic feasibility may lead to inefficient resource allocation, hindering the nation's ability to address pressing economic challenges and seize growth opportunities.

Furthermore, the prioritization of short-term political gains over long-term economic planning may result in unsustainable fiscal practices. This approach poses a risk to India's economic stability, potentially leading to inflation, budgetary deficits, and a weakened currency, all of which can undermine the nation's economic resilience.

Final thoughts

Religion is a contentious issue, and the trajectory of the Indian politics and governance suggests that religious disputes are here to stay. However, if India wants to establish itself as a democratic role model and an economic superpower, it has to pivot away from religious politics and embrace all of the tenets of a liberal democracy. The Spanish Inquisition, the Puritan Commonwealth in England, and more recently the Iranian Revolution and the Taliban regime are all examples of failed religious states. Because of the huge implication on its democracy and its economic well-being, India should stay a secular nation- like its Constitution states.


Discriminatory policies trigger religious violence in India. Human Rights Watch. (2023, August 3).

The Economist Newspaper. (2024, January 18). Narendra Modi’s illiberalism may imperil India’s economic progress. The Economist.

Frayer, L. (2019, April 22). Hindu nationalism, the growing trend in India. NPR.

Joshi, A. (2021, September 27). India has become more religious in recent years. here’s why that matters. The Bulwark.

Krishnan, M. (2023, August 11). India’s religious violence: What’s behind raging clashes? – DW – 08/10/2023.

Sharma, A. (2021, September 17). India: Religious riots surge in 2020 – DW – 09/17/2021.

*Opinions shared are those of the authors and independent of the publication or institution. .

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