Issue 23

India’s Growth Prospects – Are They Really Deterred by Religious Majoritarianism and Polarisation?

In a recent statement, former Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan warned that an “anti-minority” image could harm India’s growth prospects due to reduced demand for Indian products in the global market. Rajan’s comment came a day after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-controlled North Delhi Municipal Corporation abruptly demolished properties, most of them owned by Muslims, in Jahangirpuri on the pretext of illegal construction. It has, however, been widely perceived as ‘collective punishment’ against Muslims after communal clashes in the neighbourhood days ago. 

Over the past couple of years, several observers have noted increasing religious majoritarianism and polarisation in India, coinciding with the rise of the Hindu Nationalist BJP in 2014. In the last couple of weeks, the headlines have been occupied with the Hijab row and Halal row in Karnataka and communal violence across several states instigated by religious processions, bulldozing of properties owned by Muslims, and so on. It is well-documented that religious conflicts positively correlate with BJP’s electoral performance.

Several well-meaning people, like Dr Rajan, have argued that the rising religious majoritarianism will harm India’s growth prospects. There could be two kinds of motivations behind such reasoning. First, it could be the case that they firmly believe in the argument. Second, they are internally dubious about the intellectual robustness of their claim but see these arguments as doing their bit to mitigate the rising hatred. 

Assuming the case to be the former, there are no strong reasons to believe that there is any threat to overall economic growth. The current form of religious majoritarianism is insidious in that it is based on everyday humiliation and targeting of minorities, mainly Muslims, as opposed to widespread, large-scale violence. Hence, there is no significant risk for companies to operate from a safety and stability perspective as of yet. While some may engage in virtue signalling, they will continue to do business as long as it is profitable — irrespective of India’s “treatment of minorities” — just as they operate in countries like China and Saudi Arabia with the worst record on human rights. 

It was somewhat of a coincidence that the Modi government has proven incompetent in handling the economy, particularly during its first term. The consequentialist arguments about threats to growth failed to mobilise voters amid the worst economic decision-making, such as demonetisation and poorly executed Goods and Service Tax (GST). Such blunders are not necessarily a given. The government may be able to clean up its act on the economy and deliver reasonable growth; it seems to be on the right path. As economic growth picks up, these arguments become even weaker.

India recently signed a free trade deal with Australia and is eyeing one with Europe. The country almost doubled the number of unicorns in just ten months in 2021, from 37 to 71. The latest IMF projections also suggest a healthy growth of 8.2% for this fiscal year. In addition, the government has made bold progress on long-awaited issues such as the sale of Air India. Most importantly, it has not embarked on economically foolish misadventures like demonetisation.

India is also a key partner for the US to counter China. The cooperation between the two countries is set to continue becoming more robust, with positive economic prospects for India. This is also why comparisons with Western boycotts of Russian business are not reasonable. Besides, the Indian diaspora in the west — a large proportion of which are hardcore Modi supporters — will countervail such tendencies if it were to happen at all.

Is this the best India can do? Probably not. A cooperative and peaceful environment would most likely reap higher growth. That is, however, besides the point. Counterfactual thinking does not come to an average voter. So, as long as India can sustain some decent growth, voters are unlikely to make a connection between religious polarisation and lower-than-ideal economic performance. Instead, if anything, proper economic growth could further overshadow and mask the rising religious polarisation in the short-medium run.

This is precisely the flip side of the consequentialist arguments of religious tension being a threat to growth. What happens if and when the government can deliver decent economic growth? Does religious hatred become a non-issue then? 

There is no escaping the elephant in the room. The rising religious majoritarianism and polarisation need to be confronted. The opposition parties failed to mobilise voters under the government’s poor economic performance; it is unlikely they can touch on this challenging topic. Ultimately, these issues are better addressed locally through meaningful community and civil society bonds.

A group of Hindus and Muslims in Jahangirpuri took out a “tiranga yatra” to send a message of unity and peace following the violence. These are exactly the kinds of concrete bonds we need and provide a ray of hope amid grim developments. 

Fahad Hasin is an associate at IDinsight. He also writes on politics, policy and society. You can access his newsletter and writings in popular media here

Picture Credits: DW

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8

Leading up to the Historic Mahapanchayat: Hindu-Muslim Relationship Since 2013 in West UP

Social media is fuelled with people expressing apprehensions and even anger over all the excitement around Rakesh Tikait who recently extended his support to the protesting farmers at Ghazipur border. Rakesh Tikait is the farmer leader and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU). Most of the public anger stems from BKU’s role in the 2013 sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. 


What Followed Was Regret & A Call For Unity

It has been over seven and a half years since that madness engulfed West UP. We saw BKU split while many new factions emerged. The noticeable split was the breaking away of Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, the biggest Muslim leader of BKU, often considered as late Baba Tikait’s right-hand-man. 

Interestingly, once when Ajit Singh (founder and Chief of Rashtriya Lok Dal, political party in West UP), and son Jayant Chaudhry (RLD leader) lost elections in 2014, many older Jats in the region were crestfallen. Many of them sobbed, “humne chaudhary sahab ko kaise hara diya.” Many Jats were always upset with their younger generation for indulging in violence that occurred in 2013. Secretly between those sobs, they’d often say, “hope it’s not too late before our youngsters realize where they’ve gone wrong.” This is not to insinuate that elders from the community were not involved in the violence. But those who had seen the heydays of BKU and RLD understood the futility of the madness. They understood that Muslims of the region were an inseparable part of their existence (within which there are contradictions of caste among Muslims in the region – but that’s another topic of discussion).

Some local level Jat leaders such as Vipin Singh Baliyan among others, have put in their share of effort to undo the Hindu-Muslim rift. Those efforts, while commendable, were small and acted as only a small drop in an ocean of hatred and bitterness that West UP had become. Around five years after the riots, there were, finally joint Hindu-Muslim Kisan Panchayats which were led by people like Thakur Puran Singh, Ghulam Mohammad Jaula etc.

Finally, there was a massive rally led by Rakesh Tikait that came to Delhi with a set of ten demands, just before the 2019 elections. Both Hindu and Muslim farmers particpated in that rally. Many other Unions extended support to the movement. Delhi was again under siege. Even though all the demands had not been met, the rally was called off. Many were upset, and felt that he had been bought over by BJP. After 2019, there were many protests in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts led by BKU. What was interesting – the presence of many Muslim farmers in at protest demonstrations. Many were post-holders of BKU as well. It was evident that Rakesh Tikait was trying hard to revive BKU while Naresh Tikait (the current President of BKU and elder brother to Rakesh Tikait) had evidently been sidelined. 

The Trust Deficit

In the 2013 Mahapanchayat where BJP had completely hijacked the BKU stage, it was Nresh Tikait who was seen on that stage with BJP leaders. He continued to make inflammatory statements even after the 2013 violence in the districts. Over the last two-three years, it seems that Rakesh has taken over the reins of the Union and sidelined Naresh because of the communal politics that one has begun to associate him with. Whether this is an ideological clash between the two brothers or a tactical move, only they know. 

Once the anti-farm bills reached the borders of Delhi, eyes were set on borders lining Ghazipur as well. Why wasn’t West UP joining the protests with the same intensity and fervour that their farm movements have been known for in the past? Truth be told, while many farmers were very keen to join the movement, there laid a massive trust deficit with Rakesh Tikait. Many suspected that he was a BJP agent who could flip any minute.

Towards Bridging the Divide

However, the events on the night of 27th January at Ghazipur border changed that perception. A large police contingent was out to remove the protesting farmers from the border. The very emotional appeal by Rakesh Tikait in a video message where he was seen crying has stirred West UP farmers in action. Among the most prominent words he said was the admission of guilt of once having supported BJP, a decision he said will always regret. That night saw thousands of people gathering outside Tikait’s house in Sisauli village in Muzaffarnagar district. Two days later, on 29th January, a historic Mahapanchayat attended by several thousands, took place in the district. 

Among the key speakers at the Panchayat was Ghulam Mohammad Jaula. He minced no words. “The two biggest mistakes you’ve made so far,” he said, “one, you got Ajit Singh defeated, and two, you killed Muslims.” Interestingly, there was no booing, no attempts at shutting him up. A pin-drop silence. Introspection. Other speakers added, “we will never get carried away by BJP again.” A very rare decision taken at the historic Mahapanchayat – to boycott the BJP. Rare for maha-panchayats to publicly disown a political party.

Even today as the groundswell of support from farmers continues to increase at the Ghazipur border from districts like Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut etc., similar views are echoed. “2013 was a big mistake.” “BJP abused our anger, and we got carried away.” “BJP and SP are responsible for the 2013 situation.” And most importantly, “BJP grew in West UP in 2013 because of Muzaffarnagar riots, it’s downfall will also begin in the same Muzaffaranagar.” The most prominent slogans of BKU, “Har Har Mahadev, Allahu-Akbar,” which echoed through the boat club in 1988 may soon be back.  

The Unanswerable Questions, and Small Steps

Does this easily erase the past? Does this heal wounds of 2013? 

As someone who made a film on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots and having witnessed the trauma, destruction and polarisation they had caused, I don’t have an answer. Maybe. Maybe not. Those 60,000 people, essentially Muslims, who were displaced and will never go back to their native villages. Should many, who were responsible for the violence, but today regret the past be given a clean chit? Is this genuine redressal? We don’t have any answers. What we do know is that West UP has suffered enormously in the past. The spiralling effects have been grave. Many continue to suffer.Yogi as the CM wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for 2013, and perhaps Modi as PM as well. What we do know is that the recent events at West UP will go a long way in healing and bringing back some peace in the troubled parts of West UP. Even personal relations between Hindus and Muslims will witness renegotiations. This is not to suggest that this changes everything. But each of these steps count for something. 

While many raise apprehensions about Rakesh Tikait even now, and perhaps rightly so, one needs to approach the situation with patience in these difficult times as such churnings are crucial. The damage that the ruling government has done to India will take long to be amended. Sometimes even fraught with contradictions. Impulsive reactions won’t help anyone. Many fault lines still exist in West UP. Unlike Punjab where militant Farmers’ Unions have been active for many decades, Haryana and even West UP (including BKU) rely on Khaps to mobilize farmers. Feudal attitudes will take time to break down. But the Mahapanchayat on the 29th was a sure, small but significant step towards democratization of that society.  

Image Credits: National Herald

Nakul Singh Sawhney is an independent documentary filmmaker. His notable feature length documentary films include, ‘Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyaan’ and ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai…’. He is the founder of a film media collective in West UP, called ChalChitra Abhiyaan. ChalChitra Abhiyaan trains youth from marginalised communities in West UP to make their own videos on relevant issues in the area. These videos have often brought out grassroots news to the public domain on contentious issues when the mainstream media has looked away. The collective also screens their videos and other films (both Indian and international) in various villages and townships of West UP.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 8


‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ is the phrase that this gripping two-season series embodies. The show follows the life of Ramy Hassan, an American millennial with roots in Egypt, and captures how he grapples with his conception of the ideas of spirituality, love, religion, family, and judgement. The comedy-drama encapsulates snippets of what constitutes a sense of belonging for a minority, immigrant community in the United States and humorously captures the cultural conflicts and politics of the two nations that Ramy identifies with, the USA and Egypt. 

While the first season gives us a glimpse of the characters and their ideas, the second season grips one further as Ramy finds himself in unfamiliar terrain in Egypt, falling in love, drifting in and out of religious ideals and finding a Sufi spiritual instructor in Mahershala Ali. The show highlights contradictions between belief and faith, religious practice and understanding, family and loyalty and portrays the characters’ struggles with religious practice in a world of sin and vice. The show takes pace as it highlights religious biases, perceptions about Muslims and Ramy’s ‘well-intentioned sins’ as he tries to navigate between the ‘haram’ and ‘halal’ life while judging those around him.

Quick-one liners, puns on Trump, Islam and its relationship with the USA and a representation of religious performance and faith is what makes Ramy a must watch. Each character in the show has a different story, slowly unfurling in the background as Ramy struggles to juggle between Friday afternoon prayers and Friday night parties.

Issue 5

Understanding the French Principle of Laïcité

On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a 47-year old teacher was brutally beheaded in northern Paris outside his school. Days before his beheading, Paty had been receiving online death threats for showing his students controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed which were first published in Denmark and then reproduced by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In France, the right to offend has always existed. Thus, the horrific murder of Paty was viewed as a violation of these rights that allow the people of France to commit acts that offend religion. The incident sent shockwaves across France because it was also viewed as an attack on education and education lies at the heart of what it means to be French. The outrage created swells of demonstrations and fueled deliberations over the longstanding French notion of secularism.

To understand the notion of secularism in France, it is necessary to examine the French principle of laïcité, under which the state is obliged to adopt a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs. Personal laws, inherent in every religion, find no place in the French Constitution. Thus, there is complete isolation of religion from the public sphere. While the wearing of overt religious symbols is not allowed either in the civil services or public spaces like government hospitals, post offices and government schools, there is complete freedom to exercise religion in the private realm. People are free to attend any religious institution and follow any religious norm as long as they do so in private spaces.

This notion of laïcité, where the state adopts a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs, was not inherent to the French system of governance. A great deal of historical struggle and fighting led to the acceptance of laïcité as a principle. It is important to recognize that religion lies at the heart of all the wars in France.

Between 1562 and 1598, the French witnessed the Wars of Religion. It was a series of nine bloody wars fought between two factions of the same religion, Catholics and Protestants.

Then, from 1789 to 1799, during the French Revolution, Louis XVI, who had exercised complete control of France between 1661 and 1715, was overthrown. A National Constituent Assembly was formed and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. This declaration was important for France because it established individual rights that were protected by law. The revolutionaries declared the French Republic and stripped away special powers of the Catholic Church in an attempt to tame the Church that had enjoyed centuries of control. For the first time, the Jews, who were an outlawed community, were finally allowed to own property. In 1791, the first French Constitution was adopted and introduced the idea of freedom of religion in the land. The freedom to practice different faiths was allowed.

Between 1799 and 1905, a progressive dilution of the powers of the Catholic Church took place in post-revolutionary France. During this period, the Jules Ferry Laws were established. Catholic clerics were not allowed to infiltrate schools by becoming teachers. Thus, the laws ensured secularity in the schools of France. The systematic chipping away of the powers from the Church eventually led to the creation of secular laws in France.  

Finally, in 1905, the French law, on the separation of the Church and the State was introduced. It was based on three ideas: neutrality of the State, freedom of religious exercise and public powers related to the Church. This means that while the State maintains neutrality, it continues to exercise discretionary powers that allow it to intervene in religious matters. This was the period when the French notion of secularism emerged and the principle of laïcité was established.

When the law came into force, the State declared that the citizens of France would be recognised independent of their religious or ethnic background. Although initially, the immigrants and minority communities of the country did not face issues of discrimination, instances of everyday racism increased after the 1970s.

In the post-war era, there was a steep decline in manpower in France. Thus, France invited male immigrants from many countries to work in the booming industries of the State. While France had existing immigrants from neighbouring countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, for the first time, this wave of immigrants also included people from non-White countries like Northern Africa, namely Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is widespread. Leaving their families behind, due to restrictions from the French state, these immigrants lived in poor suburban communities where instances of racism and discrimination were not that widespread.

Problems started emerging during the 1970s economic downturn. Just like most countries, France was also severely impacted by the 1973 oil crisis. This led to the closing of several factories in France. By this time, the French state had reunited the immigrants with their families. Living in the fringes of society, the immigrants suffered due to increasing unemployment and the burden to feed their families. The immigrants from Europe and other white Caucasian countries were able to merge into a predominantly Judeo-Christian France. Physical differences, like the colour of one’s skin, made it difficult for the African immigrants (mostly Muslim) to assimilate into society. Communities of immigrant workers became increasingly isolated and the instances of everyday discrimination started becoming more prominent.

Although under laïcité, rights are given to every French person, these rules were made at a time when the country did not experience a wave of non-white immigrants. Religious diversity was not prominent in 1905. Assimilation of North African communities who came to live in France and the French-born Muslims, proved to be difficult. Adding to this, several disputes started arising with issues of religious freedom and the notion of laïcité.

In 1989, tense debates started growing on the wearing of overt religious symbols in France after three Muslim girls were suspended from a public school upon refusing to remove their headscarves. After years of debate, the 2004 law which banned “the wearing of symbols and apparel by which a student conspicuously expresses religious affiliation in public schools”, was passed by the French parliament. The Jewish skullcap, Christian crosses and the Hijab, all religious symbols we banned. Then in 2010, a law was passed prohibiting the concealment of the face in public, thus banning clothes like the niqab. Such laws, which have created hostility between the Muslims and the French State have only intensified due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks in France by radical-militant Islamists.  

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine that produces cartoons and jokes about religious heads who promote blind belief, pokes fun at obscure existing norms and calls out forms of absurdity. After the 2015 attacks on the magazine by terrorists of militant Islam and al-Qaeda, people increasingly began looking at Islam as a religion that promotes violence, contributing to the ever-growing Islamophobia in the country.

While the principle of laïcité was intended to instill secularism, it was created at a time when the French Constitution did not need to worry about the practices of a diverse range of religions. Although these controversial laws apply to all religions, the last few years have shifted the focus of discourse to Islamic practices. The complete removal of religion from public spaces may have worked in the past, but growing religious and cultural tensions have raised many questions with regards to the French notion of laïcité. Till what extent is the State willing to go, to maintain its principle of laïcité? If a community feels marginalized, should the state alter its principles?

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).