The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Many of India’s ills including Hindu fascism and the rise of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party can be traced back to the census first introduced by the British.

The British colonial era bequeathed to India an imperial knowledge system that deftly restructured the concept of community identities. What was once a tapestry of different religions coexisting within a communal space was artfully delineated into distinct “enumerated” communities, a transformation achieved through the implementation of the census beginning in the latter half of the 19th century.

This census was a deliberate act of social engineering—an endeavor to rigidly categorize a diverse India by emphasizing differences—a tactic that advanced the colonizers’ control in the subcontinent. The legacy of this segmentation persists, with communities still defined within the boundaries first drawn by the British census.

In its wake, this system inadvertently blended various castes, sects, and devotional groups into a monolithic Hindu identity, obscuring the individualities that characterize worship within the faith. The British failed to organize India into a community that could be defined by its diversity, and instead, they facilitated the emergence of an enumerated community that laid the foundations for religious intolerance in an independent India.

The British reshaped the existing community, homogenizing the diverse practices into standardized forms as determined by colonial officers. Consequently, individuals were forced to fit into strict definitions of Hindu or Muslim identity as prescribed by the census. Building on this, since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party, propelled by a Hindutva wave and led by Narendra Modi, approaches the 2024 elections with a strategic focus. The party has been systematically seeking to control the levers of state power while promoting a dominant cultural narrative. Notably, their emphasis has been on engaging India’s youth, framing debates around the exclusion of minorities.

The Partition of the Indian subcontinent, which was drawn along religious lines, has plunged the nation into a whirlwind of nationalism. This time around, the BJP’s gaze is inward. The party has managed to render Pakistan a non-issue, while their version of a “medieval” past, often contested by historians, has become a cornerstone of their ideology.

For example, contrary to the narrative propagated by some within the Hindutva movement, not all Muslims in India hail from foreign aristocracy or invaders. In fact, the majority are descendants of converts from lower-caste Hindus, drawn to Islam’s egalitarian message. Despite this historical truth being widely acknowledged, a faction within the movement insists on portraying these conversions as coercive, positioning them as an impediment to India’s destined greatness. With the construction of the Ram Mandir underway, the focus has shifted to other minority groups.

Now, across the nation, youthful vigilante groups have taken it upon themselves to challenge minority places of worship, driven by religious zeal. Isolated incidents of mob violence have emerged as a pattern, painting a troubling picture of the status of minorities—as second-class citizens. And those secularists who once urged Muslim leaders not to yield to Hindus on cultural conflicts are now lapsing into slacktivism, their voices diminishing.

The establishment of a Hindu hegemony has even permeated the left. The Indian National Congress, which has historically positioned itself as a protector of Muslim interests, has seen its workers adopt a more assertive stance, riding the wave of Hindu nationalism. The Congress’s shift from its traditionally pro-Muslim stance is a reminder of M.S. Golwalkar’s pronouncements: “In Hindustan exists, and must exist, the ancient Hindu nation, and nought else but the Hindu nation… The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea except the glorification of the Hindu religion and culture, i.e. of the Hindu nation, and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or they may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation…”

The enduring consequence of the Partition is the entrenchment of a mindset that India cannot be a truly heterogeneous nation based on consensus. The exploitation of this division has unleashed potent political energies, fueled by intense passion and mass mobilization—forces that are poised to secure BJP’s victory.

As the 2024 general elections loom, India’s minority communities, long shrouded in political obscurity, now find themselves caught in the stark light of deepening societal cleavages—a phenomenon rooted in the institutional biases of colonial-era census practices. This historical backdrop has steered a decade of BJP governance, compelling the traditionally “secular” opposition to pivot towards the majority Hindu demographic. The Indian National Congress, once firmly anchored to the left-of-center, has tacitly endorsed this realignment by eschewing Muslim representation in Gujarat—an act that quietly affirms its secular claims. This pattern seems poised to persist as the nation approaches its pivotal central elections.

Congress leadership has internalized the narrative that their electoral defeats stem from the BJP’s success in appealing to liberal Hindu voters. The religious divide within the country now manifests starkly in urban landscapes, each with its own symbolic Radcliffe line. The social segregation in these urban enclaves points to a broader truth beyond the realm of political finger-pointing: in democracies, the elected often reflect the era and the ethos of their constituents

Jayanth Deshmukh is a third year undergraduate student at FLAME University pursuing Public Policy and International Relations.