Why India's Nationalist Surge Is Stoking Tensions: QuickTake Q&A

Narendra Modi in Varanasi on March 4.

Photographer: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP via Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victories in provincial elections have given him greater clout to tackle reforms, boost jobs and expand what is already the world’s fastest-growing economy. Still, the move to install a Hindu nationalist priest as head of the most populous state, plus reports of vigilantes seeking to prevent the slaughter of cows, considered sacred in Hindu culture, has generated negative headlines.

1. Why is Hindu nationalism on the rise?

The movement has been around for decades, but has gained momentum. Before entering politics, Modi was a member of the main Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. The group has links to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and several cabinet ministers are members. The BJP’s election victories are emboldening fringe factions of Modi’s support base, especially in Uttar Pradesh, a state of 200 million people, where the party appointed saffron-robed Hindu priest Yogi Adityanath as leader. In another state ruled by the BJP, vigilantes beat a Muslim farmer to death on suspicion he was transporting cows for slaughter.

2. What do Hindu nationalists believe?

The RSS promotes a more assertive, orthodox form of the religion that sees India foremost as a Hindu society -- in a country with 170 million Muslims. Most Hindus are vegetarian and abhor the consumption of meat and eggs. Cow worship, and the push to build a Hindu temple on the site of an ancient mosque in Ayodhya, has inspired acts of violence. During Modi’s time as chief minister of Gujarat state, an arson attack against Hindus returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya triggered riots that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Modi denied any wrongdoing.

3. How does this affect politics?

Hindu nationalist policies risk fueling social divisions in India, a country with a history of religious violence, and creating economic problems. In Uttar Pradesh, vigilantes have disrupted the multi-billion dollar meat export industry and prevented farmers from culling unproductive buffalo. Chief Minister Adityanath has also blamed Muslim youths for waging a "love jihad" by seducing Hindu women to convert them to Islam.

4. Where does Modi stand on these issues?

While Modi has not condoned any of the incidents, he has also not publicly condemned some of them. In 2015, after a mob lynched a Muslim man outside Delhi for allegedly killing a cow and keeping beef in his refrigerator, Modi said his government played no role and was being unfairly targeted. Modi also said the BJP “has always opposed pseudo-secularism.”

5. Should investors worry?

Hindu nationalism could help the BJP win more state polls, giving Modi an even stronger grip on power. But tensions between Hindus and Muslims could also spur violence and distract lawmakers from economic policies. India’s commercial capital Mumbai was shut down for nearly two months by deadly communal clashes in 1992 after the mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindus claiming it was built in the 1500s on a temple marking Lord Ram’s birthplace. A former BJP deputy prime minister is currently facing criminal conspiracy charges related to the 1992 violence, in a trial that could exacerbate tensions.

6. What sectors of the economy could be affected?

The food processing industry faces risk. The BJP promised to shut mechanized slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh, a move that could hit exports. India overtook Brazil to become the world’s largest bovine meat exporter in 2014, driven by low-cost water buffalo meat. The industry, which earns about $4.8 billion annually and employs about 2.5 million people, is operating around 40 percent capacity, according to the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association.

The Reference Shelf

  • How cow vigilantes are causing trouble for Modi
  • A profile of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath
  • A QuickTake on BJP’s victory in state elections
  • A QuickTake on India’s democracy under Modi
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