The Rise of Modi and the Hindu Nationalist Movement in Gujarat

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The Indian state of Gujarat, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, was once a center of nonviolent civil disobedience and diversity that represented the ideals of Indian secular nationalism. Less than a century later, with the election of Narendra Modi and the escalation of the Hindu nationalist movement, the Indian state saw one of the most brutal massacres since the partition of India. 


The emergence of Hindu nationalism is inextricably linked to the origins of Indian nationalism and the Indian independence movement. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the ideology of Hindutva played significant roles in shaping Indian society and politics. Founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the RSS was a male-only chauvinist organization aimed to promote Hindu culture and values, emphasizing the idea that India should be a Hindu nation. The concept of Hindutva, popularized by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, envisions India as the homeland of the Hindus and advocates for the national, cultural, political, and social dominance of Hinduism. Both the RSS and the ideology of Hindutva provided a framework for articulating Hindu identity and mobilizing support for the idea of a Hindu Rashtra (nation). Their influence grew during the Indian independence movement, with figures like M.S. Golwalkar and Syama Prasad Mukherjee furthering the cause of Hindu nationalism. 

After nearly a century of revolt against the British Raj, India was officially partitioned into the Dominion of India (the Republic of India today) and the Dominion of Pakistan (now comprising the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh). Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of the British Empire who was put in charge of devising the partition, was convinced that the different interests of the Muslim League and Congress Party could not be resolved before the approaching deadline set by the British Parliament in the Indian Independence Act just a month before. Mountbatten hastily divided the regions of Punjab and Bengal with the border of India and Pakistan, allocating a majority of Hindu areas and Muslim areas to the two nations, respectively. The resulting migration was extremely catastrophic and caused an estimated one-to-two million deaths and the displacement of over fifteen million people. The newly established Indian government instituted a pluralistic democracy based on secular principles, but Hindu nationalist entities like the RSS maintained colonial legacies by continuing to define India by its majority Hindu population. 


Narendra Modi began his involvement in Hindutva organizations at the age of eight by joining his local branch of the RSS. In the following decades, he became a permanent member of the RSS. He climbed the ranks until being noticed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, L.K. Advani, who appointed him organization secretary of the party’s Gujarat branch in 1986. The BJP was officially formed in 1980 after the dissolution of the former Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) party and served as the political wing of RSS. With Modi as organizing secretary, the BJP was able to strengthen its electoral base across Gujarat, a state which the Congress party had dominated since 1947. Over the next decade, the BJP won elections in the six municipalities of the state as well as nineteen district councils, demonstrating increasing appeal among the urban middle class and the rural village population. 

In 1998, Modi was promoted to secretary-general of the BJP party, where he oversaw the states of Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, and Chandigarh, in addition to the BJP youth wing. Modi prided himself on his organizing work and populist appeal, and when asked to replace Keshubhai Patel, the chief minister of Gujarat, he initially refused. However, in 2000, the BJP lost the municipal elections in Gujarat, prompting Modi to accept the position in the fall of 2001. A year later, under Modi’s direction, the BJP won the same elections by a majority.


At 7:43 AM on February 27, 2002, a train coach filled with Hindu Ram activists returning from Ayodhya was burned at a stop in the Muslim-majority town of Godhra, killing all 58 passengers. In the following weeks, an estimated two thousand Muslim men, women, and children were raped, killed, or burned alive, and militant mobs of Hindu nationalists destroyed the homes and businesses of over 20,000 people. The biggest massacres occurred in Naroda Patiya and at the Gulbarg Society, where former Member of Parliament Ehsan Jafri and sixty-nine Muslims taking refuge in his home were brutally murdered. During the attacks, police officers in Ahmedabad did not arrest a single person and a top state official who informed an investigation panel that Modi ordered officers not to make arrests was murdered. To this day, Modi remains unapologetic about his handling of the riots, denying the allegations that the BJP orchestrated the violence. In fact, he used the Gujarat pogrom and anti-Muslim sentiment to fuel his campaign, eventually becoming Prime Minister of India. Years later, international human rights groups and media outlets recognized the BJP and Modi’s complicity in organizing the attacks, protecting the perpetrators, and censoring information about their accountability. 

Modi’s rise to power, deeply rooted in the Hindu nationalist movement of the RSS and the political machinery of the BJP, represents a significant shift in India’s political landscape from the secular democratic principles of Gandhi to the far-right Hindu nationalism it consists of today. The Gujarat pogrom marked a crucial event in a long crusade against Indian Muslims that rages on.


This article was edited by Anthony Vu.