Losing by Religion

Muslim exclusion in Modi’s de facto Hindu Rashtra

01 March 2019
The proportion of Muslims in the Indian Police Service fell below the three-percent mark in 2016.
shammi mehra / afp / getty images
The proportion of Muslims in the Indian Police Service fell below the three-percent mark in 2016.
shammi mehra / afp / getty images

In 2002, the Israeli political scientist Sammy Smooha published an article titled “The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” in the journal Nations and Nationalism. Smooha defined ethnic democracy based on a broad but precise set of criteria. It is, first, the product of ethnic nationalism, a majoritarian ideology that implies a strong sense of belonging and often one of superiority. This identity is also premised on the rejection of minorities, generally perceived as threats to the survival and integrity of the ethnic nation. According to Smooha, although many countries have gone down the road of ethnic democracy, the archetype of this political system remains Israel—a state that endeavours to combine an ethnic Jewish identity and a parliamentary system drawing its inspiration from Western Europe. The two sides of this coin are the Jewish nature of the nation-state and the restrictions imposed on the rights of minorities, primarily the Palestinians.

Ethnic democracy implies two-tiered citizenship, the majority enjoying more rights than the minority, both de jure and de facto. In Israel, Jews have more rights because the state recognises their religion. Hence the Judaisation of symbols of identity: “Israel’s titular name, calendar, days and sites of commemoration, heroes, flag, emblem, national anthem, names of places, ceremonies and the like are all Jewish,” Smooha wrote. But Jewish dominance at the expense of Muslims is also exercised de facto, in contradiction with the law. Smooha added: “Most of the discrimination is, however, rather covert. The extensive use of military service as a criterion for the allocation of benefits is very striking, because most Jews serve in the army, whereas most Arabs do not. … Unfair allocation of funds and provision of unequal services by governmental offices are quite common.” Majority public opinion contributes to legitimising these practices, given that Muslims “are regarded as potentially disloyal to the state and placed under security and political control,” not to mention the fear generated by their demographic growth.

India under Narendra Modi has moved towards this model over the past five years, while exhibiting a specific variant of it. The main difference lies in the lack of any major legal reform, as evident from the fact that the constitution continues to embody the ideals of secularism—and therefore multiculturalism—as well as equal citizenship for all. But while the de jure aspect of ethnic democracy is virtually absent, the de facto aspect, on the other hand, is omnipresent, given the shrinking of minority representation in elected assemblies and the role that vigilante militias play in conducting Hindu-nationalist cultural policing, often with the blessing of the law-enforcement agencies. Of all the minorities, the principal victims of this trend are Muslims, the traditional target of Hindu nationalists.

Don't want to read further? Stay in touch

  • Free newsletters. updates. and special reads
  • Be the first to hear about subscription sales
  • Register for Free

    Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Keywords: Elections 2019 Narendra Modi Hindu Rashtra Muslims Exclusion Majoritarian state Ethnic Democracy