Religion and Politics in India (By- Sakshi Singhania)

Authored by- Sakshi Singhania
“No Indian who aspires to follow the way of true religion can afford to remain aloof from politics.”[1]
-          Mahatma Gandhi
On the eve of Indian independence, the leaders of the day declared that India would be a secular nation, with respect for every religion, religious tolerance, and liberty as its fundamental characteristics. In a country with more than 12 religions, secularism is a way of life. Unlike western secularism, which relates to the complete divide between the state and church, secularism in India is understood as the state’s neutrality to all religions. However, with the current trend of increased religious violence, and the emergence of political parties associated with religious hard-liners, it becomes pertinent to examine the role of religion in politics.
Religiously motivated nationalist movements have risen to prominence worldwide, with India being no exception. As the largest democracy in the world, India has one-fourth of the global voters and one-sixth of the entire world population.[2] Thus, the effects of communal politics in India have greater reflections in the democratic world. The role of religion in politics becomes dangerous because religious leaders seek to redefine nationalism in association with the majoritarian faith, side-lining the minority community. One might argue that this is the current trend in India, under the charismatic rule of Narendra Modi.
This paper seeks to analyze the role of religion in politics and the opposite (if it exists). The paper aims to look into the political trend of the nation, both before and after independence, with a particular focus on the current trend of religious politics. The Research Questions for the project are as follows -
  1. Does religion play any role in Indian Politics?
  2. Does religion in politics violate the secular status of India?
  3. Is the involvement of religion in politics a recent trend?
  4. Who are the stakeholders involved?
Religion has been linked with politics almost all over the world. For example, the religious justification for the current Russian invasion of Ukraine[3], Taliban’s religious movement, and the subsequent take-over of Afghanistan[4]. However, in India, the involvement of religion in politics is not a novel concept.
Communalism[5] has always been a buzzword in Indian political history. According to several scholars, the Britishers first shaped this divide between communities through their administrative tactics. According to a group of historians, the British scheme or ruse was to create feuds between these Indian communities. These cleavages widened as politics took on a mass character in the 1920s, despite nationalist leaders’ attempts to bridge them through inter-community partnerships and a direct war against communalism by pitting it against Indian nationalism. However, intercommunal tensions eventually resulted in India’s partition in 1947.
One of the most prominent religious cards played by the British in Pre-Independent Indian politics was the policy of ‘Divide and rule.’ The white discovered and utilised pre-existing ethnoreligious divisions in society to prevent subject peoples from uniting against external control. Many Indian and other experts believe the British used this technique to bolster their Raj. The Britishers promoted political divisions between the Hindus and Muslims and encouraged them to view themselves as monolithic communities, destined to exist in isolation from one another. This method is perceived as the cause of communal violence and Muslim separatism. The Britishers not only pitched the Muslim League against the Hindus and made them believe that India, that is, Bharat[6], is a nation only for the Hindus but also divided the administrative forces and armies along religious lines.
The use of religion in India’s politics was not only limited to the Britishers. India’s freedom fighters used religion as a tool for espousing nationalist feelings. One such leader was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who used religious festivals as mediums to spread nationalist sentiments. Like his successor Mahatma Gandhi, Tilak interpreted the BhagvadGeeta as a ‘call for action.’ However, it must be noted that Tilak being an Orthodox Maharashtrian Brahmin, gave a cry only for the Hindus.[7] Such thinking was not only limited to the Hindus; for example, Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan, a Muslim pragmatist, and philosopher, believed that India was a communal federation only united under a centralising agency, like the Mughal Empire or the British.[8] The Hindu and Muslim communities based their philosophy for independence along religious lines. Sir Khan’s propaganda was premised on maintaining a distance from the Indian National Congress and pledging loyalties to the British crown in demand for greater administrative control over India. The Muslims viewed every political move made by the INC as means to establish a Hindu stronghold or majority. The establishment of separate Muslim electorates further exacerbated this.
Thus, religion was always a sharp tool in politics, and secularism was a relatively unknown political notion in India until the early twentieth century. After the Muslim League wanted a separate homeland for Muslims in the 1940s, it rose to prominence. The League justified its demand on religious and cultural grounds, claiming that Muslims constituted a unique country with a distinct culture. To set themselves apart from the Muslim League’s communal politics, the Congress declared its belief in “secularism.” It claimed that, unlike the “communal” League, it was committed to secularism, which it defined in two ways.
To begin with, it did not believe in exploiting religion to achieve political goals but rather in keeping religion in the private realm. Second, the post-colonial state would not discriminate based on religion, contrary to the League’s propaganda. However, post-colonial leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi believed that India’s nationalism rendered secularism obsolete because secularism is a term with a specific historical pedigree, an ideology intended to mitigate the negative impacts of European nation-state construction. While rightly noting the seductive power of religion, Marx stated that religion serves as the ‘Opium of people.[9] The Indian leaders were not immune to this power, and hence, religion has always played an essential role in Indian politics.
One of the most evident manifestations of religion in politics was observed in India at the time of the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Even though the country was divided along religious lines, the leaders of India went on to establish a secular state, maintaining a safe distance from ‘every’ religion. Over the years, this blurry line of separation of state and religion has been further violated for political compulsion.
Drawing inspiration from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi stood firmly against sectarian politics, which she believed would threaten Indian democracy. While her father dropped the word ‘secular’ from the Indian Preamble, he believed that organised religion and even the religious outlook were opposed to democracy.[10] Indira Gandhi inserted the word secular in the Indian Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act[11]. Ironically, it was only after the formal use of the term that secularism in India began to decay. One may also trace this to the circumstances in which the Constitution was amended; the adoption of the word took place during the black days of the Emergency that threatened the very democratic setup of India. Indira’s motivation to declare India as a secular nation was far removed from moral or rational; it was a politically charged decision to secure minority votes and corner the rivals. This was manifested all over India but came to the fore in Punjab, where she sent the Sikh preacher, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, to defeat the Akalis.[12] However, Bhindranwale later turned to be the core leader in the Khalistan movement, demanding the country’s partition yet again on religious lines, this religious fire sparked by Gandhi later also consumed her life. 
Her son and successor, Rajiv Gandhi, only made the matters worse by appeasing both the Hindu and Muslim Fundamentalists. One would believe that ‘secularism’ was a way of life for him, with him being Half-Parsi and Half-Kashmiri himself and married to a Catholic. However, he tarnished this image in the aftermath of the Shah-Bano decision of the Court.[13] Rajiv was rattled in the face of extreme backlash by the Muslim elite and orthodox community opposed to the Supreme Court decision. In fear of losing the ‘hard-earned’ minority vote bank, Rajiv Gandhi used his brute majoritarian force in the Parliament to undo the S.C. verdict. With the defeat of Indian secularism, this episode is accepted as the seed of the religious vote-bank and the rule of politics based on religion.
When discussing religion being involved in politics, the most shocking incident in Indian history was the Babri Masjid episode. It started with Nehru establishing his genuine secular credentials by putting a padlock in a ‘contested’ place of worship, for the Hindus and Muslims, in the 1950s. This was reversed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, which was widely accepted as a ‘Balancing act for the post- Shah-Bano politics.[14] The legislation passed by Congress was opposed by the Hindus, who saw it as ‘unnecessary appeasement of minority religion,’ but majorly because the S.C. verdict was seen as imposing the secular law in place of Sharia. With the two successive acts happening within less than two weeks, the removal of the padlocks was widely seen as the political acceptance of the site being a temple. Thus, Rajiv had restored his vote bank in both the fundamentalist communities. This incident also marked the beginning of the period of ‘Hindutva’ ideology and the political strife of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Since the late 1990s, India’s electoral politics has been marred with religious connotations with the rise of the BJP. Following the downfall of the BJP in the 2000s, it has risen to unparalleled power in current times, providing an alternative nationalism to force. Far removed from its historic-secular character, the BJP has painted nationalism as being concurrent with the Hindu culture. Although vote bank politics was brought to the fore by the Congress leaders, Narendra Modi and his leaders, as is argued, have established a phase of majority rule, threatening the ‘unity in diversity’ antecedents of India. In 1989, while re-establishing the party, BJP relied on the aggressive right-wing religious plank, declaring Hindutva as its defining credo. Hindutva, as defined by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar,[15] the person who coined the term, relates to the Hindu way of life in cultural, social, and political spheres. This was also marked in the Rath Yatra organised by the BJP leader L.K. Advani, leader of the Ramjamnbhoomi Movement and the Party President. The rally’s purpose was to muster support for the temple’s construction and gather Kar-sevaks. With pictures of Advani with Trishul in hand, claiming to undo the Muslim treachery, it was evident that the rally was far removed from being peaceful. Within two years of this rally, the Babri Masjid was destroyed by Hindu hard-liners, crushing the country’s secular character and showcasing the black face of religion in politics.
While LK Advani lit the fire of Hindutva politics in India, it has been perpetuated by the current duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Following the demolition, the Hindus and Muslims of the country were constantly involved in a state of rioting. Including the Godhra Train incident, wherein 59 Kar-sevaks were burnt to death alive; and its clamp back by the Hindus resulted in the death of almost 800 Muslims and 254 Hindus.[16] While the Courts ruled that Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, was not involved in inciting the riot, he still bears the burden of the incident.
Religious tactics have been heavily employed by the BJP leaders, Modi, Shah, and the Hindu-monk yogi Adityanath, using heavy religious references in their speeches. For example, while inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the Prime Minister marked his speech with ‘Har Har Mahadev,’ appeasing only the Hindus. While the Home Minister prides Modi on being the protector of the Hindu community, satisfying their wants, a similar protective nature towards the minority Muslims is inherently lacking. So, even though the BJP spokesperson claims that they are not ‘Chunavi Hindu[17] (Hindu for elections), one cannot ignore the religious overtures in their claims, speeches, and policies.
The ruling party has impliedly denied the demands of its opposition to establish zones of consensus and are at their peak of selectively scrutinizing the minority communities in the façade of their socio-economic development. The party has also not shied away from handing out religiously motivated promises during its election campaign, including the promise for greater punishment against cow slaughter in Haryana. The judiciary is also not immune to this saffron patronage of the ruling party. For example, in Himachal Pradesh, the High Court was compelled to direct the government to issue a nationwide ban on cow slaughtering[18]. While the beef-eating states of the country have vehemently opposed this, it has far-reaching consequences on the $10 billion leather, and meat production industries and the Muslims engaged in them.
As is accepted by most of the BJP followers, with the historic win of Yogi in Uttar Pradesh, he possesses similar political clout as Modi. Apart from his charisma as India’s most populated state leader, Yogi is famous for his anti-Muslimism rhetoric. Even though he was jailed for 11 days in 2007 for a religiously charged statement-
“If they (Muslims) kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”[19]
there is no change in his attitude, and he continues with his communal statements. The instances where Yogi mixes religion into politics run in almost all of his speeches. Even though he does not directly address them, he makes it evident with words such as Abbajaan, harassing Muslim men in the name of Love Jihad,[20] beating up those who opposed the Citizenship Amendment Act[21], and now using the slogan of Ghar Waapsi.[22]
The worst sufferers of such a façade of secularism are the minority communities who have been dehumanised and isolated by the Hindutva regiment. The government also has very little room for criticism, doubting their commitment to the country anytime they raise their voice against the majoritarian government.
In a country with over 96 crore Hindus[23], wherein 64% of them believe that being a Hindu is essential to being an Indian[24], the association of religion in politics becomes dangerous, if not anything else. When religion is mixed with politics, the future of India’s religious pluralism and diversity hangs in the balance. While the entire country mourns the division in 1947 and the lives it claimed, the current political trend seems to reinforce the idea of there being two distinct communities constituting two separate nations. Marked by the Supreme Court in several judgments[25], the secular character of India forms its essence. This is also reflected in the Model Code of Conduct for the Elections[26], prescribed by the autonomous Election Commission.
Thus, it is apparent that religion plays an essential role in politics, and the two can hardly be separated. In the Lok Sabha, almost 40% of the leaders[27] are associated with a particular god or goddess. And the religious leaders also yield considerable influence over the country’s political setup. In a country with almost everybody being persons of faith, it is only unimaginable for the power-politics of the country to stay aloof. This is also evident from the nature of leaders such as L.K. Advani, who proudly said-
“separating religion from politics would distance politics from ethics and morality.”[28]
However, the morality behind such statements also remains in question. Another paradox about the Indian polity is that the leaders continue to carry out acts that threaten secularism by stating secular purposes. The pseudo-reality of Acche Din, as promised by the Prime Minister, can be achieved only when such religiously charged acts are excluded from the sphere of Politics.
Prior to the development of society, religious norms used to dictate the laws of the land and intrude into the private spheres of one’s life, but with the development of humans, and the secularisation of polity, this was undone. However, not every sphere of life was dictated by legislated works; culture and religious scriptures continued to dictate private life. Over time, and ironically with the development of Indian politics, this personal life became the campaigning sector of political parties.
In present times, it would be utopian to imagine political speeches and activities devoid of religious remarks and motivation. However, it would only be ideal to achieve such a situation. 
In present times, the inflammatory remarks passed by the current government exceed mere rhetoric but amount to hate speeches attacking the Muslim identity. The Hindutva approach taken by BJP has managed to alienate the minorities and one-fourth of the Hindu community, which does not resonate with such a fundamentalist stance. While one cannot argue against the charismatic position that the current leader holds in the country, and the plethora of progressive reforms that he could unveil, his continued association with religious hard-liners makes it very difficult for India, as a whole, to trust his decisions, without looking at it through the lens of suspicion.
Primary Sources
Statutes and Rules-
  1. The Constitution (Forty Second Amendment) Act, 1976
  2. Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates, General Conduct
  3. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019
Case Laws-
  1. Mohd. Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum, 1985 AIR 945
  2. Namah v. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) No(s). 422/2020
  3. Kesavananda Bharati v. the State of Kerala, Writ Petition (civil) 135 of 1970
Government Census-
  1. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, 2011 Census Data, All India Religion Census Data
Secondary Sources
Articles and Journals [Last accessed on 3rd April 2022]-
  1. Milan Vaishnav, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017
  2. John P. Burgess, The role of Religion in Russia’s war on Ukraine, 8th March 2022, Available here
  3. SARAH PROSSER, Taliban Dogma, and Power: Looking for the Sources, Available here
  4. Pritam Singh, Institutional Communalism in India, 28 Economic and Political Weekly (11th June 2015). Available here.
  5. Shweta Chopra, Why ‘Bharat,’ ‘India’ And ‘Hindustan’ Evoke Different Emotions, Youth ki Awaaz, 24th May 2017, Available here.
  6. Hinduism: The Struggle for Independence, Britannica, Available here
  7. Krishna Roy, Indian Secularism – Distinctive Ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru, page 41, Available here.
  8. IANS, Unlocking of Babri Masjid was a ‘balancing act’ post-Shah Bano case, Business standard 6th August 2019, Available here.
  9. Shashi Tharoor, Veer Savarkar: The man credited with creating Hindutva didn’t want it restricted to Hindus, The Print 26th February 2018, Available here
  10. Smriti Kak Ramachandran, BJP’s UP playbook takes religious tone to counter caste divide, Hindustan Times, 3rd January 2022, Available here. [Last accessed on 1st April 2022]
  11. Heewon Kim, Understanding Modi, and Minorities: the BJP-led NDA Government in India and Religious Minorities, University of London. Available here.
  12. AFP, Yogi Adityanath — India’s anti-Muslim priest and possible future PM, Dawn, 8th February 2022, Available here.
  13. Apoorva Anand, India’s ‘love jihad’ laws: Another attempt to subjugate Muslims, Aljazeera 15th January 2021. Available here.
  14. Elizabeth Seshadri, CAA and the Devaluation of Secular India, The Hindu Centre, 12th February 2020, Available here.
  15. Alok Pandey, To Fight Radicalisation, Adityanath Government Has A Plan: Ghar Wapsi, NDTV, 27th April 2017. Available here.
  16. David O’Reilly, Exploring Religion and Identity Politics in India, PEW 3rd March 2022, Available here.
  17. Krishna K. Tummala, Religion and Politics in India, Asian Journal of Political Science (Vol. 1 No. 2 1993) Available here.
  18. Dhirendra K. Jha, Yogi effect: RSS men convert 43 Muslims in Uttar Pradesh to Hinduism, Scroll 23rd May 2017, Available here.
  19. Geeta Pandey, Uttar Pradesh elections: ‘We Muslims are treated like the sacrificial goat,’ BBC 1st March, Available here.
  20. Madeeha Fatima, 100+ Instances of Hate Speech, Religious Polarisation, Hindutva Supremacy in Adityanath’s Poll Speeches, The Wire 3rd March 2022, Available here.
  1. Raghavan Iyer, The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi: Civilization, Politics, and Religion, Vol. 1 (1986)
  2. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Decolonization in South Asia: Meanings of Freedom in Post-independence West Bengal (2009)
  3. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, (Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher, 1884)