Are We Witnessing a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ in India?

By Fakhriya M. Suleiman, MA Global Media and Postnational Communication

In 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was published. Therein, Samuel P. Huntington foresaw collective religious identity and culture as being the locus of future conflict to come.

According to Huntington, ‘Western Civilisation’ would encompass Western Europe, North America and Oceania. It would be characterised by ‘Western Christian’ religion and culture, in contrast to the ‘Muslim world of the Greater Middle East.’ The latter would encompass Northern West Africa, Albania and Bangladesh – amongst others.

Huntington also discussed what he called ‘Cleft Countries,’ nations torn, or ‘cleft,’ between two different ‘civilisations.’ In Huntington’s estimation, such countries are bound to split due to irreconcilable cultural and religious differences.

In India, a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people, approximately 80% of the population adheres to the Hindu faith. Huntington thus labelled India as comprising part of the ‘Hindu Civilisation.’ Yet 14.2% of the population, or roughly 172 million people, in India identify as Muslim – one of the largest Muslim minority communities in the world.

Under Article 14 of India’s constitution, protection of all Indian peoples from discrimination and equality before the law is enshrined. Arguably, this has been eroded by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), premiered by Narendra Modi.

Modi’s India has seen the rise of ‘Hindutva,’ described by Shashi Tharoor MP as akin to ‘the team identity of British football hooligans […] “Hindutva” acolytes [espouse] that a territory does not make a nation, a people make a nation – and the people of the Indian nation are Hindu.’

Under the BJP, India has undergone a ‘saffronisation’ of its curriculum and an Act of Parliament was passed giving recourse to only non-Muslim refugees seeking Indian citizenship.

So, are we seeing an inevitable clash, or possibly a cleft of civilisations being played out in India? Or is the story more complex?

‘Saffronisation’ refers to the BJP policies that promote its ‘Hindutva’ rhetoric. Under ‘Hindutva’, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are seen as ‘Indian religions,’ while Islam and Christianity are shunned as ‘outsider religions.’ In light of this, the ‘saffronisation’ of education in India has seen a cleanse of Islamic and Christian influences from the national curriculum. 

In 2016 Ram Shankar Katheria MP said that this was ‘beneficial’ for India. In reality, it is a great tragedy. Rewriting the nation’s history books such that Hindu experience and contributions are highlighted while that of Muslims and Christians are disregarded is exclusionary to a large cross-section of Indian society.

Modi’s government is also the first to use religion as a criterion for citizenship in India. The 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) offers a pathway for refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians who arrived in India before December 2014 to apply for citizenship. The BJP says Muslims are not eligible as they are ‘not a persecuted minority’ in the aforementioned countries.

The CAA is intrinsically linked to the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that was piloted in Assam. The NRC is an attempt to enumerate those who are bonafide citizens and who are immigrants. The NRC places the onus on the individual to provide documentation to prove they are Indian citizens. 
The CAA and NRC combined rendered many Muslims in Assam vulnerable to statelessness in instances where they did not have the documents to prove their citizenship, nor had recourse to apply for citizenship under the CAA.

While the aforementioned may appear to validate Huntington’s theory, India’s unique socio-religious landscape throws a spanner in the works. According to Indian researcher Harsh Mander ‘the Hindu faith is the only major religion which legitimises inequality [with the] caste [system].’ Dalits, or ‘untouchables’ rank the lowest in the Hindu hierarchy and, according to Meena Kandasamy, are India’s ‘most oppressed community.’ Dalits are relegated to the lowly tasks, such as manually cleaning the sewers of India – often without the necessary apparatus nor protective gear.

To escape this extreme prejudice, many Dalits have converted to Islam or Christianity. Yet, in another twist, to curb Dalits’ rights, the Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance law in the BJP’s stronghold of Uttar Pradesh means conversion cannot take place unless approved by a state official. Human rights activists have drawn attention to this law as a means by which the BJP seeks to ‘keep Dalits in their place.’

Revisiting Huntington’s 1996 thesis, the case of India spotlights the reductionist nature of his estimation, such that it was not able to account for ‘intra-civilisational’ conflict that we see between the lower caste Dalits and the wider Hindu population.

I am not necessarily convinced that what we are seeing here is a clash of civilisations. Modi has created an atmosphere where acting upon prejudices has been legitimised. Modi has capitalised on anti-Muslim and lower caste sentiments under the guise of governance. Converting such anger and peeling away societal civility in this fashion is dangerous. This sanctioning of hatred may reverse the great strides towards progress India was initially built on.

Photo caption: Aatish Taseer’s 2019 article for Time dubbed Prime Minister Modi as ‘India’s divider in chief.’ ( Credit: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

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