By Gwynne Dyer
We’re not surprised when religious zealots in the American heartland ban the teaching of evolution in the local school, but why would the Indian government do the same thing?
The National Council of Educational Research and Training, which develops the Indian school curriculum, also dropped the periodic table from the textbooks (so much for chemistry), and cut the chapters on democracy and diversity, political parties, and challenges to democracy.
Why would the Indian government want Indian students to be ignorant about science, democratic politics, and respect for diversity? Because the party that Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads, the BJP (Indian People’s Party), wants to change India from a secular democracy to a Hindu nationalist state where the religious minorities are second-class citizens.
That might seem easy, since 80 percent of Indians are Hindu and the minorities are divided: mostly Muslims, but also Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains. However, India has been a fully functional democracy for 76 years, and a lot of people (including many Hindus) want it to stay that way.
Turning India into a ‘soft’ dictatorship (like Turkey or Hungary) where the ruling party controls the media and the courts and always wins ‘free’ elections will not be easy. That’s why Modi, who honed his anti-Muslim tactics in his home state of Gujarat, waited a full term before he went full Hindutva at the national level.
‘Hindutva’ (‘Hindu-ness’) has been variously described as “cultural hegemony”, “ethnic absolutism”, and “almost fascist in the classical sense”. In Modi’s hands, it has been a political strategy that builds support for the BJP by demonising Muslims and encouraging attacks against them.
Once Modi won a second term in 2019, he immediately ended the special status Kashmir had enjoyed since independence as India’s only Muslim-majority state. It’s now essentially occupied territory (one Indian army soldier for every seven inhabitants).
Then he announced a new ‘National Register of Citizens’ that would in effect deprive many Muslims of their Indian citizenship. Indian courts in Modi-friendly states are banning documentaries that show the BJP’s complicity in anti-Muslim pogroms.
Bit by bit, the BJP is chipping away at the whole edifice of rights and rules that makes India a flawed but genuine democracy. Even the petty things, like expunging evolution from the school syllabus, serve this purpose.
“There is a movement away from rational thinking, against the enlightenment and Western ideas” in India, says historian Sucheta Mahajan of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Evolution conflicts with the Hindu creation stories that play a big part in BJP propaganda.
This is not to say that Gujarat and Modi are just like Bavaria and Hitler, but there is a resonance there. That matters a lot, because by 2029 India will be the third-largest economy in the world. But the game is not over yet.
Huge numbers of Indians reject the destruction of their democracy, and they have a new weapon. Bihar state (population 126 million) is holding a caste census.
Caste is a rigid and hereditary social hierarchy peculiar to Hindus, and the BJP is led by people of the Upper Castes. However, they depend on a coalition with the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), the middle level in the system, to win majorities. (The ‘Scheduled Castes’, formerly the ‘untouchables’, know their enemy and are not interested.)
If the census reveals (as it probably would) that the Upper Castes are only a tiny minority of Hindus, the BJP’s caste coalition might collapse, so it’s desperately trying to block the census. It may fail, and so might the BJP’s entire takeover strategy.