Hindu Nationalism, Human Rights and COVID-19

This article is a contribution from Amit Singh, a visiting researcher at Lund University’s Department of Political Science. Views expressed in this article are the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UPF Lund and The Perspective.

In the 2020 Human Freedom Index, which ranks civil, economic and personal freedom, India was ranked 111th. Another report by Economic intelligence Unit’s Democracy index highlighted “the democratic regression” and “an erosion of civil liberties” currently ongoing in India, which is reflected in human rights violations against the Muslim minorities, human rights activist, journalist, academics, and NGO workers. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in India has exacerbated this human rights crisis. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an organised governmental chaos during the pandemic in India has led to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. This article explores how Hindu nationalists’ government under the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is accountable for grave human rights abuses, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism is an ethnic form of nationalism. It is radically far-right, hierarchical, authoritarian and based on the idea of Hindu supremacy. Hindu nationalism seeks uniformity through the imposition of Hindi language, Hindu religion, Hindu mythology, and unquestioned loyalty to the nation. On different levels, it seeks to repress dissenting views, expunging discourses of religious pluralism and secularism from the political discourse. Hindu nationalism is a dangerous cocktail of religion and politics; it supports the discriminatory Caste system, negates racial and religious equality, and disregards the discourse of human rights. Since 1925, RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has been India’s most staunch proponent of Hindu nationalism. RSS is a parental organisation of the current ruling party of India, BJP (Bhartiya Janta Party). Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a full time RSS worker in the past, notorious for his complicity in the Godhra communal riots when he was the chief minister of the Gujarat state in 2002. 

Riots and community clashes in Shimoga March 1, 2010 (Photo by: Nishanth Jois/Wikimedia Commons)

The goal of the current Hindu nationalist government seems to be to make India a Hindu nation. A national narrative of hatred, pride, and anger are being employed in the construction of their socio-political theme which have shaped the current political discourse in India. However, it should be noted that in 1947, under the Congress party, the Indian State adopted a secular democracy, particularly to avoid multicultural conflicts. The Indian Constitution guarantees religious freedom and mandates the government to treat all religions equally. Article 25 guarantees freedom of religion to all persons in India including the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion, and Article 19 of India’s constitution guarantees the right “to freedom of speech and expression”. 

Human rights situation

After Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India in 2014 – we see the aggressive manifestations of Hindu nationalism against Muslim minorities, activists, academics and journalists. Mob lynching of Muslims is normalised and supported by the government’s leaders. Cow vigilantism , love jihad and numerous communal riots under the Modi regime, are very much part of Hindu nationalism. Meanwhile, the rewriting of history books, erasing the chapters on secularism, democracy, and social movements, represent a sinister method of the Hindu nationalist government to suppress and manipulate the facts of Indian history. 

Rioters in Delhi (Photo by: Scroll news paper/Wikimedia Commons)

In its effort to make India a Hindu dominated state, the BJP leadership introduced a series of policies, such as stripping Jammu and Kashmir of their special status, and securing the Babri mosque site for a Hindu temple. A move to pass a Uniform Civil Code, and an amendment in the Citizenship Act (CAA) are an example of this. The amendment in the CAA has been widely criticised as “fundamentally discriminatory” against India’s 200 million Muslims. The purpose of the amendment is the delegitimisation of Muslim citizenship. Protestors are labelled as anti-nationals, Urban Naxals, “jihadis”, and “psecs” (pseudo secularists) by BJP leaders. 

Human Rights Watch, in 2019, reported various cases of harassment of human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists for criticising authorities and, draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws were used to suppress free expression. The Criminalization of peaceful expression is becoming a legal norm in Modi’s India. The advent of COVID-19 presented an opportune moment for the Modi government to suppress the dissent while hundreds of thousands of people have died due to his apathy and mismanagement of the pandemic.  

Unfolding crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic

In a sudden announcement on March 24th 2020, Narendra Modi’s government gave just four hours notice to its people before imposing one of the most brutal lockdowns in the world, due to which hundreds of poor inter-state migrant workers died. In the months of May and June 2020, Indian roads, streets, and railway tracks were dotted by the dead bodies of poor inter-state migrant’s workers who passed away due to exhaustion, starvation, heatstroke, road accidents, etc., as they desperately tried to reach their homes after two months of lockdown. Most inter-state migrant workers have been rendered jobless ever since the nationwide lockdown. Modi’s government never apologized or compensated them or their families. Interestingly, Muslim minorities were initially blamed by the government for intentionally spreading Corona virus in India; this theory is known as Corona-jihad

However, not only Muslims and poor migrant workers have suffered due to the Modi government’s policy to ignore the human rights of vulnerable and marginalized populations. Many journalists, who have criticized the mis-handling of the COVID-19 government’s policy, were harassed, detained and arrested.  The National Union of Journalists in India, and the Editors Guild of India have shown their concern on the “growing pattern of misuse of criminal laws to intimidate journalists” in parts of the country. The government has used the pandemic as a pretest to silence the critique. As of the writing of this article in June 2021, this pattern continues. 

In the month of October, 2020, COVID-19 cases were low and declining. However, the Indian government was well informed about the impending third wave of the COVID-19 before time, but Modi ignored earlier warnings. At Davos, in January 2021, Modi declared his victory against COVID-19 and hastily took the credit to ‘save the entire humanity’. Nevertheless, we currently see a human rights and health crisis unfolding. International media has blamed the Modi government for massacring the data. Modi has been accused of ignoring scientific warnings to participate in election rallies and allowing a massive Hindu festival to go ahead in northern India. 

More than 300,000 daily infections and nearly 3,000 deaths for the past several days have been reported, but experts say the true number of fatalities is several times higher from what is being reported by government officials. People were dying in such large numbers that crematoriums were out of wood; in some places like Varanasi, the waiting period to cremate bodies was eight to twelve hours long. Playgrounds and parking lots in the capital, New Delhi, had been converted into mass cremation grounds.

Thousands of Indian citizens lost their lives due to the negligence of their government, a government that hardly cared to spend on vaccines, oxygen cylinders, or hospital beds. Rather, they built an expensive statute, stadium, and luxury house for its prime minister. Instead of taking swift action, Modi’s government was busy hiding the COVID-19 death tolls and those citizens asking for help on social media for oxygen cylinders and hospital beds.  

International response

It was not long ago that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was shunned by Western governments, the USA denied him a visa, and the EU cold-shouldered him due to his complicity in the Godhra massacres. However, when he became Prime Minister of India, he was welcomed with open arms in the EU. The European Parliament is also dragging its feet to pass a pending resolution criticizing India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and its lockdown in Kashmir. Currently the EU is India’s key partner for the strategic relationship for the future.

President Trump and India’s Prime Minister Modi in a bilateral meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, 2019 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Growing solidarity between nationalist European leaders and the far-right Hindu nationalists government in India, must be seen as an issue of global concern. When big international powers are aligned to support a human rights preparator and his authoritarian regime, the human rights communities of the world need to stand up for the citizens who are seriously under the threat from their government. 

Amit Singh 


This article was updated on 21 September 2021 to rectify a spelling error. “Gujrat state” was changed to reflect the true name of the state, “Gujarat state”.

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