Table of Contents

Since the late nineteenth century, the primary source of political and societal polarization in India has been a fundamental question of nationhood: Should India be a secular country or a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation), given that roughly 80 percent of the population is Hindu?1 Although the political hegemony of the secular, pluralist Congress Party tempered polarization over this issue until the 1970s, the rising prominence of Hindu nationalist organizations in recent decades has sharply increased tensions. Divisive political leadership—coupled with India’s economic transformation, changes in the media landscape, and the rise of competitive caste politics—has steadily brought polarization to a boil.

Particularly since the landslide electoral victories of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and 2019, the consequences of severe polarization have grown ever more worrisome. Partisan attacks on India’s independent political institutions have intensified, opposition parties have become extremely wary of defending pluralism and secularism, and hatred and violence against minority communities have flared up.2 The coronavirus pandemic has eased this polarization on the surface by engendering more unifying political leadership, yet at the societal level the crisis has only amplified intolerance, particularly against India’s Muslim minority community. Although various actors have launched efforts to counter the country’s majoritarian turn and improve civic dialogue, polarization in India is more toxic today than it has been in decades, and it shows no signs of abating.

Polarization in India is more toxic today than it has been in decades, and it shows no signs of abating.


The divide between secular and Hindu nationalist visions of national identity forms the central axis of polarization in India today. This is not to ignore polarization based on differences in caste, class, language, or region; however, these cleavages are more important at the subnational level because no one group is able to predominate nationally. Polarization along these axes thus has never posed an existential threat to Indian democracy, with the exception of one major episode between 1975 and 1977 when the government of prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended basic rights for twenty-one months—a dark chapter in the country’s astounding democratic journey. The significance of other episodes of polarization notwithstanding, the divide over Hindu nationalism is seriously endangering liberal freedoms and pluralist democracy in India today.

Niranjan Sahoo
Niranjan Sahoo is a senior fellow in the Governance and Politics Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, where he anchors studies on democracy, human rights, political inclusion, federalism, and political funding. He is a member of the Carnegie Endowment’s Rising Democracies Network and holds a PhD in political science from the University of Hyderabad.

The current wave of polarization has its roots in the colonial period and the two clashing visions of the “idea of India” that emerged then.3 One strain of thinking envisioned India as a secular nation, in which membership was defined not by one’s faith but by one’s place of birth. The most important proponent of this view was Mahatma Gandhi, the principal leader of the Indian independence movement and a president of the Congress Party. Though a devout Hindu himself, Gandhi viewed the Indian nation as a harmonious collection of religious communities that deserved to be treated as equals. Other prominent Congress leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, also firmly opposed Hindu nationalism.

In sharp contrast to Gandhi and Nehru’s vision, Hindu nationalists argued that Hindu culture defined Indian identity and that minorities needed to assimilate by accepting the strictures of this majority culture. In a landmark 1923 book Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, the conservative leader and revolutionary V. D. Savarkar coined the term Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) to challenge the secular conception of Indian nationhood propounded by Gandhi and Nehru. Pro-Hindutva political activists turned Savarkar’s idea into a mass movement in 1925 by founding the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary volunteer organization dedicated to promoting Hindu nationalism. The RSS, which became the fountainhead of the Hindu nationalist movement, rallied support from a network of sister organizations known as the Sangh Parivar. The tension between these competing conceptions of Indian nationhood has continued to drive polarization in postcolonial India.


Even though divisions over Indian national identity have long festered, Hindu nationalism did not become a politically ascendant force until the late 1980s. Since then, political leadership and especially the polarizing tactics of BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2014–present) have brought polarization to a dangerous level today.

Congress Party Hegemony Tempers Polarization (1947–1977)

Although the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 escalated sectarian tensions, until the late 1970s, the hegemony of the Congress Party moderated polarization and kept Hindu nationalism from occupying center stage in national politics. Gandhi’s assassination by an associate of the RSS in 1948 made the organization very unpopular and considerably dented its polarizing appeal. The able leadership of Nehru, who served as prime minister between 1947 and 1964, further tempered polarization. As a big tent or catchall party that had united diverse groups around the struggle for Indian independence, the Congress Party initially enjoyed unquestioned political dominance, and it used its power to advance a secular, broadly inclusive vision of India.

That said, the politics of the Congress Party should not be idealized. In significant ways, its failings set the stage for the rise of Hindu nationalism. At times, the Congress practiced a form of pseudosecularism, manipulating religion when it benefited the party and using religious minorities as a vote bank rather than treating them as genuine constituencies. The party lost power for the first time in 1977 after the entire political opposition united against the autocratic maneuvers of prime minister Indira Gandhi (1966–1977, 1980–1984).

Rising Polarization and a Rising Hindu Right (1977–2014)

Between 1977 and 2014, divisions over Indian national identity became increasingly prominent with the formation of the right-wing, Hindu nationalist BJP in 1980 and the success of conservative civil society in mobilizing Hindu nationalist sentiment.

The decisive episode catapulting the Hindu right to national prominence was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, in which the RSS and the Sangh Parivar campaigned to construct a temple to the Hindu deity Ram on the site of a mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, in the city of Ayodhya. Built on the site of a demolished Hindu temple, the mosque had an incendiary history, and in 1989, the RSS launched a national movement demanding that the original Hindu temple be restored. The BJP actively endorsed this campaign and benefited greatly from Hindu nationalist mobilization in the 1989 and 1991 elections. Crucially, the BJP also won greater support from upper-caste Hindus by opposing the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which sought to redress centuries of caste-based discrimination by reserving a certain percentage of positions in the civil service and higher education for individuals from intermediary castes.4

Polarization reached a breaking point in 1992 when Hindu activists violently destroyed the Babri Masjid, leading to bloody communal riots that left more than 2,000 people dead.5 This episode temporarily turned the BJP into a pariah, and the party realized that it would need to tone down its inflammatory rhetoric to win political power. Subsequently, the BJP adopted a deft strategy of moderating Hindutva and mixing it with promises of economic development. This approach allowed the party to gain support from coalition partners and run the first non-Congress coalition to complete a full five-year term between 1999 and 2004. During this period, however, polarization remained in check because the BJP depended on its coalition partners and could not advance its most contentious proposals.

The Rise of Modi and the Revival of Hindutva (2014–present)

Since 2014, Modi’s polarizing leadership and the BJP’s stunning electoral success under his watch have escalated tensions dramatically.

After losing to the Congress Party in the 2004 and 2009 general elections, the BJP staged an astonishing comeback in 2014, securing a majority of seats on its own in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the national parliament). The real game changer was the rise of Modi, who skillfully combined promises of economic growth with Hindu nationalist appeals. A three-time chief minister in the state of Gujarat, Modi had a reputation for delivering growth and good governance that gave him broad appeal with Indian voters. Yet the single biggest factor explaining the BJP’s phenomenal performance was sharp polarization over the issue of Hindu nationalism.6 Modi was a deeply divisive figure owing to his strong stance on Hindutva and his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 people—the vast majority of whom were Muslim—lost their lives.7 His image as an unapologetic Hindu nationalist, whose followers fondly address him as Hindu Hriday Samrat, or “ruler of Hindu hearts,” greatly added to the BJP’s spectacular success at the ballot box.

Since 2014, Modi’s polarizing leadership and the BJP’s stunning electoral success under his watch have escalated tensions dramatically.

After the BJP’s historic victory in 2014, ethnonationalism gained greater traction as a core component of the party’s platform. Some BJP members even called for amending the constitution to redefine India as a Hindu nation. And the Modi government began advancing its vision of India by stocking key cultural and educational institutions with party sympathizers, taking a leaf from the Congress Party’s book. However, in its efforts to establish ideological dominance, Modi’s BJP has differed from Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party in a crucial respect: The former has been able to marshal both state and nonstate power. The support of Hindu nationalist social organizations has helped lay the groundwork for a unique brand of ideological hegemony under Modi’s watch.

In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, in which the BJP again won an outright majority in the Lok Sabha, the country witnessed an unprecedented level of polarization. The ruling party rekindled sociopolitical divisions by announcing its intention to build a Hindu temple on the site of the demolished mosque in Ayodhya. Furthermore, Modi turned the election into a referendum on his leadership and relentlessly polarized the electorate for political gain, even accusing the opposition of treason for being insufficiently tough toward Pakistan.

Although many commentators assumed that the BJP would step back from polarizing issues after winning reelection and focus on economic challenges, their expectations have been proven wrong. Emboldened by its victory, the government has adopted numerous Hindu nationalist policies that have inflamed polarization. In August 2019, just days after beginning its new term in office, the Modi government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which guaranteed special autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.8 Additionally, the ruling party passed legislation to criminalize the long-standing Muslim practice of instant divorce, a move that opponents criticized as targeting Muslims because India’s constitution allows Muslim personal law to govern matters of marriage and divorce.

The Modi government’s most polarizing decision, however, was the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019. The law—which grants religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan a speedier path to Indian citizenship but excludes Muslims—sparked nationwide protests. The passage of the CAA has led many Indians to fear that the BJP has seriously eroded the country’s constitutional principles of equality and secularism. This legislation was particularly alarming because the Modi government has also announced its desire to compile a nationwide register of citizens, which would require all Indians to produce evidence of their citizenship. Muslims who are unable to produce the necessary documentation would be deemed foreigners, and under the CAA they would be denied a path to citizenship.9 Such policies have put India’s very identity at stake and sharply intensified polarization.

The Pandemic, Political Leadership, and Societal Polarization

The coronavirus pandemic has had complex ramifications for polarization in India, alleviating the problem of divisive leadership while also fueling societal tensions.10 Notably, the crisis has caused Modi to tone down his polarizing rhetoric. During the pandemic, he has sought to cultivate a feeling of “collective resolve and solidarity” by, for instance, asking all Indians to clap together in support of essential workers or to light candles at a designated time.11 Furthermore, a majority of Indians have enthusiastically embraced Modi’s signature policy initiative, a nationwide lockdown, despite issues with its implementation. Likely as a result of the crisis and his skillful public outreach, Modi’s net approval rating rose to 68 percent in mid-April 2020, up from 62 percent at the beginning of the year.12 By this token, polarization has at least somewhat receded.

At the societal level, however, the pandemic has stoked Islamophobia and aggravated religious divides that have been deepening since Modi took office. The catalyst for rapidly growing anti-Muslim sentiment was a coronavirus outbreak connected to a single event organized in mid-March by an Islamic missionary movement called Tablighi Jamaat. When public health authorities identified the event as a hot spot of infections, Islamophobic voices on social media seized the opportunity to promote conspiracy theories that Muslims were intentionally spreading the disease, and “CoronaJihad” became the top trending hashtag on Twitter for days, appearing almost 300,000 times in less than a week.13

Tragically, this outpouring of hateful rhetoric has translated into an increase in anti-Muslim discrimination and sporadic violence in some parts of India.14 The concerted vilification and stigmatization of Tablighi Jamaat’s members also resulted in resistance to quarantine measures and a series of violent attacks on healthcare workers, complicating India’s efforts to contain the pandemic. Despite Modi’s appeals for unity, which have emphasized that the virus “doesn’t see religion, language, or borders,” his words largely have proved inadequate to stem the rising intercommunal discord.15


Three crucial drivers of increasing polarization have been India’s ongoing economic transformation, changes in traditional and social media, and the rise of competitive caste politics. Hindu nationalist organizations have been able to harness the power of each of these drivers in ways that their opponents have found difficult to match.

Economic Transformation

India’s economic transformation over the past three decades is the least debated driver of today’s polarization. Starting in 1991, a Congress-led government pursued a program of economic liberalization that reshaped the Indian economy, accelerating urbanization and creating a sizable middle class. Paradoxically, however, the Congress Party’s reforms proved a huge boon for the identity politics of the BJP, as urban voters tend to be more rather than less supportive of Hindu nationalist narratives.16 As Christophe Jaffrelot argues, “Urbanization has transformed Hinduism more than any other development. In the village you live together. You can’t miss the muezzin or the bells of the temple and you have syncretic (mixed) cults. . . . When you go to the city that’s over.”17 Remarkably, even as the BJP has tapped into this new urban middle class, under Modi’s leadership it has also been able to win over voters whom liberalization has left behind. The economic inequalities created after 1991 thus have allowed the BJP to build a coalition of odd bedfellows.

Traditional and Social Media

Changes in the media landscape have also fanned the flames of polarization, particularly in the past decade. In the realm of traditional media, biased or partisan-leaning outlets have become increasingly influential, at the expense of nonpartisan news sources. Changes in media ownership likely have played a role in this transformation, as more and more Indian media outlets have been acquired by business houses (corporate conglomerates generally run by prominent Indian families).18 In this changing media ecosystem, profit-driven organizations openly support particular parties and sensationalize minor issues to create false binaries or divisions.

Compounding these effects, social media has accelerated the pace at which misinformation and propaganda spread. WhatsApp, in particular, has emerged as a favored tool for disseminating misinformation to foment intercommunal discord. Furthermore, the BJP has acted quickly and skillfully to exploit social media to promote its majoritarian message. In the 2019 elections, for instance, the ruling party outspent the opposition Congress on social media advertising by more than a factor of fifteen, and Modi has largely bypassed traditional media outlets by using Facebook and Twitter.19

Caste Politics

The increasing importance of caste-based parties, especially the rapid rise of intermediary caste groups or Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the Hindi heartland, has been a similarly crucial factor fueling polarization and the rise of the Hindu right. As OBC parties began to win a larger share of the vote in the 1980s and 1990s, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar doubled down on religious polarization, mainly by stoking tensions over the Babri Masjid. This strategy has allowed the BJP to separate Hindu Dalits, the class of Indians at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, and lower OBCs from dominant OBC groups within the caste-based parties.20 The BJP thus was able to win over Hindus who might otherwise have voted along caste lines. Recent data from the 2014 and 2019 elections suggest that the party’s deft use of Hindu nationalism played a key role in blunting caste divisions and securing landslide victories for the BJP.21


The negative effects of India’s deepening polarization have been far-reaching and diverse, touching almost every aspect of the nation’s political and social life.

Increasing Intolerance and Violence

India’s toxic political discourse, in which leaders frequently demonize their opponents and minority groups, has fueled a disturbing rise in intolerance and violence. In recent years, vigilante groups and majoritarian mobs have increasingly attacked minorities, activists, and human rights defenders, often with impunity. Notably, the number of hate crimes against Muslims related to the issue of cow slaughter (a transgression in the Hindu faith) has risen sharply since the BJP assumed power in 2014.22 Violence against Dalits has also increased dramatically over the past several years.23 Political elites have often abetted such violence, with one minister in Modi’s cabinet giving honorific garlands to vigilantes convicted for lynching a Muslim cattle trader.24 And, alarmingly, after senior BJP officials denounced anti-CAA protesters as traitors and Pakistani agents, sectarian violence erupted in India’s capital in late February 2020; the bloodshed left more than fifty people dead, most of them Muslims.25

India’s toxic political discourse, in which leaders frequently demonize their opponents and minority groups, has fueled a disturbing rise in intolerance and violence.

Political Marginalization of Minorities

Yet another consequence of rising polarization is the marginalization of minority groups in political life. Indian Muslims have been underrepresented in parliament since independence.26 Structural factors, such as India’s electoral rules and the spatial distribution of Muslims across the country, have contributed to this problem.27 However, the marginalization of the Muslim community has become more overt since 2014 because the major political parties have shied away from representing Muslims’ concerns and including their perspectives through informal mechanisms.28 Notably, Muslims also have minimal representation in the ruling BJP: Of the party’s 303 members elected to the Lok Sabha in the 2019 general elections, none are Muslim.29

Increasing Prominence of Identity Politics

The resounding electoral success of the BJP’s overt Hindu nationalism has pushed the Congress and other opposition parties to embrace a soft form of Hindutva. For instance, ahead of the 2019 elections, Rahul Gandhi, the former president of the Congress Party, made frequent visits to Hindu temples to woo Hindu nationalist voters. More seriously, major parties have become wary of defending religious minorities, particularly Muslims, and at times they have refrained from speaking out against hate crimes. The February 2020 local legislative elections in Delhi vividly demonstrated how thoroughly the Hindu right has set the terms of political competition. Though the regional party in power won a resounding victory over the BJP, it did so by adopting a softer version of Hindu nationalism. Thus, even in defeat, the BJP has pushed opposition parties closer to its majoritarian position on identity issues and left few defenders of pluralism remaining.

Politicization of National Security

India’s polarized politics have not spared matters vital to national security. Both parties have sought to score political points by attacking one another over issues ranging from the purchase of French-made fighter jets to “surgical strikes” (to use the government’s preferred phrasing) against Pakistan-based terrorist camps. Importantly, national security matters are discussed in hyper-nationalistic rhetorical terms. For instance, the BJP and the Congress Party respectively wield terms like “jihadi terror” and “Hindu terror” to try to cast their opponents in the worst light possible.30 Most notably, the February 2019 Pulwama terrorist attack in Kashmir, in which an Islamist suicide bomber killed forty Indian paramilitary police and precipitated a tense standoff with Pakistan, fueled bitter partisan polarization ahead of India’s national elections.31 Modi and the BJP accused the opposition of treasonously supporting Pakistan, while the opposition denounced the BJP for opportunistically politicizing the crisis.

Attacks on Independent Institutions

In this polarized political slugfest, India’s independent institutions have suffered dearly. As the Indian economy has weakened, the government has placed increasing pressure on the Reserve Bank of India. In December 2018, the bank’s governor resigned in what many observers viewed as an act of protest. White-hot polarization has also exposed the frailties of Indian institutions tasked with safeguarding accountability. The Modi government has largely ignored the Lokpal, an anticorruption ombudsman body established in 2019; further undermined the corruption investigation efforts of the Central Bureau of Investigation; and eroded the Central Information Commission, which regulates India’s Right to Information Act. The Supreme Court, too, has come under heavy partisan attack—a trend that began under Indira Gandhi in the 1970s. During Modi’s tenure, the opposition has launched a politically motivated impeachment motion against the chief justice, and the BJP has attempted to pack the higher judiciary. Perhaps most concerning, however, have been the shrill, baseless attacks on the reputation of India’s Election Commission. In recent years, politicians from various parties have sowed doubts about the validity of election results.32

Remedial Actions

Initiatives to address the causes and consequences of polarization in India can be roughly divided into two categories: those that seek to counter majoritarian politics and those that aim to improve civic dialogue.

Countering Majoritarian Politics

Both political parties and the higher judiciary are key actors resisting India’s turn toward majoritarianism. First, political parties, including not only the main opposition but also many regional parties, have begun to form electoral alliances to contain the BJP. Alarmed by the BJP’s victory in 2014, various opposition parties united to field joint candidates in 2018 by-elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh. These candidates won decisively, depriving the BJP of three seats it had held in the Lok Sabha. In the 2019 general elections, opposition parties again built coalitions at both the state and national levels, though these efforts failed to prevent the BJP from decisively winning reelection. Despite this defeat, the opposition has continued to form alliances, and paradoxically the BJP’s electoral success may facilitate this process by pushing more opposition parties to band together in order to survive. In November 2019, the BJP’s oldest ally, the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena, forged an unlikely alliance with the Congress to form a government in the state of Maharashtra and secure the position of chief minister for itself.

Both political parties and the higher judiciary are key actors resisting India’s turn toward majoritarianism.

Another development that may check the BJP’s majoritarian politics is the opposition’s control of state governments. Although the BJP won a landslide victory in the 2019 national elections, it has lost power in six states in the past two years, including in several key heartland states. The BJP controls just 42 percent of the country’s population at the state level, and anti-BJP governments are now in power in twelve of India’s twenty-eight states.33 Most of these states have passed resolutions against the new citizenship law—an indication that federalism may restrain the Modi government.

Second, India’s Supreme Court has actively resisted majoritarianism and the politics of polarization. In 2018, the court created a special bench to monitor hate crimes, especially incidents of mob lynching, and it asked the parliament to enact legislation addressing this issue. On numerous occasions, the court has called on the ruling party to desist from majoritarianism and hate mongering. And in a rare show of defiance, four senior judges on the court held a press conference in 2018 to speak out in defense of the institution’s independence.34

While India’s top court has thus mitigated some consequences of majoritarian politics, many fear that, in the wake of the 2019 elections, it may no longer be as willing to stand up to the Hindu right. In November 2019, for instance, the court ruled that the site of the demolished mosque in Ayodhya rightfully belonged to Hindus, a decision that undermined legal equality between India’s faiths. Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s slow responses to two major recent events—the lockdown of Jammu and Kashmir and the widespread misuse of sedition laws and violence by police to curb anti-CAA protests—have significantly eroded public faith in the judiciary as a check on a strong executive.

Improving Civic Dialogue

Other efforts to reduce polarization have focused on countering the divisiveness of political discourse. To begin with, both political and nonpolitical actors have begun to regulate social media and address the role it plays in spreading misinformation and fomenting violence, complex though this issue is in a democracy. In December 2018, in response to pressure from the country’s highest court and civil society, the government proposed a series of guidelines to counter fake news and prevent the misuse of social media platforms.35 Companies such as Facebook and WhatsApp have also responded by regulating and monitoring content on their platforms, particularly by disabling bulk messaging to prevent the mass distribution of fake or incendiary messages.

Furthermore, various elements of Indian civil society—including academics, activists, artists, and journalists—have used public demonstrations to raise consciousness about growing intolerance. Since 2015, writers have publicly surrendered awards on numerous occasions to protest attacks on the freedom of expression, while press associations have held candlelight vigils to call attention to hate crimes and violations of press freedom. Until the coronavirus made it difficult to stage protests, people across India demonstrated against the new citizenship law for several months despite violent police attacks, demonization by rightwing politicians, and the imposition of sedition laws.

These protests, which included the protests in the Shaheen Bagh neighborhood of Delhi, attracted impressive participation from youth, women, and people of all faiths, including the majority Hindu community. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims rose together in solidarity against the new citizenship law, embracing symbols like Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalit icon B. R. Ambedkar, and the country’s constitution. Although the BJP-led government has shown no signs of withdrawing or amending the citizenship law, the countrywide protests and open resistance from opposition-controlled state governments have forced the ruling party to retract its promise to roll out a nationwide citizenship verification process. These developments show the resilience of Indian civil society in resisting polarizing events, yet a long battle for the soul of the country still awaits.

Finally, activists and civil society organizations have sought to address religious divisions by promoting interfaith dialogues. In recent years, regular interfaith dialogues have proven useful in checking communal riots in several Indian cities, such as Hyderabad and Mumbai. The notable success of such dialogues may be attributed to their ability to draw upon local religious narratives. For instance, in Varanasi and other diverse cities, activists have invoked the much-discussed metaphor of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (Ganges-Yamuna culture), which calls to mind the image of two rivers flowing together to suggest the possibility of harmony between Hindus and Muslims. Yet another asset supporting dialogue is the syncretic nature of the Hindu religion, which has historically accepted and incorporated practices from other traditions.

The politics of polarization are keeping India in a permanent state of turmoil, inflaming societal divisions, and straining democratic institutions. With the exception of the National Emergency from 1975 to 1977, Indian democracy has never seemed as fragile as it does today. The main hope for positive change comes from India’s resilient society, which has rejected threats to democracy in the past. In addition, the country’s diversity, multicultural roots, and strong culture of interfaith dialogue, as well as divisions within the Hindu religion, may act as checks against majoritarianism. Yet time may be running out for India and its democracy, and the BJP’s increasing majoritarianism since the 2019 elections offers a dire warning. With polarization now reaching alarming heights, Indian democracy may have entered uncharted territory.


1 Census Organization of India, “Religion Census 2011,”

2 On rising Islamophobia in India, see Jayshree Bajoria, “CoronaJihad Is Only the Latest Manifestation: Islamophobia in India Has Been Years in the Making,” Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2020,

3 Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998).

4 The Janata coalition government, which defeated then prime minister Indira Gandhi in the 1977 elections, established the Mandal Commission in 1979 to study and recommend measures to address the situation of economically and educationally disadvantaged castes (referred to as Other Backward Classes or OBCs). The commission’s recommendation of establishing quotas (or reservations) for OBCs in the civil service and higher education led to violent riots by the upper castes across India in the 1990s.

5 “25 Years of Babri Masjid Demolition: How It All Began,” Economic Times, December 6, 2017,

6 Pranav Gupta and Dishil Shrimankar, “How Nationalism Helped the BJP,” Seminar 720 (2019): 38–43.

7 Ashutosh Varshney, “Understanding Gujarat Violence,” Items and Issues 4, no. 1 (Winter 2002–2003): 1–5.

8 Muslims also form the majority of the population in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep.

9 “Narendra Modi’s Sectarianism Is Eroding India’s Secular Democracy,” Economist, January 23, 2020,

10 For a more detailed analysis of how the pandemic has affected polarization in India, from which this chapter draws, see Niranjan Sahoo, “India: Infections, Islamophobia, and Intensifying Societal Polarization,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 28, 2020,

11 “Millions of Indians Respond to PM’s Appeal; Light Candles, Diyas, Turn on Mobile Phone Torches,” Economic Times, April 5, 2020,

12 Vivek Dubey, “Coronavirus Outbreak: PM Modi’s Approval Ratings Highest Among World Leaders, FM Sitharaman Tweets Survey,” Business Today, April 22, 2020,

13 Billy Perrigo, “It Was Already Dangerous to Be Muslim in India. Then Came the Coronavirus,” Time, April 3, 2020,

14 Jeffrey Gettleman, Kai Schultz, and Suhasini Raj, “In India, Coronavirus Fans Religious Hatred,” New York Times, April 12, 2020,

15 “‘COVID-19 Doesn’t See Religion, Language or Borders’: PM Modi Calls for Unity and Brotherhood Amid Outbreak,” Times Now News, April 19, 2020,

16 On the intersection of economic policy and identity politics, see Priya Chacko, “Marketizing Hindutva: The State, Society, and Markets in Hindu Nationalism,” Modern Asian Studies 53, no. 2 (2019): 377–410.

17 Kalpesh Damor and Vinay Umarji, “New Middle Class Supports the BJP More Than Cong: Christophe Jaffrelot,” Business Standard, April 20, 2014,

18 “Building India Inc,” Economist, October 22, 2011,

19 Vidhi Choudhary, “BJP Outspends Congress, Others in Social Media Advertising,” Hindustan Times, May 3, 2019,

20 Christophe Jaffrelot ed., Hindu Nationalism: A Reader (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007).

21 Shreyas Sardesai and Vibha Attri, “Post-Poll Survey: The 2019 Verdict Is a Manifestation of the Deepening Religious Divide in India,” Hindu, May 30, 2019,

22 Data have been collected since 2010. See Alison Saldanha, “2017 Deadliest Year for Cow-Related Hate Crime Since 2010, 86% of Those Killed Muslim,” IndiaSpend, December 8, 2017, See also Human Rights Watch, “Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities,” February 18, 2019,

23 Anoop Sadanandan, “What Lies Beneath the Alarming Rise in Violence Against Dalits?” Wire, June 15, 2018,

24 “Minister in Modi’s Cabinet Garlands Cow Vigilantes Convicted for Lynching a Muslim Trader in Jharkhand,” Huffington Post, July 7, 2018,

25 Jeffrey Gettleman, Sameer Yasir, Suhasini Raj, and Hari Kumar, “How Delhi’s Police Turned Against Muslims,” New York Times, March 12, 2020,

26 Gilles Verniers, “Muslims’ Under-Representation in Parliament Is Not a Consequence of the BJP’s Rise,” Hindustan Times, May 30, 2019,

27 Adnan Farooqui, “Political Representation of a Minority: Muslim Representation in Contemporary India,” India Review 19, no. 2 (2020): 153–175.

28 Farooqui, “Political Representation of a Minority.”

29 “2019 Lok Sabha Election Results: Only 27 Muslim MPs Elected to Parliament, None From the BJP,” Scroll, May 24, 2019,

30 Mohammed Iqbal, “Shinde Blasts BJP, RSS for ‘Inciting Hindu Terror,’” Hindu, January 20, 2013,; and T.A. Ameerudheen, “Will Highlighting ‘Jihadi Terror’ in Kerala During Its Roadshow Help BJP Storm the Left Bastion?” Scroll, September 30, 2017,

31 “Kashmir Attack: Tracing the Path That Led to Pulwama,” BBC, May 1, 2019,

32 Niharika Sharma, “Five Reasons Why the Credibility of India’s Election Commission Was Questioned This Year,” Quartz India, May 23, 2019,

33 “BJP’s Sixth Defeat in 2 Years,” National Herald India, February 12, 2020,

34 Ashok Bagriya and Bhadra Sinha, “Turmoil in Supreme Court as Four Judges Speak Out Against Chief Justice Dipak Misra,” Hindustan Times, January 12, 2018,

35 Abhijit Ahaskar, “What the Government’s Draft IT Intermediary Guidelines Say,” LiveMint, February 12, 2019,