BHUBANESWAR, India — India is not only the world’s largest democracy, with 1.25 billion people, but also one of its most combustible. Today, India’s fault lines are increasingly defined by a force for which the country has invented a new bit of political argot: “saffronization.”
Saffron is the color of the robes worn by Hindu sages, so “saffronization” has been coined to mean a drive to foster Hindu values and practices, even to give them the force of law, resulting in what critics see as virtually a Hindu version of Islamic sharia.
By the same logic, “saffronization” also connotes efforts to reduce the profile of other religions and to curb any deference shown them by the state.
Saffronization has become more or less official national policy since the rise to power last year of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP is the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a right-wing nationalist movement that critics style as a Hindu analog to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
India’s rising saffron tide not only has alarmed other faith communities, but it also irritates secular Indians who support the separation of religion from the state.
The following vignettes are drawn from news stories making the rounds right now, illustrating how “yes” or “no” to saffronization is the underlying question in a wide variety of legal and political controversies.
Beef ban: In Maharashtra state, the zone including the financial capital of Mumbai, a Hindu-backed government recently imposed a total ban on the possession and consumption of beef because Hinduism regards the cow as a sacred animal. (Buffalo is exempt, so some Mumbai eateries have shifted to buffalo steaks and burgers.) On July 24, a Muslim social worker filed a petition with the state’s high court seeking to have the ban overturned as a “fundamental rights violation,” arguing that it imposes religious observance as a matter of law. In the meantime, a minister in the state government has floated the idea of banning alcohol.
Yoga: Also on July 24, news outlets reported that the Modi government spent more than $5 million promoting an “International Yoga Day” on June 21, including a mass yoga demonstration in one city and an international conference in another. The drive by Hindu nationalists to encourage yoga has created internal divisions in some other faiths. The Catholic bishops’ conference complained about staging “Yoga Day” on a Sunday, but the Archdiocese of Bombay’s newspaper carried articles offering an indirect seal of approval for the practice itself. That led to protests from Catholic bloggers, who insisted that yoga is “gnostic” and “heretical.”
Cow urine: One way Hindu devotees demonstrate reverence for cows is by drinking its urine, or placing the urine on their heads and bodies. Aside from its spiritual logic, some Hindu activists also have claimed that application of cow urine can improve one’s health. On July 25, a government-funded scientific council announced that it was beginning tests of cow urine in an effort to establish its beneficial properties, including alleged antibiotic, anti-fungal and bio-enhancer effects. The overall aim, according to a government minister, is to lay a “firm scientific basis of eco-friendly cow-centered economics.” Leaders of other religious communities have objected to the use of public funds to pursue what they regard as propaganda rather than serious scientific research.
School status: Religious minorities receive state support for their schools in India, including exemptions from national requirements on matters such as admissions and curriculum. Recently, the Modi government has floated the idea of denying that status to schools where less than 51 percent of students do not come from the sponsoring faith, which would significantly affect 35,000 Christian schools whose student populations are often largely Hindu and Muslim. On July 23, Christian members of parliament from eight parties met in Delhi to organize resistance to the move. The meeting was presided over by Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, leader of India’s Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
Anti-conversion laws: Hindus often complain that other religious groups, especially Christians, pressure people to convert and thereby disrupt social harmony. While there’s no national anti-conversion law, five Indian states require anyone wishing to convert to gain official permission. Religious leaders are required to report conversions or risk a three-year jail sentence. On Friday, a draft of such a law was also submitted in the legislative assembly of Maharashtra, the state that includes Mumbai. Christians and other religious minorities insist that such measures fly in the face of constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, but Indian courts generally have upheld the right of states to adopt anti-conversion laws.
Public tests: On July 25, India’s Supreme Court ruled that Muslim girls couldn’t wear the hijab, or headscarf, during public school examinations. Concerns over cheating had led authorities to ban garments or jewelry that could be used to conceal answers, and Muslims objected. Justices, however, held that one’s “faith won’t vanish” if religious garb has to be removed for a few hours. The day after the ruling, a 19-year-old Catholic nun showed up for a test in Kerala wearing a veil and a cross and was also told to take them off. She refused and announced plans to file a legal appeal, backed by India’s Catholic bishops’ conference.