Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
After the border standoff between China and India erupted, some Chinese scholars asked: Since India supports “Tibet independence” forces, why doesn’t China play the card of Indian separation?
This question is premised on a long-standing view that India is a multi-ethnic country, its states retain traditional autonomy, and the forces that led to the partition of India in 1947 could easily rise again. From this point of view, China should seek to use the lever of supporting separatists to influence India.
This viewpoint is too superficial, and lacks understanding of how the internal unity of modern Indian society was formed. Understanding India should start from understanding Hinduism, and understanding today’s Hinduism needs understanding of the influence of the British colonialists on the revival of Hinduism in modern times.
Indian scholar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar wrote in his book A survey of Indian history that “Indian history is of necessity, predominantly the history of the Hindu people, for though other and potent elements have become permanent factors in India, the Hindus still constitute over eighty percent of her population. Besides, what is distinctly Indian has so far been Hindu.”
Traveling in India, one can easily spot scenery that is deeply influenced by Hinduism. Sometimes one would doubt if India is a secular country, as it claims to be. Even behind the border friction between China and India, there is an influence of Hinduism.
The national structure of India is unique. Some states have maintained their inherited autonomous style of governance and some are ruled by minority parties or non-mainstream ethnic groups. These states have a tendency toward separation.
But in essence, all the states belong to the big cultural circle of Hinduism. The system established by British colonists has offered opportunities for minority parties and ethnicities to develop under the framework of a united country.
The revival of the Hinduism can be attributed to the support of British colonists. Under British role, Islam was suppressed and the Hinduism began an unprecedented revival movement. But nationalism went along with this process, which eventually became the pillar of thought of Mahatma Gandhi, who led the independence movement against British colonial rule.
When the British withdrew, they divided India and Pakistan due to the regions’ different religious beliefs. This brutal division caused the deaths of at least 1 million, and led to destitution for several million people.
While it reinforced religious confrontation, it consolidated the foundation of nationalism with religion at the core.
India inherited the system established by British colonists, under which all parties can compete for power through the platform of elections. Local parties can develop into national ones, weakening their tendency for separation. Religion and the political system are the reasons why India for decades has remained chaotic but united.
Currently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expanding its influence nationwide. It controls 17 states out of 29, either independently or in the form of a coalition government. In the election in March this year, the BJP won a sweeping victory in the most populous state Uttar Pradesh. The basis of the rise of the BJP is Hindu nationalism.
However, nationalism is a double-edged sword. In addition to the conservative nature of Hinduism and the stability of the system, nationalism has become an obstacle for India to get rid of the constraints of religion and tradition and realize modernity.
Today, the Indian-style stability that is trapped in the contradiction between tradition and modernity and between secularism and religion has become an important starting point for the outside world to understand Modi’s reforms. This Indian-style stability is also embedded in India’s China policy and the Indians’ understanding of China’s rise.
Therefore, dividing India may not be an appropriate strategic option. This may only consolidate the foundation of national awareness that India is built on – religious nationalism.
The author is a senior editor with People’s Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. [email protected]