On January 17, 2023, BBC World aired the first episode of its controversial two-part miniseries titled India: The Modi Question. The series investigates Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s troubled relationship with India’s Muslim minority. The first episode centers on Modi’s complicity in the Gujarat riots of 2002 that led to the brutal massacre of approximately two thousand Muslims. It begins with an ominous call by an anonymous Hindu nationalist advocating genocide against Muslims. Strikingly, this Hindu nationalist does not explicitly mention Muslims. Instead, he uses the term “nonbeliever” to refer to Muslims.

Hindu religious nationalism’s discourse, with its demarcation between “believers” and “nonbelievers”, is strikingly similar to the discourse of Muslim nationalism in Pakistan. With a few notable exceptions, scholars of South Asia have generally resisted putting India and Pakistan in a comparative perspective. The dominant understanding is that upon their independence from British colonial rule in the midst of a bloody partition and massive population transfers, both countries set out on radically divergent paths. India adopted the path of an electoral democracy with a pluralist, secular constitution while Pakistan went the way of military-authoritarian rule (punctuated by experiments with electoral democracy) and an official Muslim nationalism. Against the backdrop of this general understanding, the rise of Hindu nationalism under the populist Modi is generally seen to belong to the current global moment of right-wing populist upsurge across the Global North and South.

Modi’s rule is certainly comparable to that of other strongmen in the United States, Turkey, Israel, and elsewhere. But there is also a longer, and specifically Indian subcontinental, dynamic at work in both India and Pakistan. The delineation of this dynamic requires comparing religious nationalisms in the two countries in order to identify their shared origins and ongoing synergies. Specifically, this comparative lens throws light on the mimetic aspects of Hindu nationalism. It appears that Hindu nationalists seek to emulate monotheistic religious nationalisms through their adoption of the believer/nonbeliever dichotomy, by striving to bring nonbelievers into the fold of the religious community, through the sacralization of symbols and practices that must be protected by the community of believers, and more generally through a general desecularization of the public and political spheres. This is precisely the form that Muslim nationalism has taken in postcolonial Pakistan since its independence in 1947.

Both Muslim and Hindu nationalisms emerged at roughly the same time in late colonial India. As Robert Frykenberg argues, modern Hinduism was deeply influenced by both reformist Islam and an evangelical Christianity. Consequently, Hindu nationalists sought to underplay the logic of difference built into the caste system and develop new logics of similarities. While Muslim nationalism became hegemonic among Indian Muslims by the 1940s, Hindu nationalism remained marginal among India’s Hindu masses, who were more attracted to the secular, inclusive Congress.

The discourse of Hindu nationalism can be traced back to the writings of V.D. Savarkar who developed the notion of Hindutva in the 1920s. In these, he articulated the idea of a united, homogenous Hindu community. Strikingly, Savarkar did not define the Hindu community solely through religion. Rather, he drew on an amalgam of ideas centered on territory, race, religion, and language, all of which together bestowed Hindus with a common culture and shared history. Muslims and Christians were considered outsiders by virtue of not being part of this shared culture and history. At the same time in colonial India, many Muslim intellectuals and movements were seeking to reform and revive Indian Muslims through inculcating a new sense of identity based exclusively on religion. Both Muslim and Hindu intellectuals, then, sought to introduce notions of exclusivity and homogeneity among their respective communities. They did so through different cultural strategies, however.

Over time, and especially since the consolidation and increasing prominence of the Sangh Parivar (the “family” of right-wing organizations) in India, we notice Hindu nationalism’s convergence with the discursive structure of Pakistan’s Muslim nationalism. Note, first, that the notion that Hindus are believers and all non-Hindus nonbelievers is foreign to traditional Brahmanical thought. Historically, the latter has centered on the distinction between purity and impurity in order to maintain proper hierarchical relations among different castes. The aim of this distinction is not to regulate the inner beliefs of Hindus but rather to ensure correct ritual practices that can ensure cosmic order and harmony.

In fact, the distinction between believers and nonbelievers belongs squarely to monotheistic religions, particularly Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As Jan Assmann argues, these religions make a foundational distinction between true and false religions and, consequently, between belief and unbelief. From this distinction arises the impulse (although absent in Judaism) to convert nonbelievers and bring them into the fold of the one and only true community of believers. Certainly, this “Mosaic distinction” isn’t always in operation. It can be suspended altogether for considerable periods of time, as was the case under most of Mughal rule in India. What is nonetheless ever-present is the possibility of its activation, with profound consequences for religious Others.

Pakistan is predominantly a Muslim country without sizeable religious minorities. Furthermore, Islam is the country’s official religion and Muslims constitutionally enjoy greater citizenship rights. Consequently, conversion of non-Muslims does not play a prominent role in the religious landscape. The one flagrant exception is the coerced conversion of girls from non-Muslim communities, which takes place through kidnappings followed by forced marriages.

In India, however, the situation is markedly different. Muslims are a sizeable community in that country, and Hindu nationalists fear that Muslims are disproportionately growing in numbers due to higher fertility rates (see here and here). Hindu nationalists are also preoccupied with how to inculcate a sense of homogeneity among a highly heterogenous population riven by hierarchical caste and class distinctions. Brahmanical notions of purity and pollution continue to structure these distinctions that become activated politically around hot-button issues such as affirmative action and land ownership. This is the context in which Hindu nationalists both engage in reconversion and mobilization campaigns among marginal groups such as Dalits and Adivasis. Hindu nationalists aim to create a homogenous body of Hindu believers that can be distinguished from religious Others. One example of the success of this strategy is the 2002 anti-Muslim riots centered in Gujarat, which witnessed Adivasi involvement in attacks on Muslims.

In Pakistan, the most reviled religious community is a minority sect of Islam itself, the Ahmadiyya community. The Ahmadis are controversial because of their belief that the founder of their community, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, heard and responded to revelations from Allah in his capacity as a chosen prophet. This belief is anathema to mainstream Muslims, who perceive Ahamdis as denying the core Islamic doctrine of khatam-e-nabuwwat, or “the finality of Prophethood.” Mirza Ghulam Ahmad is therefore deemed an impostor who attempted to usurp the status of Prophet Muhammad, the seal of prophets. I have examined how and why, in response to repeated and clamorous demands by Pakistan’s Islamist groups, the Pakistani state officially declared Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority in 1974 despite the insistence of Ahmadis that they are Muslim and hence not a minority.  

Subsequently in 1984, under Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule, the Pakistani state introduced legislation that explicitly criminalizes Ahmadis who refer to themselves as Muslim or their places of worship as mosques. The aim of this legislation was to distinguish true authentic Muslims from the “false and blasphemous” Ahmadis. In the same decade, the Pakistani state introduced blasphemy laws that criminalize the “defiling” of Prophet Muhammad, his family, and the Quran, making these punishable by heavy fines and imprisonment. As has been widely noted by human rights organizations, Muslims have widely misused these laws to target non-Muslim communities and settle personal scores with both Muslims and non-Muslims. The central pivot around which these various laws revolve is the figure of Muhammad, who stands in perpetual threat of violation and is thus in need of continuous protection by legislation as well as vigilantism.

While Islamists in Pakistan must protect Muhammad, Hindu nationalists in India must protect the cow, the sacred symbol of all Hindus. Thus Hindu nationalist activists, such as those organized under the umbrella Gau Raksha Dal (GRD or Cow Protection Organization), have enhanced their efforts to oversee the implementation of beef bans in states that have such bans, oftentimes through vigilante violence. Note that “protection” is also the discursive trope through which Islamist groups in Pakistan have sought to organize their activities and mobilize sympathizers. For example, the organization that spearheaded the movement to get Ahmadis declared non-Muslim is called the Majlis-e-Tahaffuz-e-Khatme Nabuwwat, or “The Assembly for the Protection of the Finality of Prophethood.” Although the symbols are different, the discursive trope of protection has led to vigilantism and mob violence in both countries.

There are important differences between religious nationalisms in India and Pakistan. First, religious nationalists in Pakistan do not have genocidal longings while many in India do. Second, unlike Muslim nationalism, Hindutva does not draw exclusively on the structure of monotheistic exclusions but also on notions of indigeneity, oppression under “foreign” rule by Muslims and British, race, and ethnicity. Finally, unlike India, religious nationalism in Pakistan is entrenched in state institutions and is hegemonic in society. Ahmadis in Pakistan are legally rendered second-class citizens. Despite these differences, religious nationalists in both countries seek to further entrench the distinction between believers and nonbelievers. This tendency is central to monotheistic religions and has become increasingly so for Hindu nationalists.