In a supposedly secular state, India's religious minorities find themselves in an increasingly precarious position.
As India prepares for the 15th general election since it became a republic in 1950, the country's religious minorities are anxious. The impressive economic growth that put India on the covers of major western news weeklies has not touched their lives, and they are acutely aware of their precarious position in a country that is routinely celebrated by the rest of the world as a redoubt of western-style modernity in a region associated with backwardness.
Indian Muslims in particular have rarely known a life uninterrupted by communal conflict or unimpaired by poverty and prejudice. Their grievances are legion, and the list of atrocities committed against them by the Indian state is long. In 2002 at least 1,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Hindu mobs in the western state of Gujarat in what was the second state-sponsored pogrom in India (Sikhs were the object of the first, in 1984).
Gujarat's chief minister, Narendra Modi, explained away the riots by quoting Newton's third law. "Every action," he said on television, "has an equal opposite reaction." The "action" that invited the reaction of the mobs was the torching of a Gujarat-bound train in which 59 Hindus pilgrims, most of them saffron-clad bigots who were returning home from a trip to the site of the Babri Mosque that they had helped demolish a decade earlier, perished. The "equal and opposite reaction" was the slaughter of 1,000 innocent Muslims for the alleged crime of their coreligionists.
Such an event, had it occurred anywhere else, would have destroyed that country's reputation. But, astonishingly, the years since 2002 have witnessed a steady stream of books, mostly by western authors, extolling India. The unwillingness on western intellectuals' part to engage honestly with the violent reality of India, or offer a sincere portrayal of its transformation, has much to do with their own assumptions of history and modernity; but glossing over India's treatment of its Muslims – or omitting it substantially from their analyses – must have at least something to do with the insidious apathy towards Muslim tribulations that has characterised western attitudes since 9/11.
The rise of Hindu chauvinism in India has a complex history, but the absence of any meaningful sanction from the rest of the world has certainty emboldened Hindu bigots. Last week, Varun Gandhi, the Hindu-chauvinist BJP's London-educated parliamentary candidate from the Pilibhit constituency in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, made remarks of a kind that even European neo-Nazi leaders would hesitate to make in public.
Addressing an exclusive gathering of Hindu voters, Gandhi talked about the injustices faced by Hindus; then he told his enthusiastic listeners that he would sever any hand that was raised against a Hindu; that the lotus (the BJP's election symbol) would chop off Muslim heads; that Muslim names were scary; that his opponent's name sounded like "Osama bin Laden".
The name of his opponent, Riaz Ahmed, does not sound remotely like bin Laden's; but listening to a "Gandhi" make such an inflammatory speech should, if it hasn't already, shatter complacent Indian liberal notions about the country's experiment with secularism. Varun Gandhi is not a fringe figure: he is the great-grandson of India's first prime minister, the staunchly secular atheist Pandit Nehru.
For decades Indian intellectuals have claimed that religion, particularly Hinduism, is perfectly compatible with secularism. Indian secularism, they said repeatedly, is not a total rejection of religion by the state but rather an equal appreciation of every faith. Even though no faith is in principle privileged by the state, this approach made it possible for religion to find expression in the public sphere, and, since Hindus in India outnumber adherents of every other faith, Hinduism dominated it. Almost every government building in India has a prominently positioned picture of a Hindu deity. Hindu rituals accompany the inauguration of all public works, without exception.
The novelist Shashi Tharoor tried to burnish this certifiably sectarian phenomenon with a facile analogy: Indian Muslims, he wrote, accept Hindu rituals at state ceremonies in the same spirit as teetotallers accept champagne in western celebrations. This self-affirming explanation is characteristic of someone who belongs to the majority community. Muslims I interviewed took a different view, but understandably, they were unwilling to protest for the fear of being labelled as "angry Muslims" in a country famous for its tolerant Hindus.
The failure of secularism in India – or, more accurately, the failure of the Indian model of secularism – may be just one aspect of the gamut of failures, but it has the potential to bring down the country. Secularism in India rests entirely upon the goodwill of the Hindu majority. Can this kind of secularism really survive a Narendra Modi as prime minister? As Hindus are increasingly infected by the kind of hatred that Varun Gandhi's speech displayed, maybe it is time for Indian secularists to embrace a new, more radical kind of secularism that is not afraid to recognise and reject the principal source of this strife: religion itself.
The author is the writer in Guardian.co.uk