W ITH no disrespect, it could be argued that the belief that mere endorsement of a great Constitution would ensure India’s unshaken commitment to a pluralist polity was perhaps the most naive assumption of our founding fathers. What many wise people could not foresee was that an internal ideological threat could unsettle the very political processes and bundle of rights on which a pluralist polity is based and that the existence of a great Constitution would do very little to arrest this decline or transformation.
After the abrogation of the Article 370, particularly the manner in which it was done—accompanied by a lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir and the arrest of political leaders of all levels—no one should have any doubt that a majoritarian state has arrived with all its arms ready to respond to the diktats of the governing elite. This volume is an attempt to explain why and how it happened in 2014, and what shape it might take in future. In this volume, accomplished scholars drawn from disciplines such as history, anthropology, sociology and political science demonstrate how interdisciplinary scholarship can be put to good use in the scrutiny of the Indian state and its democratic traditions.
In the introduction, the three editors, who are among the finest names in South Asian studies globally today, present deep insights into the changing nature of the Indian state, especially its particularistic characteristics turning towards majoritarianism. The Narendra Modi regime, they recognise, has four particular features similar to what is seen elsewhere, say Donald Trump’s America: majoritarianism, populism, nationalism and authoritarianism. These scholars further claim two additional elements about the Modi regime: its pro-corporate and upper-caste bias, and the normalisation of anti-Muslim/minority rhetoric in public and political discourses.
By bringing these characteristics together, the Indian state has acquired a majoritarian outlook not by chance or coincidence but by deliberate choices and preferences made by Hindutva elites. While much of Modi’s attributes parallel those of strongmen in politics elsewhere in the world, the rise of the Hindu Right marks a historically complex ideological evolution for India. Like most populist leaders, Modi is a gifted communicator and he plays upon nationalistic sensitivities. As a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and having served as a full-time pracharak, he remains a steadfast champion of the Hindutva ideology, though with considerable sophistication. As I have argued in my book Rise of Saffron Power (Routledge 2018), Modi happens to be the first Hindu Right leader who has understood that Hindutva can be a back-door agenda, and hence his slogan Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas. It is now apparent even to his loyalists that the slogan is a a key element in anchoring the Hindutva agenda.
The editors identify four factors to explain the 2014 electoral success: anti-incumbency against the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime (2009-14); voter alienation from the corruption-tainted UPA II regime; the perception that the UPA regime was directionless; and Rahul Gandhi’s failure to measure up as an alternative to Modi. The BJP, they conclude, won by default in 2014. Voters also opted for Modi because he presented himself as a “development man”, vikas purush . The volume has a few innovative chapters that would appear unconventional in an academic publication. For instance, it has a chapter titled “Rohith Vemula’s Revolutionary Suicide” by Abdul R. Jan Mahmmed and another titled “Kashmiris in the Hindu Rashtra” by Mridu Rai.
Christophe Jaffrelot has contributed a theoretically sophisticated chapter in which he argues that India is fast becoming a de facto “ethnic democracy”. The notion of “ethnic democracy” was originally employed by Sammy Smooha. Jaffrelot explains that an ethnic democracy generally possesses two levels of citizenship, with the majority enjoying more rights than the minority, both de jure and de facto . Jews in Israel have more rights because the Jewish state officially recognises their rights as opposed to those of non-Jewish Israelis.
Jaffrelot argues that given the fact that the 1950 Constitution continues to be part of India’s political life, the de jure aspect of ethnic democracy is absent but the de facto part is omnipresent owing to radically declining represent- ations of religious minorities (Muslims in this case) in State Assemblies and the role that vigilante militias play with the patronage of the law enforcement agencies. The chapter shares data on various types of underrepresentation of Muslims; shows how vigilante groups are acting as state actors, and how even the RSS, a so-called cultural organisation, works more as a vigilante group.
In a conclave in September in 2018, RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat did share his concern about these vigilante groups. He noted that Muslims had a place in Hindutva but did not specify what the community’s place was in society. Jaffrelot’s narrative indicates a clear move towards the downgrading of the rights of Muslims in India under the BJP’s rule.
The Hindutva experiment has been going for a very long time in Uttar Pradesh. Any political party or political leader who aspires to rule India, it is said, has to win Uttar Pradesh. Even Modi is aware of this, and this is why he shifted his electoral base from Gujarat to Varanasi. Ayodhya, perceived as the birthplace of Ram, is also located in this State. Angana Chatterji has examined the process of the making of a Hindu nation by investigating the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riot. Sixty-three people died and 93 were injured in the violence. Women were gang-raped, and close to 50,000 people were displaced. Her paper, written before results of the 2019 parliamentary election were known, offers interesting insights into how the Hindu Right operates. She has expressed concerns regarding the possibility of a Hindu nation.
James Manor examines the sustainability of the Hindutva project. Between 2014 and 2019, Modi’s achievements have been rather limited and even disappointing. Yet, Modi returned to power with an even greater mandate than the one in 2014, which raises doubts about Manor’s reasoning. He is perhaps hesitant to recognise that a tectonic shift has taken place in India’s electoral landscape, creating new patterns and invalidating safe formu- lations about anti-incumbency. Political scientists should jettison the old approach to make sense of the new patterns and examine the psychology of voting.
Any ideological movement has a special relationship with interpretations of history. The Hindu Right is keen to pursue a particular interpretation of history in order to undercut narratives that legitimise a secular or pluralistic polity. The strategy of rewriting history is a prerequisite because the Hindu Right believes that its ideological agenda can take an enduring shape only in the context of an interpretation of history that presents Hindus as victims and Muslims as aggressors.
According to the noted historian Tanika Sarkar: “RSS history is driven by political needs, popular beliefs, and myths and construction of memory work” (page172). The role of a massive right-wing cadre to teach history, more as propaganda, has contributed to the erosion of the influence of India’s mainstream Left or secular historiography. This seems to be the natural development in an ideological power struggle. Tanika Sarkar recognises that secular histories, though written by the best minds, are written in isolation from local sociocultural processes. She makes an important point about Hindtuva votaries’ engagement with Ambedkar, arguing that Hindutva cannot make a serious critical engagement with caste. What she does not take note of is that the Hindu Right’s engagement with Ambedkar is driven with a desire to saffronise Ambedkar. The efforts in this direction are already seen in various educational programs and institutions in regions under the BJP’s rule.
Thomas Blom Hansen’s insightful essay draws attention to the shrinking space for intellectual freedom and threats to civil liberties and points out that the Modi government has been able to accomplish its majoritarian/authoritarian agenda without enacting new laws. Instead, it has simply used the existing laws that were promulgated by the Congress regimes, and many of these laws have colonial roots. He seems to argue that the so-called deepening of India’s democracy has perpetuated the legitimate power of the majority without any the percolation of liberal democratic values. Scholars of Dalit politics who have been celebrating the deepening of democracy with Dalit empowerment have now realised that what is unfolding is the deepening of Hindutva.
The volume has 21 essays covering a wide range of themes. But the complexity of Indian politics is such that even these 21 essays appear inadequate to cover all the dimensions of Hindutva politics. Nandini Sunder has an interesting chapter on how the Hindu Right responds to Adivasis. “Immoral Times” by Ian M. Cook presents a fascinating portrait of the activities of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, particularly of an assault it organised on July 28, 2012, in Mangaluru. Ratna Kapur explores the difficult puzzle of the Hindu nation and rule of law.
Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi. He recently edited the book Rise of Saffron Power (Routledge, 2018).