Christophe Jaffrelot: ‘At stake is survival of Indo-Islamic civilisation’

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Christophe Jaffrelot.

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Interview with Christophe Jaffrelot, political scientist.

French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, one of the most steadfast voices against the rise of Hindutva, has never shied away from pointing out the fissures in Indian society. When he edited Muslims in Indian Cities a few years ago, many were surprised by the depth of his knowledge of the Indian Muslim community and also his ability to link seemingly disparate elements. He spoke of the displacement of the Muslim community in the city and the establishment of a ghetto-like living space. Since then he has grown from strength to strength, penning half a dozen books, including the much talked-about Business and Politics in India (co-edited with Atul Kohli and Kanta Murali) outlining the contours of Indian political life.

One of the most respected commentators on Hindutva’s crests and crevices, he has now penned Modi's India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (published by Context, an imprint of Westland) in which he once again connects seemingly intractable events into a composite whole. Be it the attacks on ordinary Muslims or the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Judge B.H. Loya (who was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case in a special Central Bureau of Investigation court), or even the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests, Jaffrelot strings them together to tell us about a nation that was and the majoritarian democracy we are on the verge of embracing.

Jaffrelot is director of research at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS in Paris. He spoke to Frontline about his latest book and the vicissitudes of politics in India. Excerpts:

Indian secularism stands for equal recognition of all religions in the public sphere besides freedom to profess and propagate any religion. In this light, how do you look at the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the laws on love jehad/conversion? Are they unconstitutional?

The CAA introduces a new form of differentiation between citizens on the basis of religion that does not fit into the spirit of Indian secularism—a principle that is mentioned in the Preamble of the Constitution since 1976 and that inspired the founding fathers of India during the Constitution Assembly debates. Certainly, the Indian version of secularism recognises differences between communities. As a result, schools created by minorities enjoy the support of the state. But religion had never been used for making refugees non-eligible for citizenship. Such a discrimination is alien to the original jus soli-oriented philosophy of the Indian state. This philosophy eroded from the late 20th century onwards—especially after migrations to Assam became a major bone of contention. But never before had an increasingly jus sanguinis-oriented definition of citizenship referred to religion as the main criterion for acceding to citizenship. Such an approach reflects a vision of the nation as an ethno-religious body where those who do not belong to the sons of the soil’s majority are bound to be second-class citizens. This suggests a certain parallel with the Israeli pattern where the state belongs primarily to the Jewish people.

You talk of a majoritarian inferiority complex rooted in a lack of self-esteem in the 19th century. Has this sense of vulnerability changed considering that BJP leaders still promote the myth of Muslim population explosion?

The majoritarian inferiority complex is to some extent irrational—in India like elsewhere (see the way the Sinhalese related to Tamils in Sri Lanka, historically). The Hindu complex of inferiority vis-à-vis others (including the Muslims) crystallised in the 19th century when the British not only emphasised the division of Hindus along caste lines and sectarian lines—in the Census to begin with—but also invented communal stereotypes: Hindus were effete whereas Muslims were warrior-like—hence Mahatma’s Gandhi famous sentence after the Kohat riot in 1924: “The Musalman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as rule is a coward.”

Also read: Sangh Parivar and new contradictions

But, of course, these stereotypes resonated because the ideal Hindu was vegetarian whereas Muslims practised animal sacrifice. As a result, Hindu nationalist leaders, including B.S. Moonje, one of K.B. Hedgewar’s mentors, recommended that Hindus should emulate Muslims and learn how to “spill blood” (in spite of being a Maharashtrian Brahmin himself, he deliberately ceased to be vegetarian—something M.K. Gandhi had tried too as a child to become as strong as his Muslim friend).

After 1947, the Hindu nationalists tried to cash in on this complex by pointing out that India was encircled by Muslim countries and that Indian Muslims were the enemy within, fifth columnists. Certainly, this was propaganda, but it found some echo and became particularly popular after the Shah Bano case, in the mid-1980s, when the BJP could claim that Hindus were second-class citizens in their own country. Then came a long series of Islamist terrorist attacks ranging from Bombay 1993 to Mumbai 2008 that enabled the BJP to exploit a politics of fear and derive electoral dividends.

Is not the term Sangh Parivar a misnomer? A family stands for love and cohesion. And the Sangh's members, notably those of the Bajrang Dal, have been accused of attacking churches and lynching Muslim men.

The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and its affiliates form a family because the mother organisation is the matrix of a dense network of unions [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS)] and other offshoots like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad [VHP], Vidya Bharti, and Seva Bharti. The fact that one of these organisations, the Bajrang Dal, resorts to violence is another story. But the interesting common feature lies in the systematic denial of violence.

Hindu nationalists do not easily admit that they use violent means. Violence is supposed to be the trade mark of Islamists. Their own brand is different: they are peace-loving people and this is how Hinduism at large is defined, because the prestige of this civilisation is associated with Yoga and vegetarianism. As a result, violence is always presented as non-aggression and defensive. In each and every society, violence is best legitimised as a way to protect oneself from some aggression, but in the case of Hindu nationalism it has been more extreme and systematic. To such an extent that I’ve heard interviewees saying that the Muslims they have attacked had not been aggressive yet, but would have certainly been able to.

We have Pratap Chandra Sarangi, a Minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, saying those who do not say ‘Vande Mataram’ have no right to live in India. Is the BJP on the brink of realising M.S. Golwalkar's vision of India being the home only for those whose ‘punyabhumi’ and ‘pitrabhumi’ lie here?

This is more and more what we can observe de facto because it becomes more and more difficult for Muslims to live in mixed neighbourhoods, to marry Hindu spouses, to get some jobs. In this regard, the few available panel surveys show that when the same CV is sent to a company with a Brahmin name, a Dalit name and a Muslim name, the latter are not invited for a job interview as often as Dalits and even less than Brahmins. But these forms of discrimination are not enshrined in the Constitution because Hinduism is not a state religion. The fulfilment of Golwalkar’s vision would imply a transformation of the Indian legal framework. The CAA and the “love jehad” laws are preparing the ground for such a transformation, but till a more systematic body of laws is not passed the point of no return will not be reached.

Also read: ‘Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism’

Right-wing politicians have equated majority aspiration with nationalism. Also, India seems keen to erase its Muslim ancestry. Are we already a de facto Hindu Rashtra?

The Muslim ancestry question is an important one. It tends to be erased from the collective memory, but to some extent only: the new history textbooks describe the conversion of millions of Indians to Islam as resulting from intimidation and force, without referring to the prestige of Sufis, for instance. What the official discourse tries to obliterate is the contribution of Islam to Indian civilisation, to such an extent that the Taj Mahal, if it is not recognised as a Hindu monument, is not supposed to be mentioned in the brochures of the Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department. What is at stake is the survival of a civilisation, the Indo-Islamic civilisation that found expression in architecture, arts (music, paintings, etc.), cuisine and spirituality. But we know that civilisations also die.

Indian judiciary

When you talk of deinstitutionalising India in your book, is it fair to read a common chord in the treatment meted out to Judge Loya, the lawyer Gopal Subramanium and Justice Akil Kureshi [whose elevation to the top court has been delayed apparently because of the government’s bias]?

The Indian judiciary has been at the receiving end in many different ways. The case of Judge Loya is extreme and people will have to read the book for making sense of this very complex episode of Indian history. The two others you mention have been the victims of a similar process of deinstitutionalisation. In both cases, the judiciary—as an institution— has not prevailed. Either the choice of the Collegium has not been validated by the government or judges have indulged in self-censorship and not followed the usual pattern.

The procedures followed for appointing judges are pillars of democracy. A democracy is not only based of elections; it has to respect the independence of the institutions in charge of the rule of law. This independence is guaranteed only if the executive power is not in a position to influence the way judges are appointed.

On the one side you talk of the Supreme Court's relationship with the government moving from truce to surrender; on the other, many see in the delay in the apex court hearing cases relating to Article 370 and the CAA as proof of this perceived loss of independence of the court. Is it a fair assessment?

I see no contradiction. Surrender may take different forms. The Supreme Court does not necessarily need to approve decisions made by the government; like the election bonds, it can also sit on files and say nothing for years: the result is almost the same. Lately, the new Chief Justice has resisted pressures from the government and prevented Rakesh Asthana from becoming CBI chief. Such an attitude had not been observed since 2016. But the present and the coming two or three Chief Justices are the last ones of their generation. The trajectory of the following ones suggests that a new kind of judge is taking over.

Is Indian democracy on a weak wicket, considering how the BJP might lose an election but still manage to form a government by allegedly inducing or intimidating legislators of other parties?

The Indian electoral scene is not a level playing field anymore. Partly for the reason you mention: the BJP may lose an election and still retain power because of the defections it can engineer given its huge resources and the lack of principles of opposition MLAs and MPs. But for other reasons too.

Also read: ‘Structurally, we have already arrived at a Hindu Rashtra’

First, the financial resources of the BJP cannot be compared to those of the opposition parties. This state of things harks back to the rise of a new form of crony capitalism resulting in the making of oligarchs who, in exchange for favours, give lavishly to the ruling party.

Second, the media coverage of election campaigns is biased, not only qualitatively (as no tough question is ever asked to Narendra Modi), but also quantitatively: in 2014 and 2019, the prime time programmes devoted to the BJP candidate was such that he could saturate the public space.

Is the state becoming anti-minority? We saw in North East Delhi how hundreds of Muslims were arrested despite the community suffering more during the violence. We saw the same in police repression during the anti-CAA protests and the lack of will in acting against lynching of Muslim men and attackers of churches.

The police are displaying an anti-minority bias that is easy to measure: in any Hindu majority State, the percentage of Muslims behind bars is much larger than their proportion in society. But this is mostly due to the undertrials: according to the National Crime Records Bureau, the percentage of Muslims convicted is not very much above the average of Muslims in the population simply because the judges, when they have looked at the files of Muslim undertrials, have realised that they had nothing to do in jail. But, of course, the communal bias of the police was even more evident from the Delhi riots. Not only because they took part in it, but also because of the FIRs [first information reports] they filed (or accepted to be filed) subsequently.

The police and vigilante groups such as the Bajrang Dal and the Gau Raksha Dal work together in many different contexts, including the patrolling of the highway in the name of cow protection. Unofficial and official power structures tend to merge.

Political commentators tend to term Hindutva aggression as Hindu nationalism. Should it not be called Hindutva anti-nationalism? And how different is it from majority communalism?

Nationalism is a Janus-like concept. The brand of territorial nationalism that Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr Ambedkar promoted was universalistic: all the citizens who were born in India were equally members of the nation. But there is another definition of the nation that is rooted in ethnic identity, be this identity based on language, race and religion, etc.

The nation, then, is made of the ethnic majority of the so-called “sons of the soil” and for whom this land is sacred, on the top of it. In this definition of the nation, minorities are bound to be second-class citizens. For years, this view of the nation was called “communalism”, but times have changed.

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