The BJP government has been in power at the federal level in India since 2014, and in various Indian states, e.g. Gujarat, for much longer. While BJP, like most national-level parties in India, is a broad church representing the entire spectrum of views from just Right-of-Centre to fringe Far Right bigotry, it seems (to me at least) that the Far Right has definitely been gaining ground. This is visible through a lot of what’s said explicitly or dog-whistled by various persons of consequence in the party. Besides, there’s an obvious attempt being made to influence ostensibly non-political institutions like the academia, cultural bodies, research funding agencies etc which directly/indirectly depend on the Government for funding and/or management.
The use of institutions for political gain is unfortunately not a new thing in India. This is an art perfected by the previous Congress governments, under whom, entire central university departments, the University Grants Commission (of which my Dad has many horror stories to recount!), historical and cultural research centres, scientific and industrial research centres, even the national archives were veritable arms of state propaganda and political power-play in true socialist fashion! Anyone can tell you that a country where even mathematics is politicized is fairly screwed up – yet that has been the condition of India for a very long time. And the rot really started setting in under the patron saint of Indian autocracy, Indira Gandhi, who subverted many institutions into instruments for projecting the ruling Government’s influence and narrative. Her rule was characterized by extreme nepotism – the main beneficiaries being the old and influential Kashmiri Pandit khandaan (families) of the erstwhile Moghal belt related to Nehrus, the Dhars, Haksars, Kaws, Razdans, Kauls and Katjus, who played a major part in running the country through the 70s and most of 80s.
The nepotism, corruption and utterly hollowed-out state of India’s public institutions headed by the ruling party’s yes-men contributed in many ways to the strong disestablishmentarian politics of the 70s and 80s in India – Janata Party & Jai Prakash Narayan‘s movement – in turn spawning off the modern day Rashtriya Janata Dal of Laloo Prasad, Samajvadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its RSS affiliations. These parties rode on the popular mandates against the Congress and when in power at either state/central levels, used exactly the same sorts of networks Congress (I) had created precedents for to project their own influence and narrative. The current BJP-led dispensation is not doing anything new or radical on the Indian political scene that the “secular” Congressis did not do. They are replacing Congressi stooges by Hindutva ideologues, using the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to go after the sort the opposition had patronized and have subverted institutions in the same Indira-esque fashion but under the saffron banner this time. In fact, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy is quite brazen about this deliberate “correction” of institutions that he is executing for the BJP (including settling personal scores against the likes of Amartya Sen). This interview is a must see:
Of the many institutions/ideals of Western Enlightenment that animate the Indian Constitution, none has been so comprehensively dragged through mud by Indians as Secularism. From its lofty origins in the French Revolution, Indians have reduced it to mere euphemism for Muslim vote-bank politics and Mullah appeasement, one of the many cynical tools used by Indian politicians to keep hold of power. The infamous Shah Bano case under Rajiv Gandhi’s government is a watershed in the state’s use of “secularism” to further oppress the oppressed to get in the good books of a few regressive Mullahs (and hope they ask their congregations for votes).
The patronizing attitude of the Indian state towards Muslim citizens is a symptom of a wider malaise inherited from the British colonial state, of treating communities as the units of a nation state (and managing their conflicting interests as statecraft), rather than a model of governance based on rights and freedoms of citizens. So, for example, the manner in which the modern Indian state (or even Indian media) deals with the views of a woman who happens to be Muslim is to tag her as “Muslim” and then proceed to respond to her views by using received wisdom on how to deal with Muslims. It is akin to outsourcing all thinking to a colonial era manual on Muslim sensibilities and reducing every individual, suitably tagged, to that outmoded (and patronizing by design) community calculus. The fact that the citizen is a thinking individual with Constitutional freedoms and ideas of her own – which may be completely outside of the narrow confines of how the State thinks Muslims would/should react – is almost immaterial. That is the reason why a state which professes to be a modern Constitutional democracy, tolerated something as regressive as triple talaq for its citizens for as long as it did.
The manual has had a few updates courtesy Nehru since the original British blueprint, due to the creation of Pakistan and the predicament (N Indian) Muslims who stayed behind found themselves in. So, in the immediate aftermath of the Partition riots (more like genocide, actually!) of Muslims in North India, the Nehruvian Consensus took shape as an unwritten government policy to treat Muslims with kid gloves. This meant turning the gaze away from outdated social practices among Muslims, even while Hindu society was undergoing tremendous top-down social engineering (cf. Reservations). This was a well-intentioned, if doomed, policy by early Congress governments to nurture a Muslim middle-class to regain their importance in the politics of North India. However, its effect was exactly the reverse: it increased the importance of Muslim clergy (Deobandis, Jamiat Ulema-e Hind etc) who frequently assumed the role of interlocutors between Delhi and the vast Muslim population of the hinterland, and emboldened the Hindu Right who identified Secularism as partiality to and appeasement of (similarly demented) Islamic religious practices while their own Hindu version (caste-system, widow remarriage, cow fetishization etc) was being proscribed. The frustration of the Hindu Right with such policies led to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by an RSS ideologue, starting an ideological war that continues unabated to this day.
The virus of cultural relativism at work here is not just limited to Muslims alone and neither is the dismal state of Muslim society its worst manifestation. Indian government has condoned the practice of ritual murder of children by tribal populations in the name of preserving communities (as opposed to upholding human rights), with the head of an Indian Government organisation even referring to possible arrest of baby murderers as “mishandling”:
The pace of change worries specialists like S. A. Awaradi, the director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute, who describes the tribe as “our human heritage.”
“This has been a self-sufficient civilization for thousands of years,” Mr. Awaradi said. “By mishandling, you are creating a blunder of civilization.”
BJP’s founding animus for all things Islamic means that, at least on face-value, they are against the cynical use of “secularism” to shield Mullahs and other regressive religious bodies from 21st century moral scrutiny. However, that goodwill for the Muslim downtrodden is ill-motivated, as the Hindutva movement is essentially revanchist in nature. It is a sad denouement of Indian liberalism that they have ceded moral high ground to the Hindutvavadis, when it comes to rights of the weak or minorities within Muslims. Hindutva movement itself was borne out of a deep-seated insecurity about the medieval Muslim rule in India, and the desire to reestablish continuity of modern-day India to some (frequently imaginary) pre-Islamic India of milk and honey. As the famous Bollywood movie song (sung by the Punjabi King Puru, just before he had his arse handed to him by Alexander) goes:
jahaN Dal-Dal per soney ki chiRiyaN karteeN haiN basera, voh bharat desh hai mera, voh Bharat desh hai mera.Trans: Where on every (tree) branch sparrows-of-gold nest, that Bharata nation is mine, that Bharata nation is mine.
To the Hindutva movement Indo-Islamic art, architecture, music, dress, names, even Arabic/Farsi/Turkic loanwords in Indian languages and, above all, the existence of hundreds of millions of Muslims in India are inconvenient reminders of India’s indelible Islamic past. These facts are hard to swallow for a dyed-in-the-wool Hindutva fanatic and a daily reminder of the centuries of perceived humiliation of Hindus and their culture at the hands of successful Muslim invaders. Therefore Hindu Right has a tendency to distort/efface history taught in schools, discriminate in research funding for the study of specific periods of Indian history or display outright unwillingness for upkeep, maintenance or promotion of historical sites that do not gel with the government’s idea of what ought to be preserved. While Central Board school history syllabus in India has been largely spared of the Hindutva bile at least for now, the project has been on-going in state-level school boards (school education in India is not a Central Government responsibility) for a while. E.g. Maharashtra school board textbooks focus on history of relatively insignificant early Maratha kings to the point that Moghals seem little more than an occasional irritant in local politics, as opposed to overlords of the whole of Deccan. The latest controversy on UP Government’s decision to not include Taj Mahal in its tourism sites booklet is another case in point, a high-water mark in the rising tide of Hindutva politics. In terms of ideological bent, therefore, Hindutva ideologues, both old (like V D Savarkar) and new, totally concur with the views of Muslim nationalists like Jinnah, articulated beautifully in his historic Lahore address to the Muslim League:
The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature[s]. They neither intermarry nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects [=perspectives?] on life, and of life, are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, their heroes are different, and different episode[s]. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other, and likewise their victories and defeats overlap. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent, and final. destruction of any fabric that may be so built up for the government of such a state.
While the pro-BJP swing seen in India since 2014 actually had as much to do with anti-incumbency sentiment against the Congress as Modi’s personal charisma and good PR of selling vikas (economic development) to the masses, it has inevitably led to strengthening of the cultural Hindutva core of the BJP. So, besides economic experimentation (not bad or ill-motivated in itself; though consequences are arguable) we also have the rise of cow-protection politics – an old pet project of the Hindu Right. The best example of this is Modi’s home state of Gujarat, where the BJP government has instituted a gauseva (lit. cow service) board, funded by taxpayers’ money of course. Besides the usual cow welfare monitoring, the board apparently issues advisory notices. The latest one is for women to switch to natural cow products for beauty treatment and claims gaumutra (lit. cow urine) can cure 108 (why not 110?) diseases including AIDS and cancer. Consider this gem, which is meant as advice to Gujarati women to turn them into “cleopatras”:
For healthy, glowing skin like Egyptian queen Cleopatra, use panchgavya, which is a concoction of cow urine, dung, milk, curd and clarified butter.
Gaumutra will remove dark circles, black spots and pimples. Use of panchgavya will give you long-lasting beauty.
We want women to understand the benefits of using cow milk, urine and dung to beautify themselves instead of damaging their skin by using chemicals.
While many may laugh off the above example as just a local idiosyncrasy, there is unfortunately a pattern to this growing government involvement with pseudo-Science that is deeply worrying and dangerous. Not to mention, cow fetishization has murderous social repercussions too: cow-protection vigilante violence, mob lynching, attacks on businesses etc.
But are these fears legitimate? As the argument goes, any Hindutva dream of converting India to a Hindu Shuddhsthan (land of the pure) modelled on Islamic Pakistan, only much larger and way more powerful, has to contend with the rough and tumble of Indian reality: the quotidian shoddiness of Indian bureaucracy, the general lack of civic duty within every mohalla (let alone pan-Indian paroxysms of patriotism which Hindu Right would like to engender), the deep-seated social cleavages of Hindu society, plurality of beliefs in the broad church of Hinduism, linguistic and racial divides (if caste weren’t enough already), the rise of an affluent and fairly Westernized middle-class that looks down on attitudes described above, and (most importantly of all) the Indian democratic setup.
Most of these frictions in India are rather obvious for a country of the size and population of India, yet they should not be taken for granted as a natural bulwark against authoritarian rule. Aggressive-nationalism is a very effective social meme (especially in combination with a pervasive victimhood complex) and its effect on human societies (esp. one as religious as India) must not be underestimated. In India, Hindutva ideology has also successfully managed to co-opt symbols of the Indian Republic, notably the flag and the Constitution as quasi-Hindu icons – the same symbols their ideological Jan Sangh forebears hated:
In an editorial published in the RSS mouthpiece, the Organiser, on the eve of India’s independence, the Sangh opposed the tricolour flag, declaring that “it never be respected and owned by the Hindus”. “The word three”, the editorial went on explain, “is in itself an evil, and a flag having three colours will certainly produce a very bad psychological effect and is injurious to a country.”
“But in our constitution, there is no mention of that unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat… To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”
To be fair, India is not alone in this quasi-religious use of national symbols. American Right (e.g. Tea Party activists) also tend to apotheosize the Founding Fathers of the USA and the American Flag arouses similar devotional feeling. This is not entirely a negative thing (if kept in check) as patriotic idiocy is useful for the functioning of democracy and often such useful idiots make the best attack dogs protecting the same Constitutional values that obviate them. What keeps such people in check, however, is a solid institutional framework (judiciary, policing etc) that can enforce the rule of law and a social contract of abjuring the use of violence for political gain. These institutional and social checks are present in the United States but largely missing in India.
Therefore, I find the oft-touted Indian diversity argument to be quite parochial and really no match for genuine Hindu authoritarianism. Think about what the Pakistan movement could achieve by mobilizing opinion around religion with far fewer people and lesser resources. A politically unhindered Hindu Right is capable of just as much of a transformation within India – in spite of all the aforementioned social frictions. A rudderless opposition does not help matters either.
My own opinion on what can really save India from a terrible Hindu utopia is an unassuming, almost technical, feature of Indian electoral democracy: the first-past-the-post system that makes the fate of political leaders extremely sensitive to swings of public opinion. Note that the current BJP government only had 31% of the Indian voteshare, with Congress at 19.3%. This means just 5.9% swing of BJP voters to Congress would decimate BJP seats throughout the country’s constituencies. Obviously this mere technicality is contingent on a democratic culture, where the mandate is accepted by political parties and peaceful power transitions can occur. Obviously no body can predict the future, but if India’s post-Independence record is any indication whatsoever, I can safely wager Indians (for all their terrible shortcomings) manage that very well indeed!