Pankaj Mishra fires back at neo-Hindus

Now truth be told we are quite unhappy, the people we supported lost badly at the polls.

However there is always this guilty pleasure just a mm below our grief, first the dynasty goes out of the window, next USA is caught with its diplomatic pants down and now, Pankaj Mishra comes in with his machine gun and starts blasting away all neo-Hindus to kingdom come (so, when did the word neo- become a gaali?). Too much pleasure, really.

But to give the master his due, this article is huge and long and really tedious….someone please read it in full in order to get the fullest pleasure. One of things to do (while watching the paint on your fingers dry) is to make out a list of likes and dislikes of St Pankaj.

Likes: Ambedkar, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Amartya Sen, Jean Dreze, DR Nagaraj, Anand Patwardhan, Rahul Roy, Rakesh Sharma, Sanjay Kak

Neutral (good/bad mixed): Nehru, Gandhi, Indira, Rajiv

Dislikes: Vivekananda, Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Jagdish Bhagwati, Gurcharan Das, Rajat Gupta, Ayn Rand, Arvind Panagariya, Chetan Bhagat, George Bush, Vlad Putin, Thaksin Shinawatra (why is that? TS is a true champion of the poor)

In A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth writes with affection of a placid India’s
first general election in 1951, and the egalitarian spirit it
momentarily bestowed on an electorate deeply riven by class and caste:
“the great washed and unwashed public, sceptical and gullible”, but all
“endowed with universal adult suffrage”. India’s 16th general election this month,
held against a background of economic jolts and titanic corruption
scandals, and tainted by the nastiest campaign yet, announces a new
turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its
independence from British rule in 1947.

Back then, it would have been
inconceivable that a figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India’s highest political office.

is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a
paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist
movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had
manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional
among the votaries of Hindutva, or “Hinduness”. In 1948, a former
member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The
outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many
vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed
that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant
woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps
housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as “child-breeding

Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence, with Vivekananda,
the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who was obsessed with making Indians a
“manly” nation. Vivekananda’s garlanded statue or portrait is as
ubiquitous in Modi’s public appearances as his dandyish pastel
But Modi is never less convincing than when he presents
himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the
Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is
predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or
outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest
corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have
accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of
Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.

Absurdly uneven and jobless economic growth has led to what Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze call “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa”.
The failure to generate stable employment – 1m new jobs are required
every month – for an increasingly urban and atomised population, or to
allay the severe inequalities of opportunity as well as income, created,
well before the recent economic setbacks, a large simmering reservoir
of rage and frustration.

extensive moral squalor may bewilder those who expected India to
conform, however gradually and imperfectly, to a western ideal of
liberal democracy and capitalism. But those scandalised by the lure of
an indigenised fascism in the country billed as the “world’s largest
democracy” should know: this was not the work of a day, or of a few
“extremists”. It has been in the making for years. “Democracy in India,” BR Ambedkar,
the main framer of India’s constitution, warned in the 1950s, “is only a
top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”
bedkar saw democracy in India as a promise of justice and dignity to
the country’s despised and impoverished millions, which could only be
realised through intense political struggle. For more than two decades
that possibility has faced a pincer movement: a form of global
capitalism that can only enrich a small minority and a xenophobic
nationalism that handily identifies fresh scapegoats for large-scale
socio-economic failure and frustration.

In many ways, Modi and his
rabble – tycoons, neo-Hindu techies, and outright fanatics – are
perfect mascots for the changes that have transformed India since the
early 1990s: the liberalisation of the country’s economy, and the
destruction by Modi’s compatriots of the 16th-century Babri mosque in
Long before the killings in Gujarat, Indian security forces
enjoyed what amounted to a licence to kill, torture and rape in the
border regions of Kashmir and the north-east; a similar infrastructure
of repression was installed in central India after forest-dwelling
tribal peoples revolted against the nexus of mining corporations and the
state. The government’s plan to spy
on internet and phone connections makes the NSA’s surveillance look
highly responsible. Muslims have been imprisoned for years without trial
on the flimsiest suspicion of “terrorism”; one of them, a Kashmiri, who
had only circumstantial evidence against him, was rushed to the gallows
last year, denied even the customary last meeting with his kin, in
order to satisfy, as the supreme court put it, “the collective conscience of the people”.

India’s first prime
minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, appears in the novel as an effective one-man
buffer against Hindu chauvinism. “The thought of India as a Hindu
state, with its minorities treated as second-class citizens, sickened
him.” In Nehru’s own vision, grand projects such as big dams and
factories would bring India’s superstitious masses out of their
benighted rural habitats and propel them into first-world affluence and

The Harrow- and Cambridge-educated Indian leader had
inherited from British colonials at least part of their civilising
mission, turning it into a national project to catch up with the
industrialised west. “I was eager and anxious,” Nehru wrote of India,
“to change her outlook and appearance and give her the garb of
modernity.” Even the “uninteresting” peasant, whose “limited outlook”
induced in him a “feeling of overwhelming pity and a sense of
ever-impending tragedy” was to be present at what he called India’s
“tryst with destiny”.

But then the Nehruvian assumption that economic growth
plotted and supervised by a wise technocracy would also bring about
social change was also profoundly undemocratic and self-serving. Seth’s
novel, along with much anglophone literature, seems, in retrospect, to
have uncritically reproduced the establishment ideology of
English-speaking and overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindus who gained most
from state-planned economic growth:
the Indian middle class employed in
the public sector, civil servants, scientists and monopolist
industrialists. This ruling class’s rhetoric of socialism disguised its
nearly complete monopoly of power.

As DR Nagaraj, one of postcolonial
India’s finest minds, pointed out, “the institutions of capitalism,
science and technology were taken over by the upper castes”. Even today,
businessmen, bureaucrats, scientists, writers in English, academics,
thinktankers, newspaper editors, columnists and TV anchors are
disproportionately drawn from among the Hindu upper-castes.
And, as Sen
has often lamented, their “breathtakingly conservative” outlook is to be
blamed for the meagre investment in health and education – essential
requirements for an equitable society as well as sustained economic
growth – that put India behind even disaster-prone China in human
development indexes, and now makes it trail Bangladesh.

Dynastic politics
froze the Congress party into a network of patronage, delaying the
empowerment of the underprivileged Indians who routinely gave it
landslide victories. Nehru may have thought of political power as a
function of moral responsibility. But his insecure daughter, Indira
Gandhi, consumed by Nixon-calibre paranoia, turned politics into a game
of self-aggrandisement, arresting opposition leaders and suspending
fundamental rights in 1975 during a nationwide “state of emergency”. She
supported Sikh fundamentalists in Punjab (who eventually turned against
her) and rigged elections in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
In the 1980s, the
Congress party, facing a fragmenting voter base, cynically resorted to
stoking Hindu nationalism.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her
bodyguards in 1984, Congress politicians led lynch mobs against Sikhs,
killing more than 3,000 civilians. Three months later, her son Rajiv
Gandhi won elections with a landslide. Then, in another eerie
prefiguring of Modi’s methods, Gandhi, a former pilot obsessed with
computers, tried to combine technocratic rule with soft Hindutva.

Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), a political offshoot of the RSS that
Nehru had successfully banished into the political wilderness, turned
out to be much better at this kind of thing. In 1990, its leader LK
Advani rode a “chariot” (actually a rigged-up Toyota flatbed truck)
across India in a Hindu supremacist campaign against the mosque in
Ayodhya. The wildfire of anti-Muslim violence across the country reaped
immediate electoral dividends. (In old photos, Modi appears atop the
chariot as Advani’s hawk-eyed understudy). Another BJP chieftain
ventured to hoist the Indian tricolour in insurgent Kashmir. (Again, the
bearded man photographed helping his doddery senior taunt curfew-bound
Kashmiris turns out to be the young Modi.) Following a few more
massacres, the BJP was in power in 1998, conducting nuclear tests and
fast-tracking the programme of economic liberalisation started by the
Congress after a severe financial crisis in 1991.

The Hindu
nationalists had a ready consumer base for their blend of chauvinism and
marketisation. With India’s politics and economy reaching an impasse,
which forced many of their relatives to emigrate to the US, and the
Congress facing decline, many powerful Indians were seeking fresh
political representatives and a new self-legitimising ideology in the
late 1980s and 90s. This quest was fulfilled by, first, both the
post-cold war dogma of free markets and then an openly rightwing
political party that was prepared to go further than the Congress in
developing close relations with the US (and Israel, which, once shunned,
is now India’s second-biggest arms supplier after Russia). You can only
marvel today at the swiftness with which the old illusions of an
over-regulated economy were replaced by the fantasies of an unregulated

A transnational elite of rightwing Indians based in the US helped circulate an impression of an irresistibly “emerging giant” – the title of a book by Arvind Panagariya,
a New-York-based economist and another aspiring adviser to Modi. Very
quickly, the delusional notion that India was, as Foreign Affairs
proclaimed on its cover in 2006, a “roaring capitalist success-story”

assumed an extraordinary persuasive power. In India itself, a handful of
corporate acquisitions – such as Tata’s of Jaguar and Corus – stoked
exorbitant fantasies of an imminent “Global Indian Takeover” (the title
of a regular feature once in India’s leading business daily, the
Economic Times). 

A wave of political disaffection
has also deposited democratic social movements and dedicated
individuals across the country. Groups both within and outside the
government, such as those that successfully lobbied for the
groundbreaking Right to Information Act, are outlining the possibilities
of what John Keane calls “monitory democracy”. India’s many activist
networks – for the rights of women, Dalits, peasants and indigenous
communities – or issue-based campaigns, such as those against big dams
and nuclear power plants, steer clear of timeworn ideas of national
security, economic development, technocratic management, whether
articulated by the Nehruvians or the neo-Hindus.
In a major environment
referendum last year, residents of small tribal hamlets in a remote part
of eastern India voted to reject bauxite mining in their habitats.
Growing demands across India for autonomy and bottom-up governance
confirm that Modi is merely offering old – and soured – lassi in new
bottles with his version of top-down modernisation.

Modi, however,
has opportunely timed his attempt to occupy the commanding heights of
the Indian state vacated by the Congress.
The structural problems of
India’s globalised economy have dramatically slowed its growth since
2011, terminating the euphoria over the Global Indian Takeover.
Corruption scandals involving the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of
national resources such as mines, forests, land, water and telecom
spectrums have revealed that crony capitalism and rent-seeking were the
real engines of India’s economy.

His ostensibly
gratuitous assault on Muslims – already India’s most depressed and
demoralised minority – was another example of what the social
anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls
“a vast worldwide Malthusian correction, which works through the idioms
of minoritisation and ethnicisation but is functionally geared to
preparing the world for the winners of globalisation, minus the
inconvenient noise of its losers”.
Certainly, the new horizons of desire
and fear opened up by global capitalism do not favour democracy or
human rights. Other strongmen who supervised the bloody purges of
economically enervated and unproductive people were also ruthless
majoritarians, consecrated by big election victories. The
crony-capitalist regimes of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Vladimir
Putin in Russia
were inaugurated by ferocious offensives against ethnic
minorities. The electorally bountiful pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, too,
now seems an early initiation ritual for Modi’s India.

difficulty of assessing his personal culpability in the killings and
rapes of 2002 is the same difficulty that Musil identifies with
Moosbrugger in his novel: how to measure the crimes, however immense, of
individuals against a universal breakdown of values and the
normalisation of violence and injustice. “If mankind could dream
collectively,” Musil writes, “it would dream Moosbrugger.” 

There is
little cause yet for such despair in India, where the aggrieved fantasy
of authoritarianism will have to reckon with the gathering energies
below; the great potential of the country’s underprivileged and
voiceless peoples still lies untapped. But for now some Indians have
dreamed collectively, and they have dreamed a man accused of mass



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10 years ago

"Neo" became a gaali after The Matrix.

Just kidding. It is after the neoconservative movement, which pushed US into the Iraq war/quagmire.

Kodhambo Madhathakaja
10 years ago

"Neo" means new or "like" correct. I am not clear what new hindu means.

Brown Pundits