About 45 million years ago, the Indian tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian plate. The union between these earthen pieces bore giants – the Himalayas. These soaring temples of stone would decide the fate of Indians for millions of years. The Himalayan earth wrapped by the highest winds in the world would give birth to water. Glaciers turned into rivers that turned into Goddesses as Indians would later dutifully worship these daughters of the Himalayas. The great mountains would breathe the monsoon winds across the subcontinent as each exhale and inhale covered the soil in greenery. Fertile river basins would flourish as different cultures thrived in this Petri dish of geography, which soon enough would evolve into civilization.
Altars of sacred fire would dot the landscape, and the color of the sacred fire would be emblazoned on the robes of ascetics as they journeyed seeking something beyond. Marching into infinity, these seekers would spread a set of ideas, Dharma, that would invisibly bind the land. Places became pilgrimages and dirt became divine as the footsteps of these seekers would be followed by those who sought. An idea of India began to form.
That civilizational unity preceded political unity was recognized not just by Indians themselves but also by foreigners such as the Greeks, Chinese, Arabs, and others. Whether one came from Gandhara, now in South Afghanistan and North Pakistan, or Tamil Nadu in present-day India, they would all be called Indians. While India’s civilizational unity has deep roots, political unity is an emergent layer in the forest of the Indian mind.
Indeed there are ancient legends of a united India under monarchs such as Bharata who eponymously gave his name to India which is Bhārata. There is also Ashoka who fulfilled the political thinker, Chanakya’s, vision of uniting India under a single empire. More recently we have Aurangzeb’s fanatic quest to conquer all of India, which would be undone by the rebelling Marathas birthing Indian proto-nationalism in their bid to rid India of its oppressors, an idea labeled Hindavi Swarajya. In this chaos, the British would shame the subcontinent as it conquered its entirety via English brains and Indian bodies. And this is where it gets even more interesting.
A Union of States
India is not supposed to be here.
As the British left their crown jewel, cracks appeared throughout the vaunted gemstone. It would immediately split into 2, one part Islamic state that itself would soon shatter and one part secular republic, that is India. The latter was the inheritor of Raj in many ways. The boot of colonial rule was shined as a white foot was replaced with a brown foot. Very few laws would change even though monarchic domination gave way to democratic aspirations. India contained a multitude of religions, languages, castes, ethnicities, and various other divisions ripe for leveraging secessions. As the British saw the subcontinent descend into bloodshed with partition, they prophesized the eventual balkanization of India. It could never be a real country. What bound it together? For 1000s of years, the Indian cut the throat of his fellow Indian over any difference he could find. How would now be any different?
Yet the dreams of freedom fighters, the hope of the Republic’s first sons and daughters born in this fledgling, hopeless nation would transcend British and indeed global pessimism as India, Hindustān, Bhārata, Jambudvīpa, and many other names that have graced the subcontinent over 1000s of years triumphed over the parochialism of ethnicity, language, caste, and even religion.
Today, India is more united than ever before. One of the prime reasons for this is the rise of Hindutva. Beyond a constitutional basis, Hindutva has ignited the fire of civilizational consciousness in India just as Vedic fire altars did in India’s past. The fire of Hindutva is encased within the altar of development built from the bricks of physical and digital infrastructure that have transformed the fortunes of hundreds of millions of Indians. What many critics miss is what Chanakya pointed out thousands of years ago, “wealth is the foundation of Dharma;” or more recently as Maslow pointed out that fulfillment of material needs is the base of more metaphysical and spiritual needs. Because a Hindutva government delivered material success, people’s faith in Hindutva also rose regardless of its non-relation to delivering clean tap water or UPI.
This presents a tough problem for India’s opposition. While Hindutva reinforces underlying civilizational unity with Hinduism as the primary axis of commonality, the opposition cannot seem to provide an alternative uniting ideology. Instead, the opposition seeks to play a dangerous game denying Indian civilizational unity altogether. Whether by stoking regionalism, caste conflict, and even pitting Hindu gods and devotees against each other, the opposition seeks to transform India into what Rahul Gandhi has called a “union of states.” Ironic, as generations ago, Rahul’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, forged a strongly centralized state in the face of federalist ambitions by Muhammed Ali Jinnah and others.
This confederate turn is due to the fact that earlier attempts at toppling Hindutva have failed. The game of the Islamic vote bank has effectively othered Indian Muslims to such a degree that hasn’t been seen since the post-partition era. Economic development has become synonymous with the BJP and thereby Hindutva as well. On national security, the Center is seen as robust despite possible successful land grabs by China and embers of terror in Kashmir. Options are running out in the tactic of attack for the opposition. So instead of playing the game, why not break it?
The ancient elites of India heralded asceticism as the highest pursuit; the modern elites of India herald activism as the highest pursuit. As the BJP thundered into 2019 with an even greater mandate than prior, they passed a flurry of laws. With a limp infantry on the battlefield of parliament, the opposition has opted for guerrilla warfare in the streets. Coordinating with foreign NGOs, media outlets, social media giants, and various other extra-governmental bodies, the opposition has engineered a format of disruptive street protests that choke parts of India and eventually the government itself into submission. Placing valiant visuals of the old, the women, the children, the sick, the picturesque poverty porn so fetishized in international media front and center, the opposition seeks to bait the government as behind this frontline of innocence is a show of brute force. A dance emerges as violent elements shoot from the shoulders of the pitiful in order to goad the government to bloody the border of bodies between them. Once the blood of protestors reddens the black of the streets, propaganda is achieved.
A flurry of frames erupts as both domestic and international elements pounce on the footage. A photo turns into a WhatsApp forward turns into a news headline turns into a Monday morning NGO meeting turns into a protest which ultimately turns into a riot. The same format has been observed in Shaheen Bagh, in the Farmer’s Protest, was attempted in the recent Agniveer Army reforms, and is currently underway in Haldwani as women brave the winter to face off against the government which simply seeks to remove illegal encroachments to build a railroad. But let’s parse this for a moment – what is the commonality between these and why did the Agniveer protests fizzle out?
The other 3 movements are predicated on turning political or economic issues into religio-cultural issues. Asylum for persecuted minorities in South Asian Islamic states became a plot to disenfranchise Indian Muslims. Decades-long awaited agricultural reforms became an attack on a mix of Sikh, Punjabi, and Jat pride. Railroad infrastructural needs are now becoming an attack on Islam. Yet the Agniveer protests, centered in the Gangetic belt, fizzled out due to them primarily consisting of people who are relatively low in regional consciousness as well as the failure to make the reforms appear as an attack on their religious or caste identity. To thwart a law, the opposition anchors the animus surrounding the law into identity terms rather than politico-economic consequences. And it is this heightening of identity wherein the overlapping idea of the opposition takes shape in decentralization.
As the Center fails in quelling these permanent protests. As they bow to the brutishness of the street veto. Frustration sets in for a voter. The central government cannot be trusted to take care of basics, to ensure the functioning of society, policy, and even democracy itself. An age-old mental disease rears its terribly seductive face in the mind of the Indian – parochialism.
‘The central government has betrayed their mandate! They consist of those other castes and ethnicities that are natural failures. If my caste or ethnicity was in charge, we would show them a lesson!’ And so on…
Farce of Federalism
Critics of Indian nationalism falsely point out that the notion of India is solely due to the British Raj. They ignore testaments from Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain scriptures about the divine land whose names we uttered earlier. Even more nefariously, they impose modern state identities as the true form of the Indian subcontinent, a patchwork of linguistic states that have very little historic salience. This leads to a toxic and ahistoric linguistic identity which include features such as:
- The regional identity is by default secular; Hindu religious festivals now become secular regional festivals.
- Hinduism in the region gains a flagship deity, usually worshipped by all other Indian Hindus as well, but is framed as a symbolic bulwark against the hegemonic Hinduism of the BJP.
- Xenophobic rhetoric towards Hindi-speaking people crops up as well as the occasion jibe against Gujaratis as a potshot against Modi and Shah.
Now, this format has little chance to engineer a winning electoral coalition, especially in the face of the current BJP. But this game is long. This game has powerful incentives from foreign lobbies and feudal lords. Much of this manufactured supremacy is derived from the fact that many areas with strong regional identities have better economic indicators than the Hindi-dominant regions of India.
But as the derelict Hindi heartland rises in both population and income, states with strong regional identities will become ever more so insecure. With delimitation on the horizon as many Hindi-speaking northern states find the opportunity to expand their electoral slice of the parliamentary pie, even more parochial versions of regionalism may gain traction in order to seize the anxiety of power slipping. Over an extended period of time, this inter-ethnic tussle over power and resources will pose a long-term danger to the Indian state. The separatist conflicts in Kashmir, various districts in the Northeast, and Punjab have siphoned off valuable state funds and lives to ensure the unity of the union; repeated situations will pose questions to not just India’s development but the existence of India itself.
Integral in this federalist ambition is posing the Center as inherently antagonistic. One way to do this is by promising outsized welfare and freebies. Since the state cannot pay for these policies, the blame gets passed to the Center for being stingy with funds. These freebies are a consistent vote catcher in Indian politics as all sides use them to reliable effect. But in this process, a cancerous contest and an all-consuming addiction emerge as state finances get crushed, and the Center increasingly has to bail out badly behaved states. If the Center withholds, then the opposition follows the trusty process of framing the economic dispute as an ethnic one and fans the familiar ethno-narcissistic sentiments we discussed prior. Essentially, this process is “heads I win, tails you lose” for the states.
The AAP has played this game to great effect in Delhi as well as now Punjab, while the Congress successfully won a recent election in Himachal Pradesh with an unfeasible pension scheme (OPS) as a cornerstone policy. This competition to the bottom of the barrel also poses another long-term risk to India but this time from a forever familiar economic and development angle.
But what of the regions with low regionalism? What of the Hindi heartland whose heartbeat decides Prime Ministers? Herein possibly lays the opposition’s most insidious plan.
While regionalism can ultimately be checked by the central Indian state, navigating the taxonomy of caste is an entirely different beast. We are seeing a sneak preview of the opposition strategy in the state of Bihar. The government prepares to conduct a caste census, which has the aim to enflame caste conflict within the state. It is a bet that numerically higher castes will demand higher percentages of reservation, political doles, and a political voice. This will be magnified and repeated across India. Doubling down on this message of division, Bihar’s Education Minister Chandrasekhar, attacked a medieval Hindu literary classic, the Ramcharitramanas, as a casteist scripture. Ironic as the Ramcharitramanas was a key factor in spreading literacy across India as it was written in the Hindi vernacular, Awadhi, and gave access to more accessible religious literature for the lower castes and classes. It will not just be castes who are targeted, but ultimately Hinduism itself as it is Hinduism that gives India its civilizational unity.
To break Hindu unity, the opposition will risk the Lebanonization of India where proportionality in electoral seats, colleges, government jobs, and even the private sector will be strictly enforced. The free market and natural Pareto effects that lead to efficiencies and growth will be strangled to death as will India’s future. India will descend into caste strife which will be taken advantage of by both internal and external enemies as this current campaign of unity ends just as previous ones have – with Indians destroying other Indians.
And as I said before, this is also a long game. Across universities in the West, we increasingly see a Critical Caste Theory emerge similar to Critical Race Theory. All of Indian history and society is whittled down to caste, the conflict between the supposed high and low, the oppression of ages defines the subcontinent. Scholarships abound from the hazy world of NGOs as “Ambedkarite” voices are urged to apply in order to manufacture consent in real-time. Hindu heroes became Bahujan revolutionaries as every Indian figure becomes their caste first, Hindu last, or not Hindu at all. Every innovation of Dharma is framed as a Protestantesque rebellion against the Brahminical conspiracy of “Brahminism” or in other words, Hinduism, where a minuscule single-digit percentage of the population duped billions of people for thousands of years. Hindutva will go toe to toe with Jatitva as the mission for Hindu unity faces its greatest political test in battling caste division.
While foreign powers like Pakistan, China, and possibly others explicitly seek to balkanize Bhārat, I don’t believe this is the opposition’s goal at all despite their decentralizing actions. Rather they simply flirt with these elements as a tool to attain power. Essentially, the dividing line between the Indian right and the Indian left is that the former views the Republic of India as a successor to a millennia year old culture and civilization, while the latter views India as an accidental patchwork of different peoples welded together by the British Raj and god-like founding fathers in 1947. This clash of perspectives is what will define the tussle for the future of not just the 2024 Elections, not just the Indian nation, but indeed the Indian civilization.