Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India

Angana P Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (eds) : Harper Collins 2019


THIS book of essays traces the ways in which the Modi regime from 2014-2019 has attempted to shape the Indian state and Indian society in a Hindu majoritarian direction.

The introduction by the three editors underscores that the climate for “normalised majoritarianism and hostility to minorities” has not developed overnight, but has been long in the making. It observes that “There has always been substantial support for authoritarian rule in India, including the period of emergency rule, and the hostility towards democracy has been growing in the Indian pubic for at least twenty years.”

It cites a 2017 Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) report on “The State of Democracy in South Asia” which showed that the percentage of interviewees who supported democracy has dropped from 70 percent to 63 percent between 2005 and 2017. A 2017 Pew report also showed the same trend: 55 percent of the respondents backed “a governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”, while 53 percent supported military rule. The Pew team added that “Support for autocratic rule is higher in India than in any other nation surveyed”, and India is “one of only four nations where half or more of the public supports governing by the military.” Two thirds of those surveyed felt that experts, not elected officials should make policy decisions on what was best for the nation. Not surprisingly, BJP supporters and urban dwellers are overrepresented in all three groups - of supporters of personal autocratic rule, military rule and technocratic rule. The support for these is far less among the working classes and rural poor. The corresponding “State of Democracy in South Asia” CSDS study in 2008 showed that 51 percent of “elite” respondents “strongly agreed” and 29 percent “agreed” with the need for rule by experts rather than politicians, while 29 percent of the “mass” respondents “strongly agreed” and 22 percent “agreed.”        

One significant factor in the support Modi received in 2014 is an urge for “elite revenge" among upper and middle castes against affirmative action (such as OBC reservation in higher education) and MGNREGA (the rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). In addition Modi could also mobilise the support of a “neo” middle class - a category of mostly OBC people created by two decades of neoliberal growth, which aspired, not to public sector jobs where reservations had reached saturation point, but in industry.

The support, then, for the model of “development” Modi claimed to represent in 2014, and for its subtext of Hindu nationalism and authoritarianism, was significantly stronger among a relatively elite section.     

The essay by Thomas Blom Hansen explores the chasm between India’s liberal democratic Constitution, and the failure of Indian politics (including the Congress and mainstream Left parties) to deploy civil liberties and freedoms as a campaign plank. Instead, these parties too tended to focus on social and economic welfare, while tacitly or openly endorsing the “policy of large-scale, perpetual human rights violation in the name of national sovereignty and fending off ‘anti-national’ forces within the country.”

There is a glaring disjunct between the promises of rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution, and the systematic, routine brutality and violence of the Indian state apparatus, which Blom Hansen terms the “force of law”. This brutal and unconstitutional “force of law”, of course, disproportionately affects the poor and oppressed caste people and religious minorities, while the educated middle classes mostly remain immune from it.

So “for those who are marginal and vulnerable”, the police and legal procedure are experienced as a constant possibility of random and overwhelming violence.” And “the only possible antidote and protection” from the police and from the arbitrary “force of law” is the ability to mobilise a “law of force” - to mobilise and display enough political and community power to disrupt public order. At the same time, of course, all publics are not equal - so the kind of police regimentation and intimidation that accompanies a peaceful but large rally of Muslims is in contrast to the absence of police restraints in the case of violent weapon-wielding Hindu majoritarian processions.

Blom Hansen also persuasively traces how the ability to mobilise a majority “public” has shaped Indian politics for decades: “the bigger the crowd, the stronger the argument.” Caste-based and linguistic publics, mobilised in huge displays of strength and assertion, gave rise to new regional political formations.

Blom Hansen also explains how displays of “anger” or “hurt sentiments” are accompanied by and routinely used to justify public violence in India (including violence against public property, transport, as well as, on occasion, against sections of people). A question that comes to mind is: in the country where the burning of buses, pelting of stones, or angry blockades of roads by angry publics is fairly common, how has the TV media succeeded in exceptionalising and demonising stone pelting by youth in Kashmir as ‘anti-national’ actions justifying pellet guns and bullets? And of course, in the past five years, mob lynching of Muslims is routinely justified as a display of “spontaneous” anger, with an organised anti-Muslim Hindu ‘public’ having a  monopoly on the right to such displays of anger.

Blom Hansen also explores the paradox of how the deepening of democracy in India in the 1980s and 1990s, (assertion and greater political representation of lower-caste identities) has not really led to a questioning of caste-patriarchal practices within or among these communities. So, while democracy in a caste society is “organised as collective mobility” and as a “fight to level the political playing field”, this is accompanied by a strengthening of “illiberal and patriarchal practices within these communities, now justified in the name of honour, collective strength and respectability.” Blom Hansen’s point brings to mind the contradiction that Ambedkar identified between formal electoral and Constitutional democracy on the surface, and deeply-rooted anti-democratic social value. The deepening of democratic inclusion has not been accompanied by a percolation of liberal-democratic values (or what Ambedkar called “constitutional morality” as opposed to majoritarian societal morality). This, Blom Hansen suggests, is perhaps why there is no contradiction between the “strong support for democracy - understood as the will of the people - as a form of government, and support for authoritarian styles of governance ruling in the name of this people.”

Christophe Jaffrelot’s essay in this volume sees India’s move towards becoming an “ethnic democracy” on the lines of Israel, where a parliamentary democracy coexists with majoritarian rule and the suppression of the rights of minorities. However, in Israel such majoritarianism is both de jure (backed by law) and de facto (a state of affair that exists in practice). Whereas India in the past few years has functioned as a de facto Hindu Nation while the secular Constitution is formally upheld. Whether or not India will evolve into a de jure Hindu Nation, formally amending the secular Constitution to match Hindu majoritarian practice, remains to be seen.

Jaffrelot studies the cooperative rather than confrontational relationship between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the fascist group which is the formal parent of the Hindu majoritarian party BJP) and affiliated vigilante groups, and the state machinery, especially the police. So, the violence against minorities, especially Muslims, by the vigilante “Gau Raksha Dals” (Cow Protection Squads) has the encouragement and approval of the BJP Governments as well as the police. The “policing” of Muslims and inter-faith couples in the name of “cow protection” or “love jehad” (the RSS term for love between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man) is outsourced to “society” by police and politicians, who provide patronage and impunity to these groups.

Jaffrelot correctly identifies the RSS as “India’s deep state”. This insight goes far towards explaining how, even under the Congress-led UPA regime, key positions in India’s security and intelligence apparatus were occupied by Sangh supporters, some of whom even became BJP candidates later.

The essay by Ian M Cook studies the phenomenon of “moral policing” by Hindu majoritarian vigilante groups in Mangalore in the South Indian state of Karnataka. He suggests that the “joint rise of Hindu nationalism and pro-market/anti-state policies in India” since 1991 is both complementary and contradictory. Hindu nationalism, offering an order against the perceived disorder of a state captured by subaltern elements, flourished with the support of middle classes for “CEO-type governance”. Cook suggests that moral policing - instances of violence by Hindu majoritarian groups against young men and women partying together or against displays of inter-faith or inter-caste love - is symptomatic of an “ethical tension” between the majoritarian Hindu state project and the neoliberal development model (which, he assumes, is accompanied by liberalism in “morals”). But is neoliberalism really invested in a relaxing of patriarchal moral codes, and in contradiction to tightening patriarchal restraints and moral policing, as Cook suggests? I had suggested, in an essay ‘Gendered Discipline In Globalising India’ (Feminist Review, July 2018, Volume 119, Issue 1, pp 72–88) that there is a false binary between neoliberal globalisation and the increased attacks on women’s autonomy, both patronised by a Hindu majoritarian government. I had suggested that the organised attacks on women’s autonomy (coded as ‘protecting women’ from the risks entailed by autonomy) is not at odds with corporate-led neoliberal ‘development’. My essay had demonstrated how global and Indian corporations too are hostile to women’s autonomy and are invested in suppressing such autonomy to create a docile labour force - and this is where their interests and those of Hindu majoritarian groups coalesce. Women’s vulnerability in their personal and social lives contributes to their precariousness and exploitability at work. Women’s assertions of autonomy will not remain hermetically sealed in personal spaces of family, household, caste and community: they tend to to leak into workspaces, spurring unionisation and collective social and political action. The ideological and physical attacks on women’s autonomy by “moral policing” squads play to the anxieties of patriarchal social forces concerned with women’s growing visibility and assertion, as well as the anxieties of the political-economy of globalised neoliberal “development” that requires docility.

Two essays - one by Suhas Palshikar and another by James Manor - look at Modi’s project of achieving hegemony, and the limitations and challenges to this project. Palshikar notes how Modi’s “development” narrative welds together middle classes and corporate interests, and even persuades the “ordinary citizen” that economic wellbeing requires a “strong nation”, which in turn requires hurdles to the nation’s strength: “minority appeasement”, “anti-national” freedom of expression etc - to be overcome.  The Modi regime has tried to “create a discursive domain where the logic of Hindu majoritarianism is skilfully camouflaged by impressive, yet shallow ideas of ‘new India.’” This emerging (Hindu majoritarian) hegemony threatens to alter the nature of India’s democracy as it was practiced so far.  Palshikar ends by noting that “while electoral upsets might not easily forestall the shaping of the new discursive terrain, electoral defeat alone can puncture the BJP’s resolute march towards crafting a new hegemony.”

James Manor’s essay offers insights into the problems that Modi continues to face in his drive to achieve and sustain hegemony. He notes that Modi’s strength - his theatrical performance - loses hegemonic power if he becomes a figure of fun. In the wake of the government’s failure to perform and deliver on promises, Modi’s “extravagant new promises” can buy him time but they also compound the risk of aggravating disillusionment. Modi’s “limited repertoire leaves him with one toxic option” - stoking resentments (against rival parties and against Muslim minorities) not aspirations. But, Manor asks, “If citizens become angry over joblessness, farmers’ problems and other thwarted aspirations - year after year when the BJP holds power - can they really be expected to see Muslims as the culprits?” Manor suggests that this strategy might deliver in the short run, but in the long run stoking Islamophobic resentments and indulging in “caustic denunciations of rival parties” is likely to ring hollow and jeopardise hegemony, especially if the BJP holds on to one-sided and near-total power.

An essay by Pralay Kanungo maps the RSS’ relationship with Modi and its governance, while one by Tanika Sarkar traces the difficulties faced by Left-secular historians in competing with the Sangh’s unparalleled work in generating and teaching (toxic) history at the grassroots - work that, in Sarkar’s words, “produces a history that kills.”

Pranab Bardhan categorises the Modi regime’s economic policies as, variously, “hoaxes; PR coups; continuities with UPA policies; newer policies in the right direction; and outrightly regressive policies.” AK Bhattacharya and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta look at the Modi Government’s relationship with crony capitalism and its attempts to steer clear of the charge of crony capitalism.

One of the most interesting essays in the volume is by Nandini Sundar where she examines the paradox between the incorporation of adivasi (indigenous) communities into the Hindutva fold even as the BJP is closest to the corporate forces responsible for the socio-economic exclusion and violence inflicted on these communities. She reminds us of the question posed by William Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, “What was it in the masses that caused them to follow a party the aims of which were, objectively and subjectively, strictly at variance with their own interests?”

Mridu Rai examines the ways in which, under Modi rule, Kashmiris have served as “symbols of terrorist violence, illegitimate religious impulse, sedition” - symbols that are invoked to contrive a “mythical Hindu nation.” She points out that the strategies of the Indian State vis a vis Kashmir under previous regimes, too, especially since the 1990s, entrenched impunity for the “daily infliction of terror and violence.” But the deployment of Kashmiris as the embodiment of the “enemy” needed by Hindutva politics is unique to the Modi regime and media behaviour in the past five years. Rai suggests that this “evocatory purpose Kashmiris serve is so essential to Hindutva’s discursive politics, that it renders any ‘resolution’ of the Kashmir ‘problem’ unlikely.”

Other essays in the volume examine the Hindutva project’s bid to appropriate and weaponise a particular variant of yoga for its purposes; and the BJP’s attempt to appropriate “feminist” discourse with its agenda of the Uniform Civil Code and criminalising Instant Triple Talaq; and the queer presence in/and the politics of Hindu nationalism.     

Standing as we are on the cusp of a second Modi regime, trying to understand the strategies that allowed Modi to overcome incumbency and disillusionment to win a mandate for a second term, this volume is essential reading. It is also essential reading for an international audience, which needs to recognise that India under Modi and BJP is one of the prime examples of authoritarian/fascist and majoritarian politics in today’s world, as much as Trump or Bolsonaro.

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