Dissecting Hindu nationalism

Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India
Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (eds) 
HarperCollins, 537 pages, Rs 899

Future historians will find it an uphill task to chronicle Narendra Modi’s five-year term. Newspapers, the first draft of history and often the most important primary source for a scholar, would not be worthy research material for these years. Barring a few honourable exceptions, they present the scholar with the imminent danger of exposure to a singular, dominant narrative with barely a few degrees separating them in reverence and awe of the Modi era.

Therefore, it is heartening when an eclectic mix of fine scholars and objective journalists get together to produce a tome on the Modi era. Christophe Jaffrelot, who for decades has written on almost every aspect of Hindu nationalism – its growth, shortcomings and dangers – has teamed up with anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen and gender and conflict expert Angana P Chatterji to produce a volume that promises to become a benchmark of contemporary history writing.

In the past five decades or so, there has been a shift in history writing, with an increasing focus on contemporary times. There has, however, been a parallel debate on techniques, or lack of it, in the writing of such accounts. Collecting, authenticating, editing and evaluating a set of fresh documentary material requires exacting standards of scholarship. Contemporary historians do not have the wisdom that time provides to general historians in assessing the significance of a period, an event or a personality. But contributors to this volume have made full use of the advantages that Cambridge historian David Thomson listed in favour of writers of contemporary history: personal experience, sense of the atmosphere of the time and the possibility of talking to participants.

This interdisciplinary volume straddles the multiple worlds with ease and busts myths perpetuated by this government through rigorous standards of scholarship. The book successfully demonstrates how the unprecedented electoral verdict of 2014 has played out in creating a majoritarian narrative, in capturing the institutions and legitimising forces and groups to take over civil society, crudely and violently, with no regard for law.

In the introduction, the editors have aptly characterised Mr Modi and his five years as a period of “neo-sultanism”, a take-off on Max Weber’s notion of “sultanism” in which “power operates primarily on the basis of discretion under the aegis of a strong man”. Having placed the Modi years within a theoretical paradigm, the contributors look at each aspect of his government, how it has assiduously created the majoritarian world, how dissent is being targeted and also how it is being contested “from the streets to the courts”.

Mr Hansen’s essay, illustrated through three revealing ethnographic studies from Mumbai and Aurangabad (Maharashtra) where he has spent years, shows the subversion of “force of law” into “law of force” when it comes to Muslims and other marginal groups. Mr Jaffrelot looks at the worldwide trends and traces the roots of “ethnic democracy” (a product of ethnic nationalism, the ideology of majoritarian group based on racial, linguistic, religious or, more generally speaking, cultural characteristics, that implies a strong sense of belonging and often of superiority) in India and its coming of age in the last five years. The most palpable evidence of this – shown through exhaustive data – is the growing absence of Muslims from state Assemblies and Parliament and the increasing dominance of “vigilante militias” who have taken upon themselves the role of cultural policing.  In state after state, one has seen law enforcement agencies either allying with them or turning a blind eye to their activities. Far more worrisome is the infiltration of Hindu militant cadres, as in Karnataka, into state police forces.
Most of the essays in the volume stand out for the way they synthesise contemporary accounts with a historical perspective and maintain a safe distance from propagandist literature and dogma. Tanika Sarkar’s essay on how history is perceived and taught by the Sangh Parivar is the most comprehensive account of right-wing pedagogy and takes it beyond mere rhetoric. She raises the pertinent question of the failure of the mainstream historians – mostly Left-secular – to deal with public histories written by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Ms Sarkar rightly argues that this has happened because scientific secular history has been written in “isolation from local, organic social-cultural processes” and no political or academic alternative has been created to deal with “quantity, continuity and intensity of the RSS’s historical work” generated and taught by its cadre. Since 2014, history at work has been seen in the public sphere, TV studios and classrooms.
 Nandini Sundar answers the question many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders and their acolytes in media often ask their critics: “If BJP is anti-adivasi and anti-Dalit why does it get their support, their vote?” Ms Sundar explains how voting is not always a reflection of one’s ideological preference, and lists BJP’s transformation as an electoral machine, the media’s failure to call out BJP’s doublespeak on an issue like the beef ban – silence in the north-east, lynching Muslims in north India – and the changing aspirations of zameen (land) as possible reasons. Ms Sundar looks at how adivasi identity and religion are under greater threat as mining takes over their "sacred" hills. Though there is resistance by the Santhals and the Bodos, but the big picture, she presents is of aggressive mobilisation of adivasis and Dalits for the Hindutva project.

The volume is equally insightful on the economic side of Mr Modi’s majoritarian policies, which bear close resemblance to totalitarian regimes worldwide. Pranab Bardhan’s deconstruction of Mr Modi’s economic policies as “hoaxes”, “PR coups” and a “continuation of UPA policies” is the succinct description of how disproportionate time was spent on superficial issues leaving the key economic issues such as employment to languish. Veteran writers on the Indian economy A K Bhattacharya and Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, while admitting less evidence of crony capitalism so far, detail the opaqueness that governs Modi’s economic decisions, demonetisation being just one of them. They remind readers that neither has crony capitalism disappeared nor can the possibility be ruled out of economic scandals of this regime emerging later. Together the two essays provide an insight into how the majoritarian agenda impacts the economy, how few benefit and how, through a narrative of “us” versus “them”, the majority is convinced that those blocking their way to prosperity are the minorities and the marginals, the beneficiaries of the state’s appeasement past policies.

Overall, the book is the most coherent and comprehensive analysis of five years of Modi rule. It looks at the long-term trends and threats the majoritarian narrative has created. For future historians this volume offers useful reference material on how to produce a first-rate contemporary account of a regime that had no regard for facts and scholarship.

The reviewer is author of Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India

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