A waning resistance to majoritarianism

Topics Hindu nationalism | BJP

The crisis of our times is India’s inability to respond to majoritarianism and a nasty Hindu nationalism. There is no effective resistance to it in politics and there is none in society. What is to be done? In liberal democracies around the world, the locus of such resistance is usually academia and the media. In India, neither of these has delivered. 

The former has never been an influence on a society where the intellectual is respected but not taken seriously. For the most part, the media have become coopted, whe­ther through coercion or attraction. 

Elsewhere, the justices have shown little interest in protecting constitutional values at the ideological level. Their behaviour is not any different from the pusillanimity the Supreme Court showed in the fact of Congress authoritarianism in the past.

At the root of the crisis, a militant Hindu majoritarianism has become efficiently fused with Indian nationalism. This comes from the conflation of Hindu and India long promoted by Hindutva ideology. It was an idea on the periphery during the decades of Congress dominance. The Nehru-Gandhis pushed inclusion from the top down but this was akin to imposition, almost in the Ataturkian sense. The reality was the powerful hold of a tribal identity— as in the rest of South Asia.

illustration: Binay Sinha
Today, the Congress’ inability to hold on to legislators elected on its symbol shows the acceptability inside its own regional leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology. There is no line, as was drawn in the post-1992 phase, which made Hindutva and its politics unsavoury and unacceptable. And so electoral politics has also failed us.

Hindutva plays both sides and effectively owns nationalism. The BJP membership form requires one to take an oath pledging loyalty to the Constitution’s secular and socialist principles. However, these two words are open to the BJP’s interpretation and it can easily continue pushing its agenda.

We have ruled out academia, the media, judiciary and political parties. Culturally, it is not possible to oppose Hindu nationalism. The crowd cheering the Indian team can comfortably echo quasi-religious sentiment — “Bharat mata ki jai” — without consideration of the sensibility of fellow patriots. 

On the other hand, pluralism is essentially constitutional and expressed in dry and rational terms. It does not identify any clear enemy, internal or external. Mass mobilisation against Hindutva majoritarianism and in support of pluralism is, therefore, not easy. Inclusion and tolerance are not expressible collectively in the way that nationalism is. Symbols exist for the latter, such as the iconography of Bharat Mata, as does a slogan which is today imposed on all of us. There are no slogans for liberals to rally around and mobilise and, absent any enemy, ill-will or powerful sentiment, no feeling of congregation.

While being sworn in at the Lok Sabha, the Hyderabad Member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi was heckled by Hindus who goaded him with their Bharat Mata chant. He responded with a few slogans of his own, invoking his faith and Dalit power. 

Jai Hind was never popular as a slogan because it does not have the element of a joint cry (the word to be emphasised — ‘Jai’ — is at the beginning of the slogan rather than the end, showing it to be of poor coinage).

The Indian abroad, though attracted to the message of a muscular nation, is a net negative contributor to this debate, as is the local. 

We must accept that the instinct of the bystander at the Indian mob lynching is not to intervene but to record and distribute the visuals. We do not have videos being circulated that show individuals stepping in to prevent the murder of a Muslim.

The world is unsure of what is happening in India, given the absence of data on hate crimes, a category not recognised by the government. Human rights groups have compiled some frightening numbers showing that this phenomenon has taken hold and there were over 200 incidents of hate crimes last year alone.

This is secondary data, meaning that it is taken from media reports, limited to a couple of languages and dependent on how the newspaper has framed the incident. This is relevant because the nature of the media is to demote those headlines that become frequent. The aggressive promotion since 2015 of a sentiment — the prohibition of cattle slaughter — by the BJP has introduced this violence. It has produced over 300 victims, the vast majority of them not Hindus.

Civil society groups, meaning the hated Non- government organisations (NGOs), are perhaps the only space where inclusion is insisted upon. The capacity of these groups to mobilise around these values is limited and the state seeks to constantly delegitimise them and their work. Unlike in traditional liberal democracies, the NGO is seen as an enemy, harming India’s ability to examine itself honestly. 

The unrestricted spread of majoritarianism is manifesting itself in many ways. Today, we look favourably on the locking up of four million people, most of them Muslim, in Assam’s detention camps. The demand is to replicate this barbarism elsewhere in India. Hindu nationalism is a threat to the weakest Indians and, increasingly, as we will find out, to India’s neighbours.

What is our response, and how will we counter it? Voters think that pluralism and secularism are things that have been permanently outsourced to political parties. They are not.

Our society will have to correct itself but the portents are clear that it lacks the capacity to do so.


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