The destruction of secularism, which was at the birth of modern Indian nationalism, continues in India. The Hindu right has decided to abandon the developmental state model and open up to global capitalism. It does not hesitate to use the media, the persecution of political opponents or the violence of right-wing fighters.
On the evening of January 5, 2020, an armed gang of about 50 people barged into New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University premises and launched a murderous attack on the students in their hostels. The professors who had gathered for a meeting were also grievously attacked, and those living in nearby houses who rushed there to protect the students and their colleagues were also under threat. The fury of the attack and the impunity with which the attackers still move around, even when their identities were found out through videos shot by the students, have become all too familiar to the Indians now. The manner in which the forces employing the appellations of Hindu right have been attacking all kind of political and social opposition, and have been allowed administrative, legal, and media latitude, is unparalleled in India’s political and social history. The pattern includes minimizing and subsequently normalizing such attacks through a completely pliant media, blaming the victims themselves for being the perpetrators, and tying those who oppose such acts into legal and criminal cases. The most visible manifestation of this has been in the violence in the capital, unleashed just a month after the attack at the university. In the northeast part of Delhi, which had been witnessing one of the most unique and peaceful sit-in protests by women against the government’s passing of the discriminatory citizenship law, there was the outbreak of a completely premeditated violence targeting the minority community living in the area. The Prime Minister finally had to send in his special envoy when there was an all-round approbation of the entire police administration acting rather on behalf of the perpetrators. The aftermath, however, saw the same pattern being followed: serious criminal cases were filed against minorities, civil society groups, and peacemakers, many of them well-known public intellectuals and activists with impeccable public records. The charging of these people with serious criminal cases has confirmed the direction in which the Indian state is moving: an ideological state.
The descent of the republic, which until five years ago was witnessing an abundance of rights – of information, of compulsory education, of food security, and of compulsory employment guarantee – into a hellish space for a host of people, including young and vibrant students in the public universities, their thinking and articulate professors, minorities, and groups that are socially discriminated against, of which those known as the Dalits are the most important, within such a short space of time may surprise many. The governing motifs of Indian polity today – criminalizing dissent, intimidation of all opposition and implicating them in charges of corruption until they join hands with the regime, crackdowns on the students and intellectuals who were the most discernible protesters of the regime, and an increasing militarization of the social ethos – are unmistakably those of the right wing authoritarian regimes the world has witnessed over the years, from the Americas to Africa and Europe. The efforts to legitimize through creation of fantasies, monuments, and concocted past glories too have been practised by almost all regimes. Packing the universities and schools with pliant ideological stooges and cleansing these of all independent-minded people, as it is done at a frantic pace and on a large scale, have also been practised all along in dictatorial regimes. However, it would still be a mistake to see India today as under the grip of a right-wing authoritarian state. What it is going through is coming from three historical processes into a conjuncture.
The first is a process of displacement of the historically evolved idea of Indian nationhood anchored on the ideas of a plural and democratic society, evolving into a developed society with secularism as its core social and political organizing principle. The idea of Indian nationalism has evolved since the mid-19th century along these lines. However, since the late 19th century and more specifically since the 1920s and 1930s, an idea that the demographically dominant religious communities constituted nations themselves by being religious communities came to gain ground.1 Thus, while the Indian nationalists were mobilizing people against the colonial rule, there were others, called communalists, who began to mount their attack on the nationalists, quite often at the prompting of the colonial regime itself.2 Thus, while the nationalists saw people yet to become a nation and tried to provide both intellectual and social vision to acquire that modern nationhood, i.e., a secular ethos and a vision of a democratic society as a binding force for hundreds of disparate people of different castes, religions, languages, etc., the communalists asserted that Hindus or Muslims historically constituted nations. They defined their battles against the secular Indian nationalism rather than against either the colonial rule or against the social discrimination that had characterized traditional Indian society. In a rather acrimonious and ultimately violence-ridden battle, in which the British facilitated the Muslim League in getting its Pakistan, the state of the Muslims, in the eastern and western flanks of India where the Muslims were in the majority, India remained secular under the leadership of the secular Indian nationalist leadership.
The Hindu communal idea, unlike its Muslim counterpart, however, was marginal to the public imagination which the secular national leadership had channelized towards making a socially, economically, and culturally progressive democracy. However, the former did not die, and in fact its propagation through multiple organs resulted in the assassination of India’s greatest leader, Mahatma Gandhi, as he talked of a secular India and yet appeared as the greatest symbol of Hinduism. It was clear that Hindu communalism was not about the Hindu religion but was a political idea mobilized to replace the ideological core of modern Indian nationhood, i.e., a secular nationalism envisioning a more socially equal society. Thousands of propagation units of Hindu communalism have emerged over the last three quarters of a century and have kept up their attack on the idea of a modern Indian nation, its secular principles, and its socialist ideals of an equitable society. The Republican constitution, in fact, incorporated the words secular and socialists in the most important part: its preamble.
Notwithstanding the fact that the democratic elections in 2014 were fought on the issue of rapid economic development, the victorious Hindu communal forces soon put the habilitation of its communal Hindu idea, being portrayed now as ‘Indian nationalism,’ into motion with alacrity by replacing, removing, and changing the profile of institutions, ideas, and persons with a secular nationalist mooring. Resistance and protests, particularly in public spaces like universities, soon began to be curbed with the heavy hands of the state.
The second process is the rapid dismemberment of the entire development model that came along with the independence of India and the vision that India would have a large industrial base with an equitable distribution social policy. Beginning in 1991, India’s gradual entrenchment in the institutions and processes of global capitalism required a complete decimation of the developmental state model. An attempt had been made to provide large communities, both economically poor and socially deprived, with improved conditions over the last seventy years. Increasingly, the demand of the forces of global capital as it impinges on the national economy has been to disallow any such institutional mechanism or state actions so as to, it is argued, not disturb either the free operation of the market or the free flow of finance globally. The demand, at the same time, has been to open up new frontiers for ‘capital’ and for the state to facilitate in the process of profit maximization through regulatory mechanisms. All of this meant that the Indian state, with its aspirations of sharp growth and a global presence, was made to increasingly shed off its developmental regime. Thus, the new ideological state, with the Hindu communal idea as its core, also has as its partner the global capital and its forces.
This is historically significant, as when the Muslim state was carved out in 1947, it did not have any economic policy of its own and soon became almost a clientele of the global capital forces, and within less than a decade became a military state, as it continues to be. Coming after a gap of three quarters of a century, the ‘Hindu nationalists,’ with no original idea or critique of the global forces, face the same crisis: how to align an ‘ideological state’ with the demand of the capital. Its increasing surrender to capital, as its biggest facilitator, as is seen in the way the media, owned by big business, helps it day and night, also meant that citizens experienced a brutalized state staring at them in an ideological garb. Capital’s displacement of people from production, increasingly digitalized and shifting to platforms, is to be explained or contained by the new state with either fantasies through the media, or with fantastic methods of intimidation and coercion. Neither are nice prospects.
Thirdly, the coincidence of the ‘Hindu Nationalist’ forces coming to power at a time when there are also signs of crisis in the nature of the operation of capitalism – both within the nation and outside of it – cannot be lost. While the first demands an ideological state by cleansing all critiques from institutions and using powers of propagation through media and institutions, the new capital in crisis, due also to Covid-19, demands all protests of the huge surplus of human labour be curbed. The consequence of this is the coming of an extremely coercive state apparatus with the modern surveillance regime. The media as a massive vehicle of articulating popular angst, on the other hand, has been pressed into the service of both the emerging state and the capital, providing fantasies, fake news, and messages for militarization, and thereby marginalizing any critique of the increasing brutalization of the state and its agencies exactly at a time when people needed succour.
The situation in many senses provides us the opportunity to see whether India today has acquired the feature many have thought characterizes 21st century fascism as different from that of the 20th century. The recent arrests of many with charges of being anti-national, anti-government, and communist or Maoist are all signs of what scholars identify as the signature of fascism. The emergence of an all-powerful security state, in tandem with the global security states, supervising the suppression of all dissent for the cause of an ideological state, i.e., the Hindu state, at a time when the small, privileged section was consolidating their power at the cost of increasingly marginalized and demonized minorities, the poor, and those who would have protested, does not bode well for the Indian state and society. If such a state is entrenched further and gets completely implicated in the processes of a new capitalism, which many think it has already, then it would also be putting a rather pluralistic, colourfully varied social philosophy, Hindu religions, to the services of capital: to be made unified marketable and consumable ‘religion’ adding to the powers of the capital, which at this historical phase is showing its most brutal, extractive, and exploitative side: leading a new fascist order with its 21st century features.
Rakesh Batabyal is an Associate Professor of Centre for Media Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
This text was created with the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation
1 The finest exposition of this and related phenomena are in the works of India’s greatest historian of modern India, the late Bipan Chandra. See his Rise and Growth of Indian Nationalism, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1966; and also India’s Struggle for Independence, Penguin, Delhi, 1989.
2 Rakesh Batabyal, Communalism in Bengal, From Famine to Noakhali 1943-47, Sage Publishers, Delhi, London, New York, 2007.