Between the 17th and 19th of December last month, a large collection of major religious leaders, right-wing activists, fundamentalist militants and Hindutva organisations came together at Haridwar. The event they held, called ‘Dharma Sansad’or ‘religious parliament’, witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of hate speech calling for a genocide of the Muslims of India. But despite the violent exhortations hurled over the course of three days, authorities in India did not make a single arrest.
Under the regime of Narendra Modi, right-wing hate and violence against India’s Muslims has acquired a sense of normalisation. But while they, along with India’s Dalit community, make the usual targets, it was only a matter of time till the hate spread on to other minority groups as well. On January 2, a mob in Chhattisgarh vandalised a church after right-wing leaders accused the Christian community of carrying out ‘forcible conversions’.
While the global community has been slow to react to India’s slide towards Hindu nationalism, observers in Western capitals too are beginning to notice. As the year 2022 came to an end, outgoing Democratic Congressman Andy Levin warned: “I have been a vocal advocate for human rights in places like India, which is in danger of becoming a Hindu nationalist State rather than a secular democracy, the world's largest democracy.”
In an exclusive interview with The Express Tribune, renowned Indian-American anthropologist and professor at the New York University Arjun Appadurai unpacked the historical ingredients that enabled an environment widespread right-wing Hindu nationalist sentiment in India. In conjunction with a global erosion of democratic ideals and yearning for quick results, he explained how India has found itself in a perfect storm of Hindu majoritarianism.
ET: What are your views on the global trend towards right wing authoritarianism and the increased tolerance for such systems regimes and governments?
AA: I am among the very large number of people who are trying to tackle this big question of a kind of a worldwide trend, which is very apparent, although the differences among the locations where this is happening cannot be ignored.
It's difficult to see this in the way that one might, for example, see the Coronavirus where you can actually see it moving. The thing about the shift to autocratic authoritarian governments is you cannot see an obvious sort of circulation path although many of the leaders in these cases are aware of each other. But it's not easy to say that they're sort of mimicking or learning something, and we are forced to look for deeper trends.
My main view is that though there are huge differences in the electorates and the populations in these different countries, a common element might be that many of these populations whether in Turkey or Hungary or the US, or India, have lost patience with the slowness of liberal democracy, to deliver whatever it is they want. There's a loss of patience and consequently, they are more ready than ever to vote for leaders who promise quick, essentially overnight results.
The cost of writing that cheque is that we will have to get rid of this and that procedural hurdle. But other ideological attachments to these leaders then creep in and in many cases, that lubricant which lets people accept the promise that results will be delivered overnight is some form of majoritarian racism – a sense that some majority, however defined, has been poorly treated, and now their moment has come to restore their place.
I used the word democracy fatigue in an essay I wrote about four years ago soon after Trump was brought into office, saying that people are exiting democracy by democratic means that is through elections and so on. In some other places, of course, even elections are dispensed with, but the disturbing phenomenon is places that have ostensibly democratic institutions, democracy itself is being dispensed with.
ET: What are your thoughts on the state of India's democracy? And what are the immediate threats to it?
AA: The conventional storyline is not at all wrong, which is that for some reason, institutions – the democratic ones, the courts, the media, the press, the legislature and indeed the executive – in India by all accounts were quite healthy, vibrant and strong in the decades up to let's say, the early 2000s, when we begin to see the rise of the BJP culminating now in the in the very troubling situation under Modi.
But in that long story, we must recall, of course, that even under Indira Gandhi's rule, we had the emergency, which was only a year but still showed a certain readiness on the part of even the liberal Congress to crack down hard on dissent. Likewise, the 1984 opprobrium on Sikhs or the whole Kashmir position of the Indian state starting with the birth of the two nations has been a very hardline position. I think it had some potentially flexible moments in Nehru’s early years, but quite quickly became the rigid view that we see today.
There is a mystery about why this descent into right wing religious fundamentalism and majoritarian autocracy could happen relatively fast. You could make a longer history from Babri Masjid to today or you could make a shorter history from Modi's period as chief minister in Gujarat to today. But in any case, you can say it was obvious from 1947 that India was doomed to become a right-wing majoritarian state.
It's hard to fully spell out what has happened, but its consequences are clearly massive and it has clearly led to the rise of very militant Hinduism, which has historical precedent. And it's a history that is now closely tied to a very powerful centralised state – it's not just regional rules, or doing little wars and business here and there, it's got a kind of elevator straight to Delhi.
ET: India has always had minorities Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and others. Why are we seeing this aggressive attempt to abandon India's status as a secular nation, now, many, many years after independence?
AA: India is a land only of minorities. Not also of minorities, but only of minorities. There is nobody who has a big writ. Even if you take these big categories like Hindu, Muslim, and so on, they have slowly crystallised over time, especially during the colonial period.
It is very difficult to see a macro idea of Muslims and Hindus and so on as big identities. If you look even closely at riots in places like Lucknow in the 16th, 17th or 18th century, it's Shias vs Sunni. Nobody is holding up the flag of you know, the Ummah or some massive global Hinduism. It's all highly fragmented and this relates to caste as well, but not only to it.
No one was not a minority in India over a massive part of its history. The big question is how does a majority get produced in this place? In a place like Serbia or Japan, there are of course minorities, but you can also see there is some objective basis for a certain group of people to say we are the majority. We look and talk the same, and eat the same and these ‘untouchables’ in Japan or Okinawans, or Kosovars in Serbia, are different.
Now, in all cases, it is my belief that the majority has to be built, whether it's Serbia, Germany or here. It is not off the shelf. But in a place like India it is a huge task because of the minoritisation or the fact that you're in small cells, which have this quality that is so hardwired. I don't think we have fully plumbed the dynamics of the way a credible majoritarian identity has been not only created but also installed, you might say in digital terms, into the population.
I think the big force, which I don't understand well enough personally, is the RSS and its affiliates. They have clearly done a huge job in installing this majoritarian software on a place-to-place basis. And of course, Modi was a lifelong RSS person, a fact we sometimes forget. Each of these answers raises more questions.
Still, I would say a preliminary shot at it would be that the BJP did the wise thing to keep the RSS relationship very alive. Otherwise, it would be like every party going up and down with electoral fortunes. So, whether you go slightly up in Punjab or down in Rajasthan or down in Bengal, there is a steady force keeping your political apparatus in place as a national affair and it's not the BJP alone, because the BJP alone, you know its leadership has a very particular configuration of essentially Gujarat, UP, and a couple of other states and the key actors. But RSS is in all those places. So somewhere there may be an answer to your question.
ET: You're critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in your writings etc. but will you give him credit for being able to maybe cajole, or install a majoritarian system, which is not complete, as you said, but it's still there in some form?
AA: I think he deserves to be taken very seriously. For one thing, he's the only person I would say at the national level who has genuine large-scale appeal and charisma. If you made a charisma index, he's close to 100 and everybody else is below 50, and most people are below 20. No one can take away from it.
He's an incredible speaker. He knows how to make his appeals; he's also mastered how to make the cocktail of visibility and invisibility. He’s there all the time in front of you, but never at press conferences. You'd never see him with his hair out of place or him laughing. He's a purely hologrammed brand and you can't escape him.
Modi has mastered what in the US in the 50s was called image politics. I admire that skill. He's also been extremely shrewd, considering that he's not a scientist – to put it mildly, not highly educated. He's been extremely smart on the IT front. These BJP IT cells are amazing to me. The IT game has totally been lost.
He also has made a considerable effort, though this I think has largely been a failure, to bring the military in which is the big X Factor. The military is the 800-pound gorilla slightly off scene. General Bipin Rawat was the first exception, the line crosser, who lined up with the regime and said, hey, you know, this is the way to go and I'm at the service of this regime and its vision. But it's not clear how far down you see that interest in getting into the frontline of politics is in the Indian armed forces.
But there are many other things in which Modi has been very shrewd, one of which is the question I still ask myself: how could this man in especially Europe and the US have a very benign reputation to this day? Erdogan has not achieved this. Nobody else has achieved this. Orban has not achieved this, Trump has not achieved this. Boris Johnson has not achieved this. But Modi is still seen as a wise and strong leader in developing countries. So he also gets credit there.
I don't know whether credit is at the sending end in how he manages his image and statements or the receiving end that there is some, which has been my theory, that the receiving end has India locked in a kind of 1970s image, struggling democracy, developing country, and they just don't understand that a new chapter, a new drama has been going on for 10 to 15 years. There's a kind of arrest on the reception side. That's my private theory or my personal theory. But there too, we have to go because he's not allowed his image to correspond more to the reality of his policies.
ET: How far are we from Gandhi’s ideology in India? Is it still Mahatma Gandhi's India? Because in your writings, you've referred to India as Modi's India.
AA: Gandhi represents the exact opposite of what Modi represents in terms of tolerance, abhorrence of violence and so on and so forth, commitment to truth. All these really put him in the opposite place. Conceptually, he's still the main alternative because Nehru was too much involved in day-to-day politics. Gandhi still has a certain special status, which sometimes is used to also distance him and say who cares, he's somewhere up in some other realm. But still, he is a kind of conscience for India.
There is however, another side which is more tricky for where Gandhi feeds into the hardwiring of Indian politics and society in a way that is not totally separate from the world of Modi or others and that has to do with these ideas about Hindu and Muslim. Even if he had a different idea how they should connect, the idea became, I think, quite important him.
Several people also have complained about Gandhi over the decades that while he was extremely humane, especially at partition towards the Muslim population of the Subcontinent, he never really understood Islam much in the way that he understood, say Christianity. There was a kind of imagination limitation – not a genocidal impulse but something soft, a lacking.
Gandhi also had a certain social conservatism on caste on the order of things. You can attempt to reinterpret his writings but the landscape is there, such as the idea of Harijan, a term the Dalits hate. Although someone like Modi is not a subtle intellectual or historian, I think at a gut level he knows that Gandhi had a conservative Hindu side. Gandhi made it as humanistic and universal as possible, but the DNA was there. Modi just took that social conservatism and put it on steroids.
Having said that, Gandhi was not genocidal or believed in majoritarianism – that's a Modi copyright. Gandhi would have been horrified and would literally be turning in his grave seeing this. I'm a firm believer that Mahatma Gandhi would have not supported what is happening in India.
ET: In your writings, you've said a particular group of class in India is trying to modify demographics, to present themselves as the majority. What are the consequences of that? And how can that be stopped? Is there an appetite for such leadership and for such policies?
AA: No doubt. I was recently stimulated by a colleague with whom I was in one-on-one correspondence to look at the election results for Modi over the last two elections. The numbers are not staggering – 40% or fully 45%. I mean, Nehru sometimes had 70 or 80% vote.
So, the question is who's in that 40 or 45, and who's in the 60 or 65? Modi has managed to get a large part of the population to overcome their parochial or localised sectional interests to go for this big message that is true. No one has succeeded in mobilising the other side in the same way, which is made up of bits and pieces.
Modi’s side have been successful aggregators. The numbers are not overwhelming but it's a number enough to dominate the parliament. He has leveraged that number in a brilliant way.
I think one thing has to be kept in mind and it holds not only for Modi, but all his predecessors Manmohan Singh, Narsimha Rao, basically the Indian Congress leadership, which is the topic of corruption. What do we mean by it? How do we measure it? Is it getting worse or better? No one would deny the flow of black money and other dubious money into Indian elections is one of the scandals of all democracies today. If you take the amount of rupees flowing in from black accounts, unknown people both used to manipulate elections and to launder that money in elections. That is a very large amount of money so we need to be cautious about fetishising elections, because this is not just a Modi issue.
Modi has been very smart about how to capture elections, because elections without cash in India are a thing of the past. Modi has captured the national pot so that means he also captured the election machinery.
The place where we can see his brilliance as far as elections are concerned is in Gujarat. He showed himself as the master of Indian electoral politics in terms of speeches, rhetoric, and mobilisation, and also how you control the money flow.
ET: Would you give credit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having this extraordinary ability to polarise India on the issues where it stimulates his voters for instance? Do you think this actually helps him in securing the election?
AA: This is definitely true about that aspect of the whole Indian electoral system that responds to national and international issues. Of course, a lot is going on, which is totally local. When those things are subordinated to issues of a bigger scale, I think what you say is absolutely true.
The observation I would add to that is it is the same coin, which has two sides. One is creating a uniform commitment to Modi and to the BJP among people who have a lot of sectional interest but getting them to transit, in other words, producing a majority of some kind. The other side of the coin is that somebody has to be denigrated. So polarisation always means one side is becoming solid and the other side has to be liquefied, conceptually speaking.
For me that is the most basic kind of anthropological sociological human issue I've been struggling with more or less my entire career. What is the ‘we’ they think, to produce a strong and aggressive ‘we’? Why is there always a need for ‘they’? Why can't I just say we are all Hindus and we are good people, let's all be together. No, until you say that those other people are responsible for all our troubles – they are spies or Pakistani agents, this or that. In a slightly different way, it applies to Christians and in a murky way to Dalits as well, who are both ‘us’ and ‘not us’ – ‘us’ as long they remain quiet and obedient, but not as soon as they talk back. But Muslims are in a permanent default state of ‘otherness’.
The deep question that very few social scientists have been able to answer and I certainly cannot answer is why is a ‘they’ required in order to produce a ‘we’, both perennially in human history and in the era of modern nation states. The ‘they’ involved can be a religious idiom or an ethnic one. It can be a migrant idiom. But no one can say they promote a vigorous nationalism without any sense of some dark spectral figure that needs to be managed in prison or eventually removed.
In India, this genocidal impulse exists because the numbers are so large. It’s not like there are a handful of Muslims. And the minute you think about Muslims this way, you ask, “what about Dalits, are they on our side?”
People have pointed out to me that BJP has succeeded in co-opting a significant number of Dalits. But I still think that number is not large and those in the Dalit community who think radically against the BJP are many, and very vocal.
However, it's obvious that BJP has not co-opted Muslims and the Muslims are quiet because they are afraid in India.
The ‘we/they’ problem [in this region] is a historical question. Why has Modi succeeded in mobilising or intensifying that feeling which clearly has a longer history? There was always some deeper issue, at least as far back as Jinnah and Nehru. Modi did not manufacture the ‘us vs them’ problem but he has leveraged the hell out of it.
ET: You have referred to the current BJP government as the British Empire 2.0 and labeled it the BJP regime. What are your fears if the current form of government and their policies continue in India?
AA: I think the elected government has made inroads into the other independent branches of government massively. That's why I think, just as in Pakistan, you can talk about the establishment, we can talk about the BJP regime because there's more than just the prime minister's office doing its job with the court keeping an eye and the legislature doing its own work. It's become all too close and too tight. That's my reason for using the word. It is too deeply involved in the others for it to be a healthy democratic condition. Separation of powers is at the very heart of the idea of democracy. When all of these are very closely aligned with the current ruling party you have to find some word for that.
ET: What are your fears if these policies continue?
AA: My fears are that we are approaching something resembling a tipping point, which will go in one of two ways. One of them is where the BJP and Modi consolidate this regime and dissent is more or less eliminated. While the talk we have been noticing from some quarters is technically genocidal, that project is impossible in India with its 200 million people. Rather, it’s about producing fear and compliance on a large scale.
Will that happen? Or will Dalits, farmers, urban intellectuals, Marxists, women, Sikhs, etc. find a way to make common cause and push this government out. I think that would require a new order of leadership – either one person or a few, who can rise to Modi levels of credibility. But the tipping point could go that way as well.
ET: Do you think people are willing to carry out genocide?
AA: It's a very troublesome and troubling question. I haven't really thought about that. Calling for genocide is one thing and carrying it out is another thing in the current year. The numbers are too big to make it possible.
I think all these tactics are ways to produce fear. They are threats and statements of impunity about the vision, not the execution. Anybody in their right mind knows it cannot be done and is an extremely risky path to embark on. You can trigger many things, including overseas intervention. Do Modi and his allies want to run those kinds of risks?
I think that the pragmatic, utilitarian part of this current government, which is also deeply concerned with facilitating massive corporate profit making, sets limitations to the actual execution of a genocidal vision. I take great comfort in that.
But I still think the ability to say these things is alarming. And we have to ask, what is that agenda about? And secondly, how can we nip that in the bud – through legal means, public opinion means, elections or whatever else is possible?