Zoya Hasan

Majoritarian notions of democracy have acquired new acceptability in recent years and notions of majority rule have been pushed to achieve a restructuring of the Indian polity and a stronger authoritarian system politically. India remains a vibrant democracy in most respects but there are strong elements of authoritarianism creeping in like narrow nationalism to deactivate opponents, and increasing measures to intimidate and control the free press and impose curbs on dissent.

The general elections in 2014 produced a sharp shift to the right catapulting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the centre stage of Indian politics, as Narendra Modi led his party to a sensational win. Its victory was so complete that it captured all or most of the seats in some states and reduced the Indian National Congress to 44 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. The steep fall of the Congress party and Modi’s arrival with an absolute majority underlined the rise to prominence of the forces of Hindu nationalism in the party system and in vast areas of culture, society and economy (Sharma 2014). In consequence, the Indian polity stands redefined with the Hindu right spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP as the pole around which national politics is organised (Yadav2017; Palshikar 2017).The triumph in Uttar Pradesh (UP) in the 2017 assembly elections further consolidated its electoral domination.

This article delineates the main elements of the new political discourse embedded in majoritarian ideas of history, democracy and nationalism. It essentially explores the contours of politics and processes that caused a profound rupture in the political realm and maps the ways in which the discursive manoeuvres of the Hindu nationalists have been structured to establish its power and authority after the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992.

Political Rupture

For more than six decades the Congress was the dominant pole of Indian politics. It is no longer so and is unlikely to ever regain its élan and dominance of the political system. The BJP and the Hindu right has meanwhile grown in influence as the Congress began to lose its pre-eminence in Indian politics. By the 1980s, the Congress had begun to dabble in sectarian politics to appease Muslim and Hindu groups clamouring for accommodation of their religious concerns. Rajiv Gandhi’s concession to Muslim fundamentalists in the Shah Bano affair followed by the opening up of the gates of the Babri Masjid to please the Hindu right and Narasimha Rao’s subsequent inaction in the Babri Masjid–Ram Janmabhoomi catastrophe resulting in failure to avert the demolition of the mosque contributed enormously to this denouement. The party was constrained by Rao’s approach of not confronting the BJP but also by the more widespread fear of losing Hindu votes in North India. Even though it refrained from riding the tiger of Hindu communalism, the party ended up creating a space for religious politics to play a more central role in public life. It changed the dynamics of electoral politics, what is more, the failure to take stronger action against political violence and reluctance to challenge Hindutva groups undermined its monopoly over political power.

The end of Congress dominance paved the way for the emergence of the BJP’s brand of majoritarian politics as increasing numbers of middle-class Hindus bought into the idea that the Hindu majority has been denied its rightful importance in the public sphere. The BJP’s campaigns in this context were designed to produce an image of Hindus suffering at the hands of minorities.

Although the penchant to make India Hindu is not a new phenomenon in Indian political life, it had met with stiff resistance in the 1950s and 1960s; it was blocked by the focus of the state, influential political parties and the left and liberal minded middle classes on secularism and economic development. The post-Independence concept of India as a nation was based on civic rather than ethnic identity—and indeed much of its progress in its first 50 years was closely tied to its preservation of diversity and cultural heterogeneity. India intended to set itself apart from Pakistan—which effectively committed itself to being a state for Muslims—by adopting secularism and pluralism as its governing platform. Jawaharlal Nehru garnered support by building a consensus on the goals of state-led economic development and social transformation. He believed in inclusive nationalism and scrupulously avoided defining the nation in terms of the majority community, whereas Hindu nationalists, Rajeev Bhargava (2003) argues, harbour “a belief in a distinctive and exclusivist variant of nationalism that aims to establish a strong, united Hindu nation…”

Defining Moment

The defining moment in the breakdown of the secular consensus occurred with the demolition of the Babri Masjid on 6 December by a large crowd of Sangh Parivar activists in brazen disregard of the stay order of the Supreme Court. The violence that followed killed thousands of people across the country and displaced even more in its aftermath. This was the climax of a political movement designed to assert the supremacy of the Hindu majority. Constitutionally, it dealt a major blow to the mixing of religion and politics; it opened up the prospect of changing both the ideological discourse and institutional politics in favour of majoritarian idea of India as Hindu nation, quite contrary to the pluralist, non-parochial idea of India. Most South Asian states chose to define themselves in terms of their dominant faiths, whilst in India “political virtue was synonymous with pluralism”, celebrating its religious diversity, “and insisting that India despite its huge Hindu majority was not a Hindu nation,” notes Mukul Kesavan (2015).But this has changed.

The demolition of the mosque was an inflection point that caused this rupture. As an act of political aggression it stands testimony to the mobilisational power of religious identities in shaping the politics of right-wing nationalism, the growing importance of majority sentiment in politics and public affairs and the systematic way in which priority has been given to these interests. Any separation of religion and the state always weak is now even weaker; consequently, sectarian politics has gained new adherents.

The Ayodhya movement forced the state and a number of parties to acknowledge the primacy of the Hindu majority. The new deference to Hindu sensibilities in the public sphere and the state system is clearly one aspect of the change, the other is the subordination and subjugation of minorities.Significantly, the Hindu right has legitimised itself on the basis of the feeling that Hindus were subject to discriminatory treatment even though Hindus, albeit upper-caste, dominate all institutions in independent India and are economically and culturally powerful. Even so, they have created a pervasive sense that Hindus have not received a fair deal because of the alleged partiality of the state towards religious minorities. Hindu unity is thus sought to be created not by what they share but through the common opposition to the “enemy” within. Muslims and Christians do not fit into the scheme of the Hindu state because according to the RSS, though India is their place of birth and place of work, it is not their land of origin and their holy land. Since its inception in 1925, the RSS has never deviated from this fundamental ideological premise.

The stupendous victory of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections offered new opportunities to the party to push forward this political project after it had replaced the Congress as the central point of reference of the Indian polity. In the event, the Hindu nationalist movement which consists of the most powerful cluster of political and cultural organisations in the country has seized the opportunity offered by the landmark election to create a Hindu state and nation. The BJP, both historically and under its current president, Amit Shah, has consistently identified itself as a Hindu nationalist party that seeks to promote the idea of India as an essentially Hindu nation. Setting the tone for this agenda, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, had declared in August 2014 that “India is a Hindu state and citizens of Hindustan should be known as Hindus.” He later demanded that all Indians must be called Hindu just as people who live in England are called English or people who live in Germany are called Germans.

History as Grievance

A central plank of Hindu nationalism is to rewrite the history of the Indian sub-continent in order to promote a political movement dedicated to the restitution of perceived “wrongs” done to the “Hindu” community, observes Christophe Jaffrelot (2017). The ideologues of the RSS have consistently maintained that India as a nation ought to be defined by the culture and preferences of its Hindu majority and minorities ought to defer to this idea of India as a Hindu nation state. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement was premised on the idea of correcting a historical wrong. As Thomas Hansen (2001) points out, “Rama became a metaphor for the essential Hinduness of Indian culture” and “the Rama temple was made the pivot of the reassertion of Hindu cultural religious rights, violated for centuries in their own homeland.” It holds that barbaric Muslim invaders destroyed scores of temples, an insult that can be remedied only by reconstruction of those places of worship. In many ways, the demolition of the Babri Masjid came to symbolise reclamation of power, a righting of wrongs and a revenge for that insult 464 years ago (Hansen 2001). It is a sentiment that has become the fuel for a new type of Indian politics, the politics of grievance, mistrust, and religious chauvinism.

The Hindu nationalists approach history as a litany of grievances. Hence, its focus is more on social antagonism and political hostility, it identifies the “outsider” as enemy who has acted against the religious interests of the Hindus (Pannikkar 2002). The consolidation and mobilisation of the Hindus are the main objectives of the communal construction of history in stark contrast to Nehru’s writing of Indian history, for example, which as David Kopf states was done in a way “to preclude even the slightest nationalist bigotry and distortion” (Roychowdhury 2017). However, these forces lack the intellectual expertise to produce an Indian history that will meet even minimum disciplinary standards of historical research. Hence, it is attempting to produce history by administrative fiat and by reorganising educational syllabi and changing textbooks to reflect a view of history gleaned from mythology and religious texts or appropriating conservative icons from the nationalist pantheon to compensate for its conspicuous absence from the freedom struggle (Mahaprastha 2016).

While the rewriting of history has always been a central feature of this project (Hasan2007), the BJP government after 2014 has been more aggressively pushing new historical narratives to bring it closer to the Parivar’s ideas of the past and to depict India as a Hindu society (Sengar 2017). The standard operating procedure of this attempt to communalise history is to portray Muslim rule as a dark period of India’s history. What RSS promotes is fantasy, not history. It started with the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, an archetypal villain in the Hindu nationalist imagination, but now Akbar and Shahjahan are also in the line of fire and fury as it is important to purge the past of Muslim rule altogether. A narrative that began with renaming Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi as A P J Abdul Kalam Marg has been expanded to cover the entire 800 years of Muslim rule. The BJP’s official spokesperson, G V L Narasimha Rao provided the justification for this endeavour when he stated that

… broadly speaking, the period of Islamic rule—around 800 years—was a period of extreme exploitation, insane barbarism and unprecedented intolerance to the other faith. If anyone tries to gloss over these facts, it will be actually distorting history. (Indian Express 2017)

The project of producing a new history of India on the basis of “alternative facts” was taken a step further by Rajasthan University which has decided to introduce a new book to show that it was not Akbar who defeated Maharana Pratap in the famous battle of Haldighati but it was Maharana Pratap who defeated Akbar. The distaste for Aurangzeb or Akbar is not unique or confined to some people; it is, in fact, quite widespread in keeping with the world view that Muslims are permanent outsiders to the Indian nation.

The Taj Mahal controversy is a reminder of this logic (Ahmed2017).Any monument that Muslim rulers left behind is marked for derision, including the Taj Mahal, if not demolition, like the Babri Masjid (Kumar2017). The BJP MLA from UP, Sangeet Som called the Taj Mahal a blot on Indian culture. He questioned its place in India’s heritage and said history would be “rewritten to erase Mughal emperors from it” (Bhatia2017). His comment is not an isolated one, it directly relates to the UP government’s removal of the Taj Mahal from a brochure listing important tourist destinations in the state and filling up the list with essentially Hindu pilgrimage sites. The political leadership’s unwillingness to censure such crude machinations has encouraged these leaders to constantly test the faultlines created by the Ayodhya controversy.

Demonisation and ‘Other’ Transgressions

The Hindu nationalist discourse is premised in large part upon prejudices against people of minority religions, especially Muslims. For the past two decades, misconceptions and prejudices manufactured and disseminated through various channels such as the media and Bollywood films, especially the popular genre of terrorist films that invariably cast Muslims as terrorists to amplify threats posed by them to the country, have grown even as “Muslims continue to face exclusion and discrimination in subtle and crude forms while being asked to subordinate their specific religious identities to a ‘larger’ pan-Indian national entity or cultural super-identity which is essentially Hindu” (Bidwai2014). These portrayals shape public attitudes and feed a powerful stereotype of the violent, terrorist and untrustworthy Muslim, who can never be a good democratic citizen (Nussbaum2008). This portrayal gained ground following the New York terrorist attacks of September 2001 and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai in 2008, which has further fuelled prejudice against them. It has led to the image of the Indian Muslim as a jihadi and treacherous, and which has been used as a tool to create polarisation and consolidate the political support of the majority community, by creating and constantly fanning their insecurities. This has produced a strong sense of majority victimhood marked by an even stronger mistrust of minorities. This is apparent in the electoral process, which has sanctioned a new language of political polarisation that plays a twofold function of enhancing social tensions and disenfranchising Muslims.

Furthermore, the Hindu nationalists have played on the inflated fears that Muslims will somehow outnumber the Hindu population by converting Hindus to their faith to alter the demographics of the country. The belief ignores the fact that growth in the Muslim population is actually falling faster than the Hindu population growth rate (Shariff2015). But the fear of numbers is a major preoccupation of Hindu nationalism from the turn of the 20th century. It has given rise to divisive politics on issues such as “love jihad” (romances between Muslim men and Hindu women), or “ghar wapsi” (the reconversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism) in the early decades of the 21st century. “Love jihad” is often propagated as a conspiracy to distort the population ratio with Muslim men projected as lustful and Hindu women and girls being unsafe from prying eyes of Muslim men.

Behind beef politics, love jihad, and the Ayodhya controversy is a reimagination of the idea of India. A reimagination built around constructed theories of Hindu subjugation and victimhood. In the 1980s, only the BJP and its core constituency would support these extreme views and campaigns around it or the idea that Muslims held back India’s progress as a nation because of their intransigence. Twenty-five years later this is not an unusual conversation among India’s middle classes and is also penetrating the discourse of ordinary people.

Like never before, the Muslim was viewed not just as the other but as the root cause of the nation’s problems. It is hardly a coincidence that the issues most debated today relate to beef, love jihad, ghar wapsi, the role of Mughals in history, Muslim personal law, all of which serve only one purpose—to send a message to the Muslim minority that this is a new India in which they have a different status than before.

One consequence of this is the political marginalisation of minorities. For the first time since Independence, the majority party in the Lok Sabha does not have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha and the ruling party with over 300 seats in the UP assembly does not have a single Muslim MLA. By refusing to field a single Muslim candidate in UP, the BJP sent out a loud signal that it does not even want to garner Muslim votes and it wants everyone to know that it does not care. But significantly this attitude does not extend to other minorities because its main targets are Muslims, hence, Muslims would be shown their place. Muslims have indeed been shown their place under the present dispensation.

Legitimising Mob Violence

Over the past few years, majoritarianism has become a key part of mainstream politics paving the way for a cruder and more violently charged political discourse and practice at all levels. And so, building a Rama temple on the very spot where a mosque had been demolished carries a powerful symbolic value for a large section of Hindus in North India (Peer2010). In 2010, the Allahabad High Court verdict by giving two-thirds of the mosque’s site to Hindu litigants seems to vindicate this claim (Hensman 2010). Central to this order were two findings: that the disputed site in Ayodhya is the birthplace of Rama and that it is a juridical entity. Both conclusions were of extremely doubtful legal tenability. While it does recognise the forcible break-in of 1949 which led to placing the idols under the mosque-dome, it now recognises, without any rational basis, that the transfer put the idols in their rightful place. Even more astonishingly, it accepts the destruction of the mosque in 1992 (in defiance of the Supreme Court’s own orders) as an act whose consequences are to be accepted by transferring the main parts of the mosque to those clamouring for a temple to be built. As T R Andhyarujina (2010), a former solicitor general of India, wrote in his critique of the judgment,

when a party to a litigation takes the law into its own hands and alters the existing state of affairs to its advantage (as the demolition in 1992 did in favour of the Hindu plaintiffs) … the court would not allow an act of lawlessness to benefit the party that indulged in it. This elementary rule of justice the Allahabad High Court judgment ignores.

The most objectionable part of the Allahabad High Court verdict was the legitimation it provides to mob violence and muscle-power. Communal violence and inflammatory statements about the relationship between Hindus and other religious groups (especially Muslims) has played a major part in building a majoritarian platform even as these organisations blame Islamic terrorism which they believe is directed against Hindus and is designed to hurt national unity. Violence as a means of organising Hindus reached its peak in the brutal massacres in Gujarat in the aftermath of the Godhra incident in February–March 2002. The mass violence in the surrounding towns and villages was revenge for the killing by Muslims of 59 Hindu pilgrims on the Sabarmati Express; it killed nearly 2,000 Muslims. Violence happened while Modi was the chief minister and even 15 years on he has failed to condemn attacks on Muslims.

India has a long history of mass violence and a shambolic record when it comes to prevention and punishment of the perpetrators of such violence. Two major incidents occurred in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013 (52 persons killed) and in Assam in May 2014 when on a single day 46 persons, 28 of them young children, were murdered in Baksa district. However, the overall trend marks a shift away from large-scale violence to low intensity violence which does not attract the same attention as big incidents do. The pattern of violence in the last three years clearly indicates a new strategy of lowering the threshold of violence with the shift towards vigilante violence often described as mob lynching. Lynchings and vigilante attacks have become the chosen method of violence against minorities—particularly Muslims —in the name of the cow. According to a recent report on mob violence, Lynching Without End (2017),

The shift in method, from mass violence to low intensity individualised ones, being perhaps a deliberate strategy by those behind the violence, to at once avoid too much public scrutiny, whilst also ensuring that the minorities are constantly under attack.

The report documents 24 incidents of lynching and vigilante violence, resulting in the murder of 34 persons and rape of two women, mostly from 2015 onward, almost all of the victims belonging to the minority Muslim community.These attacks are not spontaneous expressions of mob anger, they are the product of systematic incitement to violence and the consequence of long years of propaganda. In the event, both mobs and police have regularly treated victims of cow vigilantism as suspects in ways that marginalise and de-victimise these individuals rather than those indulging in violence.

Cow vigilantism has been an important catalyst for hate politics and hate violence stalking the country in the recent past. Hindu vigilante groups calling themselves Gau Rakshak Dal have targeted Muslims and Dalits, especially Muslims, over cow and beef slaughter, consumption, trade and even possession. In these attacks, whether the victim actually possessed beef, or whether cows were actually being transported for slaughter, or even that cows were not involved, but other forms of cattle, is not relevant. These cases would not have been so frequent if it weren’t for the atmosphere of hate and suspicion created through a sustained political campaign and propaganda against Muslims (Apoorvanand2017). The strategic silence of BJP–RSS leadership works like unspoken approval to carry out the violent attacks. By allowing mob violence to continue unchecked the Hindu right boosts its image as the lone protector of Hindu religion and culture in India.

The Hindu State

The Ayodhya movement helped the BJP to establish its presence in UP—the fulcrum of its political project. UP is the site where Hindu nationalism’s most important projects have been planned and executed from the time of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement to the recent appointment of Adityanath as chief minister. His elevation marks a new moment in UP politics. For long he has dominated the headlines because of his vituperative brand of politics articulated in statements like “given a chance, I will install Ganesh statues in every mosque.” The stoking of sentiments through such bellicose language was what helped the BJP garner massive support in the 2017 elections, and he has been duly rewarded for his efforts. By choosing him, the message the BJP sends is that it will continue to capture power by resorting to overt communal mobilisation.

The deliberate amalgamation of the spiritual and temporal domains has serious implications for the future of liberal democracy. For the first time in independent India, a head of a religious institution has been appointed to the most important constitutional-political post in a state. This is characteristic of the new institutional relationship between religion and the state being forged under the BJP regime. Even if we acknowledge that secularism is a contested process in the contemporary moment, the elevation of a temple priest to the post of chief minister is the most blatant contravention of the basic separation of religion and state power essential for modernity and democracy. His appointment has in one stroke converted the electoral majority into a majoritarian one. In the face of this ominous development, the eminent jurist Fali Nariman suggested that people must question the Prime Minister on his choice to install a priest as chief minister of UP. “Is this the beginning of a Hindu state,” he asked (ndtv2017).

Finally, the combination of neo-liberalism in economics (which has not been discussed here because of lack of space) and majoritarianism in politics characterise the present conjuncture. In retrospect, the crucial turning point for the growth of Hindu majoritarianism was the Sangh Parivar’s mass mobilisation campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid which undermined secularism and facilitated the expansion of Hindu nationalism. This political project would not have advanced as it has in the last 25 years without the ground prepared by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement prompting a dramatic escalation of polarisation across social divisions and its emergence as the preferred strategy for political mobilisation in national and state elections. Running parallel to the religiously inspired processes spawned by this campaign are majoritarian notions of democracy which have acquired new acceptability in these years. Notions of majority rule have been pushed to achieve a restructuring of the Indian polity and a stronger authoritarian system politically. This is not the complete picture of India, of course, which remains a vibrant democracy in most respects, but there are strong elements of authoritarianism creeping in—narrow nationalism to deactivate opponents and increasing measures to intimidate and control the free press and impose curbs on dissent. Furthermore, while all the formal appurtenances of democracy exist they are distorted by the primacy given to the promotion of the interests of the majority community and the excessive focus on electoral calculations and political machinations to seize power in state after state. The most insidious aspect of the growth of the right is the normalising and mainstreaming of Hindu nationalism and its domination of the public arena. This has clearly ushered in the era of a BJP-centric political system which can be used to dismantle the foundational values of India’s secular, democratic republic.


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Zoya Hasan is professor emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.