What do people mean when they say ‘Hindu rashtra’? And what would it feel like to live under such a state?
People might imagine grandiose parades, banners, armbands or even official paramilitaries. They might perhaps expect the symbols of the state to change – the anthem, the flag, the formal reverence to the constitution. Perhaps something resembling the symbology and aesthetics out of the dystopian world of Leila.
But what if we are already living and breathing in a de-facto Hindu rashtra, without so much as realising it?
What most people don’t understand is that symbols need not be abolished, because they can always be appropriated and then subverted. The tiranga that represents liberty and equality for most Indians is proudly displayed on social media by people bent on destroying those very ideals. It was indeed the Indian flag, and not a saffron one, that was used to drape the body of a man accused of lynching a Muslim.
Similarly, a formal adherence to the principles of the constitution need not preclude a concerted attack, in practice, on the principles the constitution embodies. A few years ago, noted political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta suggested the atmosphere of intimidation and the subversion of institutions feels “jolly close to an emergency”.
Therefore, the change from a constitutional republic to a majoritarian state need not entail a change either in the constitutional framework or in our national symbols. It simply needs a transformation of the character of our state and the nature of our society. On the basis of recent evidence, it’s hard not to conclude that we are already in the latter stages of such a transformation.
When the Chinese state dumped communism for state capitalism, they didn’t dump their constitution, their laws or even their political rhetoric. In brief, they didn’t replace the symbols of the old system, but they changed the character of the state almost entirely. They simply gave it a new name: ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’. But if anybody still believes the Chinese state is anything resembling socialist, the joke is on them. Similarly, if our liberal intellectuals still believe that the Hindu rashtra is a remote, far-in-the-future possibility, parroting procedural arguments drained of meaning, the joke might soon be on them.
What matters ultimately is the substance of the state, not the form. The United Kingdom is deemed to be a secular country, in practice, despite having two officially recognised churches. The queen, the head of state, is also the supreme governor of the Church of England. If a country can be secular despite a non-secular constitution, the reverse is also entirely possible. Therefore, the form the Hindu rashtra takes is irrelevant – both to its supporters and indeed to its victims. What matters is the content of the Hindu rashtra – a state where the minorities live in fear as effective second-class citizens and where leading Hindutva organisations enjoy, in practice, extra-legal powers to coerce and intimidate.
If you’re still convinced that a majoritarian state is inconceivable under a secular constitution, let’s glance at the recent record of our constitutional protections. The Citizenship Bill, which gives the right of citizenship to all refugees except Muslims, is not yet deemed as unconstitutional. The detention camps in Assam, which disproportionately house Muslims, are also supposedly not unconstitutional. In fact, they are being overseen by the Supreme Court, no less. One would imagine, as home minister Amit Shah has promised, that were the ruling party to apply the National Register of Citizens all over the country, and build detention camps across the country, it would also not fall foul of the constitution.
The constitution, after all, is ‘not a machine that would go of itself’ but ‘a living thing’, as Woodrow Wilson reminded us. Therefore, the meanings of constitutional provisions, if not the words, are liable to change with time and political context. In the final analysis, our comforting constitutional protections are only as good as the people interpreting them, and the people executing them. Or more accurately in this case, not executing them.
We hear of racist incidents in the United States all the time. What we almost never see are videos recorded and released by the White perpetrators. The simple reason is that in India, the perpetrators don’t expect to be punished; rather, they expect to be lauded. They see a right-wing icon sitting in parliament, whose dramatic rise owes itself to the fact that she is an accused in a case involving the killing of Muslims.
It’s true that xenophobic or chauvinist attacks happen in every country. But what separates a rule of law country from a majoritarian country is just one factor – a climate of impunity. India might not be Hindu rashtra yet for the liberal intelligentsia, but for the Hindutva stormtroopers roaming the streets, this is the Hindu rashtra.
Similarly, the prerequisite of a Hindu rashtra is not that bigotry or violence against minorities is legally or constitutionally sanctioned. Hindutva violence, like any political violence, is merely the means to an end, and not an end in itself. The objective of all Hindutva violence is to usher in a perpetual and all-pervading climate of fear, where minorities are compelled to accept their secondary status. If the minorities are today afraid to air their political views in public, and increasingly even afraid of uttering their real name in front of a group of strangers, surely that objective has been achieved. For India’s minorities, for all intents and purposes, this is the Hindu rashtra.
But what of our ‘free and independent’ media? Isn’t a Hindu rashtra supposed to be a state where bigotry towards minorities is spewed daily through the airwaves, and the leaders are represented as superhumans? Anyone who has watched some of the biggest Indian TV news channels knows that this is how things are today.
Discussing eating habits, marriage rituals and religious beliefs of Muslims is perhaps the single-most popular genre in contemporary TV news. It’s hard to go a day without some unknown bearded Muslim being yelled at by a furious anchor, incensed by his regressive views. It hardly matters whether this pathological media obsession with Muslims is officially mandated by the state. When the majority of the media closely follows the Hindutva agenda of the ruling party, they have effectively reduced themselves to the propaganda wing of the Hindu rashtra.
What lulls our collective imagination into believing that we still live in a firmly secular, democratic state is mainly the fact that we have no historical experience of living in a majoritarian state. Unlike the Europeans, with their histories of fascism, we have no comparable historical memory of a Hindu-majoritarian modern state. We have no readymade historical analogy or tell-tale historical signs. The modern state of India has only known colonialism and secular democracy.
We cannot recognise something we haven’t experienced before, and have no imagination of, even if it’s staring us in the face. The power of the Hindu rashtra that exists today is precisely based on this phantom-like quality. The tentacles of the Hindu rashtra might be hidden, but both its proponents and its victims can feel the presence in their bones.
Asim Ali is a research scholar in political science at Delhi University.