The biggest challenge for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today is the difficulty of imposing a totalitarian regime on India, a society whose total population is now almost 1.4 billion, which has a huge plethora of living languages, and a social structure made up of an astonishing number of minorities of every type, whose cultural loyalty is much more palpable for them than any majoritarian identity.
In addition, Indian communication infrastructure is highly uneven. Local power elites are more deeply entrenched than ever before, and even uniting the power base of major parties in the states where they are quite powerful – such as the BJP in Rajasthan, the CPI(M) in Kerala or the TMC in West Bengal – is no easy thing.
The problem for the BJP is the same problem as for any ruling regime in India: it is the problem of endless laws and zero compliance. Whether it is land reform, food rationing, petrol adulteration, runaway construction, gold smuggling or primary education, India has more wonderful laws than most Western countries. But the law is rarely seen as a serious obstacle to the jugaad of daily life, especially for those who are in the business of exercising local goondacracies, or building small-scale feudal domains. A primary technique of such local operations, which are scofflaws of the most organic kind, is that they buy low-level police, judges, revenue officials and other agents of the grassroots state. This allows them to flout all laws, and also to build the assets to buy seats, elections and cabinet positions at all levels.
In these circumstances, where all real power is localised, fragmented and corrupt, how can a national party, which controls the organs of the state, actually execute the sort of “total” policies in regard to economy, culture and politics which defines any self-respecting fascist regime? Here, the BJP has evolved a brilliant strategy, which has two prongs, arrived at by the accidents of trial and error or by brilliant calculations, or a mix of both. These two prongs may be called – ‘harassment by sample’ and ‘tyranny by example’. I explain these two prongs as follows.
‘Harassment by sample’ is the fascist twist on an old set of colonial techniques, institutions and epistemologies which are best exemplified by the census but are also detectable in the archaeological surveys, the trigonometric surveys, the district gazetteers and various other bureaucratic forms elaborated by the British from earlier, simpler Mughal models for land revenue extraction. The British mode of enumeration was not originally probabilistic but more total in its ambitions, seeking to get absolute population numbers for castes, tribes, yields, prices, distances, and almost anything else that could be counted in order to facilitate conquest and control.
Many of these techniques were carried over wholesale into the workings of the Indian government after 1947, refined through the central planning of the Nehruvian period and redeployed by subsequent regimes, most recently the current BJP regime. From the 1960s onwards, statistics became the technical spine of all state numerical operations and as a consequence, sampling became a vital part of state operations as well. The National Sample Survey (NSS) is the zenith of the mountain where enumeration, classification, and probabilistic sampling become crucial tools of state governance. In a strange way, the arrival of digital platforms, machines and applications, has reawakened an earlier fantasy of complete population counts (the Aadhaar card is perhaps the best example of this) but sampling techniques remain crucial to both state and corporate agendas for handling big data, especially of the numerical variety. Thus, statistical and probabilistic techniques are central to all macro-power in India today, and sampling is now the handmaiden of big data and of state-based knowledge of populations.
What does all this have to do with law, fascism and governance in India today? The most repressive, exclusionary, anti-minority and xenophobic laws of recent years, are the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), both of which are legalised demands on all kinds of people within India to prove their legitimate claims on Indian citizenship. In the months since the CAA was promulgated, with only minimal debate and consent, it is evident that most Indians are in no position to document their antecedents, their migration status, their length of Indian residency, their birthplace or the other items demanded by these surveys.
What becomes clear is that these laws are meant not for all Indians but only for some, in particular for Muslims, poor immigrants in border states, destitute internal migrants and other weakly enfranchised groups.
What is worse, it is not all the members of these groups who are under threat of expulsion, detention or other forms of terror. It is only some, and these chosen ones are those who have offended someone or some group in the great chain of power, which connects the smallest village in Jharkhand or Manipur to the central districts of Delhi. In statistical language, this is purposive or targeted sampling, not random sampling. Its purpose is to terrify, intimidate and silence persons who offend through their actions or through their ascribed identities. Its further purpose is to demonstrate the power of the law to terrorise individuals by targeting a select few.
No number of Indian police, courts, prisons and detention centres could possibly apply laws like the NRC and the CAA to the entire Indian population, even with the ancillary aid of Aadhaar cards, PAN cards, ration cards, school certificates and other forms of counting, classifying and identifying individuals. So, targeted sampling is an effort to perform and display state power at minimum cost, by harassing a small number of individuals to produce fear and consent in the many.
This is harassment by sample. It is a form of statistical fascism which seeks to produce total state control through exemplary cases of harassment, which substitute for an apparatus of total power which neither India, nor any other historically fascist state, could ever successfully produce. Compliance can thus be produced by fascist regimes, since real consent requires a serious commitment to democracy. Harassment by sample is fascism on the cheap. It turns the Indian habit of non-compliance with the law into a virtue, since compliance is not really its goal.
As I have already noted, harassment by sample cannot work without the other prong of this sort of fascism, which is tyranny by example. Tyranny by example is the grassroots basis for harassment by sample. Every time a Dalit woman is burnt, raped and murdered in a field, every time a Dalit man is lynched or beaten to death, every time a Muslim student or labourer is tortured, beaten or murdered, tyranny by example is the normalised cultural idiom. The act of humiliation, violence, terror or killing is always an example to remind all women, Dalits, Muslims, dissidents, students of their vulnerability. The lesson is: there, but for the luck of the draw, go me or you or she or him.
Every brutal act of violence against any weaker person or group in India today is pedagogic. It is part of a continuous masterclass in how to know your aukaat. India is the land of aukaat and what electoral democracy initially did is to disturb the delicate fabric of aukaat, and so the cruel pedagogy of millennia needed to be updated for our democratic times. Harassment by sample cannot work without tyranny by example and the reverse is also true. The joint working of these two prongs is the source of swadeshi fascism in India today, where centuries of practice in enforcing day to day aukaat politics meets the fascist fantasies of a ruling party which can only perform its totalitarian wishes through harassment by sample.
However, does this mean that Hindutva as the ruling ideology of BJP fascism is a meaningless ideology, a mere cover for rule by sample and example? By no means, since the BJP and its numerous allied groupings use Hindutva as an ideology of conceptual sampling, making the part stand for the whole. Linguists call this usage a metonym. The crown is a metonym for the King, but a rose is a metaphor for love or life. Hindutva as a ruling ideology relies on metonym, where parts stand for wholes. The temple is a metonym for the sacred totality of Bharat; a sadhu is a metonym of ascetism; Dalits are metonyms of filth; Muslims are metonyms for treason. Brahmins are metonyms of purity. In each case, the part stands for the whole but is also a vehicle or carrier of the whole. This logic of part and whole can today be seen in the latest chapter of the conversion of the Babri Masjid into the Ram Mandir. It can also be seen in the recent uproar about the entry of menstruation-age women to the Sabarimala Temple.
India itself is now conceived as a giant Hindu temple
How do we get from the CAA and NRC to new mega temples and the cultural rights of menstruating women? The link is that the sacred part and the profane whole have changed places under contemporary Hindutva. Temples, and all sacred Hindu places, have now become miniature Indias because India itself is now conceived as a giant Hindu temple into which entry is reserved only for Hindus and even more so for active, committed Savarna Hindu males. What we are witnessing is a new chapter in the long story of Hindu places of worship – mainly temples – in India. Let me revisit that field of study and suggest what its latest twist has to do with law, sampling and exemplary acts of humiliation.
Temples exist throughout India and are placed differently in regional systems of religious leadership, priestly privileges, economic power and royal authority. Temples in Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, for example, are all based on shared ideas about the incarnation of divinities in stone, metal and wood, shared ideas of the benefits of puja (worship) over yagna (sacrifice) and common practices of religious donation, priestly authority and the differential rights of different communities, castes ands genders. In Tamil Nadu, the number, historical prestige and agrarian resources of temples exceed those of Bengal and UP, and in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, temples attract donors and gifts of a scale unthinkable in most of the Gangetic states. Still, all Hindu temples are held together in a vast “sacred geography” textualised in the Puranas, various mythological narratives and folktales, in which Banaras, Rameswaram, and a few other sacred places are the central nodes. This geography is activated in a pilgrimage cartography which runs from Badrinath to Rameswaram and Dwarka to Puri.
Hindu temples are never free of the demands and dramas of local networks of caste, class, patronage. They provide a different route to mobility and public recognition for all sorts of communities, sects and castes who wish to push new claims to public prestige in their struggles for status. Temple politics is the sacred face of wider social struggles over rank, power and status.
The famous struggles over temple entry in much of India south of the Vindhyas in the late 19th century, revived by Gandhi and Ambedkar in the context of the Indian struggle for independent nationhood, are about much more than ritual issues and sacred spaces. They are about aukaat in a rapidly changing society where new faces, new leaders, new wealth and new rules began to destabilise older systems of rank and deference, as early as 1850. What links the Ram Mandir decision in Uttar Pradesh and the Sabarimala battles in Kerala in 2019, is the issue of who controls entry into the sacred spaces of a society which is defined by gradations and distinctions between the most sacred and the least sacred (impure, polluted) persons and groups. Hindu India will always need the temple as a major theatre of status warfare.
But what is the BJP twist in this longstanding politics of sacrality? In the new Hindutva of the ruling BJP, India has itself been defined as a massive temple, to which entry needs to be restricted by such laws as the CAA and the NRC and their many technical adjuncts. Thus, the “part”, the temple, has now become the “whole” and the BJP is now enforcing a version of the temple entry project in which all dissenters, lower castes, religious minorities and regime opponents are outside India’s sacred geography, banned from entering the temple of India’s Hinduised soil. They are resident non-Indians (in Ashis Nandy’s brilliant neologism) in a Hindutva geography which is enforced by the techniques of harassment by sample and tyranny by example. The CAA and the NRC are the judicial teeth of this sacred cleansing ritual, through which anyone who threatens the state-enforced fantasy of aukaat can be banished, humiliated or disappeared.
A recent example
This convergence of a millennial fabric of aukaat with the fantasy of a totalitarian Hindutva can be seen in the recent and brutal beating of a 14-year-old Muslim boy by an unemployed 26-year-old Hindu male who was a temporary caretaker of a temple in a small town in Uttar Pradesh. The boy had stepped into the temple to drink water from one of its taps, was asked his name, and when he replied with a name that was clearly Muslim, he was beaten by the older man, who also asked a bystander to video-record the horrible beating, from which the boy has yet to recover. The aggressor has been arrested, though the road from arrest to conviction and imprisonment in UP is paved with possible exits.
This story brings together sacred spaces, despised citizens, basic human needs and a psychotic sense of vigilante righteousness among the male flotsam and jetsam of Hindu semi-urban society. The victim is abused for acting on his thirst and his simple right to water is denied, a denial which is enacted every day in India’s segregated wells, toilets, ponds, tanks and sacred rivers and streams. Nature itself is marked by borders, fences, walls and limits.
Only fully human, upper caste (non-menstruating) Hindu males have free access to nature and the nation. Others enter both at their peril. This was also what we saw in the Sabarimala case, in that case a reminder to women of the fundamental misogyny and patriarchy of the Hindutva order of things. Kerala has seen many iterations of struggle over temple entry in the 20th century and this most recent effort to keep women in the ages between puberty and menopause out of the temple was defeated by the courts. But it was yet another sign of the struggle to bring Hindutva to the south of India and to resist any dilution of Hindutva ideology by Marxism, secularism or feminism.
The biggest project which captures the wish to expand, fortify and promote the sacred geography of Hindutva is the Ram Mandir project in Ayodhya, which is a kind of royal consecration (rajasuya) for Yogi Adityanath, who might also double up as an ersatz form of the sacrificed royal horse of the Vedic asvamedha ritual, roaming Uttar Pradesh to enact the sovereignty of the chief samrat in Delhi, before being killed. The road from the destruction of the Babri Masjid to the building of the Ram Mandir covers almost three decades, but this history disguises the newness of the Ram Mandir, which is the PR jewel in a crown composed of CAA, NRC, NPR, and the police attacks on Aligarh Muslim University, JNU, Jamia Millia. This new context is composed of the imprisonment of dozens of student dissidents, activists and whistleblowers, as well as the birth of the new Modi image as an ascetic-king, the bearded sage of the South Block, and the Vinoba Bhave of Sharam-daan.
The new politics of violence, exclusion and humiliation which is being played out in various religious spaces and idioms in India today cannot be understood without reference to the tactics of harassment by sample and tyranny by example in Modi’s India. Targeted harassment and tyranny by example are the strategies of a state that has the desire but not the means to achieve full-fledged totalitarian control. The exclusionary mandir politics of the Hindutva cadres is now part of the means to sacralise the nation and nationalise the sacred, thus creating the illusion of totality, which provides the backdrop for the samples and examples of the totalitarian dream.