New Delhi: The six months that have passed since Narendra Modi assumed power for the second time as prime minister of India have seen developments that look destined to have an impact on Indian democracy that will be felt in the years to come.
India has quaked with widespread protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the possibility of a nationwide National Register of Citizens.
The demonstrations, in which large sections have hit the streets in the last few weeks, were preceded by the Modi government stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its constitutional autonomy, and the Supreme Court delivering a verdict in which disputed land in Ayodhya, on which Babri masjid once stood, was given to Hindu parties.
Ironically, the apex court held that the act of demolishing the Babri masjid in 1992 was illegal but still thought it fit to hand over ownership of the rights of the land to Hindu organisations because of their belief that a Hindu temple existed there before the mosque did.
The Wire spoke to eminent political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot on these seismic changes that, according to many, have brought Indian democracy to a halt.
Jaffrelot has been researching and writing on the politics of South Asia for the last two decades. He has authored multiple books on the politics of Hindu nationalism and caste-based mobilisations in India. He recently co-edited Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India and is writing his next book on the 1975 Emergency.
He is currently professor of South Asian politics and history at Sciences Po, Paris, and King’s India Institute, London. He is also the research director at the Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique (French National Centre for Scientific Research) in Paris.
In this wide-ranging interview, he analyses recent political developments in India, offers insight on Hindu nationalism under the leadership of Modi, the evolution of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh over the decades, and links current Indian politics with the global spurt of right-wing populism.
While the first part of the interview deals with the current developments in India, the second focuses on the evolution of Hindutva nationalism.
India is witnessing nation-wide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Such a scale of protests is unprecedented in India’s recent memory.
Indeed, we had not seen such a popular protest since the Anna Hazare movement 10 years ago. In fact, some of those who had demonstrated then may well be on the streets again – except, of course, those belonging to the Sangh parivar, who played such an important role in the Hazare movement, and except Anna Hazare himself.
What strikes me is the over representation of young Indians – girls as well as boys – in this movement, something we may also explain by the economic crisis as the youth is the primary casualty of joblessness.
And this feature calls to mind another comparison, with the mass demonstrations initiated by Mahatma Gandhi during the Freedom movement – non violence and civil disobedience were already the mottos at that time, and were already difficult to implement and maintain…
Many observers feel that the CAA is a paradigmatic shift in India’s legislative history, given the fact that it allows the government to determine citizenship on the basis of religious identities. What do you think of it?
In most countries, including mine, France, there are two definitions of the nation in competition.
One that is territorial and one that is ethnic. According to the former, all those who reside in the frontiers of the nation-state are eligible to citizenship. According to the later, you may be born out of these borders, if you belong to the dominant ethnic group (defined by race, religion, language…) you’re potentially a national of this country.
The idea of India that is enshrined in the 1950 constitution and that found expression in the 1955 Citizenship Act does not refer to religion, simply because it is based on humanist, universalistic values.
Hindu nationalists do not share these views because they define India on the basis of ethno-religious categories. In that sense, yes, there is a paradigmatic shift in the making because non-Muslims coming from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be seen as refugees and would be in a position to apply to citizenship; whereas Muslims will be seen as illegal migrants and may become stateless.
What do you make of the unprecedented police crackdowns on university spaces?
You probably refer to the way policemen shot unarmed demonstrators in the street and forced their way to university campuses and even hospitals. I do not know how unprecedented that is. I have just finished a book on the Emergency with my co-author Pratinav Anil, and we have been struck by the intensity of police repression of the JP Movement that took place just before the declaration of the state of Emergency, not to mention what happened after June 26, 1975 in Kashmiri Gate or elsewhere.
The geography of police repression – like during the Emergency – needs to be taken into account too: Uttar Pradesh, parts of Karnataka and Delhi were more badly affected than other parts of the country. This is a reflection of the lack of autonomy of the police vis-à-vis their political masters. Those who ask for a reform of the police will be vindicated by the lack of professionalism that some law and order enforcing forces have displayed over the last few months.
The proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) is set within an anti-immigrant narrative. Do you draw any parallels with European nations, where such a narrative has been there for some years now?
In Europe, the proponents of the ethno-nationalist discourses that I’ve just mentioned are articulating a similar anti-migrant narrative.
Viktor Orban, in Hungary, is a case in point. In Poland, the ruling party is also promoting a Catholic definition of the nation at the expense of multiculturalism. But these forms of xenophobia is also evident from West European countries, including France and UK – where this anti-foreigners discourse is the subtext of Brexit to a large extent.
Extreme right parties, whose European MPs had been invited to visit Jammu and Kashmir recently, cash in on the fear of the Other – and primarily the Muslim – for political purposes.
The politics of fear helps them to build electoral majorities, even when migrants are in small numbers. As Arjun Appadurai has shown few years ago, “the fear of small numbers” is a powerful one!
Stifling dissent in India, which has often taken pride in its liberal democratic set-up, is on the rise. Some observers say that Indian government has adopted a proto-fascist approach, while some are of the opinion that its authoritarianism can’t be equated with fascism.
Fascism is totalitarian, not authoritarian only. In a fascist regime, there’s no meaningful elections, elections the rulers can lose – be it at the national level or at the state level. But this is the most obvious difference with the Indian situation. There are others, that I underlined in my first book on the Sangh Parivar, 25 years ago, where I distinguished Hindu nationalism from fascism on two grounds.
Firstly, RSS had never cultivated any personality cult: sarsanghchalaks come and go, but the organisation continues to grow, in contrast to European fascist movements which could only survive when the founder had a son or a daughter – and sometimes not even then.
Secondly, European fascists have been obsessed by state power, whereas RSS is more interested in conquering society, via the shakha network and the myriad of the organisations comprising of the Sangh parivar – a modus operandum that endows the movement with greater resilience.
Clearly, the Hindutva movement has changed on both grounds, but to what extent, I do not know and we will know only after BJP will have to reinvent itself in the post-Narendra Modi era.
If responses of the Modi government’s functionaries are seen on the CAA-NRC issue, it seems they have reduced the debate into a semantic battle with those against the controversial laws. In fact, they have been able to create a positive narrative for every measure they have taken in the recent past.
For instance, the Modi government justified its decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy as necessary for the region’s development. Similarly, for CAA, it has said it is opening up India for persecuted minorities. What do you have to say?
Such a rhetoric is not surprising. What is more surprising is the way the mainstream media (and even foreign countries) accepted it.
First, human development indicators show that J&K is doing better than most of the other Indian states, something that is largely due to the land reform that the state had achieved and, to some extent, to the fact that Muslims tend to register lower infant mortality rates, especially among girls.
The way the government of India feels for persecuted minorities needs to be qualified too: if compassion was the driving force behind its policy, the Hindu Tamil migrants from Sri Lanka should benefit from the CAA too, like the Ahmadis and the Hazaras (or other Shias) from Pakistan.
Both lists – the list of the eligible minorities and the list of the countries they are supposed to come from – are contradicting the official discourse based on compassion, a sentiment everybody should cultivate more to across the globe by the way: the list of countries should have included Sri Lanka excluded and the list of religion should have included Muslim minorities.
In Modi’s second term, the Union government has virtually revoked Article 370 by reading it down. Then the Supreme Court too handed the disputed land to Hindu organisations in the Ayodhya title suit verdict. And now CAA and NRC. These are issues that the Sangh parivar has long advocated. How do you see these developments?
It is true that history got accelerated in the wake of the BJP’s second electoral victory.
You may explain it in two ways: first, governments can more easily make big decisions immediately after they received a mandate from the voters – and there is no doubt that most of the changes you are mentioning were electoral promises of BJP.
Secondly, the economic slowdown is turning out to be so severe that, as I anticipated five years ago, identity politics has to gain momentum for mitigating people’s disenchantment and for distracting them from real issues: this kind of ‘scapegoats politics’ is as old as politics itself!
Specifically, what is your reading of the Supreme Court’s Ayodhya title suit verdict? How would these developments impact Indian politics?
We tend to consider lawyers as above society, as spared by the contingencies of political developments because they are supposed to apply constitutional principles which, by definition, are relatively a-temporal. But they live with their times.
They are influenced by the changing mindset of their milieu. And the Ayodhya story offers a great illustration of the ways Supreme Court’s verdicts are context-driven.
In December 1992, the P.V Narasimha Rao government had requested the president of the Republic to seek the opinion of the court on the question of “whether a Hindu temple or any other religious structure existed prior to the construction of the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid”.
After two years of reflection, the Supreme Court had responded that this question was “superfluous and unnecessary and does not require to be answered”.
Fifteen years later, in spite of the fact that no new archaeological information has been added to the case, the Supreme Court lawyers have been in a position to say that a Ram Mandir had to be built where there was one before. More importantly, the court argued that the religious sentiments of the Hindus had to be paid attention to – something the Allahabad high court had already said in 2010.
Such a formula is problematic because it suggests that the religious sentiments of the minorities, by contrast, can be ignored (in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court, in 2019 acknowledged that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was illegal). It is also problematic because it shows that religious sentiments prevail over the provisions of the Constitution according to which all citizens are equal, irrespective of their religion.
Recent developments, including the silence of the Supreme Court about J&K, reflect a similar form of judicial majoritarianism – or even judicial populism.
Indian Muslim feel deeply alienated in current times. Are new layers of citizenship being created by the ruling regime, say, on the lines of Arabs in Israel or Ahmadiyyas or Hazaras in Pakistan?
The CAA, indeed, prepares the ground for a de jure second class of citizenship: the descendants of two migrants who come from the same village in Bangladesh may have a different fate according to their religion; the non-Muslim will be considered as a refugee and will be eligible to citizenship whereas the Muslim will be seen as an illegal migrant and may end in a camp.
But Muslims have been at the receiving end de facto for years, as evident from their over representation in jail – that is a reflection of the police’s bias: this over representation disappears if one considers those who have been convicted because the proportion of Muslims among those whose case has been examined by the judiciary is not much higher than the percentage of Muslims in society.
And we see innocent Muslims released after years in jail, the moment judges pay attention to them.
This is only one entry point in this conundrum: Muslims are now poorer and less educated than Dalits (who have benefited fully from positive discrimination), they suffer more and more from ghettoisation, and the number of Muslim MPs and MLAs is shrinking, etc.
Read the second part of the interview here.