Three Observations From India's Past to Contextualise the Present Struggle

At a time when many of us are on the barricades, either physically or politically, it is important to put our apocalyptic moment in long-term perspective.

We are witnessing India’s first mass movement since the movement for national Independence, which began in the 1880s and ended in 1947. At no time since 1947 have we seen such an inspiring show of democratic dissent, bringing together students and workers, old and young, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and other faiths, Marxists, liberals and traditional nationalists, government servants and corporate leaders, men and women.

In this mass movement, women, students and youth in general are the leaders, with Muslims speaking their minds with a courage born out of the sense that other options are non-existent. The Emergency had some of these features, but the broad opposition to Indira Gandhi then recognised that she had some ability to listen, learn and respond, by comparison to the current regime.

At a time when many of us are on the barricades, either physically or politically, it is easy to be caught up in the news of the day, the week or the month. At such times, we need to bear India’s long history in mind and put our apocalyptic moment in long-term perspective. In this light, I have three observations to offer.

Gujrat’s history and today’s India

The first has to do with the long history of the connection between Gujarat, the state which nurtured the careers of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah over decades, and the Godhra train burning of 2002, a connection which helped them to leverage a national platform for their vision of a polity cleansed of Muslims.

Also Read: Disturbing Similarities in Modi’s Journey from Godhra, 2002 to Pulwama, 2019

But these events in Gujarat have a deeper history which goes back to 1956, when the Gujarati-speakers of Bombay lost the city to Maratha regionalists and the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat were born. From the Bombay Gujarati point of view, Bombay was the city built by Gujarati and Parsi capital, but was also the long-term home of many Marathi-speakers (whom the Gujarati mercantile elite stigmatised as lowly domestic workers and factory serfs) and Muslims (whom they already feared and disliked because of the long Gujarati and RSS historiography of the Muslim ravaging of the Hindu temples of their region). Thus, the loss of Bombay in 1956 was a double loss for many Gujaratis, which was only redeemed in part by the ascendance and royal status of people like the Ambanis.

The southern end of Gujarat meets the northern end of Maharashtra on the Arabian Sea, in a belt that runs from Mandwa to Daman and Diu, always a zone of struggle between Gulf pirates, coastal Marathi-speaking magnates and state functionaries, and Gujarati merchants and smugglers. Though many in Gujarat do not identify strongly with Bombay (and its loss in 1956), for ideologues and strategists like Shah and Modi, the mutual traffic between them, the Adanis, the Ambanis and other smaller Bombay tycoons, is the key counterweight to the power of Maratha regionalism, which has become openly anti-BJP and anti-Gujarati again, in the weeks since Udhav Thackeray became chief minister of Maharashtra.

In short, the Modi-Shah regime is built on its whipping up of regional angers and hatreds in Gujarat from 2002 to 2014, and this Gujarati power base for Modi is a key part of the current BJP effort to impose a reign of terror on much of the rest of India. Gandhian non-violence is not simply a product of the deep strain of Jaina ahimsa in Gujarat. Rather, Gandhi flew in the face of the massive propensity of Gujarati populations in Surat, Baroda, Ahmedabad and other cities in Gujarat to turn to violence against Muslims since at least the late 18th century. The Modi-Shah combine has leveraged this long-term Gujarati history into a national programme for ethnic cleansing.

A view of Mumbai’s financial district. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

The RSS-BJP’s organisational structure

The second observation about the long-term history of the subcontinent pertains to the nature of caste, class and power in this region over two millennia. No serious anthropologist or historian of India can claim to have decisively answered the following basic question: why has caste – as an ideology, a social formation and a cosmology – spread and survived over two millennia or more without any sort of central political authority, bureaucracy or continental religious organisation of priests, monks or clerical staff? The spread and persistence of this unique form of racial, ethnic and economic stratification has been studied in all its avatars, variations and disguises but its remarkable region-wide tenacity has not yet been accounted for adequately.

The fact is, caste functions in a cellular, metastatic and decentralised manner, in which some sort of social and political DNA replicates itself successfully across a remarkable range of ecological, social and historical contexts, extending from Pakistan to Bangladesh and from Nepal to Sri Lanka.

Whatever the answer to this massive puzzle, it casts an unexpected light on the BJP-RSS organisational structure and might let us see the current regime as not a smooth machinery of media savvy, populist militarisation, and xenophobic mobilisation, but as a blundering, uncoordinated and poorly run series of initiatives, policies and programmes. The actual roll-out of every major BJP policy since 2014 has been a chaotic instance of shoot now, check targets later.

Some of this blundering, ad hoc quality is visible in demonetisation, in the hot and cold moves in relation to Pakistan, in the ridiculously ambitious housing and sanitation policies of the state, in the chaotic enforcement of the new population policies in Assam and so on. In truth, the only place where the Modi-Shah machine has shown anything like a centralised organization is in the elections of 2014 and 2019, and even that success is in the process of eroding and unravelling, in Rajasthan, Bengal, Kerala, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and other states. The biggest series of clownish manoeuvres was in Maharashtra, where Modi and Shah were brilliantly outmanoeuvred by Sharad Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and others who nursed grudges against the BJP. So much for brilliant central organisation.

Also Read: BJP, Serial Betrayer of Allies, Has Got a Taste of Its Own Medicine in Maharashtra

In short, the BJP-RSS power machine works in the same way as caste has worked for millennia, not because there is a brilliant central machine in which the parts and the whole are tightly meshed, but because there is something in the BJP formula of xenophobia, anti-minority rage, anti-secularism and promises of a quick fix, which helped it succeed from place to place and gave it the longish run it has enjoyed in Delhi. This is cellular, metastatic fascism, and not vertebrate or coordinated fascism. Herein lies the big difference between Nazi Germany and today’s India.

Hindu India and powerful persons

My third long-view observation is about how Hindu India has traditionally regarded powerful persons. Modi evidently has a massive charisma surplus, both in relation to others in the BJP-RSS world and the whole array of opposition leaders, most of whom would make the claim that they are colourlessness a hyperbole. He is a Hindu samrat full-blown, often wearing the turbaned headgear of royalty, who also picks up on the iconography of the militant sadhu and the celibate ascetic. These images have long cohabited in the Hindu imaginary and they operate in an economy of gifts, ritual deference and tribute, which has nothing to do with civility, law or due process.

Modi is a Hindu samrat full-blown, often wearing the turbaned headgear of royalty, who also picks up on the iconography of the militant sadhu and the celibate ascetic. Photo: PTI

In this cosmology, the king upholds the dharmic order and does whatever is needed to accomplish this, including the expansion of territory, the extraction of tribute, the personal settlement of disputes, the distribution of titles, honours and fiefdoms and the triumphalist elimination of enemies. This is the Hindu rashtra, and what Modi and Shah have done is to capture enough of the resources of a modern nation-state to perform the drama of a Hindu theatre-state (the phrase is from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz) with enough force and fakery to capture a major part of the electorate for the past six years. Modi, in particular, has gained tremendous mileage by annexing the means and procedures of an electoral democracy to the messages, icons and rituals of an ersatz Hindu kingdom.

This is a hard trick to pull off and its fuel could well be running out. India is not Gujarat-Pradesh (Gujarat plus Uttar Pradesh), Modi is not Nehru or Vikramaditya, Ajay Mohan Bisht is a pathological distortion of Gorakhpanthi ideals. Furthermore, the politics of hate, stigma and killing do not draw on renewable emotional resources. The demand for satisfaction is always ahead of the fulfilment of these dark desires and sooner or later, enemies return to being neighbours, sub-humans reclaim their humanity and differences cease to be triggers of anxiety.

Furthermore, Indians of every type have had more than six decades in which they have gotten used to the idea of some sort of everyday amity, to the notion that they need not stick to their aukat and to the idea that the state has to be accountable for jobs, food and health. India has lived too long with these ideals to fall for a Hinduised fantasy of macho violence, ethnic cleansing and hunting for new minorities to demonise. India is a land of a million minorities and no majority. Indeed, the care of minor populations is strictly identical to the care of us all. There is some evidence that this realisation is the glue and the fuel that is driving the remarkable efflorescence of civil disobedience that we see across the country today. This will not be an easy struggle because it is a battle between dreams. And somewhere in that battle, a better reality will and must emerge.

Arjun Appadurai teaches in New York and Berlin and has published widely on globalisation and South Asia.