With hate speech proliferating, people being beaten to death on the streets and the Hindu Right dominating Indian politics as never before, it is easy to believe that the ultimate goal of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindutva organisations – a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ – is just around the corner. For those of us who don’t agree with them, this sounds like the start of a decades-long nightmare.
But this view is flawed, for the experiences of other countries provide strong grounds for believing that the Hindu Rashtra project is absurd, a political impossibility. The danger of Hindutva politics lies not in creating a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ but in the destruction it will wreak and the lives it will destroy during its dominance and in its aftermath. It is no less dangerous because of that, but it is dangerous in a different way than one might think.
Why is a Hindu Rashtra impossible? Believing that doesn’t require any great faith in India’s “inherent tolerance” or “strong institutions” (both of which seem to be collapsing by the day).
Rather, consider that there is nothing particularly unusual, or Indian, about ‘Hindu Rashtra’ politics. The last century is littered with political movements built on hatred and majoritarianism, and Hindutva is itself rooted in early 20th century European ideas of what constitutes a “nation”. Looking at the experience of some of those movements can tell us a lot about the way Hindu Rashtra politics is likely to develop.
The case of Israel
We can start with the one country that Hindutva acolytes admire above all – Israel. It is true that Israel does seem to be an example of a regime built around one religion that violently fights against and oppresses an “enemy people” but has nevertheless managed to be both stable and long-lived. If Israel can do it, why not India?
But of course this facile comparison misses Israel’s most basic feature – its regime is dependent on the support of external powers, above all the US. Israel’s oppressive character has driven it into a decades long never-ending war, and it remains ‘stable’ in the face of that war only because the US bails it out of every diplomatic, political and military crisis. Here, Israel bears a strong resemblance to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two states that are similarly “long lived” and oppressive, and whose political survival has depended on US military aid and support. In all three cases, this reality is reflected in the role of the military in these societies – their oppressive politics is rooted in a security state. Without the Americans, it is likely that none of these “strong” states would last a decade in their present form.
The Iranian model
India has never been and never will be seen by the American state in this light. For one thing, there is no immediate strategic interest that India would serve for the Americans. For another, those three states have been American allies for half a century or more, and that alliance has shaped their entire character. That is not true of India.
So if the Israel road is out, what about regimes that were built on domestic movements? Iran, for instance. Indeed, back in 1998, the RSS made an outline for the political structure of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ that strongly resembles the Iranian model (the details were revealed by none other than Subramaniam Swamy). The Iranian regime has managed to maintain an oppressive, religious state for four decades.
But this experience is not of much help to Hindu Rashtra advocates either. Iran’s theocracy emerged when the Islamic Right managed to become the dominant force after a mass revolt against an autocratic dictatorship. Neither the right nor the left wings of that revolt were directed against other communities; indeed, theocracy was not a declared goal even for the right wing, with Khomeini himself declaring that theocracy was not his aim. At a time when that state was overthrown and the entire political landscape was blown wide open, the Islamic Right manoeuvred into a dominant position and defined the terms of the new state. Hindutva does not have this luxury – it is competing within an established constitutional order, largely within the institutions of that order, and even a war will not destroy that order in the way the Iranian revolution did.
Which, however, brings us to the most frightening example of all – Nazi Germany. The Nazis did compete within a constitutional order (albeit one much younger than the Indian one), managed to win within those institutions, and unleashed the Holocaust. Many commentators reject comparisons with the Nazis as too “extreme” or “alarmist”. But whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that a regime like that is the logical conclusion of what Hindutva advocates want. Since Indian Muslims, in particular, can do literally nothing that will make the Hindutva brigade not see them as enemies, any Hindu Rashtra would have to be built on brutality and possibly on genocide.
But here too the parallel fails, for two reasons.
The first is about economics. Every majoritarian or chauvinist project has been built on a basic bargain – repressive, dictatorial politics has been accompanied by economic policies that led to immediate improvements for those within the “nation.” This usually comes in the form of increased state spending, welfare benefits and employment generation. The Nazis, for instance, famously ensured a sharp rise in employment and in welfare benefits for workers (while simultaneously depriving them of their rights). Post revolutionary Iran, among other steps, promoted a land transfer policy that resulted in the number of houses in the country literally doubling in seven years.
Hindutva and the BJP cannot do anything like this because they lack the economic independence to do so. They are beholden to India’s big corporates, who will not permit even existing state spending to go ahead. As a result, post 2014, the real incomes of almost all Indians in the agricultural sector have declined, employment generation has plummeted and steps like demonetisation – motivated by the same hate-centric politics that underlies killings – have wrecked economic prospects even further.
The second reason is more obvious. Hindu Rashtra would have to be built upon the oppression of hundreds of millions of people. Even if one ignores the resistance of Dalits, adivasis, workers and others oppressed within the Hindu ‘nation’, even if one considers only Muslims as the targets, this is still a population of over 180 million people – more than 13% of India’s population (by comparison, in 1933, Jews constituted 0.75% of Germany’s population – in absolute terms, about five lakh people). A regime built on the oppression of such a huge population would only be stable if we assume that those targeted would not resist and that they would not find allies. Both assumptions are absurd. The absurdity is then compounded by the fact that India has a nuclear armed neighbouring state with the motivation, strength and inclination to intervene in precisely these kinds of conflicts.
All of this is not necessarily good news, of course. It means that, rather than some kind of decades-long Hindu Rashtra, Hindutva politics is much more likely to deliver a cycle of ever increasing violence and conflict. This reality, combined with the saffronites’ inability to deliver any genuine economic benefits to their base, is likely to create frustration, disillusionment and anger within that base within the next several years. The real danger is the response of their followers to this failure. Will they decide that the problem was leaders who were not “strong” enough? Will an Adityanath emerge as their next ‘true leader’ after Narendra Modi, only to go further down the path of destruction?
Or will they realise that the problem is in their ideology, and turn towards a more democratic and progressive politics? Will those who believe in that kind of politics present a strong enough voice to make the second option more likely? The answers to these questions will be key to determining India’s future.
Shankar Gopalakrishnan is a researcher and an activist who has worked on issues of forest rights, natural resource politics, workers rights and communalism.