Govt Has Created Climate of Fear, Intellectuals Hesitate to Express Dissent: Partha Chatterjee

Historian Partha Chatterjee discusses the Hindu rashtra, future of Indian secularism and India's emerging political culture, among other issues.

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Kottayam (Kerala): Professor Partha Chatterjee, an eminent political anthropologist, political theorist and historian, who mainly deals with South Asia, in an interview to The Wire, pointed out the failure of highly educated liberal intellectuals to intervene in public debates in the regional language media in the Narendra Modi era.

“Unlike in earlier generations, it’s rare to find Indian intellectuals today who operate in the public domain in both English and one or more Indian languages. Consequently, an impression has been created that the world of liberal opinion is an entirely elite English-speaking world; the world of regional learning has been left to regional opinion makers,” he said.

He spoke about how intellectuals are prevented from playing their expected role in giving a voice to the democratic debate. He further discussed how the authorities in recent times have been putting pressure on public associations and news media to minimise the circulation of views critical against the ruling government.

“We should also note that it is not only the BJP which resorts to such tactics to suppress dissenting views; many other parties in power in different states do the same,” he added.

He also spoke about how Prime Minister Modi’s vision for ‘New India’ relates to a ‘Hindu Rashtra’; the future of Indian secularism; whether the goal of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, or self-reliant India can be realised; and India’s emerging political culture.

Professor Chatterjee graduated from Presidency College, Calcutta and received his doctorate in political science from the University of Rochester in 1971.

Partha Chatterjee, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies, Columbia University. Photo: anthropology.columbia.edu

Since 1997 he was a professor of political science at the University of Columbia and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSS) where he was director from 1997 to 2007.  He is the author of more than 30 books in English and Bengali and has edited volumes in both languages.

Professor Chatterjee was a founding member of the Subaltern studies collective. He delivered the Ruth Benedict lectures in 2018, which was published in an expanded version as I am the people: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today in 2019.

Below are the excerpts from the interview, which have been edited for style and clarity.

What is your take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s project to reconfigure Nehruvian India into the New India of his dreams? What is ‘new’ about this India?  Do you sense any incompatibility between this agenda and Modi’s strategy of freebooting for the icons of the past, say Patel, Ambedkar, even Gandhi? How is Patel new and Nehru antiquated?

Is ‘New India’ a euphemism for ‘Hindu Rashtra’? How would the Hindu Rashtra, if realized, cohere with the world order that professes faith in liberal democracy and rule of law?

Let me answer these two questions together. New India and Hindu Rashtra are two sides of the same political project, but aimed at two different constituencies.

Hindu Rashtra is an idea nurtured by Hindu nationalists for the last hundred years. It was formulated by V.D. Savarkar, taken forward by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), given the fantasy form of Akhand Bharat after 1947 and has now acquired the more programmatic shape of bringing to reality a Hindu majoritarian republic.

We see and hear this idea articulated every day by leaders and functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allied organisations. It provides the ideological guideline for a wide array of political actions, ranging from lawsuits to reclaim mosques that were allegedly built over destroyed temples to prescribing and even violently enforcing rules that seek to regulate practices of daily life such as food, dress, social relations, worship, festivals, school textbooks, etc. in order to prohibit those that supposedly offend Hindu sentiments.

The politics of realising Hindu Rashtra is agitational, polemical and contentious; it involves confrontation with the opposition. It thrives on identifying enemies, creating divisions and engaging in pitched battles. The constituency for this politics is largely domestic and is concentrated in those parts of northern and western India where Hindu nationalist politics has a long history. In addition, it is also very active in those regions where this politics has had relatively recent success, such as in Assam and Karnataka.

There is a conscious effort to keep Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister and Supreme Leader, in an elevated position situated above this messy and contentious politics. An image has been cultivated of Modi as a statesman with a comprehensive vision of what India should look like in the future. This vision is that of a modern, technologically and industrially advanced nation that can take its place alongside the great powers of the world.

Unlike Nehru’s time, this modern India no longer needs to build industry through central planning, protect it from foreign competition and depend on foreign aid. It can compete in the global economy, rely on its own entrepreneurs and technologists and flourish in a domestic market for consumer goods that is as large in size as some of the most advanced countries of the world.

Hence, Modi talks not of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ but of ‘New India’. A major intention behind this vision is to present an attractively modern face of India to the rest of the world – an image that will displace the widely held idea of India as a place of superstition, poverty and unrest.

Representational image of Hindutva groups. Photo: Reuters.

In the domestic sphere, a major constituency for the New India vision is corporate business and the urban upper middle class which feels uncomfortable with the divisive and often violent politics of minority hatred but is hugely enthusiastic about Modi as a legitimate leader who promises political stability and pro-business policies. In terms of the overall ideological project of the BJP, Hindu Rashtra and New India complement each other.

What will be the position of religious and ethnic minorities in the ‘New India’ as envisaged by Prime Minister Modi? Will Modi reject or implement Savarkar’s view that those who have their holy lands outside of India should not be citizens in India?

As I have explained above, Modi is not the sole actor in the BJP project, nor can he act autonomously. Hence, it is futile to speculate on what his personal views might be in this matter. In any case, it is well known that Modi received his political training in the RSS and has thoroughly imbibed the ideological spirit of Savarkar’s Hindutva. There is no doubt about the place of minorities in Hindu Rashtra: they may be allowed to live in India but cannot enjoy full and equal rights of citizenship unless they assimilate into Hindu culture.

Will it be the same for New India? It is significant that in controversial matters involving conflict with minorities, such as the temple-mosque debate, violence against Muslims, the hijab controversy or laws against conversion, although most BJP-RSS leaders have expressed their views, Modi has largely remained silent. This is consistent with the strategy of keeping Modi and the New India slogan free from contamination by the divisive politics of Hindutva.

Also read: What if This Is the Hindu Rashtra?

According to V.S. Naipaul, ‘India is a wounded civilisation.’ According to him, these psychic wounds harbored by the ‘upper caste’ Hindus resulted from the invasion of alien forces and religious ideologies. Hindutva is, despite its superficial association with Hinduism, inspired by European nationalism. While Gandhi rooted his strategy for Indian liberation in integrative spirituality, Savarkar chose the path of cultural assimilation towards homogeneity, breeding intolerance towards diversity. Diversity is, however, the hallmark of India. Will the homogenization project not wound India? Will the remedy prove a malady in due course?

I have never been persuaded by Naipaul’s ‘wounded civilisation’ argument. But it is entirely true that Indian nationalism has been, for the most part, motivated by the desire to replicate in this country the institutions and ideas of the modern nation state as they were produced in European history.

Savarkar’s idea of Hindutva represents one, somewhat extreme, form of the militarised authoritarian nation state that emerged in Europe in the period leading up to the First World War and was later revived, along with a thoroughly homogenised notion of national culture, by the fascists and the Nazis in the 1920 and 1930s.

Subhas Bose, who also had a liking for the military discipline of authoritarian regimes, did not, however, believe in the homogenization of national culture in India. But Indian nationalists who were more liberal in their political views, including leading members of the Congress such as Nehru, Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Azad, etc., had no doubt that, after the British left, the independent nation state of India must have institutions modelled on the liberal constitutional states of Europe, the United States and the British Commonwealth.

They believed that a carefully built constitutional structure which guaranteed freedom and equality to all citizens would enable the new republic to accommodate and reconcile the immense cultural diversity among the people of India.

Gandhi’s views were actually at odds with those of the entire mainstream Indian nationalist leadership. He did not believe in the nurturing power of the modern state and was deeply sceptical about its effects on society. He did not deny that there were often conflicts in society – sometimes violent conflicts – but firmly believed in the ability of local communities to repair the damage and find ways to live together. According to him, sufficient room must be provided to these local community leaders to carry out this task.

Unfortunately, the modern state, in its zeal to enforce uniform laws and impersonal justice and provide benefits through its bureaucratic agencies, was systematically destroying these age-old conventions. Modern politicians, in their attempt to build large bases of electoral support, were following suit. Hence, Gandhi’s understanding of how the religious and cultural diversity of India should be protected was quite different from that of the Congress leaders who came to power after independence.

Examples of successful homogenization of national culture by force are rare among large countries of the world. Hindu nationalists in India no longer invoke Nazi Germany, but often look to Israel for inspiration. In private conversation, some even point to the way Myanmar has expelled Muslims from that country. Even if one overlooks the horrors of the expulsion of Palestinians from their own land or that of Hindus and Muslims from Burma, now renamed Myanmar, by successive military regimes, the enormous differences in territorial size and scale of diversity make the comparisons ridiculous. It is impossible to think of the homogenization of Indian national culture in terms of religion.

Savarkar understood this very clearly and hence sharply distinguished Hindutva, the political idea, from Hinduism as a religion. For him, the Indian nation state must claim the undivided political loyalty of all citizens; Muslims and Christians were suspect not because of their religious practices but because of their supposed allegiance to authorities located outside India.

Savarkar knew that a focus on Hindu religion as the basis for a homogenized national culture would only expose the innumerable caste and sectarian divisions among Hindus themselves. But present-day votaries of Hindu nationalism have forgotten the distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism and are perpetrating hatred and division on an ever-increasing scale. It is impossible now to foresee a time when homogenization by force will bring about social peace in India.

Also read: From Speech to Crime to Genocide, It’s Clear to See How Hate Travels

What will be the future of Indian secularism, which is different from the Euro-American model of separation between the church and the State? Can the State in a country where 80% of the citizens are Hindus maintain equidistance from all religions, especially when religion is used increasingly for electoral mobilisation? Will constitutional democracy not give way to elected dictatorships when hate against one or two minority communities becomes the engine of political processes? Is there any effective way for preventing this degeneration?

It is well known that secularism has very different constitutional and political forms in Western democracies. In Western Europe, there was first the idea of toleration in which, even though there could be an established church of which the monarch was the head (as in England, the Netherlands, Belgium or the Scandinavian countries), all citizens had equal political rights, religion was regarded as a private matter and there were no restrictions on religious observances.

What is called laïcité in France is stricter because it insists that no religious signs may be displayed within state institutions such as government buildings and state-funded schools or universities. Significantly, the secular state in Western Europe has been accompanied by a thorough secularisation of society where the practice of religion, such as going to church, has become almost insignificant. In the United States, on the other hand, there is what is called “a wall of separation” between the church and the State, where the State is prohibited from indulging or interfering in religion or discriminating on the basis of religion.

At the same time, a large majority of the population is deeply religious and religion plays a prominent role in electoral mobilisation. There are also significant examples of secularism under authoritarian regimes such as in Atatürk’s Turkey, the Soviet Union and China.

India had a history of close entanglements between religious institutions and political rulers before the British rule. This was also the case in the princely states which were integrated with the Indian Union after 1947. The British colonial state in general tried to stay away from religious matters, stepping in only to manage large public religious festivals. It created a domain called personal law in which Indians were free to practice their own religions, run their own religious institutions and regulate marriage, inheritance, etc. according to their own religious laws and customs. All disputes in such matters had to be resolved in the courts of law.

After gaining independence, Indians gave themselves a constitution which guaranteed all citizens the fundamental rights of freedom and equality. But, in the aftermath of the violence that accompanied the partition of the country, it was also decided that the constitution must protect the rights of religious minorities to practice their religion and run their religious and educational institutions without interference by the State.

Clearly, the constitution makers anticipated the possibility of political parties using their majority in parliament to trample on or discriminate against minorities; hence, they inserted these special provisions in the constitution.

In actual practice, given that various government agencies had to get involved in matters such as temple or waqf administration, the regulation of religious festivals, etc., instead of trying to separate the State from religion as in the US, secularism in India became a political exercise in maintaining impartiality, i.e. not favouring any particular religious group. This was not easy.

At one level, state ceremonies tried to represent all major religions at the same time on the same stage. Most disputes over religion were dealt with not by the executive or the legislature but were passed on to the courts which had greater claim to impartiality. It is highly significant that the history of Indian secularism has to be told mainly as a series of court judgments.

Also read: Why Judges Should Not Interpret Religion

The difficulty was that the courts continued to follow the procedures and precedents laid down by British judges who, when pronouncing on matters relating to Indian religion, were keen to show that they were not acting out of ignorance and, therefore, insisted on showing their knowledge of religious texts and the history of religious practices. After independence, Indian judges followed the same path. They could have simply enforced the provisions of the constitution without going into extended discussions of religious texts. But in case after case, the courts dug deeper and deeper into religious scriptures and interpretations to pronounce on what was or was not an essential part of a particular religion. This often made things more difficult for the politicians who had to manage the political fallout of judicial decisions.

For instance, the judgment in the Shah Bano case which declared that the fundamental rights given by the constitution must have priority over religious rules also contained a section arguing that the particular clause in Muslim personal law regarding maintenance of divorced women was not an essential part of Islam. This angered the conservative Muslim clerics who questioned the authority of the judge to pronounce on Islamic law.

In order to placate them, the Rajiv Gandhi government hurriedly passed a law effectively nullifying the Shah Bano judgment. This was condemned by the Hindu organisations. To satisfy the latter, the government allowed the worship of the Ram Lalla idol within the premises of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya.

This series of events in which judicial decisions became complicit with political manoeuvres reached its finale in the Babri Masjid judgment. Everyone realised that if the court was to deny permission to build a temple on the vacant site of the destroyed mosque, thousands of people would defy the court order and begin construction, thus creating a hugely dangerous situation. The Supreme Court judgment was, therefore, a compromise political solution which the authorities were too feeble to enforce themselves, and which the courts had to pronounce, even though it was thoroughly dubious in legal terms.

The Babri Masjid judgment was the final demonstration that secularism as State impartiality – defined by the courts but manipulated through electoral politics – had exhausted itself. Judges have learnt to anticipate the political consequences of their orders and tailor their legal decisions accordingly. This is proved by the recent spate of petitions in various courts demanding access by Hindu worshippers to mosques and monuments that were allegedly destroyed by Muslim conquerors; the expectation is that given the political climate that now prevails, the courts will respond favourably.

We must also note that this attempt by the Hindutva organisations to speak on behalf of a united Hindu community works only when a common enemy is identified.

In this case, the enemy is the Muslim, and sometimes the Christian, minority. By focusing on the presumed injustice suffered by all Hindus at the hands of Muslim rulers in the past centuries, or Christian missionaries who wanted to convert Hindus to their religion, the many differences and disagreements within the majority Hindu community have been covered over. As a result, issues of caste and class discrimination and massive economic and social inequalities are set aside in order to make Hindu assertion the most emotionally powerful issue.

It is interesting to note that whenever a more specific cultural practice, such as vegetarianism or the celebration of a particular deity or the observance of a particular ritual or the use of Hindi as the national language, is pushed, the differences of region, language, caste and sect among Hindus come to the surface and create conflicts, as Savarkar foresaw.

Members of both Hindu and Muslim communities during a Tiranga Yatra at the communal violence-hit Jahangirpuri area, in New Delhi, Sunday, April 24, 2022. Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

Do you think that the Indian intelligentsia are failing the country at this crucial juncture in its evolution as a modern democracy? Can the intelligentsia stand up against the might of a hard State that is manifestly intolerant of dissent – all the more so, when the Opposition parties are in a state of demoralisation and disarray?

The intelligentsia operates at many levels and in different institutions. There is the sphere of public meetings of various kinds and of the print, visual and digital news media. In a liberal constitutional republic, this public sphere is supposed to be free and no one must be prevented from participating in an exchange of opinions, except when those statements are defamatory or incite violence or threaten the security of the state.

In practice, each forum of this kind has editorial protocols. Certain organisations or news magazines are known to favour particular opinions. But there is no bar on others starting their own organisations or magazines to reflect their views. Intellectuals are often known to belong to this or that ideological camp and take the lead in articulating the views of that camp. Other intellectuals prefer not to identify with any camp but to intervene in public debates as professional experts who specialise in particular scholarly disciplines.

When there are explicit restrictions on this public sphere, as during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, intellectuals are prevented from playing their expected role in giving a voice to the democratic debate. In more recent times, other methods have been found to induce or put pressure on public associations and news media to minimise the circulation of views that are critical of the government or the ruling party.

Alongside, there are a range of methods to punish or intimidate individuals who speak or write against the government or the ruling party, including arresting them for sedition or unlawful activities and threatening them with organised violence. The objective is to create a climate of fear in which intellectuals will hesitate to express dissenting views. We should also note that it is not only the BJP which resorts to such tactics to suppress dissenting views; many other parties in power in different states do the same.

However, there is another domain in which intellectuals also function. That is the pedagogical domain of schools, colleges and universities. It used to be assumed that in this domain, teachers themselves would decide what would be taught and how. But in recent decades, the idea of autonomous educational institutions has been utterly devalued. School syllabi under state boards began to be influenced from the 1960s by political authorities to reflect their linguistic, regional and ideological biases.

More recently, the central boards have also faced the same pressures. University appointments, especially at senior decision-making levels, have become thoroughly politicised. In several states, student unions that have the backing of parties in power can disrupt events or threaten teachers within the university campus. All this has made the self-administration of education by teachers a virtual impossibility. Hence, not only those who try to speak out in public, but even those who simply want to do their job as teachers in their schools and colleges, find it hard to remain true to their vocation as intellectuals.

In the current social environment, to put freedom of speech into practice has become lethally dangerous. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

There is another aspect of education that has become increasingly glaring in recent times. That is the divide between the English-medium domain, largely supervised by the central boards, and those of the state boards where education is mainly in the regional language. The bifurcation coincides with a huge social division between elite privilege and ordinary insignificance. The best teachers and researchers are drawn to elite colleges and universities, many of which are now under private management, where they teach students trained in elite private schools whose aim in life is to enter the corporate world or migrate to the West. Their elite and private status often protects these institutions from direct political interference.

On the other hand, students under the state boards usually end up in regional universities where they neither learn anything worthwhile nor get degrees that help them improve their social position. Inevitably, they become dependent on political connections to find jobs and seek better opportunities. The most dismal aspect of this division between the English-speaking elite sector and the vernacular regional sector is that neither speaks to the other. They have become like two separate countries. Unlike in earlier generations, it’s rare to find Indian intellectuals today who operate in the public domain in both English and one or more Indian languages. Consequently, an impression has been created that the world of liberal opinion is an entirely elite English-speaking world; the world of regional learning has been left to regional opinion makers.

The Indian media –  presumably the sentinel of democracy – continues to stay faithful to its calling to ‘speak truth to power’ after it is corporatised. Can the media fraternity that seeks to be independent and neutral survive the coercive tactics of the State to co-opt them? How realistic is it to expect such heroic commitment and un-sagging motivation from journalists when all else have collapsed or caved in?

Major English newspapers in India have been under corporate ownership for a long time and several of them were owned by prominent business families. However, professional standards of journalism were valued and editorial decisions were mostly left to senior journalists, who were widely respected for their integrity.

Following the Emergency, there was an efflorescence of the print media in both English and the regional languages. The genre of investigative journalism to unearth corruption in government became the hallmark of the new media. The next watershed was the rapid expansion of television news channels from the 1990s. This enormously increased the direct exposure to news of wide sections of the population who were otherwise unused to reading newspapers. Television channels became hugely important for political parties as well as for advertisers. This completely changed the business model of news media.

On the one hand, the ferocious battle to secure a larger viewership led to a surfeit of sensational stories and shrill and opinionated anchors. The massive dependence on advertising, both corporate and government, produced subtle, and not so subtle, acts of self-censorship in order not to offend powerful interests. Finally, the complex business arrangements made large media houses much more vulnerable than before to interference by investigative and tax agencies. All of this has had the combined effect of limiting, if not entirely suppressing, critical opinion in the mainstream media without actually resorting to repressive laws.

Also read: Modi’s Raid Raj: ‘Janampatri’ Has Emerged as Key Instrument of Power Against the Opposition

As far as small-scale media is concerned, especially in the regional languages, they continue to give voice to those who are not represented in the major newspapers or channels. This is a thriving space for Dalit, adivasi and politically marginal groups. They have their own constituencies, but these are necessarily fragmented and unable to combine to create sufficient pressure on the larger structure of power.

Many had hoped that the digital social media, because of its open structure and wide accessibility, would become the space for free democratic expression. This has not happened. We have seen how organised and well-funded groups can crowd out and overwhelm other opinions on social media. We have also seen how hate campaigns can be spread on social media over large areas at incredible speed. Sadly, the combination of text, sound and visual messaging on a media that has no editorial checks seems to have far greater potential for damage than the traditional media.

Hence, the overall situation is quite bleak in terms of the ability of the media to effectively resist the onslaught of Hindu majoritarian politics. However, in each media sector, there remains the possibility of small groups and individual voices to keep up the resistance and reach people who are otherwise, in their daily lives, miserable and frustrated because of their economic and social hardships. Large newspapers do have reserved columns for prominent critics of the government, even though they are always balanced by those written by the government’s supporters. Smaller magazines of critical writing do carry on the job of democratic dissent. And social media, because of its novelty and versatility, still remains open to innovative acts of resistance.

Newspapers being sold in New Delhi a day after the Ayodhya verdict. Photo: PTI

A significant feature of the current Indian political culture is the emergence of the masses. The merit of almost everything is proved on this basis. Demonetisation, which has harmed the Indian economy, has been justified on the basis that the masses have supported it with their votes. Other instances can be cited. This ambience is perceived to influence, howsoever indirectly, even judicial objectivity. The Ayodhya dispute verdict (September 2010), allowing the Ram Temple to be built where a mosque stood once, is relevant here. Even as the intelligentsia is fading out, the masses are emerging to the fore. How do you view this trend?

The emergence of the masses is an inevitable result of the expansion and deepening of democracy. To decry it is, I believe, a reactionary response. There was an old strand of liberal thinking, in the West as well as in India, which believed that representatives must be in advance of the people who elect them. They must be culturally more sophisticated and intellectually superior in order to lead the people to a higher condition of citizenship. But the advance of mass democracy has reversed the relation. Now, because the people no longer want to elect their social superiors, the expectation is that representatives must be like those who elect them. This has led many to mourn the decline in the intellectual quality of parliamentarians and political leaders.

I don’t believe it makes sense in a democratic age to hold on to the old model of leadership. On the contrary, intellectual and cultural leaders, instead of standing apart and above the masses, must find ways to identify with them and seek the resources of critical thought and action within the popular domain. I don’t think the liberal intelligentsia in India has managed to do this. This is shown, as I have already pointed out, in the failure of highly educated liberal intellectuals to intervene in public debates in the regional language media.

What will be the net result of the tension mounting within the Indian Muslim community post the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the incidents of violence against the community?

It is often not realised that the BJP has carried out a sustained exercise in the last two decades to redefine Indian citizenship. When the constitution came into effect in 1950, anyone who lived within the territory of India and was not a citizen of another country was considered an Indian citizen. The Citizenship Act of 1955 declared that anyone born within the territory of India could become an Indian citizen, even if his or her parents were not Indian. This was in line with the idea of jus soli or the right of the soil which governs citizenship in the United States and other American countries, and it was the principle followed at the time in Britain.

In 2003, when the Vajpayee government was in power, the law was amended such that in order to become an Indian citizen by birth, both parents would have to be Indian. Not only that, a new category of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) was created to give free rights of entry and residence in India to those foreign nationals who had Indian ancestry. In other words, the concept was changed to jus sanguinis or right of blood which is the principle of citizenship followed in most European countries.

Another crucial change brought about by the 2003 amendment was the definition of a new category called ‘illegal migrant’, i.e. a foreign person who was living in India without a valid permit such as a visa. This opened the door for official verification of documents of anyone suspected of being an illegal migrant and prosecuting that person under the colonial-era Foreigners Act under which the onus was on the suspect to prove his or her credentials. This was the chief instrument used for the notorious National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam.

The CAA was hurriedly passed in December 2019 after the NRC in Assam declared 19 lakh persons as illegal migrants of whom 12 lakh were Hindus. This was deeply embarrassing for the BJP which had always insisted that Hindu refugees from neighbouring countries would be welcome in India while Muslims would be deported as infiltrators. But the CAA was not acceptable to agitators in Assam who wanted all non-Assamese, whether Hindu or Muslim, to be thrown out. It also spread consternation elsewhere in India, not only among Muslims, but many other sections of society which were alarmed by the danger posed by an arbitrary process in which officials could challenge anyone’s citizenship and force that person to produce papers that would satisfy the authorities. The movement against CAA spread spontaneously across urban areas all over India until the pandemic put a stop to it.

Students hold placards as they raise slogans during a protest against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Photo: PTI.

The government seems to have realised the practical difficulties of implementing the NRC and CAA and is going slow. However, there is no guarantee that it will not be revived when the political situation demands it.

To what extent have the religious minorities contributed to their misfortune? What are the specific don’ts for them, going forward? Please comment on the assertion, as against, the preservation, of their religious identities. Should the Muslims, for example, volunteer to surrender ‘disputed mosques’ which have been allegedly built on sites of destroyed temples?

Opinion has always been divided within minority communities on how to respond to the aggressive moves of Hindu majoritarianism. One section has advised compromise, giving in on some contentious issues in order to buy peace. Another section argues that no compromise would satisfy the aggressor and that it is necessary to rally the community with an assertion of its identity. These two approaches are likely to continue.

What is noticeable is that the legitimacy of the conservative religious authorities among both Muslims and Christians has eroded. The educated urban sections among the minorities are now taking the lead. When they take up issues of identity, they do so not in traditional spaces but in the modern public sphere. It is significant, for instance, that the recent hijab controversy broke out in Karnataka schools and colleges where educated young women insisted upon showing their Muslim identity.

Also read: Karnataka: How Two Friends Became the Target of Hindutva Polarisation on Eid

The opposition by Hindutva agitators in turn feed on the discomfort felt by ‘upper caste’ Hindus at the sight of educated Muslim women in spaces where they were not visible earlier. The situation is similar to the reaction of the ‘upper caste’ elite at Dalit assertion in the universities and the professions. It is ironic that when development and democracy are producing a desired effect in the expansion of education among the minorities, the social mobility which must inevitably result is being resisted by the majority.

Is Modi’s vision of  ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India) a goal which can be realised, especially when India lacks a proper work culture, according to Atal Bihari Vajpayee? To what extent can self-reliance be pushed in a globalising world?

Seeking self-reliance in a condition of colonial underdevelopment, as in the years following independence, implied a particular strategy of industrialisation through central planning and protectionism. People forget that even a country like South Korea followed a similar path under military dictatorship. That era has passed. Big business in India is now mature enough to compete in the global arena in a whole range of manufactured products and services. But globalisation necessarily implies that no country needs to be self-reliant in everything, but rather specialise in certain products and import the rest.

Self-reliance is now more a political slogan to instil pride and create the impression that India is on the way to becoming a great power. Can it be realised? I think there is still a huge gap between the United States or China or the European bloc or even Russia (considering its enormous nuclear arsenal) and India. This is shown by the eagerness with which India is signing up to the new alliances which the United States is forging against China.

I think that far from becoming self-reliant, the Modi foreign policy will increasingly lead India into a position of subservience to the United States, despite India’s current position on the war in Ukraine.

How will future historians evaluate the Modi era in Indian politics?

Honestly, I cannot answer this question because I don’t know. First of all, the Modi era has definitely not ended and we cannot foresee what course it might take in the next few years. Second, even though I think many of its grand projects will not be successful, some transformations are certainly taking place in the economy, technology and culture. Many of these changes will be acknowledged as the advance of modernisation.

However, each of these transformations will bring about, as we can already see, growing inequality, misery and conflict. What the balance sheet might look like two or three decades from now is anybody’s guess.