The chronology is clear – a nationwide National Register of Citizens causing mass disenfranchisement across the population, followed by selective re-enfranchisement through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act for “desirable” identities, potentially leaving hundreds of millions of Indians stateless “illegals” languishing in detention camps. The pre-CAA NRC in Assam validates this chronology, as well as establishing how costly, chaotic and resource-intensive it is to execute.
Even as many write about the unconstitutionality of the CAA, the dangers of the National Population Register as a proxy for the NRC and the clear need to rally around communities who are at the forefront of democratic opposition to these measures, we must consider the larger strategic shifts in Hindutva politics that provide context for this move.
Why this circuitous route? Why take the Assamese ethno-nationalist demand for an NRC against all “outsiders”, and transform it to fit the national stage with Muslims as the sole focus? What ideological shifts and new global alignments does this approach – of not just disenfranchising large portions of the population, but specifically casting them as illegal immigrants – allow?
Immigration discourse has long been a central part of the Hindutva ideology. Early 20th-century mainstream migration discourse mostly comprised colonial anthropologists set on describing the co-existence of ethnic groups with theories of migration from the distant past. In India, this went as far as using theories of ethnic migration – specifically of Aryan invasion and subsequent conquest – to explain the origins of the caste system.
In 1903, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a central figure in the early articulations of the Indian independence struggle, wrote an influential book called The Arctic Home in the Vedas. Bringing together existing strands in early anthropology and geology, along with evidence drawn directly from scriptural passages, Tilak made the claim that the Aryan race originated in the Arctic, near the North Pole. Somewhere between 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, he suggests, a mass migration drove them to find new homes in Europe and Asia.
It is no secret that the notion of Aryan supremacy appealed to post-Tilak ideologues that were eager to align Hindutva with the European fascists of the time. And yet, Savarkar’s definition of Hindutva rested on the claim that only those who could trace the dual linkages of their “father land” and their “holy land” to the Indian subcontinent, could truly claim to belong in his imagined nation.
If Aryan origins – and indeed, following Tilak, Vedic origins – were to be traced to the North Pole, then this would exclude Savarkar’s definition of “Hindus” from his definition of “Hindutva”. In other words, Hindutva ideology had to either disavow the Aryan invasion theory, and abandon the cross-national alignments it offered, or accept that like Islam, the origins of Savarkar’s Hinduism could not be traced back to the subcontinent. It would not be hard to imagine Hindutva ideology simply letting this contradiction sit – the works of these ideologues are replete with inconsistencies, contradictions and pseudo social science claims.
And yet, to underline how serious the RSS was about resolving these matters, in 1947, M.S. Golwalkar – second only to Savarkar in terms of influence to Hindutva ideology – provided a resolution that the best contortionists would be proud of. Conceding that Aryans did indeed originate near the North Pole, Golwarkar claimed that it was the North Pole that migrated, from its position somewhere near modern-day Bihar/Orissa, to where it is located today.
It is important to recall this history, because we must look at just how seriously, even to a comical extent, the Hindutva ideology took these discourses, and the eagerness with which they are reconciled. The Hindutva ideology has always looked to engage with, and be legible to, Western conceptual frameworks, and the opportunistic decisions, of which of their own beliefs to jettison and which to emphasise in order to aid that engagement, provides valuable insight into their domestic political project.
By the 1990s,Hindutva had begun a serious attempt to globalise. Recognising the success of the Zionist project in incorporating global communities as citizens of a nation state and parlaying that into strong political support from the US, strategies that looked to tap the NRI (Hindu) resources in similar ways were implemented. The IDRF became a prominent lobbying and funding institution in the US, and the burgeoning internet was identified as a platform for spreading their revised mythologies and histories.
The opportunism of Hindutva is matched by its ability to repurpose political strategies, even from unlikely sources, so the irony that an alliance with Zionists was sought by organisations whose ideological figureheads were frequently in awe of Hitler’s project of racial purification was not a material impediment. The need to globalise Hindutva has shaped the Sangh’s project ever since, with the establishment of transnational alliances needing a universal enemy. In other words, for Hindutva to go global, it’s discourse with regards to Islam had to mirror the emergent, globalised figure of the Muslim.
It is not the Sangh alone who has participated in this global alignment. All the way until the early 2000s, the sole word for this domestic religious conflict, and indeed the qualifier used to describe politics that leveraged religious tension was always Communalism. Communalism described what had always been understood as a regional, South Asian conflict between religious groups – predominantly, though by no means exclusively – between Hindus and Muslims.
Islamophobia, by contrast, described a Euro-American discourse with dual roots in colonialism and imperialism respectively. Increasingly, however, critics in India have begun to use Islamophobia to describe the Modi-Shah led Hindutva machine, even though Christians, Dalits, and Adivasis (to name a few), all demonstrably continue to be targets of Hindutva politics. This marks the gradual and deliberate re-framing of India’s religious politics in terms that are legible in, and to, the 21st-century Western conceptual apparatus.
This globalisation of Communalism (this translation of a regional question of Communalism to the internationally portable discourse of Islamophobia) required a dual shift in ideological alignment over the figure of the Muslim, one determined by the US, and the other by Europe. This isn’t to say that European and American discourse don’t overlap, indeed it is precisely the pace with which they get intermingled that makes it productive to occasionally speak of “the West”, yet this dual genealogy is still significant.
For the US, post 9/11 discourse, alongside their massive global war, cemented the figure of the Muslim-as-terrorist. The corresponding Indian recalibration, which began with the denouncement of Kashmiri separatism and insurgency as wanton terrorism, was completed at the turn of the last decade. The images produced by the Indian media during the trial and hanging of Afzal Guru – India’s Osama Bin Laden – along with the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai – India’s ‘9/11’ – echoed the rarified US-American aesthetic and moral vocabulary reserved solely for public violence committed by Muslim accused.
Yet, if in the US, the figure of the Muslim was framed through the context of war and terror, in Europe, it was the Muslim-as-Immigrant that became the focal point of Islamophobic discourse. While US-American debates on Islamophobia have centred around surveillance, security, interrogation techniques, and infiltration, European conversations have centred around multiculturalism, cultural integration, demographics, the supposed incompatibility of Islam with “European values”, documentation, asylum and, of course, deportation.
It is this second reorientation that should have been impossible here. Despite enabling regional anger against ‘Bangladeshi immigrants’ in Bombay, and promising the NRC in their 2016 manifesto in Assam, it was hard to imagine a way to expand that hatred to a national level. To echo Niraja Gopal Jayal’s frustration:
“…in India… the other was historically a part of the society for hundreds of years… Right now, with the Citizenship Amendment Act, it is the illegal migrant that is the figure, but that figure then becomes a proxy for the Indian Muslim, who is as much a part of the soil as any of us.”
How do you externalise a population that has always been understood to be internal? The traditional Hindutva answer to this question was to redefine what it meant to belong to a land (Savarkar’s notion of the double coincidence of fatherland and holy-land).
The Supreme Court verdict in the Ram Temple case marks, in a sense, the end of a chapter in Hindutva ideology. The BJP seems to recognise that this is an ideological fight from a previous time – when their primary focus was on mythological or ancient history. Their claims then were on origins, invasions, and religious conversions located anywhere between 300 to 10,000 years ago.
Yet, if such a discourse made sense in early 20th century Western approaches to migration, it seems completely alien today. Mainstream Euro-American discourse is no longer interested in the distant, or even recent, past. If anything, it would rather not discuss history at all. After all, doing so might trigger uncomfortable conversations about the enduring effects of imperial and colonial projects. Instead, the new discourse of the modern nation-state is a bureaucratic one – one that uses legality to bury history under the weight of documents, tribunals, and medical examinations.
With the CAA, the BJP has learned from Euro-American statecraft, and modified its approach to best utilise the unique tools that being in power afford them. Using the recent European experience, they recognise that burying people under bureaucracy, detaining them, and deporting them is far more efficient than genocidal violence or ethnic cleansing, even as it produces identical results. It is precisely the decision to cast the Muslim as the illegal immigrant and not simply as an outsider, that allows the Hindutva ideology to complete its new alignment with Western Islamophobia.
Ideologically this has obvious benefits. It allows the global Hindu diaspora to read the Islamophobia of their adopted countries as perfectly consistent with the ‘news’ that filters through to them from India through their family WhatsApp groups and social media circles. It also allows the Hindutva right to nudge White Nationalists, whose ascendancy in the West makes them a powerful ally, and say “we too have a problem with Muslims, and we too will tighten our borders and expel these illegals who threaten our sovereignty”.
Consider that this is exactly what Aung San Suu Kyi was doing half a year ago, when she met with Victor Orban, Hungary’s far-right autocrat. A statement released by the Hungarian government tells us that “[t]he two leaders highlighted that one of the greatest challenges at present for both countries and their respective regions — South East Asia and Europe — is migration… both regions have seen the emergence of the issue of coexistence with continuously growing Muslim populations.” As Indians, we must note that the Rohingya, despite having lived in Myanmar for centuries, are denied citizenship, and specifically classified as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
To an audience acquainted with Euro-American discourse, this is extremely familiar far-right speak. For India, however, this should be utterly nonsensical. Yet. despite the weight of cultural understanding to the contrary, language describing Muslims as illegals is both immanent and gaining momentum. This is a remarkable shift in communal discourse, and it marks the entry into a far more insidious era of exclusionary state violence.
Instead of requiring the majority population to either join in killing or allow their towns to be bathed in blood, it only requires them to recuse themselves from fighting on someone else’s behalf. Instead of in riots, people will die languishing in camps, their medical and nutritional needs neglected, denied rights by vindictively arbitrary foreigner’s tribunals. It allows the leap from “they don’t have documents” to “they don’t belong here”.
Just as some residents of Assam now flee detention camps by crossing into Bangladesh, millions more elsewhere would be driven by desperation to try something similar, proving, in the eyes of those protected by their CAA-enabled citizenship 2.0, that they were indeed always illegals, now being driven back where they came from.
Yet still, we must recognise that this new discourse is still remarkably incomplete and unstable. The chinks in the armour have never been clearer. These new alignments do not prevent the Hindu diaspora from continuing to be brown in their countries. It does not stop them from getting shot by White Nationalists or humiliated by the TSA in the US. It doesn’t stop the UK from trying to sign an agreement with Narendra Modi that will help them deport Indian “illegals” back to where they came from. And it hasn’t stopped hundreds of millions of people from taking to the streets to protest what they correctly identify as a catastrophic descent into fascism.
Jagat Sohail is a doctoral candidate at the department of anthropology at Princeton University and Apoorv Avram is an education researcher based in Delhi. Sohail can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.