Sanjay Subrahmanyam, professor and Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is a historian with specialisation in medieval and early modern South Asian and Indian Ocean history, the history of European expansion and the comparative history of early modern empires. He advises graduate students on Indian history and forms of “connected histories”. He has been known to characterise India less as a ‘civilisation’ and more of a ‘marvellous crossroads’ of many influences over millennia. Excerpts from an interview during a recent visit to India:
What can one say about the recent wave of violence in India, in the form of lynchings that target minorities, for example?
These lynchings are a form of communal violence that is different from what we have seen before. Firstly, they are apparently decentralised. Earlier, organised acts of mass violence were repetitive in character and there was a pattern, e.g. processions were attacked or the violence was timed with public festivals. This was so even in the time of the Mughals. Then, post-Independence, there have been largely urban, organised forms of violence, where various political parties have provided protection to the perpetrators. So, the people on top knew and acquiesced, while the middle leadership was actually active, as in 1984. But what we are seeing now is not at a single place, there are fewer numbers attacked and it is decentralised, done by little groups all over the place. These groups are either being told, or imagine that they have been told to act in this way. Further, after the event, no one in authority is clearly telling them the contrary. There is also an aspirational quality to the violence. It is low-level… if journalists don’t choose to report it, it may not even register if one isn’t vigilant. But the curious thing is that the perpetrators want it to be known. After all, some of the people doing this are even videotaping it. They make sure the information is circulating, intended as a warning, as a signal and controlling device for the social behaviour expected of minorities. It is a form of violence which can pop up here one day and there on another. It is never mass killings, but based on the existence of grassroots kind of organisations which believe in doing this, and also to an extent on copycat behaviour. So even if it is decentralised, there is a larger context.
What is that context?
The actors seem to know that for all intents and purposes, nothing will happen to them, and they know they are implicitly meeting approval from higher-ups. People are using this to probably build political careers, a CV-builder of some kind. It is in part aspirational and cynical violence, of killing because you can do it. But note that there are parts of India where it happens and other parts where it doesn’t. If a strong regional political party is in power, which does not believe in this, it magically doesn’t happen.
So is there a message that follows, down the line from the top leadership?
One has to infer this. In regimes which are semi-authoritarian and yet operate inside a democracy, no one may want to take away the trappings of democracy, and elections can go on at all levels. But the reality is, it is all based on doublespeak. So, there is an occasional, pious, public message to say the authorities disapprove of certain actions, but then there is the dog-whistle by which people are also being relayed the opposite of what the official message is. We must also understand what is this meant for. After all, even the right-wing doesn’t want to physically drive all Muslims or Christians out of the country, but instead wants them to understand they are very much second- or third-class citizens and then regulate their behaviour on that basis. They want symbolic acts to take place so that minorities can internalise the message.
How have lynchings happened elsewhere in the world?
The US had a civil war in the 1860s and there was official emancipation for black slaves. Social attitudes did not move apace with the law though, and then there was a majoritarian (white) party that invented a myth about the black minority being the one that was likely to attack whites. The most powerful myth was that they would need to protect the white woman from the black man. This was a cruel paradox, since the blacks came to the US from Africa because they were enslaved. They were both the victims and the ones who were to be blamed. In India, we are not dealing with the same situation, but somehow, the Muslim population has the “stigma” that they were once rulers, and a historical score-settling appears to be on — to make them feel we (the majority) at best tolerate them, but do not welcome them.
How can such a situation be resolved?
The problem is that the rule of law in India remains very weak. But even so, for a state to function, even speaking cynically, for example as a space for secure foreign investment, we have to have some sort of a rule of law. Unless someone is willing to enforce the law, the problem will remain. The law in India is perfectly adequate, it just has to be implemented. Maybe it is naive to think these elements will backtrack. But in the end, they may realise that it is not good for the image of the country, or for their image as a regime. Today it is the Muslims, or the Christians, tomorrow it can be about anybody. In this situation, many forms of xenophobia lie just below the surface.
Is this a problem of mandates when democracy is seen to vindicate majoritarianism?
How do you prevent democracies from being simply about majorities? That has always been the problem. There must be some internalisation of the idea that people have inalienable rights which cannot be traded off against representation. Today, many people seem to think in India that because we have got representation and votes, other rights can go by the wayside. What are the institutions to protect rights? They are the judicial, executive, and civil society institutions. Today, two of these three are falling on the job. What has happened in other societies when certain groups don’t think they have adequate rights, is that they can begin arming themselves, which is what has happened in the US. We aren’t such a form of an extreme frontier society here, but if you feel victimised, there is a tendency to take the law in your own hands. Violence begets violence, and that is such a grotesque kind of society to descend into. Thankfully, we still are not armed to the teeth like some other societies are.
What are the implications of such decentralised violence like lynchings happening over a few years?
It seems we are in for the long haul, and, looking at the next seven years, it is enough time to shift the very idea of the normal. Over that kind of time-frame, there can be a new level of acceptability to behaviour that was once condemned, and a corresponding coarsening of political language that is already visible. This change and the generalised atmosphere of abuse, aided by the anonymity of social media is clearly palpable. Sadly, good parts of the international situation are also similar, so we should not think we are so unique. Turkey is witnessing the strengthening of Muslim fundamentalism and authoritarian government. In Russia, you have the Orthodox Church’s alliance with an authoritarian state. This is the new normal of neo-democratic states, which, when it suits them, say they are democratic, and at the same time, slowly shift the ground in society. If this is on the cards, politics has to come in, to pull society back from the brink. This cannot be just about civil society formations fighting a rear-guard action and taking on a political system. This is the time for the political system to show its resilience, or else we will face the consequences of one-party rule over years and years.