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‘Most damaging effect of majoritarianism on India’s polarised democracy is undermining of the rule of law’

In their recent book, anthropologists Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen along with political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot make an elaborate analysis of the socio-cultural and political changes that India is witnessing post the BJP’s sweeping victory in 2014.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi |
May 9, 2019 4:10:57 pm
hindu nationalism, Narendra Modi, RSS, elections, elections 2019, majoritarian state, Hindu, Hinduism, Modi government, Modi, BJP, India news, Indian Express The book is a collection of 21 essays written by some of the most well known academics who have made detailed analyses of the varying ways in which the Hindu nationalist ideology has gone way beyond the realm of politics. (Photo- Hurst publishers)

The 2014 general elections is often seen as a watershed moment in Indian political history. In their recent publication, ‘Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India’, anthropologists Angana P. Chatterji and Thomas Blom Hansen along with political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot make an elaborate analysis of the socio-cultural and political changes that the country is witnessing post the BJP’s sweeping victory in 2014.

“The triumph of the BJP in 2014 brought about two unprecedented events: never had the Hindu nationalist movement won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament, and never had this movement, known for its hostility to the personalisation of power and for its collegial governance, been so influenced by one politician, Narendra Modi,” they write in the introductory chapter of the book. The book is a collection of 21 essays written by some of the most well known academics who have made detailed analyses of the varying ways in which the Hindu nationalist ideology has gone way beyond the realm of politics and made deep inroads into different aspects of Indian society and culture.

In an email interview with, Chatterji and Hansen discuss their new book, why they feel that the recent wave of Hindu nationalist ideology is different and more worrisome than what existed before, as well as how this phenomenon is impacting India.

Could you briefly tell me a bit about your upcoming book?

Majoritarian State explores the embeddedness of Hindu nationalism in India today. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP administration have established an ethno-religious and populist style of rule since 2014. This agenda is also strengthened beyond the formal branches of government, as the new order portrays conventional social hierarchies as inherent to Indian culture, while condoning and promoting communal/religious and caste- and gender-based violence.

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The book explores the percolation of Hindutva ideology and practice deep into the state apparatus and formal institutions, and the reach and power of Hindutva organisations and their cadre over civil society, via vigilante groups, cultural policing and social violence. Groups and regions portrayed as ‘internal and external enemies’ of the Indian state are the losers in a new order that mainly promotes the interests of the urban middle classes and business elites. As this majoritarian ethos takes hold of the body politic, and seeps into the media and public discourse, it adversely impacts the judiciary and bureaucracy, and compromises academic and cultural institutions. Democratic practice and dissent are under threat and debate is increasingly marginalised as the press is censored or intimidated in the courts. Nationally, regionally and internationally, the BJP government has set in motion the creation of a fast-expanding security state in India. The book investigates the impetus and effects of this illiberal turn taken by the world’s largest democracy.

Your book appears to be an analysis of the ascendance of Hindu nationalism in the last few years. In that sense would you say that politics of Hindu nationalism was missing in the years preceding 2014 or does it exist in a new form under the Modi government?

The book focuses on how the Hindu nationalist movement – RSS, BJP, VHP and many subsidiaries and affiliated groups – have tried to reorient varied aspects of Indian society: institutions, policies, public sentiments, morality and gender norms, the common understandings of history, ‘belonging’ and un-belonging, and much more, in an aggressively ‘pro-Hindu’ direction. These efforts at changing India began decades ago and became more powerful in the 1990s. These efforts have been a predominant force since 2014. What is new under Modi is the BJPs assertiveness over political life in the country, the support of the BJP by many dominant business sectors, and the elevation of the armed forces to a heroic position in the country, as exemplary ‘deshbhakt’.

From the beginning, the RSS set out to change ‘Hindu society,’ to fashion India into a nation where Hindus dominate all aspects of life, and they remain faithful to that idea. In order to understand that strategy, most of the articles in the book do not deal with only politics, but with a large number of other fields where the RSS and its allies have been active for decades. From this perspective, 2014 to 2019 has been a period where the Hindu nationalist movement has enjoyed an unprecedented position of political power which has allowed it to expand and deepen its networks across the country, and to progressively control the symbolic and functional aspects of statehood and public culture to varying degrees. This is especially evident in the extent to which public institutions have been Hindutva-ized.

What would you say are some of the characteristic socio-economic factors that precede the rise of a majoritarian state in any country. How are they playing out in the case of India?

The old wisdom from the inter-war years was that majoritarian and authoritarian tendencies arise as a response to a deep economic crisis. That logic does not apply today. Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Rodrigo Roa Duterte and Brexit all happened during times of steady economic progress. The same is true of India.

What such examples of majoritarian upsurges do have in common is a deep transformation of the economy with old sectors dying and new ones rising at a rapid pace, along with incredible concentration of wealth in a few hands. This breeds aspiration and despair at the same time, a widespread sense of change that unsettles older hierarchies and certainties and fosters anxiety and fear of the future, along with a fear of losing out in an ever-accelerating race to get ahead. Majoritarian movements seek to divide populations into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and provide a simple explanation for the pervasive state of anxiety and fear: ‘they’ are getting ahead and blocking our future, ‘they’ are stealing a future that is rightfully ours. Depending on the situation and country, ‘they’ are social and religious minorities, people of color, immigrants, refugees, etc. – easily portrayed as enemies of the ‘true’ nation and of the majority.

In India, Modi harnessed a wave of rising expectations and aspirations that began in the 1990s, and were accelerated under the UPA. Post-2014, this has manifested in an unrelenting spread of Islamophobic and cultural and physical violence against Muslims as well as Adivasis, Dalits and other marginal communities.

The marginalization of social and religious minorities in economic and social life predates the current BJP government. However, following 2014, the interplay between the central government and allied state and grassroots institutions have intensified the marginalization of social and religious minorities in the economy and in society, heightening livelihood insecurities through the ban on cow slaughter, for example, and economic boycotts whereby minority communities are denied daily wage employment by middle and upper caste Hindus, and, further, denied access to housing or the benefits of reservation.

Generally speaking, the rise of majoritarian politics anywhere rests on the assumption that the majority of the country’s population follows a certain social or religious ideology. However, how would you explain its rise in India where the majority’s religion, Hinduism, in itself is a compilation of a large range of ideologies, customs, and traditions that play out differently in different parts of the country?

This is precisely the challenge that the RSS and their allies set out to meet from the beginning: to unite across the divergent, bewildering range of people called ‘Hindus,’ and to assimilate them under a common ideology, to make them identify as one nation despite centuries of deep structural inequality, hierarchy, disgust, mistrust and enmity along caste and cultural lines. This is the one effective method: animating the threat of a common enemy. This enemy is the Muslim/Islam, accused of seducing Hindu girls, staging a hostile demographic take-over of the country, sabotaging the economy, accused of being a Pakistani fifth column, of threatening a take-over in Kashmir… – all very old, repetitive, but increasingly potent stereotypes. This is less successful in the south of India, where Muslims are well-integrated into the economy, while the mobilisation of the fear of Bangladeshi migrants have turned out to yield rich political dividends in the Northeast for the BJP.

What according to you are some of the key challenges posed by the way a majoritarian state is being developed in India?

The most damaging effect of majoritarianism on India’s polarised democracy is the undermining of the rule of law. Law enforcement in India has always been fairly ineffective and biased against the poor and minority communities. Layered onto that, since the 1960s, following each episode of mass violence (such as in Gujarat 2002, Odisha 2007-08, and Uttar Pradesh 2013), the arbitrariness and inadequacies of ad hoc commissions and central and state human rights bodies to respond to the crisis and contain majoritarian nationalism have become endemic. Further, the legal institutionalisation of state impunity in ‘disturbed’/conflict areas, such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that is in force in Kashmir and the Northeast have created extraordinary situations. These tendencies are compounded in today’s political climate, as the ruling party uses the police and other state agencies for blatantly partisan ends and as it allows majority vigilante violence against minorities to flourish across the country.

The distinct feature of India’s majoritarian state is that the state does not need to execute any threats. In fact, it has abdicated its monopoly on violence. Instead, the RSS and its allies have weaponised civil society. This is where the threat of unaccountable violence comes from. The effect is chilling and sends three clear messages: those opposing the government cannot expect to be protected by the law and are vulnerable to attacks by ubiquitous vigilantes, internet trolls, etc; might is right, i.e. only those with political clout, and a mass following, can expect some measure of protection maybe even justice; the de facto tolerance of Hindu vigilantism signals that there is a ‘right’ way to be a Hindu, that every Hindu ought to be a nationalist; that the life of a Hindu always is more valuable than that of a non-Hindu; and, that one can kill non-Hindus with impunity. This can only encourage more unaccountable and rogue violence. This undermining of the rule of law and promotion of public violence as a legitimate instrument of politics is the biggest threat to Indian democracy, and a major threat to the social and political freedoms that so many people in India have come to desire and cherish.

Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India was published in April 2019 in India by Harper Collins.

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