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The protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) have come as an unexpected challenge for the government, especially the speed with which they have flared up, and have ignited debates about citizenship and secularism. But journalist and writer, Kapil S Komireddi says these ideas have not come to be contested just because of this one act. He says that the idea of secularism was incrementally worn down over 70 years by those who profess to be its guardians. In this episode, Sandip talks to him about how it came to be, the role of Indian historians in inadvertently contributing to it and his latest book, Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.
Sandip Roy: Hello and welcome to the Sandip Roy show on Express Audio.
When Narendra Modi lead the BJP to resounding victory in 2019. He left behind a demoralised ragtag opposition and in his wake. There seemed to be few who had the clout or the appetite to challenge the BJP. This winter though an unexpected challenge emerged all over India. Not organised by any particular political party and with no particular person as its face. The protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the speed with which they flared up, certainly took the government and many political watchers by surprise and ignited a debate about citizenship, and secularism, and what they mean to the very idea of India.
But a new book by journalist Kapil S Komireddi says if the idea of secularism seems so contested today, it’s not because of one Citizenship Act or one particular Prime Minister, it has been worn down incrementally over 70 years by those who profess to be its guardians. And it has been ill served by those who have airbrushed our complicated medieval history in the name of preserving communal harmony. So says, The Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, Komireddi’s blistering critique that fares no one, from historians to Prime Minister’s past and present.
Kapil Komireddi, welcome to the show.
Kapil Komireddi: Thank you for having me.
Sandip Roy: Though your book actually ends before the 2019 elections, let me start by asking you, what you make of the protests happening around the country right now? Do you think this is a secular uprising?
Kapil Komireddi: The final chapter in the book, because the book is so pessimistic or it appears so pessimistic because it’s a recapitulation of all that has gone wrong in India and that has brought us to Modi, the book ends on a note where I say that Modi has brought out the worst in so many Indians but his rule has also activated citizenly antibodies in the country. His excesses will give rise to an uprising to reclaim the country. That’s what I had anticipated in the book. And I feel vindicated by what I’m witnessing all around us. There is a protest. The people who’ve been maligned by this government, the muslim minority of this country, is leading that protest. Their song is the national anthem. Their standard is the Indian flag. Their Holy Book is the Indian Constitution. That’s an extraordinary sight for anyone to behold. Especially for any who loves India.
Sandip Roy: Some would say, it’s actually good for Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah because polarisation benefits their party.
Kapil Komireddi: What the protests have achieved will really become apparent in the future. They have seeded something for sure. You know, the fear that governs the relationship between the Prime Minister and the people has evaporated to a large extent. Until that moment, people were reluctant to come out into the streets, people thought that there was inertia across the country. People thought that the Prime Minister was so popular that protesting against him was futile. All those assumptions have fallen by the wayside, as a result of this protest. So this is, in a sense, a watershed moment. But will this lead to a substantive change in the direction of this country? I can’t say that for certain and that will only become clear in the months and years to come. Nobody must underestimate the tremendous power of the Prime Minister and his tremendous popularity. It’s going to be very difficult to sustain these protests. And will they work to these advantage that we’ll see in the results of the upcoming elections.
I do think the previous tactics are working this time. The demonisation of Modi’s opponents, as a fifth column, doesn’t appear to be yielding the same kind of results on this occasion. There is certainly that difference.
Sandip Roy: But did it surprise you at all that, in fact, it is this idea of India, you know, the idea of citizenship that eventually brought people out on the streets all over the country, as opposed to something that may have directly affected their pocketbooks like demonetisation?
Kapil Komireddi: What surprised me is the speed at which these protests erupted across the country. When demonetisation happened on the 8th of November 2016, a wave of misery washed over the country but there was no show of resistance. People have endured stoically the Prime Minister’s reckless actions for years. But the fight in the name of Constitution didn’t surprise me that much because, you know, the idea of the Indian Republic, the idea of democratic citizenship premised on secular equality has really percolated very deep down into the Indian consciousness. Indians have negotiated with this idea in various ways for the past 70 years. So when that idea was going to be radically altered or was going to be potentially upended, of course, there was going to be an uprising. What struck me was the speed of the uprising, but the uprising itself, that at the centre of it is India, that didn’t surprise me at all.
Sandip Roy: But it is still astonishing because when you read your book, what you show over and over again is how none of this began with Narendra Modi or the Citizenship Amendment Act. What you’ve shown in the book is that it’s the leaders who are supposed to be the guardians of secularism, the ones who are paying at least lip service to it, Congress Prime Ministers, have progressively left secularism, real secularism, in tatters. So isn’t it surprising that people hadn’t just given up on it as an idea that was just unworkable in India?
Kapil Komireddi: See the erosion of India that happened under the Gandhi dynasty ruled Congress Party governed India. The detrition of Indian institutions was quite incremental. There was one moment, the emergency, when Mrs. Gandhi suspended the Constitution and ruled as a dictator. And yet that period resulted in such an extraordinary backlash at the ballot box that India somehow bounced back, you know, and the subsequent erosion of India, Indian democracy, in the republican institutions was incremental. It wasn’t precipitous. What we witnessed with the CAA now is quite radical. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s completely redefining Indian citizenship. We arrived at the point at which India was exhausted enough to elect to office, a man of Mr. Modi’s, you know, reputation because of Congress. Congress had completely demoralised Indians over the past, you know, 55 years of its rule. It gave us nothing but one family and when one prime minister came out of the family and completed a full term, it wrote him out of the history books. And when Prime Minister Singh ruled for 10 years, he was effectively taking notes from the dynasty. Congress party, especially the dynasty that rules it, has disfigured this country in unspeakable ways. To use an extreme analogy, if the Prime Minister and his dispensation are cancer, Congress is tobacco. You don’t go back to tobacco after having beaten cancer. So we have to look for something fresh.
Sandip Roy: I want to play with your tobacco analogy. It seems like even after Rahul Gandhi sort of stepped down and stepped away, he’s been brought back in the same way as if, ‘Okay, instead of tobacco, now we give you vaping’.
Kapil Komireddi: (Laughs) Yeah, and you know, the studies about vaping are rather vague, but the studies about the Gandhi’s are pretty, pretty certain. They are disaster. It’s pitiful that this party, which claims to be the guardian, the defender of India’s values, cannot find a leader outside of that family. And if anyone shows was any leadership potential, they will be destroyed.
You know, I just want to give you one little anecdote. I was in Pakistan many years ago and there I met a Christian student. She was brilliant. She’d just come back having won a competition abroad, a debating championship. And she was quite brilliant. And I thought, you know, in any other country, she would potentially be seen as a future leader. But in Pakistan, she told me she could never even dream of that, because being Christian, she was constitutionally barred from occupying the high offices of the state. Because Pakistan is conceived as a religious state. And Congress struck me as something like Pakistan, however talented you are, unless you are born in that gene pool, unless you belong in that gene pool, you can never aspire to the presidency of that party. That’s tragic. That’s sad. It’s not just tragic for the party, it’s tragic for India. The people who are going to Rahul and pleading with him to come back, aren’t really there because they don’t have a vision for social justice. They don’t want to help the tribal people of India. They don’t want to empower minorities in India. They really want to perpetuate themselves.
Sandip Roy: So who do you think, right now, would be the strongest proponents of the sort of secular ideals on which this Republic was founded?
Kapil Komireddi: There are many, many, many pockets of secular leadership across India. They haven’t coalesced around a single platform because they united by this idea of India being a plural multi ethnic polyglot society. But they are divided on other things. You know, they’re divided on economy, on various various other things. So you have to have a hierarchy of priorities. You know, if you believe that secularism is the non negotiable condition of Indian nationhood, then you have to put everything else aside and come together.
The longer I think we have the Prime Minister in office, the greater there is a chance of something like that coming to life. But as long as, again, there is a bit of a danger here because as long as Congress occupies those opposition benches, people are likely to be lured by this illusion that there is an opposition to go to. There isn’t. There is a family enterprise to go to. Because Congress is so thoroughly destroyed any room and the BJP is so dominant, I think the actual creation of pan national secular party, whatever its other policies are, but secularism being its core, will take time. It may be the work of a generation, but great nations take generations to build and we are only 70 years old.
Nobody thought that the Muslims of India would be leading a protest to rescue India from majoritarian politics. That’s happening in front of our eyes. So don’t write off the possibility of a pan national party arising out of this chaos. The real threat to that, the real threat to that is the Congress Party.
Sandip Roy: Does it surprise you that Muslims are leading this battle? Cause we had interviewed Rakhshanda Jalil a while back on this podcast and she talked about how the 2014 election, and then of course 2019, had shown Indian Muslims as being silent and cowed down and sort of feeling like the effacement of the Muslim from the Indian body politics in total. And now, come 2020 Muslim men and women are leading the battle.
Kapil Komireddi: What Modi’s achievement, Modi’s great contribution to India, is to have pushed Muslims to the point where they said, you know, this is now an existential threat for us. If they’re going to efface us from this country, to which we’ve pledged allegiance, unlike Hindus, Muslims had to make a choice, they chose India at the time of partition, and if India chooses to efface them, then they might as well fight back and go down fighting.
Sandip Roy: In the book, you know, how you write about the way Rajiv Gandhi famously sort of betrayed the secular ideals when he pandered to the more orthodox elements in Muslim society with the Shah bano case. But you also write that Rajiv was not motivated by any palpable prejudice and India’s ‘hatreds were dormant presences in the worlds in which he grew up’. Is this in a way the problem?
Kapil Komireddi: The tragedy of Rajiv Gandhi is this man is not a politician. He is recruited. He is brought in, he is conscripted effectively, to replace his deceased brother in order to perpetuate the family business. A very good man by all accounts. A private man, and he’s pushed into politics. Once he arrives in politics, he really has very few convictions other than the banalities he’s internalised from his youth. About, you know, secularism and about socialism, things which he understands, as people understand platitudes, but doesn’t seem to really have any convictions. They’re not core values for him. When he’s faced with a challenge, you know, Shah Bano being the most important case.
Shah Bano brought out a very ugly side of Indian orthodoxy, religious orthodoxy. There were people being killed on the streets of India because conservative Muslim clerics said that Islam was under threat. Rajiv Gandhi crafted legislation compelling the Indian state to take their side, the government to take their side. And he did that because it was expedient. And having made that decision, he then compensated for it by opening the gates to Barbi by placing a round about ban on a novel, The Satanic Verses. And that period, really his reign, is the period during which Indian secularism begins to fall apart. He’s a man who surrendered to the forces of communism in this country, both Muslim and Hindu. And his surrender was a movement from which India has not recovered.
Sandip Roy: What do you think, in our country as religious as India, democracy as religious as India, it was always going to be a real challenge to be as secular in practice, as the founders and the Constitution envisioned? Because you’ve called this an audacious experiment from the outset.
Kapil Komireddi: Yeah, it was always going to be difficult, but so was democracy. Democracy was going to be very difficult in a country that had never known franchise. In a country stratified by caste, and a country divided by religion. And secularism is often seen to be a western import, secularism is often seem to be this exotic thing. It has been the most impugned word in the Indian political lexicon for such a long time. But what is secularism? Secularism is the condition of India’s existence, at least secularism as we understand it. Indian secularism is ecumenical in character. It is the only basis on which we can survive as a united nation because we are so various as a people. Indian culture, Indian history and Indian culture, Indian symbology for various reasons is heavily Buddhist and Hindu. That isn’t something we can run away from. So, it is natural that there will be expressions of those. Hinduism as both a culture and religion. So, that that is always going to be there. But, you know, the use of Hindu symbology, the excessive use of Hindu symbology, the picture of gods adorned buildings, that should have been got rid of a long time ago. And nobody had the courage to say that that should have been got rid of.
Sandip Roy: Well, you have the bit where Lal Bahadur Shastri, he’s asked about his religion and his response is something I don’t think any leader, whether in Congress or BJP right now, will dare make these days.
Kapil Komireddi: So Lal Bahadur Shastri was asked by, when he became the president of Congress and the Prime Minister of India, he was asked by a reporter from The Illustrated Weekly of India, Shastri was a very religious man, and he was asked to talk about his religion, and Shastri answered. He said, ‘No. Religion is private. I’m the Prime Minister of India. I will not discuss my religion in public. No public official should discuss one’s religion in public’. We are not secular in the French sense. Our secularism is not a rejection of religion, which I personally would like that kind of secularism, but that, you know, is not probably going to be possible anytime soon. In the absence of that, I think we should have a secularism that actually creates, as much as possible, to the extent possible, a neutral space for people of all religions.
Sandip Roy: But do you feel that that in fact the historiographers who were tasked by the so called secular Congress establishment to write about and clarify India’s past, motivated by a desire to do good you say, actually caused a measurable harm by blurring history.
Kapil Komireddi: And the way we’ve come to understand our history is we have papered over the difficult mediaeval history of India. And our history of conquest really begins with the arrival of British. Prior to that India is invaded by waves of Central Asians. But we never talk about that. That does not seem to be imperialism in the commonly understood sense of the term. But British are uniquely evil. I can understand and appreciate why we look at history the way we do. It’s because after partition, there was a lofty desire to deny ammunition to people to reactionaries, who wanted to make India a Hindu version of Pakistan. It is a fact. It is an undeniable fact that India was repeatedly raided by Muslim invaders. It is a fact that an unquantifiable measure of Indian heritage was destroyed during these invasions.
You go to a place such as Warangal, where in the 13th century, it was invaded by Alauddin Khalji’s forces. There was an extraordinary temple there, to Shiva, which was destroyed. And if you go to the temples there today, you will find that all the statues are defaced because the invaders were iconoclasts. And the people of the town and the people of that city know that they have emerged, seven centuries later, they know that they’ve emerged from some calamity, but they can’t quite put their finger on it. And we’ve been let down by our historians. That is what makes us so susceptible to the distortions of history peddled by the ruling dispensation.
Sandip Roy: So are you saying that historians like Romila Thapar inadvertently contributed to the rise of hindutva?
Kapil Komireddi: We should be proud and grateful. We should be proud of her and grateful for her services to the country. I have nothing but admiration for her. Romila Thapar is a very serious and important writer to read. She’s often cited by people who don’t actually read her. History everywhere is a contested subject, but you go in other parts of the world, they’ve dealt with their past, they have a linear understanding of their past. They know that this-this-this-this-this happened, we’ve recovered from it. It happened a long time ago, let’s move on. In India, you know, we behave as though the temples just fell off their own, you know? The bricks just started collapsing. There was no force applied. How did these temples vanish? Why is it that in northern India, there is so little left of the Hindu Buddhist heritage of India? Why is that? How does that happen? People are bound to ask those questions. And when they don’t get the answers, people are bound to blame the existing minorities of India. And if you actually answer those questions honestly, you will arrive at the conclusion that nobody in today’s India is response for what happened in the past.
We need to accept that horrible, unspeakably horrible, things happen in mediaeval India. We need to accept that the Islamic invasions of India weren’t picnics, you know, they didn’t come here to distribute chocolates. It was a very, very dreadful time. You know, when the British come to India, that’s imperialism, but pre-colonial invasions are cultural exchange programmes, you know. Apparently our culture is enriched. But sure, our culture is enriched, but there’s a lot of blood that was shed. We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about that because we fear that that information will be used by the Hindu nationalists to malign the Muslim minority. Actually, the opposite is true. We didn’t talk about that. And the Hindu nationalists have invented drivel and they’ve maligned the Muslims anyway.
Sandip Roy: But isn’t it also true that one of the reasons people make that distinction between the European invaders and the Muslim invaders is that the Europeans basically never really settled down here. They were extracting India’s riches to build mansions in Dundee and Manchester and wherever. Whereas the Muslims settled here. The Taj Mahal was built here.
Kapil Komireddi: It’s remarkable that no one has as yet spotted the flaw in that argument, which is that, you know, when they built the Taj Mahal, or when they built their mansions within India, India wasn’t a united political entity. So if you went to Hyderabad, and you plundered Hyderabad, and you built a mansion in Delhi, the people of Hyderabad didn’t say to themselves, ‘Oh, he’s come to Hyderabad, butchered my family, taken my family gold, but you know, it’s, it’s fine, it’s fine, he’s invested in Delhi, which is part of my country’. Nobody thought that way. People viewed it as plunder.
Sandip Roy: But how do you think we go forward? Given that you understand for whatever reasons, India has not fully acknowledged its history or accepted the complexity of its past and doesn’t sort of liberated itself from it and that has led to a certain weaponisation of a distorted form of history as it were. How do we go forward from here right now?
Kapil Komireddi: Yeah and I think the way we go forward is we, you know…I write in the book that history cannot be revenged. The only thing we can do to be spared its punishing tormentors to be honest about the past. As far as history is concerned, we need at some stage to distil our past. To be honest about our past. To give students, to give new generations of students, a linear understanding of their past. That is a project, I don’t know right now, I don’t think that that’s going to be possible. That is a project for peacetime India. Now we’re in a, you know, we’re in chaos India.
Sandip Roy: And in chaos India, it’s often like people will say that okay, even if someone pays lip service to secular ideas, you know, fudges the boundaries a bit, but at least looks chagrined when caught in a lie that’s better than MPs who will openly ‘goli maaron saalo ko’ or or say ‘the Shaheen Bagh protesters will come into your homes and rape you’ on television without blinking.
Kapil Komireddi: The fact that politicians who belong to the majority community are saying such things is profoundly depressing. But it also reveals the total bankruptcy of this political project. And we are likely to see more of this kind of language, not less, this isn’t going to attenuate, it is going to intensify. It’s because they use this language now in desperation.
Sandip Roy: Do you think it’s desperation and not because they feel invincible?
Kapil Komireddi: Oh, no, I think they have begun to feel invincible. I think they’ve begun to feel invincible. But, of course, they are aware that they still wield power. They wield tremendous power and they can say things like this without actually having to bear any consequences. But this is really an expression of brute power, but that is coming from a place of some vulnerability. I think they are beginning to feel invincible.
Sandip Roy: One of the big things about these protests has been the diversity of faces there. And in general, the facelessness of it. Do you think that confronted with a person as powerful and charismatic as a Narendra Modi, that facelessness is an asset? Or is it a liability of these protests?
Kapil Komireddi: Not having a face is of course a disadvantage because the man they are confronting is the most popular politician in India still. Had there been a face attached to this protest, it would by now have been discredited, it would by now had been muffled. Disfigured, not muffled. It’s heartening that we are witnessing a citizens protest in which, you know, there isn’t a leader. There isn’t a man mediating. People are just speaking for themselves. People are speaking with some very clear, discernible objectives. And as I previously mentioned, the triune, the holy triune, the Constitution, the national anthem, and the flag, that is profoundly inspiring. What a proud moment it is that, you know, this, this could be, this protest could either reclaim India, or it could be the swan song to the India, we knew. But if it is the latter, we can take pride in the fact that we didn’t just die in silence. We fought back and we fought back very eloquently.
Sandip Roy: Kapil Komireddi, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
Kapil Komireddi: Thank you for having me.
Sandip Roy: Kapil S Komireddi is the author of the new book, Malevolent Republic: The Short History of the New India.
Just like many parts of India, it has been the winter of protests in Kolkata. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests have resulted in marches, sit-ins, bans, human chains and rally traffic organisers shouting directions. There have been gatherings at parks, Gandhi statues past the magnificent facade of the Oberio Grand Hotel and tramping through the greens of the Maidan, past the old sporting clubs. This is a city that has a long history of protests, sneaking processions and mammoth rallies. The CAA and NRC protests come with their own soundscape. Sometimes they march borrowing slogans from Chile in the 1970s. Sometimes they are homegrown slogans for us Azaadi, echoes of other movements. Or that old standard of ‘Long Live the Revolution’.
There are leftovers from old leftist movements about comrades and barricades. And the new standard of this movement. At one rally sneaking through the streets of Kolkata I have seen a rainbow flag fluttering alongside the Indian National Flag- saffron, white and green. There are drums. People do chalk art on the sidewalks. There are songs of protests old and new. Once dusk was falling, then suddenly as if an electric signal passed through the crowd, everyone fell quiet. Someone took out their cell phone and turned on the torch. Someone else followed suit. And the long procession, thousands of people turned into a flickering river of light. The candles in the wind of our age.
In the midst of all this, I ran into a grey haired man dressed most oddly. He had on a red Santa hat, an orange kurta and a blue check wrap-around lungi. He had a half smile and a sign that said, ‘Asked me who I am’. At first, I thought he was one of those oddballs that show up for protests and parades. The ones best ignored. He looked like a cartoon figure amidst all the talk of citizenship and secularism and the Constitution. Then someone finally bit, pointed to a sign and said, ‘So who are you supposed to be?’ He said, ‘He calls himself Joseph Narendra Mohammad’. The penny dropped. The Santa hat stood for Joseph. The orange kurta, the kind favoured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, represented Hindus. The checked lungi was the kind associated with Muslims. ‘But what is your real name?’, asked the media. The man just smiled and shouted, ‘Freedom from NRC’. I thought he was just a man in a strange fancy dress costume on a winter afternoon in Kolkata. It turned out he was the dream of the makers of India’s constitution, a secular country where everyone – Hindu, Muslim, Christian – could be part of the fabric that made India, India. I was embarrassed that he had to point it out.
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