On 26 January 2020, as India marks 70 years of becoming a modern Republic, it also faces its biggest crisis as a democratic federation of religious, linguistic, ethnic and regional groups.
Not only is the soul of India – its traditions of secularism, tolerance and respect for diversity – under threat, even the very flesh and bones of the nation are being torn apart today. And, as the people of India openly revolt against the Narendra Modi regime’s attempts to create a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ – the country seems to be headed towards the emergence of not a consolidated, homogenous ONE, but dozens of little ‘Rashtras’.
Since mid-December, millions of Indian citizens across the country have been out on the streets,almost on a daily basis, in anti-government demonstrations reminiscent of the Arab Spring a decade ago. The focus of the protests, which started in Assam and spread to rest of the country, is on demanding the rollback of the Citizenship Amendment Act, a controversial law that redefines Indian citizenship on religious grounds and is openly discriminatory against Muslims.
What makes the CAA particularly threatening to India’s 200 million plus Muslims is its link to the National Register of Citizens, an exercise planned by the current government to verify citizenship of the entire Indian population. It is argued that the combination of CAA and NRC will be used to harass, isolate and even disenfranchise Muslims.
In Assam itself the opposition to CAA is on the grounds that it will invite a flood of refugees from neighboring Bangladesh. Assam is the only Indian state where an NRC has been carried out till date, on the orders of the Indian Supreme Court, to identify illegal migrants allegedly living there.
Will these public protests be enough to save Indian democracy or the Republic? What are the deeper structural and long-term historical issues that are promoting the rise of authoritarianism or fascism in India? And how is all this connected to the spread of similar forces globally or even in the South Asian region?
To begin with, it should be noted that the protests have already achieved much – especially the rejection by large sections of the population of the poisonous attempt of Hindu chauvinists to divide Indians on grounds of religion. The ruling BJP has also been shaken up severely despite its brute majority in parliament and signaled that, while it will not withdraw the Citizenship Amendment Act itself, it may not carry out a nationwide NRC exercise.
Opposition political parties, floundering after their severe defeat in the 2019 polls, also seem to have found their mojo again thanks to the public outpouring against the Modi government. Many state governments, run by opposition parties, have refused to implement the CAA or carry out an NRC, in an unprecedented sign of open revolt within the Indian federation.
And yet, the current upsurge – inspiring as it is- also faces the danger of meeting the fate of the Arab Spring – of raising much hope without enabling any deeper transformation. In the absence of clear political leadership, organization, vision or even participation from rural and other marginalized Indian populations, the current upsurge could dissipate easily – once a few demands are conceded in a token manner. For what the protestors are up against in the form of the Narendra Modi regime, is not merely one law or policy of a corrupt government – but a concerted, long-term movement to convert the Indian Republic into a theological state.
The key objective of both the ruling BJP and the RSS, its mentor organization, is to turn India into a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, where Hindus will have hegemony over national affairs while other religious groups will have to be content living as second class citizens. The social roots of the ‘Hindutva’ movement, lies among India’s numerically small but powerful upper caste Hindus or savarnas, who have never accepted the Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950.
While the Constitution calls for social justice, equality of all Indian citizens and institutional checks and balances against monopoly over power, what the upper caste want is absolute control. More precisely they seek to impose values and principles based on traditional, regressive Hindu texts such as the Manusmriti, which justifies the rigid hierarchy of the caste system.
Over the last seven decades they have worked slowly but steadily to claw their way to power and shape the country according to their vision of a nuclear-armed India, operating along the lines of a mythical ‘Ram Rajya’ of the past. Since the early nineties, using a mix of aggressive nationalist and anti-Muslim rhetoric they have managed to come to power all over the country.
There is a global dimension to all that is happening in India too. For example, the demonization of Islam over the last two decades by Western powers – seeking new ‘enemies’ to feed their war industry after the collapse of the Soviet Union – has emboldened Hindu chauvinists. It is not a coincidence that Hindu extremists and White supremacists seem to share much love for each other – with the public display of affection between Donald Trump and Narendra Modi often reaching orgasmic proportions.
Beyond such ideological affinity though, the larger reason why Western powers do not object to any atrocities India commits in Kashmir or against its Muslim community is they hope to rope it in as a ‘junior partner’ in their global imperialist adventures. India was historically an important source of support for the British Empire and supplied millions of troops plus raw materials and Indian foreign policy is pointed in a similar direction today.
India’s ruling Hindu elites are eager to be recognized as a ‘superpower’- even if their real status will be that of being the only ‘coolies’ in the club. In return for club membership India is supposed to become a major supplier of troops as cannon-fodder to the war efforts of Western powers in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran or Africa. And at some point of time in future, also perhaps against China – which has emerged as the biggest challenge to Western global domination in recent decades.
All these grandiose global plans however may be upended by the fact that the Hindu chauvinists seem to have learnt nothing from the modern history of their neighbors in South Asia itself. The quest by conservative elites to capture the modern Indian state apparatus, under the cover of religion and narrow nationalism, mirrors similar attempts in the past by the Punjabi elite in undivided Pakistan and the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists in Sri Lanka.
While Pakistan broke into two with the emergence of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka went through one of the most brutal civil wars for over four decades. Both countries witnessed genocides by their armed forces against their own populations, for which no one has been punished to this day.
The liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 in response to cultural and political oppression of the Bengali-speaking Muslims by Punjabi-speaking Muslims, in particular, was a seminal moment in the sub-continent’s modern history. It not only showed clearly why a common religion alone could not hold a modern nation-state together, it also proved that culture is a far more emotive and binding factor, especially when it comes under threat from other more aggressive or insensitive rivals.
If one examines Hindutva closely, it is not really a pan-Indian phenomenon but the projection of power by the ‘Hindi’ speaking elites of cow-belt India, who have thrust their cult of “Lord Ram’, vegetarianism and cow worship on the rest of the country. Couched in the garb of religious nationalism, they project a uniform vision that threatens the autonomy, identity and even dignity of many regions and cultures of the diverse Indian Republic. (It is not a coincidence the most vicious state violence against anti-CAA/NRC protestors has been in Uttar Pradesh)
In other words, the Indian cow-belt is to the rest of India what West Pakistan was to East Pakistan a few decades ago. The net result is also going to be the same – a backlash against the hegemony of both Hindi-speakers and upper caste Hindus in various ways – and this battle is likely to intensify in the days ahead.
The current phase of the Modi regime’s attempt to consolidate its grip over Indian society started out under the pretext of ‘weeding out’ illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Very ironically it is today accelerating the process of creating many Bangladesh-like liberation movements across the country.
Painful as the process is going to be, that perhaps may be the only path towards a truly federal and democratic Indian Republic of the future. Tighten your ‘cow-belt’ for a very turbulent journey ahead.
Satya Sagar is a journalist who can be reached at [email protected]