“Majoritarianism Is A Political Pandemic,” says Mukul Kesavan

 Mukul Kesavan

Does fascism indicate the institutionalization of a particular form of majoritarian bigotry or does the correctness of that characterization hinge on particular violent outcomes? Should all real fascism result in ethnic cleansing, genocide or concentration camps, or can fascism attain a stable equilibrium in a functioning democracy? What are the different ways in which countries as different as France, China, the United States, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and India have witnessed the political mobilisation of their people in the name of an ethnic majority and how these mobilisations have been organized against nominated minorities? These are some of the critical issues addressed by Mukul Kesavan, a well-known Indian writer and historian, in a major lecture in the south Indian state of Kerala.

Delivering ‘2021 Vakkom Moulavi Memorial Lecture’ on the theme A Comparative Understanding of Modern Majoritarianism organised by Vakkom Moulavi Memorial and Research Centre (VMMRC) in Vakkom, Thiruvananthapuram, Mukul said that “majoritarianism has been a global phenomenon like a political pandemic and it has become an existential threat to pluralist societies and polities across the world.” The author of internationally acclaimed novel Looking Through Glass, Mukul, who currently teaches History and Culture at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi pointed out that “majoritarianism is a claim that a nation’s political destiny should be determined by ethnic or religious majority. This claim is as old as the history of South Asia, and countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh had fallen into this trajectory of majoritarianism in the first decade of their independence. The one nation-state that resisted such tendency in the region was India, till the early 1980s. However, the massacre in Assam in 1983 was a landmark, followed by the Delhi anti-Sikh pogrom in 1984 and subsequent violence and riots in Mumbai, Gujarat and several other parts of the country,” he noted.

Analysing how state-sponsored majoritarianism deals with minorities in countries as different as India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, the U.S. and France, Mukul argued that “modern majoritarianism is not covert.  It is rather explicit and performative. It sets out to make an example of the minority in question.” He pointed out how “the savage ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya was publicly defended both by Myanmar’s junta and its erstwhile ruling party, the National League for Democracy.”

Mukul said that “France also shares China’s suspicion of Muslim ‘extraterritoriality.’ Political parties and voters across the political spectrum have targeted French Muslims as a dangerously unassimilated minority. Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, a party with clear historical connections to fascistic French political movements, speaks, nonetheless, from the mainstream of French politics when she attacks French Muslims as an incorrigibly anti-secular threat to the republic’s ideals.” Mukul, however, said that “French Muslims are in no imminent danger of disenfranchisement, ethnic cleansing or concerted violence, but they do constitute a politically beleaguered minority, singled out for suspicion by both State and civil society.” “Despite the enormously varied contexts of majoritarian politics and policies in these three countries, they have some features in common. In all three cases, there seems little or no significant opposition to the singling out of the stigmatized minority from civil society groups or political parties other than those that speak from within the minority community. Le Pen, Macron, mainstream French conservatives, mainstream media groups seem to agree that France’s Muslims are a problem. This consensus seems even starker in Myanmar and there’s no sign that in what passes for public opinion in China, there is any disagreement with the State’s decision to ‘domesticate’ the community and bring it to heel.”

Mukul said that “using the police or the army or the bureaucracy against a minority serves several purposes. It indicates to the general population that the minority is a kind of underclass that does not have the protection of the State. An underclass is a prerequisite for successful majoritarianism because the poor, subaltern, working-class sections of the nominal majority are best mobilized by offering them objects of hatred more wretched than them. Pogroms and vigilante violence constantly reiterate and celebrate this public subordination. Phone cameras, Facebook Live and WhatsApp shares allow people to vicariously participate in violent subordination on an unprecedented scale.” “This simultaneity, this sense of sharing a moment with thousands and millions of others, creates a virtual solidarity. It’s like watching a Premier League football match live. Majoritarianism is, amongst other things, a live carnival that you can be a part of.”

According to Mukul, “if majoritarianism is to be understood as a global phenomenon, India is the paradigmatic case. This is simply a matter of scale. India not only has the largest population in the world, it is also home to two hundred million Muslims. India’s Muslim population is both dispersed and massive. Even if the Indian State wanted to, it couldn’t do what China and Myanmar have done: reduce or disperse or expel a relatively small minority compactly located in a frontier province.”

He said that “majoritarianism in India offers a tasting menu, not a main course. Love jihad, vigilantism, lynching, public beatings, urban riots, the threat of the National Register of Citizens, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act’s success in smuggling in a religious criterion for citizenship, the ransacking of minority universities, the Ram Mandir, the taming of Kashmir, all these helps feed the beast. The ‘success’ of the Gujarat model in segregating and subordinating Muslims in that state sustains the majoritarian wager that campaigns of episodic intimidation and violence can replicate this success on a pan-Indian scale.  India’s majoritarians believe that this carnival of contained but exemplary violence can indefinitely sustain an election-winning electoral majority. They are wrong, but that’s an argument for another day.”

Mukul pointed out that “fascism cannot be a useful term for majoritarianism in India because given the defining precedent of Nazi Germany, it implies a big bang, death-camp climax. This is both wrong and a distraction from the real danger.” He said: “Majoritarianism in India is not premised on a final solution. Majoritarian parties and organizations are unlikely to attempt large-scale ethnic cleansing or try to corral two hundred million Muslims in concentration camps. This is not on account of moral scruple but because the logistics of both exceed India’s State capacity,” he added.

According to Mukul, “India’s achievements and failures as a subcontinental democracy ought to interest the architects and ideologues of many countries. This is not to argue that India is an exemplary nation; merely to say that its experience and practice of managing difference — economic, cultural, religious, linguistic — in a pluralist way represents a living political experiment that every democrat and political thinker should refer to: as case study, inspiration or cautionary tale,” Mukul said.

Mukul had argued before that “both historical fascism and contemporary majoritarianisms confront minorities with extinction, expulsion or coerced assimilation. These aren’t, of course, choices; these are fates assigned by nations to their minorities. While totalitarian states and illiberal democracies are more prepared to use massive state violence to achieve their majoritarian ends, countries that think of themselves as liberal democracies — like France — are increasingly willing to discipline minorities through law and propaganda.” He said, “to the extent that political parties call themselves fascist or admire historically fascist figures, it is reasonable to call them fascist in the same way as Mao’s (or Stalin’s) followers can be called communists. But this doesn’t really answer the first question, which asks whether a particular historical conjuncture can be usefully abstracted into a definitive template. Nor does it answer the second question, because many governments or parties that have an ideological family resemblance to Mussolini’s Fascists or Hitler’s Nazis might not slide into mass violence.”

Mukul pointed out that “if fascism requires a civil society consensus that stigmatizes the minority that the State deems alien, Myanmar fits the bill. The non-Muslims of Rakhine, Myanmar’s Buddhist majority more generally, the country’s liberal intelligentsia, even its non-Buddhist minorities seem united in their indifference to, if not active distaste for, the Rohingya. If majoritarian State violence that subordinates and destroys a minority community through genocide or expulsion, without significant protest from civil society, is fascist, then Myanmar is a functionally fascist country.”

He said that “in the Chinese case, there is no evidence of mass killing or large-scale expulsion. The ‘domestication’ of the Uighur is remarkable for being an optional piece of social engineering. The Uighur pose no existential threat to the Chinese nation. This orchestrated atomization of a people is justified as pre-emption, as a form of abundant caution. Xinjiang is a behavioural laboratory; the Uighur are test subjects in a massive political experiment. They are disciplined and punished and monitored in real time and in extreme close-up. Digital surveillance, internment and the political omniscience of a party State have combined to turn the Uighur into lab rats in a glass-walled habitat. Xinjiang puts the total into totalitarianism,” he noted.

Mukul said that “the ascendancy of majoritarianism in several parts of the world calls into question the historical significance of India’s experiment with pluralism. This broad popularity of majoritarian parties and leaders can be taken to mean that the ideal of representing diversity isn’t just a local failure brought about by the success of the Bharatiya Janata Party, it also represents a more general defeat of the idea that nations ought to do better than suffer minorities.  Let us assume that the election victories of the BJP in 2014 and 2019 mark the end of this experiment, at least for the foreseeable future. This raises an important question: what is the historical significance of independent India’s experiment with pluralism if it is snuffed out?  Its importance is this: if this pluralist first republic hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t be able to invent it. It was created by a unique historical conjuncture: the decolonization of a subcontinental empire. The Indian nation state that was one of the end results of this process was historically singular but the constitutional polity it created through pragmatism and idealism, intention and error, produced precedents and practices that are now available to the whole democratic world,” he said.

Focussing on the significant insights of constitutional pluralism, he went on explaining “how a democratic state can take formal cognizance of difference and inequality. Unlike France, he says, “where the principle of laïcité creates a willed blindness to difference and, therefore, prevents the state from even gathering the information that might allow it to address systematic discrimination on the basis of those differences, the Indian republic institutionalized affirmative action in its founding charter, in the schedules of its Constitution.” “This is historically important because once a democratic state incorporates affirmative action as a part of its political project, it becomes a precedent that can be examined and evaluated by other democratic states. It ceases to be a wispy rhetorical aspiration and becomes a real-world practice. The fact that India has scheduled castes and scheduled tribes who have a special claim upon the attention of the state is important not just to India but to any discussion in the world where people discuss inequality and what governments can do to systematically tackle it.” Mukul also pointed out that the Indian republic was “sometimes accused by its critics of fetishizing diversity.” The most obvious example of this was “India’s calendar of gazetted holidays that scrupulously nominates holidays for the special days of virtually every faith community in the country. You could see this as a kind of unproductive pandering, or you could think of it as a way of reminding Indians that everyone’s religious practices are formally acknowledged by the state as equally worthy of its attention. It is, if you like, a way of publicly making room for everyone, of not allowing the weight of numbers to define who is worthy of public attention.” He added: “Ambedkar’s Constitution is a living reminder that a political culture, unselfconscious about difference, that tries to co-opt people into majoritarian practice risks alienating them. This is as true of laïcité as it is of Hindutva.”

The lecture was delivered in memory of Vakkom Moulavi, a pioneer of Kerala renaissance and founder of Swadeshabhimani (Patriot), a newspaper launched way back in 1905, but was confiscated in 1910 by the erstwhile Travancore state for its strident criticism of the establishment. Mukul said that Moulavi was a hugely distinguished figure, like Jyotiba Phule and Narayana Guru, in the social and religious reform movement in the colonial India in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. He said that Moulavi represented a tradition of fearless scholar-editor who respected diversity and pluralism, which was a significant hallmark of the anti-colonial coalition in India. Shajahan Madampat, Abu Dhabi-based cultural critic, chaired the session. B. Ekbal, Ravi Raman, V. Mathew Kurian, Sabin Iqbal, and others also spoke.

Mukul’s works include internationally acclaimed Looking Through Glass (Chatto & Windus), Secular Common Sense (Penguin India), Men in White (Penguin), The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions (Black Kite), Homeless on Google Earth (The Orient Blackswan), Civil Lines (HarperCollins) etc.  Mukul’s columns have appeared in The Telegraph, Cricinfo, Outlook Magazine, Mint, The Times of India, The Hindu, The Guardian, BookForum, The Times Literary Supplement, Wisden Cricket Asia, The Wisden Cricketer etc.

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