It is a mistake to believe that representative government just reflects the preferences of the citizens who elect it. Representation is a dialogue between voters and their representatives, one which shapes the electorate as much as it does the elected. We can see this clearly in India, where, week by week, Narendra Modi’s mark is more deeply felt across society. The re-election of an explicitly majoritarian government in 2019 has turned unthinkable bigotry into populist common sense.

Over the past few days, we have plumbed new depths when colleges in Karnataka refused to allow Muslim girls to enter their classrooms while wearing the hijab. The anxiety felt by the girls given the imminence of their examinations shouldn’t distract us from the historical significance of this act of exclusion.

Two key images emerged from the incidents that followed. The first is of the gates of a college in Kundapur being closed in the faces of a group of girls as they plead to be let in. The second image is of the masses of Hindu students who, provoked by the idea of Muslim girls demanding their constitutional rights, turned up to school in the days that followed wearing saffron scarves, as if in retaliation.

Another time, another place

The clips I watched of the events unfolding in Karnataka reminded me of another set of striking photographs, taken over 60 years ago, in America. In 1954, the American Supreme Court formally abolished racial segregation in public schools. Integration, when it came, delivered some of the most striking images of the Civil Rights movement. I’m thinking in particular of the photos of three black girls walking to schools which had until then been all-white.

In the first, Ruby Bridges, six years old at the time, is being walked to school by three federal marshals. One angry segregationist had threatened to poison her, so the marshals only allowed her to eat food she brought from home.

In the second, Dorothy Counts, 15 at the time, is walking to school alone, as a white mob brays their hatred at her. The author James Baldwin later wrote that this was the photograph that compelled him to return from France, where he had gone to escape the daily persecution he faced in America.

In the third photograph, Elizabeth Eckford walks to Little Rock Central High School (the first group of African American children to go there came to be known as the Little Rock Nine) with a similar crowd of jeering white people at her back, one of whom, Hazel Bryan, also 15 and a student at that school, is insensate with rage, her face contorted into a snarl.

The unlikely comparison between the American South and Karnataka tells us a few things. It tells us that historically bigotry even amongst the young remains unforgiven. Hazel Bryan, Hazel Massery as she would later become, spent her life trying to atone for what she had done as a child, and although Eckford forgave her – the two were even friendly for a while – the others of the Little Rock Nine did not. Unless you go looking, her place in history is fixed by that photograph. She even features as an exemplar in the Wikipedia entry for “Hatred”.

The comparison reminds us that the sharp edge of prejudice is always material deprivation: exclusion from housing, education and healthcare. This imported version of the French debate on the burkha is not a sign that the Bharatiya Janata Party and its academic clients in coastal Karnataka are suddenly possessed by an enthusiasm for laicité; it indicates that the squalid Indian reality of religious segregation in housing has now been extended to education.

It drives home the depressing fact that those who suffer the prejudices of sick societies are their most vulnerable citizens. That young women – girls, really – suffered, as Baldwin wrote of Counts, with “unutterable pride, tension and anguish,” heightens the contrast between their dignity and the baying rage of their baiters.

No cause for optimism

Hazel Massery’s contrition is not a precedent; there is no reason to believe that those scarf-clad Hindu students will come to regret their actions as Massery did. For one thing, formal segregation was on its way out in America. Massery’s change of heart was brought about partly by hostile letters she received from Northern American states in response to the publication of that photograph.

The desperation that led those white Southerners to throw rocks at girls as young as six, to spit on them, was partly a product of defeat. They had lost, and they knew it. Hindutva, on the other hand, is ascendant. Indian institutions are either helpless or complicit. The political opposition to Modi is fragmented.

In the face of this difference is there anything else this comparison can tell us? Here, Baldwin’s insight into the minds of white Southerners is useful. In a speech given at the Cambridge Union in 1965 he said, “…they’ve been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible, and no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous knowledge in consolation, which is like a heavenly revelation: at least, they are not Black.”

This consolation combined with the material deprivation of others, is the sum of the offer of majoritarian politics: no matter how far you fall, no matter what disaster overtakes you, at least you are not Muslim.

I want to return briefly to those girls sitting outside their colleges, denied an education for the crime of being visibly Muslim in public. We correctly fear the damage that majoritarian bigotry can cause. Elizabeth Eckford never fully recovered from the time she spent in that school, and the post-traumatic stress disorder she was later diagnosed with dogged her for the rest of her life.

These girls, too, will be marked by their experience. But so will the college principals who shut them out, the teachers who continued to teach without them, and their classmates who turned their backs on fraternal solidarity. Majoritarianism does not leave the majority untouched. To paraphrase Baldwin, their moral lives have been destroyed by a plague called Hindutva.

Theirs, and ours, is a stain that will not wash.

Raghu Kesavan writes about politics, sport and culture. His Twitter handle is @raghukesavan1.