For liberal-minded observers of Indian society, the recent celebration of 75 years of independence has been an occasion – if one was needed – for outpourings of lament. In print and online media – television has largely become impervious to serious debate – in India and around the world, a variety of writers have movingly chronicled the illiberalism and the assiduously nurtured bigotry of the past eight years as personal grief.
In these writings, the years since 2014 have been set off against earlier histories of multiple bonds between Hindus and Muslims, traditions of syncretism in music, philosophy, food and cinema, constitutional guarantees of equality in all respects and a “natural” acceptance of diversity in various forms.
Yet, in all this stock-taking – frequently powerful and moving – there is something missing. What are the changed social and cultural realities that confront the formal and wished for indicators of a decent national life – the Constitution, laws, the judiciary, poetry, fiction, cinema, for example? What of the people themselves? What circumstances make them what they are?
Thinking about this is not easy as we are not led to any straightforward answers to the predicaments of the present. However, to not address it leads us to an even more difficult – if not absurd – perspective: that as soon as the 2014 general election results were declared, a substantial section of the Indian population suddenly changed from what it was to its complete antithesis. That one day, many Indians believed in Hindu-Muslim unity and the next, they either began to promote or, at the very least, tolerate bigotry.
To avoid this absurdist line of analysis, a follow-up question must be asked: what changes can be identified in conditions of Indian life over the past few decades that may have prepared the grounds for shift in attitudes? What are the possible histories of such easy movements from moments of apparent tolerance and liberalism to their opposite? This will avoid the untenable point of view that “that’s the way we are, just an irredeemably illiberal people at heart”.
Thankfully, however, the cultural history of this part of the world shows no evidence of an inclination for violence and bigotry that is in excess of that in other parts of the planet. A more useful avenue might be to think of some of the recent changes in Indian society that might be the grounds for the normalisation of intolerance and hate. These might be the grounds for the political harvest whose blighted wheat sheafs surround us.
One of the most significant contexts for the current institutionalisation of majoritarian politics in India relates to the maturing of the Indian diaspora in the west. By the early 2000s, Indians of Hindu background had become well enmeshed in the “multicultural” politics of their adopted homelands. This involved their ability to translate Indian culture in terms of a Hindu religious identity. Diversity of religious belief is a significant aspect of the idea of “tolerance” that underlies discourses of western multiculturalism.
In Christian-majority countries, the idea of non-western identity is primarily understood in religious terms. An Arab Marxist or an Indian Humanist would be unrecognisable categories. It is this understanding of multiculturalism that Indian Hindus have engaged with in terms of constructing their diasporic identities.
Temples in the United Kingdom are both signs of the success of British multi-culturalism as well as Indian identity. As this community prospered, their success translated sub-continental beliefs about Hindus and Hinduism on a “world” stage. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 success, its electoral strategies leading up to it and since then, has built upon a religious nationalism that is “global” in nature. Indian nationalism in its current phases is as much western as Indian.
The heritage politics foregrounded through overseas Indian populations and their dealing with their host societies led to significant spinoffs in India that have also aided the current majoritarian moment. One of these relates to the rise of New Religious Movements that particularly appealed to rising new middle-classes.
In keeping with the new visibility of Hinduism in the west, a rapidly growing population of white-collar professionals in India was particularly ready for spiritual guides who spoke the languages of “global” success: management jargon, self-improvement and the capacity to marry spirituality with consumerism.
In both explicit and implicit ways, Indian new religious movements have been handy allies of majoritarianism through effectively inventing a “modern” Hinduism that is promoted as a necessary part of being Indian: a Hinduism for global Indians that makes them both Indian as well as Global. Just as importantly, new religious movement gurus frequently invoke a history of “wrongs” against Hinduism and leave unaddressed uncomfortable aspects such as caste.
The dramatic change in living patterns forms the third possible aspect through which that which seems to have come upon us suddenly in 2014 might have been in the making for some time.
Since the mid-1980s, gated communities have become a significant form of residential accommodation. This has also meant the consolidation of mono-religious ghettoes.
In most parts of India, gated communities tend to largely contain Hindu populations. The reasons for this are both economic as well as – if anecdotal and media accounts are to be believed – deliberate barriers to entry for Muslims.
While, there may never have been traditional neighbourhoods characterised by complete inter-mixing between communities, the nature of India’s gated communities has substantially diminished whatever intermingling there might have existed in more open localities.
It is not at all unremarkable to come across children from Hindu families who may live in gated communities and attend private schools and who have never interacted with anyone but their co-religionists. This too undergirds the new normality of majoritarianism, producing the Indian-Hindu equation.
The Indian fascination for the heroic leader derives as much from the legacies of the anti-colonial movement as from the belief that only a person of superhuman powers can deal with the nature of our problems. However, at different times in our post-colonial history, we have been attracted to different types of charismatic personalities and not all of them have promoted sectarian religious interests.
What is particular to this moment is the conjunction of factors that have made religious sectarianism the norm. The apparent guarantors of a decent national life – the Constitution and its instruments, for example – may not provide the answers to questions about “where do we go from here?”
As we have discovered, constitutional guarantees are easily bent according to political will. Political strategies are, in turn, based on an understanding of broad cultural and social circumstances. Just as politicians do, we should also come to grips with them.
Sanjay Srivastava is British Academy Global Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, SOAS University of London.