India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, averse to unscripted encounters, favours the staged spectacle. Independence Day in August provided a telling example. He inaugurated Kartavya Path, which, in central Delhi’s makeover, supersedes the Raj-era capital.

Modi spoke of India, in this gesture, as overcoming ghulami ki mansikta – a “slavish mindset”. Modi did not specify the oppressors or slaves. He did not need to. Talk of Hindu bondage – by medieval Muslims and then by European colonisers – is commonplace. How this became a cultural common sense deserves attention.

For me, Modi’s speech recalled my former landlord in a smart South Delhi colony. He was a retired Brigadier General, a proud Rajput, and we sat monthly on velour-covered chairs, under an ornate chandelier, as he counted my rent. Business done, one of his three servants made chai, served with glucose biscuits, and we chatted.

He would talk of his army adventures, like rumbling up in a T-55 tank to Dhaka during Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war. Or show old albums from the 1980s when he served as a military attaché in Baghdad. These were photos with soft round corners, of him with Baathist generals, smiling and holding tumblers.

We were speaking after America’s 2003 Iraq invasion and he felt Saddam Hussein – “great chap” – to be fatally misunderstood. I thought of the American Marines now lounging in Hussein’s palaces amidst gold lamé and rose marble. My landlord’s gusto for Hussein, at least, explained his home décor choices.

Still, the brigadier’s fondness for his Mesopotamian hosts could curdle. Say when people from Arabia visited India. He knocked the “sheiks” who came to Bombay, and, he said, deflowered young girls. And that, in turn, chimed with the history of Muslims in India: invaders from Central Asia who hum ko ghulam banaya – “made slaves of us”.

Signage with "Rajpath" scraped off after it was renamed to Kartavya Path, in New Delhi in August 2022. Credit: PTI.

I was not surprised to hear this. Modi’s and my landlord’s sentiments, after all, parrot nationalists like Vinayak Savarkar of a century ago.

Savarkar’s 1927 play Sangeet Uhshraap sees Muslims as predators preying on Hindus. One Muslim boasts he will “abduct Hindu girls and include them in my zenana”. This is the “fulfilment of lust through faith and fulfilment of faith through lust”. A maulvi gloats at having “enslaved the kshatriyas and razed to dust their conventions… Lakhs of Hindus have been converted through the force of the sword. Their girls have been made our slaves”.

For Savarkar, this diagnosis of Hindu subjugation requires remedial response: force. Enslavement can only be corrected by martial action. As he put it elsewhere, Hindu faith, or swadharma, was based on self-rule, or swarajya: “the sword of material power… should always be ready drawn”.

To describe servitude and prescribe ferocity is still a compulsive tic. Slavery saturates nationalist talk of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, a mosque seen as built on Ram’s divine birthplace. In Hindu Chetna, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad periodical, the masjid is termed “ghulami ka prateek” and “ghulami ke kalank” – “symbol and stain of slavery”. The Hindu takeover of that site – by force and then by law – wipes clean a slavish mentality.

It is here we must ask: what does the metaphor of slavery do and what does it disguise? We benefit by widening our aperture and seeing things in a comparative light. For India is not the only place seeing itself as earlier enslaved. The same rhetoric has proved remarkably seductive in North America and Europe.

BJP supporters hold up a model of the upcoming Ram Temple in Ayodhya as they celebrate the foundation stone laying ceremony, in New Delhi in August 2020. Credit: Reuters.

It is 1993, years before my Delhi landlord’s wistful bromance with Saddam Hussein. I am in my Social Studies and French class in Canada. Our teacher, Mrs Tremblay, stands in front holding our Grade 11 textbook as sleet – mushy wet snow – gathers on the windowsill. We students want to know what to focus on for our diploma exams. But she instead shows us what not to study.

We should skip the section on the Reykjavik Summit between former US President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union. Ignore the passage on Erich Honecker, head of East Germany in the 1980s. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and the Iron Curtain is in tatters. Like our classroom map, which marks a now-extinct United Soviet Socialist Republic in nefarious red, our textbooks become obsolete with each new day.

Now Mrs Tremblay, with her cat’s-eye spectacles and lilting voice, sharpens our gaze closer to home. In the early 1990s, as history ends elsewhere, Canada ponders the end of itself. National politics is a perpetual powerplay between English-speaking regions and Quebéc, our Francophone province.

Accords and amendments to decentralise power have failed. Québécois indépendantistes, or separatists, seek full sovereignty. As I study for my board exams, I can hear news commentators, from the living room television, warn of Canada’s imminent fracture.

Mrs Tremblay tells us we must know the provincial accords – Charlottetown, Meech Lake – and the political parties – the Bloc Québécois, the Parti Québécois – for our tests. The collapse of these accords, and the rise of these parties will, within two years, lead to a sovereignty referendum. An existential crisis is already upon us.

Thumbing through our textbook, Mrs Tremblay says we must master the historical background. In particular, the 1970 Front de libération du Québec crisis. A radical group, the Front de libération du Québec planted bombs in the late 1960s to instigate Canada’s release of Québec.

In 1970, this climate of fear and paranoia darkened. Front de libération du Québec activists kidnapped and murdered a cabinet minister; a British diplomat was held hostage. Canada invoked emergency rule for the first time since the world wars. This suspended civil liberties, and stationed armed troops in city streets.

A defining image of the Front de libération du Québec crisis, reprinted in our textbook, is of the British hostage, James Cross. Militants released his photo in captivity to show he was still alive. Cross plays solitaire, and next to his cards is carefully placed agitprop: Pierre Vallières’ 1968 book, Nègres blancs d’Amérique or The White Niggers of America.

Mrs Tremblay reads in French from this separatist bible during Social Studies. Though we Anglophones struggle to conjugate verbs, Vallières’ polemic is bluntly obvious. The Front de libération du Québec is an anti-colonial struggle, akin to African American and third-world liberation movements.

Francophones, he writes, risk being esclaves de l’Amérique yankee – “slaves of the American Yankee”. Vallières continues: “even the poor whites consider the niggers their inferior… Very often they do not even suspect that they too are niggers, slaves, ‘white niggers’”.

Vallières ramped up a latent Québécois rhetoric. French-speaking people in North America, surrounded by English speakers, were like colonised Algerians and Vietnamese. Québec was endangered by degenerate capitalism, and Protestant-royalist culture.

The White Niggers of America was an instant bestseller. Francophone self-images as nègres blanc multiplied. White separatists were conflated with Black Power activists. Civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr’s “we shall overcome” speech became their rallying cry: nous vaincrons.

From today’s perspective, one wonders how talk of nègres blanc proved persuasive. Colonisation after the 1700s relentlessly usurped indigenous territory. First Nations were later sequestered in tiny reserves. In the 1970s, as separatism was stoked, Québécois politicians began a massive hydroelectric dam project. Planned without Cree and Inuit input, huge portions of Aboriginal land were flooded, to bolster Québec’s economic sovereignty.

Put together – Québécois and Hindu bondage – we see enslavement’s rhetorical operation. In both, a self-perception as aggrieved victim is condensed by the slave-image. In both, this image is inverted via violent assertion. In both, seeing oneself as enslaved asserts a group’s centrality in a varied social landscape.

More fundamentally, narrating oneself as enslaved does political work. It uses existential threat as camouflage. At the very moment of ascendance, it distracts from one’s subduing of others. And in fact, this is a wider habit of mind: a parallel to Europe completes the circle.

A copy of Negres Blancs D'Amérique by Pierre Vallières, published by Parti pris, Montréal, 1968. Credit: Ajay Gandhi.

Recently, a library curator where I work, at Leiden University, showed me an old portrait of Hugo Grotius. On this fall day, the skies have the unremitting flatness and tint of slate tile. We head in the other direction, underground, the elevator dropping though subterranean chambers of the Universiteitsbibliotheek.

Grotius is a local celebrity, a wunderkind who started studies at Leiden in 1594, when he was 11. He went on to outline the premises, as Europe became modern and capitalist, of international relations. What brings me face to face with Grotius, though, are not these canonical texts, but a poem tossed out in his spare time.

In Grotius’ day, the Netherlands was under Spanish rule. Dutch mobs vented iconoclastic fury against Catholic emblems: beheading saint sculptures, breaking church windows, incinerating altars. Such rituals of humiliation were matched by the Spanish, who arrested and executed Dutch Protestants. The region was engulfed in the Eighty Years War.

Hugo de Grotius in an unsigned copy of a 1740 portrait by Gerard van Papenbroeck. Courtesy of Collection Leiden University Libraries.

In the early 1570s, a protracted siege by the Spanish in Leiden meant mass starvation in the city. It ended when guerrillas breached sea dykes and flooded the city, forcing the Spanish to retreat. The university was founded in 1575 to honour this resistance.

Such memories were fresh as Grotius, to mark a pause in the Eighty Years War, wrote his poem, “Induciae Batavicae” or the “Dutch Truce”. It dwells on Dutch glory in countering Spanish brutality. Grotius writes, “If the enemy oppresses the limbs of our body with slavery and still does not admit to his offences, then let the commands of attack sound”.

Grotius’ poetry was of a piece with early Enlightenment writings. Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke upheld freedom to advance a vision of the modern world. Biblical imagery from the Old Testament – of Jews enslaved by Egyptians – was repurposed to contest monarchic rule. The Spanish sovereign was the biblical Behemoth, a beastly tyrant, fettering the budding Dutch republic.

The library elevator opens, and the curator and I exit. I smell stale paper and binding glue, and hear the churn of scanners. We walk past index card holders and grey filing cabinets, poster rolls and laminated maps, moving towards the library’s collection of historic paintings.

Along the way, the curator laughs, telling me how they were removed from public view in the stacks. A student seditiously practiced his own art, drawing a Sharpie moustache on a professor’s portrait.

Finally, at the back of this unventilated, cluttered basement, we arrive at a modest grouping of portraits. I immediately see Grotius, painted, the attribution says, when he was 48 years old.

By that time, Grotius had written the 1609 work Mare Liberum or The Free Sea. Despite the elevated title, the book was grounded in the material politics of its time. In 1603, Dutch ships hijacked a high-value Portuguese carrack near Singapore. The VOC, or Dutch East India Company, commissioned Grotius to consider its legitimacy.

His The Free Sea argues that the oceans, the space for expanding European fiefs, cannot be closed off. Privateering is permitted by natural law; the seas are common property, subject only to will and weaponry. Grotius, in effect, offers an apologia for coercive power. The title of his original treatise, also in the university library, is blunt in this respect: Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty.

Today, Grotius is feted as a humanist; in the Netherlands, institutes and statues honour his legacy. Yet, to juxtapose his verse and theory is to confront him denouncing one variant of oppression – by Spaniards – and validating another, by the Dutch.

As Grotius condemns Dutch enslavement under Iberian and Catholic rule, he writes approvingly, in 1625’s The Rights of War and Peace, of slavery – provided it concerns non-Christians. The freeness of the seas does not extend to non-European captives, the countless souls manacled on Dutch ships, branded on Dutch plantations, and gifted, as the possessions they were, within Dutch families.

These contortions were not theoretical: the Dutch West India Company’s first representative from Leiden in the early 1600s was the university rector. An institution whose core function was shipping enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was aided by functionaries from a university founded for freedom.

As we stand in front of Grotius, the curator points out his dark grey robes. He draws my attention to his plooikraag, a pleated white collar then in fashion. Grotius’ portrait as the scholarly burgher was of a genre: a projection of how one should be seen.

His contemporaries, too, commissioned portraits by Golden Age painters. In one, another former Leiden student, Thomas Hees, after working in north Africa in the 1600s, relaxes with an acquisition, a black slave with metal collar. In another, painted by Frans Hals, a black slave is arrayed among white gentry: a fashionable accessory, broadcasting Dutch plenty.

In these brief blips, the project of slavery is flaunted yet disguised; projecting how one should be seen, and concealing the many unseen.

(Left) The painting of Thomas Hees and his servant Thomas and nephews Jan and Andries, by Michiel van Musscher. (Right) The painting by Frans Hals, circa 1648, “Family Group in a Landscape”. Credit: in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons and Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

How does this history, in Québec and the Netherlands, of conceiving oneself as enslaved, illuminate India’s parallel indulgence? After all, it is not just this year that Modi has conjured subjection.

In 2014, after becoming Prime Minister, he said in the Lok Sabha that Indians suffered from barah sau saal ki ghulami ki mansikta – “a 1,200-year old slavery mindset”. Here he was conjoining – and ballooning – a timeline of Muslim and European invasion.

Clearly, in India, as much as in Québec and the Netherlands, slavery is a fertile metaphor; it returns an unfailing harvest of grievance and pride. To say one was enslaved seems to diagnose present wrongs, yet dims moral accountability. Enslavement does not describe; it deflects.

Now India, as with Québec and the Netherlands earlier, amplifies its worldly place. The state and its diaspora accumulate unprecedented power and wealth. Yet India’s nationalism, coursing through institutional organs and overseas circuits, remains anxiously wounded, stifling minorities and harassing enemies.

Thus, the perversity of seeing oneself as enslaved. Whenever it conjured, talk of bondage seeks to overcome its condition. Yet in its compulsive refrain, one keeps shackled to a servile self-image: back to the confined place one sought to escape.

Ajay Gandhi teaches at Leiden University.

Also read: How the Danish sold Tamils into slavery in Scandinavia and the story of one man’s escape to freedom