Majoritarianism commonly refers to the idea that pre-existing ethnic, racial or religious majorities have a natural right to dominate a certain political entity. But in reflecting on how this sentiment became acceptable to so many Indians, it may be worth probing a bit deeper into how the very idea of a majority became the ultimate arbiter of political right, might and legitimacy.
Postcolonial India inherited a rich repertoire of political actions and rituals from the nationalist movement. At the heart of this new political vernacular was the notion that the people are always right and that every effective political action must stage this “people” or a community in significant numbers to make a point.
Crowds – angry, mobilised, determined or disciplined – became an evermore powerful currency of political transaction in India. The bigger the crowd, the stronger the argument.
In an important article, Dipesh Chakrabarty argued that in the first decades of the new Indian nation state, senior bureaucrats, against all their instincts, had to appear from time to time in front of angry crowds in order to apologise for the non-delivery of some government service. As Indian democracy matured and multiple opposition forces arose this political vernacular of numbers, and the performance of public anger, became more complex.
From the 1990s onwards, the idea of mobilising, or representing, majorities – in states, in elected bodies, as caste coalitions, as religious communities – became an evermore powerful idea. It gradually began to challenge the older ideal of political parties attracting votes across different communities and minorities in order to consolidate a legitimate political majority. The notion of majority itself – bahumat – began to acquire a stronger affective and moral force.
In Sanskrit, bahumata literally means “esteemed by many” and it seems that by the 1990s this aspect of bahumat/majority as something that in and of itself has a moral force began to acquire an ever more effective and visceral reality on the ground. The moral force of a majority – whether defined as a pre-given cultural entity or understood as an electoral proof of the superior force and truth represented by a political formation – emerged in no small measure from regional politics across India.
The linguistic movements of the 1940s and 50s had mobilised powerful sentiments on the assumption of an inherent superiority, and naturalness, of a polity based on the linguistic affinities of a majority as well as the strength of emotional bonds this indexed and made possible.
It is no coincidence that prior to the rise of Hindutva most of the morally charged rhetoric of sacrifice, of “treason”, of emotional outrage and attachment, often accompanied by physical attacks on newspapers and public figures, emerged in states where strong linguistic and regional polities had emerged since the 1950s.
Powerful language ideologies drove the movements for the purification and reinvention of modern vernaculars in the latter half of the twentieth century in much of India. These ideologies promised to overcome traditional social and caste-defined diglossia, and to overcome the sense of inferiority vis-à-vis English that was reproduced on a daily basis in the vernacular press and in institutions of government, science, the national press and higher learning. Most importantly, the language movements enabled flourishing vernacular publics to be experienced as culturally intimate in historically unprecedented ways. The vernacular was now that which could be shared and mobilised with many strangers as a medium of intimacy and solidarity vis-à-vis outsiders, as in the case of the regional movements in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. It could also be the medium of less restrained and more nakedly majoritarian sentiments, a “split public” divided between a more formal English-speaking public and a more intimate vernacular sphere.
The vernacular language itself, its grammar, the joy of speaking it, the sharing of references and the sense of community it enabled, became a medium of condensed emotions and a thick sense of community. For Maharashtra, Clare Talwalker posits that the sharing of both modern and classical Marathi among middle-class Hindus generated a certain “kin-fetishism” – an imagined world of familial intimacy and commensality where everyone becomes uncle, sister, brother, etc. This world thrives, she argues, on its supposed contrast to what is perceived to be a more alienating world of stranger sociality in metropolitan areas or in national spaces. This “kin fetishism” has distinct limits and vulnerabilities insofar as it is founded on a preexisting if unstated premise of social and ritual compatibility among upper-caste Hindus.
Some of the most inventive and irreverent writers in Marathi in the past decades are Dalit writers and public intellectuals such as Baburao Bagul, Namdeo Dhasal, Arun Kamble, and Urmila Pawar who both are, and are not, included in the intimacy of modern Marathi. For these figures, some of whom are now included in the Marathi literary canon, mastery of the vernacular was both a platform for critique and a claim for recognition.
This happened not through cultural intimacy but through the creation of a parallel Dalit public sphere, marked by festivals, institutions and symbols that are neither generally known, nor recognised by many caste Hindus in the state.
Like many other segmented publics, the Dalit public sphere is perfectly knowable but not generally known. It is technically public in a linguistic sense but not a general public in any wider social sense. This became very clear after militant Hindus in early January 2018 attacked the annual celebration of the valour of the Mahar soldiers in the defeat of the Peshwa empire in 1818 at Bhima Koregaon. The attacks led to widespread protest by Dalits across the state and made a key element in the annual calendar of events in the Dalit public sphere visible to a much larger audience.
What holds such publics together is rather a shared experience of stigmatisation, a shared moral universe, and a claim for recognition as full citizens and humans that cannot be fully captured through a conventional idea of a public sphere as a network of institutions, texts, and linguistic performances. The Dalit public sphere, like other emerging lower caste “counter publics”, asserts the democratic and constitutional rights of the community against the cultural and social hegemony of upper-caste Hindus.
These intensified, segmented and vernacular publics are crucial in understanding the steady deployment of “routine” public violence, such as the destruction of public property – buses, police vans, offices, schools – by protesters of many kinds, acts that are often recorded in police records as acts of “public vandalism” rather than political events or riots, and mostly classified merely as disturbance of public order.
As I indicated above, for the Indian police, the actual prosecution of crime is at best a secondary objective, always subordinated to the maintenance of a semblance of public order which is given inordinate attention in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), that was promulgated in 1860 and since has grown very substantially. Chapter 8 of the IPC is entitled “Offences against Public Tranquility” and it has slowly grown over the decades to consist of as many as eighteen sections ranging from the milder “unlawful assembly” (141) to “rioting with a deadly weapon” (148) all the way to sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 153B (assertions prejudicial to national integration), the latter carrying more severe punishments, especially if they involve “places of worship or religious ceremonies”. Most of these sections reference groups and communities as those being “incited” or “offended” or harbouring “feelings of ill will” while the legal term “person” is only invoked in the sections referring to those who stand to “benefit” from riots (sections 154-156) or those being “hired” to commit public violence (sections 157–159).
If we look at the official crime statistics since 1960 (and we can be sure these numbers are very under reported) the aggregated number of public offences against public order (all the eighteen sections of the IPC) stood at less than 30,000 across India in the 1960s, climb to above 90,000 in 1980, and above 95,000/year in the early 1990s. After a dip during the early 2000s to under 60,000 per year, the number has been rising since 2012 reaching 73,000 in 2016.
In the last decade, the Crime Bureau has started detailing the specific category of riot – as caste (2,500 in 2016), communal (1,200 in 2016), student, or political (1,800 in 2016). The rest of these disturbances – well over 60,000 – fall in the category of “other riots”, defined as “Civil Unrest, Community dispute, Attack on Police, dispute over Water supply”.
What are we to make of this?
Firstly it is clear that staging a riot or a protest of some sort, either against a public institution or another community/hostile neighbours is a very widespread phenomenon indeed.
We actually have no idea what these tens of thousands of incidents registered are about and how they get classified as “other riots”. We know that police personnel have a vested interest in putting as many incidents as possible in this category as they are seen as less serious than the specified caste or communal incidents. We also know that getting a case registered as a public disturbance is a relatively light and bailable offence, low-risk and yet high-profile. It is a way of showing anger, and demonstrating that a group or community is willing to publicly perform this anger and make a point that makes news of some sort.
Secondly, it is obvious that the very provisions of the Indian Penal Code in some ways structure the very forms that political and social protest and expression will take. The IPC defines the perceived injury of religious sentiments of a group/community as an criminal offence (295A) and it bans the incitement of enmity among groups and communities (153A and B). Since such collective offence is banned, it becomes imperative that the effect of the offence is demonstrated, not as individual sentiments but as a mirror of the spirit of the law itself – as a collective sentiment that threatens public order. As a result, being booked under one of the IPC 140s or 150s becomes in itself a form of proof of a collective sentiment and anger, and indeed a part of a political vernacular, a measure of success – something has happened (kuchh to huaa hai).
Protesters describe such events as the inevitable effect of pent up anger and outrage, as if the scale of physical destruction is an index of the depth and intensity of their rage. Protesters often blame the offenders for provoking such anger – such as when vigilante groups in Karnataka or Maharashtra routinely blame “immoral youth” for the anger that wells up in themselves, vigilantes, the urge to protect Hindu values that is provoked in them and leads them to beat up and molest middle-class youth. The protesters or vigilantes want the government and various publics to take note but the audience is rarely a general public. The main audience for many protests is more often than not a more segmented caste or community public that is directly affected by certain policies or events.
Such language of outrage and hurt pride has today become the predominant modality justification of public violence in India. However, there is little doubt that Hindu nationalism has played an exceptionally important role in this process.
The Shiv Sena was a particularly radical heir to this politics of popular emotion of the linguistic movements. The Shiv Sena developed fury (raag in Marathi) and anger (gussa in Hindi) into a public virtue, a increasingly legitimate style of politics whose forceful directness (seeda marpeet) against authorities and perceived enemies of the ordinary Marathi speaker indexed its authenticity and association with a rougher plebeian world. This sentiment was directly relayed by the name of Shiv Sena’s newspaper Saamna (confrontation) which has been pivotal in making a coarser style of colloquial Marathi acceptable and legitimate, if often dismissed as poor taste among the traditional upper-caste and middle-class communities.
Hindu communal politics has historically been framed as militant self-defence against perceived Muslim aggression. However, since the 1980s Hindutva discourse increasingly adopted a style of forceful anger that foregrounded hurt sentiments – such as the presumed historical humiliation of Hindus by the very existence of the Babri Masjid on the birth place of Lord Ram – or the theme of a Hindu pride (Hindu gaurav), presumably resurgent after centuries of humiliation, that was so prominent during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.
The success of the BJP has been based on its capacity to instigate anti-minority violence and then reap the electoral benefits of the emotional wave of aggression and fear that communal riots tend to generate. It is also clear, as Amrita Basu has demonstrated, that there is a direct correlation between the incidence of communal riots and attacks and the growth and importance of Hindu nationalist organisations in different parts of India.
In these public actions, even excessive and cruel violence is purified and made just and moral by the imputed injury to a community or a collective emotion that provoked it in the first place.
Violence is purely reactive, spontaneous and therefore inherently just. It is “natural nyaya” as a Shiv Sena activist in Mumbai put it to me many years ago, something that is inherent in a brave and self-respecting man: “if someone slaps me, my hands come out and I slap him. It is natural nyaya (justice)“. In this light, the contemporary gaurakshaks (self-proclaimed cow protectors) and the lynching of mostly Muslim men suspected of transporting beef in 2016-17 appear as less of an aberration than they are extensions of an existing grammar of action whereby righteous anger – especially that of the putative majority community – is already justified and legitimate.
Violence, I propose, has become a “general equivalent” in India’s multiple publics, akin to Marx’s notion of money as the general measure of value of otherwise disparate objects (commodities, capital, debt, etc.). Acts of public violence generate wildly disparate experiences and interpretations of violence – avenging, retributive, sacrificial, or victimising, etc. Often, the experiences of violence are entirely incommensurate with one another, as in the reckoning after major communal riots and other crowd violence. At other times, violence is invisible and incomprehensible to an adjacent public and social world, as in routinised atrocities against Dalits, or the systematic violence visited upon Muslims by police forces across India.
Yet, these experiences and real events are invariably presented, and performed, as public violence – that is extralegal, excessive and exceptional – in order to become visible and intelligible across deeply segmented and antagonistic public worlds. While the thick social context and experience of violence may be impossible to translate, the figures of victims, outraged crowds, or the self-sacrificing activist, or the brutal police action against a crowd, are general equivalents that have the potential to transcend otherwise deeply segregated social and cultural worlds.
Violence is conventionally seen as the limit, if not negation, of political life and civil political discourse. However, violence has become a completely routinised and integral part of the political life in India’s many diverse publics.
Public violence, or the threat thereof, demands attention and it generates reaction. Violence has become deeply intertwined with the more formal, mediated and institutional aspects of India’s modern publics such as newspapers, news channels and social media. As Francis Cody has shown in compelling detail, newspaper reporting and op-eds in the Tamil press always factor in the possibility of violent reprisals in the wake of controversial statements. Similarly, Saamna and other right wing newspapers are open about their reporting bias (or “truth”, as its reporters insist), and they routinely taunt their readers to take “direct action” against their enemies, including offices of newspapers critical of the movement.
The street and the editorial office are not categorically different in contemporary India, one civil and objective, the other partisan and rogue, but rather parts of the same vernacular publics where the public performance of anger and fury is every bit as legitimate as a sarcastic op-ed. This indicates that violence is no longer politics by other means but the heart of political life itself. This, I submit, is a deeper and long-term process that must be factored into our understanding of how Indian democracy works.
Excerpted with permission from “Democracy Against the Law: Reflections on India’s Illiberal Democracy”, Thomas Blom Hansen, from Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India, edited by Angana P Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot, HarperCollins India.