The Limits of Hindutva

Significant opposition to the Hindu nationalist project in India has recently emerged. But the Indian Left has to go beyond a “progressive” nationalism to build something bigger.

Indian prime minster Narendra Modi welcomes President Donald Trump during a rally on September 22, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Sergio Flores / Getty Images)

The seemingly unstoppable consolidation of the Hindutva project by the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has entered into a deadlock. With the passing of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill, a wave of mostly youth-led protests has gripped the country. Despite brutal and authoritarian repression by the Indian state, the demonstrations have been ongoing.

The encouraging aspects of these protests have been their spontaneity and their capacity to formulate their opposition against the Hindu-Right in broad socio-economic and political terms. There is an urgent need to take account of this rare opening and understand the significance of these developments.

Consolidation of the Populist Right

The BJP came to power in 2014 under the leadership of Narendra Modi and was reelected in 2019 with an increased majority — a dark outcome for the Indian Left. Even those who despise the Indian National Congress and hoped that this would finally cement the demise of its dysfunctional and self-obsessed aristocratic Gandhi family leadership were disappointed. The comatose survival of the Gandhi family is only symptomatic of a generalized organizational and political paralysis of the Left.

BJP’s dominance can be attributed to its well-oiled electoral machinery, aided by murky financial resources, its reliance on the organizational apparatus of the Sangh Parivar — a constellation of Hindutva groups — and, most centrally, its populist politics, in the sense of rhetorically constituting the “people” as a political subject.

Populism involves the exclusion of elements from society not considered a part of the “people,” usually cultural “others” and the ambiguously defined “elites” or “anti-nationals.” A nationalist populist discourse, as in the Indian case, differentiates between who belongs to the nation and who does not. Hindutva’s “people” is imagined as a religious and ethno-cultural Hindu community which excludes Muslims and liberal elites.

In addition to delimiting the authentic “people,” this form of populism typically relies on a leader who claims to be the sole representative of the people and the embodiment and authority of the popular will. Modi is a paradigmatic example of such a leader.

At an event hosted by the Indian diaspora in Houston, the “Howdy Modi?” rally, Modi’s answer to the rhetorical question was revealing: “Modi is nothing by himself. I am only a common man working on the orders of 1.3 billion people. So, when you ask, ‘Howdy Modi?’ I can only answer, ‘everything in Bharat is good.’” Despite the pretensions of humility, Modi understands the populist logic well: to ask the question how is Modi is precisely to ask how is the nation.

Additionally, this form of populism is a political style which involves a whole repertoire of staged, mediatized performances by the leader that are transmitted to wider audiences through media. Part of the performative rhetoric of such populist leaders centers around some kind of a pervasive crisis or threat. With Modi and the BJP, there is ever present specter of “Urban-Naxals,” “terrorists,” “anti-nationals,” “Tukde-Tukde Gang,” and “Khan Market Gang,” all of whom are portrayed as trying to undermine the integrity of the nation, and in effect polluting the purity of the people.

Although there is a popular democratic element in this kind of populist politics, the authoritarian trends are not difficult to grasp. The leader’s centrality and the claims to represent the popular will can undermine existing institutional and juridical structures. Often accompanying this are brutal forms of suppression of dissent and a complete hijacking of the news media, which pumps out uninterrupted majoritarian propaganda. Tocqueville’s caution against the dangers of a “tyranny of the majority” has borne out in India with shocking vulgarity, including regular mob lynchings of minorities, silencing of dissenters, and nationalist chauvinism against “enemies,” foreign and internal.

With Modi’s second term, these tendencies have intensified. Multiple laws, in the name of the “people,” have been passed in parliament: amendments to the Right to Information Act, which gives the central government power to determine the tenure of some public officials; the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which gives the state unprecedented power to designate individuals as terrorists without trials; and a contentious Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, which criminalizes Muslim husbands for divorcing their wives in a customary manner that was already illegal.

Things got especially bad with the government decision to abrogate Article 370, which revoked the autonomy of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, leading to a brutal crackdown on Kashmiri civil society and politicians. The territory has been under curfew for almost five months, with the longest internet shut-down in a so-called democratic state in history.

The Political Conundrum

A controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (2019) (CAB) became law on December 12, 2019. For the first time since the constitution of the republic, citizenship in India became formally linked to religion.

The CAB, now the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), amends Section 2 of the Citizenship Act of India, 1955 by preventing “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014” from being labelled an “illegal migrant.”

The act gives immunity to people from these communities from being prosecuted under the Foreigners Act of 1946, a draconian colonial legislation that prescribes detention for illegal migrants until their deportation. Furthermore, the act introduces Section 6B to the Citizenship Act granting a special provision for fast-track naturalization to the communities referred to above.

The notable omission here is, of course, Muslims. The justification for this amendment is twofold. First, that India should be a safe haven for people belonging to the religious communities specified because they face religious persecution in their Muslim-majority countries of origin.

Additionally, the government views this act as rectification of what it holds to be a historic blunder: the 1947 partition in which the states of Pakistan (including the current territory of Bangladesh) and India were formed. These justifications were most sharply posed by Amit Shah, the Home Minister, in the Rajya Sabha floor debate on CAB.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the CAA in isolation. The home minister has unequivocally stated that the CAA will be followed by a National Register of Citizens (NRC), the sole purpose of which is to identify, deport, or detain illegal migrants currently residing in India.

The NRC finds its genesis in the 2003 Registration of Citizens Rules, introduced by the BJP. To this, a special provision was introduced in 2009 to conduct an independent NRC for the state of Assam in India’s North-East, considering its historic vulnerability to undocumented migration from East Bengal and now Bangladesh. This vulnerability was legally recognized in 1985 through the Assam Accord, an agreement which sought to detect and expel undocumented migrants from Assam.

To give effect to the accord, the Supreme Court ordered the drafting of the NRC in 2014, a move that was supported by the BJP. However, as civil-society groups and fringe news organizations argued from the very beginning, the NRC process was both expensive and plagued by procedural irregularities and discriminatory practices. More to the point, the final NRC for Assam excluded 1.9 million people, all of whom could be rendered stateless.

Of that 1.9 million, a significant number were Bengali Hindus. The exclusion of Bengali Hindus, a large vote bank for the BJP, caused a stir in the state because the BJP, flipping on its initial support, refused to endorse the process, leaving no stone unturned in disrupting the implementation of the NRC.

The BJP delayed the appointment of an NRC coordinator; it has not initiated the appeals process for those excluded from the NRC; and it delivered on its promise to introduce the CAA to grant protection to the Bengali Hindus. The promise of the CAA was met with strong opposition in Assam because the historical fissures were along the lines of migration, not religion.

Despite the shortcomings of the NRC in Assam, the BJP plans on implementing it at the national level. The logic of this is clear. The CAA will preclude expulsion or detention of all non-Muslims. In parliament, Amit Shah clarified that the CAA would help refugees and that the NRC would expel infiltrators.

This semantic distinction is shaded with religious and communal undertones: refugees are the persecuted religious minorities from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries; infiltrators are the rest — predominantly Muslims. The CAA and NRC together reveal the BJP’s ambition for the formal, legal concretization of Hindutva populism.

Communalism aside, there is also an understanding that the NRC process, with the hindsight of the Assam experience, will attack India’s poor, who, lacking the economic, social, and cultural capitals to negotiate an inefficient, inconsistent, and often corrupt bureaucracy, rarely have documents to prove their citizenship.

In Assam, the NRC process required applicants to present documents to prove that they or their ancestors were citizens of India. This was followed by multiple rounds of verifications and appeals which caused tremendous anxiety and hardship. When the final register was produced, it was replete with errors.

Some lost out more than others. Women disproportionately suffered, since most of their documents mention their husbands rather than their parents. Similarly, illiterate people suffered from having many of their documents rejected due to typographical errors.

These hardships are most evocatively illustrated through the accounts of those affected by the annual floods in Assam. One such survivor reported to the media that “This flood has taken away my home, my land and my livelihood, but I am happy I have the most precious [things] with me — my mother, wife and children, and the NRC document.”

It is also worth noting that the state, although it is trying to build new detention centers, simply does not have the capacity to detain 1.9 million “foreigners” in Assam, let alone those who will be excluded in a nation-wide register. Further, India has not signed any repatriation agreement with its neighbors, since it considers the NRC an internal issue. Without detention or deportation as a definite consequence, those excluded from the NRC and subsequently declared as “foreigners” will be stripped of the benefits that accrue from citizenship.

Ruptures and Openings

The Citizenship Amendment Act is being challenged in court, with as many as sixty petitioners claiming that the act is unconstitutional. There are three primary arguments against the CAA.

First, the act violates the equality provision under Article 14 of the constitution, because it treats members of different religious communities unequally. The CAA only extends protection to non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but fails to address persecuted Muslim-minorities in these countries, and minorities from other neighboring countries such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the Uyghurs and Tibetans in China.

Second, the Supreme Court recognizes “secularism” to be a part of India’s basic structure, and the Constitution explicitly bars differentiation on the basis of religion. Third, the Act violates the Assam Accord, rendering the Assam NRC futile.

Despite the strong case against the CAA, skeptics have rightfully pointed out that it would be foolish to rely on the wisdom of the Supreme Court to strike down the legislation, since the court has become increasingly deferential towards the government. This suggests that India’s judiciary, though structurally independent from the political branches of the state, has fallen prey to the government.

The encouraging outcome of this fiasco has been the spontaneous outburst of protests and demonstrations all across the country. The CAA and the NRC have brought many different communities out on the streets. In a manner similar to the protests against the imposition of emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975, university students have been at the forefront.

The government has used an assortment of authoritarian measures to suppress these mobilizations from below, including internet shutdowns (something the Indian government has used more frequently than any other democratic state in the world), unleashing police violence, and imposing a colonial-era law disbarring public assembly. The protests in the northeast have been particularly vociferous and persistent. In Assam, where the internet was suspended for over a week, the army was called in to restore “normalcy.”

But the Assam case reveals serious tensions within the uprisings. The reason for the protests in the northeast is essentially the obverse of that for the protests in the rest of India. Assam was in favor of its statewide NRC, and its demand was the categorical expulsion of migrants from Bangladesh. The basis of the protests against CAA in Assam is not that it excludes some people, but that it does not exclude enough.

Although many elements in the northeast’s opposition to the CAA are framing their disagreement in constitutional terms, a significant part has resorted to an “anti-foreigner discourse” which is particular to its own situation. To assuage these demands, the government has included an exception to the application of the CAA to parts of the northeast by yielding to an exclusionary sub-nationalism. Such measures will likely help diffuse the popular unrest in the northeast, and hollow out the alliances forged between the northeast and the rest of India in a unified anti-Hindutva popular mobilization.

Nonetheless, the real opening that this coalescing popular movement provides is the broad framing of its antagonism against the Hindu Right, taking issue not just with CAA but the bleak social conditions and the political climate brought about by the majoritarian populist regime of the BJP and its Hindutva agenda.

The protests have drawn links between the CAA and the overall state of the Indian society and polity. The Indian economy has seen a deteriorating trend because of stagnant consumption expenditure, reports on which have been withheld by the government. A rise in rural poverty and youth unemployment indicates that economic growth has benefited the rich, not the poor. To combat the decline in growth, the government has implemented a corporate tax cut that is not likely to solve the issue.

Students in India have also been resisting university fee hikes that make education more expensive for the poor. Add to this a long running agricultural crisis, and one gets the sense that Indian society is standing on precarious ground.

Possibilities Beyond the Nation?

The enduring mass protests, despite severe repression, offer concrete possibilities. But there are sobering limits to the movement. The most fundamental problem is the lack of an alternative vision and a dearth of political actors who might carry out such a project. The Hindu right has undertaken one of the most persistent, organized, and sophisticated hegemonic projects in the last century. The Left doesn’t have the resources to launch a counter-offensive.

Moreover, the Left is only combatting the hegemony of the Right with a left nationalism that makes rhetorical references to the “inclusive” nationalism of the independence struggle. The current rupture can, at best, lead to an electoral defeat of the BJP in 2024. But this goal can’t be the extent of the Left’s political horizon.

The Indian left needs to understand the current crisis’s fundamentally global characteristics. The turn to a radicalized right is not specific to India — it is a global phenomena, and must be attacked on global and transnational terms. Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK, nationalist and Euroskeptic parties in Europe, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey — all are part of this global wave. They can’t be viewed in isolation.

This is not a mistake the Right is making. Authoritarian populist leaders have an intense international camaraderie. There seems to be a self-conscious attempt among these leaders to foster a dangerous fraternity of the far Right. Trump has alluded to his fondness for strong leaders; Modi has endorsed Trump for a second term; Modi has invited Euroskeptic ministers for a visit to Kashmir under curfew; Netanyahu, Putin, Trump, and Modi have supported each others’ political objectives; Orbán lauds Modi; Modi has invited Bolsonaro to be the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day parade. All of them borrow from a shared rhetoric: putting the “nation first,” “national security,” a “threat of migration.”

Although the turn to the Right in each country has to be understood within their particular historical contexts, we also have to comprehend how this generalized phenomena might be tied to an emerging crisis of the neoliberal world order, with the compounded effects of climate change.

The crisis in South Asia is particularly  ominous. Major cities are running out of water. Pollution is severe and a leading cause of death. Extreme climate patterns are disrupting the already emaciated agricultural sector.

The effects of all this are not unrelated to the CAA and NRC either. Climate change will drastically affect migration into India. Bangladesh will be one of the countries worst hit by climate change, which will escalate migratory pressures. The poor in India as well as in Bangladesh will be the casualties.

This is the political conundrum that India’s left opposition to the rising Hindu and global right needs to confront and anticipate. It cannot simply resort to electorally fruitful versions of a “progressive” nationalism. If the Indian left is unable to develop the resources and capacity to appropriate the popular uprising and launch an assault on the Hindu right’s machinery, nor come out of its parochialism to formulate a vision with global sensibilities, the optimism of the current moment will quickly fade.