We kicked off the new semester with a fantastic paper by Aditya Sarkar (Warwick), who presented a wide-ranging analysis of the current advance of the Hindu right in India. The exciting topic ensured that it was standing room only, but Anita Klingler managed to find a seat. She sends this report.
Aditya began his talk by acknowledging that the topic was somewhat removed from his usual research on the social history of South Asian labour and capitalism. He did not claim to be arguing from a point of neutrality in this often controversial debate, but nevertheless wished to offer the listeners an analysis rather than mere polemic. In this, he succeeded handsomely.
He began very helpfully by providing a definition of some key terms, including the central notion of Hindutva. He characterised this as the ideology of the Hindu Right since the 1920s, based around the conception of India as a fundamentally Hindu nation. He followed up with a bleak and unsettling run down of recent Hindu right-wing extremist attacks on Muslims, dalits, and other minority groups in India.
From there, he moved towards laying out his central thesis, namely that Hindutva and democracy do not stand in opposition to one another in modern India, but instead have been moving “in lockstep”.
He acknowledged that this claim might seem a little surprising, but he felt it was necessary in the light of two common misconceptions: firstly, the notion that Hindutva, as an ideology, is a simple negation of democracy; secondly, that India – often hailed as the world’s largest democracy – is not actually a democracy at all because of its corrupt election practices and the socio-economic constraints that weigh on India’s poorest. Instead, Aditya made the case for a historical analysis of “really existing democracy” in India, and highlighted the need to analyse the relationship and the tensions between normative and historical conceptions of Indian democracy.
The crucial historical point is that the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with a broadening of the social base of democracy, involving an increasing number of people in democratic processes. This meant that the main Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could easily rebut claims that they were “anti-democratic” since they were winning a significant number of seats in elections.
Aditya thus drew attention to the fact that, with its embrace of electoral democracy, the BJP had succeeded in democratising collective identities, based on the notion of a Hindu national community, rather than individual ones. This focus on the “nation-as-Hindu” has only been exacerbated by the continuous electoral cycle, in which opposition parties have increasingly been compelled to abandon the language of secular nationalism to remain relevant to the debate.
Finishing his historical overview, Aditya pointed out what the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has to offer voters. First and foremost, he is unapologetic in his self-portrayal as an economic moderniser, determined to lead the booming Indian economy to even greater successes. However, just as importantly, he has staked his legitimacy on a strong anti-corruption (and universal ‘pro-cleanliness’) agenda.
Aditya presented an example of the success of this language from his own field work amongst metal workers on the industrial outskirts of Delhi during the 2016 demonetisation campaign. While the workers had long been staunch supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party, literally the ‘Common Man’s Party’, he noticed a shift in their loyalties towards the BJP. This was especially surprising given that poorer people, whose livelihoods depend largely on cash, had suffered severely under the policy of demonetisation, in the course of which several of the most widely used currency notes were taken out of circulation by the government. To counter this potential negative publicity, Modi successfully invoked a spirit of national sacrifice. Surprisingly, this worked. Aditya’s respondents told him that they hoped for a better, less corrupt future, in which the rich would finally be made to pay their dues, the poor would ascend, and equality would be established.
This unexpected endorsement of demonetisation exhibited the power of the language of sacrifice employed by Modi, and served as an example of how his nationalist discourse is in fact broader than traditional notions of Hindutva. For Aditya, this suggests a nationalist shift within (not against) democracy, reinforcing his thesis that Hindutva and democracy are moving side-by-side in modern India, thus requiring us to pay more attention to its changing nature under a nationalist government.
The paper was followed by a brief comment by Wilfried Swenden (Edinburgh). He encouraged the room to view the Hindu Right not simply as an ‘Indian story’, but as part of a global rise of populism, the structural causes of which needed to be analysed more widely. He further raised the question of the self-styled “illiberal democracies” of Eastern Europe, such as Hungary and Poland, and whether this terminology constituted a contradiction on terms, or not.
Lastly, Wilfried offered a series of causes which he viewed as contributors towards the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, which included the establishment of economic liberalism without an accompanying social safety net; increasing upward mobility of the lower castes, which provoked upper caste resentment; and the first-past-the-post electoral system, which makes it difficult for smaller parties to play any meaningful role in electoral politics.
The seminar ended with stimulating questions from the audience. Many of these focused on the normalisation of certain radical discourses that endanger minorities globally, from the United States to Myanmar. The exchange demonstrated both the impact of Aditya’s paper and the importance of the issues he raised.
Anita Klingler is a PhD student in History. Her research interests lie broadly in twentieth century European history, political and colonial violence, and coming to terms with a violent past. Her thesis compares attitudes towards political violence in interwar Britain and Germany.