Hymns of Modi’s India

December 22, 2019

The rise of a populist strongman in India can aid the rise of a similar character in Pakistan

India is in the throes of multiple protests sparked by the passage of an amendment to its citizenship laws granting citizenship on relatively easier terms to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who entered the country before December 31, 2014. The logic for this amendment pushed through by the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is that religious minorities in those countries have for long faced persecution, and that India is now offering them shelter. The stated reason why Muslims, and groups such as the Ahmadiyya, have been excluded is that they do not face religious persecution in those countries. This amendment is being strongly contested by the civil society and opposition parties in India, which see in the amendment a design to formally change the country’s secular character. Coupled with a second initiative to draw up a National Register of Citizens (NRC) which will purportedly identify illegal immigrants, it is being seen in some quarters as a means to eventually disenfranchise the country’s sizable Muslim minority.

A rising tide of Hindu nationalism has carried Narendra Modi to power as prime minister for two successive terms now. His election in 2014, when he won his first term, was on a campaign built around a promise of amity and development encapsulated in the slogan of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” meaning “with everyone, development for all”. Hardly anything of the sort happened during the next five years of his tenure, which was marked by the historic demonetisation of all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes in the country in what was sold as a “surgical strike” on black money. It ended up hitting the Indian economy, which began to flounder. However, this did not dent Modi or the BJP’s electoral prospects in the least, and the party won an even larger majority in the 2019 elections – thanks, in no small part, to a sudden tsunami of nationalism sparked off by a terrorist attack in Pulwama in Kashmir shortly before the election, in which 40 security forces personnel were killed, and a retaliatory “surgical strike” on an [alleged] terrorist hideout in Pakistan in which, according to Indian media reports, over 200 terrorists were killed.

Hindu nationalism is incomplete without its “other”, its opposite pole, which it finds in Islamic extremism. The existence of terrorist groups in Pakistan [not contested in Indian media] that target India makes drumming up popular support for Hindu nationalism easy. The tense relationship with Pakistan, presented as a land of fundamentalist Muslims from which Hindus and Sikhs were driven out after Partition in 1947, is the foundational force driving the project of turning secular India into a Hindu Rashtra. India split into two dominions in August 1947 [and Pakistan into two republics in 1971] but merely cutting the umbilical cords does not mean all ties have ceased. The fact of the matter is that the nature and character of nationalisms in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh continue to be influenced by one another, and events in one country often still spur reactions in the others, 72 years after Partition.

The rise of a populist strongman in India may thus aid the rise of a similar character in Pakistan, but the rise of populist strongmen in general is now a global phenomenon. The whole world is seeing the emergence of populist majoritarian nationalisms of various hues in country after country. There’s Hindu nationalism and Modi in India, a certain kind of Turkish Muslim nationalism under Recep Erdogan in Turkey, a type of white American nationalism under Donald Trump in the US, some sort of populist Filipino nationalism under Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and white nationalism again under Viktor Orban in Hungary. Brazil, Russia and China, too, are arguably ruled by populist strongmen of different types. Even the United Kingdom has now elected a populist from its political right.

What is driving this?

Technologies that enable rapid and easy movement of large numbers of people, such as cheap air travel, have undoubtedly played a role. So too have digital communication technologies such as the mobile phone and internet. The combination of television and WhatsApp videos has made brainwashing large masses of people easier than ever before. Indeed, daily exposure to propaganda appears to have washed brains clean out of millions of heads. However, these are only enabling technologies. Finally, the blame must be apportioned where it rightly belongs – in the idea of what constitutes a nation, and the overlap of ‘nation’ and ‘state’.

It is commonly understood and acknowledged that a group of people sharing a culture, history and identity – usually meaning a common religion or language or both – constitute a nation. The nation-state is a new invention. The political map of the world, as we know it, is barely 100 years old in most places. At the beginning of the First World War, in 1914, the world was still one of empires, not nation-states. Those empires had their cores and peripheries, and their racial hierarchies, but they were not limited in extent by any notions of shared language or religion. Thus, the British Empire, of which both India and Pakistan were part, did not bother itself with limiting its expansion to only the areas where white English-speaking Christians were a majority. Its subjects could be white or black or brown, Hindu or Muslim or Sikh; this would not clash with the idea of what the empire was. Today the empire is long gone, and Britain itself faces an existential threat due to Brexit.

People everywhere in the last century have come to believe that having a shared language, religion or culture gives them the right to have a nation-state of their own. This is a right recognised by the United Nations, which is meant to sustain a world order made up of nation-states. However, this concept of nationhood based on identity is at its root a form of tribalism. The form of belonging it naturally leads to is jus sanguinis, meaning based on blood. It creates national territories that can only be owned by one community, who may then suffer the others to stay as minorities – or not. What we are seeing around the world in the rise of “populist majoritarian nationalism” is probably just the idea of the nation reaching closer to its true promise. Going ahead, we should expect to see further identity movements based on separate linguistic, ethnic and religious minority identities.

Many in Pakistan now see in Modi’s India a vindication of the Two-Nation Theory popularised in British India by VD Savarkar among Hindus and MA Jinnah among Muslims. Perhaps, they have a point. But the theory of nation, which came before any theory of whether undivided India was one nation or two or several, has not been kind to Pakistan either – the separation of Bangladesh was based on the idea of a linguistic nation. Our part of the world is vastly more diverse than Western Europe, and we were foolish to accept the notion that our lands and peoples could be neatly segregated into territories on the basis of religion, language and identity. We paid the price in a million lives in Partition violence, the plight of many millions who became refugees, the genocides and wars.

We learnt nothing. We continue, enthusiastically, to sing nationalist hymns and suffer the consequences.

The writer is an author and a journalist

Hymns of Modi’s India and rise of nationalism