The outrage over the lynchings of Mohammad Akhlaq, Zahid Bhat and Noman have been replaced by sparing over ‘Award wapsi’ and the Bihar elections. One statement made in the aftermath of Dadri remained in my mind. Not for how accurately it summed up the situation, but for showing how wrong our perceptions and reference points are when we talk about Indian politics.
In reaction to the gruesome murder of Akhlaq by a Hindutva mob in Dadri, Rajdeep Sardesai bemoaned the ‘medievalism’ of the act, joining many others who unfairly project the upheaval and lawlessness of Europe’s ‘medieval’ age onto the rest of humanity. However, incidents like Dadri are unheard of in pre-modern Indian polities, whether led by Hindu or Muslim dynasties. Indeed, Hindu-Muslim riots became common only during the colonial era. What Dadri actually showcases is the culmination of a decades long process of politicization of male upper and dominant caste Hindi-belt Hindu youth.
We are so accustomed to ‘modern’ being better and superior that we fail to reflect that a lot of our social and economic problems are the result of the process of India becoming modern and the specific nature of this modernization process. Clearly, democratic politics marked by popular mobilizations and grass roots activism is a feature of the modern Indian society. Although steps were taken in introducing democratic politics by the colonial state, the practice was institutionalized by the Constitution and made into the principal and only legitimate mode of obtaining political power. However, while India was democratic it was not yet democratized. In fact, the vast majority of Indians were not even politicized fully and invariably acted according to the political will of the elite, urbanized groups and their rural proxies.
As the years have gone by, with every election and campaign India’s communities have entered into the political arena with their grievances, points of view and interests. As they did this, some unshackled themselves from their dependence on existing elites. First, the middle peasantry, who were initially influenced by the urban middle class produced by the colonial state, realized that they no longer needed that middle class. Indeed, post land reform, they were the new middle class with much larger numbers and could influence the the bulk of the electorate who now worked on their farms. By the late 70s, they had asserted their independent power, especially in the states and to this day, the vast majority of India’s chief ministers are from castes belonging to this middle peasantry.
In time, as democracy deepened and thanks to affirmative action, even the most marginalized castes of rural India, the various Dalit groups came to the fore and demanded their share of power. Meanwhile, even as Dalits were making their voices heard, the even more oppressed adivasi groups, who had been organizing under various left wing banners, came to be sandwiched between a rapacious corporate lobby, a Maoist insurgency and the state’s repressive response. However, with the ascendance of the BJP, both the Dalit political movement and adivasi struggle have been sidelined by the chauvinistic, conservative Hindutva movement.
Far from being the inevitable product of imagined ‘ancient hatreds’, the political Hinduism today is the result of the nature and dynamics of politicization of youth in North and West India’s cities and small towns. Generations of young people in India’s urban centres have been brought into the political arena on a cocktail of the secular establishment as unfairly biased towards minorities, responsible for India’s poor economic condition and the upper-caste Hindi-affiliated Hindu male as automatically Indian and everyone as marginal or suspect. This is the default worldview of the urban/semi-urban Gujarati and cow-belt non-Dalit Hindu male. One has to reflect on how after a national movement that inspired people as great as Martin Luther King, produced icons like Gandhi, Patel and Bhagat Singh, and a remarkable Constitution, steadfast democracy, we have produced a default citizen of this kind.
Although the actual violence in the name of Hindu nationalism will be carried out by such un/underemployed ‘footsoldiers’ in India-Bharat and to a lesser extent metro India, one should not think of this as small-town/semi-urban phenomenon. On contrary, the most committed supporters of this brand of nationalism are NRIs, especially Gujaratis, Mumbai-Delhi and Hindi belt migrants to the US. The metro Indians then follow the same prescriptions. This is a generation in which families share jokes on Godse killing Gandhi on whatsapp. Far from the at least the theoretical promise of equality, liberty and justice of Indian nationalism, Hindi-Hindu nationalism threatens to choke women, minorities, non-Hindi speakers and India itself.