India’s Journey from Civic to Cultural Nationalism: A New Political Imaginary?

Niraja Gopal Jayal | PASS Academician

India’s Journey from Civic to Cultural Nationalism: A New Political Imaginary?

1. Nationalism, Populism and Democracy

The revival of atavistic forms of nationalism in the contemporary moment is commonly attributed to a backlash against globalization, especially in relation to the movement of people across borders. This kind of exclusionary nationalism has also been associated with the emergence of radical right-wing populism and its rejection of cultural diversity. Wherever immigration has made previously mono-ethnic societies multi-ethnic, dominant ethnic groups have, encouraged by populist leaders, succumbed to demographic anxieties and shown a palpable animosity towards pluralism.

While nationalism is not a feature of all forms of populism,[1] most of the current manifestations of populist politics mobilize and deploy nationalist and sometimes even xenophobic sentiments. Right-wing populist leaders and parties across the world today – from Trump to Modi, from Netanyahu to Bolsonaro and from the Freedom Party of Austria to the National Front of France – exemplify this tendency. There is a particular way in which such populist leaders and parties mobilize and define “the people” such that they become the repository of national identity, or some in-group identity based on ethnicity, religion, race or class. This places them in opposition to, on the one hand, migrants/outsiders who do not belong to the national community and, on the other hand, the elite which could be ethnic co-nationals and yet be despised for their corruption and complicity in the production of inequality.

In India, such elites are reviled simply for their espousal of alien liberal political values, of ideas like freedom of speech or of minority rights. As Yascha Mounk has argued, citizens of consolidated democracies (like the US or the UK) are now dissatisfied, not just with their governments, but with democracy itself (Mounk, 2018: Ch. 3). It is the decoupling of liberalism and democracy that is, in his view, responsible for this unravelling. The detachment of liberalism (standing for individual rights and liberties and the rule of law) from democracy (defined as a set of electoral institutions through which popular preferences are translated into policy) yields variants like illiberal or purely electoral democracy, where the rights of minorities or the right to dissent, hallmarks of a liberal society, may not be respected (ibid: 40-41).

It could be argued that the enthusiasm for populism represents popular disillusionment, not so much with democracy per se, but with representative democracy and its enduring inability to channel popular preferences into policy. It is, in a sense, the representativeness of representative democracy, embodied in the institutional form of elected legislatures, that is being called into question – both where it has been formally successful for a couple of centuries, as also in places where it has yet to strike deep roots. Just a couple of decades ago, dissatisfaction with representative democracy had resulted in greater faith being invested in participatory democracy and in civil society,[2] rather than political parties, as agents of change. That earlier optimism about democratising democracy has now been replaced by cynicism and despondency about the future of democracy itself, finding expression in (among other things) the familiar anxieties about national identity, citizenship, borders and immigration.

It is therefore unsurprising that a major cross-country dataset, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) has, in its 2018 report, identified “disquieting trends” and a tendency towards “autocratization” in countries such as Brazil, India, Poland, Russia, Turkey and the United States (V-Dem, 2018: 5). India and the United States have been signalled India as first-time backsliders, manifesting “significant declines in liberal democracy” (ibid: 16). All these countries have populist leaders who unabashedly exploit nationalist sentiments to consolidate their hold on the citizen body.

In this paper, I propose to explore the impact of the current phase of right-wing populism and its association with exclusionary nationalism, on India, once seen as a fairly successful case of multiculturalism within a democratic framework. By way of providing the context, I will briefly map the multiple forms of cultural diversity that have historically existed in India, and then track India’s social and political journey from a ‘national-civic’ conception of citizenship identity to a ‘national-ethnic’ form (Beiner, 1995: 8).

2. India: A Crucible of Diversity

India’s cultural diversity is a product of complex and crosscutting affiliations based on the multiple and overlapping identities of region, language, religion, sect, caste and tribe. According to the Census of 2011, India has over a hundred ‘dominant languages’, 22 of which (excluding English) are spoken by 96% of India’s population; and close to 1400 other languages. It has six major religions (not including Judaism and Zoroastrianism), which variously converge with and diverge from language groups, such that co-religionists of different language groups could have less in common with each other than they might with other members of the same linguistic, but different religious, community. A Malayalam-speaking Christian in the southern coastal state of Kerala, for instance, may not be able to communicate with a Christian in the north-eastern states of Nagaland or Mizoram, and may have more in common with a non-Christian Malayalam-speaker in her own state. The two could also conceivably belong to very different denominations and both would differ from the Goan Catholics in terms of the different personal laws that govern them. Social cleavages in India are thus crosscutting rather than reinforcing.

It is challenging, if not impossible, to describe, with any degree of accuracy, what is arguably the defining characteristic of Indian society, caste. India has anywhere between 2000-3000 castes/sub-castes (jatis), arranged hierarchically in the fourfold ritual varna order, from which Dalits (the former untouchable castes, officially known as the Schedule Castes, are traditionally excluded). Originating in Hindu society, the institution of caste has nevertheless penetrated the practices of Christianity and Islam in India. This has resulted in confusing policies of affirmative action, with Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims not being entitled to quotas, on the empirically flawed grounds that having left the Hindu fold they are no longer victims of discrimination. However, the so-called Backward Caste Muslims are entitled to quotas because that quota is based on social and educational backwardness, and does not make any distinction on the basis of religion. The Schedule Tribes, finally, practise a variety of religions – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity as well as folk religions – and belong to many different language groups.[3]

As this very synoptic account suggests, social cleavages in India are extremely complex. The social universe of most Indians is a mosaic of multi-layered identities that encompass language, region, caste, and religion, apart from the more ‘modern’ secular identities of gender, location (urban or rural) and class. Over and above these, there are the overlaps between cultural and material inequalities. Traditional and historical forms of social inequality, such as the inherited symbolic or cultural disadvantages of caste or religious identity, are found to co-exist with and even be reinforced by inequalities arising out of the sphere of economic activity. For instance, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Muslims together account for close to 38% of India’s population. On every economic and human development indicator, members of these groups are worse off than others, their economic impoverishment mirroring their social marginalisation.

Some of these inequalities were sought to be addressed by the Constitution of 1950, which privileged the conception of universal citizenship, but simultaneously sought to accommodate the claims of minorities and disadvantaged groups. Recognising that the democratic principle of equality was an insufficient guarantee for minorities who, in the presence of a dominant majority, could be insecure in the enjoyment of their cultural rights, the Constitution guaranteed a set of rights including the right to follow religious personal law in civil matters, the protection of minority religious and educational institutions, the freedom of religious worship and religious instruction. It was also acknowledged that equality of opportunity would be effectively denied to historically disadvantaged groups like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes because, given their histories of marginalization, they could not be expected to compete on fully equal terms, and hence required special guarantees of access to education and public employment as enabling background conditions of equality. Provision was also made for such reservations to be made for socially and educationally backward groups, leading to their extension, in 1990, to caste groups designated as Other Backward Classes. Finally, in what is perhaps one of the more successful experiments of institutional engineering in India, the organization of the Indian polity as a federation based on linguistic states settled the issue of linguistic diversity. Thus, different institutional mechanisms were devised to deal with different types of “differences” within the overarching framework of a liberal-democratic polity of the parliamentary type, with a multi-party system.

All of these provisions were fiercely debated in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Constitution. The secular nationalist vision, based on an understanding of India’s diverse and composite culture, won the day, but the endurance of contestations over some of these differences indicates a still unsettled consensus. Nevertheless, it would be accurate to claim that the progressive and inclusive Constitution that came into being in 1950 gave India a form of secular nationalism that was grounded in civic identity rather than any cultural identity; and in universalist political values rather than particularistic ones. In subsequent years, there were contestations over identity, based on language, region, tribe and caste. Despite the rise of regional parties and caste parties, none of these fundamentally threatened the civic consensus.

In recent years, we have witnessed a resurgence of some of the contesting ideas of the late-colonial period, making India’s civic nationalist project appear fragile and vulnerable. Religious nationalism, in the form of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party whose self-description is of a social and cultural organization) was founded in 1925, but there were also strands of Hindu nationalism that were accommodated within the Indian National Congress itself. The RSS was banned by the Indian government in 1948, when one of its former members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. As the BJP grew in strength from the 1990s onwards, the societal footprint of the RSS also expanded. In recent years, it has seen an extraordinary resurgence, with its membership presently standing at 5 million. It also enjoys unparalleled power over the government, whose cabinet ministers make regular presentations of its achievement to the leadership of the RSS.

The years since independence were years in which the Congress Party enjoyed an unprecedented hegemony over national affairs, and its historical slogan of Unity in Diversity held sway. Apart from occasional – invariably politically motivated – conflagrations of Hindu-Muslim violence, these were not decades in which society at large was affected by the ideological virus of communal sentiment. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi flirted with communal politics, taking political cues from clerics, even encouraging revivalist religious movements to settle scores with political rivals, ironically paying the price of this with her own life. Her son, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, proved weak in defending secular practice, failing to prevent the violence against Sikhs that was led by his own partymen following the assassination of his mother, and caving into the most conservative elements in religious leadership as on the question of the rights of Muslim women divorcees to maintenance or the opening of the locks on the disputed Babri Masjid that was in 1992 physically destroyed by the BJP.

The majoritarian project that animates the BJP is qualitatively different from this. India got a foretaste of it during the violence against Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002, on the watch of the then Chief Minister of the state, Narendra Modi. This project of majoritarian nationalism seeks a political consolidation of a Hindu identity, which is forged by resort to hyper-nationalist slogans and symbols. It is common knowledge that, given the varieties of sects and forms of worship, there is no such thing as a singular Hindu identity. This is emphatically a modern political project of the early twentieth century – one of its ideological founders, Savarkar, drew great inspiration from Mazzini[4] – and, in its contemporary manifestation, taps into Islamophobic discourse driven by the fear of terror from the western world to further its political purpose. India has the world’s third largest Muslim population, with Muslims accounting for 14 per cent of its population. This tiny minority is demonised and often equated with the ‘enemy’ nation of Pakistan, created by the divided legacy of the British Empire. The next section explores the new political imaginary of Indian nationalism.

3. Majoritarian Religious Nationalism: A New Political Imaginary

India’s independence from British rule in 1947 was the product of a popular movement for freedom that began three-quarters of a century earlier. This movement was led by the Indian National Congress which, under the charismatic leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, mobilized fourteen million people in one of the most remarkable movements for self-determination in human history. The idea of nationalism that fuelled it was an encompassing, secular and inclusive one that sought, to provide for group-differentiated citizenship within the overarching framework of a universalist conception of citizenship well before before this issue became the subject of an animated theoretical debate between liberalism and communitarianism in political theory.

In the following sections, I will explore the contours of the form of exclusionary nationalism that has come to dominate Indian political discourse in recent years, in three dimensions: the move to undermine the constitutional design of civic universalism through amendments to the law of citizenship; the encouragement provided by hyper-nationalism to societal practices of the systematic ‘othering’ of, and vigilante violence against, vulnerable minorities; and the implications of such hyper-nationalism for democracy and the exercise of citizens’ constitutional rights to the freedoms of speech and expression, of association, and of religious practice.

3.1 Citizenship: the introduction of religion-based difference

India has, for the last three decades, been witnessing a subtle shift from the inclusive principle of legal citizenship articulated in the Constitution to a less inclusive conception; from a jus soli or birth-based to an increasingly, if covertly, jus sanguinis or descent-based principle. This has become less subtle and more pronounced over the last five years.

Although India adopted jus soli as the basis of citizenship, the tension between the two rival principles of jus soli and jus sanguinis has been present (if dormant) since the founding of the republic. The articles on citizenship in the Constitution dealt only with the extraordinary aftermath of the population exchange in the wake of the Partition, leaving it to Parliament to formulate the law on citizenship. The jus soli conception of Indian citizenship adopted in both the Constitution and the Citizenship Act of 1955 was universal and equal, with no differentiation on the basis of religion or indeed any other identity.[5]

It is from the 1980s onwards, in response to political developments that the legal and constitutional conception of the Indian citizen started to undergo a subtle transformation, through amendments to the Citizenship Act. The first of these amendments, in 1985, amended the provisions pertaining to naturalisation. The immediate provocation for this was unrest in the eastern state of Assam which had witnessed in-migration over a long period, and especially in the wake of the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. A nativist student movement here had been agitating against the shrinking of employment opportunities due to the immigration of Bengalis (including those from the Indian state of West Bengal), as also against the enfranchisement of migrants from Bangladesh which was perceived as distorting democracy by giving the vote to non-citizens. The Government of India entered into an accord with these groups and put in place measures for the ‘detection’ of foreigners and their deletion from the electoral rolls. It also amended the Citizenship Act to allay anxieties about migrants who had come in from Bangladesh after the 1971 war. Categories of eligibility for citizenship were created, based on the year in which a person had migrated to India. All those who came before 1966 were declared citizens; those who came between 1966-1971 were struck off the electoral rolls and asked to wait ten years before applying for citizenship; and those who came after 1971 were simply deemed to be illegal immigrants.

In a more decisive move towards jus sanguinis a further amendment to the Citizenship Act in 2004 provided that, even if born on Indian soil, a person who had one parent who was an illegal migrant at the time of her or his birth, would not be eligible for citizenship by birth. Since the majority of the migrants from Bangladesh were Muslims, this covertly introduced a religion-based exception to the principle of citizenship by birth, undermining the principle of jus soli. Though these provisions were a response to the political situation in one state – where the anti-migrant sentiment was at a fever pitch – they already contained the seeds of the politicisation and incipient communalisation of the issue of citizenship.

Also in 2004, there was another modification of the law at its margins. On the western border of India, the presence of another set of refugees – low caste but Hindu – from Pakistan[6] triggered the formulation of rules (appended to the Citizenship Act) that make explicit mention of their religious identity, and also make it possible for the law, and the administration of it, to adopt a more benign approach toward them, precisely because they are seen as members of a vulnerable minority in the country of their origin. Till 2004, the religious identity of these migrants had only been implicitly signalled in the Citizenship Act, but was never explicitly mentioned. The 2004 amendment to the Citizenship Rules dispensed with this coyness. The language of “illegal migrants” was dropped for these migrants who were now officially described as “minority Hindus with Pakistan citizenship”. These “minority Hindus with Pakistani citizenship” came to be excluded from the definition of illegal immigrants. What is striking is that, even as the government has inscribed their religious identity into the rules, their own understanding of what citizenship is for is quite devoid of arguments of blood and belonging. My fieldwork amongst these communities in the state of Rajasthan in western India showed that their understanding of citizenship had little to do with identity or affect; it was entirely about the social rights to which, in their view, citizenship holds the key: from electricity connections to admission in government schools, from caste certificates to access to subsidized food. Today, the proposed incorporation of groups like these is being framed solely in terms of their religious identity.

This is exactly what is sought to be accomplished by the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, introduced in Parliament in July 2016. This legislation represents the culmination of the BJP project of enshrining Hindu identity as the default identity of the Indian citizen by, on the one hand, excluding “illegal migrants” (read Muslims) and, on the other, destigmatising Hindu migrants, by removing the label of illegality. Energetically sponsored by the first Modi government, the bill passed easily in the popularly elected lower house of parliament where the government enjoyed a majority, but its legislation was stalled in the upper house of Parliament where the opposition prevailed. Its return to office with an even larger majority in the elections of 2019 means that the amendment now has greater prospects of being legislated. The issue has been the subject of electoral and political mobilization in the states of Assam and Bengal by the ruling party, but in the election campaign of 2019, the passage of this bill was a central focus of the party. In the words of one commentator, “this time, there is less dog whistle, more foghorn” (Desai, 2019). Both the Prime Minister and the president of the ruling party highlighted the issue of ‘illegal migrants’ in their campaign speeches, with the party President referring to immigrants as “vermin”, and pledging to ‘throw out’ all ‘infiltrators’ except those who are Hindus and Buddhists.

This amendment signifies nothing less than a radical reversal of the religion-neutral conception of citizenship contained in the constitution and the law. While some elements of religious difference have, as mentioned above, been covertly smuggled in earlier, this Bill does so overtly. It provides that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis (Zoroastrians) and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, deemed to be “persons belonging to minority communities”, “shall not be treated as illegal migrants for purposes of this Act” and, as such, will be eligible for citizenship after five years of residence in India as opposed to the earlier requirement of eleven years. In other words, persons belonging to six religions from three countries are no longer to be described as illegal migrants and are therefore candidates for fast-tracked citizenship. The silent implication is that Muslims from these countries would continue to be treated as illegal immigrants and would not therefore be eligible for the same relaxation. The ostensible reason for the exclusion of Muslims is that they are not minorities in the specified countries. Notwithstanding the official concern about religious persecution, similar hospitality is not on offer for the Ahmadiyas or Rohingya Muslims, persecuted sects in Pakistan and Myanmar respectively, or indeed for Hindu migrants from Sri Lanka.

The tectonic quality of this shift in the Indian conception of citizenship lies in the fact that it introduces a religion-based difference in the presently religion-neutral law on citizenship, and entrenches a majoritarian and exclusionary conception of citizenship, replacing the existing, albeit already weakened, pluralist and inclusive conception. It would in effect create two categories of citizens: those professing the Hindu and other ‘acceptable’ faiths; and those who profess Islam. While the Bill includes followers of Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism in its ambit of privilege, there was some ambivalence towards practitioners of these faiths in the campaign speeches of the BJP President who explicitly specified only Hindu and Buddhist migrants as deserving of full citizenship.

Initially, the move angered many in Assam, including the BJP’s own political allies, who viewed the amendment as a violation of the Assam Accord, which had treated all those (regardless of their religious identity) who entered the state after 1971 as illegal immigrants. They were unwilling to accept the transformation of even Hindu (Bengali speaking) migrants into legitimate citizens for fear of more in-migration and more claims on diminishing employment opportunities. The Joint Parliamentary Committee, which visited Assam in May 2018, was petitioned by hundreds of organizations agitating against the Bill, expressing not only the secular constitutionalist objection of introducing religion-based citizenship provisions, but also the fear of both Assamese-speakers as well as indigenous tribal communities, of becoming minorities in their own land. For them, the difference of linguistic identity trumped shared religious identity.

Simultaneously, the state government of Assam was tasked by the Supreme Court with the compilation of the National Register of Citizens[7] in that state, to record all those who have documentary proof of being Indian, and of them or their ancestors having been in India before midnight on March 24 1971. The electoral pledge of the Prime Minister and the BJP Party President, who is now the Home Minister of the country, had been that all those whose applications were rejected would be faced with deportation.

For the first round of this exercise that ended in July 2018, 32.9 million people applied, 28.9 million were authenticated, and 4 million were excluded, many of them Hindus. Rural women who had moved from one village to another upon marriage found it especially difficult to prove their citizenship, especially after a ruling from the Guwahati High Court in 2017 that certificates given by gram panchayats (elected local governments at the village level), and being used to establish pre-1971 ancestry, were not valid documents to support their claims. More than four million people dependent on these certificates were left out of NRC draft published in July 2018.

Fresh claims for inclusion were filed by 3.6 million people, who were called for hearings (including what were called family tree hearings). At the end of this process, in August 2019, those left out included people who had served in the Indian Army or the Border Security Force for decades, the nephew of a former Indian president, and even the only woman chief minister Assam ever had. Ironically, a former anti-immigration activist and even a local BJP leader found themselves excluded. In some cases, children’s documents were found to have been accepted but not those of their fathers.

In a society historically as undocumented as India, there are naturally many people who cannot produce documents to establish their ancestry, so that ironically those who actually came in from outside may have documents[8] while those who are native inhabitants for generations do not. For its sponsors, the outcome of the NRC was unexpected. The percentage of exclusions were larger in areas inhabited by indigenous people, and lower in border areas where the illegal migrants have settled. The state government was discomfited by the large numbers of Hindus excluded from the NRC and are hoping that they would be reinstated as citizens via the pending amendment to the Citizenship Act. As the factual outcomes of the process turned out to contradict the political assumptions of the enthusiasts of this exercise, the political messaging has sought to assuage fears by affirming that no Hindus would be deported.

Meanwhile, 1145 people have already been placed in six detention centres in Assam, living in sub-human conditions; 335 of these have spent 3 years in camps; and 25 persons declared ‘foreigners’ have already died in the detention camps, in addition to the eight persons driven to suicide by the fear of not possessing papers. The detention centres are populated by those excluded from the NRC as well as those who have appealed to the Foreigners’ Tribunals and deemed to be foreigners by them. Although, in response to a public interest litigation, the Supreme Court has passed orders for the improvement of the conditions in these centres, these remain inhumane spaces that are at odds with India’s constitutional values and more generally with the idea of human rights. Despite all the talk of deportation, it is clear that this cannot be done without the specific agreement of Bangladesh, a scenario which is quite unlikely. There is a very real fear that millions of people could be rendered stateless and rights-less, perhaps populating detention centres for long periods of time. The construction of a large detention camp, with a capacity of 3000 detainees is presently underway, with ten others planned to fit a thousand people each.

Meanwhile, there is talk of extending the NRC exercise to the entire country, and of setting up detention centres all over the country. In states ruled by Opposition parties that avow a secular agenda, this is being resisted; but in states ruled by the BJP, it is clearly motivated by the idea of creating a two-tier citizenship based on religion.[9] The ostensible purpose is to enable the sifting of genuine citizens from fake or undocumented migrants, but the political discourse makes it unambiguously clear that the intention is to ‘sort’ and then deprive people of citizenship based on their religious identity. The curious thing is that migrants may actually have paper or documentary citizenship while the original inhabitants may simply lack any documentation at all.

Reading the experience of the National Register of Citizens alongside the Citizenship Amendment Bill is instructive as to the new conception of citizenship that is being produced. It is a conception of citizenship that is based on the idea of religious majoritarianism, the idea that only Hindus are the normal and natural citizens of India, that everyone else is here on sufferance, and should be removed as expeditiously as possible.

The potential for long-term damage lies in its contravention of constitutional provisions, The right to equality in Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, for instance, is available even to foreigners who happen to be within the territory of India, and differential treatment to individuals on the basis of their religious faith contravenes this. More egregiously, the construction of Hindus as the natural and normal citizens of India is not just a debasement of the idea of India that joined 14 million people together in their struggle against imperial rule, it is also a transgression of the universalist and inclusive conception of citizenship contained in the Indian Constitution. This legislation seeks to introduce into the law on citizenship an invidious distinction based exclusively on religion; it openly undermines the jus soli principle which has thus far provided the legal but also the ideologically inclusive foundation of Indian citizenship; and hardens and consolidates the movement towards a jus sanguinis regime.

In a symbolic sense, this shift is also reflected in the ever more assiduous courting of the Indian diaspora, especially in the US, the UK and Australia. India does not recognise dual citizenship, but successive Indian governments, and the present government more than its predecessors, have been keen to incorporate the wealthy Indian diaspora in the west as members of the extended ‘national’ community, even if they have voluntarily opted for citizenship in their countries of adoption. Members of this diaspora have been involved in raising funds for, and even canvassing in, election campaigns for the ruling party.

3.2 Majoritarian Nationalism: Everyday Exclusion and the Normalization of Violence

The hegemonic hyper-nationalism of the present is a form of Hindu nationalism that has, in the rather short span of five years, normalised everyday exclusion and discrimination as forms of exclusionary majoritarian assertion. This is expressed in many ways, some of which – like the discrimination against Muslims in the housing market – have a longer history in Indian society but are now finding a new and more forceful articulation. Cow protection laws have similarly been on the statute books in many states for several decades, often legislated by past Congress governments, but now provide a convenient handle for vigilante violence.

A substantively hollow, and impliedly Hindu, idea of nationalism is deployed to intimidate minorities by, for instance, subjecting them to tests of national loyalty, such as the requirement that all, but especially Muslims, chant the slogan of Bharat Mata ki Jai (Victory to Mother India) or sing Vande Mataram (a nationalist song from the early twentieth century replete with Hindu references). A Supreme Court judge handed down a verdict making it compulsory for the national anthem to be played at the start of every film screening in a cinema, and for the audience to stand. The verdict was subsequently retracted, but the practice has continued, presumably for fear of drawing the hostile attention of vigilante groups to its discontinuation.

The citizens who have been especially targeted in recent years are students, intellectuals and activists, who have come to be labelled as ‘anti-national’, some of them even arrested for or charged with sedition, simply for exercising their rights of free speech or expressing dissent against the government’s policies. The denial of academic freedom has become routinised (Jayal, 2018). The assassination of rationalist intellectuals by avowedly Hindu nationalist organisations is a phenomenon that predates the BJP government, though one of the most horrifying such incidents – the murder of the outspoken journalist and editor Gauri Lankesh – occurred during its tenure. Artists and intellectuals who have protested constraints on free speech through the symbolic gesture of returning state awards were mocked on social media and ignored by the government. Activists and lawyers working with the poor and dispossessed have been thrown into jail on fabricated charges that frame them as enemies of national security. The meaningless term ‘anti-national’ was minted to describe anyone avowing liberal values like dissent or minority rights. All dissenters became, by definition, anti-national, anti-Hindu or pro-Muslim or Pakistan sympathisers, not fit to belong to the BJP’s conception of the Hindu nation.

More alarming is the dramatic increase, over the last five years, in the incidence of hate crimes. Between 2014-19, there were 260 hate crimes as compared to 22 in the previous five-year period from 2009-13. For the period 2009-19, a classification of the entire set of 282 victims by their religious affiliation shows that 57% of these were Muslims, 15% were Christians and 13% were Hindus. The religion of the perpetrators, correspondingly, was 56% Hindus and 12% Muslims, the remaining being unknown.[10] Incidents of vigilante violence against Dalits have also been rising steadily, going up 44 percent since 2014, according to official statistics. The impunity from the law that is effectively enjoyed by the perpetrators of violence against all these groups signifies a systematic political and ideological attempt to render them second-class citizens.                                      

In 2014, before the proliferation of these incidents of violence, two campaigns were launched in north Indian society: Love Jihad and Ghar Wapsi (Homecoming). The first was the label used to describe any inter-faith marriage between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman, the insinuation being that Muslim men make false professions of love to Hindu women when their real intention is to convert them to Islam and thereby increase the numbers of Muslims. Some Muslim men, charged with this, were assaulted or killed. The second, which petered out after an aggressive start in 2014, took the form of organisations like the RSS and the VHP organising events at which Muslims and Christians could be ‘converted’ to Hinduism, to reverse their presumed involuntary conversion to the faiths they practised. Between July and December 2014 it was claimed that 8000 people in two southern states had undergone conversion. In subsequent years, this continued, though in two digit numbers, such as when 53 Christian families in Jharkhand were converted to Hinduism in April 2017, as part of the RSS’s “Christianity-free” block (a small administrative unit) campaign.[11]

The social groups that have been particularly vulnerable to vigilante violence are Muslims and Dalits. Two incidents have become powerful symbols of hate crimes against these groups. In September 2015, in a small town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, an ironsmith called Mohammad Akhlaq was attacked and killed by a lynch mob on suspicion of killing and consuming a cow. His attackers were his Hindu neighbours in a town where his family had lived amicably for four generations. Public attention was sought to be deflected from this barbaric murder by ruling party legislators who began baying for the blood of Akhlaq’s family and demanding their prosecution for harbouring beef. The question of who killed Akhlaq became the casualty of political amnesia, as attention was turned to the question of what he and his family were eating. A police case was filed against Akhlaq’s wife and mother for slaughtering a cow, and the dead victim thus stood reinvented as the aggressor.

In another equally horrifying incident in July 2016, four young Dalit men in Una town in the state of Gujarat were stripped, paraded on the streets, and beaten up by a group of Gau Rakshaks (Cow Protectors) for skinning a dead cow. Social media was soon afire with a video of the victims, some of them tied to a car, being attacked with iron rods and sticks. Dalit groups alleged police complicity in the act, and the chilling incident provoked a popular outcry. Possibly the most significant challenge – described by some as India’s Rosa Parks moment – thrown by the protestors was to boycott the collection of carcasses of fallen cows, an occupation traditionally associated with Dalit castes.[12]

Over time, and especially in states ruled by the BJP, there has been a proliferation of hundreds of Gau Rakshak Dals (Cow Protection Groups). Their modus operandi is to extort money from the owners of cattle or, on the pretext of ‘saving’ or ‘rescuing’ the cows from slaughter, to kill them. These vigilante groups target people whose occupations have to do with cattle, cattle skin and its by-products, such as textiles and tennis racquet strings. Such vigilantism typically takes the form of bands of young men either intercepting trucks that are transporting cattle or else raiding slaughterhouses, and punishing the legitimate owners of the cattle with extortion and/or death. They then proceed to post on social media photographs of themselves, posing with guns and bloodied limbs, and the corpses of animals as trophies. Bribes are even extorted from the owners and transporters of buffaloes – animals which are neither sacred nor covered by laws on cow slaughter – who are intimidated, citing laws against cruelty to animals.

Under cover of the symbolism of the Hindu reverence for the cow, the real aim of such vigilantism appears to be the economic disenfranchisement of Dalits and Muslims. India exports leather and leather goods worth approximately US$ 6 billion, and has been the largest exporter of beef (including buffalo meat) in the world. The skinning of cows to produce leather is traditionally done by Dalits, working in large numbers in slaughterhouses, leather factories and tanneries even though these generally have upper caste owners. The business of beef production and export is dominated by Muslims. Vigilantism has resulted in a drop of about US$ 700 million in this business as a result of a sharp drop in cow prices and a substantial decline in buffalo meat export from India. Apart from the damage to the economy, the livelihoods of both these groups have also been adversely affected.

Increasing violence against Muslims and Dalits does not always have a bovine connection. There was no provocation for the barbaric lynching on a train, in 2017, of the teenager Junaid Khan, who was returning home after shopping for Eid in Delhi. Only a few months later, a migrant worker from Bengal was hacked to death and then set on fire by a man in Rajasthan who he suspected was in a relationship with a Hindu woman. The murderer videotaped the killing, as well as his own speech justifying it, and circulated both on the social media. Perhaps the greatest horror of all was the gang rape, repeatedly over a week, followed by the murder of a little Muslim girl in Kathua in Kashmir. In the most recent hate crime, a Muslim youth in Jharkhand was beaten for hours and forced to chant Hindu slogans . When he succumbed to his injuries two days later, the cause of death was reported as cardiac arrest.

These incidents demonstrate a pattern of violence targeted against particular groups – Muslims, Dalits, and women belonging to these groups – that is increasingly getting normalised. Vigilante violence by lynch mobs is being systematically visited on particular groups that are vulnerable on account of multiple, often intersecting inequalities – of class, caste, religion, tribe, gender. That such mobs enjoy impunity is indicated by official figures and suggestive of state protection. The spate of lynchings across the country led the Supreme Court of India to condemn these as “horrendous acts of mobocracy… which cannot be allowed to become ‘the new normal’”. It is worrying that these are often acts whose perpetrators go unpunished, and on occasion even feted by politicians. National Crime Records Bureau data for 2018 tell us that although violence against Dalits is up 44 percent since 2014, a 90 percent charge-sheeting rate yields a conviction rate of barely 20 percent.

Majoritarian nationalism, whose ideological foundation comprises only a shallow and visceral hatred for minorities, has thus facilitated a normalization of patterned violence, and encouraged societal practices of systematically ‘othering’ citizens belonging to minority communities. Violence – both physical as well as discursive – has disquietingly become the norm, justified by a manufactured idea of hyper-nationalism that feeds off hostility towards an internal minority by externalising it to a hostile neighbouring state. The normalisation of prejudice, whether or not it finds expression in violence, is also indicated in recent surveys of citizen attitudes, which show strong public support for majoritarian nationalism, and demonstrate the weakness of bonds of personal friendship across castes and religious communities that could potentially transcend these differences.[13]

3.3 From Representative Democracy to Populism

The contemporary dissatisfaction of people with their governments is arguably an expression of a more fundamental discontent with representative democracy as a form of government that fails to enact popular preferences into policy and instead accords legitimacy to the rule of corrupt elites who only advance their own interests. Across the world, we have seen how populism has stepped into the breach, encouraging anti-politics, on the one hand, and charismatic, even authoritarian, leadership on the other. Populism appropriates and ostensibly retains the idea of democracy, but transforms it into something suspiciously non-democratic. India too, like many other countries, has witnessed the rise of right-wing populist leadership that retains the shell of electoral democracy while turning its back on the liberal core of the democratic ideal.

The BJP campaign in the election of 2014 projected Narendra Modi as the ‘outsider’ who would be the most authentic people’s representative, waging their battle against the corrupt and entitled elites of the previous regime. Over the next few years, and especially on social media, this fabricated image of the elite came to encompass all individuals espousing liberal opinions and advocating individualistic values like free speech over organic and collective values like nationalism and patriotism. Democracy was already hollowed out and unmoored from its anchorage in liberal ideals.

Take the idea of freedom which arguably lies at the core of liberal democracy. Conceptually, nationalism and freedom are distinct concepts; in India, they were closely associated historically, as freedom from colonial rule was the object of nationalism. This is perhaps why, in phrases describing India’s movement for freedom from the British Empire, the two have been used interchangeably, as in the national movement/the freedom movement or the nationalist struggle/the freedom struggle. Today, however, the idea of nationalism is being politically mobilised as a weapon to not merely suppress basic civic freedoms, but to question their very legitimacy and worth as political values. The exercise of the simple citizenly prerogative of asking questions of government becomes an ‘anti-national’ act rather than an assertion of the citizen’s freedom. Widespread intolerance and chauvinism pose a challenge to the very infrastructure of Indian democracy, not only denying citizens their constitutional right to freedom of expression, but also violating values that are fundamental to a democracy – difference of opinion, dissent against established norms, and persuasion through dialogue and discussion. The Global State of Democracy initiative of the International IDEA records that India’s score on media integrity and civil liberties fell in 2017 to somewhere between the global average and that of the Asia-Pacific; it also noted the shrinking space for freedom of association and assembly and civil society participation (International IDEA, 2017).

Even where there appears to be a popular commitment to democracy, this is not an idea of democracy that is likely to satisfy a normative political theorist. It is an idea, firstly, that can cohabit quite easily with the choice of a populist leader, even a strongman who promises effective action. Secondly, it is an idea that can also cohabit quite easily with a weak commitment to freedom and liberty, to free speech; to an inclusive society; to the freedom to eat, pray and love as you like. It is an idea, finally, that can cohabit quite easily with a majoritarianism that translates the idea of democracy as majority rule, as democracy as the rule of a fixed ethnic or religious majority. All of these ‘disfigurements’ of democracy, to use Nadia Urbinati’s (2014) term, find instantiation in the Indian context.

The democratic principle has also been substantively de-normativised and reconfigured to reinforce majoritarianism. Democracy in this form means nothing more than the supremacy of sheer numbers, leading to the elision between the majority as a procedure for producing a government, and the majority as a fixed hegemonic group. Because the Hindu religious majority is numerically dominant, it is assumed that it is consistent with democracy that its interests should be privileged. This distortion in the idea of democracy – as the rule of numbers – provides ready support for the legitimacy of majoritarian supremacy and the accompanying denial of minority rights. It is truly a feat of populist political rhetoric that a majority of 80 percent of the population can be made to feel besieged and threatened, especially when the minority comprises people who are much worse off on all social and economic indicators, including education and employment.

The obsession with electoral democracy reflects nothing more than the desire to acquire political power at any cost. This was quite candidly acknowledged in the BJP President’s call, in 2014, for a Congress-free India (Congress-Mukt Bharat). In 2017, this was rephrased as the call for an Opposition-free India (Vipaksh-mukt Bharat)![14] The only way in which this hunger could be satiated was through electoral victory in every state where elections were held, and the party was largely successful in achieving this, though often allegedly through brokering deals. The appetite for acquiring power qua power was altogether devoid of any reference to the idea that the exercise of political power needs to fulfil a representative popular mandate, much less of the moral purpose or public good to which the exercise of political power is a means. The imperative to secure electoral victory at all costs repudiates the institutional principle of the value of an opposition in a democracy.

Since 2014, India has journeyed from its founding constitutional vision of civic nationalism to a new political imaginary of cultural nationalism. The constitutional fabric, although somewhat frayed, appears to be intact at this moment. However, the majoritarianism and hyper-nationalism of recent years have definitely damaged, possibly even ruptured, the delicate social fabric of India’s diverse society in which different communities have historically lived together, separately but peacefully. If India’s organically consensual social fabric concern comes to be damaged beyond repair or retrieval, this would certainly be a blow to one of the world’s most unique experiments in multicultural democracy.

It is ironical that the poet Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore who gave India its national anthem was also an inveterate critic of nationalism which he saw as a petty and limiting idea. This was in the early twentieth century, at a time when the most massive anti-colonial movement in human history was taking place, with a powerful appeal across classes. But, swimming against the dominant current of the time, Tagore questioned the very idea of the nation with what he called its “paraphernalia of power and prosperity, flags and pious hymns and patriotic bragging” (Tagore, [1917] 2017). These were anathema to him for nationalism was an idea that did not sit well with his desire to live in a world that had not, as he wrote in Gitanjali, “been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” (Tagore, [1910] 2011: 347).

Tagore’s forebodings about nationalism may have seemed misplaced a hundred years ago, but resound with meaning today as petty and counterfeit but dangerously exclusionary nationalisms abound.


Beiner, Ronald, ed. (1995) Theorizing Citizenship. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Bowman, Glenn (2005) “Constitutive Violence and the Nationalist Imaginary: The Making of ‘The People’ in Palestine and ‘Former Yugoslavia’” in Francisco Panizza, ed. Populism and the Mirror of Democracy. London: Verso Books.

Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and Azim Premji University (2017). Society and Politics Between Elections: A Report. Delhi: Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Chandhoke, Neera (2005) “Revisiting the Crisis of Representation Thesis: The Indian Context” in Democratization, Vol. 12, No. 3. June 2005. Pp. 308-330.

Desai, Santosh (2019) “The Religion Card”. The Times of India. April 15, 2019.

International IDEA (2017) The Global State of Democracy Report. Accessed on April 16, 2019.

Jayal, Niraja Gopal (2005) Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jayal, Niraja Gopal (2013) Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jayal (2018) “The Idea of Academic Freedom” in Apoorvanand, ed. The Idea of a University. Chennai: Context/Westland.

Jayal (2019) “Reconfiguring Citizenship in Contemporary India” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Vol. 42, No. 1. Pp. 33-50.

Mounk, Yascha (2018) The People vs Democracy: Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sadiq, Kamal (2009) Paper Citizens: How Illegal Immigrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sharma, Jyotirmaya (2003) Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism. New Delhi: Penguin Viking.

Tagore, Rabindranath ([1910] 2011) Gitanjali. Trans. and Introduction William Radice. Penguin Books, India.

Tagore, Rabindranath ([1917] 2017) “Nationalism in the West”. The Complete Works of Rabindranath Tagore. 

Urbinati, Nadia (2014) Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth and the People. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

V-Dem Institute (2018) Democracy for All? V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018. V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.


[1] It has been argued that nationalism is usually a political project whose realisation has been thwarted or impeded, and, like populism, builds up an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction (Bowman, 2005: 119).
[2] Cf. Neera Chandhoke (2005).
[3] For a detailed account of India’s diversities and their political implications, see Niraja Gopal Jayal (2005).
[4] The ideology of the RSS has drawn inspiration from the tradition of romantic nationalism in post-Enlightenment thought. Savarkar was inspired by Mazzini and even wrote a book called Mazzini Charitra in 1906 (Sharma, 2003: 153-54).
[5] A detailed account of this may be found in Jayal (2013: Chapter 3).
[6] There have been waves of such migrations, especially during times of conflict between India and Pakistan, but most substantially since the mid-1990s. There are large numbers of Hindu migrants from Pakistan, living in the border districts of Rajasthan (apart from a few other states) who overstayed their visas and did not return due to religious persecution and insecurity (for a detailed discussion, see Jayal, 2013: Chapter 3).
[7] In the eastern state of Assam, bordering what is now Bangladesh but was then East Pakistan, the first National Register of Citizens was compiled in 1951 (alongside the Census of that year), also conveying an implicit distinction between Hindu ‘refugees’ and Muslim ‘immigrants’. However, except for being used by people facing deportation to establish their citizenship since the 1960s, it remained dormant until political considerations gave it a new life in the last decade or so. The process of updating the NRC was decided upon at a tripartite meeting chaired by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005. It began in 2015 under the direction of the Supreme Court, with the declared aim of identifying the “illegal immigrants” who had come into Assam at the time of the war with Pakistan in 1971 that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.
[8] Cf. Kamal Sadiq’s Paper Citizens: How Illegal Migrants Acquire Citizenship in Developing Countries shows how ‘illegal’ immigrants have, through what he calls networks of kinship and networks of profit, acquired a ‘documentary’ citizenship based on voting cards, ration cards, etc.
[9] The NRC idea has already caught the imagination of a few governments in north-east India where the division is not between religious communities but between indigenous inhabitants and outsiders.
[10] Accessed on April 13, 2019.
[11] Accessed on April 13, 2019.
[12] “So we decided to stop doing it to teach them a lesson. The gau rakshaks beat us because they think the cow is their mother. Well, then, they should take care of her and pick up her carcass when she dies” ( Accessed on April 16, 2019) Violence against Dalits has been rising steadily, going up 44 percent since 2014, according to official statistics.
[13] A recent survey reported the disturbing finding that over half the respondents in four large states expressed a preference for dictatorship over democracy. Liberal constitutionalism in India, based on an inclusionary universalistic conception of citizenship, is facing a mortal crisis (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 2017).
[14] Accessed on April 16, 2019.