India and the Indian: Inequitable majority-minority relations no longer a fringe phenomenon

This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.

Read more from this series.

It is excerpted from the introduction to 'Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India', edited by Angana P Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot, with due permission from HarperCollins India.


The 2014 elections witnessed the culmination of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) longstanding efforts to rule India. This second ascent of the BJP to power in New Delhi was markedly different from its first under the prime ministership of AB Vajpayee (1998–2004). The triumph of the BJP in 2014 brought about two unprecedented events: never had the Hindu nationalist movement won an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, and never had this movement, known for its hostility to the personalisation of power and for its col­legial governance, been so influenced by one politician, Narendra Modi.

The new dispensation combined four features that have also emerged in other countries in recent years, including in Donald J Trump’s America: populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and majoritarianism. The majoritarian dispensa­tion in India combines two further elements: the implementation of a more unvarnished pro-corporate and pro-upper caste compound of policies than ever before, paired with the normalisation of anti-minority rhetoric, routine assertions of the imminent danger posed by internal as well as external enemies to the nation, and a systematic deployment of false claims and partisan facts. The vision of a Hindu majoritarian polity held by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP combines cultural nationalism and political strategies aiming at flagrant social dominance by the upper castes, rapid economic development, cultural conservatism, intensified misogyny, and a firm grip on the instruments of state power.

Modi’s neo-sultanism

Nationalism is the bedrock of most populists and Modi is no exception.  Modi is a product of the RSS and has clearly shown his deep commitment to the Hindutva doctrine, but he did not emphasise this aspect of his personal convictions during the 2014 campaign. He hardly needed to. The organised mass violence of 2002 in Gujarat, which had resulted in a pogrom against Muslims when he was chief minister, had already earned him the status of a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ (Emperor of the Hindu Heart). Following the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, Hindu majoritarianism was further consolidated across various states; through orchestrated attacks on minorities in Orissa in 2007 and 2008 and in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. The legitimacy of such Hindu domination harked back to their autochthony, while also augmenting their numbers. Hence, majoritarianism is inherent to Modi’s populism because the people he claims to represent are made up of Hindus only. The main goal of the BJP is to ‘defend’ the interests of Hindus first and foremost, at the expense of the rights of the Othered/minorities in the country.

Majoritarian national-populists are authoritarian by definition, since they claim that they embody the people and as the people can only be one/singular, there is no room for pluralism. This explains their tendency to disqualify their adversaries as ‘anti-national’ or even traitors, and even reject the multiparty system of democracy. The BJP has made it clear that no other party should compete with it, or is even needed, as indicative from its slogan of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (a Congress-free India).

While Modi exemplifies the authoritarian, majoritarian, national-populists of today, his regime is not merely sultanistic. India continues to organise reasonably free and fair elections; its government interferes with the appointment of judges but cannot prevent the most independently-minded lawyers from attempting to do their jobs; the government and the BJP influence and curtail the media but indirectly, not via official censorship. If anything, Modi is a ‘neo-sultan’ who observes some facets of democracy while pushing India further towards an illiberal ethnic democracy.

 India and the Indian: Inequitable majority-minority relations no longer a fringe phenomenon

The allure of the strong leader

Now written upon a much larger national canvas, distinct divisions of labour organise the relationships between the BJP, Modi, and the Sangh Parivar. The most remarkable shift is perhaps that the Modi government has reframed the force of modernity in a new and compelling way. The promises of modernity, national strength and development were for decades the pre-dominant rallying points in national politics for the left and Congress, with inclusiveness, social justice and a measure of austerity as secondary components. For Modi, the focus is on operationalising mega-development in India via globalisation to position the country as an emergent, modern world power and, simultaneously, a well-defined Hindu state.

­The citizen patriot and the security state

The BJP’s plan is focused on winning elections and using the existing provisions of law and administrative decrees to impose a more restrictive but not fully authoritarian regime. The exception to this norm lies in unleashing, in a more aggressive form, the full force of India’s illiberal security state in the tribal belts, in the Northeast and in Kashmir. We note that the process of securitisation of state in India also delimits the state’s constantly shifting relations to its internal and external enemies, and ‘builds and fortifies the national collective and protects state sovereignty’.

This contemporary ascendance of Hindu nationalist domi­nance to establish a majoritarian state in India under Modi’s leadership of the BJP has rendered porous the associations between government and ultra-nationalist groups. In India today, a plethora of organisations and outfits disburse violence, intimidation and the enforcement of morality and majoritarian ‘standards’. These outfits operate quite freely under the gaze of the police, possibly colluding with the BJP and institutions of law enforcement, or, at a minimum, banking on the inability and the hesitation of the state authorities to restrain and constrict them. This project of weaponising and militarising society through organisation, vigilance and a capacity for violence has been an objective of the Sangh Parivar through the many decades during which Hindu nationalists were distant from elected office. This form of vigilante violence, or the threat of it, is executed through the capillaries of the RSS-led Sangh Parivar’s vast network, and generally reinforce already existing caste, gender, class, and communal-racial attitudes prevalent among upper caste Hindus and aspirational lower caste groups.

The result is a broad nationalist and communal majoritarianism that targets liberal elites, castigated as excessively emancipated, immoral, westernised and pro-minority, and of course the country’s minority communities. Persistently gender/hetero-normative and deeply xenophobic, these inequitable relations between majority and minority/Othered can no longer be viewed as an aberration or a fringe phenomenon. They now occupy centre stage in government and within public discourse, impacting policy, law, and the everyday functioning of marginalised lives as well as institutions such as universities and the media. The minority/Othered is now officially reconfigured as an obstacle to development, a drain on resources, an alien and socially divisive element that weakens cultural cohesion, a primitive, non-modern and unassimilable remnant of the past.

Angana P Chatterji is founding co-chair of the Political Conflict, Gender and People’s Rights Initiative and visiting research anthropologist at the Center for Race and Gender at University of California, Berkeley. Thomas Blom Hansen is Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani professor in South Asian Studies and professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. Christophe Jaffrelot is research director at CNRS, Sciences Po and professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at the King's India Institute.

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2019 09:45:32 IST