The last nails in the coffin of the Indian First Republic
Amit Shah launched a trial balloon recently. He opined that Indians must use Hindi as their link language since inter-citizen communication “should be in the language of India". To him, Hindi is the natural alternative to English. He misses that this advantages native speakers of Hindi over those whose language it is not, which evidently happen to be the majority. Thus, there is willy-nilly a subordination of one by the other: the non-Hindi speaker disadvantaged.
Howsoever delicate a policy is thought up for its spread it will amount to an imposition or be perceived as such. Official backing of Hindi elsewhere can tantamount to language imperialism, eliciting backlash, which in extreme can take on proportions of civil war. We need look no further than our neighbours, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In both cases, the term genocide figured to describe the consequence of the language policy imposing an alien language on those whose language it wasn’t. Putting down the civil war led to credible allegations of genocide in both cases.
This shows how sensitive the issue is and therefore requires looking at through a national security lens. That the idea has itself figured owes to ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindu-sthan’ conception of national security. India has not put out a strategic doctrine, but if it were to do so, this trinity would be at its center. The national security minders believe that for unity - signified by the latter term - India needs a dose of the first two. To them Hindu-sthan is not quite Iqbal’s Hindustan (land of the Indus as originally conceived) but abode of Hindus. This conjoins the latter two terms. While this conception builds unity between adherents, it divides these from skeptics, making of those with reservations, anti-national. Therein lie national security connotations of the Hindutva trinity, Hindutva being politicized religion or political Hinduism.
This national security conceptualization has had a life co-extensive with the Hindutva movement. Just as the movement made an advent into the center of national life from the margins in the late eighties and early nineties, it not only brought along its strategic perspective but the world view took further shape as Hindutva went on from the margins to dictating political culture within three decades.
Hindutva’s origins are in Hindu revivalism of the nineteenth century in face of British colonial takeover of India. Its content is captured by the imagery, context and lyrics of Vande Mataram narrated in the book, Anand Math. Though set in the colonial period, the antagonist was not the colonizer, but the Muslim community, that had itself been divested of power by the colonial power. The next influence was fascism in the early twentieth century, with borrowings on ethnic-nationalism from Europe. The competitive interaction with the Muslim League and Muslim separatists in the run up to Partition was its next shaping influence. With Partition, the right wing assumed its place unmistakably, precipitating and participating in the carnage. Partition was as much its handiwork, with its violence potential in conjunction with the separatist Muslim capability and propensities on this score, convincing the leadership that Partition was the only alternative to civil war of uncertain outcome. Though the right wing shot itself in the foot by inspiring the assassination of the Mahatma, its humanitarian interventions in aftermath of Partition could not be wished away. Consequently, the conservative part of the Congress spectrum continued to play footsie with it, even as Nehru kept it marginalized so long as the hangover of freedom lasted. The non-Congress conservative parties were buoyed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an all-India quasi-political outfit then mindful of upper caste and class interests.
Externally, the wars with Pakistan, and the continuing friction with that state over Kashmir, enabled the right wing to espouse an alternative strategic view. In Kashmir, its attitude to integration of that state into the Indian Union, forced the government’s political missteps that in turn led to disaffection in Kashmir. These were capitalized on by the right wing for its purposes of keeping the government on the defensive, a cycle that has continued till the right wing itself in time constituted the government. The government for its part tried to defuse right wing criticism by appropriating a portion of the right wing agenda – reducing the distinctiveness of the state granted in deference to agreements on its entry into the Union - thereby stirring the pot in Kashmir. As regards Pakistan, the right wing maintained an extreme stance of countenancing Akhand Bharat, a figment of imagination that lent itself better to iconography.
Internally, the presence of the right wing, kept the Congress system – that wished to be all things to all people – from doing little more than lip service to the minority Muslim community. Instead, riots were a fixture that helped the right wing take center-stage during their course. In the Indira period, the ‘foreign hand’ turned from being a reference to the United States (US) - with whom Indira was at odds for her socialist turn - to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, then fishing in troubled waters in Punjab. The Congress reaped the nation-under-threat electoral dividend, only to soon have the fiction rudely snatched.
It’s placating the right wings of both communities – Hindu and Muslim - with the Ayodhya opening and Shah Banu episodes set the stage for the right wing to gain center stage. Needing to keep both the Congress and the right wing out, VP Singh unleashed the Other Backward Communities. The right wing, seeing a threat to its upper caste base, seized an opportunity. Riding a chariot across India, its stalwart, Advani, sought to stitch Hindus together by diverting attention to the Ayodhya temple issue, inflating a local land dispute into a national issue. The bringing down of the mosque led to Pakistani complicity in the Bombay bomb blasts, close on the heels of the one-sided violence with state police participation and complicity, against the Muslim minority. This brought forth the ‘Hindu’ aspect of the trinity, with Muslims projected as the internal ‘Other’, a fifth column out to do the bidding of Pakistan, the external ‘Other’.
The tumult in the global order in the period heightened the seeming necessity for unity in diverse polities. Not only did the Soviet Union disappear, but Yugoslavia, another proximate country through the Cold War years, dissolved in violence. The lesson for national security practitioners was that diversity is not a boon. The knitting of Hindus into a vote bank for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), then started, seemed to provide a way out of the diversity trap. Hinduism had presence across India, but was internally divided by the caste system. The caste system was parochially exploited by political parties. The BJP, not oblivious to caste, appeared to have an answer to political divisiveness and ability to end the era of loose coalition governments of the nineties. At this point, Narendra Modi was dispatched by Vajpayee to Gujarat.
The Muslim Other acquired new dimensions with Narendra Modi, ensconced in Gujarat, taking up his Hindu Hriday Samrat mantle rather seriously. The honorific was itself from his dubious role in the Gujarat pogrom. Those in the security apparatus who were also grappling with internal security issues were looking not only to a unifying potion but a political entrepreneur who could take it forward, ending their worry over fissiparous India. It is speculated here that a nefarious bond formed between the rogue intelligence operatives and the right wing icon. A story of which more needs uncovering is that well before India’s corporate honchos alighted on Modi as the next messiah, India’s intelligence-led ‘deep state’ (to borrow Josy Joseph’s famous description) had picked its mascot.
Evidence for this is in black operations launched by the deep-state comprising rogue intelligence elements in India’s unsupervised intelligence apparatus and right wing extremists. The Gujarat office of the Intelligence Bureau held the back of rogue policemen killing Muslims in encounters supposedly of terrorists out to avenge Gujarat pogrom. That this went on even during the subsequent Congress-led coalition term in office, suggests a ‘deep state’ was active.
There were foreign policy advantages of this that provided legitimacy of sorts: to arraign Pakistan. Since then a political outreach with Pakistan was on, this served to sabotage it. This would help the right wing outbid the government by tacit suggestions that it was the consequential interlocutor and that Pakistan hold its horses till the right wing returned to power. The internal political consequence was more consequential: to return the right wing to power through manufacturing a majority by leveraging the religious identity of Hindus and have them voting qua Hindus as against hitherto along caste lines.
After some six years in power over two stints (the first of which was truncated after about a year and the second the first full non-Congress term), the right wing had subverted a major portion of the media, itself predominantly upper caste. Since Pakistani proxy war was ascendant in Kashmir and a fresh Indo-Pakistan war had been broadcast nationally, there were enough takers on the ‘external abatement-internal threat’ as the most significant of threats, in line with Chanakya’s thesis some two millennia ago. Thus, a Muslim threat was spuriously manufactured, propagated by closet Hindutavavadis in the strategic community and a media that knew better but was either bought or was a likeminded cheerleader.
The back-draft blew away rationality in strategic discourse. One eminence went so far as to say that the policy of blaming Pakistan for internal security suffered by acknowledging the Hindu provenance of terrorist acts attributed to Muslims, and therefore investigations not be pursued. This, though 26/11 did not require any more exertion on India’s part to keep Pakistan in the dock. Part of the cover up is to valourise the likes of Pragya Thakur and denigrate Hemant Karkare. The strategic community succumbed to the Doval’s stable, anchored in the well funded think tank he led after retirement. Apparently, the conspiracy to take down the anti-corruption movement that had caught the imagination was hatched in its precincts. Military veterans, ferociously looking the part, went on air on Arnab’s show to spread the invective. A former army Chief, who later was spotted in khaki knickers, invited Narendra Modi, till then a provincial chief, to make his debut on the national campaign trail to capture the impregnable Hindu vote bank. The rest as they say is history.
The trinity is a work-in-progress. It provides the framework for the regime’s actions. Hindu-sthan inspires legislation as the Citizens’ Amendment Act, helping turn India from a secular country to one for Hindus. That both Modi and his protégé, Yogi Adityanath aka Bisht, have been voted in twice-over, each with higher percentages the second time round, is the manufacture of a majoritarian democracy from a liberal one on the backs of Hindus. The spread of Hindi by the backdoor shows up the intent. The name tabs on dangrees of naval cadets at their training academy in Kerala are in Hindi.
Change is synonym of instability, since the status quo has to first be unhinged and then retethered to an anchor. The political opposition has been decimated, with the Left missing-in-action for over a decade. The possible contenders are pale imitations of the ruling party and dare not challenge its command of the ideological high ground. Activists, who could have held up a mirror and cried ‘wolf’, have been put on notice by jailing some and intimidating the rest.
The regime believes it has the security conditions in place. It has an intelligence czar as national security adviser. The communalization of the central police forces has been on for over two decades. Its success was most recently visible in the armed police forcing Muslims to sing the national anthem instead of saving them during the Delhi riots. One of these unfortunates died from such coaxing.
The military has been neutered by appointing of regime favourites, as was General Rawat. The current delay in appointing his successor owes to higher demands on virtue signaling by brass-hats for gaining the regime’s attention. Since Hindutva is in the final stage of consolidation before the assault on the Constitution is procedurally made, there is need for a believer in the orthodoxy to be in place, lest the military uncharacteristically get wrong political ideas into its head. That an Engineer officer has been positioned to take over as Army Chief shows coup proofing of sorts. An Engineer, being out of the charmed circle of combat arms brass, cannot be sure of taking it along if he ever needs to; besides, his being at the head undercuts the combat arms lobby. The three-year ‘tour of duty’ scheme must be seen as another example of coup proofing, so that even if the brass gets its wrong, it is unable to implement any ideas since it would not command allegiance of a limited term rank and file. If it were to do so, a situation as developed for the coup against Erdogan can be expected.
Thus, though the regime has the elements in place for the final nails in the coffin of liberal democracy, it bears warning off. The trinity, seemingly an answer to India’s challenges, may not prove the best potion. If it fails then India is endangered. The potential for failure is intrinsic in the trinity itself. Hindi may not help with unity. The assumption is that with the BJP spread across India, the state governments would be able to administer the bitter pill. As in Karnataka, they can use the Muslim scapegoat to weld Hindus, but that still does not answer if it is enough for Kannadigas to take to Hindi. Tamil Nadu is an entirely different kettle-of-fish altogether. The Sri Lankan experience, including that of India’s vaunted military, must not be forgotten.
Being Hindu, as basis for first-class citizenship, may not build the solidarity to paper over the widening economic divides resulting from the corporatist bent of the regime. Muslims are being offered first-class citizenship, in case they ‘return’. Their choice is being conditioned by a foretaste of what second-class citizenship feels like, being administered from Karnataka to Delhi and Assam. Micro-terror in lynchings is supplement.
As for Hindu-sthan, it suffers the limitation of restricting India’s ambition to the Hindu demographic spread. India, at the center of the subcontinent, would be at odds with its periphery. It would end the strategic unity of South Asia, reforging of which is arguably the sole way for South Asia to transcend Partition and reclaim its pride of place lost with colonization, defined not as Hindutva has it, with arrival of Muslims but the advent of British.
The jury is out on the Hindutva project. It is not certain the electorate voted for it, but it is certain that most of the voters did not. Even so, since it’s the closest Hindutva has got to clinching the project, it will be taken to fruition. A benign outcome can be prayed for of course, but in case it goes awry, the use of the central police will add fuel to the fire. Layering by the Army may worsen matters since it will be the emerging, new Army of the second Republic, New India.