Sunday, 28 February 2021


Cultural nationalism as a national security threat

An extended version of the KT op ed

Former Vice President Hamid Ansari has yet again drawn attention to the Othering of Muslims ongoing in India and thereby the threat posed to Constitutional values. In discussing his newly released autobiography, By Many a Happy Accident, at various forums, he has reiterated that the drift towards a majoritarian democracy has a potentially adverse underside. It tends to marginalize India’s, and indeed the world’s, largest minority, India’s Muslims, thereby contravening two constitutional values, secularism and fraternity.

He had earlier made the same observation in lectures delivered prior to demitting office of vice president and later during his retirement. He has reverted to this theme since the situation appears to be getting worse in the second term of the Union government, marking its coming to power with an increased majority in the lower house a turning point on this score. The instances of Othering have increased, such as through legislation both at the Center and in Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled states on for instance ‘love jihad’, and the street power exercised by supporters of the regime by violence against minorities.    

In national security discourse, a threat to national values is taken as a national security threat. To the extent Hamid Ansari is right, there should be a corresponding interest in the threat to national values in national security commentary. However, that is not the case. The silence over this national security issue owes to either the national security commentariat acquiescing with the phenomenon or being too overawed to start referring to it as a national security threat. 

Hamid Ansari observes a change in the complexion of the Republic and the resulting perception of insecurity in a significant section of the population, India’s Muslims. Does the threat that causes insecurity for the minority, comprising over 14 per cent of the population and with a geographical spread across the country, constitute a national security threat?

The minority figures in national security thinking only in terms of terrorism in Kashmir and in the hinterland and radical Islamism to which the terror threat is attributed. There is little reference to the threat from militant cultural nationalism vitiating the security perception of the minority. This article makes the case that militant cultural nationalism constitutes a national security threat and must be counted as such in national security thinking, discussion and strategy.

The recent invasion by hard right elements of the United States’ (US) Capitol is an example of how a threat can mutate and pose a national security challenge. A fallout was in the manner the swearing in ceremony of the new US president was conducted at the same location under conditions of heightened security. That former US president, Donald Trump, instigated the mob is now the subject of an impeachment trial. While the threat of white supremacism has been around for some decades in the US, best illustrated by the Oklahoma bombing in the mid-nineties, its security agencies have been cognizant of the threat and treat it as such.

Analogy from the threat from the extremist right wing in the US is not inapt. Whereas presently, when a right wing government is in power in India, right wing extremists may not pose a threat to the state apparatus as such, since in their mind’s eye, power is being exercised by a right wing government they support. This accounts for the symbiotic relationship between the government and right wing militant cultural nationalists. The government does not recognize them as a threat and therefore there is no action against them even in cases of violence, for example, for their role in the Bhima Koregaon violence of 2018 or the more recent role in Delhi riots of February 2020. Instead in both cases the onus for the violence fell on the communities subject to the violence, the Mahar and Muslims respectively, with the law additionally proceeding against some left wing activists in the former case. However, in case of a democratic change over, their increased power, visibility and reach under the current regime, may embolden them to pose a national security challenge, as have white supremacists in the example above in the US.

Whereas this is a potential national security threat that can manifest in future, they also pose a threat currently in their generating a threat for the minority. This is where the symbiotic relationship with the ruling party kicks in, wherein they serve as the militant foot soldiers for advancing the anti-minority agenda of the cultural nationalists. The resulting polarization furthers the political interest of the Hindutva espousing BJP.

Understandably then, in the national security thinking on internal security threats there is never a mention of the right wing as a threat. The three ‘usual suspects’ in this list are terrorism in Kashmir, Left Wing Extremism and militancy in the North East. This silence owes in part to national security being statist in orientation and dependent on the government’s input, expending much attention in rationalizing the government’s policies and actions. To an extent, the realists that populate the strategic community share the realist thinking of the government and many also subscribe to a Hindutva worldview. Consequently, this is an area of deliberate inattention rather than evidence of non-existence of a case for including militant cultural nationalism as a national security threat.

The threat is constituted along two lines. One is that potential of marginalization of the minority resulting in a militarization of its response. The terror taken as minority perpetrated is liable to go up. This has been on the crosshairs of analysts for long in their dwelling on the penetration of radical Islamists ideas in Muslim communities and deradicalization as a measure against it. Even in this commentary, missing has been a focus or reference to right wing perpetrated terrorism. Whereas it found mention early last decade in the home minister’s reference to saffron terrorism, those whose actions prompted the observation have largely been left off after the BJP came to power. This implies that the threat from militant cultural nationalists that could push a minority towards violence in rebound would not be registered among the causes. Therefore, the likelihood of persistence of the insecurity that might provoke such a response.

The second is more significant. Militant cultural nationalism is already changing the complexion of the Republic. Its pursuit of increased solidarity within the Hindu community through an attempt at homogenization overriding the diversity that constitutes the community requires an ‘Other’ to stand in contradistinction to Hindus and Hinduism. Having alighted on Muslims and Islam as the Other, it has reduced inter-community fraternity – a preamble articulated Constitutional value – within India. The ruling party has introduced laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which have imposed on the secular fabric of Republic.

They also build in inequality in citizenship to detriment of Muslims. If the sequence envisaged of a National Population Register (NPR) populating exercise is followed through with, along with perhaps the census exercise, then the CAA-NPR constitute a double whammy, with Muslims at the receiving end of the legislative stick. In light of such portents, the possibility of a Hindu Republic is not a theoretical one anymore. Since this shift in the constitutional moorings changes India as we know it, does what is behind the shift –militant cultural nationalism – constitute a national security threat that should be recognized and countered as such?

Whereas a threat causing insecurity for the minority can be proceeded with through implementation of rule of law, the shift in the Republic’s moorings is not so much from militant cultural nationalism as from cultural nationalism that is behind it. Since the ruling party is persuaded by cultural nationalism, it is unwilling to exercise its rule of law function of governance against the vehicle with which, as mentioned, it shares a symbiotic relationship. Therefore, any expectation of inclusion of militant cultural nationalism as a national security threat shall remain unmet.

Since cultural nationalism empowers militant cultural nationalism and is an ideological push against constitutional verities, can and should cultural nationalism be taken as a national security threat? Hindutva is now an entrenched ideology that energises supporters of the democratically elected ruling party. If constitutional values are substituted by Hindutva endorsed values in a democratic and procedurally legal manner, the challenge against such a shift can only be political and by a democratic counter mobilization for mounting a legitimate challenge.

However, as seen, militant cultural nationalism is a vehicle for cultural nationalism, enabling its polarizing sway over voters. This is an illegitimate practice. A state apparatus controlled by the ruling party and one rendered hollow by preceding years of political inroads and enervation cannot be expected to stand up for the law against its own misuse. Expert commentary has it that even the courts have to a large extent vacated the moral high ground. Therefore, while change may be ongoing and underfoot, to the extent militant cultural nationalism is at its vanguard, the change, albeit by procedurally legal means, is illegitimate.

To the extent militant cultural nationalism is used by cultural nationalism for its purpose of replacing a secular republic with a Hindu republic then it cultural nationalism is a national security threat. Cultural nationalism that plays by a democratic playbook is not a national security threat, even if it aims to question the constitutional schema, but turns into one in case the instrument and means it uses are illegal and illegitimate. Attempting to change the republic in its desired image democratically is expected to be countered by the checks and balances in the system such as the doctrine of basic structure. In so far as these check and balances are delegitimised by procedurally illegal and illegitimate means, such as mounting pressure on the judiciary that is custodian of the doctrine of basic structure, then cultural nationalism would turn into a national security threat.

Showing the national security card to cultural nationalism is important not only to deter its abuse of militant cultural nationalism as an instrument, but to ensure it sticks to the accepted political practices in its bid to turn India into its preferred image. Securitisation - labelling an issue as an issue in national security - serves the purpose of focusing minds, in this case on a political ideology, as invoking security, with its existential connotations, draws the attention. Whereas the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, that is the crucible of the ideology, has been banned on occasion earlier, the political fortunes of its political front, the BJP, have emboldened it and given it an impunity. The ideology has the acquired the advantage of political mainstreaming and furthering through the dubious instrumentality of the state. Therefore, it is unlikely to be called out or put back in the box by the state, that it now controls. The challenge to the cozy co-habitation of the state, that is meant to be impartial and neutral, with a political ideology has to come from outside. While the political opposition has on occasion spiritedly pointed to this, notably Rahul Gandhi who once named it while his party was in power as the principal national security threat, there has been little or no traction of this perspective.

The strategic community has been amiss in steering clear of discussing cultural nationalism and militant cultural nationalism in national security terms. Whereas cultural nationalism as a political ideology may be unexceptionable, it has long been inseparable from militant cultural nationalism. A problem area that emerges from such selective gaze is that the national security discourse then lends itself to manipulation.

An illustration is the inflation in the terror discourse of terrorism attributed to Muslim perpetrators. For instance, there are 22 pending cases of encounter deaths in Gujarat pertaining to the Modi period there as chief minister when supposedly terrorists out to kill Modi or commit terrorism were killed by the police. There are also questions over provenance of some terror bombings across the country in the first decade. These questions remain since there was little effort to uncover evidence that would point to other than a Muslim hand in such incidents. Lack of evidence was on account of lack of effort to collect such evidence rather than its absence. That most such incidents led to Muslims being incarcerated, many being left after years in jail, is suggestive not only of incompetence but also a cover up that cries out for investigation.

A captive media has dutifully magnified the police handed out versions. Polarisation resulted and has accrued in a political dividend for the ruling party. Thus, the electorate has in a sense been manipulated by fake news on black operations. While this is relevant to understand the first BJP election victory, the second one did not witness preceding terror incidents since terror incidents, other than in Kashmir, curiously ceased on the BJP attaining power. This is yet more evidence that the earlier mainstream reportage over instances amounted to fake news. The gainer being the BJP implies a complicity and casts a pall over the manner it attained power. When in power it has turned the other way as majoritarian mobs have carried out micro terror pushing Muslims to the ropes over the beef and love jihad issues.

This marginalization of Muslims is an assault on the constitutional values. Therefore, the resulting insecurity of Muslims, as pointed out by Hamid Ansari amongst others, is a national security issue on two counts: from the sway of militant cultural nationalism, to levels the state has lost monopoly over instruments of violence, and, second, but more importantly,  as it points towards the incipient make over of India from a secular republic to a Hindutva subscribing one.