Sunday, 28 February 2021

Securitisation of cultural nationalism

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 as a turning point. The instances of Othering have increased through legislation both at the Center and in Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) ruled states, such as for instance on ‘love jihad’, and so has the street power exercised by supporters of the regime in 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, discussions on policy 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. 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, the gainer by their actions, 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. However, in case of a democratic change over, their increased power, visibility and reach under the current regime, may embolden them to pose a future national security challenge.

Whereas this is a potential national security threat, they also pose a current threat in their threat to the minority. Since their polarizing actions furthers the political interest of the Hindutva-espousing BJP, there is never a mention of the right wing as a threat. The three ‘usual suspects’ on the list of internal security threats are terrorism, 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 perspective, with commentators expending attention and effort rationalizing the government’s policies and actions. To an extent, the realists that largely populate the strategic community 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. Terror 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. The threat from militant cultural nationalists that could potentially push a minority towards violence in rebound is not registered among ‘causes’. Consequently, the likelihood of persistence of the minority insecurity may 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 majority requires an ‘Other’ to stand in contradistinction. This has reduced inter-community fraternity – a preamble-articulated Constitutional value.

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. If the sequence envisaged of a National Population Register (NPR) populating exercise is followed through with, then the CAA-NPR constitute a double whammy. 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 – cultural nationalism and its vehicle militant cultural nationalism – constitute a national security threat?

Whereas rule of law can mitigate militant cultural nationalism, the shift in the Republic’s moorings owes to cultural nationalism. Since the ruling party is persuaded by cultural nationalism, it is unwilling to exercise its rule of law function of governance. Therefore, an expectation of inclusion of militant cultural nationalism as a national security threat remains 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 counter can only be political and by a democratic mobilization. However, to the extent militant cultural nationalism is used by cultural nationalism for a stealthy purpose of replacing a secular republic by a Hindu republic, then cultural nationalism amounts to 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 means – militant cultural nationalism - is illegal and illegitimate.

Attempting to change the republic in its desired image is expected to be countered by the checks and balances in a democratic system such as the doctrine of basic structure of the Constitution and upholding of it by the courts. In so far as these check and balances are undercut by procedurally illegal and illegitimate means – such as by pressure on the courts - then cultural nationalism turn into a national security threat.

Showing the red card to cultural nationalism is important to deter its use of militant cultural nationalism. Securitisation - labelling an issue as the subject of critical national security scrutiny - serves the purpose of focusing minds since invoking security has existential connotations. In this case, a political ideology, Hindutva, needs to be served notice. The ideology now has the advantage of political mainstreaming through the dubious instrumentality of the state. The challenge to the cozy co-habitation of the state and 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.

While the threat militant nationalism poses to Muslims is easy to qualify as a national security threat, the steady movement towards a majoritarian democracy is not easy to classify. Even so, the illegitimate use of militant nationalism needs being deterred, for which examining cultural nationalism in national security terms calls for a start.