ON A BALMY FEBRUARY NIGHT, aware that things were not going well, I did what I rarely do. I put in earplugs and switched on the television. Even though I had said nothing about the spate of recent events—murders and lynchings, police raids on university campuses, student arrests, and enforced flag-waving—I knew that my name was still on the A-list of “anti-nationals.” That night, I began to worry that, in addition to the charge of criminal contempt of court I was already facing (for “interfering in the administration of justice,” “bashing the Central Government, State Governments, the Police Machinery, so also the Judiciary,” and “demonstrating a surly, rude and boorish attitude”), I would also be charged with causing the death of the eternally indignant news anchor on Times Now. I thought he might succumb to an apoplectic fit as he stabbed the air and spat out my name, suggesting that I was a part of some shadowy cabal behind the ongoing “anti-national” activity in the country. My crime, according to him, is that I have written about the struggle for freedom in Kashmir, questioned the execution of Mohammad Afzal Guru, walked with the Maoist guerrillas (“terrorists” in television speak) in the forests of Bastar, connected their armed rebellion to my reservations about India’s chosen model of “development,” and—with a hissy, sneering pause—even questioned the country’s nuclear tests.
Now it’s true that my views on these matters are at variance with those of the ruling establishment. In better days, that used to be known as a critical perspective or an alternative worldview. These days in India, it’s called sedition.
Sitting in Delhi, somewhat at the mercy of what looks like a democratically elected government gone rogue, I wondered whether I should rethink some of my opinions. I thought back, for instance, on a talk I gave in 2004 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, just before the Bush-versus-Kerry election, in which I joked about how the choice between the Democrats and the Republicans—or their equivalents in India, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party—was like having to choose between Tide and Ivory Snow, two brands of washing powder both actually owned by the same company. Given all that is going on, can I honestly continue to believe that?
On merit, when it comes to pogroms against non-Hindu communities, or looking away while Dalits are slaughtered, or making sure the levers of power and wealth remain in the hands of the tiny minority of dominant castes, or smuggling in neoliberal economic reforms on the coat-tails of manufactured communal conflict, or banning books, there’s not much daylight between the Congress and the BJP. (When it comes to the horrors that have been visited upon places like Kashmir, Nagaland, and Manipur, all the parliamentary parties, including the two major Left parties, stand united in their immorality.)
Given this track record, does it matter that the stated ideologies of the Congress and the BJP are completely different? Whatever its practice, the Congress says it believes in a secular, liberal democracy, while the BJP mocks secularism and believes that India is essentially a “Hindu Rashtra”—a Hindu nation. Hypocrisy, Congress-style, is serious business. It’s clever—it smokes up the mirrors and leaves us groping around. However, to proudly declare your bigotry, to bring it out into the sunlight as the BJP does, is a challenge to the social, legal, and moral foundations on which modern India (supposedly) stands. It would be an error to imagine that what we are witnessing today is just business as usual between unprincipled, murderous political parties.
Although the idea of India as a Hindu Rashtra is constantly being imbued with an aura of ancientness, it’s a surprisingly recent one. And, ironically, it has more to do with representative democracy than it does with religion. Historically, the people who now call themselves Hindu only identified themselves by their jati, their caste names. As a community, they functioned as a loose coalition of endogamous castes organised in a strict hierarchy. (Even today, for all the talk of unity and nationalism, only five percent of marriages in India cut across caste lines. Transgression can still get young people beheaded.) Since each caste could dominate the ones below it, all except those at the very bottom were inveigled into being a part of the system. Brahmanvaad—Brahminism—is the word that the anti-caste movement has traditionally used to describe this taxonomy. Though it has lost currency (and is often erroneously taken to refer solely to the practices and beliefs of Brahmins as a caste group), it is, in fact, a more accurate term than “Hinduism” for this social and religious arrangement, because it is as ancient as caste itself and pre-dates the idea of Hinduism by centuries.
This is a volatile assertion, so let me shelter behind Bhimrao Ambedkar. “The first and foremost thing that must be recognised,” he wrote in Annihilation of Caste in 1936, “is that Hindu society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was given by the Mohammedans to the natives [who lived east of the river Indus] for the purpose of distinguishing themselves.”
So how and why did the people who lived east of the Indus begin to call themselves Hindus? Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the politics of representative governance (paradoxically, introduced to its colony by the imperial British government), began to replace the politics of emperors and kings. The British marked the boundaries of the modern nation-state called India, divided it into territorial constituencies, and introduced the idea of elected bodies for local self-government. Gradually, subjects became citizens, citizens became voters, and voters formed constituencies that were assembled from complicated networks of old as well as new allegiances, alliances, and loyalties. Even as it came into existence, the new nation began to struggle against its rulers. But it was no longer a question of overthrowing a ruler militarily and taking the throne. The new rulers, whoever they were, would need to be legitimate representatives of the people. The politics of representative governance set up a new anxiety: Who could legitimately claim to represent the aspirations of the freedom struggle? Which constituency would make up the majority?
This marked the beginning of what we now call “vote bank” politics. Demography turned into an obsession. It became imperative that people who previously identified themselves only by their caste names band together under a single banner to make up a majority. That was when they began to call themselves Hindu. It was a way of crafting a political majority out of an impossibly diverse society. “Hindu” was the name of a political constituency more than of a religion, one that could define itself as clearly as other constituencies—Muslim, Sikh, and Christian—could. Hindu nationalists, as well as the officially “secular” Congress party, staked their claims to the “Hindu vote.”
It was around this time that a perplexing contestation arose around the people then known as “Untouchables” or “Outcastes,” who, though they were outside the pale of the caste system, were also divided into separate castes arranged in a strict hierarchy. To even begin to understand the political chaos we are living through now, at the centre of which is the suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, it’s important to understand, at least conceptually, this turn-of-the-century contestation.
Over the previous centuries, in order to escape the scourge of caste, millions of Untouchables (I use this word only because Ambedkar used it too) had converted to Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity. In the past, those conversions had not been a cause of anxiety for the privileged castes. However, when the politics of demography took centre stage, this haemorrhaging became a source of urgent concern. People who had been shunned and cruelly oppressed were now viewed as a population who could greatly expand the numbers of the Hindu constituency. They had to be courted and brought into the “Hindu fold.” That was the beginning of Hindu evangelism. What we know today as ghar wapsi, or “returning home,” was a ceremony that dominant castes devised to “purify” Untouchables and Adivasis, whom they considered “polluted.” The idea was (and is) to persuade these ancient and autochthonous peoples that they were formerly Hindus, and that Hinduism was the original, indigenous religion of the subcontinent. It was not only Hindu nationalists among the privileged castes that tried to embrace the Untouchables politically while continuing to valorise the caste system. Their counterparts in the Congress did the same thing too. This was the reason for the legendary standoff between Bhimrao Ambedkar and Mohandas Gandhi, and continues to be the cause of serious disquiet in Indian politics. Even today, to properly secure its idea of a Hindu Rashtra, the BJP has to persuade a majority of the Dalit population to embrace a creed that stigmatises and humiliates them. It has been surprisingly successful, and has even managed to draw in some militant Ambedkarite Dalits. It is this paradox that has made the political moment we are living through so incandescent, so highly inflammable, and so unpredictable.
Ever since the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was founded, in 1925, this ideological holding company of Hindu nationalism (and of the BJP) has set itself the task of making myriad castes, communities, tribes, religions, and ethnic groups submerge their identities and line up behind the banner of the Hindu Rashtra. Which is a little like trying to sculpt a gigantic, immutable stone statue of Bharat Mata—the Hindu right’s ideal of Mother India—out of a stormy sea. Turning water into stone may not be a practical ambition, but the RSS’s long years of trying have polluted the sea and endangered its flora and fauna in irreversible ways. Its ruinous ideology—known as Hindutva, and inspired by the likes of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler—openly proposes Nazi-style purges of Indian Muslims. In RSS doctrine (theorised by MS Golwalkar, the organisation’s second sarsanghchalak, or supreme leader), the three main enemies obstructing the path to the Hindu Rashtra are Muslims, Christians, and Communists. And now, as the RSS races towards that goal, although what’s happening around us may look like chaos, everything is actually going strictly by the book.
Of late, the RSS has deliberately begun to conflate nationalism with Hindu nationalism. It uses the terms interchangeably, as though they mean the same thing. Naturally, it chooses to gloss over the fact that it played absolutely no part in the struggle against British colonialism. But while the RSS left the battle of turning a British colony into an independent nation to other people, it has, since then, worked far harder than any other political or cultural organisation to turn this independent nation into a Hindu nation. Before the BJP was founded, in 1980, the political arm of the RSS was the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. However, the RSS’s influence cut across party lines, and in the past its shadowy presence has even been evident in some of the more nefarious and violent activities of the Congress. The organisation now has a network of tens of thousands of shakhas (branches) and hundreds of thousands of workers. It has its own trade union, its own educational institutions where millions of students are indoctrinated, its own teachers’ organisation, a women’s wing, a media and publications division, its own organisations dedicated to Adivasi welfare, its own medical missions, its own sad stable of historians (who produce their own hallucinatory version of history), and, of course, its own army of trolls on social media. Its sister concerns, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, provide the storm troopers that carry out organised attacks on anyone whose views they perceive to be a threat. In addition to creating its own organisations (which, together with the BJP, make up the Sangh Parivar—the Saffron Family), the RSS has also worked patiently to place its chessmen in public institutions: on government committees, in universities, the bureaucracy, and, crucially, the intelligence services.
That all this farsightedness and hard work was going to pay off one day was a foregone conclusion. Still, it took imagination and ruthlessness to come this far. Most of us know the story, but given the amnesia that is being pressed upon us, it might serve to put down a chronology of the recent present. Who knows, things that appeared unconnected may, when viewed in retrospect, actually be connected. And vice versa. So forgive me if, in an attempt to decipher a pattern, I go over some familiar territory.
THE JOURNEY TO POWER began with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In 1990, LK Advani, a BJP leader and a member of the RSS, travelled the length and breadth of the country in an air-conditioned rath—chariot—exhorting “Hindus” to rise up and build a temple on the hallowed birthplace of Lord Ram. The birthplace, people were told, was the exact same spot on which a sixteenth-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, stood in the town of Ayodhya. In 1992, just two years after his rath yatra, Advani stood by and watched as an organised mob reduced the Babri Masjid to rubble. Riots, massacres, and serial bombings followed. The country was polarised in a way it had not been since Partition. By 1998, the BJP (which had only two seats in parliament in 1984) had formed a coalition government at the centre.
The first thing the BJP did was to realise a long-standing desire of the RSS by conducting a series of nuclear tests. From being an organisation that had been banned three times (after the assassination of Gandhi, during the Emergency, and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid), the RSS was finally in a position to dictate government policy. We can call it the Year of the Ascension.
It wasn’t the first time India had conducted nuclear tests, but the exhibitionism of the 1998 ones was different. It was like a rite of passage. The “Hindu bomb” was meant to announce the imminent arrival of the Hindu Rashtra. Within days, Pakistan (already ahead of the curve, having declared itself an Islamic republic in 1956) showed off its “Muslim bomb.” And now we’re stuck with these two strutting, nuclear-armed roosters, who are trained to hate each other, who hold their minority populations hostage as they mimic each other in a competing horror show of majoritarianism and religious chauvinism. And they have Kashmir to fight over.
The nuclear tests altered the tone of public discourse in India. They coarsened and, you could say, weaponised it. In the months that followed, we were force-fed Hindu nationalism. Then, like now, articles circulated predicting that a mighty, all-conquering Hindu Rashtra was about to emerge—that a resurgent India would “burst forth upon its former oppressors and destroy them completely.” Absurd as it all was, having nuclear weapons made thoughts like these seem feasible. It created thoughts like these.
You didn’t have to be a visionary to see what was coming.
The Year of the Ascension, 1998, witnessed gruesome attacks on Christians (essentially Dalits and Adivasis), Hindutva’s most vulnerable foes. Swami Aseemanand, the head of the RSS-affiliated Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram’s religious wing (who would make national news as the main accused in the 2007 Samjhauta Express train bombing), was sent to the remote, forested Dang district in western Gujarat to set up a headquarters. The violence began on Christmas Eve. Within a week, more than 20 churches in the region were burned down or otherwise destroyed by mobs of thousands led by the Hindu Dharma Jagran Manch, an organisation affiliated to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal. Soon, Dang district became a major centre of ghar wapsi. Tens of thousands of Adivasis were “returned” to Hinduism. The violence spread to other states.
In Keonjhar district in Odisha, an Australian Christian missionary, Graham Staines, who had been working in India for 35 years, was burned alive along with his two sons, aged 6 and 10. The man who led the attack was Dara Singh, a Bajrang Dal activist.
In April 2000, the US president Bill Clinton was on an official visit to Pakistan, after which he was due in Delhi. It was less than a year since the war in the Kargil district of Ladakh, in which India had pushed back the Pakistani army after it, in an aggressive, provocative move, sent soldiers across the Line of Control to occupy a strategic post. The Indian government was keen for the international community to recognise that Pakistan was a “terrorist state.” On 20 April, the night before Clinton was expected to arrive, 35 Sikhs were shot down in cold blood in Chittisinghpora, a village in south Kashmir. The killers were said to be Pakistan-based militants disguised in Indian Army uniforms. It was the first time Sikhs had been targeted by militants in Kashmir. Five days later, the Special Operations Group and the Rashtriya Rifles claimed to have tracked down and killed five of the militants. The burnt, disfigured bodies of the dead men were dressed in fresh, unburnt army uniforms. It turned out they were all local Kashmiri villagers who had been abducted by the army and killed in a staged encounter.
In October 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, the BJP installed Narendra Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat. At the time, Modi was more or less unknown. His main political credential was that he had been a long-time and loyal member of the RSS.
On the morning of 13 December 2001, in Delhi, when the Indian parliament was in its winter session, five armed men in a white Ambassador car fitted with an improvised explosive device drove through its gates. Apparently, they got through security because they had a fake home ministry sticker on their windscreen, the back of which read:
INDIA IS A VERY BAD COUNTRY AND WE HATE INDIA WE WANT TO DESTROY INDIA AND WITHT THE GRACE OF GOD WE WILL DO IT GOD IS WITH US AND WE WILL TRY OUR BEST. THIS EDIET WAJPEI AND ADVANI WE WILL KILL THEM. THEY HAVE KILLED MANY INNOCENT PEOPLE AND THEY ARE VERY BAD PERSONS. THERE BROTHER BUSH IS ALSO A VERY BAD PERSON HE WILL NEXT TARGET HE IS ALSO THE KILLER OF INNOCENT PEOPLE HE HAVE TO DIE AND WE WILL DO IT
When the men were eventually challenged, they jumped out and opened fire. In the gun battle that ensued all the attackers, eight security personnel, and a gardener were killed.The then prime minister, AB Vajpayee (also a member of the RSS), had, only the previous day, expressed a worry that the parliament might be attacked. LK Advani, who was the home minister by then, compared the assault to the 9/11 attacks. He said the men “looked like Pakistanis.” Fourteen years later, we still don’t know who they really were. They are yet to be properly identified.
Within days, on 16 December, the Special Cell of the Delhi police announced that it had cracked the case. It said that the attack was a joint operation by two Pakistan-based terrorist outfits, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Three Kashmiri men, SAR Geelani, Shaukat Hussain Guru, and Mohammed Afzal Guru, were arrested. Shaukat’s wife, Afsan Guru, was arrested too. The mastermind at the Indian end, the Special Cell told the media, was Geelani, a young professor of Arabic at Delhi University. (He was subsequently acquitted by the courts.) On 21 December, based on these intelligence inputs, the Indian government suspended air, rail, and bus communications with Pakistan, banned overflights, and recalled its ambassador. More than half a million troops were moved to the border, where they remained on high alert for several months. Foreign embassies issued travel advisories to their citizens and evacuated their staff, apprehending a war that could turn nuclear.
On 27 February 2002, while Indian and Pakistani troops eyeballed each other on the border and communal polarisation was at fever pitch, 58 kar sevaks—Hindu pilgrims—travelling home from Ayodhya, were burned alive in their train coach just outside the train station in the town of Godhra, Gujarat. The Gujarat police said the coach had been firebombed from the outside by an angry mob of local Muslims. (Later, a report by the State Forensic Lab showed that this was not the case.) LK Advani said that “outside elements” may have also been involved. The kar sevaks’ bodies, burnt beyond recognition, were transported to Ahmedabad for the public to pay their respects.
What happened next is well known. (And well forgotten too, because the bigots of yesterday are being sold to us as the moderates of today.) So, briefly: in February and March 2002, while police stood by, Gujarat burned. In cities and in villages, organised Hindutva mobs murdered Muslims in broad daylight. Women were raped and burned alive. Infants were put to the sword. Men were dismembered. Whole localities were burned down. Tens of thousands of Muslims were driven from their homes and into refugee camps. The killing went on for several weeks.
There have been pogroms in India before, equally heinous, equally unpardonable, in which the numbers of people killed have been far higher: the massacre of Muslims in Nellie, Assam, in 1983, under a Congress state government (estimates of the number killed vary between 2,000, officially, and more than double that figure, unofficially); the massacre of almost 3,000 Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, by Congress-led mobs in Delhi (which Rajiv Gandhi, who then went on to become prime minister, justified by saying, “When a big tree falls, the ground shakes”); the massacre, in 1993, of hundreds of Muslims by the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In these pogroms too, the killers were protected and given complete impunity.
But Gujarat 2002 was a massacre in the time of mass media. Its ideological underpinning was belligerently showcased, and the massacre justified in ways that marked a departure from the past. It was perpetuation, as well as a commencement. We, the public, were being given notice in no uncertain terms. The era of dissimulation had ended.
The Gujarat pogrom dovetailed nicely with the international climate of Islamophobia. The War on Terror had been declared. Afghanistan had been bombed. Iraq was already on the radar. Within months of the massacre, a fresh election was announced in Gujarat. Modi won it hands down. A few years into his first tenure, some of those involved in the 2002 pogrom were caught on camera boasting about how they had hacked, burned, and speared people to death. The footage was broadcast on the national news. It only seemed to enhance Modi’s popularity in the state, where he won the next two elections as well, securing the backing of several heads of major corporations along the way, and remained chief minister for 12 years.
While Modi moved from strength to strength, his party faltered at the centre. Its “India Shining” campaign in the 2004 general election was received by people as a cruel joke, and the Congress made a stunning comeback. The BJP remained out of power at the centre for the next ten years.
The RSS showed itself to be an organisation that thrives in the face of adversity. The climate was what is known as “vitiated.” Between 2003 and 2009, a series of bombings and terror strikes on trains, buses, market places, mosques, and temples, by what were thought to be Islamist terror groups, killed scores of innocent people. The worst of them all were the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which Lashkar-e-Taiba militants from Pakistan shot 164 people and wounded more than 300.
Not all the attacks were what they were made out to be. What follows is just a sampling, an incomplete list of some of those events: On 15 June 2004, a young woman called Ishrat Jahan and three Muslim men were shot dead by the Gujarat police, who said they were Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives on a mission to assassinate Modi. The Central Bureau of Investigation has since said that the “encounter” was staged, and that all four victims were captured and then killed in cold blood. On 23 November 2005, a Muslim couple, Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife, Kausar Bi, were taken off a public bus by the Gujarat police. Three days later, Sheikh was reported killed in an “encounter” in Ahmedabad. The police said that he worked for Lashkar-e-Taiba, and that they suspected he was on a mission to assassinate Modi. Kausar Bi was killed two days later. A witness to the Sheikh killing, Tulsiram Prajapati, was shot dead a year later, in a police encounter. Several senior officers of the Gujarat police are standing trial for these killings. (One of them, PP Pandey, has just been appointed as the director general of police for Gujarat.) On 18 February 2007, the Samjhauta Express, a “friendship train” that ran twice a week between Delhi and Attari in Pakistan, was bombed, killing 68 people, most of them Pakistanis. In September 2008, three bombs went off in the towns of Malegaon and Modassa. Several of those arrested in these cases, including Swami Aseemanand of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, were members of the RSS. (Hemant Karkare, the police officer who headed the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, which led the investigations, was shot dead in 2008, during the course of the Mumbai attacks. For the story within the story, read Who killed Karkare? by SM Mushrif, a retired inspector general of the Maharashtra police.)
The assaults on Christians continued too. The most ferocious of them was in Kandhamal, Odisha, in 2008. Ninety Christians (all Dalits) were murdered, and more than 50,000 people were displaced. Tragically, the mobs that attacked them were made up of newly “Hinduised” Adivasis freshly dragooned into the Sangh Parivar’s vigilante militias. Kandhamal’s Christians continue to live under threat, and most of them cannot return to their homes. In other states too, like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, Christians live in constant danger.
In 2013, the BJP announced that Modi would be its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general election. During his campaign, he was asked if he regretted what had happened on his watch in Gujarat in 2002. “Any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind,” he told a Reuters journalist, “even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”
The media dutifully filed the Gujarat pogrom away as old news. The campaign went well. Modi was allowed to reinvent himself as the architect of the “Gujarat model”—supposedly an example of dynamic economic development. He became corporate India’s most favoured candidate—the embodiment of the aspirations of the new India, architect of an economic miracle waiting to happen. His election broke the bank, costing $115 million—more than R700 crore—according to the election commission.
But behind the advertising blitz and the 3D dioramas, things hadn’t really changed all that much. In a district called Muzaffarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh, the tried and tested version of the real Gujarat model was revived as a poll strategy. Technology played a part. (This would become a recurring theme.) It began with an altercation over what was, at the time, being called “love-jihad”—a notion that played straight into that old anxiety about demography. The Muslim “love-jihad” campaign, Hindus were told, involved entrapping Hindu girls romantically and persuading them to convert to Islam. In August 2013, a Muslim boy accused of teasing a Hindu girl was killed by two Jats. Two Jats were killed in retaliation. A video of an obviously Muslim mob beating a man to death began to circulate on Facebook and over cell-phone networks. In reality, the incident had taken place in Sialkot, Pakistan. But it was put about that the video documented a local incident in which Muslims had beaten a Hindu boy to death. Provoked by the video, Hindu Jat farmers armed with swords and guns turned on local Muslims, with whom they had lived and worked for centuries. Between August and September 2013, according to official estimates, 62 people were killed—42 Muslims and 20 Hindus.
Unofficial estimates put the number of Muslims killed at more than 200. Tens of thousands of Muslims were forced off their lands and into refugee camps. And, of course, many women were raped.
In April 2014, just before the general election, Amit Shah, a general secretary of the BJP at the time, and now the party president (he had been arrested in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh case, but was discharged by a special court), spoke at a meeting of Jats in a district bordering Muzaffarnagar. “In Uttar Pradesh, especially western UP, it is an election for honour,” he said. “It is an election to take revenge for the insult. It is an election to teach a lesson to those who have committed injustice.” Once again, the strategy paid off. The BJP swept Uttar Pradesh—the state with the largest share of seats in parliament.
In the midst of all this, the slew of genuinely progressive legislation which the Congress-led government had pushed through—like the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which brought a modicum of real relief to the poorest of the poor—seemed to count for nothing. After ten years out of power at the centre, the BJP won a massive single-party majority. Narendra Modi became the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. In an election campaign in which optics was everything, he flew from Ahmedabad to Delhi for his swearing-in on a private jet belonging to the Adani Group. The victory was so decisive, the celebrations so aggressive, that it seemed the establishment of the Hindu Rashtra was only weeks away.
Modi’s ascent to power came at a time when much of the rest of the world was descending into chaos. There was civil war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. The Arab Spring had happened and un-happened. ISIS, the macabre progeny of the War on Terror, which makes even the Taliban and al-Qaeda seem like moderates, was on the rise. The European refugee crisis had begun, even if it had not yet peaked. Pakistan was in serious trouble. In contrast, India looked like the warm, cuddly, unruly, Bollywoody, free-market-friendly democracy that works. But that was the view from the outside.
As soon as he was sworn in, the new prime minister began to display the kind of paranoia you might expect from a man who knows he has a lot of enemies, and who does not trust his own organisation. His first move was to disempower and make redundant a faction within the BJP led by Advani, whom he now viewed as a threat. He usurped a great deal of the decision-making in the government, and then set off on a dizzying world tour (which hasn’t ended yet), with a few pit stops in India. Modi’s personal ambition, his desire to be seen as a global leader, soon began to overshadow the organisation that had mentored him, and which does not take kindly to self-aggrandisement. In January 2015, he greeted the visiting US president, Barack Obama, in a suit that cost over a million rupees, with his name woven into the pin stripes: arendradamodardasmodinarendradamodardasmodi. This was clearly a man who was in love with himself—no longer just a worker bee, no longer merely a humble servant. It began to look as though the ladders that had been used to climb into the clouds were being kicked away.
The ModiModi suit was eventually auctioned, and bought by an admirer for R4.3 crore. Meanwhile, it became the delight of cartoonists and the butt of some seriously raucous humour on social media. A man who had been feared was being laughed at for the first time. A month after his wardrobe malfunction, Modi experienced his first major shock. In the February 2015 Delhi state election, even though he campaigned tirelessly, the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party won 67 of 70 seats. It was the first election Modi had lost since 2002. Suddenly, the new leader began to look brittle and unsure of himself.
Nevertheless, in the rest of the country, thugs and vigilante assassins, sure of political backing from the people they had brought into power, continued about their bloody business. In February 2015, Govind Pansare, a writer and a prominent member of the Communist Party of India, was shot dead in Kolhapur, in Maharashtra. On 30 August 2015, MM Kalburgi, a well-known Kannada rationalist and scholar, was assassinated outside his home in Dharwad, in Karnataka. Both men had been threatened several times by extremist right-wing Hindu organisations, and told to stop their writing.
In September 2015, a mob gathered outside the home of a Muslim family in Dadri, a village near Delhi, claiming that they had been eating beef (a violation of the ban on cow slaughter that had been imposed in Uttar Pradesh, as well as in several other states). The family denied it. The mob refused to believe them. Mohammad Akhlaq was pulled out of his home and bludgeoned to death. The thugs of the new order were unapologetic. After the murder, when the Sangh Parivar’s apparatchiks spoke to the press about “illegal slaughter,” they meant the imaginary cow. When they talked about “taking evidence for forensic examination,” they meant the food in the family’s fridge, not the body of the lynched man. The meat taken from Akhlaq’s house turned out not to be beef after all. But so what?
For days after that, the Twitter-loving prime minister said nothing. Under pressure, he issued a weak, watery admonishment. Since then, similar rumours have led to others being beaten to within an inch of their lives, even hanged. With their tormentors assured of complete impunity, Muslims now know that even a minor skirmish can ignite a full-scale massacre. A whole population is expected to hunch its shoulders and live in fear. And that, as we know, is not a feasible proposition. We are talking about approximately 170 million people.
THEN, QUITE SUDDENLY, just when hope was failing, something extraordinary began to happen. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the BJP’s massive majority in parliament had reduced the opposition to a rump, a new kind of resistance made itself known. Ordinary people began to show discomfort with what was going on. That feeling soon hardened into a stubborn resilience. In protest against the lynching of Akhlaq and the murders of Kalburgi and Pansare, as well as that of the rationalist and author Narendra Dabholkar, murdered in Pune in 2013, one by one, several well-known writers and film-makers began to return various national awards they had received. By the end of 2015, dozens of them had done so. The returning of awards—which came to be known as award-wapsi, an ironic reference to ghar wapsi—was an unplanned, spontaneous, and yet deeply political gesture, by artists and intellectuals who did not belong to any particular group or subscribe to any particular ideology, or even agree with each other about most things. It was powerful and unprecedented, and probably has no historical parallel. It was politics plucked out of thin air.
Award-wapsi was widely reported by the international press. Precisely because it was spontaneous, and could not be painted into a corner as any sort of conspiracy, it enraged the government. If this was not enough, around the same time, in November 2015, the BJP suffered another massive electoral defeat, this time in the state of Bihar, at the hands of two wily, old-school politicians—Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Lalu is a doughty foe of the Sangh Parivar, and, way back in 1990, he was one of the few politicians to show some steel and arrest Advani when the rath yatra passed through Bihar. Losing the Bihar election was a personal as well as political humiliation for Modi, who had spent weeks campaigning there. The BJP was quick to suggest some sort of collusion between its opponents and “anti-national” intellectuals.
As a party that can mass-produce trolls but finds it hard to produce a single real thinker, this humiliating setback sharpened its instinctive hostility towards intellectual activity. It was never just dissent that our current rulers wished to crush. It was thought—intelligence—itself. Not surprisingly, the prime targets in the attack on our collective IQ have been some of India’s best universities.
The first signs of trouble came when, in May 2015, the administration of the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai “de-recognised” a student organisation called the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC). Its members are Dalit Ambedkarites, who have a sharp critique of Hindutva politics but also of neoliberal economics, and of the rapid corporatisation and privatisation that is putting higher education out of the reach of the poor. The order banning the APSC accused it of trying to “de-align” Dalit and Adivasi students, to “make them protest against the Central government” and create hatred against the “Prime Minister and Hindus.” Why should a tiny student organisation with only a couple of dozen members have been seen as such a threat? Because by making connections between caste, capitalism, and communalism, the APSC was straying into forbidden territory—the sort of territory into which the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and the US civil-rights leader Martin Luther King had strayed, and paid for with their lives. The de-recognition led to public protests, and was quickly rescinded, although the APSC continues to be harassed and its activity remains seriously impeded.
The next confrontation came at India’s best-known film school, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, where BJP and RSS cronies were appointed to the institute’s governing council. Among these “persons of eminence,” one had until recently been the state president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student
wing of the RSS. Another was a film-maker who had made a documentary called Narendra Modi: A Tale of Extraordinary Leadership. An actor by the name of Gajendra Chauhan was appointed the council’s chairman. His credential for the post, apart from his loyalty to the BJP, was his less than mediocre performance as Yudhishthira in a television version of the Mahabharata. (Of the rest of his acting career, the less said the better. You can find him on YouTube.)
The students went on strike, demanding to know on what basis a chairman with no qualifications for the job could be foisted on them. They demanded that Chauhan be removed from his post. Their real fear was that, by stacking the governing council with its cohorts, the government was setting up a coup, preparing (for the nth time) to privatise the FTII, and turn it into yet another institution exclusively for the rich and privileged.
The strike lasted for 140 days. The students were attacked by off-campus Hindutva activists, but were supported by trade unions, civil-society groups, film-makers, artists, intellectuals, and fellow students from across the country. The government refused to back down. The strike was eventually called off, but the unrest just moved to a bigger arena.
For several years now, the University of Hyderabad (UOH) has been a charged place, particularly around Dalit politics. Among the many student groups active on the campus is the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). As a formation of Ambedkarites, like the APSC in Chennai, the ASA was asking some profound and disturbing questions. For obvious reasons, its main antagonist on campus was the ABVP, which is emerging as the eyes and ears of the RSS, and its agent provocateur, on almost every campus in the country. When, in August, the ASA, quoting Ambedkar’s views on capital punishment, protested the hanging of Yakub Memon—convicted for the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai that followed the Shiv Sena-led pogrom against Muslims—the ABVP branded them “anti-national.” Following a head-on confrontation between the two groups over the documentary film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hain (Muzaffarnagar is Still Standing), which the ASA screened on campus, five students—all Dalits, and all members of the ASA—were suspended, and told to leave their hostels. Young Dalits reaching out to the Muslim community was not something the Sangh Parivar was going to allow if it could help it.
These were first-generation students, whose parents had toiled all their lives to scrape together enough money to get their children an education. It’s hard for middle-class people who take the education of their children for granted to imagine what it means to have such painstakingly cultivated hope so callously snuffed out.
One of the five suspended students was Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar. He was the son of a poor single mother, and had no means of supporting himself without his scholarship. Driven to despair, on 17 January 2016 he hanged himself. He left behind a suicide note of such extraordinary power and poignancy that—like a piece of great literature should—his words ignited a tinderbox of accumulated fury. Rohith wrote,
I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.
I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.
I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense.
May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding [the] world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. … My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.
Imagine this. We live in a culture that shunned a man like Rohith Vemula and treated him as an Untouchable. A culture that shut him down and made a mind like his extinguish itself. Rohith was a Dalit, an Ambedkarite, a Marxist (who was disillusioned with the Indian Left), a student of science, an aspiring writer, and a seasoned political activist. But beyond all these identities, he was, like all of us, a unique human being, with a unique set of joys and sorrows. We might never know what that last secret sadness was that made him take his life. Perhaps that’s just as well. We must make do with his farewell letter.
The things that make it revolutionary might not be immediately obvious. Despite all that was done to him, it contains sorrow but not victimhood. Though everything we know about him tells us that he was ferocious about his identity and his politics, he refuses to box himself in and define himself by the tags that others had given him. Despite bearing the weight of an oppression and cultural conditioning that is centuries old, Rohith gives himself—wrests for himself—the right to be magnificent, to dream of being stardust, of being loved as an equal, as all men and women ought to be.
Rohith was only the latest of the many Dalit students who end their lives every year. His story resonated with thousands of Dalits in universities across the country—students who had been traumatised by the medieval horrors of the caste system, and the segregation, discrimination, and injustice that follow them into the most modern university campuses, into India’s premier medical and engineering colleges, into their hostels, canteens, and lecture rooms. (About half of all Dalit students drop out of school before they matriculate. Under 3 percent of the Dalit population are graduates.) They saw Rohith Vemula’s suicide for what it was—a form of institutionalised murder. His suicide—and, it has to be said, the power of his prose—made people stop in their tracks, and think and rage about the criminal arrangement known as the caste system, that ancient engine that continues to run modern Indian society.
The fury over Vemula’s suicide was, and is, an insurrectionary moment for a thus-far marginalised, radical political vision. It saw Ambedkarites, Ambedkarite Marxists, and a coalition of Left parties and social movements march together. Alert to the fact that if this configuration was allowed to consolidate it could grow into a serious threat, the BJP moved to defuse it. Its clumsy, outrageous response—claiming that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit—backfired badly, and pushed the party into what looked like (and could still turn out to be) a tailspin.
Attention had to be diverted. Another crisis was urgently required. The gunsights swung around. The target had been marked a while ago.
Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), long known to be a “bastion of the Left,” was the focus of a front-page story in the November 2015 issue of Panchajanya, the RSS’s weekly paper. It described JNU as a den of Naxalites, a “huge anti-national block which has the aim of disintegrating India.” Naxalites had been a long-standing problem for the Sangh Parivar—Enemy Number Three in its written doctrine. But now, evidently, it had another, more worrying one, too.
Over the last few years, the student demography in JNU has changed dramatically. From being in a small minority, students from disadvantaged backgrounds—Dalits, Adivasis, and the many castes and sub-castes that come under the capacious category known as Other Backward Classes (OBC), formerly called Shudras—now make up almost half the student body. This has radically changed campus politics. What troubles the Parivar more than the presence of the Left on the JNU campus, perhaps, are the rising voices of this section of students. They are, for the most part, followers of Ambedkar, of the Adivasi hero Birsa Munda, who fought the British and died in prison in 1900, and of the radical thinker and reformer Jyotirao Phule, who was a Shudra and called himself a mali, a gardener. Phule renounced, in fact denounced, Hinduism—most trenchantly in his famous book Gulamgiri (Slavery), published in 1873. In much of his writing and poetry, Phule deconstructs Hindu myths to show how they are really stories grounded in history, and how they glorify the idea of an Aryan conquest of an indigenous, Dravidian culture. Phule writes of how Dravidians were demonised and turned into asuras, while the conquering Aryans were exalted and conferred divinity. In effect, he frames Hinduism as a colonial narrative.
In 2012, an organisation of Dalit and OBC students in JNU began to observe what it calls Mahishasur Martyrdom Day. Mahishasur, Hindus believe, is a mythical half-human half-demon entity that the goddess Durga vanquished in battle—a victory that is celebrated every year during Durga Puja. These young intellectuals said that Mahishasur was actually a Dravidian king, beloved of the Asur, Santhal, Gond, and Bhil tribes in West Bengal and Jharkhand, and others. The students declared that they would mourn the day Mahishasur was martyred, not celebrate it. Another group, that called itself the “New Materialists,” began to hold a “free food festival” on Mahishasur Martyrdom Day, at which it served beef and pork, saying these were the traditional foods of the oppressed castes and tribes of India.
OBCs make up the majority of India’s population, and are vitally important to every major political party. It is for this reason that Modi, in his 2014 election campaign, went out of his way to foreground the fact that he was an OBC. (Most people think of “Modi” as a bania surname.) OBCs have traditionally been used by the dominant castes as henchmen, to hold the line against Dalits (just as Dalits have been used as foot soldiers in attacks on Muslims, and Adivasis are pitted against Dalits—as they were in Kandhamal in 2008.) These signs of a section of OBCs breaking rank with Hinduism set off the RSS’s extremely alert early-warning system.
If this were not trouble enough, a tentative conversation (or perhaps just an argument that was prelude to a conversation) had started between some young communists—who seemed to have begun to understand the past errors of India’s major communist parties—and the followers of Birsa Munda, Ambedkar and Phule. These groups have a vexed history, and had every reason to be wary of each other. As long as each of these loose constituencies remained hostile to the other, they did not constitute a real threat to the Sangh Parivar.
The RSS recognised that if what was going on in JNU was not stopped, it could one day pose an intellectual and existential threat to the fundamental principles and politics of Hindutva. Why so? Because such an alliance proposes, even if only conceptually, the possibility of a counter-mobilisation, a sort of reverse engineering of the Hindutva project. It envisions an altogether different coalition of castes, one that is constituted from the ground up, instead of organised and administered from the top down: Dalit-Bahujanism instead of Brahminism. A powerful movement, contemporary and yet rooted in India’s unique social and cultural context, that has people like Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, Periyar, Ayyankali, Birsa Munda, Bhagat Singh, Marx, and Lenin as the stars in its constellation. A movement that challenges patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism, that dreams of a caste-less, classless society, whose poets would be the poets of the people, and would include Kabir, Tukaram, Ravidas, Pash, Gaddar, Lal Singh Dil, and Faiz. A movement of Adivasi-Dalit-Bahujans in the sense championed by the Dalit Panthers (who, in the 1970s, took “Dalit” to connote “Members of the scheduled castes and tribes, neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.”) A movement whose comrades would include those from the privileged castes who no longer want to claim their privileges. A movement spiritually generous enough to embrace all those who believe in justice, whatever their creed or religion.
Small wonder, then, that the Panchajanya story went on to say that JNU was an institution where “Innocent Hindu youth are lured after being fed wrong facts about the Varna system, which is an integral part of Hindu society.” It wasn’t really the “disintegrating” of India that the RSS was worried about. It was the disintegration of Hindutva. And not by a new political party, but by a new way of thinking. Had all this hinged on a formal political alliance, its leaders could have been killed or jailed. Or simply bought out, like any number of swamis, sufis, maulanas and other charlatans have been. But what do you do with an idea that has begun to drift around like smoke?
You try and snuff it out at its source.
The battle lines could not have been marked more clearly. It was to be a battle between those who dream of equality and those who believe in institutionalising inequality. Rohith Vemula’s suicide made the conversation that had begun in JNU more important, more urgent, and very real. And it probably brought forward the date of an attack that was already on the cards.
THE AMBUSH WAS BUILT around an obstinate old ghost who refuses to go away. The harder they try to exorcise it, the more stubbornly it persists with its haunting.
The third anniversary of the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru fell on 9 February 2016. Although Afzal was not accused of direct involvement in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, he was convicted by the Delhi high court and given three life sentences and a double death sentence for being part of the conspiracy. In August 2005, the Supreme Court upheld this judgment, and famously said, “As is the case with most conspiracies, there is and could be no direct evidence amounting to criminal conspiracy. … The incident which resulted in heavy casualties had shaken the entire nation, and the collective conscience of the society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender.”
The controversy over the parliament attack, over the Supreme Court judgment, and over Afzal’s sudden, secret execution is by no means a new one. Several books and essays by scholars, journalists, lawyers, and writers (including myself) have been published on the subject. Some of us believe that there are grave questions about the attack that remain unanswered, and that Afzal was framed and did not receive a fair trial. Others believe that the manner of his execution was a miscarriage of justice.
After the Supreme Court judgment, Afzal remained in solitary confinement in Tihar Jail for several years. The BJP, which was out of power at the centre during those years, made frequent and aggressive demands that he be pulled out of the queue of those awaiting execution and hanged. The issue became a central theme in its election campaigns. Its slogan was: Desh abhi sharminda hai, Afzal abhi bhi zinda hai. (The country hangs its head in shame because Afzal is still alive.)
As the 2014 general election approached, the Congress-led government in power at the centre—weakened by a series of corruption scandals and terrified of being outflanked by the BJP in this contest of competitive nationalism, one that the Congress is doomed to lose—pulled Afzal out of his cell one morning and hurriedly hanged him. His family was not even informed, let alone permitted a last visit. For fear that his grave would become a monument and a political rallying point for the struggle in Kashmir, he was buried inside Tihar Jail, next to Maqbool Butt, the Kashmiri separatist hero, who was hanged in 1984. (P Chidambaram, who served the Congress-led government as home minister from 2008 to 2012, now says that Afzal’s case was “perhaps not correctly decided.” When I was in Class IV, we had a saying: Sorry doesn’t make a dead man alive.)
Every year since then, on the anniversary of Afzal Guru’s hanging, the Kashmir valley shuts down in protest. Leave alone the Kashmiri nationalists, even the mainstream, pro-India Peoples Democratic Party, currently the BJP’s coalition partner in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, continues to demand that Afzal’s mortal remains be returned to his family for a proper burial.
A few days prior to the third anniversary of his death, notices appeared on the JNU campus inviting students to a cultural evening “Against the Brahmanical ‘collective conscience,’ against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt,” and “in solidarity with the struggle of Kashmiri people for their democratic right to self-determination.”
It was not the first time JNU students had met to discuss these issues. Only this time, the 9 February anniversary fell three weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide. The atmosphere was politically charged. Once again, the ABVP was the cat’s paw. It complained to the university authorities, and then invited the Delhi police to intervene in what it said was “anti-national activity.” A camera crew from Zee TV was on hand to record the event. The first batch of footage in that Zee broadcast showed two groups of students confronting each other on the JNU campus, shouting slogans. In response to the ABVP’s “Bharat Mata ki jai!” (Victory to Mother India!), another group of students, most of them Kashmiris, some of them wearing masks, began to chant what Kashmiris chant every day at every street-corner protest and at every militant’s funeral:
Hum kya chahatey?
Chheen ke lengey—
What do we want?
We will snatch it—
There were also some less familiar slogans:
Bandook ke dum pe!
At gunpoint if need be!
Kashmir ki azadi tak, Bharat ki barbaadi tak,
Jung ladengey! Jung ladengey!
Until freedom comes to Kashmir, until destruction comes to India,
War will be waged! War will be waged!
Long live Pakistan!
From the Zee TV footage, it wasn’t clear who the students actually chanting the slogans were. Sure, it riled viewers, but winding people up about Kashmir or getting them to rail at unknown students who looked and sounded like Kashmiris was not the point, and would have served no purpose. Especially not when the BJP’s negotiations with the Peoples Democratic Party about forming a new government in Jammu and Kashmir had run into rough weather. (That problem has subsequently been resolved.) In the JNU ambush, Kashmir was just the trigger-wire. The real goal was (and is) to tarnish the reputation of JNU, in order to eventually shut it down.
It was an easy problem to solve. The soundtrack of the confrontation was grafted onto the video of another meeting that took place two days later, this one addressed by Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the JNU Students’ Union. Kanhaiya belongs to the All India Students Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India. At the meeting he addressed, the refrain of “Azadi!” was the same, only the slogans raised were completely different. They demanded azadi from poverty, from caste, from capitalism, from the Manusmriti, from Brahminism. It was a whole other ball of wax.
The doctored video was broadcast to millions by major news channels, including Zee TV, Times Now, and News X. It was shameful, unprofessional, and possibly criminal. These broadcasts set off a frenzy. First Kanhaiya Kumar, and then, two weeks later, two other students accused of organising the Afzal Guru meeting, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, formerly members of the left-wing Democratic Students Union, were arrested and charged with sedition. Posters went up across Delhi putting a price on these students’ heads. One even offered a cash reward for Kanhaiya Kumar’s tongue.
The Kashmiri students who were actually seen raising slogans in the Zee TV footage remained unidentified. But they were only doing what thousands of people do every day in Kashmir. Can there be separate standards for sloganeering in Delhi and Srinagar? Perhaps you could say yes, if you argue, as many Kashmiris do, that all of Kashmir is a giant prison, and you can’t arrest the already incarcerated. In any case, did those students’ slogans really deliver a mortal blow to this mighty, nuclear-powered Hindu nation?
Matters continued to escalate in ever more ludicrous ways. Based on a joke on a parody Twitter account (“Hafeez Muhamad Saeed”), the home minister, Rajnath Singh, announced that the protest at JNU was backed by Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba and India’s equivalent of Osama bin Laden. Television channels began to suggest that Umar Khalid, a self-declared Marxist–Leninist, was a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist. (The hard evidence this time was that his name was Umar.)
Smriti Irani, the unstoppable minister of human resource development, who is in charge of higher education, said the nation would not tolerate an insult to Mother India. The saffron-robed Yogi Adityanath, a BJP member of parliament from Gorakhpur, said that “JNU has become a blot on education,” and that it “should be closed down in the interest of the nation.” Another self-styled man of god, the BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj, also clad in saffron, called the students “traitors,” and said they “should be hanged instead of being lodged in jail for life or they should be killed by police bullet.” Gyandev Ahuja, a BJP member of the Rajasthan legislative assembly and empiricist extraordinaire, informed the world that “More than 10,000 butts of cigarettes and 4,000 pieces of beedis are found daily in the JNU campus. 50,000 big and small pieces of bones are left by those eating non-vegetarian food. They gorge on meat ... these anti-nationals. 2,000 wrappers of chips and namkeen are found, as also 3,000 used condoms—the misdeeds they commit with our sisters and daughters there. And 500 used contraceptive injections are also found.” In other words, JNU students were meat-eating, chip-crunching, cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling, sex-obsessed anti-nationals. (Does that sound so terrible?)
The prime minister said nothing.
The students of JNU and UOH, on the other hand, had plenty to say. The protests on those campuses spread to the streets, and then to universities in other parts of the country. In Delhi, on the day Kanhaiya Kumar was to be produced before a magistrate, the war zone shifted to the courts. On two days in a row, sheltering under an oversized national flag, a group of lawyers who boasted openly of their affiliation to the BJP beat up students, professors, journalists, and finally Kanhaiya Kumar himself inside a courthouse. They threatened and abused a committee of senior lawyers that the Supreme Court had urgently constituted to look into the matter. The police stood by and watched. The Delhi police chief called it a minor scuffle. The lawyers gloated to the press about how they “thrashed” Kanhaiya and forced him to say “Bharat Mata ki jai.” For a few days, it looked as though every last institution in the country was helpless in the face of this insane attack.
THE RSS HAS NOW DECLARED that anybody who refuses to say “Bharat Mata ki jai!” is an anti-national. The yoga and health-food tycoon Baba Ramdev announced that, were it not illegal, he would behead anybody who refused to say it.
What would these people have done to Ambedkar? In 1931, when questioned by Gandhi about his sharp critique of the Congress—which was seen as a critique of the party’s struggle for an independent homeland—Ambedkar said, “Gandhi-ji, I have no homeland. No Untouchable worth the name would be proud of this land.” Would they have charged him with sedition? (On the other hand, garlanding portraits of Ambedkar, as the Sangh Parivar has done, and suggesting that he—the man who called Hinduism “a veritable chamber of horrors”—is one of the founding fathers of the Hindu Rashtra, is probably much worse.)
The other tactic the BJP and its media partners have used to silence people is an absurd false binary—the Brave Soldiers versus the Evil Anti-Nationals. In February, just when the JNU crisis was at its peak, an avalanche on the Siachen glacier killed ten soldiers, whose bodies were flown down for military funerals. For days and nights, screeching television anchors and their studio guests inserted their own words into the mouths of the dead men, and grafted their tinpot ideologies onto lifeless bodies that couldn’t talk back. Of course they neglected to mention that most Indian soldiers are poor people looking for a means of earning a living. (You don’t hear the patriotic rich asking for the draft, so that they and their children are forced to serve as ordinary soldiers.)
They also forgot to tell their viewers that soldiers are not just deployed on the Siachen glacier or on the borders of India. That there has not been a single day since Independence in 1947 when the Indian Army and other security forces have not been deployed within India’s borders against what are meant to be their “own” people—in Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Junagadh, Hyderabad, Goa, Punjab, Telangana, and West Bengal, and now Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Jharkhand.
Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in conflicts in these places. An even greater number have been brutally tortured, many of them crippled for life. There have been documented cases of mass rape in Kashmir in which the accused have been protected by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, as though rape is a necessary and unavoidable part of battle. The aggressive insistence on unquestioning soldier-worship, even by self-professed “liberals,” is a sick, dangerous game that’s been dreamt up by a cynical oligarchy. It doesn’t help either soldiers or civilians. And if you take a hard look at the list of places within India’s current borders in which its security forces have been deployed, an extraordinary fact emerges—the populations in those places are mostly Muslim, Christian, Adivasi, Sikh, and Dalit. What we are being asked to salute obediently and unthinkingly is a reflexively dominant-caste Hindu state that nails together its territory with military might.
What if some of us dream instead of creating a society to which people long to belong? What if some of us dream of living in a society that people are not forced to be part of? What if some of us don’t have colonialist, imperialist dreams? What if some of us dream instead of justice? Is it a criminal offence?
So what is this new bout of flag-waving and chest-thumping all about, really? What is it trying to hide? The usual stuff: A tanking economy and an abject betrayal of the election promises the BJP made to gullible people, as well as to its corporate sponsors. During his election campaign, Modi burned his candle at both ends. He vulgarly promised poor villagers that Rs 15 lakh would magically appear in their bank accounts when he came to power. He was going to bring home the illegal billions that rich Indians had parked in offshore tax havens and distribute it to the poor. How much of that illegal money was brought back? Not a lot. How much was redistributed? Approximately zero point zero zero, whatever that is in rupees. Meanwhile, corporations were eagerly looking forward to a new Land Acquisition Act that would make it easier for businessmen to acquire villagers’ land. That legislation did not make it past the upper house. In the countryside, the crisis in agriculture has deepened. While big business has had tens of thousands of crores of rupees worth of loans written off, tens of thousands of small farmers trapped in a cycle of debt—that will never be written off—continue to kill themselves. In 2015, in the state of Maharashtra alone, more than 3,200 farmers committed suicide. Their suicides too are a form of institutionalised murder, just as Rohith Vemula’s was.
What the new government has to offer in lieu of its wild election promises is the kind of deal that is usually available only on the saffron stock exchange: trade in your hopes for a decent livelihood and buy into an exciting life of perpetual hysteria. A life in which you are free to hate your neighbour, and if things get really bad, and if you really want to, you can get together with friends and even beat her or him to death.
The manufactured crisis in JNU has also, extremely successfully, turned our attention away from a terrible tragedy that has befallen some of the most vulnerable people in this country. The war for minerals in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, is gearing up again. Operation Green Hunt—the previous government’s attempt at clearing the forest of its troublesome inhabitants in order to hand it over to mining and infrastructure companies—was largely unsuccessful. Many of the hundreds of memorandums of understanding that the government signed with private companies regarding this territory have not been actualised. Bastar’s people, among the poorest in the world, have, for years, stopped the richest corporations in their tracks. Now, in preparation for the as yet unnamed Operation Green Hunt II, thousands of Adivasis are in jail once again, most of them accused of being Maoists.
The forest is being cleared of all witnesses—journalists, activists, lawyers, and academics. Anybody who muddies the tidy delineation of the state-versus-“Maoist terrorists” paradigm is in a great deal of danger. The extraordinary Adivasi schoolteacher and activist Soni Sori, who was imprisoned in 2011 but went straight back to her organising work after being released in 2014, was recently attacked, and had her face smeared with a substance that burnt her skin. She has since gone back to work in Bastar once again. With a burnt face. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a tiny team of women lawyers that offered legal aid to incarcerated Adivasis, and Malini Subramaniam, whose series of investigative reports from Bastar were a source of embarrassment to the local police, have been evicted and forced to leave. Lingaram Kodopi, Bastar’s first Adivasi journalist, who was horribly tortured and imprisoned for three years, is being threatened, and has despairingly announced that he will kill himself if the intimidation does not stop. Four other local journalists have been arrested on specious charges, including one who posted comments against the police on WhatsApp. Bela Bhatia, a researcher, has had the village she lives in visited by mobs shouting slogans against her and threatening her landlords. Paramilitary troops and vigilante militias, confident of impunity, have once again begun to storm villages and terrorise people, forcing them to abandon their homes and flee into the forest as they did in the time of Operation Green Hunt I. Horrific accounts of rape, molestation, looting, and robbery are trickling in. The Indian Air Force has begun “practising” air-to-ground firing from helicopters.
Anybody who criticises the corporate takeover of Adivasi land is called an anti-national “sympathiser” of the banned Maoists. Sympathy is a crime too. In television studios, guests who try to bring a semblance of intelligence into the debate are shouted down and compelled to demonstrate their loyalty to the nation. This is a war against people who have barely enough to eat one square meal a day. What particular brand of nationalism does this come under? What exactly are we supposed to be proud of?
Our lumpen nationalists don’t seem to understand that the more they insist on this hollow sloganeering, the more they force people to say “Bharat Mata ki jai!” and to declare that “Kashmir is an integral part of India,” the less sure of themselves they sound. The nationalism that is being rammed down our throats is more about hating another country—Pakistan—than loving our own. It’s more about securing territory than loving the land and its people. Paradoxically, those who are branded anti-national are the ones who speak about the deaths of rivers and the desecration of forests. They are the ones who worry about the poisoning of the land and the falling of water tables. The “nationalists,” on the other hand, go about speaking of mining, damming, clear-felling, blasting, and selling. In their rule book, hawking minerals to multinational companies is patriotic activity. They have privatised the flag and wrested the microphone.
The three JNU students who were arrested are all out on interim bail. In Kanhaiya Kumar’s case, the bail order by a high court judge caused more apprehension than relief: “Whenever some infection is spread in a limb, effort is made to cure the same by giving antibiotics orally and if that does not work, by following second line of treatment. Sometimes it may require surgical intervention also. However, if the infection results in infecting the limb to the extent that it becomes gangrene, amputation is the only treatment.” Amputation? What could she mean?
As soon as he was released, Kanhaiya appeared on the JNU campus and gave his now famous speech to a crowd of thousands of students. It doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with every single thing he said. I didn’t. But it’s the spirit with which he said it that was so enchanting. It dissipated the pall of fear and gloom that had dropped on us like a fog. Overnight, Kanhaiya and his cheeky audience became beloved of millions. The same thing happened with the other two students, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Now, people from all over the world have heard the slogan the BJP wanted to silence: “Jai Bhim! Lal salaam!” (Salute Bhimrao Ambedkar! Red salute!)
And with that call, the spirit of Rohith Vemula and the spirit of JNU have come together in solidarity. It’s a fragile, tenuous coming together, that will most likely—if it hasn’t already— come to an unhappy end, exhausted by mainstream political parties, NGOs, and its own inherent contradictions. Obviously, neither “the Left” nor the “Ambedkarites” nor “OBCs” are remotely homogenous categories in themselves. However, even broadly speaking, the present Left is, for the most part, doctrinally opaque to caste, and, by unseeing it, perpetuates it. (The outstanding exception to this, it must be said, are the writings of the late Anuradha Ghandy.) This has meant that many Dalits and OBCs who do lean towards the Left have had bitter experiences, and are now determined to isolate themselves, thereby inadvertently deepening caste divisions and strengthening a system that sustains itself by precluding all forms of solidarity.
All these old wounds will act up, we’ll tear each other to shreds, arguments and accusations will fly around in maddening ways. But even after this moment has passed, the radical ideas that have emerged from this confrontation with the agents of Hindutva are unlikely to ever go away. They will stay around, and will continue to be built upon. They must, because they are our only hope.
Already, the real meanings, the real politics behind the refrain of “Azadi” are being debated. Did Kanhaiya pinch the slogan from the Kashmiris? He did. (And where did the Kashmiris get it? From the feminists or the French Revolution, maybe.) Is the slogan being diluted? Most definitely, as far as those who chant it in Kashmir are concerned. Is it being deepened? Yes, that too. Because fighting for azadi from patriarchy, from capitalism, and from Brahminvaad is as radical as any struggle for national self-determination.
Perhaps while we debate the true, deep meanings of freedom, those who have been so shocked by what is happening in the mainland over the last few months will be moved to ask themselves why, when far worse things happen in other places, it leaves them so untroubled? Why is it alright for us to ask for azadi in our university campuses while the daily lives of ordinary people in Kashmir, Nagaland, and Manipur are overseen by the army, and their traffic jams managed by uniformed men waving AK 47s? Why is it easy for most Indians to accept the killing of 112 young people on the streets of Kashmir in the course of a single summer? Why do we care so much about Kanhaiya and Rohith Vemula, but so little about students like Shaista Hameed and Danish Farooq, who were shot dead in Kashmir the day before the smear campaign against JNU was launched? “Azadi” is an immense word, and a beautiful one too. We need to wrap our minds around it, not just play with it. This is not to suggest some sort of high-mindedness in which we all fight each others’ battles side by side and feel each others’ pain with equal intensity. Only to say that if we do not acknowledge each other’s yearning for azadi, if we do not acknowledge injustice when it is looking us straight in the eye, we will all go down together in the quicksand of moral turpitude.
The end result of the BJP’s labours is that students, intellectuals, and even sections of the mainstream media, have seen how we are being torn apart by its manifesto of hate. Little by little, people have begun to stand up to it. Afzal’s ghost has begun to travel to other university campuses.
As often happens after episodes like this, everybody who has been involved can, and usually does, claim victory. The BJP’s assessment seems to be that the polarisation of the electorate into “nationalists” and “anti-nationals” has been successful, and brought it substantial political gain. Far from showing signs of contrition, it has moved to turn all the knobs to high.
Kanhaiya, Umar, and Anirban’s lives are in real danger from rogue assassins seeking approbation from the Sangh Parivar’s high command. Thirty-five students of the FTII (one in every five) have had criminal cases filed against them. They’re out on bail, but are required to report regularly to the police. Appa Rao Podile, the much-hated vice chancellor of UOH, who went on leave in January and had a case filed against him, laying responsibility at his door for the circumstances that led to Rohith Vemula’s suicide, has reappeared on the campus, enraging students. When they protested, police invaded the campus, brutally beat them, arrested 25 students and two faculty members, and held them for days. The campus has been cordoned off by police—ironically, the police of the state of Telangana, which so many of the students on the campus fought so long and so hard to create. The arrested UOH students too have serious cases filed against them now. They need lawyers, and money to pay them with. Even if they are eventually acquitted, their lives can be destroyed by the sheer harassment involved.
It isn’t just students. All over the country, lawyers, activists, writers, and film-makers—any who criticise the government—are being arrested, imprisoned, or entangled in spurious legal cases. We can expect serious trouble, all sorts of trouble, as we head towards state elections—in particular the 2017 contest in Uttar Pradesh—and the general election in 2019. We must anticipate false-flag terrorist strikes, and perhaps even what is being optimistically called a “limited war” with Pakistan. At a public meeting in Agra, on 29 February, Muslims were warned of a “final battle.” A fired-up, 5,000-strong crowd chanted: “Jis Hindu ka khoon na khaule, khoon nahin woh pani hai.” (Any Hindu whose blood isn’t boiling has water in the veins, not blood.) Regardless of who wins elections in the years to come, can this sort of venom be counteracted once it has entered the blood stream? Can any society mend itself after having its fabric slashed and rent apart in this way?
What is happening right now is actually a systematic effort to create chaos, an attempt to arrive at a situation in which the civil rights enshrined in the Indian constitution can be suspended. The RSS has never accepted the constitution. It has now, finally, manoeuvered itself into a position where it has the power to subvert it. It is waiting for an opportunity. We might well be witnessing preparations for a coup—not a military coup, but a coup nevertheless. It could be only a matter of time before India will officially cease to be a secular, democratic republic. We may find ourselves looking back fondly on the era of doctored videos and parody Twitter handles.
Our forests are full of soldiers and our universities full of police. The University Grants Commission’s new guidelines for higher educational institutions suggest that campuses have high boundary walls topped by concertina wire, armed guards at entrances, police stations, biometric tests, and security cameras. Smriti Irani has ordered that all public universities must fly the national flag from 207-foot-high flagpoles for students to “worship.” (Who’ll get the contracts?) She has also announced plans to rope in the army to instil patriotism in the minds of students.
In Kashmir, the presence of an estimated half a million troops ensures that, whatever its people may or may not want today, Kashmir has been made an integral part of India. But now, with soldiers and barbed wire and enforced flag-worshipping in the mainland, it looks more and more as though India is becoming an integral part of Kashmir.
As symbols of countries, flags are powerful objects, worthy of contemplation. But what of those like Rohith Vemula, who have imaginations that predate the idea of countries by hundreds of thousands of years? The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Human beings appeared on it about 200,000 years ago. What we call “human civilisation” is just a few thousand years old. India as a country with its present borders is less than 80 years old. Clearly, we could do with a little perspective.
Worship a flag? My soul is either too modern or too ancient for that.
I’m not sure which.
Adapted from the introduction to The End of Imagination: Collected Essays 1998–2004, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.
This essay is a part of ‘Notes on Nationalism,’ a series by The Caravan that considers various aspects of the public discourse around sedition, nationalism, and Indian identity. You can read other pieces in the series here, here and here.