Herding The Hindutva Flock

For Modi and RSS, Kashmir is a tool to consolidate their hold over the twice-born castes

The changes to Article 370 must be seen not as measure to deal with the Valley, but with the tensions within the RSS-BJP faith—Kashmir is Hindutva’s most potent and long-serving means of consolidating its flock. Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP photo
15 August, 2019

On 31 July, I spoke at an event titled, “An Enigma called Nation & the Question of Identity,” organised in Delhi by the Hindi literary publication Hans to mark the birth anniversary of the writer Premchand. Among my fellow speakers was Makarand Paranjape, the director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, in Shimla. In the course of his lecture, Paranjape referred to various inequities created by provisions of the Indian constitution and invoked Adivasis who do not have to pay taxes.

When the time for questions came, an irate member of the audience asked what taxes he expected from those who did not have an income. Paranjape clarified that he was only referring to tribal government servants in the Northeast. When the audience member confronted him with the enabling provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which give a special status to the northeastern states, Paranjape said that it was precisely such legal distinctions among citizens, as enabled by the schedule, which were the problem.

I was staggered by the absurdity of such a formulation. But as it would turn out, the stupidity was mine—and that of the many in the audience who did not take Paranjape seriously. Less than a week later, Article 370, the basis of Kashmir’s special status in India, was rendered ineffective with the same casual disregard for constitutional provisions that Paranjape had displayed on stage.

Adivasis who enjoy paying no taxes, Kashmiris who enjoy special status, Muslims who enjoy four wives, the Khan Market Gang who enjoy everything—it’s an endless list. It is a list that is not really about the group being singled out, but about the group for whom the pantomime is being played out. Narendra Modi won four assembly elections in a row appealing to Gujarati asmita, or pride, and he has now won two Lok Sabha elections appealing—in covert but rather evident ways—to Hindu pride.

Why does this appeal work? What is it about this Hindu pride that is so fragile?

When you look around the country, there is little reason for this fragility. The “twice-born” Hindu castes—a term used to denote caste groups that are permitted to undergo the sacred thread ceremony, which they consider a second birth—such as the Brahmin and the Bania communities, dominate any list that one could examine. For instance, Banias constitute 24 of the 50 richest billionaires in India, and the heads of most of our top companies as well as the faculty of Indian universities comprise almost entirely of Brahmins and Banias. In liberal and right-wing news organisations, too, the top leadership is entirely made up of the twice-born.

Even the debate about the idea of India is largely a debate between twice-born elites. Its participants have been the older, “secular” elite, who did nothing to change this twice-born domination—some hiding behind the Constitution, others behind the mythic tolerance of Hinduism—and those who subscribe to the new, more honestly bigoted Hindutva, who do not disguise their exaltation of the twice-born. This continuing and disproportionate influence—both in terms of wealth and intellectual capital—of a demographic that comprises less than 20 percent of the population has no equivalent in a free society anywhere in the world. In fact, it is more in keeping with the situation in South Africa during the apartheid era.

It is necessary to understand the transition from the old, secular twice-born elite to the recent, more assertive—but as twice born—elite that now dominates our politics to understand the fragility of the idea of Hindu pride. Three events converged in the rise of this new Hindu nationalism.

The first was the militant movement in Punjab and the rise of the Sikh radical Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, fuelled by the Congress and followed by Operation Bluestar, the assassination of the former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi and much of the Hindi belt in 1984. The ensuing election victory that year was the first majoritarian Hindu consolidation in independent India. The election, driven by an advertising campaign that evoked the threat posed to the nation by the Sikh minority, was a template for how such majorities would be crafted in the future, but at the expense of another minority—the Muslims.

It is no surprise that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologues such as Nana Deshmukh had come out in support of Rajiv Gandhi, and that the RSS cadre switched allegiance to the Congress, resulting in the Bharatiya Janata Party winning just two seats in the 1984 elections. But the defeat was a necessary prelude to what lay ahead—the Congress had created a Hindu vote-bank that the BJP would soon take over.

Tracing the representation of Muslims in parliament provides numerical evidence of the consolidation of the Hindu vote-bank. The figure rose steadily from two percent, in the first election in 1952, to ten per cent in 1980, approaching the percentage representation of Muslims in the Indian population. In 1984, it fell for the first time since Independence to eight percent, and it has since declined further to less than six percent today.

The second event crucial to understanding the rise of Hindu nationalism is the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party under Kanshi Ram, who founded the party in 1984. In the 1989 elections, the BSP won four of the 245 seats it contested, and polled nearly five percent of the corresponding vote share. In his book, The Chamcha Age, Kanshi Ram rather perceptively documents the problem that Dalit, tribal and Other Backward Classes politics in Indian democracy were being mediated by political parties largely controlled by the twice-born castes.

The BSP was Kanshi’s Ram’s response to this problem. A party that catered substantially to Dalit interests and hoped to reach out to tribals and Muslims—it was so conceived when it began—was a direct challenge to the Congress’s twice-born leadership who sought to represent the Dalit community.

The third event was unfolding parallel to the BSP’s rise—the response born out of the reservations proposed by the second backward classes commission, headed by BP Mandal, in 1980. The Mandal Commission’s report led to the political rise of independent OBC leaders such as Lalu Yadav and Mulayam Singh. Again, it posed a direct challenge to the control that the Congress could exercise over the OBCs.

Suddenly, the old Congress consensus started seeming unworkable. The twice-born-led Congress could no longer serve to modulate the aspiration to power of the other castes. On the other hand, the BJP, in tandem with the RSS, could seek to accommodate other castes in its fold by means the Congress had no recourse to—through their new and more strident Hinduism.

Simultaneously, the twice-born castes shifted their support from the Congress to the newly emerging face of the BJP, born out of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Where the Congress could only offer some patronage and economic inducements, the BJP-RSS combine could do this and more by appealing to the emotive tug of identity. Unwittingly, this is what the Congress had already managed to do in 1984. The BJP-RSS now sought to turn this temporary Hindu consolidation, achieved through hatred directed outside the Hindu fold, into a permanent mode of being. Their minority of choice was the Muslims, not chosen instrumentally—as was the case with the Congress’ choice of the Sikhs—but flowing naturally from the bigotry of their ideology, which predated its electoral use by several decades.

The work of gaining the support of the tribals of central India, and bringing them within the Hindu fold, was carefully directed and calibrated by RSS affiliates throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. The BJP’s victories in Gujarat in 2002 and Madhya Pradesh in 2003 were in part a result of this work. Its other consequences became rather tragically visible through the tribal participation in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat, in 2002, and the anti-Christian violence that took place in adjacent Jhabua, in Madhya Pradesh, shortly after.

This is work that is in still in the making. The growth in the BJP’s support base has happened not by ignoring caste, but by working systematically on it. As the BSP, shorn of Kanshi Ram’s original vision, largely became a party of the Jatav community, the BJP was able to work systemically among the non-Jatav Dalit communities. This was done both through the symbolism of gestures, as recently demonstrated by the prime minister Narendra Modi washing the feet of Valmiki sewage workers, or by increasing the involvement of the RSS and its allied organisations in the temples and religious rituals of particular Dalit castes. Much the same strategy was repeated among non-Yadav OBCs in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. From creating an iconography around semi-mythic figures such as Raja Suheldev of the Rajbhars—a school holiday was declared in Uttar Pradesh in his name—to increased representation for such castes within the party. In comparison to the Congress, the BJP has actually proved to be more inclusive to these castes.

Where the BJP and the RSS differ a little from the Congress is in ensuring that control and dominance of the leadership positions remain with the twice-born castes—even Modi is a Bania posing as an OBC. In fact, even as the BJP support base among the Dalit, tribal and OBC communities has expanded from 2014 to 2019, the union cabinet has come to be even more dominated by twice-born castes. In 2014, Modi’s cabinet comprised five Brahmins, three Rajputs and three members from the trading class—constituting 46 percent of the total strength. In his 2019 cabinet, there are seven Brahmins and one member from the Bhumihar caste, three Rajputs, and five members from the trading class—constituting 67 percent of the total strength.

The twice-born run BJP-RSS, of course, faces the same problem that the Congress had to face— retaining control of its OBC and Dalit support while denying them actual power. Their consolidation within a Hindu identity, though an improvement over what the Congress could offer, is not a permanent solution. The RSS-BJP’s solution required that their attention is constantly directed away from the dominance of the twice-born castes within Hinduism to the dangers that lie outside its fold. In other words, towards threats to the faith that lie within the borders of India and those that lie outside, in Pakistan—essentially, the Muslims within and the Muslims without.

Kashmir seems to fall in both categories. It is Hindutva’s most potent and long-serving means of consolidating its flock. It helps that this deployment of Kashmir or Muslims is not just instrumental—it has been a core part of the ideology that has sustained the RSS for much of its existence.

This is why we must understand that the BJP-RSS combine would like nothing better than to turn Kashmir into a permanent zone of attrition. The BJP-RSS has accommodated many identities that it cannot bring within its notion of Hinduism—for instance, through the Akali Dals, it has left Punjab to be managed entirely by its Sikh allies, and in the Northeast and Goa, it has accommodated the Christians. But its perception of Muslims as outside any accommodation is central to its world view.

The last five years are a good illustration of this ideology. The Modi government has allowed the security situation in Kashmir to worsen considerably since the United Progressive Alliance years, and in doing so, it has gained politically. The second Modi government owes its majority to the events in Kashmir—without the militant attack on Pulwama, in February this year, the BJP would still be struggling to form alliances to stay in power.

Given this, the changes to Article 370 must be seen not as measure to deal with the Valley, but with the tensions within the RSS-BJP faith. It is part of a package that will expand to include the construction of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and the enactment of a uniform civil code. The dangers of this form of consolidation are obvious—each new initiative needs to stoke the novelty of a population that will grow increasingly wary of baiting Muslims for votes. In this, Kashmir will always remain a constant.

It is a perfect scenario for the BJP-RSS agenda. The twice-born dominance in the country is reinforced through a permanent conflict zone where those on the receiving end are Muslims, and where the dead among the Indian security forces come largely from the very castes who are to be kept from power. As the casualties among the security force personnel in Pulwama reveal—or for that matter, as the count of the security-force casualties of any conflict in India will reveal—when it comes to dying for the country, the twice-born castes are represented in numbers that rarely, if ever, exceed their percentage in the population.

This, then, is the problem of Hindu pride. It is the pride of a minority that is less than 20 percent of the Indian population, but which constantly seeks to maintain a majority by directing attention and hatred against minorities—in particular, Muslims. Always living in fear of losing control, the desperation and the insecurity that drives this pride is real, and it is this fear that is the most overwhelming danger to the country.