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How 'New India' Militates Against the Idea of India

Tanweer Fazal's latest book 'The Practices of the State: Muslims, Law and Violence in India' brings into perspective how the vision of a pluralist India has been turned into monochromatic nationalism over the last 10 years.
Wrestlers protest in India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Mysterious Boy K1853/ CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

The following is an excerpt from The Practices of the State: Muslims, Law and Violence in India by  Tanweer Fazal (Three Essays Collective, 2024).

The year 2019 marked a watershed in the biography of the Indian state. The resounding victory of the Hindu Right in the parliamentary elections, second one in continuation, was followed by a series of parliamentary amendments and enactments directed towards inverting constitutional guarantees and protections that the polity had until now offered to its minority citizens. The criminalisation of triple talaq, the abrogation of Article 370 and the enactment of Citizenship Amendment Act (2019)—patently contentious and perilous—were expeditiously executed.

Neither judicial challenges nor the wave of protests that sprung up in many parts of the country deterred the government. In fact, the judiciary too joined in this new drift in the idea of the Republic by two pronouncements of far-reaching consequences. The Supreme Court-directed National Register of Citizens published the final list of citizens in Assam, which ultimately left nearly two million residents of the state, mostly Bengalis, stateless. In addition, a five-judge bench of the Apex Court handed over the title of the site of the demolished Babri mosque for the construction of the Ram temple. In August 2020, the Prime Minister laid the foundation stone of the Ram temple in the company of the RSS chief, an organisation indicted for the demolition of the mosque in 1992.

Cover page of the book ‘The Practices of the State: Muslims, Law and Violence in India‘ by Tanweer Fazal (Three Essays Collective, 2024)

A ‘new normal’ and the illusive ‘idea of India’

The ‘new normal’, it is argued, militates against the idea of India — the vision of a plural society, of a non-denominational secular republic that its founders embraced and set out to realise once unfettered of colonial chains. For many commentators, this plummeting of the Indian core into a ‘monochromatic nationalism’ is a new one, and certainly ‘un-Indian’. In the late 1990s, Sunil Khilnani, in his treatise on the ‘idea of India’, saw a diversity of opinions, ideas and styles as constitutive of Indian nationalism — ‘a dhoti with endless folds’. A decade later, when the politics of Hindutva had begun baying for blood, Khilnani clarified that the plural idea of India had within its store, ‘conceptions that sought to singularise’ Indian diversity, and ‘make it a narrower place’. This politics had made Gujarat the ‘calendar girl of big business’, also the ‘purveyor’ of the ‘most chauvinistic and poisonous politics’, he argued (2012, p. 3). He, however, still continued to rest his hopes on democracy — an accomplishment of the founders of the founders that still stood tall in contrast to the broken, ragged histories of India’s neighbours.

A contrast was invariably drawn with Pakistan, which owed its genesis to religious nationalism, and had miserably failed to hold together. Khilnani feared that India might turn into a Hindu Pakistan if a politics centred on cultural supremacy was allowed to prevail.

Some years later when the liberal icon Shashi Tharoor echoed the same fear, he received a terrible backlash from the Hindu public, purportedly, for uttering the words Hindu and Pakistan in a single breath. But such comparisons with Pakistan or Taliban are not so uncommon in India today. The allegory is invoked to contrast the intrinsic Indian ethos of tolerance as against the fanaticism of its neighbour. The roots of an archetypal Indian tolerance are then traced to the ancient philosophy and Hindu view of the self and the world.

In his celebrated The Argumentative Indian (2005), Amartya Sen traces the roots of Indian pluralism to the co-existence of competing paths to truth in the Rig Veda. The crux of Tharoor’s critique of Hindutva in Why I am Hindu (2018) is how the former defies the inherent diversity of thought and plurality of practices that is characteristic of Hinduism. Far from embarrassing the proponents of militant Hindutva, this project ends up reinforcing the distortions that imaginaries of Hindu nationalism hinge on — a tolerant and accommodating Hindu whose Hinduness is intrinsic to Indian tolerance. This imaginary of the Hindu Indian then stands in contrast to portrayals of the treacherous and bigoted Muslim. The source of violence, the agent provocateur is then the Muslim — the sword-bearing, beef-eating Jihadist. …

If this vision of a plural and diverse India was so deeply embedded in its heart and soul, how did the idea unravel in no time? How come the institutions that it founded fell in line, offering not a modicum of resistance? Of all the recent breaches in the foundational idea of India, one with the most far-reaching ramifications is the alteration in the citizenship law that allows faith to make a surreptitious entry in the provisions for according citizenship to immigrants. It despatches a message loud and clear, that blood and belongingness will be a determinant of Indian nationality — jus sanguinus as against jus solis (the right of soil determined by birth). Undoubtedly, the secular foundation of Indian nationhood is at stake.

However, the loud and vociferous protests that followed its enactment remained confined to Muslim localities where too the repression of the state machinery was felt most viscerally. Even though a section of the intelligentsia and the secular civil society enlisted its support, a cross-sectional participation was evidently absent. Why is there no popular outcry when the very foundational principle of post-ndependent India is in tatters today?

On the contrary, what is discernible is virtually an endorsement from large sections of the old and new middle classes, as much as from the poor and the rich. The ‘principal carrier’ of this ‘idea of India’ that revels in old glories drawn from the mythical Hindu past is not only the liberal mainstream of Indian intellectual life, but ‘extends much further … to the left of this mainstream’ (Perry Anderson, 2015, p. 9).

Instead of lamenting the loss of good old days, a much more rewarding experience would be to excavate the past in order to comprehend the present. What turn of events, processes, relics and forces of history abetted the rise of this brute majoritarianism? In order to do so, a closer interrogation of the foundational ideas is perhaps obligatory.

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