• Notes from the Tenth Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture

    A conversation with Akeel Bilgrami about the rise of communal ideology in India

    Sneha Chowdhury

    December 22, 2017

    Image courtesy Global Thought Columbia University

    This year, the tenth Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer memorial lecture was delivered by Professor Akeel Bilgrami on 8 December, 2017, in the wake of the twenty fifth anniversary of the planned demolition of Babri Masjid and the beginning of the devastating Bombay riots. There could not have been a better occasion and time to learn about the history of communalism in modern India because the event was organised to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, who tirelessly worked for communal harmony during his lifetime and was also the founder of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Professor Bilgrami, who is Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, and has been deeply invested in the study of secularism all his life, was gracious enough to meet me before the lecture and talk to me about the rise of communal ideology in India in recent years, especially after the rise of BJP in India.

    When I asked him rather naively what lies ahead for a generation wracked by communal violence — a generation that wants to fight the forces causing such violence – he responded by saying that we need to understand the specific nature of such violence, and in doing so, gauge exactly when such violence took its root. But he provided an important caveat – he suggested that we need to first understand the difference between antecedents and roots while looking at the recent history of communal violence in India before we consolidate a movement to fight it. Historians, especially those belonging to progressive circles, often hark back to the Hindu Mahasabha and its opposition to important nationalist movements, the role people like Savarkar, Mookherjee and others played in consolidating a monolithic Hindu identity that defines itself in opposition to Muslim identity. This is an important antecedent, that is, the birth of the Hindu Mahasabha certainly foreshadows later instances of communal violence in India in general, but the roots of the communal violence we see now lie elsewhere. They lie in the formation and the implementation of the Mandal Commission in 1990. The BJP’s dream of a singular, unified Hindu identity was about to be disintegrated and divided along caste and class lines. Both L.K Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee nearly threatened to withdraw their support if the government did not review its stand. According to Professor Bilgrami, the rise of the BJP in its current avatar should be traced back to this important event. The eighties and the nineties, therefore, planted new roots of communal violence in India. This may also further help us understand how the hindutva side of the BJP government and its political economy, which is a neo-liberal economy, prop each other up. Their apathy for the deprived classes also comes from their failure to gauge the millennia-long violence against dalits and minorities in our country. The ban on beef, the mindless torture on minorities by self-styled gaurakshas, demonetisation are some of the symptoms of this apathy (stemming from their desire to consolidate a singular undivided Hindu identity) from recent times.

    This brings us to his illuminating lecture on the relationship between populism or populist rhetoric and fascism which points to the limits of liberal discourse to address the rise of communal or rightwing ideology in India. Populism is defined as a political approach that aims to disrupt the existing social order by mobilising the common people against elites. But, populism has become a word of “opprobrium”, to borrow a word from Professor Bilgrami’s lecture, for both the rightwing and those who belong to progressive circles because of the blatant appropriation of the term and populist rhetoric by the former (we must not forget that Modi’s rise can be attributed to his populist rhetoric of being a common man – someone who garnered favour because of his humble background as a one-time chaiwalla, to say nothing about the election of Ram Nath Kovind — who is a dalit — as the president of India) and the unfortunate failure of the latter to capture the common man’s concerns. He expresses concern over a “movement vacuum” in our country, a gap filled by some important student movements in recent times, but a consolidated fight against rightwing forces cannot ignore the roots of the communal violence seen in recent times, and has to take into account the question of caste and thereby define a strong populist movement by reclaiming populism as an approach that is in favour of dalits and muslims in our country.

    In order to explain the fascist tendencies of rightwing-communal ideology in India, I quote these memorable lines from his talk:

    Apart from the feature of finding the external enemy within (the Jews then, Muslims now) and despising and subjugating it, there are several other details:  above all there is the sinister and powerful paramilitary organisation of the RSS shaping the ideological outlook of the government (no other right wing nationalism in the world, so far as I know has anything quite like this); then there is the menace of a vigilante youth group (the ABVP) mimicking the Balillas in Mussolini’s Italy, bullying students on campuses who raise deep questions about caste or about economic inequality or about Kashmir or…; then there is the calling critics of the government ‘treasonous’ and ‘anti-national’; then there is the constant talk of purity in caste which echoes racialist attitudes on blood and descent in European fascism, and finally there is the ‘fusion’ of the interests of the corporations and the state which was Mussolini’s explicit definition of fascism and which is exemplified in the strident neo-liberal aspirations of the Indian government with widespread support among a wide range of classes including of course, as I said, the middle classes. 

    Perhaps now, the newly elected dalit leader Jignesh Mevani from the Vadgam constituency of Gujarat can guide the way and stand as a beacon in such dire times.

    Akeel Bilgrami is an Indian-born philosopher of language and of mind, and the author of Belief and MeaningSelf-Knowledge and Resentment, and Politics and the Moral Psychology of Identity  as well as various articles in Philosophy of Mind as well as in Political and Moral Psychology. Bilgrami is currently the Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York.

    Sneha Chowdhury is member of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers' Forum.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

    Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.