“The values of Hindu nationalism have become the default setting of Indian politics”
An excerpt from Malevolent Republic
July 28, 2019
Since 2014, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party has unleashed forces that are irreversibly transforming the country. Indian democracy, honed over decades, is now the chief enabler of Hindu extremism. Bigotry has been ennobled as a healthy form of self-assertion, and anti-Muslim vitriol has deluged the mainstream, with religious minorities living in terror of a vengeful majority. Congress now mimics Modi; other parties pray for a miracle.
Written by KS Komireddi, Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India is a blistering critique of India from Indira Gandhi to the present. Through the book, Komireddi lays bare the cowardly concessions to the Hindu right, convenient distortions of India’s past and demeaning bribes to minorities that led to Modi’s decisive electoral victory.
The following is an excerpt from the Coda to the book.
When, finally, we reached the place
We hardly knew why we were there.
The trip had darkened every face,
Our deeds were neither great nor rare…
India under Modi has undergone the most total transformation since 1991. Hindu chauvinism, ennobled as a healthy form of self-assertion, has become so untameably wild that it cannot be challenged on terms other than its own. Hindu rage that once manifested itself in localised violence has metastasised into a pan-national cancer. Anti-minority vitriol that once lurked on the peripheries of high politics has deluged the mainstream. Democratic institutions have been repurposed to abet Hindu nationalism. The military has been politicised, the judiciary plunged into the most existential threat to its independence since 1975. Kashmir has never more resembled a colonial possession. And an incipient yearning for disaffiliation has crystallised in peninsular India.
The hoax of a technocratic moderniser crafted by an ensemble of intellectuals and industrialists collapsed early on under the burden of Modi’s incompetence, vainglory and innate viciousness. Five years later, we have more than a glimpse of the New India he has spawned. It is a reflection of its progenitor: culturally arid, intellectually vacant, emotionally bruised, vain, bitter, boastful, permanently aggrieved and implacably malevolent: a make-believe land full of fudge and fakery, where savagery against religious minorities is among the therapeutic options available to a self-pitying majority frustrated by Modi’s failure to upgrade its standard of living.
And it is only in its early stage. All those who believe they will remain untouched by its wrath are delusional. If Ehsan Jafri, a former member of parliament with a line to the deputy prime minister’s office, could be dragged out of his home and gashed and burned alive, what makes anyone think he or she will remain unharmed? If Aamir Khan, one of India’s biggest film stars, can be unpersoned; if Gauri Lankesh, one of its boldest journalists, can be shot dead; if Ramachandra Guha, one of its greatest historians, can be stopped from lecturing; if Naseeruddin Shah, among its finest actors, can be branded a traitor; if Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister, can be labelled an agent of Pakistan by his successor; if B.H. Loya, a perfectly healthy judge, can abruptly drop dead; if a young woman can be stalked by the police machinery of the state because Modi has displayed an interest in her—what makes the rest of us think we will remain untouched and unharmed? Unless the republic is reclaimed, the time will come when all of us will be one incorrect meal, one interfaith romance, one unfortunate misstep away from being extinguished. The mobs that slaughtered ‘bad’ Muslims will eventually come for Hindus who are not ‘good’.
India’s tragedy is that just when it is faced with an existential crisis, there exists no pan-Indian alternative to the BJP. What remains of the opposition is bleached of conviction. The values of Hindu nationalism have become the default setting of Indian politics. The centre has oscillated very far to the right. Five years ago, Modi went to great lengths to manufacture the impression that he had shed his ideological baggage; over the next five years, Rahul Gandhi expended tremendous energies to give himself a religious makeover. The Congress presidenthas toured temples, brandished his Brahmin caste and posted photos of himself on religious pilgrimages. In 2018, when the management of an ancient Hindu temple in southern India defied the Supreme Court’s order to open its gates to female worshippers, the party of Nehru again fell behind the faction of clerical reaction. Later that year, Congress stitched together a governing coalition in Madhya Pradesh, pushing the BJP from power in a state it had ruled for fifteen years. The change of guard was greeted as a new beginning, hailed as a blow to the Hindu-nationalist project. One of the first acts of the Congress-led government was to allocate Rs 450 crore for cow shelters.Its next act was to invoke the National Security Act against three Muslim men accused of slaughtering cows in the state.
Fifty years before Modi became prime minister, the Congress leader Lal Bahadur Shastri, the republic’s second prime minister, was invited by a journalist to talk about his faith. Shastri’s answer was curt: ‘one should not discuss one’s religion in public.’3 Today’s Congress has no such compunctions. Acquisition of power is the principal objective of a party that now seems to exist solely to provide subsistence to those who feed off it. And so it has taken to mimicking the BJP and annexing its most explosive causes. In the Hindu heartlands of the north, its leaders accuse Modi of not evincing sufficient ‘passion for Lord Rama’4 and promise voters that a ‘Rama temple will come up in Ayodhya only when the Congress comes to power’5. If a temple rises on the site of the Babri mosque, it will be as a tombstone for the secular state. When the party that claims to be the ‘secular’ alternative champions the temple, is it triangulation or treachery?
India will leap to a point from which return will become extremely difficult if Modi remains in power at the head of a government with an absolute majority in parliament. Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution to brutalise Indians. Modi will seek to write his ideology into the Constitution to bisect them. If he succeeds, Hindu nationalism will become the official animating ideology of the republic. There will be separate classes of citizens in law. Bigotry will not then be a deviation from the ideals of the republic: it will be an affirmation of them. India will become Pakistan by another name.
If Modi loses?
The defeat will spur a great deal of commentary on the redemptive qualities of Indian democracy. But a post-Modi government, whether it is a coalition led by Congress or a Congress-free bricolage of regional forces, will be in danger of suffering the same fate as the post-Emergency government in 1976: an unwieldy alliance lofted into power on account of what it was not—it was not Indira, and it was not Congress— before collapsing in short order because it could not agree upon what it was. The Hindu-nationalist project will neither dissipate nor die if Modi is defeated. It will go into remission. Its leaders, cadres, believers will regroup and recrudesce. They are incompetent in government: they are peerless in opposition. Modi’s pre-prime ministerial career is a lesson in how India’s shameless elites can be co-opted to pimp for their cause: a commitment to the market is all they ask in return for their services. And on any given day, there are tens of thousands of activists of the RSS, spread out across India, preaching the gospel of Hindu nationalism and fomenting a revolution from the bottom-up. They believe in their cause. Their adversaries long ago abandoned theirs.
That is why we are here.
We inhabit the most degraded moment in the history of the republic, the culmination of decades of betrayals, the eruption of a long-suppressed rage. But the good thing about bad times is that they are great clarifiers. We can see where we stand. The past five years have shattered so many illusions, dispelled so much fog. We can begin to accept how we arrived here: a journey lined with corruption, cowardly concessions to religious nationalists, demeaning bribes to the minorities, self-wounding distortions of the past and wholesale abandonment of the many for the few.
Modi has drawn out the very worst in many Indians. But his reign has also smashed the complacency that governed our attitudes and activated citizenly antibodies across the country. It has belatedly awakened us to what we may be poised forever to lose. It has revealed to us that the republic bequeathed by the founders was not a sham. It was an instantiation of ideals worth fighting for: rising from the inferno of Partition, it defiantly rejected the baleful idea that national unity could not be forged in the crucible of human multiplicity, that permanent political division was the only resolution to the predicament of religious variety. Modi, an affront to that idea, is also the result of the disfigurement of that idea. Those who preceded him fostered the conditions for his breakthrough; and he has dragged India, already heavy with the vices of yesteryear, to depths from which recovery may take generations. Can we give up on India? Seven decades after the holocaust of Partition in the name of religious nationalism, can we throw away the improbable unity for which so many good people sacrificed their everything?
A year before Modi was born, at a time when Muslims were still fleeing or being driven out of India for Pakistan, the poet Abdul Hayee, who wrote under the name Sahir Ludhianvi, made the contrariwise journey, leaving Pakistan for India. It was an audacious act of reclamation. One of my most cherished possessions for many years was an old cyclostyled copy of Sahir’s poems, beautifully annotated by hand. I don’t know from whom I inherited it, but there was in it this verse, written after Pakistan had waged yet another war in the name of religion to validate the divisive logic of its birth, which its previous owner had underlined:
Woh waqt gaya, woh daur gaya jab do qaumon ka nara tha,
Woh log gaye is dharti se jinka maqsad batwara tha.
Ab ek hain sab Hindustani,
Ab ek hain sab Hindustani.
That time is past, that epoch is bygone,
When there was the clamour of two nations;
From this land are gone the people whose dream was
Now all Indians are one, now all Indians are one.
Sahir spoke for a generation of people who did more than believe in India. They placed their lives on the line for it. They willed India into existence merely by being present in it. Whenever I went to Bombay, I stopped by Sahir’s final resting place to say a prayer. But there is no trace of Sahir today in his beloved city: some years ago, his grave was razed, its remains disinterred and destroyed, and a thick new layer of earth poured over it to create a fresh grave. If we do not reclaim it, there will be no trace of his India in the not too distant future.
This is an excerpt from Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India, written by KS Komireddi and published by Context. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.