India is the one of the most diverse countries in the world, with a mammoth 1.25 billion people and a huge densely populated geography.
Correspondingly, social and political dynamics in India are highly complex. India’s social fault lines are multi-dimensional, ie based on caste, ethnicity, language, community, and even race. Gender-related issues are increasingly becoming part of the socio-political discourse.
Also, it has become important to understand history in order to get a real sense of this conceptual mess of India’s new identity politics.
Why so diverse?
India is no monoracial or, broadly mono-cultural place like Europe, East Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa. Groups of Indo-Europeans like the Indo-Iranian branch of the early Aryans and the later Aryans and Mongoloids like Scythians, Huns, Pathans, and Central Asian Turko-Mongols immigrated to the Indian sub-continent in ancient to late medieval times. They mingled or co-inhibited with the native Austro-Asiatic communities.
However, this mix of plethora immigrant and native communities took place over various periods of history and gradually led to a relationship hierarchy and equilibrium among these groups. Many ancient communities dissolved, and many new ones were born in the course of time.
By the medieval times, two main yet broad civilisational streams became visible: Vedic and Indian Islamic.
The Vedic stream was the larger one, but it was extremely diverse internally, as it tried to bring the Austro-Asiatic communities of various parts of Indian into its fold.
There was no sense of oneness among the sub-streams of the Vedic civilisational stream. Since colonial times and with the gradual advent of modern society and polity, this vast and diverse population group was collectively named as “Hindu” by the colonisers, which became popular for various socio-political reasons.
There are about 4,000 caste communities among the Hindus (largely local, not quite centrally), socially categorised through established Brahminical notions (and challenged in recent times) into five major ritual hierarchical groups: Brahmin, Khsatriya, Kayastha, Vaisya, Shudra, and out-caste; though many such categorisations are contested by one group or the other.
Enter the Islamic stream
The Islamic stream is a bit less diverse in terms of faith and religious practices in comparison to Hinduism.
The diversity in these areas reduced recently in the sub-continent with the decline of Sufi-Barelvi Islam facing threats and intimidation from aggressive Deobandi and Sunni monolithic groups.
Yet, the linguistic and cultural diversity that the sub-continental Muslims have among themselves is still immense.
Partition of the sub-continent along communal lines was intended to solve the communal friction in the political sphere. But ironically it has created various kinds of other problems.
Pakistan was, supposedly, the outcome of the sub-continental Muslim political solidarity. Yet, ironically, it trifurcated the community with each physical section having roughly equal fractions ie West Pakistan, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and India. Notwithstanding the Partition period and post-Partition migration, till the 1960s, India retained a substantial Muslim population.
Secular at heart?
Realising the remaining diversity of India, the liberal anti-colonial nationalist leadership of India continued with their, by and large, inclusive nationalism and they went on to frame a fitting constitution for the country. Secularism in the Gandhian concept of “Sarba Dharma Sambhav” has always been implicit in the idea of India, and the word “secularism” was inscribed in the founding document of the state in the 1970s for better clarity.
Sub-national or local social group solidarity and expression of identity in various forms had been prevalent since independence in the political landscape, but without any serious challenge to the wisely crafted and inclusive and long-term, secular “idea of India.”
It seems that the saffron’s mindless hunger for political power and flawed majoritarian idea of the state have given birth to this new identity politics revolving around the majority religious community
Why, then, are sensible people getting alarmed with the BJP and its allied right wing outfits’ Hindutva identity politics? Are they right to be worried? Indeed they are. There are several strong reasons.
Broader Hindutva identity politics isn’t something entirely new in India, but the Modi version is. Previously, Vajpayee-Advani also used Hindutva in politics but after ascending to power they, more or less, performed “Raj Dharma” -- ie standard role of an Indian government, especially in the sensitive areas to ensure communal harmony, public order, etc.
Modi-Amit Shah and co pushed the limits of Hindutva and have taken it to a new level by mixing a greater degree of hatred and violence.
The hatred trick involves unnecessary provocation of Muslim rulers of India, and that too in a distorted and bad light to instill retrospective anti-Muslim victimhood among the overwhelming Hindu majority.
Saffron’s mindless hunger
All sorts of local and global issues ranging from space for Muslim graveyard to some demographic changes to international terrorism are being used as a means to perpetually remain in power -- and in the process, turning uniquely diverse India into an artificial, monolithic yet messily vague “Hindu Rashtra” of a fascist nature.
Meanwhile, nothing much has been delivered on the main election promise of all inclusive development that stimulated the youth vote in Modi’s favour.
It’s like a mean shift from Plan A ie delivery on development, to Plan B ie Hindutva identity politics -- with all its vices like lynching minorities, cow vigilantism, propaganda, and dehumanisation of Muslims.
Religious identity politics has the danger of bringing forth regressive religious faiths and myths openly in public life as alternative facts.
Overall, it seems that the saffron’s mindless hunger for political power and flawed majoritarian idea of the state have given birth to this new identity politics revolving around the majority religious community in India.
Now, as anticipated by many, the politics of division is expanding beyond the communal line to other fault lines like caste and language.
The Hindutva protagonists are either clueless and ignorant of the overall and long-term effects of divisive identity politics, or are deliberately taking a great risk with the stability of a fragile nation.
It’s to be seen in the coming days whether these protagonists regain sanity and how the progressive socio-political forces deal with this challenge.
Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a freelance commentator on politics, society, and international relations. He currently works at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).