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Majoritarianism: Malady of Our Time

Monday 1 April 2019, by Vinod Mubayi

The recent release of all the accused Hindutva terrorists by Indian courts in the Samjhauta Express bombing case that killed 68 persons including 44 Pakistani citizens, following the fizzling out of similar prosecutions in the bombings of Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid or Malegaon’s Idgah shows quite convincingly that under its present political dispensation, India is unable (or unwilling) to procure justice for the victims of violent acts when these are committed by actors owing allegiance to Hindutva ideals. With what face can the Indian government accuse Pakistan of its inability to incarcerate Hafiz Saeed, Masood Azhar or other assorted villains when Hindutva terrorists like the Aseemanands, members of groups Abhinav Bharat or Sanatan Sanstha and worse, the Babu Bajrangis, are either out on bail or go free? Blaming Pakistan’s ISI may get the Indian regime brownie points in selected arenas but more objective commentators will recall the remarks of veteran Maharashtra prosecutor Rohini Salian about India’s premier investigative agency NIA after the Modi regime came to power. She revealed that NIA had explicitly asked her to go soft on the pending cases against Hindutva terrorists. A few outliers, such as the recent arrests of alleged murderers responsible for killing rationalists and secularists Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi, and Lankesh, don’t make much of a difference to the overall picture – after all even the Pakistan justice system was able to hang Mumtaz Qadri, the publicly applauded Islamist killer of Punjab governor Salman Taseer.

The phenomenon, or rather malady, responsible for these atrocities that allows criminals to kill with impunity is majoritarianism, the exploitation and manipulation of ethnic and/or religious or, in some cases, social-cultural identity of the large majority of a country’s population for explicit political ends. The assiduous creation of an “Us” versus “Them” mentality is the main manifestation of this phenomenon. Political leaders of various countries in our times thrive on stoking and exacerbating these feelings among their public.

Majoritarianism is not specific to South Asia of course, it is now a worldwide phenomenon from Trump’s America to Orban’s Europe, not to speak of Erdogan’s Turkey or Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Israel has moved from a de facto Jewish majoritarian state, where the minority Palestinian Muslim and Christian citizens have fewer rights in practice, to a de jure one where Jewish privilege is enshrined in law.

New Zealand has proved to be an honorable exception to this otherwise distressing record; the horrific slaughter of 50 of its tiny minority of Muslims offering Friday prayers in Christchurch by a right-wing wing white nationalist was responded to very courageously by its indomitable Prime Minister Jacinda Ahern.

In South Asia, the founding father of Pakistan, Jinnah, in his famous speech of August 11, 1947, envisaged a country where a citizen’s religion would not be the business of the state. His successors, however, not only disregarded this advice they actively proceeded to sabotage it. From the time the military dictator Zia ul-Haq began his Islamization project in the late 1970s and 1980s, religious minorities have lived under increasing threat, especially after the passage of the hudood laws. But the main targets of the Islamic fundamentalists and their enablers in the state machinery who claim to represent the majority now seem to be other Muslims who are perceived to differ with the social and cultural views of the fundamentalists or belong to Islamic sects considered heterodox.

India began its independent existence with a liberal democratic secular constitution that gave full rights to the country’s numerous minorities. But the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism known as Hindutva has corroded these values. Hindutva’s openly proclaimed goal is to convert India from a secular state into a Hindu rashtra (nation) as a kind of mirror image of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In the first five or six decades of independent India, Hindu nationalism promoted its objectives by triggering large-scale communal riots many of which as in Gujarat 2002 became pogroms of minority Muslims or as in Kandhamal, Orissa of minority Christians. Since the Modi regime came to power in 2014, and Hindutva followers or aspirants began to control the state machinery at various levels, large-scale riots came to be viewed as too disruptive. The focus has shifted to intimidation of minorities through acts such as lynching of individuals by Hindutva mobs on various “cultural” grounds; allegations of cow slaughter and eating beef are the most common, adopting “anti-national” modes of dress like wearing a skullcap are others. The perpetrators even make videos of these macabre scenes on their cell phones confident that the police and local authorities will take no action.

Political consolidation has dictated that Modi and Shah either make no comments on these crimes or utter vague platitudes since the lynch mobs are an essential part of their base. With the rapidly approaching national elections, bolder spirits among the adherents of Hindutva have begun to talk openly about changing the constitution to transform India into a Hindu rashtra if their party and leader emerge victorious. These majoritarian trends in South Asia and in several other countries recall Europe of the 1920s and 30s when fascism gained majority support by demonizing minorities.

It needs to be remembered, however, that majoritarianism is a symptom, a particularly virulent one with horrific consequences for societies and countries, but a symptom nonetheless. The root causes have to be explored in the underlying socio-economic system that has a major impact on the lives and well-being of large numbers of people. The 1930s were epitomized by economic upheavals such as the Great Depression that rendered millions unemployed; our age is characterized by extreme inequality. Pakistan’s 22 families that were reputed to own much of the nation’s wealth a few decades ago may have passed into history but it is India’s handful of billionaires that regularly make Fortune magazine’s list of the globe’s richest families who provide the most egregious examples now. A grotesque symbol is Ambani’s 27 story tower in downtown Mumbai’s Cumballa hill equipped with helicopter landing pads; it purports to house a family consisting of just 4 members in a city that is home to some of the world’s most wretched urban slums and a country where the majority live in dire poverty.

In 2014, large numbers of youth and the aspiring lower middle classes were mesmerized by Modi’s slogans of development for all and voted him and his Hindutva camp followers into power. Five years later, the economy is a bust and joblessness has soared to record levels so Modi’s rhetoric has changed. Economic slogans have been consigned to the proverbial dustbin while hyper nationalism is the tune of the day. Aided by the Pulwama episode, the resulting bubble of anti-Pakistan sloganeering, and a pliant media much of it owned by crony capitalists, Modi now bills himself as the nation’s “chowkidar” (guardian/protector). It is also the age of major scams by the rich and well connected, like Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi, Vijay Mallya and others who looted public sector banks of thousands of crores and then fled abroad, not to mention mega scandals like the Rafale aircraft deal that rewarded Ambani and bypassed the public sector Hindustan Aircraft. With a very few notable exceptions, the mainstream media, knowing which side their bread is buttered, speak softly. Intimidation by the army of trolls maintained by the BJP ensures that opposition voices are muted.

How this will impact the elections next month is anyone’s guess. But there is little doubt that secular India faces its gravest test of survival.