The forthcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh have seen growing competition over the Hindu vote. Political parties across the spectrum are engaging in competitive Hindutva. Not only are the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party competing with the Bharatiya Janata Party to woo the Hindu vote, but even parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party, whose claim to fame has been in advancing the politics of social justice, are appealing to Hindu sentiments. BSP supremo Mayawati was recently filmed carrying a trishul. The SP, whose founder-patron Mulayam Singh Yadav enjoyed the epithet “Mullah Yam Singh Yadav”, has been promising to build temples to Parshuram, to Vishnu and other divinities. Such appeals demonstrate India’s transition away from a democracy to an ethnocracy. Even as the BJP clamps down on Opposition parties supportive of the farmers’ movements, we must not lose sight of our country’s transition to an ethnocracy. What is an ethnocracy? Israeli sociologist Oren Yiftachel defines ethnocracy as the specific expression of nationalism “where a dominant ethnos [people] gains political control and uses the state apparatus to ethnicise the territory and society in question”. Ethnocracies — think about Israel, Sri Lanka and Malaysia — rigidify distinctions between people considered the core of the nation and others considered peripheral and external to the nation. To be sure, the dominant groups in ethnocracies value democracy (at least for themselves) and often take pride in their democratic institutions. But a polity based on the structural exclusion of a section of its population cannot reasonably be said to qualify as a democracy.
A transition, since 2014
An ethnocracy has taken root in India since 2014, with Hindus established as the dominant people. Soon after the BJP stormed to power that year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the unprecedented step of celebrating his victory on the banks of the Ganga in the holy town of Varanasi. Varanasi was the parliamentary constituency that elected him, so it was to be expected that he would thank his voters. However, the spectacle of the Prime Minister, accompanied by senior colleagues who would go on to assume key cabinet portfolios, flaunting his Hindu nationalist credentials was a clear break with the past.
To be sure, India’s heads of government — even when personally agnostic — have frequented places of worship on key occasions and regularly greeted the country on religious occasions. But Mr. Modi’s political association with religion as an inaugural act was rare. The links were made even more clear when a few weeks further, addressing India’s Parliament for the first time, Mr. Modi referred to “1200 years of servitude” that Indians had suffered. This was a not-so-subtle reference to the presence of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and associated accounts of conquest, plunder, and domination by invaders of the Islamic faith. Mr. Modi’s early actions offered a glimpse into his future years in office, in which Hindus would come to be considered the core of the Indian nation.
The principle that a dominant Hindu ethnos can rule the country and marginalise others has firmly established itself. Images of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi emphasising his roots as a janeu-dhari Brahmin, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, reciting the Chandipath as public declarations of their Hinduness suggest that such a principle is being established well beyond the BJP and the Prime Minister.
Indeed, the BJP has been so successful in creating an ethnocracy in India that its rivals are increasingly emulating it. A recent report of tourism development schemes in Uttar Pradesh suggested that an overwhelming majority of legislators from the Opposition SP and BSP, both torchbearers of secularism and social justice in the 1990s, preferred Hindu religious sites over sites of other or no religion. Such performance of Hindu rituals is barely matched by performance of practices associated with other communities.
Fulfilment of imagination
Such developments resonate with the ideological vision of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. Established in 1925, the RSS strives to organise society in accordance with and ensure the protection of the Hindu dharma , or way of life. The RSS’s commitment to Hindutva, or ‘Hindu-ness’ at the expense of religious minorities is clear from a reading of its “vision and mission statement” that is publicly available on its website. Invoking the words of its founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the statement declares: “The Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindusthan. It is therefore clear that if Hindusthan is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture. If the Hindu culture perishes in Hindusthan itself, and if the Hindu society ceases to exist, it will hardly be appropriate to refer to the mere geographical entity that remains as Hindusthan. Mere geographical lumps do not make a nation. The entire society should be in such a vigilant and organized condition that no one would dare to cast an evil eye on any of our points of honour.” 22-Oct-2012, RSS
The RSS’s vision and mission statement endorse their founder’s reference to India as “Hindusthan”, a cultural term to refer to the land of the Hindus. The competitive Hindutva on display in Uttar Pradesh has brought the RSS’s vision and mission to fruition.
Indrajit Roy is Senior Lecturer in Global Development Politics at the University of York, United Kingdom