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Earlier this year, the Republic of India turned seventy. On January 26, 1950, the country adopted a new Constitution, which severed all ties with the British Empire, mandated multi-party democracy based on universal adult franchise, abolished caste and gender distinctions, awarded equal rights of citizen-ship to religious minorities, and in myriad other ways broke with the feudal, hierarchical, and sectarian past. The chairman of the Drafting Committee was the great scholar B. R. Ambedkar, himself a “Dalit,” born into the lowest and most oppressed strata of Indian society, and representative in his person and his beliefs of the sweeping social and political transformations that the document promised to bring about.
The drafting of the Constitution took three whole years. Between December 1946 and December 1949, its provisions were discussed threadbare in an Assembly whose members included the country’s most influential politicians (spanning the ideological spectrum, from atheistic Communists to orthodox Hindus and all shades in between) as well as leading economists, lawyers, and women’s rights activists. When these deliberations concluded, and it fell to Ambedkar to introduce the final document — with 395 Articles and 12 Schedules, the longest of its kind in the history of the democratic world — to the Assembly, he issued some warnings, of which at least one was strikingly prophetic. He invoked John Stuart Mill in asking Indians not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.” There was “nothing wrong,” said Ambedkar, “in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness.” His worry was that “for India, bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country. Bhakti, in religion, may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, bhakti or hero-worship, is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”
When he spoke those words, Ambedkar may have had the possible deification of the recently martyred Mahatma Gandhi in mind. But his remarks seem uncannily prescient about the actual deification of a later and lesser Gandhi. In the early 1970s, politicians of the ruling Congress Party began speaking of how “India is Indira and Indira is India,” a process that culminated, as Ambedkar had foreseen, in political degradation and eventual dictatorship. In June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties, jailed all opposition politicians, and imposed a strict regime of press censorship. This was a time of fear and terror, which lasted almost two years, and ended when Mrs. Gandhi — provoked in part by criticism from Western liberals and in part by her own conscience — ended the Emergency and called for fresh elections, which she and her party lost.
If one is reminded of Ambedkar’s warning when reflecting on the career of Indira Gandhi, it brings to mind even more starkly the career of India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. In terms of their upbringing and ideological formation, no two Indian politicians could be more different than Modi and Mrs. Gandhi. One witnessed enormous hardship while growing up; the other was raised in an atmosphere of social and economic privilege. One had his worldview shaped by the many years he spent in the Hindu supremacist organization, the Rashtriya Swamaysevak Sangh (RSS); the otherwas deeply influenced by her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, who detested the RSS. One has no family; the other had children and grandchildren. One had to work his way up the ladder of Indian politics, step by step; the other had a lateral entry into a high position purely on account of her birth.
And yet there are significant commonalities. These very different personal biographies notwithstanding, it has long seemed to me that there are striking similarities in theirpolitical styles. Back in 2013, I wrote in The Hindu that “neither Mr. Modi’s admirers nor his critics may like this, but the truth is that of all Indian politicians past and present, the person Gujarat Chief Minister most resembles is Indira Gandhi of the period 1971-77. Like Mrs. Gandhi once did, Mr. Modi seeks to make his party, his government, his administration and his country an extension of his personality.” At the time the article was published, the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat was making his national ambitions explicit. Fifteen months later, Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning, under his leader-ship, the first full majority in Parliament of any party since 1984. Modi’s time in office has seemed to confirm the parallels between him and Indira Gandhi. As she had once done, he cut the other leaders in his party down to size; sought to tame the press; used the civil services, the diplomatic corps and the investigative agencies as political instruments; and corralled the resources of the state to build a personality cult around himself.
In January 2020, when the Republic of India turned seventy, Narendra Modi was facing his first serious challenge since he became Prime Minister six years earlier. Modi’s ideological formation in the RSS had convinced him that India’s destiny was to be a “Hindu Rashtra” — a theocratic state run by Hindus and in the interests of Hindus alone. In his first term as Prime Minister, Modi had kept these beliefs largely under wraps. But when he was re-elected with a large majority in May 2019, the majoritarian agenda came strongly to the fore. On August 5, 2019, the government of India abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, which accorded cultural and political autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This was done unilaterally, without consulting the people of the state (as the law required them to do). It was a wanton intervention in one of the most dangerous areas of contention in the world. The state of Jammu and Kashmir was abruptly converted into a mere “Union Territory.” It was henceforth to be ruled directly by New Delhi, preparatory to what the rulers of India called a “full integration with the Nation,” which the people of the Kashmir Valley feared would result in an invasion of their land by grasping outsiders and a transformation of this Muslim-majority state into a Hindu colony.
Worse was to follow. In early December, the Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This sought to give Indian citizenship to people fleeing religious persecution in three countries: Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Act was illogical — it ignored the largest group of stateless refugees in India, the Tamils from Sri Lanka; and it was also spiteful, for it had carefully specified that Muslims from any country, however persecuted they might be, would not get refuge in India. Moreover, the Modi government announced that the CAA was to be accompanied by a National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would demand, from everyone living in India, documentary proof of Indian parentage, length of residence in India, and so on. Those who were unable to “prove” to the government’s satisfaction that they had these papers would be declared illegal immigrants. But if they had the good luck to be Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Parsi, or Christian — that is, anything other than Muslim — they could apply to become Indians under the Citizenship Amendment Act. The CAA was a clear violation of Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution, which promised equality before the law and prohibited discrimination on the grounds of religion. Following on the downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir from full statehood to Union Territory status, the passing of the CAA represented a further — and fuller — ethnonationalist step towards the construction of a Hindu State. Were it to be implemented along with the NRC, as top government ministers had repeatedly threatened, Muslims would become, formally as well as legally, second-class citizens.
The abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood was met with muted protest by intellectuals and human rights activists, and little else. Prime Minister Modi and his hardline Home Minister, Amit Shah, clearly hoped that these new changes in the citizenship laws would likewise go uncontested. They were wrong. There were widespread protests across India, led at first by students, but then with a wide cross-section of the citizenry joining in. Elderly Muslim women staged a peaceful sit-in for weeks in South-East Delhi, this act inspiring many similar sit-ins in other cities and towns. The state sought to suppress the protests through colonial-era laws prohibiting gatherings of more than five people, but the non-violent and collective civil disobedience continued. Although the Acts targeted Muslims specifically, many non-Muslims participated in the protests, outraged at this whole stigmatization of their fellow citizens merely on account of their faith. The countrywide upsurge within India was accompanied by widespread condemnation of the Modi Government in the international press. This intensified when President Donald Trump visited India in late February, his visit coinciding with religious rioting in Delhi, the country’s capital, in which radical Hindus were the main perpetrators and Muslims the main sufferers.
At this time, it seemed that the degradation of Indian democracy had been arrested. The pushback against the cult of personality and the ideology of Hindu supremacy had begun and seemed as if it might perhaps accelerate. Then came the pandemic, and India, and the world, gasped in wonder and horror. I shall return to the consequences of covid19 for my country at the end of my essay. But first I wish to outline the historic roots of the struggle that has been unfolding within India, between the capacious ideals with which the Indian republic was founded and the majoritarian tendency that seeks to replace it. We must begin with the intellectual and moral origins of the Constitutional idea of India, which Narendra Modi and his party wish to consign to the ash heap of history.
Like the railways, electricity, and the theory of evolution, nationalism was invented in modern Europe. The European model of nationalism sought to unite residents of a particular geographical territory on the basis of a single language, a shared religion, and a common enemy. To be British, you had to speak English, and minority tongues such as Welsh and Gaelic were either suppressed or disregarded. To be properly British you had to be Protestant, which is why the king was also the head of the Church, and Catholics were distinctly second-class citizens. Finally, to be authentically and loyally British, you had to detest France.
Now, if we go across the Channel and look at the history of the consolidation of the French nation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we see the same process at work, albeit in reverse. Citizens had to speak the same language, in this case French, so dialects spoken in regions such as Normandy and Brittany were sledgehammered into a single standardized tongue. The test of nationhood was allegiance to one language, French, and also to one religion, Catholicism. So Protestants were persecuted. Likewise, French nationalism was consolidated by identifying a major enemy, although who this enemy was varied from time to time. In some decades the principal adversary was Britain; in other decades, Germany. In either case, the hatred of another nation was vital to affirming faith in one’s own nation.
This model — a single language, a shared religion, a common enemy — is the model by which nations were created throughout Europe. And it so happens that the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is in this respect a perfect European nation. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, insisted that Muslims could not live with Hindus, so they needed their own homeland. After his nation was created, Jinnah visited its eastern wing and told its Bengali residents they must learn to speak Urdu, which to him was the language of Pakistan. And, of course, hatred of India has been intrinsic to the idea of Pakistan since its inception.
Indian nationalism, however, radically departed from the European template. The greatness of the leaders of our freedom struggle — and Mahatma Gandhi in particular — was that they refused to identify nationalism with a single religion. They further refused to identify nationalism with a particular language, and — even more remarkably — they refused to hate their rulers, the British. Gandhi lived and died for Hindu-Muslim harmony. He liked to emphasize the fact that his party, the Indian National Congress, had presidents who were Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Parsi. Nor was Gandhi’s nationalism defined by language. As early as the 1920s, Gandhi pledged that when India became independent, every major linguistic group would have its own province. But perhaps the most radical aspect of the Indian model of nationalism was that hatred of the British was not intrinsic to it. Indian patriots detested British imperialism, they wanted the Raj out, they wanted to reclaim this country for its residents — but they did so non-violently, and while befriending individual Britons. (Gandhi’s closest friend was the English priest C.F. Andrews.) Moreover, they wished to get the British to ‘Quit India’ while retaining the best of British institutions. An impartial judiciary, parliamentary democracy, the English language, and not least the game of cricket; these are all aspects of British culture that Indians sought to keep after the British had themselves left.
British, French, and Pakistani nationalism were based on paranoia, on the belief that all citizens must speak the same language, adhere to the same faith, and hate the same enemy. Indian nationalism, by contrast, was based on a common set of values. During the non-cooperation movement of 1920-1921, people all across India came out into the streets, gave up jobs and titles, left their colleges, and courted arrest. For the first time, the people of India had the sense, the expectation, the confidence that they could create their own nation. In 1921, when non-cooperation was at its height, Gandhi defined Swaraj (Freedom) as a bed with four sturdy bed-posts. The four posts that held up Swaraj, he said, were non-violence, Hindu-Muslim harmony, the abolition of untouchability, and economic self-reliance.
When the Republic of India was created in 1950, its citizens sought to be united on a set of ideals: democracy, religious and linguistic pluralism, caste and gender equality, and the removal of poverty and discrimination. The basis of citizen-ship was adherence to these values, not to a single religion, a shared faith, or a common enemy. I would describe this found-ing model of Indian nationalism as constitutional patriotism, because it is enshrined in our Constitution. Its fundamental features are outlined below.
The first feature of constitutional patriotism is the acknowledgement and appreciation of our inherited and shared diversity. In any major gathering in a major city — say, in a music concert or in a cricket match — people who compose the crowd carry different names, wear different clothes, eat different kinds of food, worship different gods (or no god at all), speak different languages, and fall in love with different kinds of people. They are a microcosm not just of what India is, but of what its founders wished it to be. For the founders of the Republic had the ability (and the desire) to endorse and emphasize our diversity. Multiethnicity was not the problem, it was the solution. As the poet Rabindranath Tagore once said about my country, “no one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknown and were lost in one sea: here Aryan and non-Aryan, Dravidian, Chinese, the bands of Saka and the Hunas and Pathan and Mogul, have become combined in one body.” An appreciation of this rich inner diversity means that we understand that no type of Indian is superior or special because they belong to a particular religious tradition or because they speak a certain language. Patriotism was defined by the allegiance to the values of the Constitution, not by birth, blood, language or faith.
The stress on cultural diversity and religious pluralism was all the more remarkable because it came in the wake of the savage rioting of Partition. Gandhi and the Congress had hoped for a united India, but in the event, when the British left in August 1947, they divided the country into two sovereign nations, India and Pakistan. The division was accompanied by ferocious clashes between Hindus and Muslims, in which an estimated one million people died and more than ten million people were made into refugees. But Pakistan was explicitly created as a homeland for Muslims, whereas India resolutely refused to define itself in majoritarian terms. As the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote to the Chief Ministers of States in 1947, “We have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else. They have got to live in India. … Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.”
The second feature of constitutional patriotism is that it operates at many levels. Like charity, it begins at home. It is not just worshipping the national flag that makes you a patriot. It is how you deal with your neighbors and your neighborhood, how you relate to your city, how you relate to your state. In America, which is professedly one of the most patriotic countries in the world, every state has its own flag. And some states of India also have their own flag, albeit informally. Every November 1, when the anniversary of the formation of my home state, Karnataka, is celebrated, a red-and-yellow flag is unfurled in many parts of the state. It is not Anglicized upper-class elites such as myself who display the state flag of Karnataka, but shopkeepers, farmers, and autorickshaw drivers.
Patriotism can operate at multiple levels. The Bangalore Literary Festival (which is not sponsored by large corporations but is crowd-funded) is an example of civic patriotism. The red-and-yellow flag of Karnataka is an example of provincial patriotism. Cheering for the Indian cricket team is an example of national patriotism. This patriotism can operate at more than one level — the locality, the city, the province, the nation. A broad-minded (as distinct from paranoid) patriot recognizes that these layered affiliations can be harmonious, complementary, and reinforce one another.
The model of patriotism advocated by Gandhi and Tagore was not centralized but disaggregated. And it helped make India a diverse and united nation. Look at what is happening in Spain today. Why are so many Catalans keen on a nation of their own? Because they believe that they have been denied the space and the freedom to honorably have their own language and culture within a united Spain. The central-ized Spanish state came down so hard that the Catalans had a referendum in which many of them insisted upon nothing less than independence. Had the Republic of Spain been founded and run on Indian principles, this may not have happened. Had Pakistan not imposed Urdu on Bengalis, they may not have split into two nations a mere quarter of a century after independence. Had Sri Lanka not imposed Sinhala on the Tamils, that country may not have experienced thirty years of ethnic strife. India has escaped civil war and secession because its founders wisely did not impose a single religion or single language on its citizens.
One can be a patriot of Bangalore, Karnataka, and India — all at the same time. Yet the notion of a world citizen is false. The British-born Indian J.B.S. Haldane put it this way: “One of the chief duties of a citizen is to be a nuisance to the government of his state. As there is no world state, I cannot do this.... On the other hand I can be, and am, a nuisance to the government of India, which has the merit of permitting a good deal of criticism, though it reacts to it rather slowly. I also happen to be proud of being a citizen of India, which is a lot more diverse than Europe, let alone the U.S.A, USSR or China, and thus a better model for a possible world organization. It may, of course, break up, but it is a wonderful experiment. So I want to be labelled as a citizen of India.” A citizen of India can vote in local, provincial and national elections. In between elections he or she can affirm their citizenship (at all these levels) through speech and (non-violent) action. But global citizenship is a mirage, or a cop-out. It is only those who cannot or will not identify with locality, province, or nation who accord themselves the fanciful and fraudulent title of “citizen of the world.”
The third feature of constitutional patriotism, and this again comes from people such as Gandhi and Tagore, is the recognition that no state, no nation, no religion, and no culture is perfect or flawless. India is not superior to America necessarily, nor is America superior to India necessarily. Hinduism is not superior to Christianity necessarily, nor is Islam superior to Judaism necessarily. The fourth feature is this: we must have the ability to feel shame at the failures of our state and society, and we must have the desire and the will to correct them. The most egregious aspects of Indian culture and society are discrimination against women and the erstwhile “Untouchable” castes. A true patriot must feel shame about them. That is why our Constitution abolished caste and gender distinctions. Yet these distinctions continue to pervade everyday life. Unless we continue to feel shame, and act accordingly, they will continue to persist.
The fifth feature of constitutional patriotism is the ability to be rooted in one’s culture and one’s country while being willing to learn from other cultures and other countries. This, too, must operate at all levels. Love Bangalore but think what you can learn from Chennai or Hyderabad. Love Karnataka, but think what you can learn from Kerala or Himachal Pradesh. Love India, but think of what you can learn from Sweden or Canada. Here is Tagore, in 1908: “If India had been deprived of touch with the West, she would have lacked an element essential for her attainment of perfection. Europe now has her lamp ablaze. We must light our torches at its wick and make a fresh start on the highway of time. That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe so poor.” And here is Gandhi, thirty years later: “In this age, when distances have been obliterated, no nation can afford to imitate the frog in the well. Sometimes it is refreshing to see ourselves as others see us.”
As a patriotic Indian, I believe that we must find glory in the illumination of any lamp lit anywhere in the world.
The crisis of contemporary India may be described succinctly: the model of constitutional patriotism is now in tatters. It is increasingly being replaced by a new model of nationalism, which prefers and promotes a single religion, Hinduism, and proclaims that a true Indian is a Hindu. This new model also elevates a single language — Hindi. It insists that Hindi is the national language, and whatever the language of your home, your street, your state, you must speak Hindi also. Thirdly, this model luridly presents a common external enemy — Pakistan.
Whether they acknowledge it or not, those promoting this new model of Indian nationalism are borrowing (and more or less wholesale) from nineteenth-century Europe, where nationalism, for all its cultural riches, culminated in disaster. And to the template of a single religion, a single language, and a common enemy they have added an innovation of their own — the branding of all critics of their party and their leader as “anti-national.” This scapegoating comes straight from the holy book of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, which appeared in 1966. In his book Golwalkar identified three “internal threats” to the nation — Muslims, Christians, and Communists. Now, I am not a Muslim, a Christian, or a Communist, but I have nonetheless become an enemy of the nation. This is so because any critic, any dissenter, anyone who upholds the old ideal of constitutional patriotism, is considered by those in power and their cheerleaders to be an enemy of the nation.
In the wonderful Hindi film Newton, one character says, “Ye desh danda aur jhanda se chalta hai,” the stick and the flag define this country. This line beautifully captures the essence of a paranoid and punitive form of nationalism, based on the blind worship of the sole and solitary flag, and on the use of the stick to harass those who do not follow or obey you. This new nationalism in India is harsh, hostile, and unforgiving. The name by which it should be known is certainly not patriotism, and not even nationalism. It should be called jingoism.
The dictionary defines a patriot as “a person who loves his or her country, especially one who is ready to support its freedoms and rights and to defend it against enemies or detractors.” Note the order: love of country first, support of freedom and rights second, and defense against enemies last. And what is the dictionary definition of jingoist? One “who brags of his country’s preparedness for fight, and generally advocates or favors a bellicose policy in dealing with foreign powers; a blustering or blatant ‘patriot’; a Chauvinist.” The order is reversed: first, boasting of the greatness of one’s country; then advocating attacking other countries. No talk of rights or freedom, or of love either. Patriotism and jingoism are antithetical varieties of nationalism. Patriotism is suffused with love and understanding. Jingoism is motivated by hatred and revenge.
I have already outlined the founding features of constitutional patriotism. What are the founding features of jingoism? First, the belief that one’s religion, culture, and nation (and leader) are perfect and infallible. Second, the demonization of critics as anti-nationals and Fifth Columnists. Rather than engage critics in debate, hyper-nationalists harass and intimi-date them, through the force of the state’s investigating agencies and through vigilante armies if required.
In recent years, Indian nationalism has been captured by its perverted jingoist version. But the country remains some sort of democracy, where the jingoist version is popular among a large section of the population and has been brought to power through the ballot box. How did this come to pass? Why is it that the party of the Hindu Right has so many supporters in India today?
I believe there are four major reasons why jingoism is ascendant in India, while constitutional patriotism is in retreat. The first is the hostility of the Indian left to our national traditions. The Communist parties are still an important political force in India. They have been in power in several states. Their supporters have historically dominated some of our best universities, and been prominent in theater, art, literature, and film. But the Indian left, sadly and tragically, is an anti-patriotic left. It has always loved another country more than its own.
That country used to be the Soviet Union, which is why our Communists opposed the Quit India Movement, and launched an armed insurrection on Stalin’s orders in 1948, immediately after Gandhi was murdered. Later the country that the Communists loved more than India was China; and so, in 1962, they refused to take their homeland’s side in the border war of that year. Still later, when the Communists became disillusioned with both Soviet Union and China, they pinned their faith on Vietnam. When Vietnam failed them, it became Cuba; when Cuba failed them, it became Albania. When I was a student in Delhi University, there was a Marxist professor who taught that Enver Hoxha was a greater thinker than Mahatma Gandhi. But then Albania failed, too. So now the foreign country that our comrades love more than India is — what else? — Venezuela. The late (and by me unlamented) Hugo Chavez was venerated on the Indian left. If you think Modi is authoritarian, then Chavez was Modi on steroids — the ur-Modi. The megalomaniac Chavez destroyed the Venezuelan economy and Venezuelan democracy, and yet he continued to be worshipped by Indian leftists young and old.
The degradation of patriotism in India has also been abetted by the corruption of the Congress Party. The great party which led India’s freedom movement has in recent decades been converted into a single family. I have spoken of how the Left chooses its icons, but in some ways the Congress is even worse. When it was in power, it named everything in sight after Jawaharlal Nehru or his daughter or his grandson. Why couldn’t the new Hyderabad international airport have been named after the Telugu composer Thygaraja or the Andhra patriot T. Prakasam? Why Rajiv Gandhi? Likewise, when the new sea link in Mumbai had to be given a name, why couldn’t the Congress consider Gokhale, Tilak, Chavan, or some other great Maharashtrian Congressman? Why Rajiv Gandhi again?
Many, indeed most, of the icons of the national movement belonged to the Congress party. But the Congress has abandoned and thrown them away because it is only Nehru, Indira, Rajiv, Sonia, and now Rahul that matter to them. (The only Congressman outside the family they are willing to acknowledge is Mahatma Gandhi, because even they can’t obliterate him from their party’s history.) If someone like Hugo Chavez is adored so much by Indian leftists, then obviously this will help the jingoists — and likewise, if the Congress government named all major schemes and sites after a single family, ignoring even the great Congress patriots of the past, then that would give a handle to the jingoists, too. The corrupt and sycophantic culture of the Congress Party is a disgrace. When I made a sarcastic remark on Twitter about Rahul Gandhi becoming Congress president, someone put up a chart listing the presidents of the BJP since 1998 — Bangaru Laxman, Jana Krishnamurthi, L.K. Advani, Rajnath Singh, and so on, the last name on the list being Amit Shah, followed by “party worker,” whereas the presidents of the Congress in the same period were “Sonia Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi...Rahul Gandhi....”
A third reason for India’s jingoist fate is, of course, that jingoism is a global phenomenon, manifest in the rise of Trump, Brexit, Le Pen, Erdogan, Putin, Bolsonaro, Orban, and the rest, all of whom pursue a xenophobic, paranoid, often hateful form of nationalism. The rise of such narrow-minded nationalism elsewhere encourages the rise of jingoism in India to match or rival it, and friendships between the authoritar-ians are naturally formed. And finally we must note the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in our own backyard. Over the decades, the state and society of Pakistan have become danger-ously and outrageously Islamist. Once they persecuted Hindus and Christians; now they persecute Ahmadiyyas and Shias, too. And Bangladesh is also witnessing a rising tide of violence against religious minorities. Since religious fundamentalisms are rivalrous and competitive, every act of violence against a Hindu in Bangladesh motivates and emboldens those who want to persecute Muslims in India.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, Modi’s party, and its mother organization, the RSS, claim to be authentically Indian, and damn the rest of us as foreigners. Intellectuals such as myself are dismissed as bastard children of Macaulay, Marx, and Mill. As an historian, however, I would say that it is the ideologues of the RSS who are the true foreigners. Their model of nationalism — one religion, one language, one enemy — is foreign to the Indian nationalist tradition, to the Gandhian model of nationalism which was an innovative indigenous response to Indian conditions, designed to take account of cultural diversity and to tackle caste and gender inequality.
If the RSS model of nationalism is inspired by Europe, their model of statecraft is Middle Eastern in origin. From about the eleventh to the sixteenth century, there were states where monarchs were Muslims and the majority of the popula-tion was Muslim, but a substantial minority was non-Muslim, composed mainly of Jews and Christians. In these medieval Islamic states, there were three categories of citizens. The first-class citizens were Muslims, who prayed five times a day and went to mosque every Friday, and who believed that the Quran was the word of God. The second-class citizens were Jews and Christians whose prophets were admired by Muslims, as preceding Mohammed, the last and the greatest prophet. Third-class citizens were those who were neither Jews nor Christians nor Muslims. These were the unbelievers, the Kafirs.
In medieval Muslim states, Jews and Christians, the ‘People of the Book’, were defined as ‘Dhimmi’, which in Arabic means ‘protected person’. As a protected person, they had certain rights. They could go to the synagogue or church; they could own a shop; they could raise a family. But other rights were denied them. They could not enroll in the military, serve in the government, be a minister or prime minister. Nor, unlike Muslims, could they convert other citizens to their faith. Such was the second-class status of Jews and Christians in medieval Islam. This model was applied in Medina and Andalusia, and in Ottoman Turkey. While Kafirs (including Hindus) had to be suppressed and subdued, Jews and Christians could practice their profession and raise their family, so long as they did not ask for the same rights as Muslims.
This is precisely how the Hindu Right wants to run politics in the Republic of India today. Muslims in modern India now must be like Jews and Christians of the medieval Middle East. If Muslims accept the theological, political and social superiority of Hindus they shall not be persecuted or killed. But if they demand equal rights they might be.
The new jingoism in India is a curious mixture of outdated ideas of nationalism mixed with profoundly anti-democratic ideas of citizenship. And yet it finds wide acceptance. But its popularity does not mean that we should surrender to it, or that it is legitimate, or that it is genuinely Indian. For the Republic of India is an idea as well as a physical and demographic entity. Those of us who are constitutional patriots must continue to stand up for the values on which our nation was nurtured, built and sustained. If the BJP and the RSS are to continue unchecked and unchallenged, they will destroy India, culturally as well as economically.
The political and ideological battle in India today is between patriotism and jingoism. The battle is currently asymmetrical, because the jingoists are in power, and because they have a party articulating and imposing their views. The constitutional patriotism of Gandhi, Tagore, and Ambedkar has no such party active today. The Communists followed Lenin and Stalin rather than Gandhi and Tagore, and the Congress has turned its back on its own founders. But while Indians patriotsmay not currently have a credible party to represent them, they are — as the protests in December 2019 and January 2020 showed — willing to carry on the good fight for constitutional values even in its absence. Those protests admirably demonstrated that citizenship is an everyday affair. It is not just about casting your vote once every five years. It is about affirming the values of pluralism, democracy, decency, and non-violence every day of our lives.
It was ordinary citizens, not opposition parties, who presented the Modi government with the first major challenge since it came to power in 2014. The challenge was political, it was moral, it was constitutional. But then came the pandemic, and the balance shifted once more, back in favor of the ruler and the regime.
In the beginning of this essay I spoke of how Narendra Modi’s was the second great personality cult in the history of the Indian republic. The first, that of Indira Gandhi, had led to the imposition of a draconian Emergency. When Modi became Prime Minister, I myself had no illusions about his centralizing instincts, yet the historian in me was alert to how the India of 1975 differed from the India of 2014. When the Emergency was imposed by Indira Gandhi, her Congress Party ruled the Central Government in New Delhi, and also enjoyed power — on its own or in coalition — in all major states of the Union except Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, many states of the Union were outside the control of his Bharatiya Janata Party.
My hope therefore was that our federal system would serve as a bulwark against full-blown authoritarianism. In Narendra Modi’s first term as Prime Minister, the BJP won elections in some major states while losing elections in other major states. Even after Modi and the BJP emphatically won re-election at the national level in 2019, they could not so easily win power in the state Assembly elections that followed. The anti-CAA protests further strengthened one’s faith in the democratizing possibilities of Indian federalism. Large sections of the citizenry rose up in opposition to a discriminatory act that seemed grossly violative of the Constitution. The Chief Ministers of several large states were also opposed to the new legislation. This seemed like further confirmation that the present was not the past. Indira Gandhi could do what she did only because her party controlled both the Center as well as all the states in India (Tamil Nadu’s DMK Government having been dismissed a few months after the Emergency was promulgated). But this was not the case with Modi and his BJP.
The covid19 pandemic has changed this calculus. It has given Narendra Modi and his government the opportunity to weaken the federal structure and radically strengthen the powers of the Center vis-a-vis the States. They have used a variety of instruments to further this aim. They have invoked a “National Disaster Management Act” to suspend the rights of States to decide on the movement of peoples and goods, the opening and closing of schools, colleges, factories, public transport, and so on, and to centralize all these powers in the Central Government, effectively in the person of the Prime Minister. They have further postponed the disbursal of funds already due to the States as their share of national tax collections — substantial revenues, amounting to more than Rs 30,000 crores ($40 billion), which, if released, could greatly alleviate popular distress. They have created a new fund at the Centre, the so-called PM-CARES, which discriminates against the States in that it gives special exemptions (to write off donations as “Corporate Social Responsibility”) that are denied to those who wish to donate instead to the Chief Minister’s Fund of their own states. This fund gives the Prime Minister enormous discretionary power in disposing of thousands of crores of rupees as he pleases. The functioning of the fund is shrouded in secrecy, with even the Comptroller and Auditor General are not allowed to audit it.
This heartless exploitation of the covid19 pandemic to weaken federalism has been accompanied by a systematic attempt to further build up the personality cult of the Prime Minister. State-run television, senior Cabinet Ministers, and the ruling party’s IT Cell have all been working overtime to proclaim that only Modi can save India. Even as lives are lost and livelihoods are destroyed by the pestilence, the Prime Minister is going ahead with an expensive plan to redesign India’s capital, New Delhi. This will destroy the historic centre of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and replace it with a series of concrete and glass blocks. The showpiece of this project is a grand new house for the Prime Minister himself. As one writer has remarked, “the biggest irony remains that a prime minister from the humblest of backgrounds should yearn for a house on Rajpath, no less, to endorse his vision of personal greatness and legacy. Would Emmanuel Macron demand and, more importantly, get a house on the Champs Elysées? Can even Trump order himself a second home on the Mall?” The Prime Minister’s own justification of the project is that it was to mark not a personal but a national milestone—the seventy-fifth anniversary of Indian independence. This is disingenuous, because past anniversaries overseen by past Prime Ministers had not called for such a spectacular extravaganza. Apparently, what was good enough for Indira Gandhi and I. K. Gujral won’t quite do for the great Narendra Modi.
The architecture of power reveals a lot about those who wield it, and Modi’s redesign of New Delhi brings to mind not so much living Communist autocrats as it does some dead African despots. It is the sort of vanity project, designed to perpetuate the ruler’s immortality, that Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast and Jean Bédel-Bo-kassa of the Central African Republic once inflicted on their own countries. (I refer readers to V. S. Naipaul’s great essay “The Crocodiles of Yamoussoukro.”) And as this wasteful and pharaonic self-indulgence proceeds, an economy that was already flailing has been brought to the brink of collapse by the pandemic. The ill-planned lockdown has led to enormous human suffering. Working-class Indians, already living on the edge, are now faced with utter destitution. In his speeches to the nation since the pandemic broke, the Prime Minister has repeatedly asked Indians to sacrifice — sacrifice their time, their jobs, their lifestyles, their human and cultural tendency to be gregarious. Surely it is past time for citizens to ask the Prime Minister to sacrifice something for the nation as well. Anyway, he won’t.
When he was first elected Prime Minister in 2014, Narendra Modi said that he wished to redeem India from the thousand years of slavery it had suffered before his election. My son, the novelist Keshava Guha, commented at the time that Modi saw himself as the first Hindu leader to have the entire country under his command. Nehru and Indira — the two prime ministers of comparable popularity before him — were to him fake Hindus, their faith corrupted by their English education and what he and his party saw as an unconscionable partiality towards Muslims. My son is right. Narendra Modi thinks of himself as doing what medieval chieftains such as Shivaji and Prithviraj Chauhan could not do — make the whole country a proud Hindu nation. His followers call him Hindu Hriday Samrat, the Emperor of Hindu Hearts, but it would be more precise to call him Hinduon ka Samrat, an Emperor for and of Hindus. He is, to himself and millions of others, Emperor Narendra the First. The history of personality cults tells us that they are always disastrous for the countries in which they flourished. Narendra Modi will one day no longer be Prime Minister, but when will India recover from the damage he has done to its economy, its institutions, its social life, and its moral fabric?