Review: Majoritarian State, edited by Angana P Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot
Since May 23, a singular question has animated journalists and social scientists alike: How did the National Democratic Alliance repeat, even improve, on its 2014 majority that was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation performance?
Reams have been written on the rising of Hindu nationalism and ascendant right-wing politics, as scholars and reporters have struggled to explain how a raft of thorny issues, from farm distress to a slowing economy and sluggish growth of jobs, appeared to melt into insignificance in election season. Many of these converge on the personal appeal and popularity of the prime minister as the pivot around which the general election revolved.
But Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India attempts to do something far more ambitious; provide an exhaustive, contemporary and critical analysis of majoritarian sentiment in India, and what it has done to the country’s institutions, social fabric and body politic. The focus of the book is the impact of the NDA’s 2014 victory, but it is undeniable that reading it in the aftermath of the 2019 verdict is surreal and instructive.
Edited by three senior academics – anthropologist and historian Angana P Chatterji, anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen and political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot – the book comprises lucid multidisciplinary essays spanning roughly three decades and multiple spheres of influence of Hindu nationalistic politics – political hegemony, history writing, culture, Dalit and adivasi assertion, gender and sexuality politics. Consequently, the strongest chapters are those that look beyond the electoral and social influence of the current NDA administration and PM Narendra Modi to explore and explain Hindu nationalism.
The opening essay by Hansen draws on data and ethnography to place in context the importance of violence, force of law, and ‘law of force’, in India’s democracy, which, he argues, is fundamentally illiberal.
The well-argued, pithy essay showcases the treatment of minorities, Dalits and adivasis to underline India’s majoritarian tendencies, though it ends with the somewhat disquieting claim that the deepening of the country’s democracy in the 1980s and 1990s (through the inclusion of various Other Backward Class groups) has not led to a similar percolation of liberal values – maybe it would be useful to see how those values were framed in a Brahmanical context, and that collective rights for lower caste groups mean something completely different.
In an excellent essay, Jaffrelot argues why India was creeping towards becoming an ethnic democracy (the majority enjoying more rights than the minority), how the blocks of this were laid steadily since Independence, and how it has only hastened in recent years. An essay drawing upon his field work and previous publications has Ian Cook deliver a fascinating-yet-incisive analysis of Mangaluru, and the cultural tensions that shape what metropolis audiences understand as sectarian tensions. Historian Tanika Sarkar delves into the minutiae of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) education programmes and the reasons behind its impulse to redefine history. Sukhadeo Thorat lays bare the reasons behind Dalit anger, C Rajamohan presents a balanced report card of Modi’s foreign policy and Mridu Rai explains why Kashmir is central to the creation of the ‘other’ in the Hindu Rashtra.
My favourite, apart from Cook, is one on reflections and image formation of the Modi mask by Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi that tries to get under the creation of the Modi cult through widely available facemasks, and is an engrossing read weeks after an election where the PM’s personal image papered over the BJP’s vulnerabilities.
The essay by Flavia Agnes on triple talaq and one by Ratna Kapur on the rule of law are significant because they broaden the expanse of the study. Agnes, for example, argues that the creation of the universal category of woman severed from community ties hurt Muslim women, while Kapur shows that both the judiciary and liberal discourse have been complicit in failing to counter Hindu right-wing politics.
Read more: Minority-focused secularism will not work
Halfway through the book, I wondered how different the volume would look if the question of caste had not been mostly relegated to a chapter on Dalit politics. The rise of the Hindu right has also meant the reinvigorisation of the upper castes and the creation of an influential upper caste social base. An exploration of how caste relations have changed in times of Hindu nationalism, and how the BJP has been able to continue its outreach to smaller Dalit sub-castes while not alienating hostile upper castes, or let its fumbling on reservation affect its now-substantial lower caste support would have added to the volume. I wanted more in the chapter on queerness, especially on the question of pre-colonial valorization of same-sex practices, and wondered about queer acceptance (and dignity) viewed against the fetters of caste-controlled sexuality.
That aside, Majoritarian State is an excellent read for anyone aiming to understand the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. It is one of the best pieces of contemporary history writing in recent times, and one that will add our understanding of a period of intense, urgent and often violent change across all facets of India. The thumping victory of the Hindu nationalists on May 23 has only added to its importance.