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India’s conscience

It has been more than a year since progressive students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) ignited a countrywide movement against the excesses of the Indian state. Long considered a denizen of anti-establishment thinking, JNU became the epicentre of a mass mobilisation of young people against the ‘doctored’ trial and execution of Kashmiri separatist, Afzal Guru. The leaders of the student movement, including Kanhaiya Kumar, then president of JNU’s student union, were arrested on sedition charges and sent to jail.

Kumar and his comrades were released after some weeks, forever changed. In an interview a few months ago, Kumar said that he is still jolted by the ‘anti-state’ label with which he has been tagged since the protests. Yet the 30-year-old remains committed to his political beliefs, and speaking out against injustice wherever it may be.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that we Pakistanis must think critically about the huge youth bulge in our country, and especially the bigoted and authoritarian attitudes of many young people. Despite its more democratic and progressive history, India too is a country facing rapid descent into a neo-fascist dystopia. Kumar and others therefore represent India’s conscience, just like those who brave mobs, disappearances and targeted killings in this country represent ours.

A crucial battle is taking place in Indian society.

There is a tendency amongst some observers to attribute the dramatic rise of the Indian right to Narendra Modi. In fact, Modi’s rise to power is only the culmination of a process that has been under way in India for decades.

Our insistence on demonising Gandhi, Nehru and other prominent leaders of the Indian nationalist movement helps us ignore the fact that Gandhi was assassinated by a man trained by the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). We like to paint all Indians as exactly the same, but in fact India has been contested from within since its very inception.

While the RSS was banned by Nehru immediately after Gandhi’s murder, its influence continued to grow steadily. As flag bearer of an exclusionary Hindu nationalism, it necessarily promoted caste privilege. High-caste Brahmins in schools and universities, religious institutions and politics were thus mobilised to the RSS cause. In today’s India, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, and the Bharatiya Janata Party can reasonably be considered the biggest student, labour and political organisations in the country.

Much like the Jamaat-i-Islami’s original claim, Hindu supremacists once contested the notion that they had political ambitions, arguing that their intention was a purification of society from below. In fact, RSS-inspired organisations which mushroomed in all fields of life were united under the so-called Sangh Parivar, which propagated a comprehensive and long-term ‘Hindu-isation’ of social and political life. Sound familiar?

Of course, India was not subjected to an 11-year dictatorship during which the cultural and political project known as Hindutva was given direct institutional cover. But it goes without saying that the widespread influence of the Sangh Parivar in all fields over so many decades has meant the gradual ‘Hinduisation’ of the state apparatus itself.

It is thus that the Modi ‘wave’ should be understood as the outcome of a much longer historical process. In power, Modi has naturally provided great impetus to the Hindutva project, as evidenced by the recent christening of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Progressives must now confront the possibility of India degenerating into a genuine tyranny of the majority.

Jawed Naqvi wrote recently about the manner in which India’s hyper-sensationalist TV media is fuelling the fire. Again, the parallels between what is happening on both si­­d­es of the border are stark. A soul-def­ining battle is taking place in the trenches of In­­d­ian society, just like it is here, the difference being that there is a much more dee­p­­ly entre­n­ched prog­r­e­ssive and democratic tradition in India than here.

Modi’s resort to more and more brazen violence in the name of that all-too-familiar sacred cow of ‘national security’ is reinforced by the influence of the (sometimes less than cohesive) Sangh Parivar in society at large. India-held Kashmir is, unsurprisingly, the target of much of the state’s ire. But don’t forget Assam, Nagaland the rest of the northeast, or the Maoist-controlled jungles of central India in which the Adivasis’ existence is being threatened by corporate tyranny. It is these indigenous people, along with Dalits fighting untouchability, emergent feminist and green movements, and even the increasingly emaciated communist left, that continue to protect India’s democratic achiev­ements. Deepening the struggle for the basic freedoms of working people of all denominations will prevent the victory of Hindutva, and we can be hopeful that this fight will be spearheaded by tens of millions of young people like Kanhaiya Kumar. The immediate future may not appear very bright, but some amongst India’s youth offer a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, "India’s conscience," Dawn. 2017-05-04.
Keywords: International affairs , International issues , International policy , International relations , Anti-establishment , Kashmiri separatist , Jawaharlal Nehru University , Political beliefs , Targeted killings , Indian society , Indian nationalist movement , Hindu supremacist , Hindu nationalism , Religious institutions , Political organisations , Jamaat-i-Islami , RSS-inspired organisations , Social-political life , Political project , Democratic tradition , India-held Kashmir , Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad , Narendra Modi , Afzal Guru , Kanhaiya Kumar