Citizens versus People: The Politics of Majoritarianism and Marginalization in Democratic India

Author(s): Dipankar Gupta
Source: Sociology of Religion, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Spring, 2007), pp. 27-44
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Sociology of Religion 2007, 68:1 27-44
2005 Paul Hanly Furfey Lecture
Citizens versus People: The Politics of
Majoritarianism and Marginalization in
Democratic India*
Dipankar Gupta
Jawaharlal Nehru University
New Delhi, India
Ever since India's independence from Britain in 1947 and the tragic death toll resulting from the
partition creating Pakistan, the sub-continent has been marked by religious conflict. Over the last
twenty years, this has taken especially bloody turns. This article examines the political roots of the riot
ing that has ensued. The analysis is anchored in two fundamental distinctions: one between demo
cratic "citizens" and communal "people," and the other between the dynamics of hegemonic "majori
tarianism" and the consequences of minority "marginalization." The relationship between the two is
explored with special reference to Hindu-Sikh violence in the state of Punjab and the long standing
Hindu-Muslim violence generally initiated and sustained by Shiv Sena and other movements of the
Hindutva cause, as occurred most recently in the state of Gujarat in 2002. India offers a cautionary
tale in which both democracy and religious freedom hang in the balance.
The United States and India are two countries distinguished by their inter
faith relations, though one is lionized for its tolerant pluralism and the other
lamented for its religious violence. As this suggests, there are various scenarios of
inter-faith relations, especially in their relation to politics. Religion, by itself,
does not invoke a consciously articulated political identity. In societies that are
mono-religious, this question may not even come up for there are no differences
to be encountered. As the similarities between social interlocutors are over
whelming, people are not compelled to relate on the basis of religious "differ
ence." This is of course a somewhat hypothetical situation. As Durkheim once
said, if a society was made up of saints, then bad taste would be a crime. Even in
*Direct correspondence to: Dipankar Gupta, Director, Centre for the Study of Social Systems,
School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 110067, India (dipankargup
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mono-religious societies, apparently minor sectarian differences can arouse major
A popular Indian internet joke illustrates the point and reflects the imprint
of Christianity through the British Raj:
I was walking across a bridge one day and saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump.
I ran over and said, "Stop, don't do it." "Why shouldn't I?" he asked. "Well, there's so
much to live for," I said. "Like what?" he asked. I asked, "Are you religious?" He said,
"Yes." I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?" "Christian," he said. "Me too. Are
you Catholic or Protestant?" "Protestant." "Me, too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Baptist," he replied. "Wow, me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church
of the Lord?" "Baptist Church of God." "Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God,
or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" "Reformed Baptist Church of God." "Me
too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist
Church of God, Reformation 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God,
Reformation of 1915." I said, "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him over.1
Religious differences are generally perceived as abstract matters and, even when
present, one's own religion is observed in calm quiescence as if it were the law of
nature. There is nothing thus far that forces a social articulation. If there are
other religions elsewhere in the world, this is of little consequence. When
Voltaire in his dreams flew on the wings of angels to the River Ganges and
observed Hindu widows performing their rituals there, he felt distance sans rela
Religious identities are activated when different religious communities are in
physical proximity or, for some reason, in
sociological juxtaposition to one
another. Even then this identity need not be angularly expressed-just a quiet
observance of differences is all that is needed (Barth 1969). This usually results
in keeping one's distance from other faiths and their ritual observances, as most
people have little awareness of doctrinal divergences between traditions. The
much talked about centuries of calm between religious communities is an illus
tration of religious solitudes. But in such instances, it is always the unquestioning
genuflection to the religion of the overlord, or ruler, which guarantees religious
peace. This is a medieval, hierarchical peace and not a product of modem day
secularism. As long as the authority faces no threat, others can live out their lives
without interference. Their religions can even be patronized in the manner of
noblesse oblige.
Looked at in another way, these multiple religious solitudes are perfectly
capable of co-existing with one another so long as the power asymmetries
between adherents of different faiths are so vast that there is no room for contest.
After all, only equals fight; unequals may resent, but can go no further. In a
Hindu fiefdom, no Muslim would dare raise the issue of cow slaughter. Likewise,
September, 27, 2005, p.
12. The website is
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in a Muslim kingdom, the spire of the Hindu temple can never be taller than that
of the mosque (Pandey 1990). In such cases religious boundaries are meant
specifically to cordon off people of different faiths so that they can perform their
rituals without interference. In British India, for example, those who were
employed in colonial establishments came home to "purity" after the day's work
in "ritually neutralized" office spaces (Singer 1972).
It is true that years of medieval peace were interrupted by periods of great
religious violence and intolerance. But once the victor and the vanquished were
clearly demarcated, the same communities could live together in peace for cen
turies. This happened between Genghis Khan and the Confucians and Buddhists
of China, between Muslims and Christians in Cordoba, and, indeed, between
Hindus and Muslims in large parts of India. In such historical moments, it is not
surprising how adroitly the vanquished were able to adjust their secular interests
to those of the ruling power, and how magnanimously the rulers were able to
guarantee their subjects the privilege of observing their religious practices, pro
vided there was no threat to their rule from below. It needs to be underlined that,
in the medieval world, survival without religious persecution was a matter of
privilege and not of right.
Modem democracy and its universal franchise obviously make a big differ
ence in all of this. In a country, like India, that is 80% Hindu, 12 % Muslim, 2.4%
Christian, and 2% Sikh, practicing one's faith becomes a matter of right, as all
faiths are now of legally equal status. In the past all religions may have been con
sidered to be good, but the religion of the ruling power was always the best.
Modem democracies have no state religion; no faith is superior to any other in
constitutional terms. The presence of aspects of Christianity in certain state rit
uals does not make those countries theocratic. Robert Bellah's use of the term
"civil religion" aptly captures this point, particularly in relation to American pol
itics (Bellah 1967). Civil religion is not exclusivist, it is not other-worldly, and it
is not discriminatory. For all practical purposes, civil religion invokes a certain
aesthetic borrowed from dominant religious rituals and puts it to use in public
spectacles of the state. This is why civil religion is incapable of being denomina
tional in character. For example, the phrase "one nation under God" which is
commonly heard across America has no direct doctrinal association with any one
religion. It draws its sanctity from the secular constitution of the state and
attempts to give the liberal notion of fraternity an abiding moral foundation.
Paradoxically, it is when religious equality is established in law by a modem
democratic state that religious identities tend to get sharper, more frequently
employed, and cause tensions almost on a quotidian basis. Multicultural politics
in many democratic states are examples of this phenomenon. There are lingering
disputes regarding what clothes are appropriate for school children,
or which days
should be declared mandatory public holidays,
or which holy book should be used
for public oath-taking ceremonies. But these are less egregious manifestations of
religious politics and can be resolved constitutionally if handled with sensitivity.
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On occasion, even a secular issue, like the non-availability of irrigation facil
ities, can take on religious coloring. This is particularly true when those agitating
for it happen to belong to a certain religious community. In the Indian state of
Punjab, most farmers are Sikhs; therefore, any agricultural related demand tends
to be viewed as a "Sikh problem." Similarly, the secular (and very popular) call
for a unilingual province of Punjab was seen as a "Sikh issue." This agitation last
ed until 1966 when the central government eventually acceded to the demand.
However, the chapter could not be completely closed as Punjab was not given a
separate capital city of its own. In the 1970s, the Akalis mounted pressure to
make Chandigarh solely the capital of Punjab and not also of the neighboring
state of Haryana. This is a highly anomalous situation by any standard, and it per
sists even to this day. Yet this, too, was cast as a Sikh peeve even though many
non-Sikhs also supported this position. Because Sikhs numerically dominate
Punjab, even non-religious issues appear to be inspired by religious considera
As many of these grievances were left unattended (and, in fact, have not yet
been resolved), militant Sikh secessionists found a ready made platform for their
agitation from 1984 to the early 1990s. It was during this phase that Punjab pol
itics became overtly religious. However, unlike Hindu political parties (such as
the Bharatiya Janata Party) that constantly harp on the trauma of the partition
of India and Pakistan in 1947, Sikh political parties in Punjab (such as Akali
Dal) never used that memory for any political advantage. Beginning in mid
1992, Punjab politics gradually returned to observing constitutional propriety
and this applies equally to all parties there, including Akali Dal.
When a religious minority agitates in democratic societies, it is with the
ostensible aim of seeking parity on cultural terms with the majority population.
Such movements are aimed at receiving state assurance that all citizens are equal
regardless of their religious identities or provenance. Although the danger of pro
fessional religious entrepreneurs from minority communities taking advantage of
the situation needs to be recognized, as one scans those instances of minority led
agitations the world over, democratic resolutions seem possible. Liberal democ
racies need have no anxieties regarding diverse religious practices so long as these
do not interfere with the fundamental rights that each individual has by virtue of
being a citizen. This is one foundational principle on which no democratic soci
ety can afford to compromise.
Democratic politics, however, has its underside as the idea of fraternity
which is so central to the idea of citizenship-does not easily come to life.
Anthropologists have observed that human beings everywhere tend to differen
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tiate spontaneously between their tightly bound communities and the broader
cultures around them. It is this trait that undergirds the hubris of majoritarians
who claim to represent "the people" while characterizing minorities as "natural"
enemies of the nation-state. Democracies have to be perpetually on their guard
because this unfortunate anthropological tendency to put up barriers between
"us" and "them" is alive and active today. Practicing democracy has never been
easy. It is the furthest from being a "natural" social arrangement, yet, its benefits
are enormous. This is why safeguarding and extending democracy constitute the
most important challenges of our time.
There are, then, two possible scenarios in the contemporary nation-state by
which religion and politics can come together. The first arises from minority anx
ieties about their self-respect and their consequent demands for cultural equality.
The second arises from majoritarian attacks on religious minorities in the name
of protecting the nation-state from enemies within. In the case of majoritarian
excesses against minorities, the nation-state, along with its territory and sover
eignty, become critical variables. Majoritarian activists claim that no legalities or
niceties of democracy should hold them back in setting right the targeted minori
ties, who are their enemies because the minorities' origins, heritages, and loyal
ties are rooted in other countries. Thus, with minority inspired multicultural pol
itics, the emphasis is clearly on inclusive citizenship, whereas with majoritarian
ism, there is the contrary emphasis on exclusivity as a "people."
In India, minority inspired religious politics is no longer of much signifi
cance. In the state of Punjab, where most Sikhs live, most have more or less come
to accept the status quo, though the grievance of not having a capital of their own
still rankles. The militant secessionist movement of the 1980s is now a distant
memory and most Sikhs do not want to be reminded of it.
Meanwhile, the other major significant unrest where minorities have taken
the lead is in Kashmir. Unlike Sikh politics in Punjab, Kashmiri secessionists
want to secede from India, though it is not clear whether the demand is entirely
religious or only seems religious as Muslims numerically dominate the Kashmir
valley. It is widely recorded that more Muslims than Hindus have died at the
hands of separatist Muslim militants, a fact that makes it difficult to call the
secessionist movement a religious agitation. Further, religious leaders are not
spearheading this movement, nor are the so-called "jihadis" from across the bor
der always welcome in the Kashmir valley, even by those who are fighting against
the Indian state. A number of religious parties, including the Muslim "Sunni
Tehrik," have accused Pakistani intelligence of supporting militant jihadis in the
region. The other factor that makes the Kashmir dispute appear religious is that
a majority of Hindus oppose the demand for an independent state of Kashmir.
The fear of becoming minorities in a sovereign Kashmir state has pushed these
Hindus to support sectarian organizations like the Bharatirya Janata Party and
Paunoon Kashmir. It is clearly in the interest of Hindu leaders to give the
Kashmiri secessionists a religious cast in order to gain political legitimacy.
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What is often overlooked is that most Kashmiri Muslims do not want to
merge with Pakistan. But neither do most Kashmiri Muslims identify with other
Muslims in India. This became apparent after the 2002 mass killings of Muslims
in Gujarat. Leading opposition parties in Kashmir failed to generate popular sup
port for their call for a statewide agitation in sympathy with the persecuted
Muslims of Gujarat. Kashmiri Muslims clearly see themselves as quite distinct
from their co-religionists elsewhere in the sub-continent and have little in com
mon with them. In fact Abdul Ghani Bhatt, a leading Kashmiri activist, argued
that this was because Muslims in India "never reacted to whatever has been hap
pening in Kashmir over the past 12 years.... We don't hold any grudges against
them about it because we see them as Indians" (Indian Express, March 5, 2002).
Other than Kashmir, nowhere else in India is minority inspired politics of any
consequence. On the other hand, religion and politics combine frequently, and
with telling impact, nationwide when it comes to expressing Hindu majoritari
anism. In India, religious politics did not win much favor during the struggle for
independence. This in itself is surprising given the potential for using this senti
ment against the British. Indeed, there were Hindu activists from the 1920s
onwards who tried to work up religious nationalism, but they never made it to the
mainstream of the nationalist movement, which remained firmly in the control
of the secular Congress party.
With independence came partition and the emergence of Pakistan. The
bloodshed and trauma of leaving what was always home and becoming refugees
aided the Hindu nationalist cause in post-independence India. Hindu organiza
tions like the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jana Sangh por
trayed the Muslims who stayed behind in India as traitors and agents of Pakistan.
To this day, the memory of the partition is invoked in the many riots that have
targeted Muslims in India. In order to comprehend the overall appeal of Hindu
majoritarianism, it is necessary to factor in Pakistan and the significance of terri
tory in the popular imagination of the nation-state.
The tension clearly is between citizens and people. Under nationalism, being
"a people" means more than an aggregation of citizens. In a liberal democracy,
however, it is not the people but citizens that take precedence. A nation-state is
thus faced with two options: to be liberal democratic or nationalist. Either it
delves into memories of blood and soil, or it moves on to a different form of
national identity that is based on citizenship. In the latter case, the focus is on
delivering education, health, employment, and other essential public goods to
citizens across social strata, classes, and communities. Affirmative action policies
and developmental initiatives belong to this genre of interventions for creating
substantive citizenship.
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Such considerations of citizenship do not emerge spontaneously; they are
clearly outcomes of deliberate reflection, planning, and nurturing. To realize cit
izenship, a nation-state must move beyond the passions which were useful in dis
mantling the ancien regime; those passions are hindrances today. It is necessary
now to embrace self-consciously the norms of liberal democracy in which the cit
izen, as an individual, has inviolable rights (Rawls 1971:42-48; Gupta 2000:160
185). In contrast, the majoritiarian alternative suggests a return to the conditions
in which the nation-state was born, reviving fears and prejudices of the past.
Ancient enemies are recalled and memories of grief and purported injustices kept
alive. Building a democracy, where individuals matter as citizens, is often delayed
because ethnicists gain the upper hand by playing on these memories and anxi
India offers many examples of majoritarian mobilization in its post-inde
pendence period. The attacks against Muslims by Hindu right wing organizations
like the Shiv Sena and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (not to mention the RSS),
belong to this species of majoritarian activism. However, the 1984 pogrom
against Sikhs, following a series of events that culminated in Mrs. Indira Gandhi's
assassination which I shall detail later, is atypical. This spate of killings tells us
that a history of cultural animosity can easily be manufactured. Sikhs had hith
erto never been the object of majoritarian wrath, but what happened in the wake
of Indira Gandhi's death was no less violent than any other ethnic bloodbath.
What matters then is the context rather than the tradition, as the ethnicists
would have it.
As majoritarian philippics bring nationalist sentiments to the fore, it is not
surprising that they involve the entire country, no matter where their actual epi
centers might be. The problems in Punjab in the 1980s, the current dispute over
Kashmir, and the killings of Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat are all national affairs
whose political import is not confined to any one region. Even in those areas
where there were a small number of Sikhs, anti-Sikh sentiments were very strong
in thel980s. Sikhs are not a dominant or visible community in Bokaro Steel City,
which itself is hundreds of miles from Punjab. Yet the devastation that Sikhs
faced there in 1984 was no less gruesome than what happened in Delhi where the
killings began. Kashmiri Hindus can and do get a sympathetic hearing in Mumbai
(formerly Bombay), and Hindus nationwide can be incensed by a single incident
in the remote town of Godhra, where Muslims allegedly killed a train compart
ment of Lord Rama devotees returning home from a pilgrimage.
However, it is the episodes victimizing minority Sikhs and Muslims that most
clearly demonstrate the way religious majoritarianism plays upon ethnic distinc
tions that need not be sanctioned by a hoary and ancient past. Once an issue
emerges, a retrospective history of antagonism is not difficult to manufacture.
When politics uses religion it is not the text that can provide us with sociologi
cal clues but the context (Demerath 2001:59). For example, issues such as Hindu
cow worship or Islamic jihad are open to multiple interpretations of textual tradi
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tion, and majoritarian ethnic propagandists often spurn pure adherence to tradi
tional usages. Therefore, to make religious antagonisms come alive, "the people"
must necessarily depend upon the services of politico-religious virtuosos. It is
worth recalling what Lord Acton (1877) had to say on the subject:
Fanaticism displays itself in the masses, but the masses were rarely fanaticised, and the
crimes ascribed to it were commonly due to the calculations of dispassionate politicians.
When the King of France undertook to kill all the Protestants ... [iut was nowhere the
spontaneous act of the population.
Given the political calculations behind the crafting of religious politics, majori
tarian mobilizations are not reducible to spontaneous outpourings of anger.
Before a riot takes place, rioters must be confident that the balance of power
between them and their intended victims will remain in their favor from start to
finish. Rioters are not ready to risk their personal well-being, for they seek grati
fication only in "self-indulgent violence." Most rioters are ready to kill for a cause,
but not to die for one. Rioters, therefore, use tradition very superficially. What
really prompts them is not so much the defense of tradition as it is an assurance
that they can expect their desire for self-indulgent violence to be gratified. Loot,
of course, is one kind of gratification, but the attraction of asserting masculinity
in a risk free situation is also tempting. As we will see again later in this article,
ethnic riots do not just happen because of primordial passions boiling over.
Majoritarian movements have often been misunderstood because of the
belief that tradition has a complete sway over the minds of most people, particu
larly in less advanced societies. Fredrik Barth's presentation of ethnic boundaries
has not been very helpful in this connection. True, he was interested in how eth
nic boundaries are maintained in times of peace, but his insistence that ethnic
and primordial identities are imperative in character and that they constrain the
actor's behavior in every respect (Barth 1969:17) seems excessive. It needs to be
reasserted that only a few Hindus are professional ethnicists, and the same holds
for other religious denominations as well.
The closer one looks at cases of majority mobilizations, the clearer it becomes
that tradition has very little to do with them. Neither the Shiv Sena in Mumbai
nor Sikh extremists in Punjab drew on tradition in any significant sense. There
was no history of antagonism in Maharashtra (the state that includes Mumbai),
South India, or elsewhere in India. Likewise, Sikhs were considered to be the
sword arm of Hinduism for the past three centuries. Suddenly, in a few short years
they were transformed into killers of Hindus and wreckers of the Indian nation
state. Hindu-Muslim antagonisms seem to have a historic pedigree, but here
again the situation is highly variable. In Kashmir, for example, the differences
between Hindus and Muslims in the past were not religious but based on diver
gent economic interests. In fact, the Muslims of Kashmir, until recently, were
extremely suspicious of Sunni orthodoxy, such as is found across the border in
Pakistan. That all this has changed significantly in Kashmir has more to do with
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the politics of territorial aggrandizement, on the part of both India and Pakistan,
than with religion.
Contrary to Barth, I believe that most religions have similar values. To argue
that alienation and distance between communities exist because of wide discrep
ancies in these values (Barth 1969:19) is clearly misplaced. When majoritiarian
mobilizations get off the ground they give the superficial impression of being
charged by tradition, but very often these movements are fired by prejudices of
recent vintage which popular memory has selectively highlighted. In fact, at the
most climactic phase of ethnic mobilization, the demonizing of the other takes
place on a very parsimonious principle. The wealth of tradition is rarely recalled,
but a sharp and angular diacritic seems to make all the difference. It is, therefore,
not surprising that leaders of these movements are all too often quite unmindful
of the finer points of their respective religious doctrines but are very keen to
emphasize those practices that separate religious communities from one another.
It is this cultural aspect of religious identity, which Demerath (2001:59) details
convincingly, that forms the basis of the politicization of religion. As the need of
the hour is to semaphore differences in a highly exaggerated form, the many lay
ered meanings of the text are largely ignored.
The Shiv Sena in Mumbai makes no bones about the fact that Hindu tradi
tion cannot answer the Muslim challenge. Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief,
stridently calls for retaliation as a way of asserting Hindu pride. It is not at all
necessary to know the sacerdotal texts to be a Shiv Sainik. Indeed, this is the case
with the RSS members, too. Though many RSS activists take a degree of pride
in knowing a smattering of Sanskrit, they are really very poorly versed in Hindu
tradition and philosophy. In pre-partition Punjab, Arya Samaj (another neo
Hindu organization) activists often shied away from public debates with the more
orthodox (and non-political) Sanatani Hindus, for the latter insisted that their
verbal duels be conducted in the traditional language of Sanskrit. The fact that
the RSS uniform is a white shirt and a pair of khaki shorts with canvass running
shoes further demonstrates its distance from traditional Hinduism. The
Khalistani Sikh separatist, Jamail Singh Bhindranwale, never managed to get
elected as the head of the Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandhak Committee (which runs
major Sikh temples in the country) even though his efforts were supported by the
Congress Party in the late 1970s. When I met the "moderate" Sikh leader Sant
Harcharan Singh Longowal in early 1985, he very categorically asserted that
until Operation Bluestar-which killed Bhindranwale along with many innocent
pilgrims in the Golden Temple (of which, more later)-he always considered the
man to be a criminal. But now that he has become a "martyr," Bhindranwales's
claim to religious leadership is posthumously difficult to disprove.
One of the reasons why the nation-state does not
figure significantly in stud
ies of ethnicity is because of the general opinion that political entities in coun
tries like India are highly forced and artificial. But if the formation of nation
states is examined in comparative perspective, it becomes immediately apparent
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that there is no privileged route to their formation. Each nation-state has unique
characteristics and comes into being in its own special way. As Ernest Renan
(1990:11) characteristically demonstrated, every victory that Turkey won
"spelled doom for Turkey," and every defeat that Italy suffered contributed to the
making of Italy. Therefore, instead of asking how a nation-state comes into being,
it is much better to be clear on what a nation-state does once it has emerged.
Thus, like the philosophers of the ancient Indian Samkhya tradition, it is often
wise to seek answers in the causes and not in the effects.
What most durable nation-states have in common is success in making terri
tory sacred. In the case of India, this sacralization was an outcome of the blood
shed that accompanied the Partition of 1947. Before India became independent,
leaders of the national movement were rather unclear about what India's territo
rial lineaments were going to be. Many of them even argued that the right to
secession should be respected even after India attained independence. But once
partition happened, the right to secession was taken away and any advocacy of it
became an act of high treason. The indescribable brutalities of the partition
seared the territorial holdings of India in popular consciousness like never before.
From then on, ceding "not an inch of ground" and "not a blade of grass" became
quite common phrases in Indian nationalist discourse. Once again Renan is rel
evant. He believed that it is grief more than joy that binds nationalist sentiments
(Renan 1990:19). Every nation-state would be blessed if it had a grief of its own.
India's grief is Pakistan, and Pakistan's grief is India. As grief of this sort thrives
on continually renewed memory, it pushes back the appreciation for secular citi
Majoritarian mobilizations do best when their arena is the nation-state.
Anything less grand cramps their style and robs them of their charisma. When
Shiv Sena came into existence in 1966, its animus was principally directed at
those South Indians who had migrated to Mumbai, allegedly robbing
Maharashtrian sons of the soil of their jobs. In less than a year, the Shiv Sena
found itself being somewhat isolated from mainstream politics as no national
party would align with it for fear of losing support in South India. Sensing this,
Bal Thackeray changed his position quickly in 1967, though he was immensely
popular among Maharashtrians in Mumbai. He now declared that South Indians
were still Indians, but communists and Muslims were not to be trusted as they
owed allegiance to Russian and Pakistan, respectively. In his usual strident style,
he derided left parties in India by saying that when it rains in Moscow they open
their umbrellas in Mumbai.
But after the 1970s, the communist trade unions ran out of steam in Mumbai
and were no longer worthy foes. This is when Shiv Sena decided that it would be
better off if Muslims were its main enemies. Accordingly the Shiv Sena embraced
Hindutva ("Hinduness") as their primary identity in 1985. This strategy has paid
off as Shiv Sainiks have grown in strength and, on occasions, even controlled the
state assembly of Maharashtra. Though Hindutva became their official signature
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in 1985, it needs to be recalled that Thackeray always held a pro-Hindu stance.
He was, however, often critical of RSS and Hindu Mahasabha activists for he felt
they were a dithering, pusillanimous lot, without the requisite resolve, determi
nation, and masculinity to be true nationalists. A good Hindu, Thackeray told
me, is a person who is willing to hit back, "to retaliate." In his view, the only way
Hindus can regain their confidence is to do to the Muslims what they supposed
ly did to the Hindus in a single-minded fashion for hundreds of years.
A good Hindu for the Shiv Sena is not necessarily a person well-versed in
Hindu scriptures, but one who is ready and willing to go out and attack Muslims.
A Hindu for the Shiv Sena is not defined in terms of features specific to
Hinduism, but in terms of the person's striking power against Muslims. To be a
good Hindu is to hate Muslims and nothing else. Thackeray once mentioned to
me that there was nothing contradictory in wearing blue jeans and being a
devout Hindu. In the imaginings of Hindu majoritarians, Pakistan is a country
they love to hate, and Shiv Sena is no exception.
When Shiv Sena changed its tack from targeting the South Indians to focus
ing on Muslims, it gave itself a kind of national legitimacy. Had it stuck to its
original plan of attacking just the South Indians, it would have had some resid
ual influence in Mumbai, but would not be a major political player on the nation
al stage, as it is today. By taking on a majoritarian religious identity, Shiv Sena
has benefited enormously. Interestingly, Shiv Sena's single-minded Hindutva
started at a time when the traditional Congress Party, which had ruled India for
decades, was beginning to renege on its secular agenda. Turning back on its ide
ological heritage, the Congress Party incited religious tensions among Sikhs and
Hindus in Punjab and caste wars in Kamataka and Gujarat. Without taking into
account this larger national context, Shiv Sena's success as a Hindu party cannot
be fully comprehended.
Nevertheless, it must also be kept in mind that Shiv Sena activists did not
find South Indians to be "good" enemies, ones whose subjugation and humilia
tion could be juicily relished. Many South Indians disarmed Shiv Sena by learn
ing Marathi (the language of Maharashtra), and keeping framed photographs or
busts of Shivaji in their shops, homes, and offices. While the communists were
very good enemies, they ran out of steam too early. But the Muslims could always
be depended upon to be good enemies, for there would always be Pakistan. On
occasion, a good enemy is much more gratifying than a good friend! And the best
enemy for an ethnic movement is one that can be depicted as ceaselessly con
spiring to undermine the integrity and sovereignty of the nation-state.
It is not as if majoritarianism is satisfied with a single enemy. The manner in
which the Sikhs were minoritized after Indira Gandhi's assassination demon
strates that no community can really be above blame when majoritarianism gets
going. In explaining Hindu-Muslim antagonisms
it was often
that cow worshippers and beef eaters were bound to clash. Further, according to
this line of reasoning, Islam is not an Indic religion as its origins are in Arabia,
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outside the sub-continent. Many anti-Christian propagandists in India also refer
to the fact that missionaries have come from other countries, bringing a faith that
was not born on Indian soil.
These arguments carry little conviction when put to the test in the Sikh case.
Sikhs do not eat beef and Sikhism emerged from the heart of India. Indeed,
before 1982, it was almost inconceivable that Sikhs could be seen as enemies of
the Indian nation-state, Hindu killers, and blood thirsty terrorists. But it does not
take many years of history to create cultural distance between communities (for
other examples see Horowitz 2002:190). After Indira Gandhi's assassination in
1984, Sikhs were seen by many throughout India as enemies of the Indian
nation-state. This was quite unexpected, especially for the Sikhs, whose valor on
behalf of Hinduism has been immortalized in numerous accounts in various ver
nacular texts, not to mention the stirring poem on the Gurus by India's most
famous poet, Rabindranath Tagore. The sociological question then is: how did
this demonization of Sikhs take place so swiftly in the 1980s?
In recent years, Sikhs in Punjab have nursed some common grievances, such
as with river water distribution and with the status of Chandigarh city, as dis
cussed earlier. Instead of addressing these issues directly, the Congress Party took
a different route. In 1980, when it returned to power at the all-India level, and
even in the Punjab Assembly, the Congress Party's strategy was to divide the
Sikhs in order to make inroads into the Sikh Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee
(SGPC) which runs the Sikh religious establishments. The SGPC's enormously
well-endowed coffers naturally attract the attention of all political parties. The
Congress Party deeply resented the uninterrupted control the Akali Dal (a mod
erate Sikh party) had on the SGPC and decided to move determinedly to end
this monopoly. In pursuing this policy they picked up a hitherto unknown, but
belligerent, Sikh firebrand from an obscure hermitage, and propped him up as
their candidate. This man was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale (Gupta 1997).
Bhindranwale demanded that Sikhs return to their pristine ways, observe the
various injunctions in their holy books, abjure from drinking and smoking, pray
regularly, and, above all, uphold Sikh dignity. His single most remarkable dia
critic, however, was an incendiary claim-both contumely and convoluted-on
behalf of a Sikh homeland to be called "Khalistan." Bhindranwale also portrayed
the Akalis as soft and ineffective Sikhs (much like Thackeray characterized the
older Hindu organizations like the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha). That the Akalis
had not yet been able to secure Chandigarh for Punjab was easily Bhindranwale's
best evidence of the impotence of Sant Longowal and the traditional Akali lead
ership. This prompted a great degree of infighting among Akalis, which got worse
as militants began to roam the Punjab countryside, killing people at will and at
random. Forced into a corner, the Akalis failed to call Bhindranwale's bluff, and
remained pinned and wriggling in an awkwardly angular position. This allowed
Bhindranwale to grow in stature while the Akalis became increasingly defensive
and reactive, without a clear political position which it could call its own.
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This time, interestingly, majoritarian passions were stoked not by Hindu
organizations like the RSS or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, but by the Congress
Party that had for years stood for secularism. As Bhindranwale's influence grew
with the Congress Party's encouragement, Hindus in the Punjab were getting
restive with all the militancy that was gaining prominence in both the country
side and the cities of this prosperous northwestern state. The Congress Party's
position that militants had won over the Sikh population in their quest for a sep
arate homeland began to gain credibility among Hindus. The fear of yet another
partition was so threatening to most Hindus that they forgot their years of soli
darity with the Sikhs and instead began to exaggerate minor differences between
Through all this, the administration did little to rein in the militants. Police
and security forces were everywhere, but with very little actual impact. My own
experience in Punjab during those years leads me to believe that the law enforce
ment machinery was acting politically and not administratively. But from the
outside, the inability of the moderate Sikh leadership to counter Bhindranwale
and the spiraling violence in Punjab made the Congress Party's characterization
of Sikh militants as representing the entire community seem increasingly plausi
ble. It came to a climax when the army attacked the Golden Temple to flush out
Bhindranwale in 1984. This operation succeeded in killing Bhindranwale, but it
also created deep resentment in the Sikh community. Sikhs saw the attack,
which destroyed important religious structures in the precinct of the temple and
left the sanctum sanctorum pock marked with bullet holes, as a deliberate attempt
to humiliate them as a "people."
The angry Sikh response was seen to confirm their partisanship with
Bhindranwale, and misperceptions played upon misperceptions to create the
image that Sikhs essentially sought another partition. Once Indira Gandhi was
assassinated, this fear of Sikh secessionism grew rapidly nationwide. The violence
that followed the assassination, in which thousands of Sikhs were killed in vari
ous parts of India, was a clear instance of majoritarianism being openly favored
by administrative support (Peoples Union for Democratic Rights 1984). Also,
the minoritization of Sikhs led to immediate electoral payoffs as the Congress
Party won a stunning victory in the elections that were held soon after-elec
tions that brought Indira's son, Rajiv Gandhi, to power.
When faced with
majoritarian-led ethnic riots, the first instinct of the
minoritized community is to insist on the tenets of citizenship. They are not as
interested in going back into the folds of their community, or the pristine ways of
the past, as in demanding their rights as citizens. Both in the aftermath of the
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Sikh killings in 1984 and the Gujarat bloodbath of Muslims in 2002, the
aggrieved minorities wanted the law to be upheld and the guilty to be punished.
I was told very often during my interviews with Sikhs and Muslims who were
affected by these gory episodes that nothing would make them feel more Indian
than the guilty being punished according to the law of the land. The Hindus, on
both these occasions, predictably argued that the minorities in each case
deserved no consideration as they were determined to undermine India. What
hurt Sikhs most after the 1984 massacres was that not a single killer was brought
to justice, despite so much evidence against so many of them. This is sadly true
of Gujarat as well, where the Chief Minister not only absolved the killers but
launched a campaign to assert Gujarati pride.
In the end, the majoritarians believe that the law is not enough to contain
enemies of the nation-state. This is why their activism is in the name of "the peo
ple." Also, when the law fails to perform its role, it is very likely that the mar
ginalized will become an encysted population and refer back to their respective
cultural spokespeople. This is how majoritarians give credibility to religious vir
tuosos who valorize community identities among minorities.
Jacques Lacan (1977) offers an interesting theoretical apparatus within
which to situate the tensions between warring dyads such as Hindus and Muslims
or Sikhs and Hindus in India. Simply put, Lacan argued that a person's identity
must be complemented by a sense of "correlative space." Just as children are
enamored by their reflections in the mirror, which they see without any discon
tinuity, so too do adults feel an urge to project an image of the self which is in
perfect concinnity with its surroundings. But this is no ordinary image that Lacan
was talking about. He used the ancient term "imago" to capture dramatically the
essence of what it meant to be misrecognized and then have to reconfigure a suit
able correlative space that would give solace to the hurt identity. Misrecognition
creates tensions between the self and the other. The only way this imago can
keep itself from turning pathological is when both the self and the other defer to
a shared Big Other (with a capital "O"), forming a triad without which egos
would be in endless conflict.
Therefore, for a normal imago to come through, it must be apprehended
within a triadic ftamework where the Big "O" acts in the name of the father or,
as in the constitution of a liberal democracy, as the fount of the law. If the Big
"O"-or in this case the nation-state-collapses, then all possibilities of language
cease. After that there is only the cry! This is how the terrorist is often born, for
now there is no communication possible on either side. If, in India, we have been
able to stave off fundamentalism for such a long while, it is because at the end of
the day the Big "O" does manage to assert itself, often after a long gap. This hap
pens most tellingly in dramatic electoral reversals which restore some faith in the
law among minorities.
Lacan's notion of the imago also draws attention to the fact that identity
exists in a correlative space without which it would not be sustainable. For Hindu
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majoritarians, the space is the geography of India, made sacred by the trauma of
partition and the consequent bloodshed between two warring communities. The
Sikh imago also had its own correlative space in the 1980s: a narrative which por
trayed the Indian government as being brutally Hindu and forcing many Sikhs to
turn to violence. This correlative space also imagined Sikh militants coming out
at night to take on the hated Indian security forces, even though most Sikhs had
only seen looters and extortionists and not the romantic hero that was suppos
edly fighting for their pride. In village after village, I was told how valiantly mil
itants battled against the Indian police and army, and how many young people
had gone underground, though in all the instances I came across there were few
young men missing from the villages. True, some were gone, and they may have
even joined some militant outfit, but none of this happened at anywhere near the
scale that the misrecognized Sikh imago imagined them to be.
Yet Sikhs were also keen that the Indian state accept the injustices that were
done to them, and were very receptive when elections were announced in Punjab
in 1985. They defied the call of the terrorists to boycott the elections; nearly
66.5% of the electorate voted. Their impressive presence under very tense con
ditions clearly demonstrated that they wanted to be re-integrated as citizens. This
massive voter turnout was only a little more than a year after the fateful
Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple and the mass killing of Sikhs follow
ing Indira Gandhi's assassination (Jodhka 2005:227).
By the early 1990s, most Sikhs were willing to forget the past and move on,
provided they were given a helping hand from the center. The earlier imago was
gradually dismantled and a new correlative space developed in which there was
little room for Sikh militants and their supposed acts of bravery and sacrifice. The
triad, almost miraculously, reclaimed its position in this new correlative space
and the Indian state gradually won back its legitimacy in a piecemeal fashion, as
the Big Other. The demand for a Sikh homeland, or Khalistan, disappeared from
live politics and, unlike the ever present reality of Pakistan, it soon became dif
ficult to remember why those passions even began.
Majoritarianism was usually understood as an urban expression of the cultur
ally aware literate classes that agonized most about Pakistan and the violence fol
lowing the partition. However, with the Gujarat killings of Muslims in 2002, it
became clear that the village was no longer riot proof. It did not matter how
many generations of Hindus had lived cheek by jowl with Muslims when it came
to expressing strong ethnic loyalty with Hindu majoritarianism. Rich and poor
Muslims died at the hands of Hindus of high and low castes. In many instances,
tribal Bhils joined the Hindutva hate brigades. Many signposts in rural Gujarat,
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particularly between Bharauch and Vadodara districts, bore the suffix "Hindu
Rashtra" (or Hindu Nation) before the village names.
The reasons for this need to be studied in greater detail, but a few prelimi
nary points may be made now. Agriculture no longer holds out the possibility of
providing employment to large sections of the rural population, even on a sub
optimal basis. Rural non-farm employment is on the increase and this has led to
a sense of alienation from ties that bound villagers, however asymmetrically, in
the past. Consequently, it may be argued that the search for a new identity is very
much on the anvil for these socially deracinated village people. As this quest nec
essarily takes them outside the village, Hindu majoritarianism becomes an attrac
tive ideological option even in rural settings.
Thus, the belief that India is overwhelmingly an agricultural society needs to
be revised. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the transformations taking place
in rural areas is the extent of rural non-farm employment (RNFE). In 1983, there
were 12 states where RNFE was below 20%. These states included Punjab,
Maharashtra, and Gujarat. This left only five states where the RNFE was more
than 20%. Roughly 20 years later, the situation had changed dramatically. By
1999-2000, 12 states had RNFE figures above 20% and only five were below 20%.
According to the National Sample Survey, in Kerala, Haryana, and Punjab, over
50% of rural households were non-agricultural by 2000-2001. In Jammu and
Kashmir, West Bengal, Himanchal Pradesh, and Bihar, some 40% of rural house
holds were non-agricultural. These figures alone are enough to stagger stereotypes
of a persistently rural India.
In this connection, it must also be noted that about 80% of landholdings in
India are below five acres, and roughly 63% are below 2.5 acres (Mujumdar
2002). Most of the farms now qualify as family farms and there is, therefore, very
little basis for sustained employment in the village for the landless. Even those
who have land find the going very difficult, hence the urgency with which rural
households today seek a foothold in urban India. This leads one to believe that
what happened in Gujarat villages could easily happen in other rural regions of
India as well. The village today has become even less self-sustaining than it used
to be. The terms of trade have consistently gone against agriculture over the past
decades, and the rate of growth in
agriculture is the lowest of any sector of the
Indian economy. This forces villagers to look to cities and towns as real alterna
tives to their dead-end lives in rural India. Consequently, the country dweller
today has a much deeper appreciation of urban ideologies, such as those of
Hindutva, than did earlier generations. Hindutva creates an alternative commu
nity that uprooted and alienated villagers find extremely attractive. This is espe
cially so as the secular project of building citizenship has been deemphasized by
the Congress Party since the mid-1970s.
If villages were tranquil in the past, it was because there was little room for
the underprivileged to dispute their position of inferiority and subjugation. A
medieval peace characterized the countryside, but this peace was not based as
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much on tolerance or natural goodwill as on the fact that the ruling castes and
classes held undisputed sway over their villages. This is now changing. Not only
is the village less and less viable as an economic unit, villagers are also going in
and out of their rural surroundings and bringing back other points of view from
the city with much greater frequency. Further, the anthropological truism that
human beings want to belong has not been met successfully by alternative secu
lar identities that privilege citizenship. This leaves the door wide open for reli
gious majoritarians to work their way to the political center stage in the name of
"the people."
Democracy has never been easy. It is constantly threatened by impulses that
predate it. Democracy does its best to contain such tendencies by putting in place
a constitution that protects individuals as citizens, as no other identity is a safe
guarantor of justice. Democracy very self-consciously distanced itself from com
munal and religious affiliations, sources of major civic discord in the past.
Though there cannot be democracy without a nation-state, nation-states are not
always democratic by temperament. Because nation-states begin as nations, the
history of blood and soil, and the primeval grief that often accompanies their
nativity, are always on recall. This facilitates the reversion from "citizens" to
"people" that leads to the marginalization of targeted minority communities.
Interestingly, under these circumstances, minorities often respond by demanding
that the state respect their citizenship status and protect them from majoritarian
passions, as in the Indian case.
Liberal democracy is thus perennially challenged by memories, memories
that it does its best to forget and move beyond. But as popular constructions of
reality tend to naturalize cultural differences, democracies can never be at rest.
John Rawls (1971:127) persuasively argues that liberal democracy works best in
a situation of moderate scarcity, but he should have also added a "moderate col
lective memory of grief." When Rawls posits that the veil of ignorance should
force people to think of policies as if they are the "worst off' (60, 124, 199), we
can include those who are vulnerable to cultural marginalization as well.
Citizenship becomes a viable project when the enforcement of law respects the
individual as a citizen and does not make concessions to sentiments of "the peo
In India, majoritarian Hindu politics were not roused into action because of
economic grievances, but rather because vested political interests were able to
create fears of national disintegration by recalling the memory of the partition. If
the government of the day were simply to uphold the law and routinely clamp
down on these majoritarian activists who, from time to time, take to the streets
with arrogant abandon, the killings, lootings, and mayhem that we associate with
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ethnic riots would not have taken place. It is, therefore, not surprising that the
victimized want the reinstatement of their status as citizens in the aftermath of
ethnic violence, while the majority community wants to be represented as an
authentic "people" burdened by memory and grief.
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