This isn't the end of the far right in India

To some observers, the recent Ayodhya verdict and lack of mass ethnic violence in India indicates the softening of nationalist tensions. But the subtler, more powerful and pervasive side of Hindu Nationalism in civil society will ensure that this is not the twilight of ethnic strife.
Samir Jeraj
8 October 2010

The absence of large scale violence in the wake of the Ayodhya decision has been pronounced evidence that India has seen the back of mass communal violence. However, this is only part of the story. The ideology and movement behind the violence, extreme Hindu Nationalism, is still strong and powerful. It is lodged throughout civil society and continues to dominate large swathes of the Indian political map.  

The image of Indian has undergone a change since the early 1990s when riots across the sub-continent shattered the dominant ideas of the independence movement, of building a peaceful, prosperous, secular and socialist India. Since that moment, India has strived to be an accepted member of the international club of nations, embracing neoliberal policy, playing its role in the war on terror and hosting prestigious international events.

In this context, Ayodhya and the subsequent riots seem like a bad dream. The verdict itself is depicted a fair and equitable settlement, which happens to fit in well with Western ideas of statecraft and an elistist perspective that the masses have now been ‘civilised’.

However, the movements which spawned the violence across India in 1992-3 have become more powerful since then and despite recent electoral setbacks still remain a powerful and locally hegemonic force. This is because Hindu Nationalism is a social movement with a powerful set of civil society organisations operating across India. Whilst it may be in retreat at present, there is no reason to assume that this might not be temporary whilst the movement reorganises and reconfigures itself.  

The 1990s and 2000s saw the rise and only moderate decline of Hindu Nationalism across India, known as the Saffron Wave. Post-independence the Congress Party established a regime based on an ideology of democratic socialist nationalism and a social base of educated elites and those involved in the liberation struggle. This system collapsed in the 1970s as Congress became increasingly corrupt and authoritarian and the economy was undermined by global economic instability creating unemployment in industrialised cities and the casualisation of labour.

In this environment Hindu Nationalism became increasingly attractive as it provided opposition to Congress during the State of Emergency (1975-77) and the lure of an ideology based a return to a golden Vedic era of wealth and power. The BJP went from having two seats in parliament in 1980 to being the largest party in 1996 and formed the government from 1998-2004. At a regional level, several states elected Hindu Nationalist governments in Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s. At present the BJP participate in government in twelve states in India, including areas such as Karnataka which are outside of the north Indian ‘Hindu Belt’ where Hindu Nationalist support has traditionally been strongest.  

Where Hindu Nationalists have entered government, they have been partially able to communalise the state. The publishing and introduction of school text books heavily compromised by Hindu Nationalism during the 1999-2004 BJP led government were only reversed after they had been defeated in elections by Congress. At the local level, the ability of elected Corporators in Municipal governments to distribute contracts to supporters has allowed organisations like the Shiv Sena in Mumbai to create powerful and deep networks through which they can distribute resources and jobs in order to build the strength of the movement.

At the state level there have been large scale scandals involving entire state governments and apparatus. The investigations of the 2002 riots in Gujarat exposed massive state collusion in the ethnic cleaning of Muslims across the state. Law enforcement agencies were actively directed and engaged in communal violence and the state government intervened to delay the deployment of the army by the national government. Ongoing investigations into the violence have produced a steady stream of convictions and arrests including the former BJP state minister for welfare seven years later in 2009. 

At the micro-political level, Hindu Nationalism is reconfiguring itself. In Mumbai the Shiv Sena, a regionalist and Hindu Nationalist party, have suffered a decline in recent years as the result of the split over leadership of the party between members of the Thackeray family. The split however, has resulted in the birth of a rival party, the MNS with a hardline stance on North Indian immigrants and a strong appeal to regionalism. The meteoric rise of the MNS may be the shape of things to come with new organisations and leadership based on the changing economic and social relations in India coming forwards and replacing the old. This ability to adapt to change was crucial to the success of movements like the Shiv Sena, who were able to entrench themselves in neighbourhoods by offering an alternative sense of place and collective action based on communalism as the textile industry went into decline and the organised left with it.  

The concentration on a lack of large scale violence in response to the Ayodhya verdict also overlooks the smaller scale violence which has underpinned the rise of Hindu Nationalism. Incidents of anti-Christian violence have increased since the late 1990s, in particular in the BJP ruled states of Orissa, Karnataka, and Gujarat. Similarly, incidents of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat and Assam have resulted in the increasing isolation and ghettoisation of communities, reinforcing communalist politics.

The more violent elements of Hindu Nationalism still secure political power at the local level through violence or the threat of violence. In Mumbai, the newly emergent MNS and the established Shiv Sena have continued to use violence to shape the local political environment in recent confrontations with the Samajwadi Party and in particular targeted social groups such as North Indian immigrants who supported the Samajwadi Party in violence across Maharashtra in 2008. 

Hindu Nationalist organisations have also been able to fill pre-existing gaps in social services, and gaps which have expanded under the neoliberal rolling back of state services. These range from schools to medical facilities, to cleaning up streets and form the micro-politics of local struggles against competing organisations from the left, NGOs, gangsters and other religious movements such as Christian missionaries.

Again, where Hindu Nationalists have been elected, state programmes have been used to deliver patronage to patron-client networks to build up the organisation and affiliated charities, religious organisations and local groups. This is best illustrated by the development of a nexus of political interest, business interests and criminal interests in Mumbai where the Shiv Sena were able to construct a complex, powerful and pervasive organisation which drew together legal, semi-legal and illegal activities. During the Bombay real estate boom, slums violently cleared of their populations became easy to grab, sell and redevelop with the profits ploughed into legitimate business operations and charitable ventures. What has emerged across India is a system of philanthropy tied to communalism, this has been strengthen by the embrace of neoliberalism and the withdrawl of the state.   

The power and pervasive nature of Hindu Nationalism as an ideology and as a movement means that we cannot look at the Ayodhya ruling and the lack of mass violence and come to the conclusion that violent nationalist politics is coming to an end in India. The shape that Hindu Nationalism will take from now on is unclear but the wide political representation and civil society presence means that this ruling is not the beginning of the end.

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