In May the Indian electorate returned Narendra Modi of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the helm of what is professedly the world’s largest democracy. But what emerged was no ordinary mandate.
On the contrary, Modi’s landslide victory amounted to a decisive advance for a movement that has organised since the 1920s to make India a Hindu rashtra — a Hindu nation.
During Modi’s first term in power, from 2014 to 2019, the Hindu-nationalist movement made its imprint felt mainly through vigilante violence against minority groups — Muslims in particular — and coercion against dissidents and activists.
Yet, under Modi 2.0, we are witnessing an ominous escalation of its majoritarian project, with the implementation of Hindu-nationalist statecraft on the margins of the republic.
This development is writ large on current events in Kashmir, a deeply contested territory on the northernmost edge of India. On Sunday evening, social media was rife with alarming messages from the Muslim-majority state. After a week that had seen 35 000 soldiers dispatched to what is already the most militarised zone in the world, tourists and religious pilgrims were instructed by Indian authorities to leave Kashmir. “I believe I’m being placed under house arrest from midnight tonight [and] the process has already started for other mainstream leaders,” tweeted Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of the state. He was later arrested, together with other politicians, and the internet and phone lines were shut down.
Then came the decisive blow: on Monday, the government issued a presidential order that revoked Kashmir’s special constitutional status — afforded as a precondition for Kashmir joining the Indian union in 1947, and which allowed the state a considerable degree of autonomy in relation to central authorities. Furthermore, Kashmir was relegated to the status of a “union territory” with a legislature. On Tuesday, Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah introduced the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament, It passed into law easily. This leaves Kashmir with far lesser powers of governance and law-making than a usual state government. Crucially, it will be governed directly from Delhi for the time being.
In justifying this move, Shah referred to “the prevailing internal security situation fuelled by cross-border terrorism” — which is consonant with the commitment he expressed towards “a decisive war against terrorism” in the wake of attacks in Kashmir in February. But there is little reason to believe that this intervention will bring peace and stability to Kashmir. Instead, it is likely to be perceived by Kashmiri citizens as yet another act of aggression by a government that in 2018 presided over the state’s deadliest year in a decade. Consequently, unrest is likely to intensify.
Instead, what we are witnessing unfold in Kashmir is Hindu- nationalist statecraft. This operates according to the same logic that has underpinned the authoritarian populism of the Modi regime since its inception, which is predicated on drawing a line between “true Indians” and their antinational enemies within.
The abolition of Kashmir’s statehood is an act of territorial engineering designed to advance the idea of a Hindu rashtra in very tangible ways. Not only is the stage set for an onslaught against insurgent citizens — who are overwhelmingly Muslim — but, as historian Hafsa Kanjwal has pointed out, the ground has also been cleared for changing the demography of the state.
The revocation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status means that Kashmiri authorities no longer have the right to define who is a permanent resident with a right to own land in the state. All Indians can now buy property and land in the “union territory”. As Kanjwal argues, this creates the possibility of changing the make-up of its population to such an extent that the aspiration among Kashmir’s Muslim-majority population for genuine freedom is completely eviscerated.
Hindu-nationalist statecraft is not limited to Kashmir. Indeed, the current intervention was foreshadowed by the initiative, launched in 2018, to verify the national register of citizens in the BJP-ruled state of Assam in northeastern India — another of the country’s militarised margins. The verification exercise has been justified as necessary to rid the state of illegal immigrants. It is predominantly Muslims of Bangladeshi heritage who have been caught in the crosshairs of this initiative, which could strip millions of people of their citizenship. The logic is clear: the Hindu nation is to be built by purging India’s territory of the Muslim enemy within.
There is every reason to believe that Hindu-nationalist statecraft will burrow its way from the nation’s margins towards its core. As journalist Aman Sethi has pointed out, after the erasure of the state of Kashmir, there is very little that now stands in the way of Modi’s government finding other parts of the nation too unruly and disobedient to be allowed to participate in democratic life. This is especially so as a government that has shown its willingness to crack down on dissent on multiple occasions armed itself, only last week, with the legal right to label individuals as terrorists — without trial, without evidence, and without conviction. In short, the making of the Hindu nation might very well spell the end of Indian democracy.
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is a professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria. He is one of the editors of the book Indian Democracy: Origins, Trajectories, Contestations