The current direction of India as a democratic nation state and a democratic society is best understood in comparison with two other democratic states and societies in the news, namely the United Kingdom and Israel.
After 13 years of Right-wing Tory rule, the UK has a Hindu primeminister in Westminster, a Muslim first minister in Scotland and a Muslim mayor in London. As if that weren’t enough, the leader of the Scottish Labour party, Anas Sarwar, is a Muslim. Across the political spectrum — Tory, Labour, Scottish National Party — minority South Asian politicians run the country. Despite Brexit, and the panic about illegal migration and the damning indictment of the Metropolitan Police as institutionally racist, members of racial and religious minorities remain in the vanguard of British politics.
To be blasé about this or to wave this large fact away by claiming that these prominent politicians aren’t properly representative of the place of minorities in British political life, is to wilfully ignore the remarkable virtue of British political life in the present moment. India used to have powerful, elected Muslim, Christian and Sikh politicians who exercised executive power — prime ministers, chief ministers, cabinet ministers et al — but under the leadership of Narendra Modi and his Hindu majoritarian party, the political space for members of religious minorities, especially Muslims, has shrunk drastically. Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy is notable for being the Christian chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, a Hindu majority state. Bhagwant Mann, the Sikh chief minister of Punjab, is less exceptional as the leader of a Sikh majority state.
The success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in making Muslims politically radioactive has encouraged other political parties to keep Muslims at arm’s length, fielding fewer and fewer of them as legislators or high-profile figures within party executives. In this respect, India under Modi is more like that other parliamentary democracy, Israel. Under Modi, we have seen a hectic convergence between the political culture of India, a nominally secular state, and that of Israel, a Jewish-majoritarian nation since its inception.
Israel’s ‘liberal democracy’ was always premised on the political subordination of Palestinians within Israel and the occupied West Bank through second-class citizenship or disenfranchisement. The fig leaf of the two-state solution obscured the helotry that guaranteed the Jewish state. Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-Right coalition has stopped window-dressing apartheid. The logic of majoritarian nationalism everywhere tends towards the unfettered assertion of supremacy; anything less leaves the middle-of-the-road majoritarian open on his Right flank to the charge of appeasement.
In Israel, the feral vanguard of the Right consists of rampaging settlers in the West Bank and the political representatives of the ultra-Orthodox within the country. There is, however, no fundamental disagreement between Israel’s mainstream political parties and the fringe. The two-state solution has been a dead end for decades and it is now deployed by friends of Israel as a perfunctory alibi in near-total bad faith.
The majoritarian Right in India, which sees India as a Hindu Zion, is faced with a constitutional obstacle. The Indian Constitution doesn’t distinguish, as Israel does, between a natural class of citizens and citizens on sufferance. The natural citizens of Israel are Jews because Israel was founded as the Jewish homeland. The ‘right of return’ that Jews all over the world can exercise to become citizens underlines the two-class nature of citizenship in Israel: Jews and the rest. Hindutvavadi policymakers and politicians need to create a form of two-class citizenship where none exists in the nation’s founding document. They seek to do this both formally and informally.
Formally, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act smuggles in a religious criterion for citizenship via the backdoor of illegal immigration which basically amounts to ‘anyone but Muslims’. The CAA applies to three Muslim-majority countries and affects only those illegal immigrants who arrived in India by a cut-off date, so it is a partial exception not a root-and-branch change, but it creates both a precedent and a way of de-stabilising the citizenship rights of Muslims. It allows for the deployment of the National Register of Citizens as an inquisitorial body that could consign undocumented Muslims to a limbo while allowing undocumented non-Muslims to be fast-tracked into citizenship.
Informally, the rights of Muslims as equal citizens are eroded by using the bogey of the trade in cattle to attack livelihoods, by encouraging the forces of law and order to act on allegations of ‘love jihad’, by targeting mosques, by letting civil society groups know that the intimidation of plebeian Muslims will go unpunished, by releasing convicted rioters and murderers from jail and celebrating their release. The gated neighbourhood is a symbol of privilege; contemporary India has pioneered the gated ghetto: Muslim neighbourhoods rigorously policed and surveilled by the State.
The increasingly plebeian nature of the Muslim community is mocked by majoritarians on social media. The significance of this mockery extends beyond provocation. When an online Hindutva warrior taunts a Muslimas a puncture-wala, he is using the poor cycle-repairman as a metaphor for Muslims as an underclass. The agenda of majoritarianism is tomidwife into existence via systematic discrimination a class of helotswho perform low-paid, but economically useful, work and, in return, are allowed citizenship on sufferance. To elevate ‘Indic’ citizens over their ‘Abrahamic’ compatriots is Hindutva’s holy grail.
As State and civil society in countries like India, Hungary, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the United States of America under Donald Trump embrace majoritarianism, what accounts for British exceptionalism? Every time France has a presidential election, it seems a fortnight away from fascism; what makes Britain different?
One possible answer is Britain’s curious transition from Empire. The idea of a commonwealth of postcolonial nations made British citizenship fuzzy at the edges. As a student in England, I could vote in its elections because I came from a commonwealth country. Britain’s bid to live up to its imperial past, prompted it to turn British Overseas Citizens into actual British citizens when political crises in former colonies like Uganda and Hong Kong led to the persecution of vulnerable communities. And unlike France, which expected its immigrants to remake themselves into laicité-loving Frenchmen, Britain allowed a vague pluralism toprevail.
Multiculturalism was much sneered at by tough-minded liberals, but policy puddings are proven in the eating. Multiculturalism has given Britain Rishi Sunak, Humza Yousaf, Sadiq Khan and Anas Sarwar. Laicité has gifted France the chronic prospect of Le Pen. Perhaps the British example ought to remind Indians that pluralism, however untidy as a concept, produces more civilised political outcomes than the monstrous clarity of Hindutva.