In 1944, Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi wrote a masterpiece on political economy that revolutionised the study of economic theory. In The Great Transformation, Polanyi demonstrated that the state and market are not oppositional concepts. In fact, it is the state that creates markets. The state does this by developing the enabling conditions that make the functioning of markets possible. The Great Transformation referred to the social and political upheavals that accompanied the birth of the market economy in England in the 19th century.
India is in the midst of a ‘Great Transformation’ of its own. Hindu mobs are ushering in a new India through routine, low-grade violence that is now firmly embedded in the grassroots.
This phase of Hindutva mobilisation – churning out agitations, hate speech and violence at breakneck speed – is not quite being meticulously directed from the top, like pieces on a chessboard, with every move being carefully planned in advance in pursuit of clearly defined outcomes. Believing this would be to confer on the top echelons of the ruling establishment an omniscience and omnipotence they do not quite possess.
The Thriving Market of Sadhus, Sadhvis, and Senas
Instead, this Hindutva mobilisation is more akin to a market phenomenon. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has fomented a huge market of Hindutva mobilisation that has changed the nature of communal violence from an episodic to a pervasive and endemic phenomenon. This is not ‘Hindu Rashtra’ by intelligent design but by an accelerating mass of de-centralised mob action. The country is being transformed not just by big men sitting in Delhi or Nagpur, but by millions of little people in towns and cities, who are devising their own ways of putting Muslims ‘in their place’ and responding to the facilitative conditions created by the regime.
In this thriving market of Hindutva mobilisation, local entrepreneurs of bigotry – the sadhus and sadhvis, the Hindu senas and sangh – are exploiting the incentives provided by the regime and competing among themselves to extract their market share. Like in any booming market, veterans of established formations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Hindu Jagran Manch, have broken off and started their own little Hindu militias. It has become hard to keep up with all the names. For instance, the group that recently burned houses of Muslims in Agra over ‘love jihad’ is called Dharam Jagran Samanvay Sangh. These upstart mobs are little more than small gangs striving for power and influence in local politics, even more diffusely connected to the RSS than its formal affiliates.
The leaders of these militias get to be local celebrities or power brokers, achieving a level of political importance that otherwise would have taken them a lifetime to achieve through formal political channels.
Their underlings are an army of unemployed or under-employed young men who get psychic release through brandishing swords and dancing to communal songs. Sometimes, as in the case of gau rakshaks, these gangs leverage their state patronage and sanction for violence to run extortion rackets, confiscating trucks and returning them for bribes.
A Hollowed-Out, Compliant State
How did the BJP regime create this market of Hindutva mobilisation?
First, it has weakened the state structures by instituting a chaotic authoritarianism in the country. While the outer form of governance is the same, the political culture has been thoroughly corroded in such a way that important functionaries in the bureaucracy are encouraged to undermine the rule of law and principles of equal citizenship in furtherance of the political vision of the BJP.
It is hard to think of any bureaucrat or policeman who has refused to bulldoze houses in violation of all norms of due process, and not many judges who have given bail to people picked up on flimsy charges.
These government functionaries have become habituated to ignoring their rules and codes in favour of fulfilling what they perceive to be the expectations of the regime – what the Nazi historian Sir Ian Kershaw termed as “working towards the Fuhrer”.
Meanwhile, the state has not just given Hindutva organisations a free run to belt out hate speeches, organise openly on social media, and carry out demonstrations, but it has also virtually ceded to them its monopoly on violence. One has to only look at how police officers speak to even local Hindutva leaders, with caution and deference usually reserved for unruly political leaders, to gauge where the balance of power effectively lies. Why would Hindutva groups not act as they do when they confront such a weak, hollowed-out state?
How 'Crises' are Manufactured by Mobs
Second, the BJP has incorporated Hindutva organisations in their political regime as a key component having the specific function of agenda-setting in the political system. In the last few months, Hindutva organisations have helped focus the political discourse on issues such as hijab, halal and azaan.
The extreme positions taken by the Hindutva organisations fuel these contentious debates. Through their dramatic agitations, they draw popular attention to these issues, creating the impression of a crisis. This crisis can then be left to simmer or is resolved through state intervention, with the state broadly coming down on the side of the Hindutva groups.
This was the course taken in the hijab dispute, with the state sanctifying with law the demands made on the street. The agenda-setting power of Hindutva organisations exalts their power and status from petty street thugs to respectable political actors.
Can This Self-Fulfilling Violence Backfire?
But Hindutva organisations on the ground are not always in such coordinated lockstep with the ruling BJP. They are also political actors with their own motivations, acting often on their own initiative to assert their influence and relevance. Like all political actors, they seek to be autonomous centres of power, and the challenge for the BJP in the future would be to control the dial of chaos and the violence they sow to levels that are both politically beneficial and manageable.
This challenge is compounded by the inherent market dynamic of Hindutva mobilisation – a system that would keep churning out newer groups competing with each other to become first in line for state support or access to local resources, instrumentalising ever more dramatic mob election, in a cycle of violence that has already seemed to have taken its own momentum. The BJP might struggle to reassert its power over these groups for fear of alienating them or losing whatever control it has over them. Once this violence starts affecting the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Hindus, the BJP might discover that the invisible hand of the market of Hindutva mobilisation can very well exact political costs.
For Muslims, a Constant Target on the Backs
However, for now, the violence and agenda-setting function of these Hindutva organisations is crucial for the BJP in its project to fabricate a permanent Hindu political majority. That this project requires so much mob violence is an indication that it is still far from complete; while the Hindu majority is part enthusiastic and part indifferent to Muslim demonisation, it still holds on to other economic and political aspirations.
For the Muslims, this permanent state of communal tension is a new reality. They have faced communal conflagrations before, but they were always circumscribed by time and place and followed by long periods of calm, normalcy and hope. But they now face an uncertain future, dealing with the unsettling feeling of having a target on their back, with too many people having the incentive to zone in on that target.
(Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi. He can be reached @AsimAli6. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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