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Under Modi, India Is an ‘Ethnocracy’, Not a Democracy

Hindus have become the core of the Indian nation and religious minorities are regarded as threats.

Published
Opinion
8 min read
Under Modi, India Is an ‘Ethnocracy’, Not a Democracy
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Soon after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed to power in India in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the unprecedented step of celebrating his victory on the banks of the Ganga in the holy city of Varanasi. The city was the parliamentary constituency that elected him, so it was to be expected that he would thank his voters. However, the spectacle of the Prime Minister, accompanied by senior colleagues who would go on to assume key Cabinet portfolios, unapologetically flaunting his Hindu nationalist credentials was a clear break with the past.

To be sure, India’s heads of government have frequented places of worship on key occasions and regularly greeted the country on religious occasions. But Modi’s political association with religion as an inaugural act was rare. The links were made even more clear when a few weeks further, addressing Parliament for the first time, Modi referred to “1,200 years of servitude” that Indians had suffered. This was a not-so-subtle reference to the presence of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent and associated accounts of conquest, plunder, and domination by invaders of the Islamic faith.

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A Dominant Ethnos

Modi’s early actions offered a glimpse into his future years in office, in which Hindus would come to be considered the core of the Indian nation and religious minorities regarded as threats. The political and policy practices under Modi exemplify India’s transition from a democracy to an ethnocracy: defined by the Israeli sociologist Oren Yiftachel as the specific expression of nationalism “where a dominant ethnos gains political control and uses the state apparatus to ethnicise the territory and society in question” (Yiftachel, 2009: 730). Ethnocratic states — such as Israel, Sri Lanka and Malaysia — frame policies that rigidify distinctions between social groups considered the core of the nation and groups considered peripheral and external to the nation. In such regimes, citizenship is unequal and rests on laws that enable the capture of the state by one ethnic group.

In line with Yiftachel’s formulation of an ethnocracy, we are witnessing the consolidation of the dominant ethnos, Hindus in this case, as the core of the Indian nation. Alongside, we see the identification of religious minorities as threats, intensifying territorial contests between Hindus and Muslims, a Hindutva ethnonationalism that permeates political discourse, and a widening of a long-standing political-economic gap between Hindus and Muslims.

Two-Tiered Citizenship

Some scholars have argued that “India increasingly demonstrates a key feature of an ethnic democracy and associated two-tiered citizenship, with the Hindu majority enjoying more de jure and de facto rights than the Muslim minority” (Jaffrelot 2019: 42; see also Adeney 2020). These formulations of “ethnic democracy” usefully caution against an uncritical acceptance of India as a liberal democracy, but they downplay the extent to which democracy in India is reduced to the shell of holding regular elections.

To be sure, the dominant groups in ethnocracies value democracy (at least for themselves) and often take pride in their democratic institutions. But a polity based on the structural exclusion of a section of its population cannot reasonably be said to qualify as a democracy.

The most important contribution to India’s ethnocratic transition stems from the ideological role in the government of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the ruling BJP. The RSS’ commitment to Hindutva, or ‘Hindu-ness’ at the expense of religious minorities is clear from a reading of its “vision and mission statement” available on its website. Invoking the words of its founder, Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the statement declares:

"The Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindusthan. It is therefore clear that if Hindusthan is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture. If the Hindu culture perishes in Hindusthan itself, and if the Hindu society ceases to exist, it will hardly be appropriate to refer to the mere geographical entity that remains as Hindusthan. Mere geographical lumps do not make a nation. The entire society should be in such a vigilant and organised condition that no one would dare to cast an evil eye on any of our points of honour."

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Territorial Contests Between Hindus and Muslims

The RSS’ vision and mission statement is replete with allusions to territorial contests between Hindus and Muslims. The partition of the subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan continues to be a source of anxiety. The loss of Muslim-majority territories is invoked by the RSS in a bid to safeguard the ‘Hindu’ territories that comprise independent India. The Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, which enjoyed a semi-autonomous status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, was singled out as “a thorn in the flesh” (despite insurgencies against the Indian state in other non-Muslim majority regions).

In line with the RSS’ opposition to Kashmir’s status and fulfilling a long-standing election promise, the Modi government abolished Article 370 in August 2019.

RSS anxieties over the loss of Muslim-majority territories to Pakistan shape the government’s attitude towards Muslims in Hindu-majority states as well. The emphasis on Assam in the vision and mission statement is noteworthy. It is borne of the claim that Assam’s 25% Muslim minority would overwhelm the state over time. It is therefore unsurprising that Assam has emerged as a key territorial battleground over the recent amendment to citizenship laws in the country.

An emerging campaign against a so-called ‘land jihad’ neatly illustrates the territorial dimension of India’s emerging ethnocracy. The bogey targets Muslims who seek to buy property in Hindu-majority neighbourhoods. Campaigns against ‘land jihad’ are couched as efforts to safeguard the Hindu character of neighbourhoods. Protagonists claim that such efforts are indispensable to prevent territories from becoming ‘mini Pakistans’, the epithet commonly used to describe Muslim-majority localities across Indian cities.

In August, Hindu owners of houses in a neighbourhood in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh protested the purchase of two houses by Muslims. In Delhi, Hindu groups have protested the construction of a resthouse for departing Muslim Haj pilgrims.

Such claims of a ‘land jihad’ have permeated electoral campaigns. In Assam, the BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, now the state’s Chief Minister, promised the electorate, “We are going all out against ‘land jihad’. Certain elements have grabbed land from us in lower and middle Assam. They have not even spared the monasteries. This will definitely feature in our manifesto.

Hindutva Ethnonationalism vs Secular Nationalism

Ethnonationalism, rooted in Hindutva, has come to pervade political discourse since Modi’s ascendance to power. Modi described himself as a “Hindu nationalist” in a rare interview on the eve of the 2014 elections. The BJP’s election manifesto declared that “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here”.

Such Hindutva ethnonationalism is distinct from secular nationalism, which draws on an Indian rather than a Hindu identity, and constitutes the second element of the emerging ethnocracy. Hindutva ethnonationalism targets religious and social minorities as internal enemies as much if not more than external enemies.

Indeed, anyone who does not conform to the image of a good Hindu can find themselves singled out as the internal enemy. In recent years, the list of internal enemies has grown and come to include Dalits, liberals and leftists, activists who have raised issues of the environment and human rights, and anyone else perceived to be “anti-national”.

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Political-Economic Exclusion of Muslims

The third element of India’s emerging ethnocracy has deeper roots: the political and economic exclusion of Muslims. The Sachar Commission, appointed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to investigate the socio-economic status of Muslims, had in 2006 noted important disparities between Hindus and Muslims.

Worker participation rates among Muslims lagged that of Hindus by almost 10 percentage points, but outstripped them by nearly 10 percentage points in informal manufacturing, 8 percentage points in petty trade and 15 percentage points as precarious self-employed workers.

Literacy rates for Muslims lag that for Hindus, including the historically oppressed Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. A fewer proportion of Muslims completed primary school or middle school than any other social group.

Enrolment rates for Muslim children (6-14 years) were almost 10 percentage points lower than for the national average. The mean years of schooling for Muslim children (7-16 years old) were lower than for every other social group including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Muslim under-representation in military, bureaucratic and political positions is a long-standing trend. Jaffrelot details the abysmally low levels of Muslim presence in the armed forces and in the public sector, which continue to be much-sought employment avenues for many Indians. Their presence in the higher echelons of these institutions was even lower. Adeney and Swindon (2019) document the worsening representation of Muslims in legislatures, judiciary and administrative positions. Muslim representation in India’s Cabinets has also declined.

From a historical perspective, the responsibility for much of the political and economic exclusion must be placed on the Congress and other parties that ruled India since Independence. However, these parties, now in the Opposition, at least paid lip service to narratives such as “secularism” and “social justice”.

In his first term, Modi promised to usher ‘development for all’ (sabka saath sabka vikas) but allowed Hindutva to emerge as the defining characteristic of his government, a trend that, as we have seen, has been consolidated after the BJP’s reelection in 2019.

But It Won't Be a 'Personalised Dictatorship'

An ethnocracy has taken root in India. But this is unlikely to be accompanied by a formal suspension of elections in India. The RSS consciously projects itself as having opposed Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the Emergency. Modi does not tire of proclaiming India’s democratic lineage, unlike interwar European demagogues who pointedly rejected democracy.

It is unlikely that Modi's utterances are strategically oriented towards western audiences that might be worried about a democratic recession in India. Rather, the forums at which he has repeated claims of democracy being a quintessentially Indian ethos — election rallies, the Houses of Parliament — suggest an internal rather than an international audience for such narratives.

The BJP has respected the mandate of the state elections they have lost since their spectacular reelection to power. The ethnocracy that has taken root in India draws on electoral victories and legislative majorities for sustenance. Hence, their suspension is unnecessary.

Modi has declared himself at the service of his people rather than proclaiming himself as the equivalent of a Fuhrer or Duce. He remains committed to the RSS and is accountable to its Hindutva agenda. Modi’s BJP-led government is subjected to checks and balances by its ideological parent. Indeed, such checks and balances are likely to prevent Modi from assuming absolute power.

These suggest that a personalised dictatorship is unlikely to emerge under Modi. But the principle that the dominant ethnos can rule the country and marginalise the others has firmly established itself. Images of Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal reciting the Hanuman Chalisa hymn, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi emphasising his roots as a janeudhari (sacred thread-wearing) Brahmin, and West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reciting hymns from the Chandi Path as public declarations of their Hinduness suggest that such a principle is being established well beyond the BJP and Prime Minister Modi.

Even if the BJP loses power in 2024, the Hindu ethnocracy it is establishing will take more effort to dismantle than a mere electoral victory of the Opposition. Its endurance will be a gift the RSS will truly cherish when it commences its centenary observations on 27 September, 2024. Supporters of democracy in India can only hope that never comes to pass.

(This article first appeared on The India Forum. Read the full essay here.)

(Dr Roy is Sr. Lecturer- Global Development Politics, University of York. He leads Reimagining Citizenship, a global consortium of scholars and practitioners to study the ongoing contentions over nationalism, belonging and rights in India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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