Communalism, the Neo-Liberal Project and Women

Vasanthi Raman


In the following essay we attempt to understand the linkages between the current day resurgence of Hindu rightwing ideologies, the mobilisation of women under its aegis and the neo-liberal paradigm. The linkages are complex and what we attempt here is just a sketching of certain broad trends which we believe are significant for the understanding of the present situation and the balance of social forces.

The essay is divided into five sections: the first deals with the historical backdrop of Hindu communalism; the second delineates the significant developments in the eighties and the nineties of the last century; the third section deals with the collapse of the Nehruvian consensus and the inauguration of the neo-liberal project; the fourth section looks at the continuities and the disjunctures between the earlier agenda of nation-building and the new dreams of the global order; the fifth and sixth sections attempt to look at the links between the Hindu rightwing ideologies and the middle classes and women while the last section concludes with the situation of Gujarat 2002.

I. The Historical Backdrop of Hindu Communalism the naturalisation and nationalisation of Hindu Communalism

Communalism as a social phenomenon has been a particularly vexatious one for social scientists and historians from the early part of the twentieth century, with the partition of the subcontinent constituting an anguish-ridden watershed which continues to pose an intellectual and political challenge in understanding subcontinental society. Writing about communalism in the 21stcentury would involve at least noting the different meanings the term has come to acquire over the last century and a half. Charting the history of the term from a more neutral allegiance to community (which encompassed all forms of community and which did not necessarily imply antagonism to others), to one which defined the subcontinental society by its ‘opposing’ religions encompasses a significant and decisive phase of colonial history of the subcontinent. The phenomenon remains with us in the subcontinent and continues to influence the course of events. The transition over the last two centuries from communalism (defined as identity based on community) to one wherein it referred to antagonistic collective mobilisation on the basis of religion leading to the Partition of the subcontinent, and, finally towards the end of the twentieth century the phenomenon of Hindutva, variously defined as political Hinduism, Hindu right or Hindu fascism can plot out a major and significant strand of the trajectory of the social transformation of the subcontinent.

Orientalist discourse which defined India by its supposedly opposing religions also laid the ideological and social-political basis for colonial administrative policy and also colonial sociology. One needs to add an important caveat here regarding Orientalist discourse: Marx and Marxist orientalist scholarship has been subsumed under the category of ‘western episteme’ by Edward Said and he criticised Marx and Marxist scholarship for being part of the orientalist subordination of the east by the west. There are important differences between Marxist scholarship and orientalist discourse, the principal one being that the ahistorical and transhistorical homogenising and essentialising that is characteristic of what is now considered ‘mainstream’ orientalist discourse is certainly not a characteristic of Marxist scholarship and indeed even antithetical to the philosophical and political assumptions of Marxist thought. (For a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism see A. Ahmad, 1992, 159-219). Even many British scholars who are not Marxist also have written from many diverse and divergent viewpoints about India all of which cannot be clubbed together as part of orientalist subordination of the east by the west. (For an analysis of the diverse strands of British scholarship on India see Tripta Wahi, 1996).

Even so certain Orientalist assumptions did become dominant in the Indian subcontinent (due to the consolidation of colonial power) and these have been challenged by most scholars who see communalism as a historical and historiographical phenomenon and as a product of colonialism and not as emanating from the primordial hatreds of India or from a so-called civilisational or cultural faultline between Hinduism and Islam. Romila Thapar has dealt lucidly and brilliantly with the manner in which the colonial encounter changed the very framework of the comprehension of the past from what was prevalent prior to colonialism, and the manner in which current political ideologies appropriate such comprehension and its implications for the present. (Thapar, R. 2000: 60-87). In the modern Hindu search for an ‘imagined community’ in ancient history identified solely by religion (in this case Hindu), other social divisions inevitably get glossed over. The appropriation of an Orientalist construction of Hinduism by the nationalist leadership (which was dominantly Brahmin and upper caste) led to such an understanding of ‘Hinduism’ becoming a part of nationalist ‘common-sense’. However, this is not to suggest that there was no cleavage based on religion in the pre-colonial period nor even that there were no mobilisations based on religion but that there were a multiplicity of communities based on caste, occupation, language, region, nationality and sect and these identities criss-crossed and that any one of these did not constitute the defining principle of community identity for all times and situations. But, the phenomenon of antagonistic collective mobilisation based on religion occurs only in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Apart from religion, caste was also an important as a locus of mobilisation particularly in the nineteenth century. Tribal revolts stretching from the mid nineteenth to the almost the end of the nineteenth century were also important expressions of the cataclysmic impact of British rule. Moreover, all these categories were not neat watertight compartments at any point of time; they melded together in an untidy manner posing exciting and challenging dilemmas for both social analysts and political actors engaged with both analysing and changing the society. However, it is important to remember that whatever the basis of community, be it language or caste or region, or even occupational categories, during the colonial period, ‘community’ was the locus of organising and mobilising for collective articulation. As one scholar has put it: ‘ …modern politics in India began not as an exercise in citizenship, since no one can be a citizen of a colony, but as so many attempts to organise pressure groups that could negotiate with the colonial authority and, inevitably, these pressure groups were organised around the fault lines that existed already in society, so that factors of religion, caste and community were paramount in the organisation of such groups. (Ahmad, A. 2004, 79).

The latter part of the nineteenth century also witnesses the beginnings of a contestation between two ideas of India: a pluralistic, composite vision of India which was inclusive of all identities and another exclusive definition of India as ‘Hindu’. These two ideas or concepts of India as a nation echoed analogous strands within Europe. (It is necessary to note that from this also emerged the idea of India as a multinational state.) The concept of the nation that was inspired by the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen’, a product of the French revolutionary-democratic tradition, was one wherein the idea of citizenship is radically separated from race, religion or other such primordialisms and encompasses all those who accept the authority of the nation-state. This Enlightenment concept of the nation-state was counterposed by tendencies within German right-wing romanticism wherein the nation-state is based on some kind of national-cultural essence based either on race, religion, language and/or any other primordial ties. This latter notion is by definition exclusive and inward-looking. (Aijaz Ahmad, 2004 p.70-71) However, the fact that the late nineteenth century nationalism imposed from above by the Prussian feudal forces with the latter not quite at ease with the French revolutionary notions made the Enlightenment project a more complicated and untidy one.

The idea of India as a land of Hindus alone was put forward in the 1920s and the initial steps towards realising it were taken around this time. The writings of Savarkar, Golwalkar and Shraddhanand go into the question of who constitutes a Hindu and who is a Mlechha (the impure ones) and what constitutes a Hindu nation. (Pandey, G., 1993, Hindus and Others, pp.238-272) This was the first public, political statement of the two-nation theory. The ‘naturalisation’ and nationalisation of Hindu consciousness runs so deep that this has been forgotten and Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League have been considered the creators of the two-nation theory. It also needs to be noted that the second decade of the twentieth century also witnessed very powerful social movements of assertion of the lower castes, the most prominent being the non-Brahmin movements of southern and western India. It is important to remember that one of the points of exit from Brahmanical caste-Hinduism for the untouchables and other lower castes was to convert to universalistic religions like Islam and Christianity. In this context, historians like Sumit Sarkar see the rise of Hindu nationalism as a response to threats to upper caste dominance and as an ideology of reaction. (Sarkar, 1997: 360).

The transition of communities from being inchoate groups based on caste, region, language, religion and sect with somewhat fluid boundaries to a consolidation or shall we say creation of community based solely on religion occurs, it is generally agreed, sometime in the late nineteenth century. Various factors have been responsible for it; colonial policy along with orientalist perceptions of India, Indian middle classes’ response to the inferiorisation of Indian society, and most importantly the Census which contributed to the freezing of identities. While there was a range of perceptions among the colonial administrators, one aspect of their perceptions needs to be noted: accustomed as they were to dealing with the more organised, universalistic, semitic religions, they imaged Indian society accordingly, and secondly, they imported the historical baggage of the Crusades with its image of Islam and Muslims as Enemy into the subcontinent. These developments set the tone for political mobilisation along religious lines. Representation by religious community became important for access to power and access to economic resources and middle class employment in the administration. And in the context of Hindu political mobilisation, the concern with numbers became an obsession in the writings of many nationalist social reformers. (Datta, P.K. 1993, EPW, June 19, 1305-1317) Consequently, conversion to Hinduism of untouchables and tribals and former converts to Islam and Christianity became an important ideological and political plank of Hindu nationalists. However, it is only in the 1920s that this notion of a unified Hindu community transits to an aggressive Hindutva whose most articulate spokespersons were Savarkar, Golwalkar and Shraddhanand among others. Referring to the need to acknowledge the breaks in the evolution of Hindu nationalism, Sumit Sarkar writes: ‘The ideological thrust of today’s Hindutva consists precisely in the effort to elide these distinctions so that the Sangh Parivar can establish its claim to be the sole authentic representative and embodiment of Hinduism and being Hindu.’ (Sarkar, S. 1997:363) The conflation between religion and culture and between the latter and the nation has been a core element in the evolution of Hindu nationalism. One would like to conclude this section by emphasising that colonial rule in India went through phases with important watersheds (the war of Indian independence in 1857 being one such) and colonial policy went through significant changes during the different phases which in turn initiated and deeply affected the responses of the different groups and classes of Indians.

II. The Decades of the Eighties and the Nineties

The decades of the eighties and the nineties have been significant ones for the country. These decades marked a departure from the political consensus of the post-independent years. It signalled the end of a consensus among the principal political parties of the centre and left regarding the nation-building project. Three significant developments marked the period. The decision to take the first World Bank-IMF loan, the Ayodhya issue which marked the shift to the centre stage of Indian politics of the forces of Hindutva (the ideology of Hindu nationhood) and the decision to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. These developments have had a far-reaching influence on Indian politics. The World Bank-IMF loan marked the beginning of India’s full integration into the world capitalist system, with no holds barred. While in the sphere of the economy, it was the reign of the so-called free market, ideologically and politically, this meant the beginning of an overt communalisation of the state and simultaneously the inauguration of what has been termed ‘identity politics’. The contradictions of the development paradigm with its centralising and authoritarian thrust became apparent and visible. As one scholar puts it, ‘By the time of the Shah Bano judgement*, it had become increasingly clear that in every way in which the nation was being constituted by dominant discourses, the powerless and the marginal was being defined out of its boundaries.’ (Menon, 1998: 253).

The nineties saw the inauguration of the present phase of communal violence with the destruction of the Babri Masjid, an event which can be considered a watershed in the life of post-independence India. This signalled the entry of the politics of Hindutva onto the centre-stage of Indian politics. In a sense, the communalisation of not merely the state but also of civil society had now reached a climax. Certain features mark this phase:

One significant feature is that the ideology of Hindutva has once again resurfaced with a ferocity unknown before. With it the whole contestation between two visions of India – the pluralistic, composite one which embraced all identities and an exclusivist one of a Hindu nation – is once again thrown open.

It is not accidental that the coming onto the centre stage of the forces of Hindutva has been accompanied by an accentuated thrust towards globalisation and the adoption of structural adjustment policies and the total adoption of the neo-liberal paradigm. While one does not wish to posit a uni-dimensional relationship between the forces of globalised capitalism and that of Hindutva, one can hazard a hypothesis that given the complex, segmented, heterogenous and pluralistic nature of Indian society wherein marginalisation of the oppressed and subaltern groups have more or less proceeded along the lines of traditional social hierarchies, the forces of Hindutva represent status quoist forces, thus leading to a convergence of agendas.

Another significant significant feature – the othering and demonisation of Islam (not merely of Muslims) has to be analysed in the Indian context but also in the context of ideological barrage from the West, with Huntington’s thesis of the ‘the clash of civilisations’ providing the latest ‘historical’ ammunition. As some scholars have pointed out, Indian Islam is older than American Christianity and European Protestantism and yet the depiction of Islam as foreign is an integral part of the Hindutva project. The same can be said of Christianity, though the targeting of Muslims and Islam is central to the ideological-political plank of Hindutva. (Ludden, D. 1996).

This phase has also witnessed the heightened mobilisation of women by the forces of Hindutva. The transition of women from being weak victims to strong subjects is part of the mobilisation of gender in the overall project of the creation of a Hindu state. Corresponding to this and in a sense very much a part of this is the othering of Muslim women, by denying them subjecthood and agency and portraying them as weak and passive victims requiring them to be rescued from the Muslim community, particularly the Muslim men.

III. The Collapse of the Nehruvian Consensus and the Beginning of the Neo-Liberal Project

Trying to draw the linkages between the above-mentioned processes is complicated and difficult. One can only broadly sketch certain trends that are indicative of the present situation.

Structural Adjustment Programmes

The introduction of the structural adjustment programmes since the nineties has meant drastic changes in the overall development paradigm. Politically, the most significant factor has been the jettisoning of the State as a major actor in socio-economic development and as an important agent mandated by the Constitution responsible for the welfare of the citizens. The simultaneous jettisoning of the paradigm of the Welfare State and the adoption of the neo-liberal paradigm has serious implications for the lives of the majority of Indian citizens. The abdication by the state of its responsibilities in the social sector, specifically health, education and provision of food security, compounded by economic policies which have exacerbated unemployment in the formal sector, increased insecurity of employment even in the informal sector, the collapse of traditional subsistence agriculture and intensified commercialisation of agriculture, the precarious situation of the artisans, particularly the weavers, the predatory commercialisation of coastal fishing, affecting the lives of millions of fisherfolk leading to increased insecurity for the people – has intensified polarisation and exacerbated further the existing faultlines in Indian society. What is significant is that the divides based on class, caste, region, religion and gender have intensified. In short, the whole project of building a welfare state and development with the state playing a major role in it has been abandoned and a whole new regime of the neo-liberal paradigm with its logic has been put in place. For the mass of Indians, their whole world is changing for the worse with the old certitudes gone.

Nation-building in the Nehruvian Era

It is important to note the difference between the old regime and the new one. The post-colonial state in the first three decades after independence was still guided by the consensus of the national liberation struggle and continued to an extent to function as an arbiter between different classes even though in actual operation this consensus was flawed particularly when it came to struggles of workers and peasants or challenges to the state. The fifties and sixties has been characterised as the era of ‘optimistic nation-building’ and the state’s legitimacy as the central political authority and its role as determining the future of the country and the nation-state was a given. In this post-colonial consensus evolved among the ruling classes and elites, economic development was to play a central role in consolidating the nation and binding the diversities based on caste, region, language and even class together. Needless to say there were many flaws in this consensus since the consensus itself was an amalgam of conflicting interests and ideologies some of which had their origins in the anti-colonial struggle.

One important element of this consensus was the notion of a secular republic, a state committed to equality for all citizens regardless of caste, creed and gender and the modern notion of citizenship of a modern, territorial nation-state. The Indian Constitution is one result of this consensus, a consensus which was a bitterly contested one formulated as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Partition of the country, compounded by the presence of diverse and conflicting interest groups and world views. The consequence of this was a situation wherein while the state itself was committed to democratic values and secularism (defined as equal treatment of all religions and not as separation of the state from religion), the existing social structures were riven with contradictions based on caste and class, region, religion, gender etc. And development policies only partially addressed this chasm between constitutionally mandated social objectives and the reality of a deeply hierarchical and segmented society. In fact, if anything, development policies at times only exacerbated those very contradictions they were supposed to resolve. And so substantive equality remained a mirage for the vast majority of Indian citizens, particularly those who were at the lower rungs of the traditional social hierarchy. A scholar analysing the post-independent state writes: ‘The Nehruvian high-mindedness and the powerful sense of moral legitimacy that it engendered was an important factor, rendering invisible the unequal benefits that development brought to different classes, castes and regional groups.’ (Deshpande, S. 2003:145).

The economic policies followed in agriculture did not base themselves on the mass of the poor peasantry and the landless but instead led to a steady marginalisation of the peasantry and the land poor. Over the decades immediately after independence, the proportion of agricultural labourers increased while the proportion of cultivators declined and the process of differentiation and pauperisation was only intensified with the green revolution thus vastly restricting the home market. The policies of state-led industrialisation could have taken social roots only if the home market expanded. Thus the industrialisation that was initiated in the first two decades after independence had a very narrow social base and the collapse of the Nehruvian paradigm was almost a foregone conclusion.

The Social Base of the Indian State

There is another very important dimension that has often escaped scholarly and political scrutiny. The Indian state is not merely the Constitution; there are the personnel of the state, the administration, police, judiciary etc. The state continued to be dominated by personnel belonging to the upper castes and upper classes or at least the upper sections of the middle class. The struggle for equality of the lower castes, particularly the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) has been an arduous one.

While there have not been many studies dealing with the social composition of the middle classes as such, particularly in recent times in India, one can infer the dominance of the upper castes in administration, education and the upper echelons of the government by the fact that despite reservation in education and jobs for SCs and STs, the Reports of the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes over several years report about the backlog in the fulfilment of the quotas for these groups in education and administration. Even now most of the Class III and Class IV posts in Government are filled largely by people from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes with them having a really meagre presence in the Class I and II posts. A study by Santosh Goyal (1990a, 1990b) on the social background of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers and top corporate executives in the private and pubic sectors shows the dominance of upper castes in these fields. There is similarly enough data to show that the presence of minorities, particularly Muslims (India’s largest minority) in government and administration leaves much to be desired. It has been pointed out that the grand narrative of national development has nurtured an elite that is overwhelmingly consists of Hindu upper-caste males, especially Brahmins.

However, what is of significance regarding India’s social structure is that categories such as caste, class, religion, region and language and gender are so finely and closely intermeshed that mere Constitutional guarantees, while necessary are not sufficient to address the multiple sources of deprivation of the mass of Indians. Data of the NSSO for Monthly Per Capita Expenditure (MPCE) for 1999-2000 reveal that more than half of the ST population are below the poverty line with the SCs constituting about 43% and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) about 34% while the residual category of Hindus (which we assume to be upper castes) have only 17% below the poverty line. The data show that that the Hindu upper castes are over-represented in the topmost MPCE in both the rural and urban areas constituting 59% of this class (Rs. 1,925 or more) in urban areas and about 40% of this class (Rs.950 or more) in the rural areas even though they constitute only about 18% of the rural and 27% of the urban population.(Deshpande, 2004: 146).

While certainly more complex indices need to be used to elaborate the social processes whereby certain castes and classes and regions have benefited from the development paradigm while others have either been left out of it or have born the burden of it, there is enough to indicate the polarising impact of such a paradigm. Sensitive interventions are called for at the regional/local levels, since most of the castes and communities are largely localised or regionalised. (Needless to say there has been a movement over the last two to three decades in building inter-regional and even pan-Indian alliances of caste groups which roughly occupy comparable positions in the social hierarchy with a view to build pressure groups to claim a share of the social cake. The example of the dalits and the OBCs comes readily to mind.) However, the social vision of the administrative personnel is crucial in dealing with the social and political dynamics of this society to bring about a democratisation of the society. To our mind, the failure of the project of building a democratic society can be traced to this inability and/or unwillingness and even opposition on the part of the personnel at the higher echelons of the administration to address the real sources of conflict. One might even argue that even ushering a democratic social order would have meant a radical restructuring of the social order involving genuine land reforms with land to the tiller and other radical redistributive measures, though here, too, certain measures were initiated like the Zamindari Abolition Act and the various Tenancy Acts which brought certain significant changes in social relations; however, even these measures were stymied by the generally lackadaisical approach of the administration to such measures.

It would not be too sweeping a generalisation to state that perhaps historically the options of the Third World ruling classes, including India were very narrow and perhaps even non-existent. The option for a sustained and self-reliant development would have necessarily meant basing the strategy on the mass of the peasantry and delinking from imperialism and imperialist sponsored policies with radical social and political implications. This option was indeed not available for the Indian ruling classes for obvious reasons.

While polarisation is inherent in any development paradigm within the bourgeois-liberal framework what is only recently being recognized is that this polarisation has heightened and exacerbated the multiple and criss-crossing cleavages and faultlines of Indian society.

IV. Continuities and Disjunctures

What marks the difference, to our mind, between the pre-Sap period and the subsequent one is the transformation in the nature, perspective and balance of social forces of the state leading to far-reaching changes in the society and polity. For one, at the international level, the hegemony of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank(WB) and the neo-liberal paradigm effected drastic changes; and for another, the centrist forces represented by the Congress have collapsed and the vacuum has been occupied by the right-wing Hindutva forces. The crucial difference that marks earlier consensus and current regime is to our mind the abandonment of even the commitment on the part of the political class to principles of democracy, secularism, and the commitment to the welfare of the weaker sections. At the level of international policy, this has meant the jettisoning of the principle of non-alignment.

It is not fortuitous that this shift in the balance of forces is part of a world-wide process wherein there has been a shift to the Right which has been accompanied by: a) the deep structural crisis of capitalism beginning in the seventies after a thirty-year period of boom; b) the collapse of the welfare state and a jettisoning of the nation-building project among the ruling classes of the third world and, c) the defeat of the attempts to chart out an alternative course of forms of state socialism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

What are the changes that have taken place? For one, this is an era where capital has penetrated every aspect of life across the globe leaving almost no aspect of the lives of people untouched; thus the reign of capital is complete. While the universalising tendencies of capital has been accompanied by a de-territorialisation leading to a certain ‘disembedding of social relations’ (Satish Deshpande), there has also been a counter-process which has led to a conscious cultivation of specificity, an assertion of particularistic identities, based on ethnicity, religion and language which have been the fallout of the anxieties and traumas caused by globalisation. At a time when identities whether of the group or of the individual are in a state of flux, when boundaries are getting blurred and when there is talk of a borderless world, when the nation state is itself being refashioned to suit the requirements of global capitalist imperialism, the flip side is the resurgence of the search for identity. While the quest for the millennium among the dominated and the marginalised whether among nations and peoples takes particularly agonising forms of revivalism, the ‘beneficiaries’ also reinvent the golden past in the attempt to further bolster their hegemony. Many facets of the globalisation process have been subjected to scholarly scrutiny; but there is one dimension that needs to be emphasised – it is the defeat of the forces of national liberation, of the socialist and democratic forces on a world scale that has occasioned the rise of the forces of right reaction which now speak the language of exclusionary identities. The growth of ideologies based on religion, race and ethnicities find the most fertile soil in the peripheries of the world imperialist system, i.e. in countries of the Third World, where the imperialist onslaught has got the upper hand over forces of national liberation and radical social transformation. One might even add that there is a conscious attempt to cynically foster precisely such tendencies and forces. Samir Amin draws attention to an important aspect of capitalist globalisation: ‘Capitalist globalisation does not homogenize the world but, on the contrary organizes it on the basis of ever stronger and more pronounced hierarchies. The peoples which are its victims are thereby deprived of active and equal participation in the shaping of the world. By encouraging culturalist responses, globalisation strategies make as much use as they can of diversity inherited from the past. At the same time, however, capitalist globalisation imposes on the dominated some of the ‘specificities’ that characterise its dominant centres.’ (Amin, S. 2004: 191).

While the most irrational and backward-looking ideologies seem to have nested in the Third World, the manifestations of this world-wide shift to the right in the metropolitan countries have been very different. As one Marxist scholar has pithily put it : ‘It is one of the ironies of ideological production in our time that precisely in the historical moment when capitalism has finally penetrated the farthest reaches not only of economic but also cultural production itself, across the globe, we witness the rise of an ideology, culturalism,… which shifts the locus of determination from the field of political economy to that of culture.” (Ahmad, A. 2004: 94).

But it would be useful to remember that imperialism in another time also displayed analogous and seemingly contradictory tendencies. When analysing the processes of imperialist penetration in the colonies, Mao Zedong referred to the contradictory processes of retention and erosion: while imperialism erodes the old social relations it also simultaneously retains those elements and aspects of the social relations of the colony that help to sustain its rule. Thus the feudal classes, mercantile classes and other such dominant classes in the colonies most often constituted the social bulwark of colonial rule. Thus imperialism became internalised. While British colonial rule was getting established and western liberal-bourgeois concepts and norms were being propagated, simultaneously, Orientalist scholarship and discourse was also in the process of inventing India.

As far as the Indian situation goes, while the above-mentioned contradictory processes are operative, one can hazard a hypothesis that given the complex, segmented, heterogeneous and pluralistic nature of Indian society wherein the marginalisation of the oppressed and subaltern groups has more or less proceeded along the lines of traditional social hierarchies, the forces of Hindutva represent status-quoist and retrogressive forces with a modern garb thus leading to the convergence of the agendas of globalisation and Hindutva.

V. The Hindu Right and the Middle Class

There is a resurgence of a virulent form of social Darwinism wherein any form of protective measures for the welfare of the weaker sections are under attack either under the guise of downsizing the state or in the form of policies that directly affect the livelihoods of the vast majority of Indians. This has been accompanied by the increasing significance and centrality of the middle class which constitutes the social base for Hindutva. The middle class has expanded numerically (this itself being the consequence of the Nehruvian development paradigm under which this class came into its own and even constituted the support base for the welfare state model). The numerical strength of the middle class has been estimated at anywhere between 50 to 200 million and the numbers would vary depending on the definitions employed and would range from the schoolteacher and the clerk in the moffusil tothe well-paid professionals in the metropoles. However, here we are particularly referring to the upper echelons of the middle classes who are crucial in opinion-moulding and who constitute an extremely significant support base for those who rule. There have been important changes in the character of the middle class over the last five decades or so. This class has been one of the beneficiaries of the Nehruvian development paradigm; the expansion of the state /public sector, the increasing proportion of the tertiary sector in the economy all have contributed substantially to making this class an important actor on the national stage. It was this class that provided the ideological support base for the development paradigm. But the recent changes in the development paradigm have intensified the differentiation of the middle classes, with the upper rungs among them with alacrity turning to the ideology of neo-liberalism. As one scholar has put it: ‘…the nation is no longer the canvas for their dreams and aspirations.’ (Deshpande, 2003: 148).

The ideologies that the middle class espouses today is a strange and anachronistic amalgam of the most retrogressive forms of cultural nationalism and revivalism and the most hedonistic forms of consumerism. The change that we have alluded to earlier can be traced in the metamorphosis of the middle class from a certain nebulous commitment to equality, democracy and secularism to being the most active spokespersons of the most aggressive forms of social Darwinism, where the welfare of the least privileged – the bottom 30%- can be dispensed with and perhaps even necessary for being part of the global order.

The crucial support for Hindutva comes not merely from sadhus and sanyasis or from the moffusil middle class supposedly steeped in some form of little tradition Hinduism or even from the cosmopolitan professionals located in the big urban centres, though all this is certainly there; but critical support comes from the big business houses (the extravaganzas on public events like the Republic day organised by the Modi government in Gujarat were financed lavishly by groups like Reliance and Essar among others) and from the Non Resident Indians (NRIs) in the US, UK and Europe, from the dominant sections of the Indian diaspora. Recent revelations from Britain prove the link between British-based ‘charity’ organisations and the funding of the most rabid and murderous organisations of the Sangh Parivar. In fact, there is now even a reference to the Export and Funding of the Hatred Industry. Our purpose here is not to underestimate the communalisation of what has been called civil society, but to underline the culpability of the State and those in power and the dramatic shift in the balance of social and political forces in favour of both Hindutva and the neo-liberal paradigm. There are many other aspects of the developing situation which need to be emphasised and which are part of an integral whole: the steady and insidious communalisation of the both the state machinery and also the various institutions, the skilful social engineering by the organisations of the Sangh Parivar in dealing with the faultlines of Indian society and specially in dealing with the different social actors – whether it is the tribals, the dalits, the OBC groups, the women and various regional-level contradictions. The thrust of Hindutva strategy is to divide classes, castes, groups and communities and to posit ‘cultural nationalism’ to counter the economic nationalism that is the objective need of a nation-state that is being eroded. In this sense, Hindutva strategy gels perfectly with the needs of imperialist capitalism. Hindutva is par excellence the ideology of inequality and hierarchy.

VI. Hindutva and Women

One of the features of the nineties has been the heightened mobilisation of women by the forces of Hindutva. There has been a fair degree of analysis on this subject but highlighting some features of the situation may not be out of place.

There was an upsurge in the women’s movement in the latter seventies and eighties which was broadly democratic and secular. The women’s movement of this period which arose on the crest of the wider political upsurge shared the broad consensus of a nationalist, secular and democratic framework even while focusing on the specific nature of women’s oppression. However, there were diversities within the movement, differences and regional specificities. Despite the regional differences and diverse political manifestations of these, one could say that the dominant language of the women’s movement was one of a universalist claim to citizenship, to equal participation in society and polity, unsullied by particularities of caste, religion, ethnicity and other such ‘primordialisms’. (Raman, V. : 2001).

However, the Supreme Court Judgement on the Shah Bano case and the controversial obiter dicta of Justice Chandrachud raising the issue of the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) contributed to polarising further a highly communalised situation, with the mass of Muslims, both men and women ranged against the judgment. It is important to understand the decisive nature of the polarisation that ensued in the wake of the Shah Bano judgement. In the past similar judgements granting maintenance to Muslim women under section 125 of the Cr. P.C. did not evoke the opposition that the Shah Bano case did among the Muslim community. It contributed to fuelling the sense of being besieged among the Muslims. The Muslim Women’s Bill further complicated the entire situation. When the slogan of the Uniform Civil Code was taken over by the right wing Hindutva forces, the mainstream women’s movement was forced reflect on the changed situation and altered balance of forces.

The Shah Bano judgement saw the entire mainstream of the women’s movement speak in one voice demanding a uniform civil code. But, by 1996 there was a sea change and there were wide divergences of opinion on the question of a common set of laws for all women. This change was not merely confined to women’s groups alone but also encompassed the political parties (with the exception of the BJP and the Shiv Sena) which voiced their opposition to a uniform civil code. The shifts in positions is interesting because it reveals the attempts of various groups and organisations at coming to terms with the changed political scenario, characterised by the dominance of Hindu right wing forces. The most notable change has occurred in the position of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) which voiced its opposition to the ‘fundamentalist’ demand for a uniform civil code in the mid-nineties. What is significant about AIDWA’s position is the recognition that gender justice and the fulfilment of constitutional guarantees of equality need not necessarily be linked to an umbrella legislation and that in fact such legislation might actually be counter-productive. (Karat, B., 1995).

We highlight the change in the perspective of the mainstream women’s organisations because the question of the UCC brought to the fore a whole series of questions regarding the nature of the social processes and the consequent differential political articulation among women in general and women’s organisations in particular. To reiterate a point mentioned earlier, the ensconcement of the upper-caste, educated middle classes in the structures of government and administration meant that women from these sections became much more visible in these areas; these women were the first generation beneficiaries of the developmental paradigm. Conversely, women (and men) from the subaltern groups and classes were, by and large marginalised by the developmental process. That these groups are Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and minority groups (particularly Muslims) cannot be underemphasised. The neo-liberal paradigm has only sharpened the polarising thrust inherent in the developmental paradigm pursued so far with the cushion of the welfare state being finally abandoned in the nineties. The pursuit of this paradigm has heightened traditional social and economic differences of caste, class, religion, region and ethnicity, and women have only got more and not less embedded in their groups leading to a greater differentiation among them. This also accounts for the differential political articulation among women. The divergent responses on the Mandal Commission and the Uniform Civil Code testify to this.

The overall economic and social situation that obtains is one wherein as a result of loss of jobs in the organised sector women have also suffered. The policy of a ban on recruitment has led to a loss of at least 45,000 jobs held by women in the banking sector alone and an estimated one lakh jobs in the Central Government services. The employment growth rate for women is very low at less than two per cent while the mass of women in the rural areas have to deal with a situation where they get work for hardly 45 days in many parts of India. Agricultural policies which have been implemented as part of the WTO agreement have led to a severe crisis of agriculture leading to a large number of suicides. Out of the 9000 farmers who were driven to suicides, at least one-third were women. This period has also seen a massive onslaught on food security; while food grains either rotted in the godowns or were exported at very low prices, people starved; and women and girl children were the worst affected.

The destruction of the Babri Masjid saw the above-mentioned processes coming to fruition with the Hindutva forces’ political strategies to mobilise women for furthering the project of a Hindu Rashtra. The change can be seen in the response of the middle classes, both men and women, to the victims of communal violence. While the first three-four decades saw sections of the Hindu middle classes coming to the fore in restoring communal harmony after riots and heading peace committees, the nineties witnessed the phenomenon of upper caste Hindu women not only actively encouraging riotous acts but also participating in looting the properties and valuables of the Muslim community.

In the decade of the nineties, the coming on to the centre stage of Indian politics of Hindutva forces spurred significant work on the role of gender in politicised religion. Some of the scholars (Sarkar and Butalia: 1995) referred to the disturbing prominence of the Hindu right and its successful mobilisation of women in furthering the project of Hindutva in the eighties and the nineties. Many of the scholars/analysts have drawn attention to the fact that this large-scale mobilisation of women behind movements and organisations with professed anti-feminist and anti-democratic agendas could not be dismissed as an instance of ‘false-consciousness’ but that there was an informed consent and agency in this participation. In fact it has also been pointed out that this mobilisation has actually been ‘empowering’ to the extent that it provides a legitimate avenue for breaking the confines of domesticity and stepping into the public sphere, although this has not meant nor was intended to lead to a redefinition of women’s roles either in the domestic or in the public sphere. However, the significant question is: what are the implications of the ‘empowerment’ of Hindu women under the banner of Hindutva for Muslim women when this mobilization is directed against both men and women?

VII. Gujarat 2002

There are certain features of the Gujarat situation that need to be reiterated so that the situation of women and their responses to it can be contextualised.

For one, Gujarat did not occur in a vacuum nor was it some kind irrational madness that had seized the mobs. Gujarat has been in the offing for a long time. It has been in the offing because of the economic developments of the last two decades and more when lakhs of textile workers have been rendered jobless with the closure of the mills, the pauperisation that ensued accompanied by the collapse of the social infrastructure that accompanied it and heightened insecurities among those affected; it has been in the offing because of the planned manner in which the Hindutva forces engaged in the ‘social engineering’ towards the creation of a Hindu Rashtra.

The pattern of violence and the targeting of Muslim owned properties including those with names which could not be identified as Muslim show careful planning which had gone on for a long time. There were house checks under the guise of data collection just prior to the violence. Mosques and dargahs were destroyed.

An integral part of the social engineering was the careful planting of many members of the Sangh parivar in the administration.

All reports point to the total surrender of the state machinery to the Hindutva forces with some honourable and courageous exceptions.

The much-touted economic development of the state has been really meant a jobless growth. Jan Breman refers to the close linkages between what has happened in Gujarat to a resurgence of social Darwinism. The changing political economy, the altered balance of social forces with the traditional working classes seriously eroded numerically and reduced to pauperised informal sector workers and corresponding to this the rise of a wealthy middle class which constitutes the base of Hindutva has contributed to Gujarat 2002.

As one writer has put it: ‘The key elements in the recent atrocities is the new role of the prosperous, educated middle class. In the past, the middle class has halted communal violence, as members of state bureaucracy, police and business community. Now it organizes communal cleansing with the efficiency of a business project’. (Choudhury, K. 2003: 259-364:).

The active acquiescence and in many cases participation of women in the Hindutva project and the victimisation of the large masses of Muslim women are two sides of the same coin.

Gujarat has rather ironically demonstrated the success of ‘agency’ and ‘empowerment’ of Hindu women under the banner of Hindutva in rather macabre ways. The women of Gujarat were divided into Hindu women who were the agents and the Muslim women who were the vulnerable victims. Needless to say there have been not a few courageous men and women from among the Hindus, many courageous Adivasis and Dalits who risked their lives and sometimes paid with their lives for saving Muslims. But their attempts could not withstand the tornado of hatred that had been carefully nurtured over the last few decades. Then there were the examples of large numbers of well-to-do, middle class Hindu Gujarati women who were active participants in large scale looting of Muslim shops and godowns apart from showing a callous disregard for the thousands of Muslim women who were raped and children who were burnt and killed in the most heartless manner.

The scale of ethnic cleansing that occurred in Gujarat is enormous and giving figures somehow seems to take away from the enormity of the crime that was perpetrated.

There have been many reports of what transpired in Gujarat during the night of the long knives. Women’s groups, civil liberties groups, trade unions independent citizens groups, the many reports in the print media, documentary film makers, all have testified to the horror of what happened. And as Tanika Sarkar has put it: ‘What is new about Gujarat can best be exemplified in what happened to Muslim women and children on the days of the long knives. Not just their killings, not just the sadism that effected heir killings, but the large symbolic purpose behind the deaths sums up the nature of ethnic cleansing, the shape of Hindu Rashtra’.

Concluding Remarks

Two agendas have converged: the neo-liberal paradigm with its thrust on integration into an essentially unequal world capitalist system an important element of which is to dispense with the bottom 30% of society and the agenda of Hindutva which has no place for the diversities and pluralities of India and certainly not for shudras, ati-shudras, Muslims and women.

[Post Script: This essay was written before the general elections of May 2004. While the Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance led by it has been defeated and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance has come to power at the Centre, we believe that the basic analysis still holds. The change of regime at the centre is a reprieve and bold steps would have to be taken to chart out a difference course)

Acknowledgements: Grateful thanks to Vijay Singh for painstakingly reading through my first draft and suggesting necessary changes; also to Indrani Majumdar, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, for comments and suggestions; the free-wheeling discussions that I have had with her have always been very useful.


The Indian Constitution recognises and sanctions various systems of personal laws based on religion and customary laws based on customary practices. These deal with issues of inheritance, rights to property, marriage, divorce, maintenance and guardianship of minors, adoption etc. This constitutional sanction to these various personal and customary laws arose out of the need to acknowledge and give recognition to the diversity and plurality of Indian society. However, the Directive Principles of State Policy also state that the State should endeavour to bring about a Uniform Civil Code which would govern all citizens regardless of religion, caste and creed. But the question of the Uniform Civil Code has always been a somewhat knotty issue since this invariably arouses fears that the identity and culture of the minorities may be swamped in the name of a common code which, it is feared would be a majoritarian Hindu code. The Shah Bano case was one instance of a Muslim woman, who went to court demanding maintenance under the civil law in the early eighties. But the Supreme Court judgement while granting maintenance was also accompanied by an obiter dicta which strongly recommended the need for a Uniform Civil Code. The judgement came at a time when the social and political atmosphere of the country had become highly communalised and polarised with the vast majority of the Muslim community, both men and women, rallying against the judgement. (See Raman, V. 2001, cited in the references for a detailed discussion of this)


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