India today: A place between hope and despair

I am extremely honoured to speak at Claremont Main Road Mosque today. I would like to thank the mosque for inviting me. I am familiar with the illustrious history of the mosque during the turbulent 1980s when resistance against apartheid reached a peak. Global solidarity contributed considerably to ending the apartheid regime. Global solidarity can also help to counter state and social repression in multiple parts of the world. Today I will speak to you about India. 

On January 26, India celebrated its Republic Day. On that day, in 1950, it gave itself a constitution which upholds the ideals of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. I speak today as someone who dearly hopes that India, a country of 1.4 billion people realises these promises — and realises them for all groups of people who live in it. 

Indian tourism brochures describe the country as “incredible”, hailing it as the land of numerous languages, cultures, foods, sites, sounds and religions. That diversity is especially meant to be celebrated on Republic Day. However, another legacy haunts the Indian republic — the colonial policy of divide and rule, of ethnonationalism, and religious polarisation. These strands came together to produce a terrible conflagration at the time of Indian independence and partition. Parts of north India were engulfed in an “undeclared civil war”. The partition and that war left 10 million people (Hindu, Muslim, Sikhs) uprooted, 1-2million dead, and 75 000 reported rapes. The subcontinent was, as we know, divided into two and then three nation states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. India, where Hindus were a demographic majority and Pakistan a Muslim majority state but each with multiple minorities whose situation became more and more precarious over the decades. 

In this way, independent India became a beacon of hope but also a place of despair. India’s independence and violent division impacted South Africa too. The historian Jon Soske has shown how Indian independence and partition had a strong influence on the minds of South African leaders — trying to imagine a new nation — after the end of colonialism. Emergence of a sovereign Indian state after 300 years of British rule gave hope to the rest of the colonised world; at the same time, there was a cautionary tale — a cautionary tale about the perils of perpetuating enmities, and the perils of privileging one ethnicity, one race, one religious or linguistically defined group over another. How can a free South Africa not end up like violently divided India? That question troubled the mind of many in the years and decades to come. It affected the shape of the nation that leaders like Albert Luthuli and Mandela imagined and strived for. The rest as they say is history and in 1994 South Africa could emerge as a plural, diverse nation holding up the promise of “a better life for all.” 

That promise of a better life for all remains grossly unrealised. Reminders of South Africa’s unfulfilled promises are all around us. In July 2021, when economic desperation intensified social unrest in Gauteng and Natal, South Africa also witnessed something else: we saw how what looks like plurality and diversity can give way to racial profiling, vigilantism and, in fact, massacre. We saw members of South African Indian community pitched against black communities; at other times, we have seen South African citizens turn against Africans from other parts of the continent in what is frequently called xenophobic violence. 

Economic desperation, political instigation, illicit networks — all play a crucial part to produce such violent ruptures. But there is another aspect — the question of a group’s inner life, of how we regard each other, and the lenses through which we view one another, which make it possible to violate and hurt one another. That capacity to hurt is built into the Indian caste order. If apartheid was a state sanctioned social order which violated and hurt, caste has been a religiously sanctioned one. It is an order of “graded inequality” that particularly positions Dalits as degraded, impure, unworthy of contact and touch. That act of treating the other as unworthy and degraded is also an enactment of purposive power to hurt. That power to hurt has produced dramatic atrocities against Dalits. It also produces everyday, banal acts of shirking away from the bodies of people who labour, whose landless families have served as cleaners, leather workers, butchers, potters and weavers. Love, intimacy, marriage with those from so-called lower caste have been taboos. In a number of instances young men and women who have broken these caste taboos have been violently repressed. 

Taboos and discrimination characterised the racial order of apartheid. They have pervaded the Hindu and Indian social order for centuries. However, castes and caste discrimination are not only present among Hindus but also among Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India. So-called lower caste Muslims make up 80% of the total Muslim population. In recent years, members of these oppressed groups have come together across the country to mobilise for their social, economic and political rights under the banner of Pasmanda Muslims. In Persian, Pasmanda means “left behind”

In recent years, the “left behind” Pasmanda Muslims have emerged as a particularly vulnerable community.  They have become targets of Hindutva vigilante groups who have intensified their violence in the name of cow-protection, protection of Hindu women and Hindu religion. Hindutva is a supremacist authoritarian political philosophy that draws on select Hindu practises to perpetuate an exclusionary and corrosive view of India. Tailored after European fascism it has been propagated by members of the ruling party, its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh or the RSS and its affiliates for more than a century. Followers of Hindutva envision India as a homogeneous, conservative, majoritarian Hindu nation with no room for Muslims, Christians and all those who oppose it. Their efforts to realise that vision have considerably intensified in the last few decades and years. 

Human rights organisations recorded 902 hate crimes in India between 2014 and 2019, a sharp increase from previous years. Pasmanda Muslims — meat sellers, and bangle sellers, nomadic cattle grazers, and members of artisanal castes — have borne the brunt of that hate and violence. A hateful online eco-system trolls and targets well-known Muslim women, and journalists, academics and activists of all religions who critique the right-wing Hindutva vision. Many have been imprisoned without bail under repressive laws. Among them is Father Stan Swamy, a highly respected Jesuit priest, renowned for his work among marginalised groups in Central India. He died as a prisoner in July 2021 ailing from Parkinson’s disease and bout of severe Covid.  

2021 also saw nearly 500 violent attacks on Christian congregations, pastors and churches. In December 2021, the exclusionary imagination of Hindutva leaders took genocidal proportions. In a number of public platforms and religious assemblies across north and central India, they called for extermination of the Muslim population — to make sure that Hindus remain a demographic and political majority in post-independence India. The logic underlying the partition of the subcontinent with India designated as Hindu majority state and Pakistan as a Muslim majority state is hence posing a new frightful threat to minorities in India — Muslim and Christian. 

In the meantime, crimes against Dalits remain staggering. Between 2018 and 2021 130 000 crimes against Dalits particularly of sexual assault, harassment, stalking of Dalit women were reported across the country. Like Pasmanda Muslims, Dalit women are an especially vulnerable group in the country. 

These facts and statistics give us cause for considerable despair. That despair intensifies when we pay attention to the vast and swift propaganda machine that the RSS has been employing to transform the cultural consciousness of Indian society. The end goal — to obtain broad-based support for its extreme right-wing agenda that upholds Hindu supremacy and seeks to translate demographic dominance into permanent social and political hegemony. As part of this strategy, the RSS has been trying to draw larger and larger sections of the population into its fold. In several parts of the country it has sought to mobilise Dalits and other marginalised groups identified as Hindu. To do this the Sangh deploys a number of social welfare organisations. It has also set up faith-based circles which appropriate cultural and religious icons of the Dalit community. These organisations have sought to re-shape age old cultural narratives and mythologies to project not the upper caste, but Muslims as the Dalit communities’ civilisational enemy. Participation of various Dalit groups in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom of Muslims is a tragic testimony to that appropriation. 

Appropriation of marginalised groups and mobilisation of their hurt and anger for regressive agendas has taken place in many other parts of the world, including South Africa. As I noted above, the Sangh’s mobilisation machine is particularly vast and effective. This, combined with the ways in which the Sangh has also been able to misuse public institutions, produces a dismal worrying picture. The Indian republic and its promises of justice, equality, liberty and fraternity — for all — are in a perilous place. Plurality and diversity are gravely threatened. 

At the same time, a vast number of people have also been working to sustain and recover real plurality and dignity for all. Acting intentionally and purposefully, they generate the hope that a better India is possible. 

I am thinking here about two unlikely people who came together in 2014, 12 years after the Gujarat carnage. One was a Dalit, Ashok Mochi who, by all accounts, participated in the looting of Muslim homes and families during those terrible days in February and March 2002. An image of him during the violence was also caught on camera. Mochi’s iron rod brandishing photographs against the backdrop of buildings and vehicles on fire became one of the most haunting symbols of the Gujarat violence. The other person was Qutubbin Ansari, a Muslim tailor in Ahmedabad. Many of us know him from another photograph that got worldwide coverage and became a testimony to the horrors that were playing out in Gujarat. The photograph showed Ansari begging the police with folded hands and tears in his eyes to save him from a mob threatening to kill him. In 2014, a remorseful Mochi met Ansari and committed himself to Dalit-Muslim unity. Such a unity can undo the regressive force of caste and Hindutva supremacism. This is a hope and a real possibility.

Such hopes were also raised in 2019 and early 2020 when mass demonstrations against new discriminatory citizenship laws took place throughout India. The law associates Indian citizenship with religious identity attacking the basic tenets of egalitarianism enshrined in the constitution.  Muslim women and youth were at the forefront of this collective upsurge to re-claim citizenship and uphold values of the Indian constitution. Indian cities saw peaceful sit-ins in which thousands of people from all walks of life, students, poets, artists and especially working-class women participated. Marches were held across the world, including in Cape Town. Many members of this congregation together voiced their support and marched to show their solidarity with the Indian protesters. For now, the implementation of the laws has been delayed. 

And then, a few days ago, the world witnessed a wondrous video uploaded on YouTube: it was a recording of recently deceased Kamal Khan being honoured with beautiful lamps and prayers on the shores of the Ganges in Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the most venerated sites among Hindus. Kamal Khan, was a highly respected journalist whose coverage of north Indian politics was always honest and considerate. He was also a Muslim. Khan embodied the syncretic ethos of Hindu Muslim amity that so many abide by. One day, perhaps, that amity will be fully restored. 

Lastly, I would like to speak about a small but strong group of courageous women. At a time when so many are seized with fear, these women are standing up to their powerful torturers and even fighting elections in the Hindutva heartland. Campaigning has started; so, I am leaving them unnamed in this forum. But their actions together with efforts of those who are seeking to counter caste and Hindutva forces, obtain Dalit Muslim unity, and renew Hindu Muslim amity offer hope in time of considerable despair. Such actions cannot make caste and supremacist ideologies simply disappear, but a churning against them is underway. That churning I hope can take India away from the frightening precipice where it stands today. Indians involved in this struggle to preserve and realise their constitutional ideals seek and need global solidarity. 

I hope Claremont Mosque, its congregants, and South Africans more broadly can extend themselves and help India abide by the values of justice, equality, liberty and fraternity. In doing so South Africans will also take forward their own struggle to maintain these values here. 

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Ruchi Chaturvedi
Ruchi Chaturvedi teaches in the sociology department at the University of Cape Town. Her research and teaching revolve around cultures of democracy, popular politics and political violence in South Asia and various parts of Africa.

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