Interrogating the mechanics of power in security, territory and population, French philosopher Michel Foucault coined the term “governmentality” to explain how governments try to produce citizens who obediently follow policies and practices through which subjects are governed. In the modern day, it translates to the state legitimising its power through the instrumental use of organised religion and a bureaucracy compliant to the political master. There’s an increasing use of religious symbols, rites and practices to consolidate vote banks and evade accountability. We are now at this dangerous crossroads of religious governmentality in modern India.
On December 11, the BJP government amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 in what was one of the darkest days in India’s modern history, representing a direct assault on the country’s multireligious and democratic mosaic. The diverse, pluralistic, and secular fabric that had managed to survive so far is now on life support. The law also poses a grave danger to India’s democracy and exposes the bogus secular credentials of India’s current administration.
The anguish and anger among the country’s youth, its middle class and its intelligentsia is understandable considering the blitz of racist code words, dog whistles, and gaslighting by members of the ruling establishment singularly targeting India’s Muslim minority. Recent disturbing examples include top leaders boasting about their “ability to identify violent people by their clothes”, and “identifying illegal immigrants as inflators, termites and vowing to throw them into the Bay of Bengal”.
Of all religions in India, only one has been singled out for exclusion in the citizenship law – Islam. In effect, it sets up a discriminatory confessional religious test for anyone seeking refuge in the country. Its ascriptive categories of excluded (Muslim) and included (Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsi, and Buddhist) reveals the sinister disparity in the treatment of one religious minority. Attempts to assuage the global community with “all is well” jargon are misleading as ground realities tell a different story. There are ongoing curfews, violent protests across India leading to loss of nearly 25 lives so far and injuries to law enforcement officials, police barging into universities brutalising students and arresting activists, communication blackouts, calls for civil disobedience by prominent figures, burning of an Assam legislator’s house, and curtailing of protests by imposing Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
The citizenship law and its evil offspring, the National Register of Citizens, will render many Muslims stateless. It’s estimated that some 7,00,000 Muslims in Assam alone will be impacted immediately. Once the NRC is implemented nationwide, the number of disenfranchised Muslims is likely to increase exponentially. It’s a humanitarian crisis in the making, and it will aptly be termed “Make in India” courtesy of the “world’s largest democracy”.
New India is being polarised by our own neofascists, the Saffron Supremacists. The colonial mode of warfare is now being gradually implemented through legislation to “other” India’s Muslims. This system of identity politics has singled out Muslims for special judicial and legislative control through laws – the triple talaq legislation, Article 370, legitimising the destruction of Babri Masjid, and now the citizenship law and NRC. Some may see these as political victories, but they in fact reveal a clear agenda that the Saffron Supremacists have espoused by conveniently hijacking the true values of Hinduism whose philosophical core believes in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the “world is one family”.
There also seems to be over-policing of Muslims as perpetrators, but under-policing of Muslims as victims. Mob lynching of Muslims by cow vigilantes and cyber lynching of any dissent by trolls of the BJP’s IT Cell are good examples. We are witnessing acts similar to those of the Ku Klux Klan which plagued America before it was confronted by the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King Jr. Cross burnings and brutal lynching of African Americans are an eerie reminder of the hateful, ugly system of legitimised violence that sought to keep African Americans “in their place”. The mob lynching of Muslims by cow vigilantes shouting “Jai Shree Ram” echo the Ku Klux Klan script – devised to put Muslims in their place. Much of this can be linked with similar sloganeering that took place in the Indian parliament after the 2019 election.
The religious test for Indian citizenship harks back to the Nuremberg Race Laws, promulgated by the Nazis 85 years ago to strip German Jews of their citizenship. It culminated in the ghastly Holocaust whereby millions of Jews were exterminated.
One can also look for comparison at the system of apartheid in South Africa which legitimised white supremacy and racial segregation by virtue of the Native Land Act, 1913. It legitimised the discriminatory foundations of South African law by excluding black South Africans. India’s citizenship law also seems in line with Israel’s Citizenship Act of 2018 which, in effect, discriminates against 20 percent of its Arab minority, who number around nine million.
The citizenship law violates three cardinal principles enshrined in India’s constitution – the right to equality under law, the right to life and liberty, and the ideal of secularism.
The hateful hegemonic policies of the Saffron Supremacists fly in the face of the deeply spiritual, inclusive and historically tolerant ethos of India. So, one needs to seriously examine the religious claims of the Saffron Supremacists and the apparent religious governmentality they represent. It calls for examination of the spirituality and love propagated by Bhakti and Sufi saints of yore. It calls for making a distinction between the Hinduism the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have used as a veil to execute their Saffron Supremacist agenda.
It’s time for India to end this old, tired and worn-out game of identity-based politics that was fostered upon us by our former colonial masters. The need of the hour is to step back from this dangerous precipice and change course by moving over to an issue-based politics. It calls for an evidence-based and collective-efficacy approach to address our pressing common problems. There are grave problems facing India that demand immediate attention. The economy is in a shambles and barely sputtering. The ill-advised demonetisation has wrought untold misery on India’s rural populace and contributed to the declining GDP growth of India.
The safety of women in India is a highly critical public safety issue that needs to be addressed without cheering for extrajudicial killings in the parliament and outside.
The policies and the polity rooted in jingoism – and the shift to fascist and totalitarian control – appear to be diversionary tactics used by this government to hide its inability to address larger societal issues impacting common Indians as also its effort to sabotage the very democratic ideals that its leaders have boasted about on every global platform.
In 64 AD, Rome was ravaged by a great fire. The fire, which raged for six days, destroyed 70 percent of the city and left over half its population homeless. The decadent Emperor Nero, though, is reputed to have fiddled as Rome burned. Today, India is burning. Will the Indian emperor merely tweet while the country burns, or simply endorse a “spiritual guru” to “explain laws” to India’s young, restless and critical minds?