The most recent analysis of the rise of Hindutva was either an exclusive cultural analysis around a growing “Hindu consciousness” or a political analysis around electoral arithmetic. What was missing was a political economy analysis of how changes in the development model have also largely contributed to the rise of cultural majorityism. The recent book Gujarat: Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics: India’s Detrimental Framework of Communalismby Jan Breman and Ghanshyam Shah, fills the void.
While Breman is a renowned anthropologist, Shah is a well-known political scientist. Breman’s essays focus on class dynamics, while Shah focuses primarily on caste. Together they provide a wealth of empirical and historical analysis. Some of the details they mapped speak for themselves. Their book, a rich collection of essays by the two authors over the past two decades, could have simply been titled, The Political Economy of Hindutva. Their analysis comes from the perspective of changing caste and class dynamics and includes a significant collection of information collected during and after various riots in Gujarat.
In terms of class, the analysis focuses on the interface between growth informalization, the violence and criminality of those involved in the anti-Muslim pogroms and the “lumpen proletariat”. The decline of trade unionism and the closing of textile factories shattered the “community feeling”. The “climate of social Darwinism which replaced it not only established the right to survival of the fittest, but meant that the weakest at the base of society are forced to compete…like the hunter and the hunted “.
The predatory politics of majoritarianism relied on the social Darwinism logic of the development model. The blind understanding of trade unionism, drawn from textbook definitions, also helped Social Darwinism. He was oblivious to concrete developments on the ground. As Breman rightly notes, “the sustained policy of the Indian labor movement of not mobilizing informal sector workers must be judged as a historical error. These changes overlapped with entrenched caste consciousness and the psychology accompanying graded inequalities. Based on empirical surveys that represent a life of tireless work in Gujarat, Breman observes that “among the factory workers, it was the Kanbi Patels/Patidars who, as an upwardly mobile intermediate caste, were the most receptive to fundamentalist propaganda”.
The book laboriously marks changes in the strategy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party (RSS-BJP) combine. It began by mobilizing and representing the Hindu caste, but after 1985 and the growing consolidation of the OBCs, it shifted to a more aggressive anti-Muslim agenda in which the backward classes were gradually co-opted. The anti-Muslim policy was visible not only in open and organized violence, but also in covert and invisible economic dispossession. For example, the mills gradually replaced Muslim workers with Patels, and there were open calls for the economic boycott of Muslims.
These “silent” changes have gone hand in hand with economic reform which has pushed more and more workers into the informal sector where they have no social Security. Their growing economic insecurity and declining social status as respectable workers in an organized sector formed the backdrop for communal propaganda. It has created a climate conducive to outbreaks, although much violence has been staged. The violence took the form of the “criminalization of public life” and the “privatization of violence” through extortion by slum lords and property developers. All of this contributed to the process of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. These changes sealed the fate of Gujarat and laid a solid foundation for making it a Hindu Rashtra.
Other themes in the book are caste, communalism, Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and Hindutva. In a series of chapters, Shah locates the intricate details of Hindutva’s emergence as resurgent Hinduization. The Adivasis, he notes, “…have adopted many creeds and gods from the Hindu caste living in their vicinity, just as the latter have embraced several deities of the Adivasis, and in many cases both follow similar rituals and beliefs independently of each other.. In some cases caste Hindus give Brahminical names and legends to deities worshiped by Adivasis.
Similarly, Shah notes for OBCs: “Since the beginning of the 20th century, several OBCs have followed the path of Sanskritization for their upward mobility. A section of the Kolis in central and northern Gujarat claim Kshatriya status. Over time, they began to thread the sacred thread, performing the Vedic rite of upanayana”. With the Dalits, the process shifted to what Anand Teltumbde calls “deradicalization”. Mobility and the emergence of a small middle class have produced an exclusivist discourse.
In the context of community polarization, Shah argues that it is not yet clear what made the Dalits anti-Muslim. He sees it “simply” as an act of co-option and manipulation. He says: “During this period [of riots in 2002], the BJP manipulated the sympathy of the Dalits and brought them relief. In the aftermath of these riots, the Dalits of Ahmedabad began to approach the BJP and the Parivar.
Shah and Breman provide great enduring insights into the beginnings of cultural nationalism and community consciousness and their material roots. Understanding this is necessary, even essential, to make sense of Hindutva today. But there’s also a looming need to add new dimensions to why things turned around to create the current stalemate. Historically speaking, the book notes the Gandhi-Ambedkar debates as precursors to checking the majority psyche.
The point, however, is that unlike most scholars who see the contribution of Gandhi and Ambedkar as complementary and additive, the current situation is the result of the downside of their strategies and principles. Gandhi’s methods resulted in half-hearted social reform and failed to create dense and intense cross-community bonds. Gandhi struggled to find Archimedes’ point between identity and transformation. Moreover, his understanding of the needs for self-limitation, silence as hands-off, and self-discipline turned into practices that blocked subordinate mobility. At least, they are perceived as such, leaving room for uncivil aggression as a legitimate mode of affirmation. As the lower strata of society lost patience waiting for the benefits of development to trickle down, the BJP converted them into a male externality. The convergence between the two is what gives Hindutva its rhetorical legitimacy.
On the other hand, Ambedkar prioritized political power for the “depressed classes” without the accompanying social change. The result has been political representation without a social agenda – empty rhetoric without the means to forge broader solidarities. It also helped Hindutva when it began to accommodate Dalit-Bahujans politically as a compromise with social incorporation into the dominant tropes of Hinduization.
Today the Political economics Understanding in the industrialized state of Gujarat must be compared to its spread in the deindustrialized state, Uttar Pradesh. Gujarat, together with Uttar Pradesh, pretty much covers the social reality of India, with the exception of a few states in the South and North East. While in Gujarat workers moved from the formal to the informal sector and lost social security, in Uttar Pradesh there was entrenched underdevelopment and a lack of basic infrastructure. and civic amenities. The BJP itself has appropriated transactional welfarism through the distribution of free rations. This type of lateral spread demonstrates the Sangh Parivar’s acute understanding of the need to be not only flexible but dialectical in its strategies, while left-wing progressives suffered from a category error – mistaking dogmatism for commitment and understanding textbooks for scientificity.
The problem with secular political parties, not just social activists, is their inability to be flexible. Being flexible doesn’t have to be manipulative, although that can spill over (as with most right-wing strategies). We are stuck with inflexible secular discourse and the unethical flexibility of the right. Unethical flexibility is surreptitiously inclusive, and the secular left is scientifically and ethically exclusive. Renowned scholars, like the authors of this book, need to think about what might break this Gordian knot.
Gujarat: Cradle and Harbinger of Identity Politics: India’s Detrimental Framework of Communalismby Jan Breman and Ghanshyam Shah, Tulika Publishers, New Delhi, 2022.
(Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Center for Policy Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Opinions are personal.)