Masculinity, Islamophobia and Neoliberal Politics in India: An Interview with Himani Bannerji (Part 2)

Masculinity, Islamophobia and Neoliberal Politics in India: An Interview with Himani Bannerji (Part 2)

Salmaan Khan: Some commentators attribute the Bharatiya Janata Party victory to an aggressive election campaign that had a lot of media exposure and corporate backing. Yet, given the economic reforms initiated under the leadership of the Indian National Congress, a sort of shock therapy for market friendly policies, why did India’s elite choose to back the BJP instead? And how does this relate to Modi’s characterization as being “pro-development” and “pro-business?” 

Himani Bannerji: Well, that is true, because we need to realize that Manmohan Singh and his cabinet had two full neoliberal terms. The economic advisors and policy makers of the Congress were thoroughbreds from the US – from Harvard and MIT, World Bank, the IMF and other places – who were committed neo-liberalizers. The planning commission was not able to hold any form of protectionist or Keynesian stand and had moved to a very different mandate. 

But, in the second United Progressive Alliance [a coalition of centre-left political parties in India formed after the 2004 general election], the Congress Party had become aware – perhaps through their observation of the massive dispossession of peasants, thousands of middle-level farmer suicides, as well as the great upheavals in areas handed over to mining companies which in effect became mini warzones – that they had to do something about all this. 

The Indian state has been increasingly facing a rise in armed insurgencies of “Maoists” and tribal and landless peoples. These rural insurgencies which believe in armed struggle are not urban worker-based. Unlike the communist parties, they are extra-parliamentarian and have created a lot of fright in the government but also among big businesses. For example, mines couldn’t go ahead and complete their projects, and they remain sites of much armed conflict. Mines have been a great source of unrest in India, as have been expropriation of land for industry, housing developments, airports, etc. 

As for the farmers, the lack of competitiveness of Indian cash crops with foreign cash crops began leading to tens of thousands of farmer suicides, many connected with Bio-Tech cotton and their lack of competitiveness, as well as farmer indebtedness. 

So all this, along with pressure from the left parties, made Manmohan Singh turn toward some “pro-poor” measures. Those measures related to a limited degree of food security for the very poor such as 100 guaranteed days of work per year, guarantees of food security for people living on less than $1.00 a day and greater access to public distribution systems which had previously existed in a big way in India, but which had been disbanded in the Rajiv Gandhi period. 

As well, rural poverty has become desperate, given that about 65 percent of Indians still live in the country side and have little or no work. The implementation of the 100 days guarantee is not regularly enforced and has come to be perceived by the neoliberal economic advisors and new middle classes as a big waste of money. 

The UPA government also introduced a program of midday meals in poor state schools, which again, was scantily implemented. These too were considered worthless expenditures by their critics. They introduced quotas for minorities, not muslims though, but for the very low castes and Scheduled Tribes, and that too was considered by the new middle classes as a waste of money. 

Essentially any right to necessities of life was challenged by the new middle classes, whose general disregard for the deprived is nothing short of amazing. And it was assumed by them and the capitalist class that neo-liberal development will, and should, destroy any obstacle in its path. 

SK: So, what can the poor expect now that the BJP is in power? Will there be a rollback on these policies, as limited and as ineffectual as they are? 

HB: I think not right away. But yes, as the year unfolds, the BJP – which is interested in absolute development – as Modi has so advertised himself – as the man of development – will roll these back. Modi himself will probably drive the bulldozer that will take it all down. 

Now, a key issue to note is that the BJP government has also been greatly facilitated economically and culturally by nonresident Indians living in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, and Western political powers in general, toward taking down the last barriers for conquering India through neo-liberal economic regimes and financialization. As such they have promised to withdraw the Indian state from any welfarist activity, introducing what George W. Bush would call “shock and awe” through a decimation of public spending. 

SK: We briefly mentioned the role of the Modi government in the 2002 riots in Gujarat where over 2,000 muslims were systematically killed, more than 200,000 displaced and millions of rupees worth of property were damaged and destroyed. What is further revealing is a leaked report by the British High Commission in India, which stated that the violence had “all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing” and “far from being spontaneous” it was “planned, possibly months in advance, carried out by an extremist Hindu organization with the support of the state government.” The report also added that “reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims is impossible while the chief minister [Narendra Modi] remains in power.” 

We also saw similar communal riots this past September 2013 in Muzaffarnagar, Kairana and Bijnore, where muslim communities were largely targeted. These three constituencies ended up recording landslide wins for the BJP, even though all three candidates were under investigation for their participation in the killings. 

What does the future look like for muslims, as well as other marginalized groups such as Dalits, Adivasis or Bangladeshi migrants in a BJP dominated India? What makes the threat of state-sponsored violence more pertinent under the rule of the BJP given that the INC also has a history of orchestrating massacres, as was the case with the pogroms against Sikhs in 1984? 

HB: The future for muslims in India looks quite bleak and has become increasingly worse over the last decades. And what is happening is a steady process of marginalization and intimidation since the Babri Masjid destruction and massacre following it in 1992. This amounts to installing a hierarchy, a minoritization of citizenship. 

Whereas the Indian constitution calls for full citizenship for all peoples residing in India without prejudice, the fact is that relations on the ground have always produced hierarchical forms of participation among the poor, among the minorities, and of course, among women. And so, this is only going to increase. And in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years’ time, if this reign lasts, that some kind of formal means are adopted of excluding at least the muslims as “foreigners,” because they are the most substantial minority group. 

Sikhs are seen as historically opposed to muslims. Christians are few in number, buddhists and Jains are seen as hindus, and as for the Dalits, the “untouchables” and the tribals, there is a constant pull and push effect because they are trying to push them into a general definition of hindu. So that really leaves us with just the muslims as the undesirable “other,” aliens in a hindu nation. 

And under the post 9/11 circumstances muslims cannot come to the West, cannot find a comfortable space in Indian society, and Pakistan is impossible for them as a place of refuge. Bangladesh doesn’t want them on the grounds of their poor economy. So, a big question mark remains underneath what is going to happen to the muslim population in India. Don’t forget, at about 15% of the total population there are 177 million Indian muslims. 

There are also a few members of the muslim community who have joined the BJP. What that means to them I don’t know. It seems strange, but they have. But I also think that the muslim community, by not being allowed general participation and in the face of the left and Congress decline, will probably turn back into itself in a kind of retreative motion. And within this context, the rise of muslim extremism is quite likely, especially as moderate or secular muslims haven’t much space, in their own communities or in others. And so, things will not be good for muslims for sure, and not only not good but positively bad. 

But, the other thing is that it’s not going to be good for women in general either, as women of all ethnic groups, as inhabitants of India, have a low social and political status. The general atmosphere of violence that has now has become normalized in the Indian polity, where the value of human life seems to be at its lowest premium, is starker than I have ever seen. 

Masculinity is so privileged in this muscular version of hindutva, and an imported neoliberal machismo, especially from the US, that it’s no surprise to me that there has been a great increase in not just rape but gang rape, which is qualitatively different. In gang rape the rapists do not hide – they parade quite openly and in a self-congratulating manner and others emulate them. 

And it becomes like a social war that they declare against women and the weaker sections of society. Some kind of territorial gangsterism is rampant within which all the resources, including human life, the bodies of women and muslims and other undesirable groups, become fodder for the social and political fascist nature of the polity. It’s also signaled by the Indian state in the Supreme Court’s now overturning a lower court decision to legalize same sex relationships. 

The Supreme Court of India itself, or certain elements within the Supreme Court, are very deeply influenced by the RSS and BJP and share their belief in hindutva. In fact, a few Supreme Court justices, after they retire announce their BJP affiliation. Others who have done this are the election commissioners who also, after they retire, become BJP members. 

So the thing to keep in mind is that the BJP is not composed of only rural and urban small businessmen and petty bureaucrats and so on. There is a big mass base in these groups, but the higher aspects of the BJP, with their RSS cultural revolution and complete neo-liberal agenda, extend high up into the corporate sector and professional and governmental spheres. 

And now with positive encouragement from the West and political figures like Barak Obama saying they look forward to working with India, and David Cameron and others following suit, the BJP is going to become even more popular. Not to mention that the hindutva identity project has provided a pseudo or ersatz religion which has given a signal to the domestic market for buying objects associated with religious rituals, festivals, etc., and the leisure class has enthusiastically bought into this. 

And in that sense, you might say that the BJP and the leisure classes and the businesses are constantly reinforcing this new national enterprise of unbridled neo-liberalism laced with religious-cultural ideology and its consumerist marketing. I have gone to weddings where all the rituals are a thousand times more magnified now in modern India than when we were young in a more “traditional” and less socially capitalist India. 

This is a phenomenon that is not sufficiently noted. I think that present day religion is actually capable of producing a huge market with the building and construction of temples, their decorations, the tourism industry connected with them, as well as hindu rituals associated with birth, marriage and death and initiation into the sacred thread ceremony. The grandeur and gross display of wealth has only one market for it: it’s a domestic market. So we cannot forget how capital at this stage in India gains not just through corporations and ideologically but also through this religious onslaught. 

If you saw Modi’s inauguration you’d have seen how much was spent even in flowers, and garlands which were at least three meters in diameter. A large ground was covered in flowers and provided him with a carpet to step on. Never in the history of India has the parliament watched this kind of extravaganza in its signature ceremony of the prime minister and the cabinet. And also, Modi worshipped at the river Ganges in Varanasi, something no inaugural leader in the history of India has done since its independence. No religious ceremony is required by the Indian constitution. All this provides an oversized, spectacular state. 

SK: It’s like the building up of an icon, a “leader” 

HB: Yeah it is. It’s the Nuremburg rally of hindu supremacy, with a spectacular self-presentation of the state. Never has India witnessed such a market extravaganza associated with the conversion of politics to religious ethnicity. 

So, I think things will be very bad for India – Modi is a true fascist. He’s not a dictator, and this is a Mussolini type fascism rather than a Hitler type fascism. It’s populist. Modi has a popular base, but he didn’t create that base. That base was created over almost a hundred years ago, throughout that period from then to now by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – National Volunteers’ Association) about which I spoke earlier. And the RSS remains a solid presence behind him. He’s never going to be able to get rid of the RSS. If he does, he’s finished. The RSS is implacable in its demands and did all his work for him. Now he has to do his work for them. It is pay-back time. 

SK: We talked about Modi’s role in the 2002 massacres, and in 2005 the Bush administration had even denied Modi a visa to the US, citing a US law barring entry to foreigners who “committed particularly severe violations of religious freedom”. Yet, following the 2014 Indian elections, as you mentioned, President Obama personally congratulated Modi on his victory, inviting him to visit the White House. David Cameron also extended the hand of friendship, tweeting “congratulations to Narendra Modi on his victory in India’s elections, keen to work together to get the most from UK/India relationship.” 

What does the election of Modi and the rise of the BJP mean for India’s relations with the West? What role does the US or the UK seek to play in South Asia, and how will this further shape the geopolitics in that region? 

HB: Well, as you know, it’s pretty predictable. To start, the Bush administration did not spontaneously refuse a visa to Modi. There are left groups in the United States and Canada, but mainly a US group called the International South Asia Forum (INSAF), which pointed out the fascist nature of Modi’s politics and governmental agenda. They offered the US congress facts and figures pertaining to the Gujarat massacre. So, even though the rich nonresident Indians were patronized by George W. Bush, he was actually forced or shamed into denying Modi a visa. So, the denial of the visa was forced out of them. 

Nonresident Indians are influential in the United States, unlike, let’s say, nonresident Indians in Canada, and have a lot of say in American politics and in the funding of the political parties. And as I mentioned earlier, they are also important in the context of the Indian government’s business policies. There are special days in India designated to honour them. 

This happened after the coming of United Progressive Alliance 1 – Manmohan Singh’s first term – where they developed this day where nonresident Indians are celebrated in India, and if they are Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen, and major business figures, scientists and writers and so on, they come to India and huge amounts of money are spent on wining and dining them with the hopes of successfully attracting business and other kinds of connections. The aim is to wield influence with the American government. 

Canadians are not of great importance. The UK and some European countries are also important. So nonresidents are and will be influential for the new era, and will be of course for the US. The UK, of course, would like to get its old colony back; Holland too, which is also looking abroad – though it looks mostly into Africa, but Africa has become so volatile that India for the time being will do. 

But, there’s also another country which has already flocked in and is close with India, especially with the coming of first BJP government, and that is Israel. Israel is the second largest arms supplier to India after the US. Israel even trains the Indian security forces through Mossad. India and Israel have also come into agreements to exchange intelligence and technological know-hows, and also to fight “(muslim) terrorists” together. 

The rampant islamophobia of India and Israel have now completely changed the relationship between India and Palestine, which, as I used to be very positive during Mrs. Gandhi’s time. It was seen as an extension of India’s own anti-colonial past. 

The geopolitical logic behind these relations is very important because China is a growing, if not already grown, threat to the West, particularly to the US. India has itself got a lot of problems with China since the early 1960s, when Sino Indian border conflicts started. India also housed the Tibetans who were displaced from Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s center of operation is in Dharamshala, India. 

Generally speaking, the US really doesn’t want boots on the ground anymore. It doesn’t want a direct bloody battle with China. And I think India will solve this dilemma by fighting America’s proxy wars in the region. 

So, with the help of Myanmar and Aung San Suu Kyi, with the help of the current Indian government, friends of the US in Cambodia and in Vietnam, the conflict zone around the South China Sea and with Japan forming a block with the US against China, I think India will become a crucial geopolitical base. 

And I think that’s what India will offer in addition to its supply of minerals and other natural resources and the starvation level wages for Western outsourcing. And since the Indian middle class is also quite educated, in fact overproduced for India’s own need, they will work effectively and efficiently for the United States in India, and come on time-bound contracts to the United States. 

Produced at the social cost of India, there already are waves of these skilled migrants to the US or Canada – who won’t get a chance for permanent residence. This will also keep local workers vulnerable and antagonistic towards foreign workers coming in. 

So this is my reading. Inside India, in the period preceding this government there was a profound sense of lawlessness that could be judged by the fact that police were not taking first information reports when there are charges, or by the special powers granted to the army to deal with rapes and other crimes. And bribes are rampant to protect criminals, which include BJP candidates who have won in elections.

For Part 1 of this interview, click here.

Himani Bannerji is the author of Demography and Democracy: Essays on Nationalism, Gender and Ideology, among other books. She lives part-time in India engaged in research on Indian politics.