On 12 July 2017, the Deputy Editor of the Indian Express, Ms. Seema Chisthi, interviewed me at my residence in New Delhi on the lynchings in India and on the political situation in the country. Excerpts from the interview were published in the Indian Express a few days later under the title, “What We See in India Today is the Difference Between Formal and Real Citizenship”. The interview as published in the newspaper can be accessed here: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/what-we-see-in-india-is-the-difference-between-formal-and-real-citizenship-historian-vinay-lal-ucla-professor-4755247/
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of the published excerpts.
In the light of the recent cases of lynchings in India, is there a shift in the way communal tension has been exploding on the surface from how it did in earlier decades?
Yes, there is. There is no doubt in my mind that the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment that we have seen in the US or parts of Western Europe has repercussions in India, emboldening the advocates of Hindutva. The notion among some in India is that if Muslims, particularly in the so-called modern West, can be attacked, then we can do that too, we have the license to do that with impunity. In the US, I see many advocates of Hindutva who are now suggesting that the US, India and Israel form a natural alliance with one another as, in their worldview, these democracies are being “threatened” by forces of Islam and are under assault from radical Muslims. This certainly was not the international environment in the 1960s or 1970s. That’s at the macro level. It is not just the RSS or VHP but a slightly larger strand of Indian society that has become complicit in these attacks or lynchings that we see in India, exactly like in the US. There was a virulent white racism that was so pervasive that you did not need to have institutional membership in the KKK or John Birch Society, people were complicit in it without a formal association with white supremacist groups.
What is the kind of signal that a political dispensation like India has now send to the law enforcement machinery?
I think the problem is twofold. What do you do when the state becomes somewhat thuggish? So, the people who are targeted are not just Muslims, but also Dalits and Africans. We should be attentive to it because there are groups of people whose very lives are at risk. In all authoritarian states, signals are sent down to the people from the top. We don’t need to take the example of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s totalitarian state, you can turn to authoritarian states now where you can see very clearly, it is same attitude at the top, middle and bottom. Once the masses imbibe the idea that the leadership will tolerate extreme intolerance, the oppressive attitude becomes pervasive. These problems are not distinct to India today, we see a similar repression and acute intolerance—think of the United States. Similarly, Turkey is in dire straits. China, Russia, [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines… the list goes on. This could be attributed to what is being termed the ‘strongman’ phenomenon. But I feel the problem is much greater and we have to speak of ‘nationalism’. What is happening today shows the limits of the nationalist project and what a disease nationalism can become in certain circumstances. Now this is very hard for the newly independent and formerly colonized countries to accept, which fought for freedom on the basis of the idea of nationalism; but wherever you had nationalist movements, you have had to rethink the nationalist idea. It has become the only kind of political community to which we all have to pay obeisance. What we see in India — and which is clear in a large number of other countries, especially US – is the difference between formal citizenship and real citizenship on the ground. In the US, African-Americans are for the most part only formal citizens without the rights of a citizen on the ground. This is the case for a large number of people in India.
So how does one un-thug the state?
It’s always a difficult question. We need to consider what are the sources of resistance in the society and there is a gamut of forms of resistance. We can take the view that one has to work with the institutions in the land, but such a position is clearly inadequate and I think India has mastered the subterfuge. That subterfuge is that India has, in most domains of life, the most progressive legislation in the world. So, in some ways, the progressive legislation obfuscates the nature of the problem and clouds it. Let us recognize that the law cannot regulate my prejudices or feelings. But it can certainly do something to regulate prejudicial conduct, particularly when repercussions are extraordinarily severe for someone at the other end. So we would certainly have to think of the rule of law, even as I am cautioning against viewing it as the solution to all our ills. I would argue for a greater need for satyagraha as an instrument than which has a place in democracy. Especially where the law is sometimes used as an instrument for either doing nothing or installing new regimes of repression. As we are living in a democracy, at least pro forma, and we have a functioning court system, it is very important that what can be gained through satyagraha must be recognized. Organised, non-violent civil resistance has a place. It need not follow exactly what Gandhi did. We may have to, we certainly will have to, use satyagraha in different ways. This can’t just be done through social media or Facebook or Twitter — this needs people on the ground to build resistance. We need masses of people together, congregating in public spheres in opposition to injustice. It cannot be left to social media.
Are you optimistic about India today?
Yes, we must be clear that we should not let Hindutva forces hijack what we have. Unlike my friends on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum, I have great respect for the spiritual resources of the Indic civilisation, which includes aspects of the Indo-Islamic tradition which developed here, which was unprecedented. Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism—all this is part of our legacy. We have had writers, philosophers, artists, and reformers who have reckoned with these questions for hundreds of years, and I am not ready to call all that inconsequential. So, yes, I am optimistic, on the whole.
Increased globalism and connectivity that has brought people from all over the world together, has surpringly also enabled radocal views to be shared faster and wider. E.g. in this case, it allows the emphatisers of anti-islam to create their own adaptation of nationalism and their own form of hatred. That is, in my opinion, one of the more recent developments regarding the shift in communal tension. This post also briefly touches on the previous post “the moral ambiguities of sabarimala” in regards to how one should “unthug a country”, and as I have commented in that post, I agree that the mere introduction of laws is insufficient for the moral development of the society. Thank you for this interesting read, I have enjoyed reading all the previous posts and think very highly of your capabilities to always display both sides and different vantage points when elaborating on a political conflict.
The government of India has a duty to ensure that the rights of all its citizens are upheld. Despite the religion of the citizens, it is very possible to unite and avoid unnecessary tensions between the citizens. If the state does not support the poor people and oppresses them, other people will get the energy to perform injustices among the poor or less privileged in the society.
I think India should not be influenced by countries such as the United States and Israel to view the Muslims as terrorists. The government should rather focus on uniting all its people. The masses should also respect each other and engage in peaceful demonstrations if the government does not respect the rule of law.
The State of India does not seem respect the rule of law despite the fact that it is referred to as a democratic country. There have been oppressions of the minority groups such as the Muslims in India and the black Americans in the United States. Authoritarian style of leadership is practiced as the minority groups are discriminated against.
The leaders of democratic states have enhanced oppressions of the poor people. Despite the fact that many countries have functioning court systems, the rule of law has not been upheld. It would be good for leaders to respect the rule of law. If one is formally a citizen of a particular state, he/she should then enjoy equal rights of citizenship with the other people.
I agree that a change in public consciousness is what is necessary to address the problem of a toxic attitude that the state and community have largely imbibed. I am curious though what the protest history of India has been like since the end of the Emergency.