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Talking Policy: Kavita Khory on Nationalism and Protest in India

India has not been spared the wave of nationalism making its way across the world. In regions like West Bengal, protests and resulting riots are enabled in part by the exclusionary narratives promoted at the national level by the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the violence is not sparked by sectarian tensions alone, and the roots of these conflicts precede the current government. World Policy Journal spoke with Kavita Khory, professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, about the increasing visibility of extremist politics and the role of nationalism in relations between India, Pakistan, and the rest of South Asia.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: In the last month, West Bengal has been shaken by a round of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, centered on the city of Basirhat. What is causing these conflicts?

KAVITA KHORY: The catalyst for the violence that broke out in Basirhat was a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed posted on Facebook by a 17-year old boy. The riots that followed were immediately labeled as “communal,” implying that religion was the source of conflict. But by depicting conflicts and various forms of violence as communal in origin, we often ignore the deeper social and political tensions in and the mobilization of religious identities for political purposes in West Bengal and elsewhere in India. Some of these tensions are rooted in colonial histories and Partition;, while others stem from the socio-economic status of Muslims in West Bengal. These tensions have been amplified—and even exploited—in a growing political vacuum in West Bengal, with the declining power of left-wing parties as well as the Congress party. At the same time, the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] is trying to establish itself in West Bengal’s politics, and is doing so by using Hindu nationalist ideology and tactics, such as by accusing the state government, controlled by the Trinamool Congress, of appeasing Muslim minorities. This is a familiar tactic used by the BJP to discredit political opponents and mobilize its supporters. In West Bengal, the BJP is exploiting local tensions, stemming from different sources, to further its own agenda. Although one cannot discount the power of religious identities, describing conflicts as purely “communal” plays into the cynical nationalist politics of parties like the BJP.

Even as public attention is focused on the violence in Basirhat, protests have been taking place in Darjeeling against the state government’s recent decision to make the study of the Bengali language compulsory in all schools. This provoked a strong reaction in Darjeeling where Nepali is the dominant language. It suggests that there are other key markers of identity besides religion, and that political identities are contested and mobilized around different symbols and issues that have nothing to do with religion. One could also think of this as another example of contested national and subnational identities that are very much a part of Indian politics.

WPJ: Along the same lines, the BJP and its affiliate groups have become more sectarian and extreme in terms of their ideologies and actions, and those who publicly oppose their views have often received threats. In this political environment, what are the prospects or future of civil discourse and its role in conflict resolution? 

KK: I don’t believe the BJP and its affiliates are becoming more extreme—they have always been extreme on the issue of Hindu nationalism and politics. I think what seems different is that Hindu nationalist organizations are now operating with seeming impunity. There is also the sense that Hindu nationalist ideology is gaining greater acceptance; even those who might otherwise abhor Hindu nationalism are ignoring its worst excesses for various reasons, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of economic reforms and prosperity. In addition to winning an outright majority in the national elections in 2014, the BJP has won several state elections in places like Assam and Uttar Pradesh, thereby consolidating its power. This has made it easier for the BJP to pursue its Hindu nationalist agenda of cultural exclusion, entailing systematic discrimination, even violence, against religious minorities, mostly Muslim and Christian; asserting control over academic institutions and the rewriting of history textbooks; and squashing any dissent or opposition to the government and its policies, especially on sensitive issues like Kashmir. 

Despite these attacks on civil liberties and minority populations, India remains a strong and vibrant democracy. Progressive civil society organizations and NGOs are pushing back against the right-wing Hindu nationalist agenda and advocating for the rights of all Indian citizens. What is unclear is how long Modi supporters, who don’t necessarily espouse his Hindu nationalist politics, will continue to support him if he does not deliver the long-promised economic reforms. There is also some concern that violence against minorities and attacks on civil liberties will deter foreign investment in India.

WPJ: What do the nationalist trends in both Pakistani and Indian politics mean for the future of bilateral accords and resolution of border issues?

KK: Given the history of South Asia and its violent Partition, both India and Pakistan serve as core symbols in each other’s nationalist histories and narratives. This history is complicated by the continuing dispute over Kashmir and four wars between India and Pakistan, the last one in 1999 after both countries became declared nuclear powers. Although the BJP’s foreign policy is a work in progress, the government is pursuing more or less the same policies as previous governments, including those concerning India’s relationship with Pakistan. On the other side of the border, the Pakistani military is still very much in charge of the country’s foreign and security policies, and it continues to fear “strategic encirclement” by India. The prospects for a comprehensive peace between India and Pakistan are dim at this time, especially in light of the ongoing skirmishes along the Kashmir border. The situation in Kashmir itself remains precarious. It is impossible to think about India-Pakistan relations without taking into account the domestic politics and constraints in both states. Unfortunately, every time there is a potential breakthrough in India-Pakistan negotiations, the process is derailed by violence, such as the Mumbai bombings in 2008. It’s important to place India-Pakistan relations in the broader context of South Asian security. The war in Afghanistan shows no signs of ending soon, India remains enmeshed in a border dispute with China, and resource scarcity and climate change pose as much a threat to South Asia as territorial conflicts and conventional wars.

WPJ: The treatment of religious minorities in both India and Pakistan is not what it could be. What steps are needed, either on a federal level or a more community-based level, to improve the treatment of Muslim and Hindu minorities in their respective nations?

KK: When you look at status of religious minorities in India and Pakistan, it's not only a question of Hindus and Muslims. There have been frequent attacks against the Ahmadiyya community and even Shiite Muslims in Pakistan. And the highly controversial blasphemy law in Pakistan is often used to target other Muslims. For me, it is not simply an issue of minority rights; these are fundamental human rights. Both military and civilian governments in Pakistan have tolerated, and even cultivated, Islamist extremism, which poses a significant threat to all Pakistanis, not just minorities. Although India’s record on minority rights is better than Pakistan’s, the current BJP government’s policies and tolerance for violence against minorities constitutes a violation of basic human rights. Politicizing religious identities, as both India and Pakistan have done, has led to discrimination—and even violence—against minorities.

WPJ: Considering these tensions, is it possible for discourse relating to one’s personal identity to ever be fully objective? What does this mean for policy-making when it comes to issues of identity?

KK: We all have multiple identities, which are rarely fixed. Depending on the political and historical context, an ethnic, gender, or class identity can become a powerful mobilizing force. I do believe it is possible for us as students and scholars of politics and international relations to be objective. We can do so by learning—and thinking critically—about our own societies. It is equally important to consider perspectives other than our own. Flawed and distorted nationalist histories have perpetuated the divisions in South Asia, especially between India and Pakistan.  Unfortunately, South Asia today remains the least integrated region in the world.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews. 

[Interview conducted by Srilekha Murthy]

[Photo courtesy of Narendra Modi]

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