Mapping Global Populism — Panel 4: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India

An army of Hindu Sanyasis is geared up for battle to protect their dharma at any cost. Illustration: Young Moves Media (Shutterstock).

Please cite as:

Sithole, Neo & Nguijol, Gabriel Cyrille. (2023). “Report on Mapping Global Populism — Panel 4: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0043  

 

This report is based on the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India,” which took place online on August 31, 2023. The panel featured renowned scholars on populism from India. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the panelists.

By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol

This report summarizes the fourth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism”: The Role of Populism, Radicalization and Hindutva in India, which took place online on August 31, 2023. The panel was jointly organised by the ECPS, The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), and the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Adelaide. The panel, which featured renowned scholars on populism from India, was moderated by Dr Priya Chacko, Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia, and the speakers are by Dr Ajay Gudavarthy (Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi), Maggie Paul (PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide, Australia),  Dr Anuj Bhuwania (Professor at the Jindal Global Law School in India & currently Senior Visiting Fellow at the SCRIPTS ‘Cluster of Excellence’ at Freie University Berlin), Dr Monika Barthwal-Datta (Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of New South Wales, Sydney) and Dr Shweta Singh (Associate Professor of International Relations at the South Asian University, New Delhi, India). 

During the introductory remarks, Dr. Priya Chacko provides a much-needed overview of the profound impacts that authoritarian populism has had on Indian political life. These effects range from stifling organizational work, where NGOs and research centers have had their licenses revoked, to constraining critical thought and free speech. Scholars, journalists, and students have faced charges of sedition and languished in jails, while the few remaining independent media houses have been threatened with tax investigations or defamation lawsuits. Additionally, laws related to religious freedoms are under threat, taking the form of laws that restrict interreligious marriages or the consumption of beef, with one of the more troubling developments being the revocation of the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir. Furthermore, the introduction of religious-aligned citizenship laws, along with anti-Muslim actions, has raised concerns. Opposition parties have often been portrayed as opposition elites backed by Western authorities, depicting them as enemies of Hindu and thus Indian advancement. All of these are just a few developments that have taken place over the last decade; the following report provides a brief outline and description of the presentations and arguments shared by the presenters during the panel.

 

Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy: “Politics, Ethics, and Emotions in ‘New India’”

Dr. Gudavarthy posits that nationalism emulates faith-based religions through symbols like the national anthem, flag, and other national symbols, and as such, stands itself as a contemporary civic-based religion. The Hindu narrative offers a porous concept that ties into this civic religion, based on inclusive narratives that unite Indians with Hindu identities, generating a form of hyper-nationalism for Hindu identities. This, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging but also translates into toxic majoritarianism, which undermines institutions.

In this opening presentation, Dr. Ajay Gudavarthy draws inspiration from his new book entitled: “Politics, Ethics, and Emotions in ‘New India.’” The book delves into the hypothesis of whether populism can achieve this through appeals to everyday ethics and latent emotions, exploring how Hindu populism manages to accomplish both objectives simultaneously.

Dr. Gudavarthy sets the tone of the panel well, kicking off by briefly going over Laclau’s conceptual approach to populism, recounting the equivalence drawn between fragmented social demands used to create an authentic people’s group and the inherent antagonism between them and the elites, in a thorough political manner before globally emphasizing the relationship between traditional authoritarianism and social solidarity in India. To better develop his thoughts, he started by asking a main question: “Does Indian politics continue to remain authoritarian, or does it have elements that continue to reinforce social hierarchy?” The answer to this question was divided into two main narratives that Hindutva is adopting: the intercultural nation between caste and religion that tries to re-inscribe the traditional hierarchy and the adoption of nationalism as a new or civic religion.

The presentation emphasizes the Indian context where Hindu-aligned politics is emerging as a new form of civil solidarity that transcends caste divisions and has extended its appeal across religious and linguistic groups, even making appeals to Pasanda Muslims. Given the vibrancy of Indian society, it’s no small feat for populism to generate such majoritarian consciousness. However, the study highlights the contradictions within populist manifestations as they often maintain and operate along conservative lines, preserving social hierarchies and serving the interests of the established social powers and elites. Nonetheless, they have successfully appropriated the normative universality of cultural registers.

Dr. Gudavarthy articulates the growing sharpening of conflicts between subclasses and linguistic conflicts, or a resurgence of social conflicts triggered by these populist ideologies. Hindu populism challenges earlier notions that suggested the impossibility of a confessional majority in the Indian context, based on the enduring fragmentation of latent caste differences. What is happening today can be precisely characterized by the emergence of such a confessional majority made possible through the reinterpretation of caste and religion, not in terms of traditional religious identities, but rather as a way of life. Part of this stems from the heterogeneous interpretations based on Gandhi’s approach which emphasizes the preservation of collective living and cultural life aimed at dismantling the caste system from within, rather than relying solely on external liberal state measures and economic changes.

The ease of narrative restructure in the Indian case is made possible using populism’s lack of explicit critique, which allows for the reinterpretation of hierarchies and divisions as a unified collective supporting authoritarian constructions. By ‘re-signifying’ caste and religion as a way of life instead of rigid cultural identities, lower segments of society, such as Dalits, identify with these narratives and show little drive to change the oppressive societal structure. It also sheds light on the rejection of leftist liberal secular scholars who view it as an authoritarian top-down project.

When speaking on the adoption, or rather reformation of nationalism as a new civic religion, Dr. Gudavarthy posits that nationalism emulates faith-based religions through symbols like the national anthem, flag, and other national symbols, and as such, stands itself as a kind of contemporary civic-based religion. The Hindu narrative offers a porous concept that ties into this civic religion, based on inclusive narratives that unite Indians with Hindu identities, generating a form of hyper-nationalism for Hindu identities. This, in turn, fosters a sense of belonging but also translates into toxic majoritarianism, which undermines institutions.

In conclusion, we are exposed to thought-provoking findings from the results of a survey conducted by Pew Research 2021 on religious tolerance and segregation, reportedly the largest post-independence survey in India that includes a cross-section of castes, religions, and regions. Dr. Gudavarthy’s breakdown mentions how it highlights that 70 percent of respondents believe diversity is vital for democracy and value secularism. However, when asked about concrete living arrangements, 65 percent of respondents expressed a belief in segregated living, symbolizing the concept of living separately, which vindicates their position of how the narratives of Hindu majoritarian populism have successfully reinforced ethnic and caste divides.

Maggie Paul: “Ram Rajya 2.0: How Nostalgia Aids the Populist Politics of Neo-colonial Hindutva Futurism”

In the review of populist nostalgia, Maggie Paul introduces us to the concept of “futurist nostalgia,” describing how, based on Indian populism, futurist nostalgia is centered on drawing inspiration from past glory to paint a picture of an equally glorious future. This is exemplified by the reverence for figures like Lord Ram and the concept of Ram Rajya. Indian populism operates within an affective economy of optimism, confidence, duty, freedom, pride, and self-confidence. Its purpose is to generate a cross-religious and cross-class identity that transcends the segregated diversity of identity.

This presentation is informed by a paper that is still in development, which articulates the role of nostalgia in populist discourses through the retrieval, valorization, and recovery of ‘golden age symbols,’ both historical and mythological, which have been central in contemporary Indian populist politics.

The aim of the paper and presentation, according to Maggie Paul, was to identify the frequent and growing force of nostalgia in Indian populism used as a mobilization force for electoral means and then to draw out the links between nostalgia, affect, and populism, thereby better theorizing the affective politics of authoritarian populism in India and contributing to the burgeoning literature on nostalgia and populism. Pivotal to this conversation is the idea that in populist studies, ideational approaches are prevalent, and in these approaches, the importance of emotions is stated as crucial but is not given much in terms of theorization. Also, the study outlines the scope as being limited to Europe and Turkey; the work on Turkey, in particular, focuses on religious sentiment.

Opening the presentation is a quote from Prime Minister Narendra Modi given at the inauguration of the new parliament in May 2023, where Modi evokes an image of a glorious past when India was heralded as the most prosperous and splendid nation of the world, and how after centuries of slavery and colonization, India is turning that glorious stream of ancient times towards itself, filling the Indian people with pride. Following this, the presentation goes over how nostalgia is associated with the ‘recent past,’ like times when political correctness was not present or rife, a time when society was more homogeneous, or a time of the welfare state, especially amongst right-wing ideologies. Different types of nostalgia, like restorative or reflective, are more dominant in right-wing populism, taking a more ideational approach.

Her framework is based on the idea that populism is analyzed as a logic of political articulation according to Ernesto Laclau, and emotions, according to Sarah Ahmed, are considered as cultural practices. However, Maggie Paul highlights the limitations of Laclau in adequately addressing the emotional aspects of populism, with an emphasis on collective grievances and antagonism in generating collective identities; this is weak, but collective identities require strong collective emotions. In addition to things like fear and hate, love and happiness are also needed within identity. In doing so, we are made alert to the importance of understanding how emotions work to create groups and form collective identities.

In the review of populist nostalgia, Maggie Paul introduces us to the concept of “futurist nostalgia,” describing how, based on Indian populism, futurist nostalgia is centered on drawing inspiration from past glory to paint a picture of an equally glorious future. This is exemplified by the reverence for figures like Lord Ram and the concept of Ram Rajya. Indian populism operates within an affective economy of optimism, confidence, duty, freedom, pride, and self-confidence. Its purpose is to generate a cross-religious and cross-class identity that transcends the segregated diversity of identity. Ram Rajya is articulated as a pinnacle of morality, ethics, and good governance, in line with the principles of the Constitution. However, it also encompasses aspects that may involve restricting religious minorities like Islam, such as introducing Ramayana into school syllabi, declaring Thursday as the official weekly day off, and observing a national Hindu day. Additionally, it mentions efforts against religious conversions, the banning of Madrassas, and the removal of reservations for minorities.

Building on the presentation given by Dr. Gudavarthy, Maggie Paul discusses how the populist co-opting of Ram Rajya aims to unite different groups and create a vision of a glorious future. However, it’s worth noting that this sometimes involves the reinterpretation of religious mythology as actual history, despite pushback from the scientific community.

Continuing the presentation elaborates on how cultural infrastructure plays a significant role in invoking cultural and religious unity and futurism and the antagonistic frontiers that emerged at certain moments in Indian history when discussing figures like Lord Ram was avoided, which in turn led to infrastructural decay tied to religious places and cities—a decay that Indian populists argue can only be rectified through a politics and political state infused with the character and lessons of Lord Ram. It also emphasized how the willpower and determination associated with Lord Ram can lead the country to new heights, promoting values based on unity, development, and faith.

Before ending, the cultural dimensions of Indian populism and cultural renaissance were expanded upon and shown to involve monumental infrastructural projects aimed at promoting the coexistence of past and present India. This includes the restoration of temples, the creation of mega corridors with modern amenities, and the incorporation of local deities, gurus, and indigenous warriors to foster a unified cultural resurgence. This cultural revival serves to create a sense of heritage and identity while simultaneously fostering a sense of hatred for past invasions and destruction of cultural sites by Muslim invaders, with the dual aim of creating an enduring Hindu identity that dismisses the existing diversity and pluralism within Hinduism.

Dr. Anuj Bhuwania: “Constitutional Roots of Judicial Populism in India”

According to Dr. Bhuwania, the Indian constitution was drafted with a disregard for entrenchment, which is unusual because a constitution typically entrenches provisions that cannot be changed by the electoral majority. Through the highlighting of various articles found in the Indian constitution, it’s evident that these articles are being weaponized by the current government, which points to the problem of centralization of power within the political majority. Therefore, the Indian constitution can be seen as part of the problem. The procedure in Indian constitutional making has also enabled Modi to do what he does now.

This presentation shifts the panel’s focus from the religious aspects and behaviors of populism in India towards the implications of populist endeavors on the judiciary, taking an interesting spin on normative discussions around the institutional erosion caused by populists, particularly in relation to the courts and legal autonomy. 

Seminally, Dr. Bhuwania suggests that in India, the reverse is true: Courts act as populist actors themselves. Central to this argument is the notion that constitutionalism has been less of a stumbling block on the path to Hinduism in the past decades than what populist scholars might have thought. Currently, global populist discourse often turns to countries like Poland or Hungary when analyzing what populism means for democratic backsliding, often noting that these regimes paired their populist discourses with constitutional changes, which then enabled populist leaders to chip away at the liberal foundations in those countries. What stands out from this ‘norm’ is that India, in comparison to other populist regimes, has experienced relatively minor changes to its constitution, a phenomenon that indicates that Prime Minister Modi has been able to advance his political agenda without introducing major alterations to India’s fundamental legal document. The study highlights the surprisingly high level of compatibility between the Hindu majoritarian agenda and the Indian constitution.

Dr. Bhuwania articulates the ability of the Indian constitution to be used as a populist tool, attributing it to the constitution’s inherent malleability, which allows India’s religious populism to make use of it with arguable ease. In some ways, this malleability also substantiates political claims made by Indian populist actors of wanting to uphold and seek to advance the Constitution, embracing the political legitimacy that comes with India’s constitutional pliability.

In displaying how the Indian constitution lends itself to the populist forces, Dr. Bhuwania refers the audience and panel to the ongoing matter related to the constitutional status of Kashmir, currently being heard before the Indian Supreme Court. This matter revolves around the changes brought about in August 2019 when the Government of India revoked the special autonomous status granted to Jammu and Kashmir by Article 370 of the Indian constitution, essentially facilitating their conversion into territories of India. This was done through the vote of a simple majority, a fact that is central to this part of the presentation. Dr. Bhuwania begins to unravel the dangers of the current state of the Indian constitution by reviewing how the constitution allows for unilateral changes to the very structure of states through a simple majority. Adding that it’s important to note that India has already become a Hindu majoritarian state, electorally speaking, meaning there is little standing in the way of allowing the Indian government currently to alter territorial lines without the need for constitutional changes.

Dr. Bhuwania also discusses India’s peculiar federalist nature, calling it a quasi-federalist state, considering the looseness of the federal characteristics. In addition, it is argued that India, through its federalist constitution, became a model for federalism for most multiethnic countries, with this idea peaking in the concept of the state-nation that became prevalent in 2012. The Indian Union’s ability to accommodate the demands of various ethnic communities displayed the flexibility and strength of the federal system by forging new states in the North-East of India. This underscores the importance of design choices when it comes to federalism.

The Indian constitution was drafted with a disregard for entrenchment, which is unusual because a constitution typically entrenches provisions that cannot be changed by the electoral majority. Through the highlighting of various articles found in the Indian constitution, it’s evident that these articles are being weaponized by the current government, which points to the problem of centralization of power within the political majority. The presentation also attempts to provide an understanding of why key provisions in the Constitution were not entrenched. One explanation is that the constitution, at least at the time of drafting, was a wartime constitution, likely referring to the height period of conflict in India, from independence movements to the Indo-Pakistani war.

Before closing, Dr. Bhuwania unpacked how being a single-party majority/dominant constitution breeds a threat to constitutional growth through change, noting the fact that in most single-party dominant systems, a single party dominant constitution sees no possible future of having any other party dominating the constitution, which means they have little cause to change the constitution. This also interestingly gives stability to the Indian constitution as well, as the usefulness means there is little reason to further align themselves with the global populist right and generate unwanted attention by attempting to introduce massive changes to the constitution. The constitution can be seen as part of the problem. The procedure in Indian constitutional making has enabled Modi to do what he does now.

Dr. Shweta Singh and Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta: “India’s Refugee Policy Towards Rohingya Refugees: An Intersectional Approach to Populism”

The presentation outlines and analyzes shifts that have taken place since 2014 regarding refugee policy under the Modi Government in India. Firstly, there has been an institutional legislative shift involving amendments to domestic legislation used to govern refugees and foreigners in India. Secondly, it addresses the absence of an actual legal framework dedicated to governing refugees and foreigners in India, with states resorting to three different acts to monitor and control the movement of refugees, encompassing aspects like housing, detention, and deportation.

In this joint presentation, Dr. Shweta Singh and Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta showcase their interest in the interconnection between populism and foreign policy, specifically concerning the issue of refugees. They are working on a draft paper on the subject that is still in the process of completion. Central to their contribution is their focus on the relationship between populism and domestic refugee policies, which have international implications. Their research centers on how populism affects the foreign policy preferences and outcomes of governments in power.

To begin the final presentation, Dr. Singh outlines the novelty of their work, emphasizing its contribution to the international dimension of populism studies related to refugee policy. Central to the argument presented by Dr. Singh is that in the context of populist studies, the issue of refugee politics/policies stands out as a marginalized discourse globally, referring to how we look at refugee policy and foreign policy and how we see this policy about populism internationally. The presentation recounted how few studies investigate the link between population and foreign policy shedding light to review three gaps found in current foreign policy-aligned populist literature while asking how these gaps relate to the issue of refugees seen as foreign policy, and how is it connected with the case of India? She mentions that while populism literature has covered the international ramifications of populism, the issue of refugee politics and policies remains a marginalized discourse in global populist studies. The presentation identifies three gaps in current foreign policy-aligned populist literature and explores how these gaps relate to the issue of refugees in India.

The first gap is related to the conceptualization of populism, particularly its application in non-Western contexts like India. It’s important to note that many studies that view populism as a thin-centered ideology face limitations when applied outside Western contexts. Additionally, a continuation of this initial gap pertains to the process of signification by referring to Laclau’s approach, which defines populism as a political logic centered on empty signifiers, most studies acknowledge the antagonistic relationship between the people and the elite. However, where they often fall short is in defining the category of “the people.”

Expanding upon Laclau’s work, Dr. Singh delves into the concept of populism as a political logic based on discursive identity assemblages. These assemblages are characterized by various constellations, which in this context refer to societal groupings. The presentation briefly touches on what makes Modi’s populism effective—namely, the existence of overlap in the discursive language used to bridge gaps across race, ethnicity, religious divisions, as well as class and caste. This overlap provides valuable insights into the complex formation and categorization of “the people,” taking into account the diversity of sub-groups within this broad and multifaceted term.

The second gap concerns the narrow conceptualization of foreign policy, which has primarily focused on bilateralism and multilateralism, largely neglecting issues related to refugees. Dr. Singh and Dr. Dr. Monika Barthwal-Datta aim to review how refugee policy affects both conflict outcomes and cooperative relations among states in South Asia, such as India-Bangladesh, India-Pakistan, and India-Afghanistan. For these researchers, refugee policy is a foreign policy. 

The third gap discussed pertains to the lack of contextualization of populism and foreign policy. Dr. Singh explained that when examining the conceptualization of foreign policy, it’s essential to consider how contextual specificities related to various global variants of populism are taken into account. This approach offers the potential for an intersectional analysis. The focus on refugees arises from the argument that migration is a core function of a state’s foreign policies and is implicated in international agreements that recognize the rights of refugees through international treaties. In the context of South Asia, where many states, including Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, have led South Asian countries to adopt different positions on global refugee protection instruments, our understanding of refugees becomes influenced by the extent of populist narratives present in government.

In her concluding remarks, Dr. Barthwal-Datta discusses how the paper outlines and analyzes shifts that have taken place since 2014 regarding refugee policy under the BJP Modi Government. Firstly, there has been an institutional legislative shift involving amendments to domestic legislation used to govern refugees and foreigners in India. Secondly, it addresses the absence of an actual legal framework dedicated to governing refugees and foreigners in India, with states resorting to three different acts to monitor and control the movement of refugees, encompassing aspects like housing, detention, and deportation. These legislative changes have been accompanied by shifts in discourse, with BJP leaders and other senior officials framing refugees, particularly Rohingya refugees, as threats. In conclusion, Dr. Barthwal-Datta emphasizes the significance of considering the various identity constellations at play, such as race, ethnicity, and religion, which influence the creation and approach to refugees. This aspect is crucial when attempting to adopt an intersectional approach to international populism and refugee-related issues.


(*) Neo Sithole is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).


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