Vikhar Ahmed Syeed


Interview with French social scientist Christophe Jafferlot (Frontline March 12-25, 2011)


Christophe Jaffrelot, who is a Senior Research Fellow with the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (Centre for International Studies and Research) in Paris, has had a 25-year-long association with India. He offers courses in the modern history of India and the polity of South Asia at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (also known as Sciences Po). His first book, on the growth of the Hindu nationalist movement, was published in the mid-1990s and is arguably one of the finest scholarly works on the subject. His research interests also include the politicization of the lower castes and the Dalit in India. He is a keen follower of South Asian affairs and has contributed to Indian news magazines on issues relating to contemporary South Asia. He spoke at length to Frontline while he was in Bangalore to deliver a lecture on “Muslims in Indian cities”, the theme of his forthcoming co-edited volume.  Read more…


Q. What got you interested in India? Can you briefly discuss your research interests?


Jaffrelot: The first introduction I got to India was from my philosophy teacher when I was 18. I came to India soon afterwards. I was attracted to the country for affective reasons and also for intellectual reasons – I immediately developed a strong interest in the political anthropology of India. I came back again and my visit coincided with the start of the Ram janmabhoomi movement in the mid-1980s. That was the first topic I dealt with before shifting to caste politics with emphasis on the OBCs [Other Backward Classes]. During this time, I discovered the ways in which the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was making inroads into North India and how it harked back to Ambedkarism. Working on [B.R.] Ambedkar became my third, and very dense, phase. Now my fourth area of interest is what I would call Muslim identity and politics in India.


Q. In your first book – on the growth of the Hindu nationalist movement in India – you have aptly demonstrated how the phenomenal surge in militant Hinduism poses a threat to India’s secular character. You also expose the links between the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) ideology and supremacist notions of ethnic nationalism. As a researcher, did you have any prejudices against the exclusivist ideas of the Hindu nationalists? Did they fit in with your idea of India?


Jaffrelot: No, I don’t think I had any prejudices. I applied the tools of social sciences to the question of Hindu nationalism, and my book presents the result of my research.

The 1980s was the time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was called a fascist party by the intelligentsia of the Left. I disagreed with this notion and said that it was not a fascist party. The RSS-BJP had something to do with authoritarianism and social conservatism but it was not fascist for at least two reasons.


One, fascist parties rely on leaders and in the Hindu right wing, the leaders go and the movement remains. Secondly, fascists are interested in the capture of the state. They want to seize power first. The RSS is not state-power-oriented. It wants to transform society at the grass-roots level and then power may come; but it will not march on Delhi the way Mussolini marched on Rome. Since I refused to call them fascists, I was accused of being too soft on Hindu nationalists.


Interestingly, 15 years after publishing my book, the general atmosphere has

changed and now I am told that I am too harsh on the Hindutva forces! It means that the centre of gravity of the political discourse in India has shifted to the Right. It may shift again…. I shall continue to do my work as a social scientist.


Q. What do you attribute this shift in the political discourse to?


Jaffrelot: I see three reasons for this. One, the political forces. On the one hand, the Hindu nationalist propaganda has had, at long last, an indoctrination effect. On the other, other politicians, including some Congressmen and some socialists, have not stood by secularism the way the founding fathers of the Indian Republic would have.


Secondly, it has to do with socio-cultural transformations. As in so many countries, Islam is being looked at as a problem, and a sense of Islamophobia has developed because of Islamism, 9/11 and Pakistan-based jehadist movements. So the things that you can say about Muslims today could not be said earlier.

Thirdly, the impact of economic liberalisation has made inequalities more legitimate, be they community- or class-based. Since the 1990s, values associated with the Right are influencing the discourse of the people’s sphere more than ever before.


Q. Muslims in India have coexisted with Hindus for centuries. How do you discount that history while concluding that the political discourse has shifted to the Right? I ask this as ‘Islamophobia’ is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Jaffrelot: Indian Muslims, in spite of their massive presence, have intermingled for centuries with society at large, and the areas of cultural synthesis have been really huge – not only in terms of artistic achievements, as in the field of music, but in religious and social terms. Muslims worshipped gurus while Hindus went to dargahs. Since most Indian Muslims have converted from Hinduism, they often retained the same caste and the same occupation – which meant that they were part of the same world as their Hindu brethren. The rise of communalism during British Raj changed all that significantly.


Q. Are you saying that the rupture between the two communities began in the early 20th century?


Jaffrelot:  Yes, but you can go back in history even further – to 1857; the post-Mutiny phase was a difficult time for Muslims. With the creation of institutions such as Deoband and Aligarh, something like a Muslim brand of politics started. But the eventual turning point in Hindu-Muslim relations in India was definitely the 1920s, with the rise of the RSS in response to the Khilafat movement, which followed the formation of the Tabligh-e-Jamaat in reaction to the Arya Samaj. Partition was the third milestone, of course. And now, the fourth one may have started with the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent Islamist attacks by Pakistan-based movements or by the Indian mujahideen reacting to this demolition and the Gujarat pogrom. The future will tell whether these developments will have a similar impact as the 1920s parting of ways.


Incidentally, all these episodes resulted from a dialectic of actions and reactions. These are what I’ve called processes of stigmatization and emulation of so-called threatening others – it also applies to the mimetic forms of anti-Islamist Hindu nationalist terrorism today.


That is an interesting assessment but it also gels in very easily with the way nationalist history is written in India – that Muslims and Hindus coexisted and then the British came and Partition took place. Surely, modern Indian history is more nuanced.


Fair enough. We do not need to idealize the past. Hindus and Muslims were never living in completely harmonious relationships. They did not even live in the same street in most of the places because of dietary and cultural differences. But in places like Ahmedabad, there was a Hindu pol (housing) next to a Muslim one and some syncretism. This cohabitation is what has become difficult today and that is why you see Muslims being pushed out of the city and going to ghettoes like Juhapura for safety. In the past it was not a complete mix between the two communities, but you must admit that from a kind of mosaic the city has become more communally segregated. Also, Muslims have been marginalized on the public scene – there is not even one Muslim MP [Member of Parliament] in Maharashtra, for instance – as parties do not give them the ticket the way they did earlier because voters are not prepared to vote for them the way they did.


Q. As a close observer of the Hindu nationalist movement, do you think that it has become quiescent since the United Progressive Alliance came to power?


Jaffrelot: It is not quiescent at the local level if you look, for instance, at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s reconversion activities. But at the top level, for the last 10 years or so, the Sangh Parivar has had to deal with new contradictions. Before, it was very easy for them to stick together as a group in opposition. They were ‘clean’ and they had an alternative ideology, which was very consistent. After heading the Union government in 1998 and getting power at the State level before and after that, they have had to deal with contradictory trends.


There is first a contradiction between the RSS’ long-term agenda and the BJP’s short-term compulsions of politics. We saw how deep the tension was when L.K. Advani was eased out and Nitin Gadkari was appointed BJP president by the RSS against the advice of many BJP leaders. It shows the constant will of the RSS to remain the master of the party to implement an ideologically grounded agenda. On the other hand, the BJP has to be more pragmatic and this finds expression in coalitions. Now, when you are associated with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), you cannot retain the RSS discourse in its pure form. That is a big, almost existential contradiction. The BJP cannot sever its links with the RSS, and it cannot come to power on its own. As a result, the BJP cannot be a party on its own except in the opposition, and some of its leaders may prefer to remain in the opposition for the time being.


The second contradiction is that there are different factions now within the BJP. That was not there in the Jan Sangh of Deen Dayal Upadhyay of the 1960s. It has become normal in the BJP, like in other parties – including the Congress – that personality-based factionalism develops between power-hungry leaders. As a result, the BJP depends even more upon the unifying factor – that is, the RSS (like the Congress depends upon the Nehru-Gandhi family), which reinforced the first contradiction.


Q. If you factor in the role of some members of the RSS in some bomb blasts across the country, where would you see the RSS-BJP go from here?


Jaffrelot: It seems that people associated with the Sangh Parivar have developed some interest in terrorist techniques. Traditionally, this nebulae hardly resorted to violence, except during Partition, communal riots and, of course, the Gujarat pogrom. Even then, those who killed were generally not members of the RSS; they were outsiders or were identified as Bajrang Dalis – rightly or wrongly.


Today, it seems that some RSS cadre have joined hands with fringe groups like Abhinav Bharat. Former, or even current, pracharaks like Sunil Joshi might have thought that ‘we can also teach a lesson to the Muslims by organising bomb blasts’. If a member of the RSS executive body like Indresh Kumar has been supportive of Sunil Joshi in some of these bomb blasts, as Swami Aseemanand has recently confessed, it may reflect a paradigmatic shift in the RSS.


Q. Narendra Modi has come back to power twice since the 2002 riots, which followed the events at Godhra. What does this mean for the idea of India, especially for the people of Gujarat?


Jaffrelot: Well, it probably means that strategies of polarizing communities along religious lines do work in Gujarat’s electoral politics. In the case of Modi, what is also ‘interesting’ is that he was cornered by the Supreme Court, the intelligentsia and the media in such a way that he had to overemphasize development as a plank to compensate for this bad name he had acquired. Doing that made him one of the favourite Chief Ministers of the middle class and the corporate sector. As a result, his leadership may become a kind of model, and politics, therefore, may become much more business-oriented and authoritarian elsewhere too.


The middle class generally disapproves of the way democracy is evolving in India – it is not very happy with the rise of the lower castes, the development of reservation, populism (which is indeed rampant) and corruption which, incidentally, has worsened after the liberal turn the middle class longed for. This group wants leaders who deliver and to add to it, this one, Modi, is cleaner than the others and if this has to do with less democracy, so be it. In Gujarat, Indians are not particularly argumentative – some do not want to be, some cannot be any more.


Q. Do you think the idea of India as a secular republic is changing or losing its priority, or was it never a priority within the general urban middle class of India?


Jaffrelot:  There are two questions in that and it is good to look at them in a chronological order. First, we may wonder whether secularism has ever been a priority. When we look at the Chief Ministers who were at the helm of the States of the Hindi belt in the 1950s and 1960s, you do not find people who truly believed in secularism. They precipitated the decline of Urdu in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. So we should not idealise the secularism or the multiculturalism (that would be a more appropriate word) of India in its initial phase. Nehru was certainly promoting multiculturalism, but things were different at the State level. And now we may wonder whether this is a priority even at the national level. It is not so much a question of leaders as it is a question of institutions like the judiciary and the police.


I think what we have seen over the last 10-15 years is an increasingly anti-minority bias among key institutions like the judiciary and the police. You can see that in the recent Ayodhya and Dara Singh verdicts. But you may go further: the courts – which were so progressive in the 1990s, at least at the apex level – have become more conservative at large, calling to mind the regulations of some democratic but security states like the United States under George W. Bush. The Binayak Sen verdict is a case in point.


So far as the police are concerned, competition between agencies has to be factored in, but I’m struck by the pace of investigations of bombings in Malegaon, the Ajmer shrine, the Samjhauta Express train and the Mecca Masjid. It is difficult to understand how it took three years to realize that the explosives used in several of these places were the same. Yet, you still have one Hemant Karkare, and policemen who have the courage to oppose Modi in Gujarat – at their own cost so far.


Q. In your book on caste, you argue that Mahatma Gandhi endorsed a certain form of caste structure. Since he is the ‘Father of the Nation’, this idea would conflict with his image and also trouble a lot of Indians. What do you have to say about this?


Jaffrelot: First we have to recognize that for Gandhi the nation was not built on individuals, as in the case of Nehru. The building blocks of the nation, for Gandhi, had to be groups and communities and among the groups and communities, varnas have appeared to him, at some point of time, as not that irrelevant because, according to him, they gave the nation some cohesion and some solidarity while protecting society from individualism and class conflicts. So it is an organic definition of the nation, not an individualistic one. We also have to admit that on behalf of this vision he was not prepared to let Dalits emancipate themselves the way Ambedkar wanted to emancipate them because he equated that emancipation strategy with separatism.


For the Ambedkarites, this is probably a cause of resentment that remains the strongest. They do not believe in Harijanism, which they find patronizing. The Gandhian dimension of the Congress attitude vis-a-vis Dalits is one of the reasons why they left this party in large numbers and got attracted by the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.


Q. Why have Dalit and lower-caste parties done extremely well in northern India unlike in other parts of the country?


Jaffrelot:  First of all, there is a demographic dimension that you cannot avoid. Lower-caste people, and Dalits especially, are very numerous in the Hindi-belt States. When you have a caste group like the Chamars in U.P. representing more than one-tenth of society, you have a base on which you can build something strong. It also works with caste groups such as the Yadavs in U.P. and Bihar.


Second, these parts of India have not experienced any significant social reform over the past centuries. In Kerala, you had the Ezhava movement while in Mysore, Kolhapur and the Madras Presidency, there had been some positive discrimination in favour of the lower castes. In the north, at least in U.P., when you look at the social composition of the elite groups you don’t find any inroads made by the lower castes, until the 1980s. The ‘delayed’ reaction of the plebeians, therefore, was bound to be more radical, all the more so because caste hierarchies were reinforced by the zamindari system prevailing in northern India. In the south, the ryotwari system did not result in the kind of systematic domination by upper-caste people as you find with the Rajputs, for instance.


All these factors partly explain the crystallization of an anti-caste-oriented socialist discourse (spearheaded by the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia) and its appropriation by the plebeians the moment reservation endowed them with a small middle class.


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