Development reality, vanishing communities and Hindutva

The rise of Hindutva in a country that was thought to be largely secular has flummoxed many. Whatever the outcome of this general election, the BJP and its parent, the RSS, will remain important players and influence the political agenda in a manner they never had been able to before 2014. This is a significant change that needs to be debated and understood from a larger frame rather than from immediate events. The rise is paradoxically linked to the larger story of how India has developed and the models that have led us to push and celebrate GDP growth while communities were left rudderless and destroyed in the process.

A few centuries on, the majority of India still makes a living through one or another form of ‘traditional livelihood’. However, advancing industrial modernity, with a vast, impatient interest in the expansion of the market, has been eviscerating the bio-cultural basis of such ways of life and livelihoods at an accelerating pace, especially in the digitised, global era.

Indian civilisation has been traditionally organised as communities deeply rooted in local ecologies. Fishermen lived intimately with the waters they fished in. Adivasis wisely stewarded the forests. Farmers had a deep understanding of soil and seeds, water and weather. This knowledge was no single person’s property, but was held in common by the community, passed on as tradition to the young. It's understandable that a community dependent on a shared habitat governed it cooperatively; individual whim was not paramount. There was not even, strictly speaking, individual private property in land in this country till the time of the Permanent Settlement of land revenue by the East India Company in Bengal in the 1780s.

A few centuries on, the majority of India still makes a living through one or another form of ‘traditional livelihood’. However, advancing industrial modernity, with a vast, impatient interest in the expansion of the market, has been eviscerating the bio-cultural basis of such ways of life and livelihoods at an accelerating pace, especially in the digitised, global era. With invasive modernity communities have been eroding rapidly as also the habitats which have supported them and which have, in turn, been sustained and renewed by the ceaseless efforts of people who have traditionally lived by them. With a globally predatory model of growth in operation, ecologies and human cultures alike are declining in a downward spiral with negative feedbacks from each of them feeding destructively into the other.

An illustration will help here. Developmental modernity presented to farmers, among other things, the green revolution of the 1960s. It gave them ‘miracle’ seeds and told them exactly how much fertiliser and pesticide to use. They were told the State would take care of irrigation. They were asked to forget their traditional knowledge.

It was a trap. Today, soil fertility stands destroyed by chemicals, groundwater levels are falling due to competitive pumping. Rivers are increasingly choked by big dams and metropolitan sewage. To add to this, agricultural policy has been mostly hostile. Now that farming is a losing proposition, it is natural that rural youth seek a future elsewhere. But the dangerous thing is that their college degrees and smartphones aren't getting them jobs in the cities either. This has led to demands for reservations by Jats, Marathas, Patidars, and others. With no job prospects, such youth are not interested in returning to farming either for even the traditional knowledge of farming is all but lost to them. Now they find themselves trapped in a perilous impasse - unable to forge ahead, or to go back.

Urbanizing youth in a ‘no-man’s land’ sit precariously unemployed in a society that is fracturing down the middle. This is a most anxious place to be. Campaigns like cow vigilantism and anti-Romeo squads offer them a distraction. By insidiously stoking their susceptible male ego, and giving them an illusion of protecting a culture they know they have lost, it turns them into ultimately willing pawns in a larger political game.

This constitutes the socio-economic background to the shifting sands of Indian politics today. The hopelessness of restless youth is a major source of urban alienation today. This offers fertile ground for someone to offer lost souls the dream of an imagined community, such as a united ‘Hindu Rashtra’ which will not only see to their interests but also offer a psychic adventure - if these uprooted people can be offered a feeling of dominance in this new fictitious community. It is necessary for a national dreamseller of such a fantasy to project a strong muscular image.

In the eyes of policy-elites, the community was not seen to be central to the developmental modernity that India embraced after 1947; and after globalisation in 1991, it has been all but abandoned. A new ethos of social, even filial, indifference, familiar from ‘advanced’ Western cultures, is now taking root in India. The tradition of looking after and mentoring younger generations is often missing from older generations today, and vice versa. That responsibility is being ceded to ‘modern’ institutions, schools and universities, hospitals and old age homes (for the elderly).

Urbanizing youth in a ‘no-man’s land’ sit precariously unemployed in a society that is fracturing down the middle. This is a most anxious place to be. Campaigns like cow vigilantism and anti-Romeo squads offer them a distraction. By insidiously stoking their susceptible male ego, and giving them an illusion of protecting a culture they know they have lost, it turns them into ultimately willing pawns in a larger political game.

In religious terms, those making the most noise (‘Hindu Khatre Mein Hai’) are the least faithful. But their slogans attract. Hindu nationalism is the easiest thing to offer such people desperately looking for community amidst the urban ruins and relics of tradition, even though it is obviously the fake article.

RSS activities in towns offer people a space to come together. They acknowledge their anxieties and hopes. Even though it is fundamentally communal, exclusionary, divisive and hierarchical, it has also made the most effort to appear inclusive, by adopting the local culture, language and idiom.

Despite the fact that there is arguably a higher than proportionate representation of Hindus in government jobs (and this might be a contributory factor to their growing alienation from traditional crafts) a slogan like 'Hindu Khatre Mein Hai’ appeals to such people. Unless and until leaders outside the Sangh Parivar see the danger of the underlying developmental reality of vanishing communities, and offer alternative paths, aren’t the ranks of the Parivar going to swell further?

Is anyone proposing a genuine alternative to this? Perhaps those asking to go back to farming as a sustainable practice. The Kisan marches across the country, and the coming together of a large number of farmers in Delhi on 30st November, 2018 is an indicator. Even the Tikait Bharatiya Kisan Union, which had helped the BJP engineer the communal rupture in Muzaffarnagar had to be beaten back by authorities when it attempted to march on Delhi against the government’s unfair treatment of farmers.

When one of us visited a village in Muzaffarnagar in the aftermath of the 2013 riots, he recalls a farmer saying to a peaceful gathering in an 'unaffected' village, that Muslims were clever to have developed vocations like metal work and carpentry while Hindus had been left behind in loss-making farming. Despite the fact that there is arguably a higher than proportionate representation of Hindus in government jobs (and this might be a contributory factor to their growing alienation from traditional crafts) a slogan like 'Hindu Khatre Mein Hai’ appeals to such people.

Unless and until leaders outside the Sangh Parivar see the danger of the underlying developmental reality of vanishing communities, and offer alternative paths, aren’t the ranks of the Parivar going to swell further?

(Dr. Aseem Shrivastava is a faculty member of Ashoka University and co-author of “Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India” and “Prithvi Manthan”Aryaman Jain is an environmental engineer)