Not many academics have studied Hindu nationalism with the intensity of Stanford University anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen. The 63-year-old’s new book, The Law of Force: The Violent Heart of Indian Politics, argues that anger and brutality have become mainstream in public life and politics in India. The 176-page volume delves into what Hansen calls “the emergence of a decidedly non-liberal form democracy,” which explains why police attacks against Muslims and lower-caste men and women go unpunished.
The Denmark-born scholar, who has written several books on nationalism in India, told me that “the enjoyment of violence, the pleasures of hatred and vengeful fantasies, and the license to kill” are factors that contemporary India shares with Germany before World War II. In his book, Hansen lays out the dangers of the rise Hindu nationalism, explicitly comparing today’s adherents to the Nazis, who allowed their vigilantes and storm troopers to terrorize Jews, communists, and anyone else opposed to their agenda.
UNP: When you met an activist of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent body of the BJP] in July 1989 in Pune, did it occur to you that this militant right-wing Hindu organization will over the next few decades become the most formidable electoral entity in the country through its political arm, the BJP?
TBH: When I started my work, the BJP was taking its first steps into large-scale mass politics with the Ayodhya campaign to “liberate the birthplace of Lord Ram” [a mythological Hindu king]. Most of the BJP activists at that time were not particularly adept at doing this kind of mass politics and campaigning, and they were frankly surprised by their sudden success, becoming the second-largest party in the country. What many of them did learn was that if they harnessed the resentment of Muslims in the right way, it could become their most powerful political resource.
But it was when Modi, in 2014, decided to take over Congress’s agenda of economic reforms as well as many of the welfare policies that had been crafted that many felt that now BJP was finally a moderate party of visas/development and not just cultural/religious concerns. This paid off and the lack of an effective opposition allowed Modi to establish himself as the all-dominant force in Indian politics, something that emboldened the BJP to return to its true anti-Muslim and bigoted colors after the re-election of Modi and BJP in 2019 with an even bigger majority.
UNP: Hindu Nationalists fashion themselves as unifiers of all Hindus irrespective of caste. But why is it that we now see a marked rise in reported crimes against not only the minority Muslims but against lower castes? Is the RSS upper caste at its core?
TBH: The short answer is yes, but it is also true that the RSS has over many years incorporated many members of marginalized communities. However, these figures never rise significantly in the ranks of the RSS, but only in the violent outfits affiliated with the RSS or in electoral politics where BJP needs lower-caste faces in their campaigns. Like how Trumpism in the US made hate speech mainstream, Modi’s India has made hate speech and violent caste prejudice more respectable.
UNP: You say in your book that today the Indian Constitution would not find favor in the two houses of Indian Parliament, where there are deep reservations among BJP members and allies about several elements of the Constitution. Why is it that their aspirations are often opposed to that text of democratic principles, citizens’ rights, and equality before law?
TBH: First of all, the RSS was never part of the nationalist movement that culminated in independence and the 1950 adoption of what at the time was one of the most ambitious and inclusive democratic constitutions in the world. Quite the contrary, the RSS was consistently skeptical of democracy. Its second leader praised the policies of Nazism; a former RSS man killed Gandhi; and at its founding in 1925, RSS adopted a uniform that was a carbon copy of that used by the colonial police forces. In addition, the RSS is itself an avowedly nondemocratic institution. It’s a self-appointed hierarchy of command without any representation of the views of its foot soldiers. It cherishes this military-style model of authority and discipline.
UNP: How ironic then is Mr. Modi praying before a copy of the Constitution of India in Parliament after he won the 2019 elections?
TBH: Very, but then Modi has emerged as quite the savvy politician who does what it takes to win.
UNP: What do you think about the politics of the ruling party that often makes reverential statements about both Gandhi and BR Ambedkar, the key architect of the Indian Constitution?
TBH: It is a purely cynical calculation. The RSS began praising Gandhi in the 1970s when they were riding on the back of a Gandhi-inspired movement that almost toppled the government. In the 1980s, the BJP manifesto was devoted to “Gandhian socialism,” the flavor of political opposition of the day. In the 1990s and 2000s after millions of brave Dalit activists finally succeeded in highlighting the seminal role of Ambedkar, India’s foremost liberal and republican thinker, in the founding of the republic and its democracy, the BJP began to celebrate Ambedkar as a true Indian hero.
The irony is almost comical in its display of bad faith: How can a Hindu supremacist organization embrace a Dalit man whose critique of Hinduism and the caste system is yet to be surpassed in its rigor, depth, and wisdom?
UNP: What are the things contemporary India has in common with pre-WWII Germany or Italy in regards to public violence, which, you state in your book, has entered the center stage of Indian public life?
TBH: The short answer is the enjoyment of violence, the pleasures of hatred and vengeful fantasies, and the license to kill—by which I mean the unmistakable message from all levels of government and police powers that if you, as a Hindu, kill a Muslim, you will not really be punished. That was what happened to Jews in Europe; they became fair game.
UNP: How justified is this aggression—what you call “forceful anger” against historical humiliation of Hindus? Such sentiments were in full display in a progressive state like Kerala where Hindutva elements and political opportunists managed to invalidate a court verdict that lifted a ban on young women of menstruating age entering a temple. Are you surprised that such mobilizations over “traditions” have a polarizing effect even in parts of India that were seemingly unaffected by such trends?
TBH: Not at all. Some of the so-called progressive states in India ruled by the left for decades like Kerala and West Bengal were very effective in countering the Hindu right as a political force at the level of street politics. However, none of these movements ever seriously tackled caste attitudes or communal attitudes as they persisted in private, familial, and community spaces and practices.
Here, in the private sphere or the community of castes and communities, all kinds of unreconstructed notions of Hindu superiority and purity persisted, even flourished. You mention one example about temple entry in Kerala; another would be the abysmal social and educational situation of Muslims in West Bengal after three decades of communist rule. What does that tell you? That the left was unwilling to confront certain social and cultural prejudices among its own supporters and its leadership.
UNP: Do you see competitive communalism [the use of religious extremism to garner votes or influence] emerging from minorities in response to Hindu majoritarianism?
TBH: Much less than one would expect. One does not have to spend much time with Muslim communities to understand the resentment and the fear in this overpoliced community. I think it is a miracle that Muslim radicalism has so few takers in India. Indian Muslims understand that the radical gesture is simply going to backfire, and they exercise enormous restraint in their response to what can only be called a regime of low-intensity but constant harassment and terror in much of the country.
UNP: Will the Indian middle classes, which now view police excesses as those that happen to others, continue to be safe under a government that is becoming increasingly intolerant of any dissent?
TBH: Well, my guess is that BJP/RSS will not need to go all authoritarian with secret police excesses as we have seen elsewhere. Mobilizing the conformism, the complacent clannishness, and the fear of religious and social minorities is likely to keep them in power. The caste system hardwired a certain suspicion of other communities and an embrace of “our way of life” into each community. The BJP/RSS is harnessing that culture of suspicion through its campaigns against nonconformists. I don’t think they need the midnight knock to keep people in line.
UNP: Are there any parallels between the Modi government in India, Bolsonaro government in Brazil, Erdogan in Turkey, and Putin in Russia?
TBH: Yes, they are all mobilizing aggressive nationalism in order to protect a putative injured majority. That was also true of Trump. Injured by what, you may ask? By the relative loss of self-evident cultural and political dominance of a male-dominated white, or Hindu upper caste, or Anatolian culture and the increased visibility of women, people of color, and ethnic, sexual, and social minorities in public life, education, and in the economy. All of the right-wing populisms in the world can be understood as backlashes against periods of reform and social mobility that deepened democracies.
But there are important differences: In the US and Brazil, populism rides on protest votes against what is perceived as a liberal establishment. That can easily fall apart as we saw with Trump. In India, Russia, and Turkey, right-wing populisms are grounded in extensive and deeply rooted political parties and local organizations. That makes them far more durable—and more dangerous.
UNP: How do you see the rise of these right-wing forces in a global context? Is this a cyclical phenomenon?
TBH: After World War II, there was a popular description of fascism as a reaction to the world-shattering events of the Great Depression that began with the financial crash in 1929. The explanation was that the economic losses and deprivations caused by the crisis made people embrace figures like Hitler and Mussolini that promised order and blamed the Jews for the economic crisis. That type of explanation was also mobilized in 2016 to explain Trump’s appeal among blue-collar workers in the US that had been hurt by transformations of the American economy. However, it turned out that Trump voters were slightly better off than Democratic voters. They were also almost completely white. It became clear, quite soon, that racism and misogyny were at the heart of Trumpism, as they are undeniable parts of Bolsonaro’s platform and rhetoric. In India, the wealthier and more upper-caste you are, the more likely you are a BJP supporter. It does not mean that there aren’t poor people supporting Modi, or Erdogan, but their core constituencies are in fact the very middle classes that are usually hailed as the bedrock of democracy.