Book Review : Violent Conjunctures In Democratic India
By Suraj Kumar Thube
07 April, 2016
Author - Amrita Basu
Publisher - Cambridge publications, 2015
Pages - 334
ISBN - 978-1-316-60391-8
Price - 550 rupees
Hindu nationalism has been a pervasive phenomenon in India, especially since the 'second democratic upsurge in 1990.' Academicians over the years have focussed broadly on the multiple contours of this form of militant nationalism and how it shapes Indian politics in general. These studies have more or less highlighted the role of political parties in fomenting violence along with the active connivance of the State. Without discarding the importance of previous scholarly works, Amrita Basu contributes to the existing literature by arguing that it is imperative to focus on the role social movements and civil society organisations play in reconfiguring India's political system. The central theme of the book is to study the linkages between party, social movements and the state in order to understand the convoluted nature of Hindu nationalist militancy in various states. The author argues that a closer, robust relationship between these three entities create situations for inciting violence on a larger scale.
The book is divided into three broad sections with the first one laying down the theoretical foundations of the Indian political system followed by a detailed analysis of how the given violent conjunctures work in four different states of India. The primary focus is on the Bhartiya Janta Party and its constantly changing relationship with cultural organisations of the Hindu right. Terming the BJP as a 'movement-party', the author draws our attention to the multiple fault lines when it comes to the working mechanism of the party at the ground level. Criticising the rigid binaries between party and movements, a cogent analysis is put forth which urges the reader to ponder upon the blurring of boundaries between them. A more fruitful enterprise according to her would be to see this party as a 'less institutionalised, more ideological and more linked to civil society groups'. It is within this larger framework that the book attempts to delineate the temporal and spatial differences of violence across states. How the quotidian violence is linked to national violence and how there is a nexus between the local and the transnational with the national condoning its activities is what gets ensued in the following chapters. The asymmetric nature of power within this conjuncture, as the author rightly points out, gets shaped due to multiple factors, namely - caste, class, geography, demography, political economy and political personalities. A perceptive analysis of the role of parallel conjunctures is also undertaken like the one's of class and caste, local and national and urban and rural.
After providing the conceptual clarity of the State, parties and social movements, the author has shared her fieldwork research of two small towns in UP - Khurja and Bijnor. The temporal classification is important over here as it brings out the different trajectories of violence experienced in 1990 and in the early 2000's respectively. The local factors get more emphasis which include local municipal elections, communal harmony rallies, disallowing of Hindus to offer prayers at a contested place of worship and 'mohalla' meetings which clandestinely discuss the future course of their movement. Along with this ethnographic account, there is a firm insistence on the sombre nature of the idea of violence being inherently liberating and empowering, 'something that helps redeem the lost honour'. The relationship of the three principal entities gets exposed as there is a constant simmering tension between them, not just between them but also within the movements.( tensions between the RSS and the VHP get highlighted over here and also the way in which strong parties manage to keep the rabble rousing movements at bay) However, these are examples which by and large provide a clear insight about the 'extensive' nature of violence that sees a cohesive network between a powerful party and an equally emboldened social movement. The example of Gujarat is also a classical case of extensive violence. The 'state-party' framework remains strong in this state and the social movements act as an effective, active conduit between state and society. The party having a strong organizational base with a powerful leadership over more than a decade has helped the party to assert its dominance over its movement connections. A systematic cooption of several domineering elements in the state has paved the way for organised violence in the state.
Contrary to the situation in Gujarat, the author describes the violent activities in other BJP ruled states as intermittent or 'episodic'. Having had initially provided a cautionary note of brandishing a party with one blanket way of functioning, it becomes increasingly clear when one looks at the factors that shape the generally understood style of Hindu nationalist tendencies. The three states under this study - Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan are symptomatic of how electoral dividends of imbuing political events with religious significance are at best, limited. The militant card seems to have worked only when a national level event galvanises the entire country ( like the Babri masjid demolition ) or when the state, party and social movements are in cahoots with each other, as seen in UP for a brief period following the demolition and in the early part of this century in Rajasthan where the factionalism was rife within the party and the leadership was brazenly communal. Himachal Pradesh looks an outlier in the discourse as the religious cultural roots have failed to prosper against the more pertinent issues of economic development, environmentalism and the more hybrid forms of Hinduism practised in the hills. Hindu nationalism similarly faces many hurdles in Uttar Pradesh as the caste allegiances look to have decisively trumped the religious associations in being the critical factor of reaping electoral dividends. The complex caste-class nexus, charismatic leadership along with the rise of other movement-parties like the BSP have increased competition within caste movements and religious movements in particular. This type of episodic violence is virtually absent in Gujarat as these factors play no significant role reshaping the political discourse. In this way, an eclectic comparative study is done between these states and in a sense moves away from the relatively restricted 'scaling down' framework of focusing only on separate states. The role of social movements, civil society organisations in giving rise to incendiary politics is also seen through the active part played by NGO's in generating tensions by appropriating resources for narrow gains.
In the concluding pages , the author manages to give a synoptic overview of how primordial identities is not a sufficient reason to explain the violent activities perpetrated by the Hindu right. The constantly shifting and evolving relationships of the parties and social movements are crucial to understand where and why violence occurs along with other reasons of globalization and state intervention that need to be factored in. At the same time, a few questions beg answers. How globalization in itself is shaping India to become more Hindu? Does Hindutva inherently proves to be electorally unpopular in some states or is it the primacy of the party power in that state that makes the final decision? How do normal, ordinary people exactly react to the constantly changing fault lines within these violent conjunctures? And does the temporal categorization of violent activities seem too broad at times? Also, the author fails to provide a theoretical clarity of certain terms like 'violence' and 'riots' as she does with other entities of the political system. The different types of violence, psychological and physical, both form an essential part of the quotidian violence experienced at the local level which leads to mass violence. The term 'riots' gets described in barely one footnote. Due to this inordinate emphasis on the larger political structure and the relatively less importance given to everyday violence, the fragile linkages between the routine and the local is not explored in its fullest capacity.
At the same time, it is an insightful study that brings forward the unexpected variations seen between various states ruled by the same party. To emulate one political setup in some other state becomes virtually impossible as there is a calculated hierarchy of ideological and institutional issues wherein one takes precedence over others depending on sundry factors. As the author rightly points out, there is a need for recognising violence in democracies by retheorizing our understanding of political institutions, organisations and movements.
Suraj Kumar Thube is currently pursuing his MA in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is interested in Indian politics and Indian political thought. He spends most of his time reading books, playing football and listening to Hindustani classical music.