Supriya Gandhi on Modi and Hindu Nationalism
Indian democracy is in decline, but nonviolent resistance retains its power
Welcome back to Lucid. Mark your calendars for our regular Friday Q&A, April 22, 1-2pmET. A link to register for the Zoom call will be sent on Friday morning. Registration is free and your information will not be used for any other purpose. We'll talk about the latest news and longer term trends in democracy protection and autocracy. Ask a question, or just listen in. I look forward to seeing you there.
I'm pleased to bring you this interview about Narendra Modi and Hindu nationalism with Supriya Gandhi, who teaches in the department of Religious Studies at Yale University. She grew up in India and received her PhD from Harvard University. She is the author of The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India (Harvard University Press, 2020). Our conversation, which took place on April 18, 2022, has been edited for clarity and flow.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (RBG): I'm interested in how authoritarians use religion to give themselves legitimacy and a moral edge, and how the promotion of some religious traditions comes at the expense of others. Modi's use of Hindu nationalism, and his repression of Muslims, seems to fit this pattern.
Supriya Gandhi (SG): The Modi phenomenon is the culmination of over a century of Hindu right wing expansion and consolidation. He's the latest iteration. And yet it's changed in many ways with the advent of Modi. In the past, Hindu nationalism in India was not as personality driven.
Modi's testing ground really was the state of Gujarat where he was chief minister during the terrible pogroms of 2002 that saw many Muslims killed. When he was elected in 2014, he ushered in a new kind of politics and rather than necessarily rely on other religious leaders to give him legitimacy, he himself evoked in his followers a feeling and emotion that many of them have described as bhakti.
Bhakti is a Sanskrit word that means devotion. It's also a kind of spiritual discipline, a sort of fashioning of the self spiritually. So Modi's followers are expressing devotion to Hindu nationalism, which is really a new kind of moral order that also includes neoliberalism. His followers are expressing this faith in Modi to lead them to a liberatory era.
RBG: What's so interesting about the devotional aspect is that authoritarian personality cults involve the recognition of a special aura and charisma around the leader, and they develop at times when people fear secularization and a loss of meaning and tradition. These men seem to fill this void and are given status and significance on that basis. You seem to be describing something similar with Modi.
SG: This is something that's used to criticize Modi by his detractors. Modi has very successfully transformed himself into a kind of philosopher ruler, following a sort of mythical model that will bring back the glory of an ancient India where Hindus ruled. By wearing fabulous costumes (which he changes constantly) he is definitely casting himself in this particular vein.
RBG: Gaddafi also wore lavish robes and costumes that expressed his claim to be restoring Libyan pride after colonial occupation. Another way these strongmen channel nostalgia for tradition is by changing the built environment, as when Putin restores Russian Orthodox churches. It's never just making the nation great; it's making it great again. Modi seems to be doing a version of this, erecting Hindu temples on top of sites that were connected to other faiths.
SG: What Modi and his party promise is the restoration of a glorious Hindu civilization after years of oppression by Muslim rulers, British colonizers, and then by the Congress Party. So they're ushering in this glorious expression of a Hindu civilization in the form of a modern neoliberal state that shows minorities their place. Changing the physical landscape is part of that.
RBG: So Modi implicitly places himself as a corrective to British colonizers' suppression of Hindu civilization. I wonder what his relationship is with Gandhi. I did not know when I asked to interview you that you were Mahatma Gandhi's great-granddaughter. I saw an article in the Brazilian press about Jair Bolsonaro coming to lay flowers at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial in 2020, invited by Modi - neither leader exactly a practitioner of pacificism. You commented on that occasion that this was an act of appropriation, meant to create a Gandhi "stripped of his power and his radical edge."
SG: It's not something I generally tell people.
RBG: I mention it because 2019 was a record year for mass nonviolent protest and I have been thinking of Gandhi's example. The pandemic only partly shut this wave of protest down, as we saw from the Black Lives Matter protests. Gandhi partly inspired the American civil rights tradition, although many forget this today. So I'm wondering if you have thoughts about the state of anti-authoritarian resistance today, and where the ideas and practices of Gandhi fit in?
SG: For many reasons, I generally shy away from talking about Gandhi and my relationship with Gandhi. But I think it's interesting that you referred to this wave of nonviolent protest around the world in 2019, since India was a prominent site for this.
There were all kinds of protests against exclusionary new laws that sought to redefine citizenship in India and reduce it to religious identity. There was a wave of protest in different parts of India where one saw a beautiful kind of solidarity that was being forged among different groups, Muslims, Sikhs, and so on. There was a range of people from different communities coming together in these protests, where the Constitution of India was an important anchor.
The pandemic put a damper on this, but there was still a very long nonviolent protest by farmers that yielded benefits. Certainly, resistance is very, very difficult. The Indian state is increasingly repressive. I don't know if you've been following the most recent communal violence that has been taking place in many parts of India. So I think we should hold on to the glimmers of hope that we have and resist in the ways that we can.
RBG: You are part of a collective of scholars who produced a Hindutva Harassment Field Manual to deal with hostility and threats against academics from Hindu nationalists. It sounds like you're up against quite a formidable propaganda engine that is designed to lead to real life incidents.
SG: I'm so glad you found that useful. I was part of a much larger group of scholars. Speaking for myself, the goal was to draw attention to the ways in which the academy has been a foil for the expansion of right-wing networks and these right-wing networks can include Hindu groups. There's often an overlap between White supremacist and Hindu supremacist groups. Working in the United States academy on topics connected South Asia is going to become increasingly difficult and fraught.
Of course, the people really on the frontline are those in South Asia, like my colleagues in India: journalists and public intellectuals, some of whom are now in jail.
I want to add that I really appreciate it when people working in other areas of the world are concerned about what's happening in India. There is this tendency to not take the democratic decline in India seriously because it's not on the Western radar. India was a pretty robust democracy, so it is really important.