Donald Trump has the habit of effusively praising anyone who supports him or says something nice about him. So when in the last debate, he spoke about meeting with “high representatives of India”, people scratched their heads wondering whom he might have been referring to, since there seemed to have been no meeting with any representatives of the government of India.
It turns out that he was referring to the tacky event organized in New Jersey by members of the right-wing organization known as the Republican Hindu Coalition that I wrote about earlier where he made the strange statement “I am a big fan of Hindu”. This group is not representative of the Indian American community in the US, who overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton by a margin of 82-9%.
Trump has even put out an ad where he tries to speak Hindi.
But Trump’s appeal to this group should not be surprising since they form part of the slide into right wing Hindu authoritarianism, away from the firmly secular vision for India that its founders like Jawaharlal Nehru promoted. Teesta Setalvad writes about this disturbing trend away from inclusion and tolerance and towards a Hindu-centric culture, not unlike the Christian-centric culture that Trump appeals to here.
India, or the South Asian subcontinent, has always reflected dual, even multiple realities—a unique culture or tradition of assimilation and questioning authority and structures. Renowned historian Romila Thapar argues that the discourse from early India lies between the Brahmans, accepted status quo-ists, and the Shramanas, peoples, subcultures and traditions that probed the rigid and iniquitous. Sitting with or on this is the rigid reality of caste and caste-driven inclusions and exclusions, which have carried within them narratives of dominant and subaltern cultures.
This has not always been an easy or peaceful co-existence. Many periods have seen passionate contestations and terse, offensive questioning and challenge. Eventually, a lived culture has emerged with these uneasy appropriations. It is on these multiple realities that modern India sits—around which a consensual republic, wedded to the constitutional non-negotiables of equality and non-discrimination, was born.
This multiplicity, complication and variety sat well with Indian democracy while it remained inclusive and republican. Over the past three decades, however, a long and ominous shadow—monochromatic, rigid, authoritarian and aimed at significantly altering the fundamentals of Indian nationhood—has significantly targeted and altered people’s relatively free-flowing interpretations of faith, faith practices, ritual and celebrations.
Behind this assault, physical and intimidating, are those who believe that India is not just only Hindu but that this Hinduism is narrow, rigid, non-eclectic and authoritarian.
The ideologues who drive this agenda—from the rabid and ribald brigands of the Shiv Sena in western Maharashtra to the more austere yet sinister hordes that are gathered to this political project in the center and north—are the culture police who decide which films are made, what the cast wears or says, and which relationships are depicted. Tragically, this is not a new development; it is at least two and a half decades old. Indian democracy has sat easily with the creeping culture police.
Setalvad describes how these right-wing groups have targeted cultural figures.
Today, a play by the famed Indian playwright Mahasweta Devi, Draupadi, that depicts brute violence against women (including by men in uniform), is attacked and targeted for being “anti-national.” Eight years ago, with a different government in power, AK Ramanujan’s “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” part of the recommended readings for students in the Delhi University, was removed from the syllabus despite stiff opposition from the history department and faculty as a supine university administration caved into rabid and irrational demands. Not to mention Wendy Donniger’s acclaimed work on Hinduism was pulped by ever-ready publishers simply because an outfit spawned by the RSS took strong objection to it.
Arguably, Husain was targeted specifically because he was born a Muslim. And last week, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, feted for his talent, was prevented from playing a coveted role in the Ramlila in his home village of western Uttar Pradesh in Buldanha district.
Overnight, Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, adored by Indian female fans, was asked to pack up and leave, and other Pakistani artists were held to account for what the army and extremists spawns did. Indian artists, directors and producers who dared to be true to Indian and South Asian culture became the sole or collective targets in television debates that have become shamefully gladiatorial. Suddenly we have all been asked to decide which side we are on. If you reason and speak a language of the people, of questioning of peace, living up to the early Indian tradition of the shramana, you are today anti-national.
This is disturbingly familiar to Trump’s message. It is depressing that it so easy to rile up people on tribal grounds using religion as the fuel. But while we can laugh at the absurdities, what is happening in India and in the US under Trump is dangerous. It is not that big a leap from silly actions that can be mocked to real violence.