By failing to recognize Hindutva majoritarianism as a security threat, what are we protecting?
On August 8, a crowd gathered in the very center of the nation’s capital, shouting the slogan “When Muslims are chopped they will call out Lord Ram’s name.” The slogan and act would have been shocking, were it not for the fact that the desired outcome had already been orchestrated on the streets of Delhi in February 2020.
One would imagine that such a threat to the lives of Indian citizens, and this also in the capital, would attract the attention of the Indian security community and strategic experts. However, there was hardly a whimper.
A common sense definition of a security threat would be something or someone that has the potential to cause physical harm or produce a feeling of insecurity. Based on this definition alone, one can potentially imagine a plethora of security threats – global warming, rapacious businesses, natural disasters, repressive governments, enemy states and finally, extremist organizations, both international and national.
However, for most members of the security community, only the latter two are taken seriously as security threats. Moreover, in terms of domestic extremism, there is a tendency to focus on particular groups – Islamists, Maoists and ethno-nationalist separatist groups. The common thread running through these groups is that they represent cultural minorities and / or peripheral ideologies.
In contrast, the threat of majority extremism, namely Hindutva, is rarely recognized. This silence is the result of many things – implicit beliefs, denial, disciplinary socialization, and fear.
Against the background of this silence, some key questions emerge – what does the phrase “possible to cause harm or produce a feeling of insecurity” leave out? Who is presented as a threat? Who is presented as the vulnerable target of the threat? In other words, is it worth asking who or what is the object of securitization? If it is the nation, it logically follows that an extremist group or ideology that targets particular minorities would be classified as a threat. If it is the state, then any group which does not believe in its constitutional principles and which is accustomed to taking violent actions to achieve its objectives would be retained.
In both cases, many majority outfits would prove to be relevant objects of study as security threats. The silence of security experts therefore implies that extremist Hindu organizations are not seen as legitimate threats to either the nation or the state.
Therefore, this leads to three conclusions. First, whatever our explicit ideological predilections, by minimizing or denying the existence of majoritarianism as a threat, the strategic community implicitly equates the “nation” with the majority community, ie the Hindus. Second, if despite their participation in violence, these groups are not seen as a threat to the state, then it can be assumed that their violence is not seen as contrary to state objectives, and therefore they can also be seen as extensions / allies of the state apparatus.
Finally, all of this means that despite dissenting internal voices, the state itself is ultimately a vehicle of the majority will (although not necessarily that of the majority). So while many of us (academics and political analysts) may disagree with Hindutva’s ideological project, by not taking the threat it poses seriously, we are involved in promoting the Majority Narrative. .
A lack of recognition of the dangers
At the heart of the community’s silence is an inability to recognize these conclusions. I say recognize, not do, because we are also discussing the pernicious effects of majority violence, particularly in the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan. Even in the rare cases where Hindu extremism is mentioned in strategic discourse, it is generally equated with a reaction to its Islamic counterpart. If there is indeed a link between religious fundamentalisms, the false equivalence between the two smacks of hypocrisy and denial. After all, one would hardly equate Sunni extremism in Pakistan with that of Shiite groups, or Islamist groups in Bangladesh with Banga sena.
Perhaps a partial explanation for this is the unspoken belief that Islamic extremism is inherently more dangerous than its Hindu counterpart. A tempting conclusion might also be to attribute this to the rise of BJP after 2014. While there may be some truth to this, the reality is that our silence goes back much further and is rooted much deeper. in the architecture of security studies in India.
I say this from personal experience, having gravitated towards hot topics like Pakistan and terrorism as a young think tank intern in 2011. These choices have in part emerged from the way borders have been / are constructed within academic and political institutions – research groups are often formed on a regional basis (such as Southeast Asia), in – popular terminology (for example, “Af-Pak”, “Indo-Pacific”), or nation boundaries (usually research groups on internal security, focusing on Maoist, Islamist and separatist movements).
In my experience, Hindu nationalism was seen as outside the framework of these clusters (even internal security). It was not seen as a security or terrorism issue, but as a subject for scholars of national / electoral politics. Basically, the widespread imagination of a “security threat” was nuclear weapons, enemy combatants, frigates, and men with long beards. Men forcing others to shout “Jai Shree Ram” was a problem, but not existential.
There is also another, simpler factor at play: academic institutions and think tanks are few and far between and mostly dependent on public or private sponsorship. As a result, individual researchers, especially at the junior level, struggle with low salaries and job insecurity, and such topics can be risky both professionally and personally.
One might ask at this point: What does it matter if a group of people sitting in think tanks and university departments do not recognize majority violence? This would not have been the case, if only through our writings we popularize these red lines – which counts as we, who is them, which is a terrorist, which is a activist? These demarcations are then translated into popular cultural references codifying the zeitgeist of the time.
For example, the red lines mentioned above can be seen in the popular TV series Family man. The show offers a nuanced portrayal of intelligence operatives, focusing on their personal lives, and shows them grappling with the moral ambiguity of their profession (which remains unresolved despite writers’ strenuous attempts to end characters proclaiming that they are on the ‘right side).
At the same time, the show’s threat production relies on an outside perspective – the “real” threats are mainly Pakistanis, Tamils, Kashmiris, Muslims and Chinese. Most problematically, the show’s final season also featured a love jihad subplot, where the protagonist’s daughter was attracted to a Muslim boy posing as a Hindu. In contrast, one of the few times that majoritarianism is portrayed as an issue on the show is in the form of a communal police officer. Thus, majority extremism, even presented as a problem, is an individual failure and not a structural feature of the state apparatus.
However, there is hope. Academics inside and outside the country are questioning the state’s dominant narratives. They do this by putting factors like caste, religion, and race at the forefront of strategic and security studies. However, these voices are generally categorized as alternative or critical – so it remains to be seen whether they will be heard by the general public.
The Punjabi poet Pash once wrote that if the security of the nation means an “uncritical yes”, then such a definition of security is itself a danger to the people. As members of India’s security / strategy community, it would help us remember Pash’s advice and ask ourselves a simple question – who or what are we trying to protect – the people or the State ?
Amit Julka is a specialist in international relations, popular culture and South Asian politics. Her work is accessible through her website and Twitter account. @amitjulka.