Ethnocracy, Israel and India

Following the triumph of the BJP in the last Indian election, it is appropriate to revisit ‘Hindu rashtra’ in its various manifestations: a trope, a place and a relationship between the nation and the state. This need not mean reopening the familiar trajectory of Indian politics since the 1980s. Such investigations are not exhausted, but they no longer break new ground. It is more rewarding, I think, to look comparatively at the concept of India as ‘Hindu rashtra,’ and the most productive point of comparison is the ‘Jewish state’ of Israel. Whereas Israel has featured in recent studies of Pakistani ideology, most notably by Faisal Devji, remarkably little has been essayed in the direction of India: remarkable not only because of the close relations between Israel and India since the 1993 Oslo accord between Israel and the PLO, but also because the two countries reflect forms of majoritarianism that are both different and strikingly similar. In the similarities and differences lie the possibilities of justice, peace and democracy, and the fates of ‘minorities’: Palestinians in Israel, and Indian Muslims.

That deployment of terminology is not innocent, since ‘Palestinian in Israel’ and ‘Indian Muslim’ suggest significantly different modes of minority identity, and different constructions of the democratic community of the state. Moreover, there are major – although not overwhelming – differences between how Israeli and Indian national narratives have dealt with the what might be considered the visibility of information, which is fundamental to the ability of a minority group to exist within the framework of democracy. Nevertheless, if one takes into account the practices of inter-community and community-state relations in India and Israel, the presumption of difference, which might be comforting to secular nationalists in India, begins to wear thin. We are forced then to ask how Indian nationhood can ‘work’ for minorities, and whether the contradictions between ethnic monopoly and democracy that are inescapable in Israel can be escaped in India.

The Zionist Model

The structure of the Israeli state, Nadim Rouhana has persuasively argued, rests upon three pillars: the democratic nature of the state, its ‘Jewish character,’ and its obsession with security. The second and third, Rouhana shows, severely complicate the first, making it nearly impossible, for instance, for Israel to create a constitution that might protect the rights of all its citizens. But the notion of a ‘Jewish state’ is by no means straightforward. It does not mean a binational state, since Palestinians in Israel are not recognized as a national group that has a claim upon the state. It could mean a theocracy; it does not. Zionism was a secular ideology and Israel remains for the most part a secular state, although religious parties have become a major influence upon successive governments. It could mean a Jewish-majority state that is only incidentally predisposed towards Jewish cultural markers like holidays and historical references; it does not. It could mean a state that claims (and is claimed by) all Jews everywhere and gives them an automatic right to citizenship, but that belongs also to its non-Jewish citizens; again, it does not. There exists in Israel a consensus that the state belongs to Jews alone, and that non-Jews cannot have a say in determining its priorities, objectives and ‘character’ even if they are citizens. Citizenship for Palestinians in Israel is thus limited to very specific forums: they can vote, claim the protection of the courts and even enter the Knesset (parliament), as long as these do not threaten exclusively Jewish ownership and control of the state.

That arrangement, in which one ethnic group has exclusive control over a state in spite of (or rather, because of) the presence of other ethnic groups, is what Oren Yiftachel and As’ad Ghanem called ethnocracy. In their theory of the ethnocratic state, Ghanem and Yiftachel suggested that the concept provides a way around the binary of ‘democratic’ and ‘non-democratic’ states, making it possible to account for the Israeli situation, in which a commitment to formal democracy coincides with the determination of a closed ethnic group to use the state to protect and expand its exclusive claim upon a territory. Successive Israeli governments, they pointed out, have openly pursued policies of ‘Judaizing’ a land that would otherwise be ‘Arab,’ using tactics that range from ethnic cleansing, expropriation of land, the renaming of places and the promotion of Jewish settlements to discrimination and segregation in law, education, living space and social services.

The process has not been unilinear. The 1948 war saw the expulsion of the bulk of the native population from eighty percent of Mandatory Palestine, the prevention of their return and the seizure of their lands. Some of that land was settled quickly by the same troops that carried out the ethnic cleansing, the rest came under the control of state and quasi-state agencies, earmarked exclusively for sale to Jews, or turned into state parks or forests. But restrictions on the Palestinians’ ability to move about and communicate freely were relaxed when martial law (which applied only to them) was lifted in 1966, and the expropriation of their land (especially in the Galilee, where the concentration of Palestinians was relatively high) slowed appreciably after the Day of the Land protests of 1976. As if to compensate, old Mandate-era laws of repression were retained, land-appropriation and segregated settlement were accelerated in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the politics of exclusive ethnic control came to encompass much larger populations of Jews (following the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s) and Palestinians (in the occupied territories). Without significant checks, the ethnocratic state thus becomes more ethnocratic, compounding the problem of ‘what to do’ with the excluded population. The identity of the dominant/included ethnicity, meanwhile, becomes progressively intertwined with the state and its structures of discrimination.

When apologists for Israel are confronted with the charge of ethnocracy, or rather, with the charge that ethnocracy is incompatible with democracy, they tend to offer two broad responses. One is a form of denial, in which it is emphasized that Israel is a democracy. Arabs in Israel are, in this narrative, citizens of a democratic state, and that renders moot questions of inequality and discrimination, and of ‘belonging’ in citizenship. The other, more thoughtful, response is the acknowledgment of an ideological dissonance, the expressed confidence that the difficulty can be managed politically, and often, the implication that such problems exist in many or most multi-ethnic nation-states.  The second response can itself be viewed as a deployment of two opposed discourses: one, in which Israel is exceptional but capable of ‘managing’ that exceptionality, and another, in which there is no exception: ‘the Jews’ have a right to control their national destiny in their nation-state just as ‘the French’ or ‘the English’ do in theirs, and the problems faced by ‘Arabs’ or ‘Palestinians’ in Israel are no more unusual or intractable than those of minorities in France or England.

Since the first response (denial) is transparently unsustainable within the Israeli consensus on what constitutes a ‘Jewish state,’ let us look more closely at the second. On the face of it, the French, English or German parallels appear to make sense. There are, however, several problems with the analogy. One is that when we talk about ethnic tensions in Western European countries, we are talking primarily about anti-immigrant racism. Without taking anything away from the seriousness of such racism, it might be conceded that it is one thing to bar immigrants from full membership in the nation-state for a limited period of time, and another thing altogether when the indigenous population is treated like immigrants by a regime of immigrants. Even in settler-colonial democracies like the United States and Australia (not to mention South Africa), with their histories of extreme racial violence and dispossession, a legal, political and popular consensus has evolved after the Second World War to include the indigenous population in the community of the state.

The second problem with the ‘everybody does it’ argument is that it ignores the dramatic, although not complete, shift in the nature of ethnicity in western-European countries since the 1970s. Outside the far right, there is considerable agreement that the children of Indian, Turkish, Algerian and Indonesian immigrants can be regarded as English, German, French or Dutch; even a supra-ethnic category like ‘British’ is no longer needed to accommodate what, until recently, was simply a ‘Paki.’ For there to be an equivalent to the Israeli insistence that the state belongs to ‘the Jewish people’ rather than to its citizens, England would have to belong to the ‘Anglo-Saxon people,’ and Germany to ‘the Aryan people,’ which few would find desirable after the Second World War. This is not to say that European race problems have been ‘solved,’ or to be blind to neo-fascist phenomena like the Le Pen constituency in France and the BNP in the UK, let alone Golden Dawn in Greece, but west of the old Yugoslavia there is now an inclusive discourse of ethnicity that is at least publicly hegemonic, and that has supplanted the ‘Gastarbeiter’ model, in which foreigners will live and work in a country for generations and remain foreign.

Accompanied, not coincidentally, by the maturing of the EU, that shift informs what might be considered the partial recovery of a pre-Great-War model of the liberal European state, in which ethnicity remained subordinate to citizenship. That subordination was never as ironclad as Hannah Arendt – glossing over the limits imposed on liberalism by the nineteenth-century fetish of whiteness – made it out to be in her study of the roots of totalitarianism. But as the fetish has lost some of its public power, it has become possible to rethink European ethnicities, and in a parallel maneuver, to reaffirm the supremacy of citizenship over ethnicity. In the process, not only has nationhood been anchored firmly in the state and the community of citizens (and not in ethnic groups within the state), it has become impossible to regard the privileging of ethnicity over citizenship as anything other than aberrant, even fascist. Yet in Israel, where the Zionism of the founding generation took its cues from the militant ‘sub-nationalities’ of the era of the Great War and its aftermath, the supremacy of the nation over the state has remained normative, relegating some citizens to a status inferior to that of non-citizens who are nevertheless members of the (Jewish) nation. It has placed the state as an instrument primarily in the hands of the nation, and only secondarily in those of the citizen: an arrangement that is not accepted as democratic in any other part of the modern world, with the partial exception of Pakistan.

The third problem has to do with the idea of ‘managing’ a problem politically. If management means negotiation, then that is indeed a normal part of the politics of a democratic state. If, however, the political participation of the problem community is already limited by their exclusion from key policy-making organs, then management becomes less like negotiation and more like governmentality combined with the use of force and manipulation of information, i.e., violence and propaganda. This coercive-manipulative meaning of ‘management,’ it should be noted, fits both the ‘exceptional’ and ‘unexceptional’ models of the Israeli state, since in the first instance it carries the insistence that Israel has a special license to ‘manage’ that derives from the unique history of the Jewish people, and in the second instance, the presumption that ‘everybody does it.’

Since it can be shown without great difficult that not everybody ‘does it,’ it is the discourse of exceptionalism that has generally been more central to the justification of Israeli ethnocracy. In this discourse, the Holocaust is described as being both unprecedented, and a link in a long historical continuum of ant-Semitism. The ‘unprecedented’ (i.e., unique) dynamic generates the exception, placing the Nazis and their Jewish victims beyond the circle of history, its norms and judgments, in a quasi-religious minefield of sacrilege where comparison is blasphemy. The dynamic of a continuum extends the exception into the future, producing the permanent ‘existential threat’ that justifies Israeli actions autonomously of any rational assessment of political and military realities. It is, however, mainly through comparison – through emphasizing the ordinariness of racism and the urge to make ethnic groups disappear, and the interconnectedness of discourses and practices – that we can demystify the Holocaust and its continuing aftermath, returning both Germany and Israel to the history of the modern state, its organization of power and its relationship with ethnicity, in which India, the United States, postwar Europe and the old colonial powers are also located and implicated.

To grasp the impact of ethnocracy on the excluded, it is useful to look at Patrick Wolfe’s brilliant work on the nature of settler-colonialism. Beginning in Australia, Wolfe extended the scope of his  analysis to South Africa and Israel, comparing the relationships in each place between settlers, natives and the state. In the process, he re-examined the common (and for Zionists, scurrilous) comparisons made by critics of Israel between the Israeli treatment of Palestinians and apartheid in South Africa. The Israeli situation shares with other settler-colonialisms what Wolfe described as the superfluity of the native: the indigenous population has no place in the scheme of things. Wolfe rejected the parallel with apartheid, but for reasons that are quite different from those offered by Zionist apologia. In South Africa, he pointed out, the dominant/settler community preserved a substantial ideological, economic and even geographic space – a need – for the dominated/natives. In Israel and the occupied territories, there is no corresponding need and space for Palestinians, who exist largely to be wished into invisibility or oblivion.

One can find fault with Wolfe’s assertion of superfluity. In settler-colonialism, it might be argued, the native retains a vital importance as a racial sign: even when indigenes have mostly been killed off, as in Australia and North America, they continue to function as a boundary of the settler’s own identity, and as a justification of colonization. There can be little doubt that ‘the Arab’ in Israel and its neighborhood was assigned those roles in a recognizably Orientalist colonial enterprise: not only was Israeli policy informed by a cadre of ‘Arab experts’ (i.e., white experts on Arabs), the Arab world was and remains the cultural desert in which – and against which – Israel has ‘bloomed’ as a garden and outpost of European civilization. But the idea of superfluity is very useful in understanding a process of disappearing, in which information and people have both been removed from the domain of public knowledge.

The most striking part of this vanishing is the effective redaction of the history of the 1948 war (Israel’s War of Independence, and the Palestinians’ Nakba or Catastrophe), which saw the Palestinian population subjected to ethnic cleansing, massacre, rape and dispossession. The suppression of that knowledge – and its replacement by a spurious popular history peddled by hack novelists like Leon Uris – is inseparable from the articulated texts of Israeli self-justification, ranging from the Zionist trope of Palestine as ‘a land without a people for a people without a land,’ to Golda Meir’s claim that there is no such thing as a Palestinian (which persists in the Israeli regime’s insistence on using the generic term ‘Arab’ to refer to its Palestinian citizens, and refusal to acknowledge that they are a ‘nation,’ like the Jews, in a binational society). It is inseparable from conversations in academia and the media in which invisibility itself becomes invisible, such as the liberal and not especially anti-Palestinian Leon Wieseltier telling Edward Said that not only did ‘intelligent’ Americans know all about the misfortunes of the Palestinians, that knowledge had become clich├ęd. It is inseparable, finally, from the arbitrary governance, violence and dehumanization with which Palestinians in Israeli-controlled territories have lived since 1948 with or without the knowledge of Americans, and with or without the consciousness of Israeli Jews: a reality that can best be understood as Giorgio Agamben's state of exception, in which the objects of state power inhabit a ‘camp world’ that is normatively excluded from normalcy.

Under those circumstances, minority subjectivity can no longer be reconciled with citizenship. Regarding Palestinian citizens of Israel, Sammy Smooha complacently noted that they were becoming ‘Israelized,’ i.e., converging with Jewish citizens in their perspectives and priorities. As Rouhana has shown, however, those converges are limited and contextual, lacking any affective identification with the Israeli state. Palestinian citizens of Israel generally see themselves as Palestinian-in-Israel, not Israeli or even Palestinian-Israeli; the ‘Jewishness’ of the state has accentuated their Palestinian-ness, limiting their ‘Israeliness’ to purely instrumental transactions with the state. That failure to identify themselves with the state is, of course, then held against them by Jewish Israelis as evidence of disloyalty and other civic shortcomings, although to expect the excluded group to ‘love’ and identify themselves with the state is clearly unreasonable. It is not uncommon for Israelis to complain that Palestinian citizens do not serve in the military, and to use that complaint to justify various forms of discrimination, but the Israeli military does not want to train, equip and deploy Palestinian soldiers, except those recruited from sub-groups like the Druze and the Bedouin, and that has not saved the Bedouin in the West Bank and even the Negev (inside Israel proper) from being subjected to arbitrary controls on their movement and residence. Under the best of circumstances, ethnocracy compels even ‘assimilated’ individuals from the ‘wrong’ ethnicity to remain permanent Gastarbeiters in their own homeland.

Ethnocracy and Right-Wing Thought in India

While the concept of ‘Hindu rashtra’ has its direct roots in the political ideology of V.D. Savarkar and then the RSS, Hindu majoritarianism, or the idea that a particular ‘community’ has a special claim on the Indian state and another particular community is the designated outsider, is both older and more complicated than Hindutva. It also predates Tilak and the Congress Extremists of the 1890s, among whom we might locate the beginnings of a modern Indian government. The earlier strands of Hindu nationalism had room for minorities, and specifically for Muslims; they were, as such, alternatives to what became the better-known discourses of Indian nationhood: liberal-secular ideology, the nation-of-communities narrative, Gandhian Ram-rajya, the Two-Nation Theory, and of course Hindutva.

The earliest example of a non-ethnocratic Hindu nationalism can be found in the writings of Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, who between the 1860s and 1890s produced a substantial body of fiercely polemical essays about a crisis of nationhood and society in colonial India. Bhudeb explicitly identified himself as conservative (rakshansheel), but his was a modern conservatism, informed by Comte, Darwin and Malthus. A well-connected official in the education bureaucracy of Bengal, Bhudeb was clear about his own identity as a Brahmin and his investment in Brahmin privileges and specializations, but he was not the passive recipient of any precolonial understanding of shastra. He sought, rather, to reinterpret shastra for the late nineteenth century as the text of restructured familiality, racial health and national rejuvenation, compensating for the biological and cultural degeneration that Hindu self-hate and unthinking mimicry of Europe had apparently brought about. His project was more a prescription for change than a plea for continuity, progressive in spite of itself: he showed little interest in the establishment of an independent state, but his vision of a healthy and confident nationhood was implicitly a prefiguring of citizenship.

The nation Bhudeb wanted to ‘conserve’ was primarily Hindu and only secondarily Indian, although the two categories were also interchangeable. When he wrote about the place of Muslims in this nation and its geography, he proceeded from an assumption of separateness: culturally and socially, Hindus and Muslims were distinct peoples. The distinctness, however, was not formulated either as a clear hierarchy, or as a permanent or even important political reality. Bhudeb had begun his career as a teacher in the madrasas, and emerged with an open respect for the maulavis who also taught at those schools. They had impressed him not only as learned colleagues, but as recognizable members of a shared Indian society, whose sensibilities of right and wrong, propriety and impropriety, wisdom and foolishness, were much closer to those of the conservative Hindu than those of the Anglophile Hindus he disdained. He was not untouched by Orientalist histories of Muslim oppression, but he was not locked into them, preferring to seek out areas of convergence between Hindus and Muslims. He acknowledged not only the colonial educational milieu that had drawn pandits and maulavis together, but mutual adjustments of habit brought about by India itself. Deeply immersed in a reconsideration of the Indian family, Bhudeb deployed a familial metaphor: Hindus were the natural children of India, he wrote, but Muslims were her adopted children, and the difference of origin was less important than the kinship and commonalities that history had established.

Thus, unlike his more famous contemporary Bankim, Bhudeb suggested that it was possible to be a conservative Hindu and Indian nationalist without being a Muslim-hater, and to make room for Muslims as Muslims within an Indian nation. Some of this outlook found its way into the thinking of Benoy Kumar Sarkar in the next generation of Indian nationalists of the right. Sarkar was, of course, a very different intellectual from Bhudeb: uninterested in the conservation of the religious community, unafraid of ‘mimicry,’ contemptuous of traditional hierarchies, and directly invested in the independent state. He wrote from the perspective of an anti-communist admirer of authoritarian-militarist regimes in Europe and Japan, disdainful of the apparent spinelessness of the Congress. But he shared Bhudeb’s assumption that Indian nationhood was ‘naturally’ Hindu in its boundaries and content: Hindu identity was the default position from which the self-liberating Indian articulated other, negotiated and experimental, identities and political structures.

In Sarkar’s earliest writings, penned during the Swadeshi agitation of 1905-11, we can find traces of an anti-Muslim animus that was part and parcel of militant nationalism in contemporary Bengal. He gradually left the prejudice behind; by 1922 he was not only defending Aurangzeb as emperor of all Hindustan, but issuing blistering attacks on those (like his friend Lajpat Rai and the historian Vincent Smith) who suggested that Muslims were aliens and oppressors in India. Going further than Bhudeb, Sarkar argued that what was considered ‘Hindu’ culture would have been impossible without Muslim contributions, and that all Indians were Hindu-Muslim hybrids. Between the 1920s and the Second World War, he developed a second polemic: he pragmatically advanced a construction of Indian nationhood as a partnership between Hindus and Muslims, and tried hard to be inclusive in his choice of symbols, icons and even language. When this vision of partnership failed and the country was partitioned, he became less generous towards Muslims, but even then he refused to see the truncated state of India as a country for Hindus.

By the time of Sarkar’s death in 1949, however, his vision was obsolete: those who cared to identify themselves politically as Hindu had, by and large, adopted the exclusionist postures of Savarkar and Golwalkar. Even there, it should be noted, there is a gradation: whereas Savarkar was willing, albeit reluctantly, to include within the nation Muslims who Hinduized themselves, Golwalkar’s more straightforward racism closed the door entirely. On the other hand, the secularism of the left had closed the space for political self-identification as Hindu, limiting inclusive nationalism to those who are easily caricatured as ‘pseudo-secular.’ To be very clear about this point: I do not suggest that indifference to Hindu identity, or its treatment as a purely private matter, or the rejection of the deeply flawed Orientalist historiography of an existential conflict with Muslims – in other words, being ‘pseudo-secular’ – is without value in Indian democracy. A basic problem of the Indian national narrative is that the left and the right have both tended to accept the same history of ‘alien oppression,’ in which content that does not support the narrative of oppression has been systematically buried, and whereas the left has downplayed religious identity and wanted the nation to ‘move on,’ the right has wanted revenge, and revenge is the more compelling political motivator in nationalism. Here, even the tactical adoption of Hinduness as place to begin might provide a better, more pragmatic, position from which to negotiate inclusion – and secularism – in a nation that has already been so infused with Hindu content that de-Hinduization, desirable as it may be, is unlikely to succeed.

The given realities of Indian society show both the presence and absence of ethnocracy: India is not Israel, but it is like Israel in some ways, both ideological and practical, and it has become more so as Hindutva has gained legitimacy and electoral ground. The differences are crucial: they explain, for instance, why the current government, since coming to power, has done little that might be construed as extraordinarily ‘communal,' and has even made occasional gestures of inclusive citizenship. While remaining cognizant of the record of Narendra Modi and the BJP, the rise to national prominence of a politician like Amit Shah, and the recent violence in Baroda, it is reasonable to say that any party that appoints M.J. Akbar as its spokesman (and accepts Syed Akbaruddin as the nation’s spokesman on foreign affairs) is going to be somewhat constrained by those choices. This is not merely the behavior of pragmatic politicians, it reflects the operation of a structure of inclusive citizenship that cannot be discarded without precipitating a constitutional crisis that only the most radical Sangh activists would contemplate with equanimity. No part of Indian territory or the state, including the highest ranks of the military, is closed to Muslims, the cultural and academic visibility of Muslims remains fairly high, and just as pertinently, the discourse of Otherness is not racialized like it is in Israel. There is no tendency to consume the misery of an ‘inferior species’ as an aesthetic experience, which we saw recently in Israelis who sat on lawn chairs, beer in hand, to watch the bombing of Gaza. That aesthetic consumption of murder is not a peculiarly Israeli phenomenon: it is a performative aspect of whiteness (recall Meursault killing an Arab as a meditative exercise, or the culture-industry beginning with Conrad in Africa) and the other side of a better-known coin, on which Europeans consume their avowedly superior morals and conscience, shedding a tear or two on occasion.  Indians are not there yet.

In other ways, however, the gap is small. Hindu emigrants, well-heeled citizens of the United States in particular, have increasingly followed a model of diasporic nationalism and civic action in which they, and not Muslim citizens of India, have the stronger claim upon the Indian state. Meanwhile, in every Indian city, discrimination against Muslims in housing is endemic, discrimination in employment is not far behind, Muslim parents worry that their children will be turned away by private schools, and Muslims are disproportionately the targets of police violence and harassment, which, as in Israel, is coded as ‘security.’ The last dynamic erodes what would otherwise be a major difference between ethnocratic tendencies in the two countries, which is the Israeli insistence – self-serving and insupportable, but axiomatic to believers – that they have peculiar security concerns because of the Holocaust, pervasive and permanent anti-Semitism in the world, and the hatred of their neighbors. Indians may point occasionally to a Chinese threat or a Pakistani threat, but few would say that the existence of India itself is in jeopardy.  If, however, the Indian Muslim population is itself perceived by the majority as a threat to security, then ethnic paranoia is not so much eschewed as shifted inwards, enabling undemocratic responses by the state that are not significantly different from those produced by the fear of external enemies.

Indeed, an element of ‘existential fear’ is visible in the concerns with racial degeneracy that surfaced in India between the 1880s and 1930s. Driven by their colonized condition, British jeers about ‘effeminacy,’ endemic malaria, epidemic cholera and plague, high infant mortality, and various nineteenth- and early-twentieth century discourses – Gobineau, Darwin, Galton, Spengler – of a ‘healthy’ population, Hindus as different as Bhudeb, Harbilas Sarda and G.S. Ghurye worried about being outcompeted by racial Others and inferiors. But it was only later, in the time of Golwalkar’s RSS, that this demographic anxiety became focused on Muslims threatening to outbreed Hindus in their own country. In recent times, that ‘threat’ has merged with the perception of ‘Muslim appeasement’ (i.e., Nehruvian secularism) and given us not only the rhetoric of Hum panch, hamare panchis, but also the absurdity of ‘love jihad,’ in which the old trope of the sexually predatory Muslim male has been dressed up as a new demographic danger with overtones of terrorism.

There is, in Israel, an almost identical discourse of ‘their boys’ seducing and converting ‘our girls,’ and the consequent threat to the dominant ethnic group’s majority status and control over the state. There are also highly governmentalized disincentives to intermarriage between Jews and others (there is, for instance, no provision for civil marriage in Israel) which, to date, have no Indian counterpart. But as if to compensate for the failure in the bedroom, the Indian state has passed anti-conversion laws that serve no purpose other than to maintain and highlight the majority status of a particular ethnic group, which is not in jeopardy by any reasonable mathematics. Not coincidentally, the Hindu nation and the Jewish nation are both beset by the fear of the treasonous Self – the ‘pseudo-secular’ Hindu, the ‘self-hating’ Jew – that refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the existential menace, and of the exceptions that menace allows within the ‘normal’ politics of the democratic state. It is worth noting that both allegations of self-hate were born within older discourses of impotence: the cowardly Jew, the effeminate Hindu. Ethnocracy is highly gendered: a vision of the community closed like a fist as a source and a sign of manhood, in which disloyalty is emasculating.

It need not be surprising that Hindu nationalists in the period before the Nazi ascendency almost universally admired Jews, seeing them not only as a race that had preserved its identity through great adversities (dispersal, discrimination, persecution, minority status everywhere), but also as people who had embarked upon a bold, if quixotic, national adventure in Palestine. In the 1930s the Nazis replaced the Jews as the objects of admiration: they were, after all, able to demonstrate the actual functioning of an ethnocratic state. That approval has, since then, been redirected back to the Jewish nation: where Indians from Golwalkar to Bal Thackeray (and even Benoy Sarkar, albeit half-ironically) spoke admiringly of the German ‘management’ of the ‘Jewish problem,’ the Hindu right now sees the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as a model for the management of troublesome minorities and neighbors. The rise of the management-school graduate as the icon of middle-class aspiration, overshadowing the engineer (and before that, the lawyer), is an under-explored phenomenon in the history of Indian liberalism, with serious implications for democratic institutions. Government is increasingly regarded as a problem of management, not politics.

There can be no doubt that those who advocate ‘Hindu rashtra’ in India face greater challenges than do advocates of the ‘Jewish state.’ The Jewish state is a done deed, with overwhelming support from the nation both within and without the state, which functions as a point of coalescence for the nation even beyond its boundaries. Hindu rashtra, on the other hand, is perched on thinner ice, not least because its meanings are still open to debate. If it is interpreted to mean a state that possesses a Hindu majority, that has borrowed most of its symbols from that majority, that engages actively in the Sanskritization of national culture, but that has not formally excluded minorities from fundamental claims and contributions, then a Hindu rashtra already exists. Such a state will be majoritarian, in the sense that it will privilege the majority by default and  frequently tolerate the oppression of minorities, but it will leave open the doors of political contestation, and privilege and oppression will fluctuate with the normal process of politics. It can be argued, on the basis of the last election, that there is considerable if not overwhelming support in India for this vision of nationhood, which appears to fit a ‘common sense’ understanding of democracy in an ideological environment in which liberal principles are not especially influential. If, however, Hindu rashtra is to mean formal, exclusive and permanent control of the state by an organized Hindu nation, then it is still a fantasy, countered not only by the subalternity of much of the electorate, but also, paradoxically, by a powerful ideology of Indianness in which ethnicity (or community, in Indian jargon) is conceived as being either subordinate to citizenship, or coterminous with it, but not superior. Citizenship itself provides a second, and in many cases primary, level of ethnicity. The two understandings of Hindu rashtra should not be understood as being mutually exclusive. It is more accurate to regard them as two Hindu-nationalist poles – one maximally ethnocratic, the other minimally so – between which Indian majoritarianism continuously moves.

Exit Strategies

Majoritarianism, perhaps obviously, is only secondarily a problem of the majority: it affects the minority much more immediately. The irony of the Israeli case is that here, minority-ness and majority-ness have been blurred in more than one way. It came out of the European Jews’ consciousness of themselves as a disadvantaged and vulnerable minority, a people without ‘a state of their own,’ who  would be safe only as a majority in exclusive control of its state. Even when they were the majority in their own state, therefore, Zionists continued to function in the mode of a beleaguered minority: this was the natural consequence of a nationhood that was not contained by the state it managed to acquire. Majority-ness in the state did not compensate adequately for minority-ness in the world, but for that very reason, it became even more important. That, however, is not the only political model that has been available historically to modern minorities, including Jews in Western Europe and America, and Muslims in undivided India. Both groups have, for instance, often perceived themselves as  standing partially and contextually outside the larger society, uniquely positioned to serve a moral function as observers, examples, and voices of caution and conscience. This was, of course, not appealing enough to Muslim Leaguers or the Zionists, both of whom opted to become majorities, creating serious problems for minorities that were already there. In India, however, they also added to the problems of a minority within the minority, i.e., Muslims left behind.

Unlike ‘world Jewry,’ who could identify with Israel even if they lived in the US or France, Indian Muslims could not identify with Pakistan without severely compromising their position in India: the historical circumstances were such that they had to choose. That element of ‘choice’ provided the majority with a political tool, which is the threat or act of expulsion. In Israel, Palestinians who protest too much are invited or compelled to ‘go there,’ ‘there’ being the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, England, or a putative Palestinian state located beyond the Green Line of 1967. It is the reflexive reaction to criticism of the ethnocracy: even the novelist A.B. Yehoshua, who once organized a  writers’ union with mixed Jewish and Palestinian membership, resorted to it in a debate with the Palestinian author Anton Shammas, who had written – in Hebrew – about the atrocities of 1948 and criticized the ethnic structure of the Israeli state. Again, we have the bizarre spectacle of immigrant and indigenous ethnic groups switching roles.

In India, the equivalent response is ‘If you don’t like it, go to Pakistan,’ and Indian Muslims are commonly accused of being disloyal, crypto-Pakistani. Even on Kashmir, two distinct lines of thought have developed among critics of the insurgency, who wish to retain the rebel state within India. One insists that Kashmir and Kashmiris are both Indian, and want the latter to accept that identity. The other, increasingly palpable, tells Kashmiris that if they do not see themselves as Indian, they can leave, but without taking Kashmir along, because the land belongs to India. The second, obviously, is a quasi-Israeli outlook on a population whose very existence is seditious. The availability of a ‘solution’ – a second state, in which the minority is the majority – only exacerbates the insecurity for the minority, which can be ‘legitimately’ and ‘reasonably’ deported to this readymade ethnic receptacle.

The second state, in other words, is not unambiguously an exit from the problem of ethnocracy: it  is quite compatible with the extension and expansion of ethnocracy. This is precisely why the ‘two-state solution’ is more palatable to Israelis than the PLO’s older objective of a single secular state. Even a notorious dissident like Uri Avnery balks at the idea of a single state, declaring that such a state would not only immediately cease to be ‘Jewish,’ but soon become ‘Arab.’ Avnery’s position is particularly interesting, since he is not invested in the idea of Israel as a ‘binational’ state either, in which there is a Jewish nation and a Palestinian one. He has moved from envisioning a Hebrew nation-state (on which world Jewry would have no automatic claim) to advocating an Israeli nationhood that belongs to all its citizens, Jewish and Palestinian, and to no one else. But this inclusive nation-state is contingent on the emergence of a sister-state with a Palestinian majority: which would, in other words, contain most Palestinians. Someday, Avnery dreamed, the two states might form a federation, or even become the nucleus of a pan-Semitic entente. If there is an echo here of Jinnah’s dream, it is not a coincidence. In each case, the inclusive, liberal, democratic impulse was curtailed by the desire for membership in the ethnic majority. But even that curtailed vision of inclusion - which the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinians in Israel, Palestinians in the occupied territories, and even Hamas now accept (through the hudna mechanism of an extended peace) – is anathema to a majority of Avnery’s compatriots, many of whom regard him as a traitor.

The demand for a separate state, where control by a particular ethnic group would be assured and exclusive, is one thing it is voiced by a dominated minority, but it is something else entirely when articulated by the dominant majority. The latter situation, in which the majority acts as if it is an aggrieved minority, is a foreshadowing of fascism. In India, that sense of grievance is fundamental to Hindutva, which, like the major strand of Zionism, has sought to occupy simultaneously the positions of the dominator and the dominated, converting a narrative of past oppression into a permanent state of war, or at least a permanent crisis of ‘pride.’ But in India, the state continues to function as an obstacle to the institutionalization of such projects, resisting capture by a ‘community’ or ethnic sub-nationality. That was a basic function of the Nehruvian state, and it is hardly a coincidence that Hindutva has waxed as the regulatory functions of the state have waned and all things Nehruvian have come to be seen as obsolete or ill-considered.

The regulatory state, however, is not just an artifact of the left in India. I return briefly, here, to Benoy Sarkar, and his clashes with Congress-led Indian nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s. Sarkar gleefully dismissed the nationalists’ favorite fetishes: Hindu-Muslim unity was not an urgent priority, he argued, and even a unified nation-state was not especially important. What mattered, he declared, were independence and sovereignty, and multiple independent states would ensure freedom and dignity for all Indians as effectively as a single, unified nation-state. He was immediately criticized for this sacrilegious indifference to the reality of Indian nationhood, but Sarkar was attempting something that was both innovative and pedigreed. On the one hand, he was articulating his growing pessimism about whether the political project of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’ would succeed in the short term, and setting aside that unity as a prerequisite of independence. Given the stalemate in the relationship between the Congress and the Muslim League by 1937, this was not unreasonable. On the other hand, he was disconnecting nationality and citizenship. While that appears similar to the Zionist maneuver, it is critically different: Sarkar was giving priority to citizenship in the sovereign state. He was suggesting that nationality and ethnic relations could be a private matters that would look after themselves, and it did not matter whether this happened in one state or in several, in India or in Pakistan. It was akin to Jinnah’s proposal for Pakistan, but without the insistence on a permanent Muslim majority.

The state alone, obviously, is not enough to protect minorities consistently, nor can it always reassure anxious majorities. It is all too often itself the instrument of oppression. That, however, is precisely why it must belong, at least rhetorically, to all its citizens. Otherwise oppression becomes existential, not episodic, and defeats the possibilities of civic – and civilized – contestation. Citizenship and nationality can legitimately be separated, as they were in the Soviet Union, only when nationality is detached from any particular identification with the state. Constitutionally and polemically, the USSR was not the state of the Russian people, even if Russians were the predominant nationality. A state that openly declares itself to belong to only some of its citizens and their co-ethnics beyond its boundaries, but not to its indigenous population, does not need anybody to delegitimize it; it delegitimizes itself.

But apart from the Kafr Qassem massacre of 1956 and the killing of a dozen-odd protesters in October 2000, the Israeli state has not killed its Palestinian citizens in large numbers. In India, on the other hand, even the occasional pogrom produces a body count reminiscent of the Palestinian predicament in the West Bank and Gaza. The Indian case is a sharp reminder that even formally ‘open’ and civic nationhood is often conceived with a particular ethnicity at its center, and that in such cases, formal citizenship – while a necessary foundation – is not an adequate guarantee of democracy, in the sense of a demos that is bound together by ties of affect and equal membership as well as the franchise. Several things must happen that are not all ideologically consistent, but that are politically intertwined. Citizenship must remain both independent of ethnicity and function as the sign and source of ethnicity. The national historiography must be continuously revised, but at the same time, the underutilized possibilities within the dominant narrative must be identified and deployed strategically. Hindu nationalism is not a monolith; there are ways of being a ‘Hindu nationalist’ that are quite different from Hindutva, and that do not include the exclusion and victimization of non-Hindus.

Nationalism by its very nature involves a measure of bigotry, but bigotries are not equally virulent. Many, if not most, Indians who find the BJP acceptable may find it appropriate that schoolchildren sing Bande Mataram and coconuts be broken at the launching of warships, and see a natural relationship between their Indianness and their sense of themselves as Hindus. They may wish that Prithviraj Chauhan had won the second battle at Tarain, or that Jinnah had died three years sooner. But beyond such fantasies, which are common to every nationalism founded on a narrative of defeat, they are not unrealistic: they do not believe that their local butcher is Mahmud of Ghazni, and they reject the idea that India and ‘Indian culture’ are exclusively Hindu. Indians who adhere to a purer form of secularism must find ways of talking to that demographic, recognizing that a politically viable secular democracy must use all available resources.

September 29, 2014