Book Review: Are Hindus a threat to Indian Democracy?

Terms like ‘majoritarianism’ and ‘nationalism’ have been used quite liberally in the public sphere for a while now. From tabloid op-eds to academic publications, everyone seems to be concerned about the effects of Hindu nationalism and majoritarianism on Indian society, polity and civilisation. Oxford India Short Introductions to Indian Democracy is replete with similar anxieties while presenting itself as a concise guide to Indian democracy and its history. 

The first edition of the book was published at an important juncture in Indian politics. 2017 was preceded a couple of years by the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and the tectonic shift it brought, personified in the figure of Narendra Modi. And yet, the book not only fails to completely understand this very shift but also leaves the reader clueless in many ways about the direction India took in the 2019 elections.

For such an overarching ‘guide’ to Indian democracy, the tunnel vision of the author Suhas Palshikar blinds him from identifying or even acknowledging the currents of change taking place in the ground realities of Indian politics and everything downstream of it. It is quite telling that Hindutva and Hindu nationalism finds more than thirty mentions in the short book while its supposed arch-nemesis Muslim identity politics is mentioned less than five times, a couple of which are for Gujarat riots described by the author as a ‘large scale massacre of Muslims’ quite oblivious to the Sabarmati Express burning which killed 59 Hindu karsevaks and started the chain of violence. This blindness permeates throughout the book be it for issues concerning Kashmiri separatism or the North-East.

Individual liberty and identity which is the prime concern of Palshikar when it comes to ‘totalising’ ideologies like Hindutva are given a sly pass when the issues being discussed are Muslim separatism, Naxalite movement or Dalit politics.

While the charge about Hindu Nationalism being all-encompassing in its ability to subsume different groups across different sections is true, the book has little to offer on how or by which procedure has such a massive project made possible. The inability to fathom a counter-narrative to the liberal swansong of diversity is starkly omnipresent which not only rings hollow throughout the text but also has nothing to offer a genuinely interested reader or an average voter.

The bourgeois neoliberal academics in their romanticising of ‘diverse’ cultures forget that at least one side of political polarisation is fermented by the same cultures close to them. Palshikar’s assertion that the freedom of expression and non-conformity is something that India society lacks and Western liberal democracies don’t, perfectly captures the anxieties of an academic elite experiencing the rise of many ‘non-conforming’ counter-elites in India today.

Their views and ideologies are inherently heretic to the liberal consensus and thus lots of rhetoric about not being ‘narrow-minded’ which is used colloquially for a return to the liberal paradigm. Conflating the popularity of Hindu leaders with the rise of nationalist populism and painting it as a diversion from some mythical sense of a ‘true’ democracy is one of many disingenuous conclusions peddled in this text. 

A myopic worldview is not only a recurrent theme of this guide from Oxford University Press but also forms the bedrock of it. The conclusions are used to work their way back into history rather than presenting an honest picture of both the currents and the counter-currents to the liberal order in India.

Everything except Hindu communalism happens in a vacuum, regional mobilization has surprisingly no effects on central politics and the bigoted nature of many separatists movements is conveniently whitewashed by supposedly liberal sources. The headline of the last chapter of this book ironically surmises the central thesis and the arguments presented by Palshikar as being full of – Paradoxes,  Diversions, and Distortions. 

This is the essence of this flimsy polemic, one which reveals in bastardizing and ignoring Indian history wherever necessary to create a botched view of democracy in India with the sole intent to vilify Hindu Nationalism without actually grappling with its ideas and historical development.

Claiming to take a long-term view of Indian democracy while being alive to contemporary challenges, this introduction provides neither with its blindsided view of India and attempts to browbeat the reader with terms like ‘majoritarianism’ forming the majority of the narrative. Taking a holistic view of the past while crafting something as succinct as an Introduction guide to the world’s largest democracy seems absolutely obvious and yet this is exactly what the author doesn’t seem to intend on doing at any point. 

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DOOM is a Spenglerian with a good head of hair. When not tarrying through Twitter, they can be found immersed in Russian literature, civilizational histories, and Sanskrit poetry.

DOOM is a Spenglerian with a good head of hair. When not tarrying through Twitter, they can be found immersed in Russian literature, civilizational histories, and Sanskrit poetry.

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