Gujarat Under Modi: Laboratory of Today’s India by Christophe Jaffrelot; Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947–77 by Pratinav Anil - review by Alpa Shah

Alpa Shah

Rule & Divide

Gujarat Under Modi: Laboratory of Today’s India

By

Hurst 416pp £30

Another India: The Making of the World’s Largest Muslim Minority, 1947–77

By

Hurst 432pp £25
 

In India, the world’s largest election is underway, with almost one billion people eligible to vote. Narendra Modi is expected to win a third term in a row as prime minister. Observers from around the world have raised concerns about a severe decline in democratic standards in India during his rule. Two chief ministers of state have been imprisoned and the leaders of opposition parties have been threatened with arrest. This is only the tip of the iceberg: many journalists, human rights activists, academics and lawyers are already in jail. In 2018, the Swedish V-Dem Institute, which tracks the state of democracy worldwide, declared that India had turned into an electoral autocracy. What the future now holds for democracy in India is an open question.

There are many pressing issues at stake but the major questions for all those watching India’s election are whether it will help consolidate Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s vision to rebuild India as an explicitly Hindu nation and what will happen to the largest minority in the country, the two hundred million Muslims who consider India their home. Under Modi’s leadership, the partial autonomy of the country’s only Muslim-­majority state, Kashmir, has been scrapped and a new citizenship law has been introduced that discriminates against Muslims. The recent election campaign has seen something astonishing: in the name of protecting Hindus, the prime minister has delivered speeches against Muslims, referring to them as ‘infiltrators’.

Few writers have documented Modi’s rise as rigorously as Christophe Jaffrelot, a professor of political science at Sciences Po, Paris, and King’s College London. In 2021, he published Modi’s India, effectively a national-scale companion to Gujarat Under Modi. This new book was more or less completed a decade ago, before Modi first came to power as prime minister. At the time, the publisher’s legal advisers declared that the manuscript was ‘high risk’, so it was not published. In 2020, however, Jaffrelot and his publisher decided that it was their ‘duty to testify and present facts which were gradually fading away – because of censorship and self-censorship’. Jaffrelot returned to the manuscript. Gujarat Under Modi is the result. 

One of the most powerful revelations of Jaffrelot’s encyclopedic book is that Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat between 2001 and 2014, saw how communal polarisation on a large scale could help him. In 2002, mobs of (mainly) Hindu men took to the streets in Gujarati cities to attack Muslim communities. More than a thousand people were killed over the course of three days. Yet, as Jaffrelot reminds us, Hindu nationalists themselves now characterise the years before 2002 as a time of violence, with the events of that year bringing in a time of peace under the messianic rule of Modi, who has since paraded as the protector of all Hindus. 

Jaffrelot explores how Modi turned Gujarat into a laboratory for practices he would later unleash on the country at large. ‘Never before had a regional leader been able to re-scale a political repertoire rooted in a particular state and transpose it to an all-India level,’ he writes. He charts how Gujarat became a test site for the communalisation of both the police and the judiciary. The government rewarded those officers who in the riots had shown communal bias and punished those who had raised concerns. Sanjiv Bhatt, an Indian police officer who filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India relating to Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots, found himself in prison for life. Bhatt said that he had been in a meeting in which Modi as chief minister had asked senior officers to let Hindus vent their anger on Muslims. Modi also encouraged the police to target so-called ‘jihadi terrorists’, who were killed in what Jaffrelot calls ‘fake encounters’. Although the Supreme Court tried to step in with the creation of a special investigation team looking into the riots, the process was compromised by the nomination of prosecutors to the team who belonged to the Hindu nationalist movement and the infiltration of the judiciary more generally. The Modi regime also promoted Hindu vigilante groups, which were effectively permitted to roam the streets, policing society morally and culturally. The main targets, predictably, were Muslims. 

Jaffrelot meticulously details how Modi developed the prototype of Hindu authoritarianism in Gujarat. Yet there is another side to the story. As Pratinav Anil’s Another India shows, the seeds of Modi’s India were sown by Congress party governments in the decades after independence. Following the partition of the Indian subcontinent into Pakistan and India in 1947, many Muslims chose to stay in India, in spite of the communal violence that accompanied the process. Anil exposes how the Congress party, which ruled India in an unbroken spell from 1947 to 1977, displayed stark prejudices towards Muslims in its policies and actions, in spite of the fact that India had officially been declared a secular state.

Anil joins others in highlighting what Paul Brass in The Production of Hindu–Muslim Violence in Contemporary India (2003) has called the institutionalisation of riots. Anil shows how riots in Congress-ruled India were organised with ‘the precision of a watchmaker’. The primary victims were Muslims. In the 1950s, Congress oversaw the deportation of ‘Pakistani nationals’ from Assam, Tripura and West Bengal, which affected almost a hundred thousand Muslims. And it was under the watch of Congress that eight hundred thousand Muslims were forced in 1964 to go to East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) after bloody Hindu–Muslim violence in Bengal. Overrepresented as the victims of violence in postcolonial India, Muslims, as Anil demonstrates, were significantly underrepresented in the Indian state: in parliament, the judiciary, the police and the civil service. If cultural rights of Muslims were somewhat protected, their political and economic rights were not. Prejudices, suspicion and discrimination were deep-rooted, even within the state.

Anil’s book is particularly valuable in its treatment of Muslims as actors in their own right, exploring how Muslims in different positions in society thought about themselves and how they tried to transform their circumstances. What he reveals is a powerful class element. Ordinary Muslims faced daily difficulties while Muslim elites, often from aristocratic backgrounds, protected and secured their interests within Congress, despite the party’s policies towards their poorer co-religionists. 

Anil holds Congress complicit in aiding the establishment of Hindu nationalism. Like Jaffrelot, he documents how senior Congress figures, including Sardar Patel (who served as home minister and deputy prime minister) and Morarji Desai (India’s fourth prime minister), had ideological affinities with Hindu nationalists and facilitated communal polarisation. At this moment in time, Another India is a useful reminder that everything was not glorious before Modi took power. 

Even so, as Jaffrelot shows, what is happening now in India represents a much wider and deeper challenge to democracy in the country than anything that has gone before. Given that many commentators, including Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most significant political scientists, have argued that Modi’s government is ‘fascist’, it is not clear why Jaffrelot does not discuss this term in either of his two books. He prefers to talk of India’s ‘deeper state’ and ‘electoral authoritarianism’, but the evidence he presents reveals many parallels between Modi’s regime and the fascist governments of 20th-century Europe, even if elections continue to be held.

When dissenters have already been frightened into their shells by the threat of incarceration, the media has been bought out, the senior positions in the state and educational institutions are under the wing of the ruling party, the judiciary and police are controlled by the prime minister, major corporations are run by his allies or clients, and groups fashioned on Mussolini’s Blackshirts roam the streets to enforce conformity, there is surely no need to get rid of elections. These, after all, allow you to present yourself as a democracy to outsiders. Both Jaffrelot’s and Anil’s books are essential reading for those who want to understand contemporary India, and for anyone concerned about the state of democracy in the world.

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