“These People” and Cultivating Communalism in India
As cultures expand and diversify, disputes over entitlement tend to follow. With a population that has steadily move north of a billion since the turn of the century, India's fragments have also continued to proliferate. Intercultural segregation is as much a part of Indian culture as the constitution that seeks to undermine it. This takes shape in a hierarchy upheld by caste and religion .
The caste system, a derivative of ancient Hindu texts, classifies people based on the occupations attached to their lineage. Over the years, this framework has been modified and fused into the administrative machinery by the ruling classes, most notably the British Empire. Today, the caste system is no longer restricted to the Hindu community and has spilled into the larger social structure. Religion, as in most parts of the world, creates a divide on ideological grounds. It comes as no surprise, then, that India’s large Muslim contingent finds itself mutually averse to its even larger Hindu contingent. This, too, proved beneficial to the British as a way to contain the threat of coalescence among the masses. Their intentional provocation of the conflict culminated in the Partition of 1947, splitting the country into India and Pakistan. The prospect of a melting pot was thus stymied by the high melting points consistent through all the elements in the mix.
The inception of Independent India had its roots in a severely disjointed culture, chewed up and spat out by its departing colonizers. Caste and religious segregation were building blocks for modern India, but with time, they have been mistaken for its cornerstones. In a country crippled by poverty and income disparity, identity politics take precedence over everything else. India’s obsession with its pecking order has helped strengthen administrative bodies, paving the way for leaders who vow to gallantly protect it from being disturbed.
Catering to the liberty of Hindus goes a long way in India, so much so that failing to prioritize the well-being of those beaten into submission by the caste system doesn’t carry anywhere near the same weight as eliminating the "threat" of Islam. For this reason, the incumbent prime minister, Narendra Modi, has found a great deal of success in cultivating the country’s image as a Hindu state. His following has been granted the freedom to claim the land as being sacred to their faith in addition to the holy rituals already in place that assume control over the public space — laying claim to the sky by bursting firecrackers, taking over the streets to unleash colorful dust storms and polluting water bodies with statues and corpses.
Religion, said Karl Marx, is “the sigh of the oppressed creature” and “the soul of soulless conditions.”¹ An astonishingly large segment of the population turns to religion for help, not politicians. For those who consider their fate to be in god’s control, the flexibility with which they practice their faith becomes the most important issue within their jurisdiction. Hence, when leaders sympathize with a group’s right to worship without any limitations, they are guaranteed a devout following from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Appealing to this demographic alone shows unparalleled promise for aspirants in Indian politics.
The presiding Bharatiya Janta Party's (BJP) greatest achievement is how they’ve managed to skew the public’s perception of what it means to be the “minority.” There are two ways to look at this: you could be an outnumbered minority, such as Muslims and Christians who don't constitute as large a section of the population as Hindus, or you could be a minority in terms of social standing and lack of representation, such as Dalits (the ostracized caste of “untouchables”). By excluding the Muslim community from the blueprint of India’s future, everyone else becomes the majority being looked after by the country's leaders. Using purblind anecdotes, they have united Hindus — rich and poor, dark and fair, lower and upper caste — to fear and despise Islam. The notion that Muslims are the descendants of past colonizers, namely the Mughals who ruled India for three centuries before the British, runs deep across the country. This narrative suggests that the followers of Islam are outsiders of Turkic-Mongol origin without taking into account the millions who have converted to the religion over the years, as they continue to even today. The “depressed classes” have thus bought into the illusion of having their status elevated because they share an enemy (and hence, a moral objective) with those from the richer sections of society. This way, Casteism is passed off as a system intended to maintain order whereas a “foreign” presence is deemed a disruption to the “patriotic” establishment.
This brings us to “these people” i.e. the most common response to the age-old question, “Why are things the way they are?” This is the product of a culture that allows blame to trickle down in a strange phenomenon where it all accumulates at the bottom.
Who exactly are "these people"?
The answer varies. If a middle- to upper-class Hindu family in New Delhi, “these people” could be the poor; it could be Muslims; it could be South Indians in general; it could even be a hybrid of a poor South Indian Muslim … the options are limitless. But if the same conversation were to take place between two street vendors inconvenienced by overflowing drains, the culprit could be the "untouchables" expected to unclog them instead of those who habitually litter. "These people" fill in the blanks when taking responsibility is considered a burden — the rich scoff at the poor, Hindus feel threatened by Islamic indoctrination, upper-caste Brahmins feel insulted by Dalits being given more opportunities, and the list goes on. The irony is that every single Indian fits the profile of “these people” by some criteria, which is why complainants rarely make it past bleak ambiguities such as “better education” and “less pollution."
The narrative of the “other” continues to delude India in ways that have become increasingly difficult to monitor. The snowball effect of misinformation on messaging platforms like WhatsApp has demonstrated how little it takes for people to start pointing fingers at each other. The ruling party has taken advantage of this by infiltrating the cyberspace with malicious content and making it as news This invalidates publicly available information that isn't within one's line of sight. The country's leaders can now easily dismiss hard evidence as “fake news” or “smear campaigns” since their devotees have been trained to consume only what is palatable to their own bias.
An integrated society would leave the government with no one to malign, which is central to their business model. This is why they rarely emphasize engaging with those outside your own community. Edward Said got this right a long time ago: “It seems a common human failing to prefer the schematic authority of a text to the disorientations of direct encounters with the human.”
Distinguishing yourself from the “other” is the norm because goodness is measured by contrast — you are everything “these people” are not. National pride has thus become a matter of excluding entire groups from the national identity. The anti-Pakistan rhetoric pushed by the ruling party has made “anti-national,” “Muslim” and “Jihadi” interchangeable terms. The supremacy of the upper castes is why “Dalit,” “unsophisticated” and “inferior” are synonymous.
Because cheap labor sustains India’s economy, sectarian issues are promulgated and amplified to distract the people from their own penury. The powers that be have succeeded in making the poor grateful for their own servitude — their employment is seen as the rich doing them a favor. The affluent classes are treated like messiahs for make prayers come true by offering streams of income.
On paper, the disenfranchised do indeed have representation and they do receive aid, and Muslims are allowed the same liberties as Hindus, but a closer look at the state of affairs will reveal these to be nominal claims. Equal opportunity is nothing more than a tick box designed to bypass quality checks. Empowering the powerless is a threat to any society that survives on the backs of its role players. The slot at the bottom of the social scale is praised as indispensable and the obedience with which the underprivileged submit to it becomes an indicator of their fidelity to the nation. Said was correct to point out that authority is “virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true.”
India’s true power lies in individual contributions because it adds up to over a billion, but only if everyone's pulling in the same direction. Unfortunately, caste and poverty have been repurposed to invigorate religious autonomy among Hindus. The country's leaders have done everything within their control to keep communities isolated from one another, roping an illusory majority into voting for protection from their own people.