By Ashutosh Varshney (19 October 2021) – To identify the core of BJP politics since 2019, I would like to introduce a new concept: Jim Crow Hindu Nationalism. This concept allows us to distinguish the BJP’s current politics from how the party exercised power when it last ruled Delhi. Equally important, the concept also reveals how BJP’s India is different from Nazi Germany, to which it is now increasingly compared in many circles worldwide.
What exactly is “Jim Crow”? Taking its name from a musical play depicting Black Americans in a demeaning light, the phrase has come to refer to an ensemble of laws and practices, which deprived Black Americans of their voting rights, subjected them to lynchings, and forced segregation upon their neighbourhoods, churches, schools, businesses and social lives. Inter-racial marriages were outlawed and inter-racial sex, especially between a Black man and a White woman, was violently punished. By the 1890s, such laws and practices were institutionalised in the southern states of the US, creating the term “Jim Crow South”.
Such politics lasted over seven decades, ending finally with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s. Until then, according to democratic theory, America was a “semi democracy”.
Electoral democracy coexisted with a racial political order, premised on White nationalism, in those 11 southern states that seceded during the Civil War, 1861-65, and were defeated. Two and a half decades later, White majorities in these states managed to impose, legally, a brutal regime of Black subordination.
This period of American history is well known to US politicians, intellectuals and many citizens. Other than those on the right-wing of politics, most have come to abhor America’s Jim Crow past. But it has remained generally unknown abroad. Until America’s rise to pre-eminence after 1945, US history was not part of world consciousness. Martin Luther King made the struggles of Black Americans internationally visible in the 1960s, and the Black Lives Matter movement has further enlarged world consciousness, forcing a historical reckoning within the US, too.
In comparative analyses of Hindu nationalism, this period of American history is not invoked. Rather, the focus has been on the better known Nazi period of European history. Part of the reason is that the early Hindu nationalists openly drew inspiration from the Nazis. Hailing Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, MS Golwalkar, an ideological father of Hindu nationalism, argued that Muslims “must entertain no idea(s) but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture… may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing… not even citizen’s rights.”(We or Our Nationhood Defined, 1938).
When Hindu nationalism is compared to fascism, an all-important difference is not noted. The institution of concentration camps was absolutely central to Nazi Germany. This institution had three aims: To imprison indefinitely “enemies of the state”, real or imagined, with administrative approval, but without judicial permission; to eliminate, physically, groups of unwanted people, again without judicial consent; and to push the incarcerated into forced labour. Jews were the main victims. An estimated six million died, or were killed.
In the post-1945 world, concentration camps are a near impossibility. International ostracisation would greet the country which built them. Because of its military-economic power externally and Han majoritarianism internally, only a country like China has been able to get away with its concentration camps, erected for the Uighur Muslims.
The Hindu nationalism of Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) sought to make India more Hindu in public symbolism and discourse without using laws to make India anti-Muslim. BJP politics today and the forces it has set in motion, especially after the 2019 election victory, are not pausing at a Hinduisation of the public sphere. Laws are being made to turn Muslims into second-class citizens; mob lynchings and intense hatred are instilling fear; and both law and violence are being combined to prevent religious mixing and deepen communal segregation. Hindu nationalists do not know Jim Crow history, but their politics is threatening to create a Jim Crow India in BJP-ruled territories. What race was to the American South, ethnicised religion is to Hindu nationalists.
Consider what happened to Black Americans in the Jim Crow South. In the post-Civil War period, 1865-1870, three Constitutional Amendments emancipated Blacks. The 13th Amendment ended Black slavery; the 14th Amendment provided equal citizenship and equality before the law; and the 15th Amendment gave them voting rights.
In the 1880s, racist White parties, registering election victories, launched their counter-revolution. Using their power over elected legislatures, they passed laws to establish literacy, residency and poll tax requirements for voting, effectively disenfranchising the largely illiterate and poor Blacks. By 1872-3, feeling the air of emancipation, 80-85 per cent Blacks had registered to vote in the south. In 1905-6, subjected to new laws, only 5-6 per cent remained as voters. Lynchings installed a regime of fear. Between 1882-1930, an average of 100 Americans were lynched to death every year, mostly in the South, mostly Black.
Now consider how legislative control has been used in India after May 2019. Amended “public safety” laws give the government the power to designate any individual as a terrorist or “anti-national”, imposing preventive detention with uncertain access to courts; Article 370 and Article 35(a) were abolished and hundreds of Kashmiri politicians imprisoned; via the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a religious requirement was introduced in citizenship laws, excluding only Muslims; laws prohibiting interfaith marriages are being passed in BJP-ruled states; and the “love jihad” militia punish Hindu-Muslim personal intermixing. Delhi also announced that a National Register of Citizens (NRC) would be created as a sequel to the CAA. In principle, using the CAA, the NRC can strip those Muslims, who don’t have the right documents, of citizenship. If implemented, a future NRC will effectively deprive millions of Muslims of their voting rights and, perhaps, welfare benefits. Lynchings have already made Muslims mortally afraid.
To prevent the nation’s full-blooded descent into a Jim Crow India, the political imperatives are now clear: Challenge the BJP, electorally, beyond the 11 states where it is not in power — most critically, in Uttar Pradesh; encourage greater federal pushback; and mount democratic protest and movements. In the US, until the 1950s, the courts and southern newspapers did not oppose Jim Crow. In India, too, these two institutions are currently unreliable. Can they change? Will they?
The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University. This article first appeared in The Indian Express.