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Hindu authoritarianism and agrarian distress

Jignesh Mevani, who is insisting on going beyond identity politics, demanding not just land redistribution but jobs for all the poor, in 2016. Wikicommons/ Gazal world. Some rights reserved.This
is the second article in a series on ‘confronting authoritarian populism and
the rural world’, linked to the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI). The opening article can be read here.

Far right political
forces have burgeoned throughout the world, but only in India does a far right
party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hold governmental power on its own. Nor
anywhere else is there a far-right force, with obvious fascist characteristics,
that has existed now for over 90 years.

The BJP is the electoral
wing of the group called the Sangh Parivar, with well over a hundred affiliates,
including cultural, religious, student, women and federated trade union fronts,
whose original parent body is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

The Sangh is fully
committed to the project of establishing a Hindu state/nation
as the ‘true’ embodiment of nationalism. The scale and depth of its
implantation in the pores of civil society is unmatched. Across India, the RSS has over 56,000
branches and an estimated membership between five to six million.

The rise of globalized neoliberalism: national histories and
specificities

How this came to pass certainly
involves global developments, such as the rise and spread of a neoliberalism
that has had devastating economic consequences, as well as creating new and more
powerful forms of social disorientation and alienation.

In such circumstances,
people seek psychological refuge in clinging to ‘unchangeable’ ascribed
identities of ethnicity, religion, race, caste and nation, either separately or
in combination. Exclusivist and authoritarian populist
nationalisms take hold.

However, the effect of
neoliberal globalization is always mediated by national histories and specificities.
In India, this has resulted in the rise of the Sangh and its expanding ideology
of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism with
its foundational hatred of Islam and Muslims, who constitute 14% of the
country’s population.

Today the BJP has
replaced the Congress party (now in serious decline) as the only national party
in electoral terms, while in the competitive struggle to establish hegemony,
compared to all other forces, Hindutva is
in the lead although still well short of its ultimate goal.

Given this reality, the
struggle to defeat communalism must necessarily fight on all fronts – cultural,
political, ideological and economic. And it is the economic front, especially in
the agrarian sector, which is currently the Sangh’s weak spot.

Agrarian crises and distress

Agriculture contributes
only 14% of GDP and only 40% of all rural output with micro-, small, and medium
enterprises of all sorts (services, manufacturing, construction) counting for
the rest. But even here output growth far outstrips employment growth.

Two-thirds of the total
population is from rural India with one-quarter being landless. Here there is a
strong overlap between lower classes and lower castes: for example, a near
majority of Dalits are landless but a majority of landless are not Dalits. This
situation calls out for cross-caste/class alliances. Yet the main Dalit
organisations and parties focus on affirmative action and identity politics.
Only very recently has a young lawyer and Dalit leader, Jignesh
Mevani,
emerged, who is insisting on going beyond identity politics, demanding not just
land redistribution but jobs for all the poor. This pleases neither upper caste
farmers nor urban dwellers, while disturbing existing Dalit leaders.

Around 80% of all the landholdings
of Indian farmers are small or marginal. Even the 20% of rich and medium-sized
farmers feel disempowered, although they dominate rural politics, providing
leadership for many, though not all, rural struggles, such as low caste
mobilizations against upper caste atrocities and discrimination.

Over two-and-a-half
decades Indian agriculture has suffered a serious decline. The key trends
are rising costs of inputs despite some subsidies, growing indebtedness (52% of
all farmers are in debt), increasing subdivision of land, declining output
prices from global competition and greater corporatization of value chains
between farm and retail.

Agriculture growth is
not only insufficient, it is also jobless, while land acquisition for defence,
infrastructure projects, real estate and industrial corridors has created uprisings
against the government’s pro-urban bias.

Agrarian mobilizations

Agrarian mobilizations
have been against land acquisition, for jobs/support prices/debt relief and
amenities. In the last 25 years around 300,000 farmers committed suicide
with around 270,000 doing so in the last 15 years.

Apart from the struggles
against caste oppression most others have been led by the rich peasantry whose
distress has led many to look for exit in due course and certainly for their
progeny. According to the 2017 Annual Status of Education Report
only 1.2% of youth from whatever backgrounds are willing to work in
agriculture. It is no surprise, then, that such upper caste farmers’ movements
are now demanding reserved places for themselves in secure government jobs.

A big contrast to the
1990s when reservation was extended to the middle castes (around 50% of the
population and also called Other Backward Classes or OBCs) as well as to Dalits
(15%) and Tribals (8%), provoking an angry upper caste reaction.

Does this mean that the
hegemonic ambitions of Hindutva
forces and their anti-democratic project are being seriously challenged by such
agrarian discontent?

Things are not so
straightforward. The agrarian bourgeoisie comes mainly from the upper
non-Brahmin castes and from the upper echelons of the OBCs. Most are not
opposed to Hindutva ideology; indeed
the main social base for the Sangh is from these castes. Indeed, recently there
has been a substantial Hindutva-isation
of OBCs, as well as some in-roads into Dalits and Tribals. 

The promise of cultural upward
mobility as a result of joining the broader Hindu fold has served as a
psychological balm of sorts. But this rural bourgeoisie feels it has lost out
at the apex of society to its urban industrial, service sector and financial
counterparts.

Challenges ahead

What lessons can be
drawn? A major focus of the struggle against rising Hindu authoritarian
populism must be opposition to neoliberal economic policies. Yet all but the
Left parties are wedded to a neoliberal position.

A new programme must be
worked out for environmentally sustainable development to meet employment,
health and welfare needs for the vast majority. The Left and other progressive
forces must also link the struggles of lower castes, women, tribals in all
their variety, to the class struggles of all the working poor, perhaps
especially in rural areas.

To defeat
populist-nationalist forms of communal authoritarianism we have to fight
against more than just communalism!

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