Peace Magazine: Modi's India: a Conversation

Peace Magazine

Modi's India: a Conversation

Ashis Nandy, Subir Guin, and Metta Spencer discuss development, Hindu nationalism, religious identity, Kashmir, and the future

By Ashis Nandy, Subir Guin, Metta Spencer • published Oct 01, 2019 • last edit Oct 01, 2019

METTA SPENCER: My friend Subir Guin, here beside me, has introduced me to Ashis Nandy, an old family friend of his from Calcutta. Ashis is a political psychologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, India.

Hello, Ashis. I want to begin by asking you about development issues.

ASHIS NANDY: I am no great admirer of development. I am for economic growth as long as it comes naturally, as a part of the process through which many other countries have developed. They had something like 150 or 200 years. Now the attempt is to quicken this process. This has benefited the development experts more than the people of this country During the last 73 years in independent India 16 million people have been displaced by development programs. More than 12,000 dams were built over the 70-odd years. Out of those, something like 3,800 are mega dams and it was argued at the time that each dam was absolutely essential for India. Many of the dams are superfluous—the contractor, the builder, and the politicians got rich but they have displaced the old-style communities and crushed people.*

SPENCER: You’re not alone in your critique of all this dam-building. I have books on my shelf from twenty years ago when people began saying that these dams do more harm than good.

I’ve heard that a lot of Indian farmers have been committing suicide the last few years because they cannot make a go of their farming.

NANDY: Yes, when the Green Revolution was introduced into India it was supposed to liberate us but it shackled the farmer. In the last 35 years, nearly 300,000 farmers have committed suicide. Maybe that’s not news anymore because people have got accustomed to it. The farmers are dependent on genetically modified seeds, which they have to purchase every year. They get trapped into debt and they decide to commit suicide. At least their family can get some compensation from the regime.

SPENCER: We hear about that issue mostly from Vandana Shiva.

NANDY: A very good friend of mine.

SPENCER: She’s leading the charge against Monsanto and the companies that hold patents on seeds. Do you share the same attitudes that she is promoting?

NANDY: Yes, we’ve been in touch for the last forty years. I am also in touch with farmers groups and other types of technical communities which are trying to lead a more autonomous community life. India has no dearth of communities but they are the first targets. The modern states do not want anything to stand between the state and the individual. We are therefore standing alone vis-a-vis the state and its power. The ideal citizen is now only a passive citizen who takes interest in politics by sitting on a couch and viewing television news. He dutifully votes every fifth year or fourth year and his job as a citizen is done.

SPENCER: It’s an important insight that you need these intermediate structures between the government and the individual farmer or citizen. I am very familiar with pluralist theories, which assert the importance of civil society organizations as an interface between the government and the individual. When it comes to ordinary farmers in India, what kind of intermediate institutions were there in the past that you’d like to see preserved? I understand why you would be worried about the loss of structures in between the individual and the state—so how do you propose to make up for that?

NANDY: I don’t propose anything to them because they know what to do. They have had communities since time immemorial and they have depended on each other. But a number of famines in the twentieth century were, if not directly caused by the state, [those where] the state actually took a passive role and was indirectly responsible.

For example, the Bengal famine that killed ten million during World War II was absolutely artificial. There was no drought or flood that year but they tried to build a buffer stock for Britain and took the entire rice supply from Bengal.

SPENCER: I think Amartya Sen has described that. He lived through that as a child, right?

NANDY: There’s a very interesting book by Dr. Mukherjee. He showed how that the famine was artificially created. In an interview Lord Mountbatten admitted it. A journalist friend of mine asked him, “Do you hold yourself responsible for the one million deaths in the partition violence?” He said, “Yes. But if I meet my maker, I will tell him that I saved one and a half million lives by refusing to load the ships that were waiting to take even more rice and wheat from Bengal. So I will claim that I have fifty thousand human lives I’ve saved.”

SPENCER: Every time I see Subir he mentions his concerns about Modi, who has recently changed the rules about Kashmir state.

NANDY: Probably 99 percent of Indians do not know what Article 370 was.

SPENCER: Let’s explain it to our readers.

NANDY: It ensures that Kashmir will be a semi-autonomous part of India with access to India and no new law can be framed for Kashmir unless Kashmiris agree. It was supposed to be temporary. Someday it would go. And I would personally say that it was already going. But this has been abrogated because elections are coming all over India and Modi wanted to have a lovely new issue. He thought that this would be very popular in India because it would look as if he’s a tough leader who has taken this tough stand with the Kashmiris. In Kashmir there are often terror attacks from both sides. We are a small minority who are opposing it because we understand that this involves a direct humiliation of the Kashmiri people. They have abrogated that which gives them a sense of autonomy and confidence that their conventions, their culture, their traditions will be protected—that in Kashmir, you are guaranteed through Article 370 that the Kashmiri identity will be protected.

SPENCER: What fraction of the Kashmiri population are Muslim?

NANDY: Kashmir is divided into three parts. The Kashmiri Valley is Muslim. The other part, Jammu, is predominantly Hindu.The third part used to be predominantly Buddhist but now probably Muslims have the slight majority.

SPENCER: How did the Hindus in Jammu get along with the Muslims in Kashmir? Were there tensions between them or…?

NANDY: Kashmir has never had a communal or religious riot because the Muslims and Hindus each constitute a part of the Kashmiri culture. In fact, religion included elements borrowed from each other. The Hindu pilgrimage sites like Amarnath were located and run by Muslims. It’s a place where communal riots and communal division were unknown. Even the Kashmiri Muslims who want to separate and become independent, even today they pine for the Hindus who escaped as refugees from Kashmir about twenty years ago. They had to leave because they were threatened, many of them, by terrorist groups.

SPENCER: Who were the terrorists?

NANDY: Primarily sent by Pakistan. Half of Kashmir is in Pakistan. In 1947 when India and Pakistan became independent, Pakistan mounted tribal groups in India in direct support of Pakistan’s army.

Twenty years ago many Hindus left Kashmir en masse and became refugees in other parts of India. But the Muslims still want them to come back because the Kashmir reality is not complete without both Hindus and Muslims. And even now there is no inter-religious violence.

SPENCER: How strongly are the people of Kashmir opposed to Modi’s new changes?

NANDY: Modi has shut down telephones, telegraphs, schools, colleges, and government offices. This shows that they knew the Kashmiri people would be very angry. In fact, the two major parties are both saying in unison that Kashmir should be considered now as under military occupation.

SPENCER: Which parties? Local parties?

NANDY: Yes, but one of them was in alliance with the party that Modi leads, the BJP.

SUBIR GUIN: The military occupation must be a huge provocation for ordinary citizens.

NANDY: Yes, that’s very true. When the population rebels, if you send the army, the army becomes aggressive. Always. It was the case in Cyprus, in Ireland, everywhere.

GUIN: I was speaking last night with a friend who believes in what Modi is doing. He said, “for too long we have mollycoddled Muslims.”

NANDY: Mollycoddling? Muslims are one of the poorest sectors of Indian population!

SPENCER: I’d like to know about the relationship between the BJP party and RSS, this militant Hindu organization.

GUIN: Party. It’s a party.

NANDY: RSS is powerful. They supposedly have 100,000 branches all over India. For a while they were banned after the killing of Gandhi. But it has been public for a long while and now it supports the BJP and provides the workers. They are seen as being Hindu…

SPENCER: Well, aren’t they Hindu? I thought of them as very, very extreme Hindu outfit, right?

NANDY: They are not really extreme Hindu. In fact, RSS ideology is, you can say, a travesty of Hinduism. (We laugh.) A comical expression of Hinduism.

SPENCER: But the RSS is really the ideological grounding for the BJP?

NANDY: Yes, they see the BJP as the most friendly for them to spread their message all over India. It’s a little bit like the Christian right in the southern United States.

GUIN: Ashis, there have been a lot of comments about the close relationship between India and Israel. Some Palestinians have argued that a lot of the weapons that are used in Kashmir are Israeli weapons. India’s friendship with Israel has been considered almost anti-Palestinian. Would you agree with that?

NANDY: Israel has become the major supplier of arms to India. Many of the techniques of crowd control and management are borrowed from Israel. The pellet guns they use to blind so many Kashmiri children are Israeli weapons.

SPENCER: Oh dear. We often hear Modi classified with right-wing authoritarian regimes ranging from Bolsonaro in Brazil to—

GUIN: Victor Orban from Hungary.

SPENCER: Orban and the Poles and the whole trend, including Trump. We’re seeing an anti-democratic tendency and I don’t know whether Modi is extreme enough to warrant putting him into the same category as some of these other—uh—

GUIN: Fascists.

SPENCER: {Laughs) Okay, Subir uttered the word “fascist” in a quiet voice so I will go ahead and say it out loud. Would you consider Modi’s actions a real threat to democracy in India?

NANDY: Yeah, I do think that possibility is there. So far, he has carefully controlled his rhetoric, though he allows his followers to be as abusive as they can be. But on the whole, he belongs to the category of Erdogan; Trump in the United States; Duterte in the Philippines; Marine Le Pen in France; and a whole series of others. These parties all come to power through democratic means and now are trying to steal the system to make sure they don’t lose power.

SPENCER: Erdogan’s political opponents can get thrown in prison or even worse. Are Modi’s political opponents also vulnerable to intimidation?

NANDY: They are under intimidation and blackmail. If they close ranks they are better off but I don’t see any will in them to join ranks and present united opposition to Modi.

SPENCER: I recently had a conversation with John Feffer from the Institute for Policy Studies in Wash­ington. We met long ago in a transnational civil society organization that brought together people from many countries to talk about international affairs. He says that now progressives or left-liberals such as ourselves are having difficulty organizing transnational projects. We were in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, which is defunct, and the World Social Forum is not thriving. But the right wing is successfully organizing transnationally. He gives the example of Steve Bannon going around Europe knitting together all of these right-wing populist movements. Is India in any transnational right-wing movement?

NANDY: No, I don’t think so at the moment. In fact, you might say that they are a little afraid of being too closely identified with Duterte and thugs in Europe also. At the moment they’re not doing that.

GUIN: Have you heard of the group called the IDU—the International Democratic Union, which is based in Munich? The current president is our former prime minister, Stephen Harper. They are supporting conservative parties around the world. I have heard that the IDU has had a dramatic interest in what’s happening in India. Are the BJP/RSS supporters suddenly finding an ally in the IDU?

NANDY: I don’t think so because Modi will try not to lose many friends. He will join alliances with the right wing in Europe as long as he can maintain his alliance with Israel, which bodes well with many Americans also. He’s not as dumb as some think.

GUIN: How are India’s relations with Nepal, compared to what they were during the Congress? A friend of ours from Nepal was saying that the Chinese have been overwhelming them with building roads and infrastructure so now they are obligated to China.

NANDY: Modi can always play the Hindu card and mobilize the Hindus in Nepal if worse comes to worst. Though Nepal has many Buddhists, it is a Hindu country. Nepali Hindu children come to study in India and it is very difficult to be unfriendly with India. They can be angry with India, but they cannot break with India because of China.

SPENCER: Let me ask you more about the relations with Pakistan. I take it that you don’t think that the tensions between India and Pakistan are severely worsened by Modi’s current move about Kashmir. But what about the long-standing conflict between Pakistan and India?

NANDY: That is a problem but I can also tell you that there is a subtle understanding between Pakistan and the rulers of India. Both sides use a version of the story as an excellent electoral ploy—Pakistan being very tough with India and India being very tough with Pakistan. And Modi has had great success with that, partly because of that attack he launched on Pakistan. Not one person was injured, the Pakistani army was defeated without any problem, and the Indian pilot who had to come down in Pakistan was sent home within a day or two. There is a kind of a subtle understanding that a total war would destroy both countries but this quarrel between them allows them to have a strong hold on their own people.

SPENCER: But every now and then there is some sort of outrage—the attack on Bombay a few years ago and so on. Do you think that kind of thing occurs with or without the approval of …?

NANDY: Everybody knows everything in those countries. You cannot have any secrets. It’s not the United States or one of the European countries that know how to keep their secrets. Everything is known to everybody!

SPENCER: If a terrorist group shoots up the hotel in Bombay, can you assume that the government of Pakistan knew it or was even behind it?

NANDY: The Bombay case is a good example. The person who organized it announced openly to the whole world that he was the organizer of the Bombay attack. He is in the United States now. The government made no effort to take him into custody or even question him.

SPENCER: Modi’s rationale for what he has done in Kashmir is that it will create a more universal India, a more integrated society. I understand that his nationalistic Hindu supporters intend to change the family law system in India. I believe different religious communities have their own laws about family, divorce, inheritance, and so on, but that there is an intention to make a single uniform set of family laws for all of India. Is that a real plan or is it just talk?

NANDY: It is a plan and it won’t go very far. They espouse an all-India civil law, which I don’t think they will introduce. But they will attack some the more obvious laws directly, particularly ones that involve Muslims, such as divorce.

GUIN: What about multiple marriages? Is that still legal?

NANDY: No. but you can forge papers to show that you were married already. And most Muslims are so poor they cannot afford to marry twice or thrice. The percentage of multiple marriages (bigamy) in Indian Islam is 0.7 percent. And the extent of polygamy among Hindus paradoxically is 0.8 percent. (We laugh.)

SPENCER: This has been extremely interesting. Thank you, Ashis.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.
Subir Guin is an associate editor of Peace.
Ashis Nandy is a political psychologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

A video of this discussion can be seen at

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.35, No.4: Oct-Dec 2019
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