To discuss Narendra Modi’s historic opportunity, allow me to take you back to my recorded family history, which appears to begin in 1760, when the British subdued the last remnants of the naval fleet of that great Maratha, Shivaji. Deprived of their livelihoods, these Aarmari Marathas—of the navy, the aarmar—took to piracy. It took the British until the 1830s to end their forays into the creeks and bays of the Konkan coast. The Gabits—as the Aarmari Marathas were called, the term emerging from the Arabic Gurab, or gunboat—were not a caste, but were known as backward Marathas.
This is what I am, a Gabit. I have rarely been conscious of being a Hindu, so, growing up, I was never conscious of caste. Later, I was aware of the family proclivity to eat anything that was once alive, but I put that down to omnivorous parents. As I began exploring my roots (which I first wrote about here), I realised there was a cultural underpinning for our secular culinary habits. I learned of those roots through a Marathi book called Gabit Kshatriya Aarmari Gharancha Itihas (A history of the Gabit Kshatriya naval community). In the book, published in 1983, there is an excerpt from the 1906 Ethnographic Survey of Bombay. It said that Gabits “caused serious loss” by piracy but were now settled along the Konkan, between what was the province of Bombay and the Portuguese territory of Goa, as farmers or fishermen. It also shone a light on what I ate: “They [the Gabits] eat the flesh of goats, sheep, hares, deer, wild bears, fowls and fish and drink liquor.”
Those habits have stayed with some Halarnkars, although most omnivorous tendencies have declined. Some in the clan have turned markedly nationalistic and are particularly aware of being Maratha—selectively, they would rather ignore the backward Gabit part—and Hindu. Many are Shiv Sena voters, most are deeply religious, a handful is bigoted, and everyone has worked at education and moving up in life. We are doctors, chemists, lawyers, and, yes, one sailor. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological home, and Narendra Modi, would like us.
There are outliers, like my family, who may be Maratha but are also avowedly secular. I admit to a fascination with Maratha history, a sense of origin, a thrill over childhood stories of Shivaji’s fort-wall-climbing ghorpads (monitor lizards) and an affinity for the old battle cry of Har Har Mahadev (a praise to lord Shiva). That cry spread across the subcontinent with the Maratha empire, which for a brief period in the 18th century stretched from Peshawar to Calcutta to Tamil Nadu (it degenerated into internecine squabbles and lost India to the British). But I am also liberal and secular, which means I believe in India’s syncretic heritage—Hindu, Islamic and Christian—modified over the centuries by diverse personalities and rulers, from the Buddha to the emperors Vikramaditya and Akbar. I am as drawn to Urdu as to Sanskrit, and I cannot think of a greater visionary and nationalist than Jamsetji Tata.
Can’t wish away diversity
Why is any of this relevant to Modi, as he basks in the euphoria of being one of India’s most popular prime ministers ever? It is because India’s diversity cannot be wished away by the Sangh Parivar, and to do so would only sabotage Modi’s grand plans. In a measured speech he made last week, Modi offered a conciliatory vision of the next decade (barring catastrophic missteps, Modi has 2019 in the bag), as he attempted to include, as he likes to say, “125 crore” Indians.
“However tall a tree may be, it starts bending the moment fruits grow on it,” Modi said during his victory speech at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, after the party’s success in the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and other states. “Today, when the fruits of victory have grown on this huge tree of the BJP, it becomes our biggest responsibility to bend, to be more polite (adhik namra banne ka jimma banta hain).”
Liberals—dismissed as increasingly irrelevant—point to Modi’s record at divisive speech and his track record in unifying Hindus. They dismiss his exhortations of magnanimity and accommodation. I am liberal too, but I do not share this pessimism because there is no other way Modi can realise any part of his promise to create a developed India (we can excuse the hyperbole) by 2022.
Consider the communal undercurrent to the Uttar Pradesh election was stronger than most realise. As this IndiaSpend story revealed last month, communal violence rose five-fold over five years to 2015, with state police officials saying most started over trivial issues, including the assumed need to protect women’s honour. It explains the BJP’s messaging in Uttar Pradesh: We can do without Muslims. That may work in elections, but it cannot build that new India Modi promises.
Almost every Indian has a strong sense of culture, history and belonging. In this modern, cellphone-driven era of instant and alternative truths, that sense of belonging is diverging and intensifying. In Bengaluru, if a glowering half-face of Hanuman in saffron is the leitmotif of many Hindu taxi drivers, the leaping tiger of Tipu Sultan adorns the windscreens of some Muslim auto drivers. The key is to allow everyone to have their heroes, to be tolerant of differences, and paper over cracks.
That will be important if, as Modi insists, the economy and India’s development are his only priorities. Many expect the prime minister to finally get started on what are perceived as long-delayed radical reforms to the economy and bureaucracy, but author and Morgan Stanley global strategist Ruchir Sharma is sceptical. He believes Modi, from starting as a Ronald Regan-style capitalist reformer, is transitioning to a Donald Trump-style populist with distinctly socialist policies.
“Mr Modi is bringing relative political stability to India, by fragmenting the opposition and concentrating power in his hands, thus shifting the driver of economic growth from the private sector to the state, and freeing himself to conduct radical economic experiments like his currency cleansing policy,” writes Sharma in the New York Times. “And now with his election victory in India’s most populous state, his populist convictions are likely only to intensify.” I do not agree with Sharma because the prime minister appears to believe in a great destiny for India (and himself).
If Modi does take the populist route, a further consolidation of Hindus is possible, and inclusiveness may be less important. If he works towards his party’s original promise of small, efficient government and era-defining transformation, ideological accommodation may be difficult to ignore.
There are still millions who may applaud Modi’s vision of development but disagree with the ideologies the extended Hindu political groups arrayed around him want to force on India. For instance, the increasingly fractious debates around supposedly seditious talk and right-wing violence. Modi could easily begin resolving these issues by expressing faith in India’s supreme court and the constitution, which the prime minister once said was his only holy book. Many of his colleagues profess allegiance to free speech, then quickly qualify it by saying they will not tolerate “statements against India”. As the television anchor Karan Thapar points out here, freedom of speech—legally—includes the right to offend. Stopping students from letting off steam and deliberately misinterpreting the feelings of India’s Gurmehar Kaurs‘ to manufacture nationalistic issues is hardly a sign of maturity, magnanimity or a prescription for national progress.
The other issue associated with the nationalist vision is the rewriting of India’s history. The latest instance is from Rajasthan, where it was revealed last week in the Hindustan Times that school students will now be taught that the Rajput king Maharana Pratap defeated the Mughal emperor Akbar. This isn’t real history but the latest in a series of attempts to fashion a new Hindu-centric cultural ideology. Expect such efforts to grow because BJP state governments will now feel more emboldened than ever to recreate history. On this score, expect no interference from the top.
Not an ideological state
Even if more children are taught the RSS version of history—not a happy thought, of course—to visualise India as a Hindu Pakistan is to credit modern-day Hinduism with more destructiveness than it is capable of and is to underestimate the extent of inroads that radical Islam has made in Pakistan.
In Pakistan, Islamic thought deeply underpins the working of the government, the judiciary and the army, as conspiracy theories and ideology substitute for fact, writes the Pakistani commentator Khaled Ahmed in his new book, Sleepwalking to Surrender. The spread of education has not helped because curricula are now Islamised. “Any attempt to tone down references to war as a way of life by the provincial authority is attacked by the clergy, after which the media starts growling, sending the education minister scurrying back to texts mandating jihad for all Muslims,” writes Ahmed, who believes India is lucky it is not an ideological state and “its masses are not given to extremism.”
Ahmed may be right about India’s masses not being given to extremism, but with the Hindu extremes being mainstreamed—one of those guiding school syllabus changes is Dina Nath Batra, once part of what was considered the nutty fringe—the idea of a state-run on religious ideology is not far-fetched. The BJP’s manifesto in Uttar Pradesh includes the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, and the idea that its new government will shut down slaughterhouses—mostly Muslim-run—is disquieting, as the perils of indoctrination in a majoritarian state tend to be. Yet, there is no Hindu equivalent of violent jihad to spread the faith, and I do not think there ever will be.
Instead, as defence minister Manohar Parrikar prepares to return to Goa—my home state, where the Gabits now vote for him—for a third term as chief minister, he is unlikely to stop the slaughter of cattle or the eating of beef.
It will be important to see how Modi signals the Sangh Parivar’s priorities. During his second term as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was confident enough to demolish temples to widen roads. In a sense, the Uttar Pradesh victory marks the start of that second term.
“In history,” writes Ahmed, “the strongman fades after over-reaching himself.” These are early days for Modi, who does not appear to seek the overreach and disruption that president Recep Erdogan imposed on Turkey after a relatively calm first term. One speech may not be enough indication of what’s ahead; indeed, Modi said the same inclusionary things when he became prime minister. But there is no better time to turn down the flame of divisiveness, and he might want to urge his party to make a special effort to reach out to those they would like to ignore or vilify. To guide India to the destiny they envision requires no less.