Has Malaysia ever been part of India?

04/11/2019 | Naren Bedide
Populism without a people

Photo: Naren Bedide

Dear friends,

When reading these insightful conversations and the contributions from authors from all over the world, the question arises whether India is a liberal democracy with a representative form of government that is regularly plagued by attacks of populism? But before that I have to ask whether India is a nation - in the same form as Brazil or Egypt or Hungary - because isn't that what implicitly defines all the democracies discussed in this series? Whenever I then try to deal with the first question, I always come back to the second question.

In the first parliamentary elections in India, Nehru's Congress Party won with its program against colonial rule and its native collaborators - the landowners and the moneybags. It was a party backed by landowners and moneybags. Later elections in the 1950s and 1960s added Pakistan and later China to the list of enemies of the country. Britain and the US never left his side. In the 1970s, Indira Gandhi railed against the richest of the rich who controlled the grain trade, black market and smuggling business. During all this time, righteous outrage has taken the "hand of the foreign country" (by which is meant foreign forces who are trying, in many disgusting and underhand ways, to "destabilize India" by bribing opposition politicians or publishers or civil society groups or sabotage defense or industrial projects, or incite riots, etc.).

The point is that elections in India have always been populist, some more, some less. It was always about the "Gareeb" (the poor), the "Aam Aadmi" (the common people) against the rich, the enemies at home and abroad, the "terrorist" neighbors and the "terror" groups they support etc.

Why do the elections time and again resemble a melodrama that is characterized by irrelevant discussions between rivals and their supporters and leaves no room for arguments about political content, unless arguments are drawn from the bottom drawer?

The question of why election debates in India seem like never-ending family disputes can be answered by saying that they are basically just that: family disputes. Since the very first ballots, the top castes, which make up around 15% of the population, have permanently occupied 65-75% of the seats in parliament. If almost a quarter of the seats were not reserved for the formerly “untouchables” and tribesmen and indigenous peoples in all regions, this proportion would be an average of 85-90%.

If these conditions are not already reminiscent of the era of apartheid in South Africa, then the numerical representation of this group in the other “pillars of democracy”, the judiciary and the media, will definitely convince.

The following question arises: Why or how can the unrepresented majority, i.e. almost 90-95% of the Indian castes and tribes, be drawn into this spectacle? Maybe because someone has to sweep up behind the elephants to prepare the circus for the next performance. Or maybe because in India witnesses to a family dispute feel they are also involved, even though they are not getting a piece of the pie that is being fought over.

Both answers may seem cynical. But after 70 years and 17 general elections, we seem to find ourselves in a persistent or permanent dilemma. Seventy years ago the social philosopher, political reformer and father of the Inijian constitution Bhirmrao Ramji Ambedkar said:

Democracy in India is only the top layer of the Indian breeding ground, which is fundamentally undemocratic.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste

This seems to be the case today more than ever. And I want to ask again why or how the upper castes are pulling the unrepresented majority into this farce? Their participation can only be guaranteed in one way. Youssef Rakha asks: Aren't populists [...] basically the Big Macs and Coca-Colas of the political marketplace?

This explains the situation in parts. Usually the candidate who can advertise himself most convincingly wins. Another explanation is the fact that the upper-cast candidates and the lower-cast Indian voters at the village level maintain a patronage-clientele relationship that closely resembles the relationship that feudal lords and their serfs had in earlier times. The candidates take care of providing individual voters with public services and simply bribe others with cash, alcohol, etc.

The only thing that the state guarantees these people is their vote in the elections. For all other services, they have to rely on a seemingly medieval relationship with their elected representatives from the box above. This situation is different depending on the state or province. In states where public services such as education, health, and certain structural inequalities such as land distribution have been better regulated, voters are feeling greater self-determination and relative freedom from the shackles of this unequal relationship.

Why are the candidates from the upper castes trying to get the votes from the voters from the lower castes if they win the election anyway?

Because although a high birth is a basic requirement, it is no longer sufficient as a characteristic to ensure the victory of certain candidates, which is partly thanks to democracy. A candidate must compete for a position with other candidates from the upper boxes. For this reason, the votes and not the sword, as in earlier times, must be used to assert one's own position.

Despite its numerous weaknesses, democracy is lived primarily at the village and provincial level and less at the central, state or national level. There it degenerates into a meaningless exercise in high-pitched heckling. The idea of ​​the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya did not come from a village, it was born in Delhi. (Ayodhya is the birthplace of the mythical character, according to Brahmin fundamentalists who believe it originally housed a Ram Temple that was destroyed by Mughal Emperor Babar to build a mosque; it has become a hub for the past three to four decades Hindu mobilization and communal violence.) It is obvious that the cynical conclusion that an empire made up of rival camps of upper-caste families is missing the face of a nation, the hope for more effective democratic structures at the village level and provinces significantly diminishes. Because the center has significantly more resources and powers. After independence, London was replaced by Delhi as the heart of the Empire.

Ultimately, the reason is that the Indian rulers inherited an empire in 1947. Mark Twain wrote: Eighty peoples who speak eighty languages ​​inhabit the country, their number is three hundred million.

“Das Land” stands for India. But what is the country? For most of its history it was nothing more than a land mass. It was simply Hind, or India, the land beyond the Sindh or the Indus. Even this name was not coined by people who lived on the subcontinent. According to numerous sources, it goes back to the ancient Persians or Greeks or Arabs or the British etc. But from these various attempts by the not always paternal namesake, we can conclude that India is or was just a land mass for the greater part of its history, as already noted. Here one could encounter eighty nations or eight hundred, 600 languages, 600 castes. And numerous tribes.

The veteran human rights activist and Dalit scholar Bojja Tharakam had observed that the creators of the constitution for the new state of India could not agree on a name for the country. Ultimately, he says, the expression "India, that is, Bharat" was adopted. For him it is “his strange thought that the members (of the constituent assembly) were divided even at the time the country was named. Nowhere in the world is there a country that has two names in a single sentence ”.

Two names: One of them, Bharat, the name of a figure from Brahmin mythology that the vast majority of Indians had never heard of, the other, India, derived from variations of the name for the Sindh River, which rises in Tibet and is now flows through Pakistan rather than India before flowing into the Arabian Sea.

In addition, it must not be forgotten that the British gave rule (over their empire) to the ruling classes in India, which had been a central concern of theirs since the turn of the century. The only problem was that they didn't know who to hand over rule to. Which nation should be released? At the same time, the upper castes engaged in an ongoing dispute about what common face they could give India.

The British historian Perry Anderson says: In its present form, the subcontinent never formed a homogeneous political or cultural unit in premodern times. For long stretches of history, its areas were ruled by countless medium-sized kingdoms of the most varied of houses.

The “Idea of ​​India”, he continues, was “primarily a European and not a local invention, as the name itself makes clear. The term India or its equivalent did not exist in any of the indigenous languages. The Greek word creation based on the river Indus was such an exogenous name for the subcontinent that Europeans defined the inhabitants of India as 'all natives of an unknown country' as early as the 16th century and thus referred to the inhabitants of the American continent as 'Indians'. "

After the British left the country, it consisted of a collection of 584 princely states (including Kashmir) over which the British had suzerainty but no direct power, as well as provinces over which they exercised direct power. How was this political landscape with its numerous centers to become a single nation?

The social theorist Gnani Aloysius describes how the traditional elites developed nationalism without a nation in India during the colonial period and afterwards.

In the provinces ruled by the British, the traditional upper classes or castes led by the Brahmins were among the first to collaborate with the colonial movement. In contrast, the ruling classes in the princely states, which had been subjugated but not annexed by the British, had become natural allies. Here, too, they were composed of tribes from the upper castes who belonged to different faiths.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these indigenous elites initiated a kind of reform campaign in politics, society, culture and religion that continues today to develop the narrative of a timeless India marked by a “sense of unity”. In order to underpin the “Idea of ​​India”, they ceaselessly invoked the tropes “Ancient continuity, diversity unity, massive democracy, multi-confessionalism-secularism”, observes Anderson.

“The British created Hinduism,” says Aloysius. Ambedkar noted the following:

First and foremost, it should be noted that Hindu society is a myth. The name Hindu itself is a foreign designation. It was given to the locals by the Muslims to separate themselves [from them]. Before the Muslim invasion, the term did not appear in any Sanskrit work. A common name was not felt to be a necessity because they had no idea what it was like to form a community. The Hindu society as such does not exist.

Like the name India itself, the religion of Hinduism was of exogenous origin. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the term Hindu was not widely recognized or used to describe a religion. Orientalism and colonialism were enough for the Brahmins to categorize the thousands of indigenous beliefs practiced by the lower castes and tribes, various forms of the new religion called "Hinduism," and to become their guardians. The narrow range of parameters that Europeans used to judge religions and creeds set in motion a colossal mistake.

With these and other flawed categorizations, the British helped the local elites to reassert their cultural “superiority” and thus ultimately their political supremacy. One nation, one religion and one social order should be the common conception of India from now on. The question of whether India ever had a social hierarchy that fully corresponded to the Varna caste system remains a matter of dispute (i.e. Chaturvarnya, the social order of four varna, which, according to some interpretations, were organized according to the “value” of the people: Brahmins, the priests at the head; followed by Kshatriyas, the warriors, Vaishyas, the merchant class, and Shudras, the
Servant class - today there is the caste system of 4,000, some say 6,000, castes or Jatis, which are divided according to the origin of the people). However, the upper castes of the Brahmins have endeavored over the past two centuries to build such an unequal, hierarchical society.


While the upper castes in India all express their urgent need to be recognized as a nation, […], the majority of the lower castes vacillate between phases of hope and despair.

From Gandhi to Nehru and numerous other personalities of the recent past to Amartya Sen and numerous other personalities of today, all of them preach the same message: that there was and always will be an India. And it should be remembered again: Just as the designation India was determined from outside, the image of India as a nation, which is drawn by the rulers, writers, scholars, etc., all of whom come from the upper castes, is primarily for the perception abroad and intended for all residents who do not share their point of view.

While the upper castes in India all express their urgent need to be recognized as a nation because they do not want to be regarded as the empire of the premodern in the age of the United Nations, the majority of the lower castes vacillate between phases of hope and despair. Hoping to become the nation Ambedkar spoke of:

For me, we are clinging to a great illusion in our belief in being a nation. How can a people divided into several thousand castes form a nation? The sooner we realize that we are not yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us. For only then will we recognize the need to build a nation and give serious thought to the ways and means by which we can achieve that goal.

It was Ambedkar who incorporated the ideals of "freedom, equality and fraternity" into the constitution as the most important designer and source of ideas. Even more than Gandhi, Nehru and many others, he advocated the egalitarian values ​​of the Enlightenment in India, although according to his own statements he was more inspired by the Buddha and his Sangha than by the French Revolution and Europe. Ambedkar represented not only the views and needs of the former "untouchables", being one of them himself, but also those of the majority of all lower castes. Even then, when he had to steer the draft constitution past all the obstacles, large and small, that "progressive forces" from the upper castes put in his way, which he called "social tories and radical political forces".

Does India need a “cultural elite”?

The country already has an elite.Such an elite has always existed with the Brahmins, and in the past two centuries, thanks to the British distribution of land rights in the individual provinces (with 200-400 castes in each province disregarding 200-400 castes), thanks mainly to the 1-5 castes the freshly baked upper castes from the individual regions were also included in this “national” elite. Moreover, the idea of ​​a cultural elite cut off from political and economic power seems extremely daring.

After a quick look at the other contributions and a comparison of the terms democracy, representative government and liberal values, the emperor's new clothes come to mind. Above all, the question arises: is India a nation? Well, India may be a different planet.

~ Naren Bedide (Kuffir)


Translation: Kathrin Hadeler from English

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