The January 6 invasion of the houses of Congress in Washington DC brought back images of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya three decades ago. Monstrous, unchecked attacks against sacred symbols of constitutional order, civil procedures and rule of law in two countries that claim to be the world’s leading and largest democracies.
On December 6, 1992, Hindu extremists scaled the walls of a disused 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya to plant their flags on it and capture the site. Police and paramilitary personnel mingled with the insurrectionists, sharing Hindu right-wing symbols and slogans. On January 6, 2021, right-wing American terrorists, emboldened by Trump’s poisonous propaganda and the pusillanimity and shameless self-promotion of the Republican leadership, marched through the US Capitol building, brandishing the Confederate flag and other neo-Nazi insignia. Elected legislators had to hide and be spirited away to secret chambers for their protection. Many of the Capitol police did nothing to stop the invaders.
These actions expose a too-long-tolerated White supremacist and Hindu supremacist hubris — a sense of entitlement about their god-given right to rule in India and the US. “This is our White House, our temple, our land,” they have said. “The police, military, political leaders and judges can [and should] do nothing about it.” Often, as it happens, they do not. Consider the arrogance of the Arkansas native photographed sitting in the Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office with his boot on her desk. This man tore a sheet from the Speaker’s letter-writing pad, left a quarter on the pad, and told a policeman at the door as he left that he was taking only his property — he’d paid for it. The officer did nothing to stop or arrest him.
Compare the brutality of law enforcement in the face of peaceful protests by Muslims and Dalits in India, Blacks and Hispanics in the US, and even small youth and women’s protests inside colleges and universities and diverse urban neighbourhoods, such as Zuccotti Park (Occupy Wall Street) and Shaheen Bagh.
There are significant countervailing forces in the US of 2020-2021: The day-to-day work and mobilisation of progressive parties and movements on the ground; the commitment and integrity of the lower-level bureaucracy and judiciary, ordinary election officials and volunteers, and postal workers called on to collect and deliver mail-in ballots on an unprecedented scale in exceptionally threatening circumstances. And, one should add, the resourcefulness and leadership of the main opposition party, the Democrats.
Many of these, not least a robust national opposition, are missing in today’s India. Lower-level workers, and judges and policemen trying to do their jobs are routinely disciplined and punished. This is just one aspect of a regime that thrives on intimidation — suspicion and panic spread by Hindu extremists, encouraged by provincial and national leaders contemptuous of the very democratic practices that put them into office.
A prosperity built on colonial conquest and imperialist domination helped the US, and advanced capitalist countries in Western Europe, to develop a cushion of autonomous institutions now seen as part of the “national inheritance,” not to be summarily downgraded. Museums, theatres, universities, a relatively free press and an independent judiciary are good examples. A similar investment in minimal prosperity for all, and basic pride in the notion of equal rights — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — was not as easily available in many poorer, Third World countries. Thus, in India, commitment to secularism, egalitarianism and democracy has remained more removed from everyday social practices; and formal bureaucratic, judicial, political and educational institutions are more openly implicated in informal networks of longstanding kin, clan and religious loyalties.
Yet, certain factors cut the other way. In the US, the arrogation of a god-given right-to-rule, and declared commitment to democracy, flowed from the tabula rasa the pioneers thought they began with, as well as the slogan of “no taxation without representation”. It was facilitated by the very conquest of a rich and fertile North America, imperialist ventures in the Americas and beyond, and the remarkable wealth that came with these. In India, by contrast, the political elite’s sense of entitlement and investment in democracy emerged out of popular anti-colonial struggle, sparked by a widespread and growing desire for freedom and development.
Secondly, the urban/rural divide that marks American politics today, where a conservative, white, anti-immigrant rural “heartland” is ranged against a relatively more open, plural and progressive urban or metropolitan population, is not quite as pronounced in India. Rather, the continual struggles of lower castes, classes, minorities, women and youth against different dimensions of inherited structures of power and inequality, are fundamental features of political contest throughout the towns and countryside. Hence, the massive protests of farmers today, as of tribal communities, Dalits, Muslims (led in many places by Muslim women), and university students, across the land.
In Ayodhya, the assertion of the Hindu right-to-rule focused on supposed religious claims of Hindus against a religious minority — sadly, and increasingly, targeted as anti-national. In mounting this charge, the radical Hindu right-wing did not feel the need to attack the Indian constitution, or ideals of democracy, social justice and even secularism. On the other hand, open denunciation of fundamental constitutional procedures and actions accompanies the assertion of white male privilege and entitlement in 2021 Washington.
For all that, the dissimilarities may mask a more fundamental point of convergence — “We are a great [Christian or Hindu] country, governed by a great constitution. We put the constitution in place. Never forget that.” That founding document is pronounced “stolen” the moment it fails to ensure the Brahmin’s/white man’s god-given right-to-rule his “promised land”.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 18, 2021, under the title “Their promised land”. The writer is Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor, and Director, Interdisciplinary Workshop on Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, Emory University