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The unbearable incandescence of India’s millenarian impulse — and the path that led here

Firstpost logoFirstpost 08-01-2020 Praveen Swami
a crowd of people: The unbearable incandescence of India’s millenarian impulse — and the path that led here © Provided by Firstpost The unbearable incandescence of India’s millenarian impulse — and the path that led here

Editor's note: As India heads into the 2020s, there’s reason to believe we are heading into a new age of anxiety. Economic growth has been crippled; many economists argue recovery will take years of painful reform. Ethnic and religious tensions have sharpened. Even India’s core Constitutional values and institutions, many commentators have argued, are besieged.

In this series, Firstpost examines what the 2020s will mean for India: for everything from politics and the economy, to our culture and communities.


“It came to pass in the year one thousand twenty-eight after the destruction the Temple that this evil befell Israel,” a chronicler in Mainz recorded, as he watched history reap its harvest on the streets outside. For months, rumours had spread that “anyone who kills a single Jew will have all his sins absolved”. The nobleman Ditmar proudly announced that “he would not depart from this empire until he had killed a Jew”. The mob in Worms paraded a corpse it claimed had been boiled by Jews, plotting to use the water to poison the wells.

That summer of 1096 CE, Europe had been seized by passion: “There first arose the princes and noble folk in France, who took counsel and set plans to ascend and to rise up and do battle and to clear a way of journeying to Jerusalem, the Holy City, and for reaching the sepulchre of the Crucified”.

For no good reason, not even one that can be discerned through centuries of distance, the citizens of Mainz sought life through bathing in the blood of Christ’s enemies. Entire communities were annihilated.

India now lives under a blinding incandescence of ideology: the fantasy that we are perched on the edge of an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil, at which moment history will come to an end and a new utopia will be forged. The millenarian impulses driving the great political projects of our times — among them, Ram Janmabhoomi, demonetisation, Kashmir, citizenship — will shape this coming decade.

For his followers, the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi marks not just a political triumph, but an ecstatic religious experience. This isn’t, of course, unknown in Indian politics. Following the death of Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran in 1987, 30 grief-stricken followers committed suicide. Photographs of his successor, J Jayalalithaa, were worshipped with camphor and flowers. The actor Rajnikanth’s fans famously conducted a palabhishekham — the ritual washing of temple idols with milk — on his cut-outs.

Hinduism, the scholar M Madhava Prasad has noted, allows for “a space of worship around any suitable image, however produced”. The political deity is not mistaken for the real thing. Instead, the leader embodies virtues associated with godhood — for example, justice and the hope of a better life. Prasad has called it this process of deification ‘Fan Bhakti’.

For critics, the actions of such political deities may be questionable; their understanding of complex problems flawed; their solutions ill-conceived. For the Bhakt, though, this misses the point: the Leader is conducting a yagna; a purification of the body of the nation in preparation for its encounter with destiny.

But the Prime Minister’s armies of mask-wearing clones, his holographic images, his proclamation as an avatar of Vishnu, are not just amplifications of earlier iterations of political godhood. They are the culmination of a deeper dysfunction in India’s political life.

Indian millenarianism has deep historical roots. In its Hindu variant, it is embedded in the medieval encounter with Islam. “To those despicable wretches, wine was the ordinary drink, beef the staple food, and the slaying of the Brahmanas the favourite pastime,” a medieval copper-plate records of the warlord Alauddin Khilji’s armies. “The land of Tilinga suffered terribly without hope of relief, as if it were a forest engulfed by a rampaging fire” — until rescued by the hero-warrior Prolaya Nayaka.

Karl Marx grasped the even deeper impact British imperialism had on India. “This loss of his old world,” he argued in 1853, “with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history”.

India’s millenarian impulse isn’t, of course, exclusively Hindu. In 1920, tens of thousands responded to calls to make hijrat, or migrate, to Afghanistan, and build a shari’ rather than live in British-ruled India. Large numbers of migrants, the historian Deitrich Reetz has recorded, were killed by hunger or looters; the Khyber Pass, contemporary accounts record, was littered with corpses.

From the Left rising in West Bengal of 1970-1972 that ended with the slaughter of 5,000 young people or more by the State and criminal militia; the ethnic-religious carnage let loose from the late-1980s by jihadists in Kashmir or Khalistanis in Punjab — modern India has been awash with millenarian ideological projects.

Ideologies, though, are not neat things. Nazi Germany was a crucible where science and the corporate resources of Bayer, BMW or IG Farben were melded together for industrialised killing. But it was also the site of the bizarre, Nordic blood-and-soil fantasies of the Thule Society; of the masculinist homoeroticism of Ernst Röhm; of Hans Surén’s nudism.

For disparate ideological memes to join large numbers of people,  Richard Landes has argued in his masterwork on millenarian movements, “people had to feel themselves close to the moment of transformation” — the moment when the order of things appeared close to collapse, and the rise of utopia imminent.

a group of people holding signs: Image for representation only. File photo/Reuters © Provided by Firstpost Image for representation only. File photo/Reuters

Hindu nationalism had lived on the margins of Indian political life, until the Ram Janmabhoomi movement transformed it into a mass utopian movement. The icon of Prime Minister Narendra Modi allowed a bewildering array of modernisers, capitalists, nationalists, traditionalists and the ultra-violent to join this movement, giving it the hegemony it now has.

Balasaheb Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, which provided Hindu nationalist parties with a template for success, helps understands the forces driving Indian millenarianism. Nostalgic accounts of Mumbai in the 1960s and 1970s represent it as a cultural melting pot. It was also a living hell. Half of Mumbai's population, S Geetha and Madhura Swaminathan recorded in 1995, was packed into slums that occupied only six percent of its land-area. Three-quarters of girls, and two-thirds of boys, were undernourished.

Three-quarters of the city's formal housing stock, Mike Davies has noted, consisted of one-room tenements where households of six people or more were crammed “in 15 square meters; the latrine usually shared with six other families”.

From the 1970s, Girangaon — Mumbai’s “village of factories” — entered a state of terminal decline, further aiding the Sena project. In 1982, when trade union leader Datta Samant led the great textile strike, over 240,000 people worked in Girangaon. Inside of a decade, few of them had jobs.

In these sewers, the Sena mined gold: It gave voice to the rage of young men without prospects, offering violence as liberation. In its time, the Sena was anti-south Indian, anti-north Indian, anti-Muslim. It offered no kind of paradise, though. It seduced mainly by promising the opportunity to kick someone’s head in.

Fascism succeeded, the intellectual Antonio Gramsci pointed out, because it “presented itself as the anti-party; has opened its gates to all applicants; has with its promise of impunity enabled a formless multitude to cover over the savage outpourings of passions, hatreds and desires with a varnish of vague and nebulous political ideals”.

The social crisis on which the Sena was built has, inside a generation, become widespread across India. The structure of Indian families in both urban and rural areas has undergone wrenching change. Brutal urbanisation and mass migration are commonplace. The traditional social order — culture, caste, deference — no longer exists, except as soap-opera pastiche.

For young people these challenges are particularly profound: their future is more fraught than for any previous generation of Indians. Large youth cohorts, such as that of India, and its neighbours, are particularly vulnerable to these millenarian tendencies: violence becomes one of few avenues to seek sex or power.

In essence, young millenarians are drawn to a politics that offers manhood — an impulse that can be seen at the dawn of Indian nationalism, too.  In Bengal, the crucible of Indian nationalism, Professor Bose’ s Great Bengal Circus was hailed for its discovery of the tiger-wrestling Syamakanta Banerjee; his feats were “patriotic efforts at wiping out the unjust stain of physical cowardice cast on the Bengali community”.

Abanishchandra Ghosh’s wrestling matches with Punjabi wrestlers, or Ramamurthy Naidu letting an elephant stand on his chest played no small role in inspiring Bengal’s post-1918 anti-colonial terrorists.

India’s long millenarian summer shouldn’t surprise us. Through Thailand’s troubled transition to modernity, Buddhist millenarian movements flourished, promising to replace the state with rural paradise; in the United States, violent utopian cults thrive. From the Islamic State to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, millenarian blood cults have blossomed wherever the most basic elements of civil society have broken down.

Karl Marx, in his 1853 essay, wrote: “England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing”. The secular nation-state which appeared in 1947 failed to achieve that rebuilding. The endless millenarian summer we are confronted with is the consequence of that failure.

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