Combat-concepts in Indian politics: Understanding democracy as politics of enmity

22 November 2021

Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany. He tweets @IrfanHindustan.

Taking the works of Raymond Williams and Reinhart Koselleck as entry point and analyzing the virulent prevalence in Indian politics of combat-concepts, Irfan Ahmad in this essay offers a new framework to understand Indian democracy as politics of enmity.

With a focus on combat-concepts, this essay charts an alternative analysis of Indian politics. This new framework documents politics that is pervasive in life but nearly silenced in analysis. In the mainstream approach, politics is taken as competition among parties, individuals or eras marked by a “charismatic” leader. Hence, it is common to view politics in terms of Congress party vs Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), A. B. Vajpayee vs Manmohan Singh, Nehru era vs Modi era. Combat-concepts, in contrast, identify often tacit commonality among seemingly rival parties, leaders and eras to show the unifying enemy against which all rivalries are either trivial or staged or both. Flagged first in The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare, my argument is that combat-concepts are at the heart of Indian politics as warfare-welfare.

I begin with the clarification of my use of combat-concepts by bringing Keywords (1976) by Raymond Williams (1921-1990) in conversation with asymmetrical counter-concept of Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006), an influential German thinker of conceptual history (begriffsgeschichte). Then I historically demonstrate how combat-concepts operate in Indian democracy and analyze forms of responses from the individuals and groups combat-concepts are targeted at.

A professor of drama at Cambridge University, Williams focuses more on society and culture than on politics. After the Second World War, he noticed that “we do not speak the same language” (11). Williams was concerned about changing meanings of words “we share with others […] in our common life” (14). In tracing such changes, Williams adopted a social-historical (24) rather than the etymological-philological approach of the dictionary. Williams’ intervention, preoccupied as it was with existing words, however, failed to account for new ones like “pseudo secularism,” “anti-national” or for old ones like terrorism (absent from his book) that this essay dwells on. Put differently, the notion of inimical concepts seems to escape Williams for his interest lays in shared life rather than in politics as warfare aimed at unleashing division.

The inquiry by Williams was also dotted with Eurocentrism. Eurocentric like Williams, in Futures Past (1979) Koselleck developed “asymmetrical counterconcepts” and “antithetical” concepts (158-59). Here I use “combat-concept,” which Koselleck does not employ but scholars under his influence like Ian Hunter and María Pía Lara do. Combat-concept means that war in politics is war in language, in which combat-concepts are nothing less than weapons. Combat-concepts thus reflect Koselleck’s notion of politics shaped recognizably by Carl Schmitt, for whom politics was not about deliberation or forming a welfare government that amicably distributed resources to its citizens. It was instead about demarcating friends from foes, warfare being its ultimate form and face. For Koselleck, therefore, what marked modernity was not the happy “progress,” but warfare manifest in conflict and crisis.

Set against this background, to Koselleck naming matters. As conflicting, oppositional labels, combat-concepts are “employed only in one direction and unequal fashion” (155) to generate unity within and opposition without. Premised not on mutuality but on exclusivity and antagonism, they are “not merely a sign for, but also a factor in, politics or social groupings.” (156). Having underlined the constitutive relations between combat-concepts and politics as warfare, Koselleck stressed that while words expressing antagonism did and may change, what did not change were the very structure and logic of enmity (159). To demonstrate his thesis, Koselleck undertook a conceptual-historical examination of three pairs of combat-concepts (161-91) – Hellenes vs barbarian, Christians vs heathens and human(ity) vs non-human(ity) – and noted that politics at its maximum included “abolishing the Other” (160).

The usual approach to understand Indian politics is to break it into periods: colonial and post-colonial. The post-1947 period is further divided into neat decades; political history is read as Nehruvian and post-Nehruvian periods or in terms of the dominance of parties in power: the Congress era, the Janata Party phase and the BJP era.

In contrast, combat-concepts go beyond such divisions to ask if there are aspects of commonality across the assumed differences among parties, leaders and eras. What matters, then, are not superficialities of party-politics, leaders or decennial cataloging, but the unity of conceptual politics as enmity, which lies beneath the rivalry and bind them together.

Terrorist and urban Naxal: After 9/11, terrorism as a combat-concept has shaped Indian politics, including election results. Its combative nature is evident in the sheer absence of an agreed definition; yet, unofficially, a consensus exists about “Islamic terrorism.” India has campaigned to make terrorism a global issue: in 1996, it proposed a convention on international terrorism at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, a position reiterated in 2016. The ferocity of terrorism as a combat-concept was also evident in Narendra Modi’s statement. In a TV debate after 9/11, Modi, then a BJP leader, argued that terrorism was innate to Islam and the “whole world” had witnessed terrorism “for 1,400 years” (since Prophet Muhammad’s time). It is precisely due to this notion of terrorism that Sadhvi Pragya, a Hindu ascetic jailed on charges of terrorism and “accused of plotting a bomb attack on Muslims” stands elected to the Parliament whereas scholars of Jawaharlal Nehru University such as Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid languish in jail on the fictitious charge of terrorism.

In colonial times, Indians who took to violence to oust the British rule were “terrorists.” In Indian books, however, they were admirably called “revolutionary terrorists.” While “terrorists” to the British, to Indians, Khudiram Bose and Praful Chaki – who in 1908, threw bombs in Muzaffarpur to kill British officials – are “martyrs” and “freedom fighters.” This divergence should not blind us to the convergence between the British and the Indian State in the continuation of laws about threats to the State. In Gentlemanly Terrorists, Durba Ghosh, documents how nationalist leaders who had earlier decried the British laws as draconian, themselves later became champions of similar new laws like the 1948 West Bengal Security Act. While valuations of those baptized as terrorists by the British changed from negative to positive, the new Indian State’s necessity to have the category of enemy-threat did not.

In 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency and jailed her opponents. Likening Indira Gandhi to Hitler, in Great Betrayal, Kavita Narawane, a partisan of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), called the regime “the reign of terror” and “totalitarian.” Narawane also criticized the formation of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and “para-military bodies” like Central Reserve Force and Border Security Force for they aimed “to strike terror in the heart of the common man so that not a finger should be raised in opposition to the despot.” In his favorable foreword to Narawane’s book, Vajpayee, then an opposition leader, shared her view of the government to deplore use “of arbitrary power, of subversion of the law.” Two decades later, as Prime Minister Vajpayee himself presided over the passage of The Prevention of Terrorism Act which in arbitrariness surpassed all previous laws. That the figure of the terrorist is primarily Muslim is beyond doubt because there are separate combat-concepts for non-Muslim “terrorists:” Maoist/left-wing, “urban Naxal,” “Tukde Tukde Gang” and so on.

The generality of “Islamic terrorism,” whereby Islam is depicted as the source of terror, however, deletes a much older source. For both Modi and his national security advisor, Ajit Doval, Chanakya (b. 280 BCE) is a model sage. In his 2021 speech to the UN, Modi positively referred to Chanakya, whose status a guru is such that none had pointed out that he was arguably an early theorist of terrorism. In Arthshastra, he outlined the natural needs of the State to stress ends, not means. For Chanakya, who Max Weber saw as an ancestor of Machiavelli, what mattered was not ethics, but raw power. Chanakya approved covert war for “a single assassination can achieve, with weapons, fire or poison, more than a fully mobilised army.” He advised use of spies, women, intrigue and rumor and suggested that “agents costumed as demon-serpents and flesh-eating tigers should terrorise civilians to lure the enemy king outside the city walls to perform rites of appeasement, whereupon he should be ambushed and killed.”

Pseudo-secularism and appeasement: Pseudo-secularism is a Hindu neologism used most vociferously by L. K. Advani, who began “dẖarm yudẖ” (religious war) through his ratẖ yātra to destroy the Babri Masjid and build in its place a Hindu temple. His yātra ignited “violence […] wherever it went.” Pseudo-secularism also means “appeasement” of Muslims and Christians by the Indian State or “anti-Hindu” elites: it identifies Nehru’s rule as “secular” in which minorities were supposedly appeased and Hindus victimized.

India, however, was not officially secular during Nehru’s rule. The word “secular” was inserted into the Constitution long after Nehru’s death and, during his term, Nehru appeased Hindus, rather than Muslims. With Nehru as Prime Minister and the RSS’ active role, “the holocaust in Jammu” took place in October 1947, in which “2,37,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated.” In 1948, 40,000 or more Muslims were killed in the takeover of Hyderabad, known as “Police action.” Nehru’s secularism backed those who had illegally installed in 1949 Hindu idols inside the Babri Masjid and in 1950 the “secular” Nehru helped build the Somanth temple. Regardless of the absence of evidence for appeasement, the BJP-RSS invented “pseudo-secularism” to make it a common sense. The currency of Muslim appeasement persists even after the Government-appointed 2006 Sachar Committee Report showed the marginalization of Muslims in economy, education and jobs. Elsewhere I have discussed how in a monumental twist of logic The Organizer, the RSS mouthpiece, described the Sachar report as an attempt at “Hindu subjugation.”

The premise of Muslim appeasement exists beyond BJP-RSS. Analyzing the causes of its defeat in 2014 election, the Congress Party concluded that its “minority-appeasement policy” was a key factor. With the non-stop deployment of appeasement in India, one cannot ignore the power of democracy to turn disempowerment into aggression and truth into fiction. In Vajapyee’s account, true secularism as seamless harmony and tolerance among various religions, existed only in pre-Muslim India and it was enshrined in Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas. That Vajpayee’s claim is pure mythography is obvious and it is at the heart of another combat-concept: “Hindu Taliban.”

Hindu Taliban: Commenting on the Central Vista project, which entails demolishing architectural icons of Delhi, Sir Anish Kapoor termed Modi as “an Aurangzeb for our times” and “the architect of a Hindu Taliban.” Kapoor’s choice is not innocent: to criticize Modi, the ultimate figure of evil that Kapoor chooses relates to Muslims. Like Kapoor, Pavan Varma, a diplomat-tuned politician of Janata Dal opined that BJP and RSS have “Talibanised Hinduism.” From the lens of combat-concept, this apparent criticism in fact praises RSS-BJP because like Kapoor, Varma too sees Hinduism as innately virtuous, while evil enters it only from the outside as Aurangzeb or Taliban. Chronologically speaking, to call Modi “architect of Hindu Taliban” and to describe works by BJP-RSS as Talibanization of Hinduism is simply wrong: from within this logical universe, the Taliban should be instead characterized as “Hinduization of Islam” as the RSS was formed nearly a century ago whereas the advent of Taliban dates to mid-1990s.

Pseudo secularism and Hindu Taliban both presuppose a pervasive modern notion of Hinduism, which takes itself not as one among many religions, but as the only true religion. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) advanced this notion. In his 1898 letter addressed to a Muslim, Vivekananda wrote: “The truth is that Advaitism is the last word of religion and thought and the only position from which one can look upon all religions and sects with love. I believe it is the religion of the future enlightened humanity.” Taking Hindus as an “older race than either the Hebrew or the Arab,” he suggested a synthesis between “Vedanta brain and Islam body.” It is amply clear how this supposed synthesis is not only hierarchical in that brain is superior to bare skeleton but also how Vivekananda definitionally monopolizes Hinduism as the only truth discovered well before Moses, Christ, Mohammad or others did.

Like Vajpaee’s pseudo-secularism hooked to nationalism, the combative power of Taliban as a concept is nationalist. Buddhadeb Bhattacharji – leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Chief Minister of West Bengal – remarked in 2002 that “anti-national terrorists” were active in madrasas of his State. For the Marxist Bhattacharji, the explanation lay not in political economy, but in “religious fundamentalism,” hence anti-national terrorists were active everywhere, not in “just some madrasas.”

Anti-national: Bhattacharji is not the first to invoke “anti-national,” perhaps the deadliest combat-concept. Mohandas Gandhi was probably the one to articulate it without using this exact word. While anti-national can mean socio-economic policies that cripple the most ordinary people, who constitute the nation, in reality it is not used in this sense. Anti-national is also not used for Indians who worked to install or stabilize colonialism. Were this the case, Rammohun Roy (d.1833), father of the Indian Renaissance, would fit the bill of an anti-national as he considered it divine that God sent the British to India “to break the yoke of those tyrants [Muslim rulers].” The term anti-national is likewise never used for Hindu Bengalis and Hindu bankers, who “collaborated enthusiastically” with the East India Company. It is not even used for those who instead of supporting the 1857 rebellion against the British rule, “behaved nobly in the support of [British] law and order.”

The most prevalent meaning of anti-national is Indian Muslims’ assumed sympathy and support for Pakistan as a State as well as a cultural, artistic, sporting community. Anti-national as disloyalty is anchored in the religious imagination of India as a Hindu nation-state and in Muslims’ putative disloyalty. None expressed this omnipresent meaning of Muslims as anti-national as pointedly as Gandhi did. An icon of “non-violence,” Gandhi openly called for killing disloyal Muslims. In 1948, a Hindu wrote to Gandhi asking if “any Muslim can be our brother or be loyal to the Indian Union” in case of a war between India and Pakistan. Gandhi replied: “Do I imagine that the several crores of Muslims in India will be loyal to India and fight against Pakistan? […] we must not assume anyone to be bad till he has been proven to be bad […] If later they [Muslims] betray you, you can shoot them. […] We must be brave and trust the Muslims. If later they violate the trust you can cut off their heads.”

This understanding of anti-national as presumed loyalty to Pakistan constitutes an important meaning of what it means to be an Indian. Vallabhbhai Patel, an ultra-Hindu right-wing Congress leader and the first Home Minister of independent India, said: “Every citizen of India must remember that he is an Indian and he has every right in this country but with certain duties.” This crass tautology signals enmity innate to nationalism. Patel’s quote may take Hindus as wide-awake of their Indianness and Muslims as forgetful of their Indianness due to their suspect loyalty to India and alleged sympathy for Pakistan.

Pakistan: Abul Kalam Azad, the first Education Minister of India, called Patel the “founder of India’s partition.” In terms of its actualization, Azad’s remark is correct, but Lala Lajpat Rai (1865–1928) had formulated it well before Vinayak Savarkar. Patel approved Pakistan’s creation as “cutting the diseased limb.” Yet, the figure of Mohammad Ali Jinnah as the divider of India and creator of Pakistan powerfully persists, dovetailing into the very signifier of anti-national. Historically, anti-national works as substitute to Pakistan and Pakistan as substitute to treason and, by virtue of such association, both are the most insulting expression of abuse, gālī, in the vocabulary of nationalism. This nationalist abuse is significantly different from the less forceful combat-term, “libtards” (liberal retards). Unlike libtrads, Pakistani and anti-national as combat-concepts contain pre-national, patriarchal, communitarian cultural forms of abuses centered on dishonoring women. The virulent charges of pro-Pakistan and the abuse heaped on Muslims during the 2020 pogrom in Delhi are exemplary: “Dēsh sē nikālō sālōñ kō, g̣haddārōñ kō” (Throw out the sister-fuckers, the traitors from the country).” And so is the open incitement by Anurag Thakur, a minister in the country’s federal government, to kill Muslims by raising the slogan: “Dēsh kē g̣haddārōñ kō/Gōlī mārō sālōñ kō (To the nation’s traitors/shoot the sister-fuckers).” 

Manmohan Singh = Delhi Sultanate, Rahul Gandhi = Shahzāda: The figure of Islam/Muslim at the core of this abuse is central, not incidental. Modi’s description of the Manmohan Singh government as “Delhi Sultanate” and his resolve to end it demonstrates it. Singh’s rule is not evil in itself, it becomes so when defined as a remnant of the “Muslim” rule. Modi’s designation of Rahul Gandhi as shahzāda treads the same logic of enmity. The choice of Urdu word shahzāda – rather than its Hindi alike, yuvrāj (prince) – equates Congress with Muslims to boost the myth about the Congress appeasement of Muslims. In the examples discussed here, Singh and Gandhi in themselves are not figures of the enemy; they inevitably become such when a Muslim symbol is allotted to them.

While some combat-concepts are indigenous and Indian, others are bound up with international politics. Given their entwinement, it is important to know how the population or communities targeted by combat-concepts respond. Clearly, the response is far from monolithic. There is a gigantic asymmetry of power between the combating and combatted groups. Cognizant of this asymmetry, there are three main forms of response: melancholia, collaboration and contestation. Saeed Naqvi’s 2016 book, Being the Other: The Muslim in India, illustrates the melancholic response. I take melancholia as a state in which one cannot identify what exactly is lost, let alone how to deal with that loss. Drawing in part on his own biography, Naqvi chronicles how Muslims stand transformed as the other vis-à-vis the Indian nation-state. Thus, he details how Nehru let Muslims down over the acceptance of Partition and calls Mohandas Gandhi’s reception of Partition “the gift the Congress gave to the Hindu Right, which […] is today’s Hindutva.” He also notes how anti-Muslim pogroms in Hyderabad and Jammu took place while “secular” Nehru was the premier and underlines the practice of “secular pretense.” Leaders practicing this pretense included India’s founding fathers.

Yet, Naqvi offers return to “India’s founding fathers” as an antidote to such othering. In a characteristically nostalgic move, Naqvi recalls the glorious “composite culture” of his childhood in Awadh, where his family came from. Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym writes, is an urge for return to an imaginary home, which is coterminous with the nation-state. However, Naqvi has not left his home. Hence, the sense of loss his book reflects is even more excruciating.

To understand the second form of response as collaboration we can look at the recurring brutal cases of lynching undertaken in daylight since 2014 and their videotaped enactment. In such conditions, to think freedom and dignity is far from easy. Indeed, thinking itself becomes threatened and threatening. Stemming from genuine fear but lacking in an alternative vision, a few among the combatted may proceed to regard the existent as the excellent. Frightened by the reality of actual and symbolic violence and feeling dwarfed by the everyday mediatized images of the leaders and their discourses, some combatted pretend to achieve acceptance by joining the party ruthlessly purveying combat-concepts. In many ways, an article by Najmul Hoda typifies this act of collaboration.

Cow vigilante: In response to routinized lynching of Muslims by Hindus on the suspicion of “cow-smuggling,” consuming or storing beef, Hoda advises against “liberal arguments” that eating beef is an individual choice. To him, the argument of choice is not “promotion of liberal ethos,” but “justification of [Muslim] communalism” and a sign of “religious prejudices.” He thus asks Muslims to behave as “a law-abiding community” as laws in most Indian territories ban beef. Strikingly, Hoda uses vocabulary of the combatant: rather than see it as an issue of dietary freedom in a multi-religious polity, he frames it as “cow-slaughter.” To repeat his illiberal legalistic view, he dismisses “philosophical arguments” against beef ban because “that might instigate them into being on the wrong side of law and sensitivities” and make them “vulnerable to [cow] vigilante violence.” Note that the appeal is made not to the vigilante to stop violence, but to the future victims not to make themselves vulnerable to vigilante violence. In addition to bestowing legitimacy on cow-vigilante as a combat-concept, Hoda’s exposition renders dissent to beef ban as “communalism” and “religious prejudices.” Since both choice and individual are starkly absent in arguments in support of ban on beef as well as in anti-beef laws, Hoda is driven to depend on the logic of “most Indians [Hindus]” and majoritarian “sensitivities.”

As the current regime is ostensibly committed to the Hindu notion of secularism as sarva dharma sambhav (equal respect for all religions), it is not logical that, while banning beef to respect the belief of Hindus, it does not ban pork to respect Muslims’. An analysis oriented to freedom would, moreover, go beyond the issue of beef ban as an isolated matter to the very heart of the larger political project: namely, the strive to actualize the Hindu nation-state.

The beef ban and ban on conversion are intimately connected and both are at the core of actualizing the Hindu state. Already in 1970, RSS leader Yadavrao Joshi made it clear: “As of now, RSS and Hindu society are not strong enough to say clearly to Muslims and Christians that if you want to live in India, convert to Hinduism. Either convert or perish. But when the Hindu society and RSS will become strong enough we will tell them.”

As the current context makes it clear, perish actually means get ready to be killed. In Kosellack’s terms, Joshi’s thought is nothing else but a call for “abolishing the Other.”

Similar to collaboration, contestation too is not singular. I take Sharjeel Imam as representing one among many forms of contestation. My hypothesis of him as a figure of contestation, however, faces challenges. His many articles do not form a body of work in part because he is young and mostly because, when his thinking and activism were gaining shape and attention, the State unjustly threw him in jail where he continues to languish. As an activist previously associated with All India Student Association, he marked the marginalization of Muslims and the stigmatization of Islamic traditions and symbols in the Left-progressive circles. Disturbed by rampant injustices, he asked fundamental questions about the routine violence inflicted against the poor and the marginalized, including Muslims, for whose rights he stood. What agitated him was how the victims of communal assaults were “arrested more readily than the perpetrators.” Likewise, he was concerned about the disproportionate representation of Muslims in prisons. Influenced by the late Eqbal Ahmad and as a scholar of modern history, he read history alternatively and not through the prism of hegemonic nationalism with its own form of inbuilt politics of enmity. This reading in turn was allied to the quest for the political, not politics as policy. To Jacques Rancière, policy is built on consensus and serves the existing violent hierarchy. Politics as the political, in contrast, is about dissensus, which imagines a “possible world” other than the prevalent one predicated on force and maintained by the Police. Unlike Hoda, whose contention is predicated on obeying the law, Imam imagined a possible world resting on the civility and beauty of argument rather than the lethality of armament foundational to the police order.

Jihad: The ubiquity of Jihad as a combat-concept is evident in the vicious proliferation of its types: “love jihad,” “corona jihad,” “land jihad” and “marks jihad.” The pervasive use of such neologisms, which affect life as much as death, signify the operation of “Hindu Orientalism.” Jihad as a combat-concept epitomizes the most radical divergence between the meanings imposed by the combatant and those attached to it by the combatted. The prevalent meaning of jihad stems from the arsenal of Western orientalists like W. W. Hunter, magnified by the global war on terror, not from the views of Indians like Abul Kalam Azad, who was also a reputed scholar of religion. Azad regarded jihad as an undertaking for justice and beauty and it did not matter if its actors were Muslims or not. In 1914, when Snehlata Devi, a Hindu, burnt herself because of her parents’ inability to pay the dowry, Azad observed how her soul sang a requiem for the callousness of all humanity. To Azad, her self-immolation was “jihad in the path of Allah” and went on to say that “today those [Hindus] who are fighting for the welfare and freedom of the country, believe me, they are also […] engaged in a jihad.”

The principal argument of this essay is that combat-concepts are at the center of Indian politics and of contemporary India. Viewed from the lens of politics theorized by Rancière, what passes as politics is more about raw policy and less about the political as a struggle for an alternative, which remains violently expelled from the ruthless commerce that democracy has become. An understanding politics should by no means remain limited to combat-concepts. Further inquiries along this line will enable justice activists and scholars to pursue a variety of goals, including the task of developing sound critiques of the regnant politics in which division masquerade as vision, lack as fullness, existent as excellent, awful as lawful, contingency as necessity, cowardice as courage and mental slavery as intellectual chivalry.