An exclusive interview with Thomas Blom Hansen

Thomas Blom Hansen is the Director of the Stanford University Center for South Asia. He is one the 125 signatories of the faculty statement that has expressed concern about the “uncritical fanfare being generated over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley to promote Digital India.” He has a deep connection with and understanding of India as a result of decades of research; in fact, much of Professor Hansen’s fieldwork was done during the tumultuous and tense early 1990s, when conflicts between Hindu militants and Muslims defined national agendas, producing frequent, violent disputes in the streets. Out of this work arose two books: The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton 1999), which explores the larger phenomenon of Hindu nationalism in the light of changing dynamics of the Indian democratic experience; and Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay (Princeton 2001) that explores the historical processes and contemporary conflicts which catapulted the rise of violent, socio-religious conflict and the ultimate renaming of the city in 1995.

Below is an exclusive interview with Hansen, where he explains his views on RSS, Modi’s deep commitment to his ideology, his reasons behind signing the petition, and what he feels about the current human rights violations in India.

India Parent Magazine (IPM): When did you first meet Narendra Modi?
Thomas Blom Hansen (TH): It was in '91, when I was in the beginning of my research on Hindu nationalism. This was in the context of one of the many campaigns BJP ran at that time called Ekta Yatra (Journey of Unity), which was not a very successful campaign. I was there and got mistaken for a journalist, so I was whisked in. Mahajan, a very suave, outgoing Bombay man, completely dominated the conversation. Modi was sitting there in a corner, not saying much at that time, very uncomfortable in English, while Mahajan was clearly overshadowing him. Modi was not comfortable with being confronted with these critical questions. This was the time when BJP was far from dominant, so lots of journalists were critical of this yatra (journey), thus asking difficult questions of them. I remember very much that Modi didn’t take that very kindly. He was a little bit aggressive, and some of his answers were defensive. Mahajan on the other hand was always on the offensive. For me, that was the take away point. At the time, it was impossible to believe Modi would be the future Prime Minister of India. Now, though, Mahajan is dead and Modi is on the top rung. If Modi had not become what he became, I wouldn’t have remembered him. He rather came across as slightly dour, slightly inward-looking, not very outgoing, not very well-spoken, typical RSS organizer, very focused on the work and not so much on talking politics.

IPM: How do you think Mr. Modi has changed since then?
TH: It’s a transformation. He’s learned to speak, and he’s also learned to do politics. He’s learned to manage that game. I don’t see necessarily a politician who is saying something completely new. I see him as an RSS pracharak (propagator) who has learned to do populist politics. I still think he’s an RSS man through and through, and I don’t think he’d deny that himself. That’s how we have to look at him, we have to understand the man instead of thinking of him as some kind of savior who’s come out of nowhere and conceived all these ideas. None of what he stands for is his own thinking; he’s entirely shaped by the RSS movement. To understand Modi, you have to understand the movement. That’s been my commitment for the last 20 years.

IPM: You did a lot research on RSS and even wrote a book that was critically very highly acclaimed. What are your views about RSS?
TH: The RSS got a fundamentally anti-democratic instinct; it takes pride in being a non-democratic movement. It has a self-supplying leadership, so you work your way through it – you are never elected. It is based on loyalty and discipline, and lack of debate. It is about action and doing what the leadership says. I think it’s taken the BJP a long time to get used to that. Some of the most effective, impactful debaters and parliamentarians of the BJP are in fact people who do not have RSS background. I think the biggest shortcoming is really that lack of understanding and acceptance of what the democratic process actually is about. They have to understand functioning in democratic circumstances meaning you have to accept critique, freedom of speech, freedom to dissent, the rule of law, and so on. These are fundamentals and I don’t see them in RSS at all – the movement’s DNA is different. Now, there are lots of people in India who actually like these fundamentals.

IPM: Do you believe RSS secretly liked the idea of emergency that Indira Gandhi government imposed on India?
TH: Even though she put a lot of the now-old leadership of RSS in prison, those same people when asked which politician in India do you think has been the most important, would always mention Indira Gandhi. Why? Because of her firm hand, because of her ability to actually disregard democratic procedure. Yes, many of them disagreed with the way she did it, but her firmness and her iron will was what they fundamentally admired. They want to be like her. Let’s not forget that emergency was actually quite popular among many people…lots of people in the middle class and elite who actually said it’s good to have some discipline. Even now you hear this kind of talk. As much as there are lots of people in India who support democracy and freedom or accept opposition and debate, there are also very large numbers, and perhaps growing numbers, of those who, in the name of development, would like more firm hands, more discipline and more authoritarian rule to shut up all these critics. Many of us on the petition list have gotten emails from the RSS organization. The tone of it, the vindictiveness and the violence of the language shows that we were absolutely right in pointing out this is not just any democratically elected government, it is a government that feels that it has a majority mandate to do whatever it wants and it wants to use that power. That’s the biggest worry you can have about any government.

“Rahul Gandhi is actually a walking advertisement for Mr. Modi”
Picture by IndiaParentMagazine

IPM: Still, the BJP is an elected government in India. How can we deny that many Indians wanted it in power?
TH: That’s what they think, but anyone who studies the election will know that this is the slimmest proportion of the popular vote that any majority government in India ever won: 31 percent. 69 percent didn’t vote for Modi, and there was a few percent of the vote that was moved – we know this is how elections are made and unmade in India (the electoral system has a distortive effect on everything). The kind of argument you get from the BJP and its supporters is that they stand for the majority of Indian people they don’t. Secondly, if you move a few percent off the popular vote, they’re out. I think one of the biggest blessings Modi has is that the opposition’s weakness. Congress has no credible leadership. Four years, five years in politics is a long time, so something new can happen – maybe the Gandhis can finally pack up and leave, which I personally think they should for the good of India, and let other people rise. There’s a lot of talent in the Congress party but they aren’t allowed to thrive because the heir of a parent has to be the front man. Rahul Gandhi is actually a walking advertisement for Mr. Modi.

IPM: Do you think there might be gross abuse of power by BJP?
TH: It’s not unique that the BJP is abusing state power. Congress has a long record of doing that – it’s something that is becoming more and more endemic to Indian politics; it’s very disturbing. The BJP is doing it, and in a sense defending their actions by saying their opponents did the same thing, thus they should do it as well. But does that mean we should stop criticizing it? Of course not.

IPM: Do you think BJP is different from Congress in any way?
TH: The danger with the BJP is that this Hindu majoritarian ethos is being brought forward as, “we don’t have to explain why we want to promote Hinduization of educational programs, history teaching, or public symbols. The understanding is that democracy is majority rule, so since we have the majority as Hindus we can do whatever we want.” That’s scary. Congress never did that. I could talk to you for hours about what Congress has done wrong – like they haven’t had a proactive foreign policy so with Modi having a proactive foreign policy (very low-hanging fruit) did score a lot of points – but in spite of that they have always respected opposition and critique back in Nehru’s day. Mrs. Gandhi was an interlude where they became more and more intolerant, but after that they have been able to work with different kinds of parties and accept that criticism is part of what it is to be the governing party. It seems to me that many people in BJP are drunk on their own power, and they have to learn their limits. I still have confidence in what is the most infuriating aspect of India from the point of view of government – that everything you try to do is always met by opposition; there is always someone who is unhappy, someone who is protesting. But that also is the redeeming part of India – this is what keeps democracy growing, what creates a real space of freedom for people. Congress has learnt over many years to accept that, but BJP did not. They fundamentally don’t accept this kind of political freedoms and cultural freedoms as matter of cause. They are actually totally set against it, their whole history as a movement is about containing those freedoms.

IPM: Why does RSS hate Muslims so much?
TH: If you study and read the writings and the statements over the many years from the founding fathers of the RSS, it shows they were fundamentally anti-Muslim; they were not part of the nationalist movement. They were casting their lost behind the anti-colonial effort, although now they talk about the second liberation – it is kind of rich that their movement, which was not part of the nationalist movement, sees itself as an anti-colonial hero. Nehru was very suspicious of them because he was not sure where they stood when it really came to it. The founder saw RSS as a Hindu vigilante group. He felt that Hindus became weak because they have accepted their own subjugation at the hands of Muslims over centuries – the whole movement is about restoring a certain pride in Hindu masculinity and in Hindu warrior values. It’s all about in a sense driving the fear of Muslims out of your mind, by fighting them on the streets. RSS feels that the presence of Muslims over centuries in India has weakened Hindus, has made them less self-reliant, less proud. So we have to fight the Muslims, they think. For RSS it’s the only way Hindus can strengthen themselves. And that’s the problem in their politics also, that anytime they need to win an election that’s the only trick they have. We saw it in UP, we saw it in Gujarat – don’t forget that. Don’t ever forget Gujarat. Because it happened. And it will happen again. That violence was unprecedented and horrific as far as the way Muslims were massacred.

IPM: India is full of intellectuals, rationalists’ and human interest groups. What happened in 2014? Did people forget or they don’t care?
TH: The most blunt and brutal answer is, in 2014, a Muslim life was not worth the same as a Hindu life. That’s a fact. That was not the case in the 1980s when people could still mobilize a certain kind of outrage. Even during the Bombay riots, many people were appalled by the way in which, especially the way Shiv Sena, went about this. Now, I think it’s become much more acceptable. I lived in Maharashtra at the time of the Bombay riots. I was actually in India when the Gujarat riots happened, and they shut down Zee TV because they didn’t want to show the riot in progress. But it was not a riot, it was a pogrom, and it was an attack. When these things happen, the gloves come off. It is as if another kind of layer in human beings is being mobilized – fear, revenge, aggression that normally well-educated people keep under wraps. In fact, I remember after the Bombay riots I was very shocked my pediatrician I took my kids to – I lived in Pune at the time – said “well these people deserve to be taught a lesson.” She’s not a bloodthirsty woman. She’s a highly educated doctor, but a Hindu who felt that there was still something right being done. I think that sentiment, the rise of the BJP, the normalization of a certain way of criticizing Muslims and - casting them as irrelevant, left overs from the past of India, as some kind of aggressive minority that makes no contribution – has become a sort of common sense that lots of people are willing to embrace. In 2014, when you then combine that with someone who appears as if he’s cleaned up his act and modernized like Modi, people are prepared to accept that. If he had presided over the killing of 2000 Hindus, would he have ever become Prime Minister? No, never. You can become Prime Minister of India if you preside over the killing of Sikhs, Muslims, and other minorities, but not Hindu. This is the bluntest way I can put it, but I think it’s the truth.

IPM: Did frustration toward Congress combined with development agenda help Modi’s election as well?
TH: I always used to say the best campaigner for Modi was Rahul Gandhi, and I think there’s a truth to that. Even now, he is like a walking advertisement for Modi. Also, the last UPA government was in some kind of a paralysis mode for many complicated reasons. I think what Modi could mobilize at the time was even some poorer and less privileged groups. They felt proud in being addressed as strong Hindus and felt honored in being included into the privileged sections of BJP. The odd thing is, the biggest promotion of Modi’s development was not even his invention, but rather the invention of the new, liberalizing, modernizing India. What he was promoting also was Congress’s message for a long time, but BJP embraced it and said they can do it quickly. Many upper castes deeply resented caste reservations and they hoped Modi would reverse. Except that Modi is very conscious of caste. Very cautious. He knows if he goes against reservations he will not win the next elections. That’s a fact. If you want to win popular vote you have to appeal to various groups who have learnt to embrace these different schemes. So these are a lot of projections of what people would like to see in Modi. Those who liked to see caste reservations saw that, those who liked to see development saw that, those who liked to see anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan saw that. He became a symbolic sense of a lot of different things. He will disappoint. Nobody can do this. It is what was expected of Obama in 2008. Everybody wanted to see everything good in the world in Obama and of course he is bound to disappoint. That is the logic of democratic politics.

IPM: What do you think of Muslims in India vis a vis the BJP and RSS?
TH: Pakistan is not interested in Indian Muslims, and has never been. There is no record of its acceptance. A little diplomatic note here and there saying not to do this or that but, it ends there. Most of the Indian Muslims know this. The biggest danger is that BJP is utterly oblivious to the danger to Muslims in India. Muslims in India are the biggest minority in the world. And probably the most marginalized minority. Indian muslims are not the ISIS. The biggest puzzle from a social scientist point of view is why do Indian Muslims remain relatively calm, relatively inward looking and non-militant? They are scared and they have reason to be scared. They are beaten. They are beaten down solid. This is what the people in the community say: They (Hindus) have won. This is how they talk about it. That is why the Owassi brothers stand out because though their rhetoric is sometimes objectionable, they are popular. I would not count on that situation continuing forever. You cannot push 180 million people against the wall again and again and again without something happening. The previous government knew this so they did a big report about the living conditions of Indian Muslims, which turned out to be far worse than anyone imagined. UPA did it because they knew there was a potential problem. They did not, however, know what to do with it. I seriously think that BJP is playing a very dangerous game. And the world, especially here, seems to be completely oblivious to that.

IPM: What worries you specifically? Is it Digital India per se or that the anti-Muslim behavior is being propagated strongly by Narendra Modi?
TH: It is both. Digital India has a lot of promise and huge potential. But it also has huge pitfalls. That mainly comes from the fear that this government will not implement this scheme in a way that respects privacy laws and human rights. I was in India in summer and there was actually a very interesting debate about this topic. The Attorney General came out and affirmatively in a statement said that India has no privacy laws. There is no law of legislation that actually protects privacy as is in the case of other countries. The U.S. in principle had good protection laws on privacy, but as we know those are still being flouted all the time. So the statement brings about a worry that this particular government is less attentive to privacy issues than maybe other governments would have been. It is an appeal to the people in Silicon Valley to think about whom they are dealing with. We know that Google and others are happy to sail very close to the winds and are often on the other side as to what can be done. It’s not that we necessarily trust these companies to be inherently ethical. I personally think that Digital India has promise but there is a way in which I think information technology has sometimes been touted in India as if it’s that which can save India from itself. I happen to think that the only way India can change is by gradual hard work because much of which has nothing to do with Information Technology but with fundamental services, infrastructure and creation of jobs. Digital India is not going to deliver jobs to millions of Indian youth who live in small towns and who are the victims of many years of neglect of primary education. This Make in India pretends as if by imagination somehow India will become this manufacturing giant in the world. The fact is that when we study other countries who have risen to become major industrial countries like China or South Korea we realize that they got their fundamentals right: education, health, infrastructure, creating a real workforce that can work in an industry. Industry today is not like the industry in 1950s. We need to have certain skills to work in industry. And the fact of the matter is that India does not have that workforce.

“It seems to me that many people in BJP are drunk on their own power, and they have to learn their limits. I still have confidence in what is the most infuriating aspect of India from the point of view of government – that everything you try to do is always met by opposition; there is always someone who is unhappy, someone who is protesting. But that also is the redeeming part of India – this is what keeps democracy growing.”

IPM: Don’t you think the Gujarat developmental model is a success?
TH: The whole problem with the Gujarat developmental model is that the workforce comes from outside. Gujarat does not have a great record on mass employment. It looks developed because of some industries such as the TATA motors. A lot of it has to do with aesthetic makeover: creating roads, glass and steel facades to make it look modern. However, I don’t think that structural problems are addressed as there are no MITs or engineering and art colleges. Gujarat has the highest industrial economic output per capita in India but its social equality indicators are low, much lower than Tamilnadu for instance. In Tamilnadu, there was an effort to build infrastructure such as education and health. Now, there is this widespread belief that with information technology we can leap over all these basics and arrive at some kind of wonderful future. There is a certain kind of middle class narcissism involved in this – let’s create a wonderful world for us, but all these poor people can’t really relate to that. Unfortunately, these are the successful people of Indian origin in the technology sector globally. Thus, a particular kind of perception that they are the real citizens of India rather than all those poor fellows persists. BJP forgets these poor fellows have vote too.

Picture by IndiaParentMagazine

IPM: This statement of your protest is unprecedented both in the number of signatories and also in its openness to condemn a duly elected head of the state. How did this idea of sending out a concerned statement to Tech companies come about?
TH: India is also a part of the world where free speech is allowed, and a concern from us that there is no acceptance of it. I mean, free speech is there but it is according to the BJP rules. We say those are not the rules of the game. The BJP has to learn to accept opposing views. I don’t think that is anything strange. If, tomorrow, Mr. Putin would arrive into Silicon Valley and promise a big initiative, I promise there would be a lot of people who would be very concerned. He is also democratically elected, isn’t he? That’s one comparison. Would there not be people who would be critical of him though? Will Russian patriots accept that? Will they also come out ferociously against people who oppose him? Yes they would. Would they troll on the Internet and abuse people? Probably they would. But still, most people in America feel that there’s a legitimate thing to worry about. Conversely, when it comes to India and Modi it’s, ‘No, no, you can’t say that.’ Why not? I am yet to understand this. On top of that, there is this perception that by criticizing one country, one defends another. Those opposed to our petition would say ‘Don’t you understand the U.S. is full of Christian nationalists?’ Absolutely. This is something I absolutely abhor as well. Many of the same people who signed the statement would equally criticize Trump or a Christian fundamentalist coalition in the U.S. It is the principle we are talking about. We are not witch hunting against Hindus. That’s ridiculous.

IPM: Do you think, under Modi, Digital India might bring serious concerns and abuse to the privacy of an individual? But hasn’t this been abused even under the presidency of Barrack Obama who has been accused of spying and abusing personal information of individuals? What do you think of Modi?

“Muslims in India are the biggest minority in the world. And probably the most marginalized minority. Indian muslims are not the ISIS. The biggest puzzle from a social scientist point of view is why do Indian Muslims remain relatively calm, relatively inward looking and non-militant? They are scared and they have reason to be scared. They are beaten.

TH: Not great. I think the way in which opposition is being stymied, shouted down, is a worrying sign. Rationalists are being murdered. The government obviously did not do it but the problem is having BJP with absolute power has emboldened many branches of the Hindu Nationalist Movement and its sympathizers. They have been able to conduct themselves in a more threatening way then they have been able to conduct themselves in the past as they bank on immunity. That they can get away with it. That’s the real problem on human rights.

There’s this blatant use of CBI especially in the case of Teesta Setalvad. It’s not direct action of the government where you can place your finger on but this blatant antagonism against NGOs and minority organizations is very troubling. The problem is that the government is willing to turn a blind eye to extreme forms of threats. There is greater climate of tolerance to threats toward minorities. That’s for me is the real worry. BJP is clever now. After Gujarat 2002 riots they realized that should not be seen to be involved in open display of use of police power on the streets. They don’t want that. But it is the non-action against these majoritarian outfits that troubles me. It is the biggest threat over time.

IPM: Do you think the ban culture and the development might run against each other?
TH: Yes, and there is a majoritarian violence coming about due to bans. I don’t know if we can call it terrorism. It is produced as a cause of protection against the so-called violent minority. They project it as a necessary violence of self-defense. This whole idea of this majority being hurt, the majority being in danger, majority feeling that it needs to take action to defend itself has been part and parcel of this whole movement. This is about purging Muslims from our minds and from our society, a structure you saw in Germany in 1930s-that same rhetoric of the majority being in danger, of purging themselves from internal danger. The Hindu nationalists are using this culture of being hurt, being damaged very actively. It is always been the case. In some ways the fundamentals of the very beginning of this movement is that we [Hindu nationalists] have lived under the Muslim control for centuries and that has traumatized as well as disturbed us. Hence, now we have to get rid of this threat, the nationalists think. So now, everybody is a victim of something.

IPM: Any response from the media to your statement?
TH: There’s been some: Mercury News, KQED. There has been remarkably little interest from the Indian media, which more or less merely reproduced what’s reported on the web. I was sad. I always thought one of the majorly interesting things about India was its vibrant press. I am not sure if I would say that today. There has been much decline in coverage for many reasons – one of them being that they are run by commercial interests more than anything else. There was even an erroneous statement put out by the Press Trust of India (PTI), which is based on Prime Minister’s office (PMO) saying Modi would be giving a speech at Stanford and Berkeley when there hasn’t even been an official invitation. That is a completely fabricated and wrong statement. No arrangements have been made. He is not visiting universities, which I think is a good thing because we do education. We don’t celebrate heads of state. That’s not our business. NDTV, Business Times reproduced this and nobody bothered to check the facts. My point is, there’s been a lot of media management to portray that all are going to roll out a red carpet here at Stanford. Our style to roll out red carpet is for academicians and not for politicians. I would like to say this in a very emphatic way because some of us here are very shocked by this and also annoyed too.

IPM: You have spent a lot of time researching the RSS and even wrote a book. What is the raison d'être of RSS according to you?
TH: They want to transform or they see themselves in a tradition of wanting to modernize and unify Hinduism. But they don’t do it out of a concern for theology. Many pracharaks would tell me that they never even go to the temple. They don’t have time for that. They simply want to create a political Hinduism, in unifying a whole bunch of people despite their differences to bring about a majoritarian state. They want to unify Hindus as a political and cultural front. They suffer from this envy of Islam, but they are also very impressed with the internal organization of Muslims – the brotherhood, the way in which they come together every Friday the same time, kneeling together, unified at that time. That was what they tried to emulate with Maha Aarthis in Bombay, through riots trying to unify Hindus in the same way as Muslims. They like discipline; they want these values to be instilled. If you look through any major RSS literature it is only speeches about strength-physical strength. They love the military precision.

It has to be said that RSS especially in the 80s and 90s has realized that they had really had to broaden their base, especially in politics. RSS is predominantly an upper caste base but recruited boys from lower caste communities, given them education, sponsored them. This is the story of Modi as well and I know many people like that. When I did my work in Maharashtra, people rising in politics within RSS are those from poor caste background, they still maintained in the background that senior RSS men were Brahmins who reserved the rights to influence and authority. This is how RSS performs.

Recently the Modi government submitted all their account books to RSS. This is a school masterly authoritarianism. This is the favored position the RSS wants to be in, a Brahminical position of being a moral authority where you check and approve. Yes, RSS is trying to be inclusive but is it opposed to caste hierarchy? No. In fact they defend it very vigorously but in this kind of inclusive way. Everybody has a place in it but inclusively. This appeals to some people, some lower castes clearly benefited from this, and Modi being one of them, and it’s not a coincident that he is the chosen man.

I find it disturbing that the BJP government reported to RSS of their progress. RSS is a non-elected, non-accountable, self appointed body of upper caste men, who have decided that they are going to be the school masters of India. They always said, “We just need two percent of Indian men to sign up for RSS. We’ll make this into an elite core of morally elevated creatures. We can control India.” In fact I think they were trying to emulate what the British did. British too were just a few people who have arrogated for themselves the right to adjudicate and control India. If you look at the way they address, they (RSS) don’t address like Hindus. They address like the colonial policemen, like almost Hitler. Now they think their time has come and that this two percent can control India without ever being elected. None of these (RSS) people will ever be elected to a public office if they stood in elections. Not even one of them.