XQs III: A Conversation with Arafaat Valiani

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship

valiani-150x150Arafaat A. Valiani earned his doctoral degree from Columbia University. From September 2014, he will be Associate Professor of History in the Department of History at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Militant Publics in India: Physical Culture and Violence in the Making of a Modern Polity, published by Palgrave (2011).

[Interview conducted by Sanyasi, via email, May-August, 2014]

1. Could you explain what you mean by physical culture?

Sure. Though I argue in my book that physical culture is central to various nationalist movements in South Asia I’ll start with Hindu nationalist understandings of it. The founding organization of the Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has sought to introduce a set of physical practices comprising drills and games to young men and women residing in the cities, towns, and villages India. Performed during daily meetings in local branches, such routines of physical culture are framed as a set of bodily exercises described in Vedic texts that only the most privileged (usually high-caste) Hindus are permitted learn and perform. For the RSS, as well as other Hindu nationalist organizations today like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Bajrang Dal, the collective performance of these physical practices affords the practitioner with physical power, courage and self-mastery while also reforming him/her morally because of the discipline required to undertake these physical practices on a daily basis.

These practices also have broader national goals in that they are also supposed to unite all Hindus because they consistently attract young men and women to branch meetings, in which they train together and thus form affective bonds, all the while incorporating them into the moral and institutional sphere of Hindu nationalist organizations throughout the country (and globally). (One striking thing about neighborhood shakhas is that in my research, many Hindus and certain Indian minorities of all castes and classes confirmed some kind of experience with a local branch when they were growing up so it is a common experience among Indian youth in large metropolises as well as provincial cities and towns in India.) For particularly adept swayamsevaks and sevikas (male and female volunteers respectively), branches are an entry point into a vast national and international network of branches whose members are selected by branch shikshaks (teachers) to attend periodic training camps. For Hindu nationalists, the project of enracinating this particular vision of physical culture among all Hindus is crucial because it seeks to repair what its founders viewed as a divided, cowardly and physically weak Hindu nation.

In the book I suggest that these branch based physical practices are key sites in which notions of political community are forged and they depend on powerful moral-religious references to Hinduism in addition to an affirmation of the social and political utility for routinized physical force and self-discipline.

2. Could you say more about the particular optic of “publics” through which you approach the role of political modernity? As you point out, there is much rich work on Hindu nationalist violence in India but there are some important aspects of the phenomenon that have not been addressed.

There’s one intervention in the book that I’ll mention here though there are a few that I discuss in the study as a whole. Political modernity in the post-war period has a strong association with democracy which can include elections, civic organization and the formation of various kinds of important institutions and organizational forms like political parties (among other things). With this important association in mind, political violence which is associated with several varieties of Indian nationalism is not particularly well understood in terms of how it becomes a regular feature in everyday spheres of public interaction. I focus on those public arenas specifically in cities, peri-urban areas and towns. There are also fewer answers to the question which asks how routinized political violence that takes place in the landscape of democratic institutions and organizations might shape political actors.

My work builds upon important scholarship on Indian nationalism and the growth of the Hindu nationalist movement by arguing that micro practices that are situated in publics (spheres of regular social interaction that I’ll define further in a moment) have an important role to play in both shaping political actors as well as political community. The specific micro practices that I focus on are broadly associated with physical culture comprising collective drills and games which young Hindu men and women undertake on a regular basis in neighborhood based shakhas (branches) which are located throughout most cities and towns in India (and in some cases abroad as well).

Let me unpack some of these terms; first let’s start with the term publics. Publics are different from the public sphere in that the former tend to be informal spheres of everyday interaction, like a neighborhood street, bazaar or public transport, in which social and political identities are formed through virtually any modality of interaction. The main thing is that their conventions are not scripted and there are few rules that govern entry into such arenas. By contrast, the public sphere refers to a concept theorized by the noted sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, consisting of formal spheres of public debate in which citizens deliberate on matters of national importance (newspapers are a good example of this kind of forum). By their very nature the public sphere assumes, and indeed empowers political actors, who can master skills of public discussion and oration and by their very nature these specific modes of public engagement are deliberative and non-violent.

One of the ironies about South Asian polities is that they have experienced significant episodes of political violence organized by some kind of modern political party or organization since the eighteenth century. This particular trajectory of political violence pushes to the surface the question about if and how a polity like the Indian one can accommodate, or more accurately couple, two modes of political engagement? The first being similar to the predominantly non-violent and dialogically oriented Habermasian public sphere and the second consisting of publics in which political subjects and notions of political community are formed through the collective performance of micro-corporeal practices of physical culture? I try to answer this question in my book through the study of Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent movement and the growth of Hindu nationalism in towns and cities of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

3. You argue that there is a place for violence/force in Gandhi’s vision of satyagraha, and that nonviolence is not necessarily anti-violence.

Yes. Over the past four decades, the state of Gujarat has been rocked by episodes of violence that has affected Hindus, Christians, Dalits and, especially, Muslims. Scholars and commentators usually remark that it is ironic that the state from which Gandhi’s non-violent movement emerged, as well as one of India’s most economically developed and prosperous regions, became one of the country’s most political violent arenas in the postcolonial period. In my work I acknowledge important differences between the manner in which activists were recruited and trained in Gandhi’s satyagraha movement versus those in Hindu nationalist organizations while I also strive to highlight some important convergences that are currently unacknowledged. For example, Gandhi was dismayed by the level of ‘indiscipline’, physical weakness and effeminacy among Indians, particularly Hindu men, who were joining the satyagraha movement at the grassroots level that he led. In addition, both he and Sardar Patel, the latter of whom was the effective architect of the satyagraha movement, felt that satyagrahis were lacking in the courage they showed during anti-government protests particularly when they had to face the state’s efforts to end the resistance through arrests and physical attacks.

As a means to remedy this ‘deficiency’ Gandhi prescribed drill training and manual labor as a means to create a physically able and morally disciplined “non-violent army”, as he called it, which would be located in villages, moffusil towns and cities, as well as the metropolitan areas. One example of his thinking on this issue can be seen in his response to a telegram which reported that one of his activists was wounded in the thigh when the police fired on the satyagrahis during a protest in the city of Karachi. Gandhi’s reply, by telegram, stated that the protester, Jairamdas Dolatram, was “most fortunate” to have been merely wounded in the leg but that a “wound to the heart” would have been “better still”. In this respect we see how Gandhi’s vision of non-violence was not necessarily anti-violent. The educational curriculum prescribed for Gandhi’s ashrams also reveal how there was a place for exposing activists to physical force and discipline. Inmates on his ashrams were required to be trained in drill, manual labor and other similar exercises which would afford Gandhian activists with physical prowess, a sense of discipline, and most important, courage. Trained in such a manner they would unflinchingly and steadily march toward the violent attacks of the colonial police and army and indeed welcome the violence that was directed at them.

In this respect the difference between Gandhi’s and Hindu nationalists’ vision of political activism does not revolve around each advocating for non-violence or violence respectively. They are in fact at odds on the targets and directionality of physical force within the political terrain. For Gandhi, the Indian activist should be physically and morally trained to be the target of lethal force, indeed s/he should be trained to welcome it on his/her self. For Hindu nationalists however, the very same political subject should be trained to wield lethal force and direct it towards targets that are the other of Indian Hindus (like Muslims, Christians, etc.).

4. The figure of Patel also finds an important place in your book. How do you locate him in the context of your thesis? Relatedly, you show how there are links between Gandhians and the RSS in the 1940s.

Yes his role, particularly how it changed during his leadership of the satyagraha movement and the Congress Party of India in cities in the 1940s, is particularly important. Communal violence in Gujarat seems quite paradoxical when you think about the contemporary phenomenon in relation to the growth of the satyagraha movement in early twentieth century Gujarat. If you think about the satyagraha movement and its evolution under the leadership of Sardar Patel I believe that one can then better conceptualize how Hindu nationalism came to be rooted in various cities of the state and how communal violence among various Hindu communities, as well as between Hindus and Indian minorities, occurred (under both Congress and Hindu nationalist governments). Here, the story is one that starts with the evolution of the satyagraha movement among urban activists in the 1940s.

In 1928 Gandhian leaders were able to organize Bardoli Satyagraha (in south Gujarat) which was the first large-scale, successful and completely non-violent anti-colonial satyagraha. Though there certainly were previous successful satyagrahas in India led by Gandhi, Bardoli was the first that was completely non-violent and which, according to the insightful work of David Hardiman and Doug Haynes, was mounted on a scale that had the potential to be a political catalyst for non-violent protest throughout British India afterward. Up to this point, Gandhi and Patel collaborated closely together in developing their grassroots strategy for popular satyagraha however in the 1930s and 1940s they seemed to diverge. On the one hand, Gandhi wanted to bring the political tool of satyagraha to the poorest Indians which meant those who did not own land (previous satyagrahas were essentially tax revolts which took up land tax grievances which affected middle and high caste communities who possessed land). On the other hand, Sardar Patel wanted to accelerate decolonization and grew impatient with the slow process of building disciplined rank-and-file at the grassroots as well as directing the tactics of a non-violent protest which could last more than half a year in some cases. As increasing numbers of Indians joined the satyagraha movement in the 1930s, he wanted them to employ violence in their anti-colonial campaigns. In the context of the Quit India Movement, which protested the involvement of the Indian army in Britain’s war efforts during World War II, Patel incorporated a cadre of physically trained insurgents into the satyagraha movement which produced its most pronounced effects in the cities of Ahmedabad and Bombay.

Ironically, Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy enjoyed significant national and global acclaim in the 1930s and 1940s and this is precisely the period in which the movement increasingly blended non-violent and violent strategies of popular mobilization in western Indian cities. Urban based activists who joined the satyagraha movement in this period did so because of Sardar Patel’s vision of the satyagraha movement and, eventually, they became some of the first grassroots Hindu nationalist leaders in the cities of postcolonial Gujarat.

5. Your work combines history and ethnography. You identify a series of key moments in a colonial genealogy of public militancy, including the Bardoli Satyagraha and the Quit India movement, that informs the postcolonial present. How does that legacy inform postcolonial Indian politics in general?

This is a wonderful question and it is very timely given two things: first, some preliminary indications of the effects of economic reform in India; and second, the completion of the 16th general election in India. Many commentators suggest that we are at the dawn of the birth of a ‘new India’ and that many things have and will change as the Indian state continues to deregulate important sectors of the economy and as concomitant technological innovations, foreign direct investment and various old and new media expand their reach. The role of religious traditions in the public sphere, defined broadly, is predicted to be significantly reduced in this shifting context. I think that it may be come to be that for some, religion may be something that will be seen to be relegated to the private sphere in favor of new modes work life, migration and residential patterns (some current work on neoliberal reform, work life and urban development would however contest such a neat characterization of this potential social transformation).

During the period of my research however, consisting of roughly 1999-2007, some of the most important economic reforms were enacted in India and they were felt powerfully in Gujarat. In much of this period, one in which the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of the state, participation in Hindu nationalist shakhas that I observed swelled. Many branch volunteers that I interviewed belonged to the middle and upper-middle classes who profited significantly from economic reform and this may also suggest that economic neoliberalism and globalization have not reduced the salience of the role of traditional practices like those of physical culture that I described. In fact, economic reform has been concomitant with a powerful re-entrenchment of popular Hindu nationalist sentiment in Gujarat and other scholars before me, particularly Thomas Blom Hansen, also demonstrate this. I think that this particular fact is a telling indication of the moral and institutional dynamics of the public sphere, or perhaps more accurately the publics, in which India’s current economic, technological and social transformation is taking place. In particular, I find that it underscores the kinds of political practices and modes of consociational life that is lived by a very large number of Indians and, important ways also, its global diaspora.

6. I was intrigued by your argument for the need for both a new conceptual frame and a new vocabulary for thinking through, and about, violence in the Indian context, particularly its constitutive dimensions. You point out that terms like genocide and holocaust derive from European histories. Could you elaborate on that?

Sure. Violence is one of the most slippery objects of study because it is challenging to offer a full analytical account of it. There are various parts to this but one is the problem of representation. Within South Asian cases of political violence but also, for cases of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, Peru, Guatemala, Argentina (among others), the terms genocide, ethnic cleansing, pogroms, rioting even holocaust have been invoked to try to describe episodes of brutal and organized violence.

One of the problems is that many of these terms reference the tragic experience of the Holocaust during the World War II and that conceptualizing violence in such a way opens the door to two forms of inaccuracy. The first consists of using such freighted terms which can eclipse the experience and particular forms of violence which most scholars agree are not universal across cases. (It also runs the risk of flattening out the specificity of violent events, as commonly brutal as they may appear to be, of violent events.) The second is that many of these terms possess ideological and specific historical references. Rioting for example was increasingly used by colonial officials in 19th century India to describe conflict between Hindus and Muslims in colonial India which they believed stemmed from conflicts between passionately held religious doctrines that had been observed “since antiquity”. In fact, I was surprised to find that the etymology of the term violence itself, in the Oxford dictionary, refers to these events in British colonial history. I have not found an easy solution to finding an appropriate linguistic register by which to represent the kind of violence in Gujarat that I observed, something which Veena Das astutely discussed early on in the development of this field, but I employed some of these terms as economically as I could, while being vigilant of their genealogy, using them as placeholders of political experience that I then situated in relation to a specific moment, informant or experience with physical force.

7. Part of the project of physical culture, in its past and present, seems to focus on channeling and disciplining subaltern energies and subjects, from peasants in Gandhi’s nationalist mobilization to the members of RSS shakhas. How do we think through questions of class and subalternity in relation to both discourses of masculinity and religion or communalism (in the specific sense in which that latter term is used in the Indian context)?

The issue of class and subalternity seems to have worked in some complex ways in terms of discourses of both masculinity and communalism. Though many of the activists that both the Gandhians and Hindu nationalists first recruit consist of high and middle caste Hindus (often referred to as savarna Hindus) from the middle-class, such programs of physical training were also directed toward members of tribal and Dalit, as well as Other Backward Caste (OBC) communities which scholars group under the term of sanskritization. What has been quite unexpected in the urban based polities of Gujarat is the manner in which the extension of reservations (affirmative action in state employment and college admissions) first to Dalit and Tribal communities, and then to OBCs in the 1980s, is that many members of these communities improving socio-economic status has not pushed them to become secular agents in the polity. Instead, many have been, with important exceptions, powerfully drawn into the fold of high-caste practices and ideology of the Sangh Parivar.

In Militant Publics a disproportionate number of activists whom I interviewed, indeed the network of mid- and high-level leaders of the Hindu nationalist movement, were from Dalit, Tribal or OBC communities. Their presence in the movement has rendered it into a vibrant social movement while also simultaneously reorienting—and thus subtly challenging—many high caste ideological precepts within the movement itself.

8. Your book draws on oral historical and ethnographic material on the moral world inside VHP and RSS shakhas, collected in the course of archival work. What were the challenges of undertaking research in these sites as a Muslim working in Gujarat?

Contrary to some popular representations which tend to flatten the antagonism between Hindu nationalists and Muslims, I have found that Hindu nationalist organizations have a dynamic relationship with Muslim Indians. (To be clear, I am not suggesting that the overwhelming orientation of the movement does not tend toward serious vilification of Indian minorities.) One recent example of this dynamic kind of conflict can be seen in the evolution of representing Muslim support for the BJP; I observed this personally and I believe that Zahir Janmohamed has also written about it. During my fieldwork I came to be seen as a Gujarati not only because I spoke the language, something that is privileged in Gujarat and wrongly associated with being a savarna Hindu. When I started my work in Hindu nationalist shakhas I was residing with a Brahmin family which I speculate also made me amenable to branch organizers.

Interestingly, I was quite vigilant of being used as a public example of Hindu nationalist tolerance or being fed a sympathetic image of the RSS’ view of Muslims; neither of these unfolded during my fieldwork however. I was fortunate enough to start my work before the violence in 2002 so I could work with my network of contacts through that period. As more scrutiny fell on Hindu nationalist organizations after 2002, and as more scholars and writers came to Gujarat post 2002, I believe that it has become more difficult. The most difficult aspect of my work took place during the riots of 2002 when I had to find a place to stay while I did my work which did not endanger the many generous Hindu families that offered me a place to stay. I found one but it took a great deal of work. I believe that I was very fortunate because residential segregation by caste and religion is a powerful constraint for virtually all in India and it can define one’s place in the social, political and economic map of so many South Asian cities.

9. What were some of the ethical challenges of undertaking ethnographic work among communities and groups that, it is plausible to assume, were complicit in riots and violence in the 2002 riots in Gujarat?

One of the things that I strived to accomplish was to discuss the history of political violence and popular mobilization in a manner that was balanced and based on verified evidence. In my book you will note that I almost always acknowledge the full extent of communal violence noting how it has affected virtually every religious community in Gujarat with Muslims, based on the available evidence, bearing the brunt of it.

During my ethnographic work in Hindu nationalist shakhas in Ahmedabad, I worked with members of which were allegedly, and now proven in some cases, to have been complicit in conducting violent attacks
against Muslims in the city in 2002. At the time there were few legal rulings on these allegations so I strived to suspend my visceral reaction and distaste for their possible involvement. I also had to do the same when I encountered xenophobic discourses about Muslims during baudhik sessions which were often a part of branch meetings. Such sessions accompanied physical training and it was a time when branch members learnt about an imagined golden age of Indian history when Hindu kings ruled sublimely in prosperous and equitable kingdoms. Stories about the members’ experience with Muslims, some of which were apocryphal or based on other stories that circulated in their families, were also shared in these moments which I had to train myself to unemotionally record in order to be able to trace out the various discourses of the movement, its range and contours.

10. This conversation is especially timely given that Narendra Modi is now the Indian Prime Minister despite–or, more alarmingly, because of–his associations with ‘development’ and Hindu assertion. What are your thoughts on this possibility, in relation to the themes of your book?

As a scholar, I find Prime Minister Modi’s political biography fascinating particularly the story of his ascendency. Scholars like Ashutosh Varshney, Amrita Basu, Thomas Blom Hansen, Arvind Rajgopal, Steven Wilkinson, Paul Brass, Christophe Jaffrelot, Asghar Ali Engineer, Ornit Shani, Kalyani Devaki Menon and Peter van der Veer taught me that when the BJP formed the first coalition government in New Delhi (the New Democratic Alliance (NDA) there was powerful anti-Congress sentiment that channeled votes toward the BJP (in addition to other important factors). In the recent election, this seems to have been at play but a powerful pro-Narendra Modi sentiment has also seemed to be at work. In some respects I am not surprised by this because of the Prime Minister’s own origins and his long trajectory as a Hindu nationalist organizer and leader.

During my research I crossed paths with Mr. Modi in large part because I worked with organizers in the movement and I would attend, for example, the annual Jagannath Rath Yatra, which the Chief Minister of Gujarat typically attends. These moments were very telling for me in that they seemed to distill the tone and mode of engagement of political leaders in these urban public arenas. As my current research focuses on business firms and urban economies within South Asia, Asia more broadly, and transnationally, I will continue to track the cultural and political processes that shape this important time in the subcontinent.

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