“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs”

Sahitya Poonacha

A walk through the buried history of the Kodavas of Kodagu (Coorg), their colonial past and post-colonial quest for representation.

If we begin with the Kodavas, we must first speak of Kodagu. The hill station tucked away in the Western Ghats of south India which eventually turned into a mnemonic device for the Kodavas. Home to a tribe of warrior clans, never quite well-placed in the caste structure, addressed little in the media, and with little self-reflection by Kodavas themselves. Although, there has been much push in recent times to change this.

While their recorded history goes back to the 10th CE, their oral histories go farther back and have passed down generations. Barely reconstructed, these oral histories are yet to be pursued and are often rejected as hearsay. That being said, this article doesn’t seek to rewrite its history. Moreover, written by a Kodava herself,  it must not be taken at face value. 

“It was the British colonialists after all who called it ‘Coorg’ instead of ‘Kodagu’ and dubbed it the ‘Scotland of India’ a title similarly accorded to Shillong as ‘Scotland of the East’.”

Remnants of colonial history are found in India on every street corner, every household, and this includes the secluded hills of Kodagu. It was the British colonialists after all who called it “Coorg” instead of “Kodagu” and dubbed it the “Scotland of India” a title similarly accorded to Shillong as “Scotland of the East”.

What made and still makes the Kodavas different is that they stand out within the “imaginary” idea of India. As a tribal, egalitarian community divided into clans the Kodavas have existed in Kodagu with their own distinct culture and traditions rejecting the systems in neighbouring regions. 

“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography.”

Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography. Kodagu remains nestled in the hills, a road trip from Bengaluru is the most common and only way to get to Kodagu. The martial Kodavas who possessed a strong sense of community, pride and dominance made it even harder to rule. This could have been a reason even the mighty Chola Dynasty couldn’t get a hold of the region leaving them in the periphery.

We see this continue today as Kodavas try to assert their identity as a different group, that requires autonomy, insulated and still angered by their past in modern India. They’ve had multiple separatist struggles in the 20th CE that are rarely covered by  the media, and a section still demanding homeland status. The historical records to help uncover these movements  curiously sit in the libraries of Britain and a few can be found in the National Library of India.

The Kodava Culture 

Let’s go to the beginning, Kodavas if you ask them their origins see themselves as having an Aryan  connection in heritage, essayed in M.P. Cariappa and Ponnamma Cariappa’s work as well. This is what every young Kodava grows up hearing in living room conversations, what history hasn’t proved or as some Kodavas say, hasn’t ‘yet’. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Kodavas or Kodagu, Kodavas constitute a patrilineal society centred around “okkas”, a clan stemming from a common ancestor. Each okka possesses an “ainmane” or ancestral home where they used to celebrate and congregate. Vast tracts of land were given to an okka or clan, called “jamma” lands, that are jointly cultivated and passed down over generations. The Kaveri Purana as part of the Skanda Purana identifies Kodavas as “Kshatriya-Shudra” (warrior and lower caste), something history and India neither expected nor explained. 

As nature and ancestor worshippers, Kodavas are known to hold the elements of nature in high regard. Many of their festivals are also centred on nature worship, particularly the harvest festival of Puttari and Kaveri Sankramanna marking the date that Goddess Kaveri began her descent. On many festive occasions offerings are made to ancestors. Kodavas eventually came to worship Hindu deities as interaction with those around Kodagu increased. 

Kodavas worship goddess Kaveri as custodians of the river that originates in the Brahmagiri hills. Kaveri’s story is intriguing. For me, a Kodavathi, the worship of a goddess who left her husband,   Brahmin sage Agastya for reasons debated has left an incredible mark. It is believed she left to serve the people, to save the world, and this story fascinated me. One simplified version of the myth, which I heard most growing up, is that Kaveri agreed to marry Agastya on the condition that he wouldn’t leave her alone. 

However, he once turned her into water and kept her in his kamandala (pot) asking his disciples to guard it, so that she wouldn’t leave him while he went to bathe. Recognising the trickery, she left him. As she flowed out of the pot she was unstoppable, even as men and women stood in her path. Legend has it, it was her force that turned the women’s sarees the other way around. Till today, the women of Kodagu continue to wear their sarees the other way around setting them apart from the conventional draping followed by Indian women. The story is powerful. These may be reduced to myths, but it reveals one thing, the attempt to assert an aspect of identity.

“Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations.”

Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations. However, today Kodavas struggle to make their culture felt.

The Colonial History of Kodagu 

“The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then.”

A large chunk of Kodagu’s history starts and ends with the dynasty of the Haleri kings back in the 17th century an off-shoot of the Ikkeri Nayakas[i], who managed to make Kodagu their home and that’s when the Kodavas entered the dynamics and politics of Southern India. The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then. 

Curiously, the Kodavas never had a Kodava ruler. Regardless of the ruler, it was the Kodava identity that had to repeatedly sustain itself through cultural preservation. Kodagu’s history of course has left its own impression and scars on Kodavas and has pushed them to stay the course. This is especially seen in the community’s memory of Tipu Sultan, who ruled the Carnatic between 1782 and 1799 from Mysore. The contest for Kodagu in some ways presented itself here. Often dubbed the “Tiger of Mysore” and alternatively a “temple desecrator” has been somewhat of a contested history. 

For Kodavas, they see this attempt to assert dominance as a traumatic, dark, blood-soaked past that India has undermined. The reconstruction of Tipu’s rule in sources has either glossed over his feud with Kodavas or has revolved entirely around this bit. Either way, the reconstruction has not been reliable, with unconfirmed  numbers, underreported facts, and some confusion. You might recall the protests in the district against celebrating Tipu Jayanti in recent times.

“This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen.”

This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen. Although, one should notice it was the Kodava identity that truly got caught in this triangular power struggle, trapped in the hills with little say over what happened to their status.

Mercara Fort
Image by Sahitya P Poonacha (2016)

“Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was the only Haleri ruler in Kodagu who was wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.”

Still, Kodagu in its  strained relationship with the Haleri dynasty in the 19th CE, would come to be signed off to the British in 1834 by Chikkaviraraja. Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was one Haleri ruler in Kodagu wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.

On the colonial front, they still enjoy some privileges, like being the only community allowed to carry arms without a license, an 1861 colonial exemption that came in place. This owes to the fact that Kodavas worship weapons. 

“The moment the British East India Company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.”

The British East India Company saw profitability in the hills for plantation agriculture. They acquired the martial clans that would then become associated with India’s defence for generations to come. Post-independence the community would eventually be home to national heroes such as General Thimmayya and Field Marshal Cariappa. The moment the company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.

Postcolonial Identity

Independence has been at the heart of Kodagu’s history, liberated in mythology by their goddess. Even as a small hill station Kodagu holds much diversity, Muslims, Gowdas, other communities and smaller tribes have coexisted through their own myths and timeless tales. Today, Kodavas try to preserve their  culture, through their shrines, ainmanes, jamma lands passed down generations and their revered padathi or traditions. All to some valaga beats, and celebrations like Kailupodhu where weapons and arms are worshipped. 

In the 21st CE, these traditions sustain in new forms even as many Kodavas have moved out of the hills. Many Kodavas continue to maintain their sprawling coffee estates, paddy fields. Notable Kodavas join India’s defence forces and contribute in various sectors. Kodagu meanwhile, now welcomes tourists from all over the world to find new ways to showcase and preserve the hill station. 

“The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as ‘pride’.”

The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as “pride”. Perhaps there is  a reason for it we haven’t explored. Why does this warrior tribe demand homeland status and self-rule?

The answers are in its history and this is the colonial baggage the community carries with it through generations beyond independence. Therefore complex power struggles are not simply a thing of the past. Lest we lose all this history to the trappings of development and more political dialogue. In 2020, ironically British chef Gordon Ramsay found something noteworthy about Kodavas’ Pandhi curry[ii] on his show with National Geographic and that’s hardly a brush on the surface.

[i] The real origin date of the Haleri dynasty is uncertain, but dates to the mid-17th century according to the Rajendraname. [ii] Pandhi curry is a pork delicacy loved by Kodavas.

Sahitya is a journalist and a writer with a voice. Finding time to pursue an academic interest in minority positioning in mainstream media between chasing leads and searching for stories that need telling.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

खोता हुआ हमारा अस्तित्व

अपूर्बा बी

रिश्तेदार, परिजन, सहपाठियों, अध्यापकों के असंवेदनशील, आक्रमणशील और निर्मम प्रश्न, टिप्पणियां और कसे हुए तंज सुनते सुनते अब कान थक चुके हैं लेकिन हौसले नहीं टूटे।

पहली बार इन्हें सुन कर मेरे मन मे क्रोध की भावनाओं ने जन्म लिया था लेकिन अब ये सब कुछ मेरे लिए हास्यास्पद हो चुका है।

ये सिलसिला तब से शुरू होता है जब 2011 में  मेरी माँ ने इस दुनियां को हमेशा-हमेशा के लिए अलविदा कह दिया। उनके इंतक़ाल की वजह कैंसर थी। तब मैं मात्र चौदह वर्ष की थी और मेरे दसवीं के बोर्ड्स आने वाले थे। माँ के इंतक़ाल से पहले यूं तो हमारे परिवार के हालातों की किसी को चिंता नहीं थी और ना ही खबर। लेकिन उनके जाने के बाद अचानक हर किसी को यह चिंता सताने लगी कि मेरी परवरिश पर क्या असर पड़ेगा। आखिर कौन मुझे “संस्कार” देगा, मेरी शादी कैसे होगी, कही अपने पिता के छत्रछाया में आकर में “लड़कों जैसी” ना हो जाऊं वगेरह वगेरह। हर कोई पिताजी पर दूसरी शादी कर लेने का सुझाव कुछ इस प्रकार बरसा रहे थे जैसे बम्बई की बारिश हो, दोनों ही  रुकने का नाम नहीं लेते हैं। हालांकि इतने दबाव के बावजूद भी उन्होंने  कभी दूसरी शादी करने का  ख्याल भी अपने मन मे लाना ज़रूरी नहीं समझा।

हर किसी की एक ही दलील थी, “मास्टरजी, आपकी ज़रूरते कैसी पूरी होंगी, बच्ची को संस्कार कौन देगा, घर का ख्याल कौन रखेगा”, और उनके “सुझाव” नाजायज़ भी तो नहीं, आखिरकार भारतीय समाज में  एक औरत की हस्ती भी तो ना के  बराबर होती है।

हर किसी की एक ही दलील थी, “मास्टरजी, आपकी ज़रूरते कैसी पूरी होंगी, बच्ची को संस्कार कौन देगा, घर का ख्याल कौन रखेगा”, और उनके “सुझाव” नाजायज़ भी तो नहीं, आखिरकार भारतीय समाज में  एक औरत की हस्ती भी तो ना के  बराबर होती है।  पैदा होते ही पिता की बात मानो , फिर भाई की बात मानो , शादी हो जाने के बाद पति और ससुराल, खास कर सास जो की खुद भी एक औरत है उनकी  बात भी मानो और अपनी दुनिया  छोड़ कर उनकी दुनिया में समा जाओ और अपना अस्तित्व भूल जाओ, बच्चे जब बड़े हो जाये तब उनकी जरूरतो के हिसाब से अपने आप को ढाल लो जिससे उन्हें तुम्हारे  गैर अस्तित्व से  शर्मिंदगी  ना महसूस हो और  फिर एक दिन यू ही किसी रोज़ हमेशा-हमेशा के लिए खत्म हो जाओ और अगर गलती से भी किसी दिन अपने अस्तित्व के होने को भी याद कर लो तो खत्म कर दिए जाओगे।

हम भारतियों के लिए  हाउसवाइफ शब्द एक बहुत  सीरियस मुद्दा है, वस्तुत: रूप से भी और लाक्षणिक रूप से भी। हमारा ये मानना है कि जब एक औरत की शादी हो जाती है तब उसकी शादी किसी इंसान से नहीं बल्कि एक परिवार से और एक घर से होती है जो कि अंत में  उसे  सिर्फ और सिर्फ एक भोगविलास और दिखावे की वस्तु ही बना कर रख देता है जिसका औहदा उसके शारीरिक स्थिति और गर्भ को ताक़ पर रख कर ही या तो  बढ़ता है या तो घटता है और जब वह उपजाऊ या “दर्शनीय ” नहीं रहती उसे बदल दिया जाता है। एक औरत जन्म के बाद भी अपने घर में  पराये धन की तरह सुशोभित होती है और अपने पति के घर में भी एक किराएदार की भांति ही रहती है जिसे कभी भी निकाला जा सकता है। आभूषण, पैसा और प्रासंगिक रूपी “सम्मान” और “अधिकार” भी जो उसे उसके पति के घर से मिलता है वह भी एक जमाराशि  मात्र होता है,  जैसे अपने घर के अलमारी के किसी कोने में पड़ा कोई पुराना मलमल का कपड़ा हो जिसे कभी-कभार साफ सुथरा करके धूप दिखा कर दुबारा उस ही कोने में पटक दिया जाता है और जब वो कपडा सड़ जाए तब उसे कचरे के डिब्बे में फेंक दिया जाता है जिससे एक नए मलमल के कपड़े के लिए खाली जगह बन जाये।

मैं  इस किस्म की विचारधारा से बिल्कुल ही अपरिचित थी क्योंकि मैंने अपनी माँ को हमेशा एक मनुष्य के रूप में देखा था, क्योंकि वही तो वो थी। मेरे पिताजी भी मेरी माँ से बेहद प्रेम करते थे और पूरे मन से उनका सम्मान करते थे। लेकिन तब मैं पितृसत्ता नामक इस सामाजिक त्रुटि से अनजान थी जिसके लिए स्त्री या तो देवी है नहीं तो पैर की धूल, उसके बीच कुछ भी नहीं।

इस सामाजिक त्रुटि का सामना मुझसे तब हुआ जब कभी मैं अपने पिताजी के साथ किसी  के भी घर  जाया करती थी और उन सभी लोगो का एक ही उपदेश और सवाल होता था कि मेरी माँ का रिप्लेसमेंट( प्रतिस्थापना) कब होगा।

लेकिन मन में  कुछ प्रश्न भी अब सामने आते  है कि ममता जैसी पावन और पवित्र भावना पितृसत्ता और पितृसत्तात्मक विचारधारा से कब जुड़ बैठी? आखिरकार माँ के अभाव से और पिता के प्रभाव से बेटिया कबसे “बिगड़ने” लग गयी? क्या मेरी परिस्थिति और दूसरी “बिन माँ की बेटियों” की परिस्थितियों में कोई खास अंतर है? शायद नहीं।

हमने जब कभी अपने आस पास चीज़ों को बनते-संवरते देखा है उनमें हमारी माँ ओ का बहुत  बड़ा योगदान रहा है।

हमने जब कभी अपने आस पास चीज़ों को बनते-संवरते देखा है उनमें हमारी माँ ओ का बहुत  बड़ा योगदान रहा है। चाहे वो स्कूल की टेक्स्टबुक में लिखी छोटी छोटी बाल कथाएं हो, surf exel का विज्ञापन हो, या बॉलीवुड की फिल्मो में बेटी को “विदा” करती हुई रोती-बिलखती हुई माँ हो। हर जगह सब कुछ बनाती-सवारती माँ ही है, बाप हर वक़्त किसी न किसी कोने में पड़ा चुप-चाप अखबार पढ़ता हुआ ही मिलेगा।

बचपन से ही बच्चियों को रसोई में हाथ बटाने के लिए मौजूद रखना,
भाई की झूठी थाली धोना सीखाना,
परिवार में मौजूद पुरूषों के  खत्म होने के बाद ही खाना,
अडजस्ट करना सीखाना,
आज्ञाकारी बनाना, 
चुप्पी साधना सीखना,
ज़ोर से ना बोलने, हँसने और चलने पर रोक लगाना,
मधुर स्वर की  एक औरत के “जीवन में  प्रयोजन समझना”,
पढ़ाई  के साथ-साथ घर के काम-काज सीखाना,
खेल कूद में भाग लेने से हतोत्साहित करना,

रूढ़िवादी पेशे अपनाने  के लिए दबाव देना और शादी हो जाने के बाद या बच्चे को जन्म देने के बाद  कैरियर छोड़ देने के लिये अप्रत्यक्ष दबाव डालना,  ये सब कुछ माँ या ममतामयी रूपी पारिवारिक संबंध ही सीखाती है।

माँ , पितृसत्तात्मक सोच- विचार धारा बच्चों में बचपन से ही डालना शुरू कर देती हैं क्योंकि माँ ये खुद भी  आंतरिक लिंगवाद का शिकार होती है।

बचपन से लेकर “शादी की उम्र” हो जाने तक लड़की को एक परिपूर्ण औरत में तब्दील करने का भार हमेशा  माँ पर ही होता है, घर गृहस्थी की जिम्मेदारियां सीखाना हमेशा माँ की ही ज़िम्मेदारी मानी जाती है, क्योंकि इन सभी चीज़ों की  अपेक्षा भी हमेशा औरतों से ही बचपन से की जाती है। माँ , पितृसत्तात्मक सोच- विचार धारा बच्चों में बचपन से ही डालना शुरू कर देती हैं क्योंकि माँ ये खुद भी  आंतरिक लिंगवाद का शिकार होती है।

हमारी शिक्षा और समझ  संबंधों और देश-दुनिया के प्रति इतनी तुछ है और हम जेंडर स्टीरियोटाइप नामक दलदल में इतनी बुरी तरह से धस चुके हैं कि हमारे भारतीय समाज के अनुसार एक पिता अपने बच्चों, खास कर अपनी बेटी की परवरिश करने में असक्षम समझा जाता है।  एक  पिता अपनी घर की चार दीवारों से बाहर निकल कर अपने परिवार का पेट पालने वाला/अन्नदाता,  एक मजदूर, परिवार के लिए एक निर्णायक और एक चयनकर्ता के किरदार से बाहर कुछ भी नहीं है, किसी भी किस्म की भावनाओं और सुघड़ता के नाक़ाबिल समझा जाता है।  हम समझते है कि पिता का  बचपन से बेटियों की परवरिश पर प्रभाव पड़ जाने से बेटियां पुरुषों के आचार-विचार अपना कर अपना स्त्रीयत्व ना खो बैठें क्योंकि  ऐसा होना सामाजिक “विकृति” समझी जाती है। लेकिन ये हमारे परिवार का क़ायदा नहीं था। मैने हमेशा अपने पिता को इन सभी सामाजिक सीमाबद्ध किरदारो के बिल्कुल विपरीत ही पाया है। अंत में  मन में बस एक ही सवाल  आता है कि आखिर कब इस देवी-देवताओं की नगरी में स्त्री को सामाजिक  किरदारों से मुक्ति पा कर मनुष्य का किरदार निभाने का मौका मिलेगा।

Apurba is a visual artist. She completed her bachelor’s in arts degree from Jamia Millia Islamia and currently pursuing Masters in anthropology and post graduation diploma in Folklore and culture studies. She is  Pansexual and her  pronouns are she/her. She likes  reading, writing, gardening and prefers chilling  most of the time.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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Indian Populist Leaders: From Indira Gandhi to Modi

Navika Mehta

Why populism works in Indian politics as a political tool used by leaders to gain popular support.

In 2016, 2000 articles in the Guardian mentioned populism as compared to 300 articles in 1998. In 2017, “populism” was declared the word of the year by the Cambridge Dictionary. In the last 20 years, there is a significant increase in populist support worldwide and populist vote share has more than tripled in Europe. Although populism is not a new occurrence, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 refugee influx in Europe have been commonly cited by academics as propellers of this “anti-establishment” rhetoric

“populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a ‘new’ kind of party that is different from all others.”

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, has defined populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté (general will) of the people”. He explains that populist parties are not revolutionary and do not oppose established political parties. Instead, they call themselves a “new” kind of party that is different from all others. He differentiates populists from early socialists because populists claim to speak for the “oppressed people” while unwilling to change “their values or their ‘way of life’”. For example, speaking for farmers’ rights while charging high-interest rates on loans. 

Indian politics is not a stranger to populist politics. Right from the movement for Indian independence from the British Empire, to the current BJP government, populism has been key to gaining votes. Prior to Independence, the nationalist movement which enabled the country-wide resistance against the British Raj brought about a sense of togetherness in the collective struggles against the oppressor. This movement succeeded largely by gathering the outpouring of popular support as the nation as a whole came together to bring an end to British rule. 

“After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase ‘gareebi hatao’, which means, end poverty.”

After Independence, another major wave of populism was brought about by Indira Gandhi from 1966. She created an anti-elite rhetoric by pushing a pro-poor agenda with the famous phrase “gareebi hatao”, which means, end poverty. And so, further enforcing redistribution through economic policies like nationalisation of banks and abolition of the privy purse (a sum paid to the former rulers of princely states of India who agreed to integrate with the union). Thus, creating a them vs. us narrative – the colonial past vs. modern egalitarian India – and – rich elite vs. poor. These redistributive anti-elite policies along with her emphasising a strong feminine character, being referred to as “Ma Durga”, Goddess of Power, challenged the political masculinities of Indian politics and enabled her to get the popular vote. 

“Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support.”

Populism can be inclusive or exclusive. For example, populism in Europe is exclusive and that in Latin America is inclusive. This means that while European populism has a socio-cultural dimension to exclude immigrants or refugees, the Latin American populism has an economic dimension of including and helping the poor and underrepresented. Indian history has witnessed both kinds. The independence movement was inclusive, it was a fight against colonial oppressors and freedom for all Indians. Since independence, an exclusive form of populism has emerged, based on identity rather than economic interests. This populism uses economic hardships as a tool to gather identity-based support. Identity here can be religious, caste-based, gendered or along any other social category. Due to this, a new political cleavage with a cultural dimension has now emerged.

“Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus remains on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign ‘chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)’ perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity.”

Populism in India today has taken a similar approach using this new dimension. With identity-based politics at the forefront, right-wing populism has slowly grown and has now taken a stronghold with the re-election of the BJP for a second term. Unlike Indira Gandhi, Modi’s populism focuses on exclusion. While it is the same anti-elite rhetoric, the focus is on identity-based exclusion and highlighting political masculinity. His famous statement during the 2014 election campaign “chhappan inch ki chhati (56-inch chest)” perfectly exemplifies the politicisation of his masculinity. The party has successfully created a them vs. us narrative through religion – majority vs. minority and also through nationalists vs. anti-nationals (those who speak against the government). While Gandhi herself belonged to the ruling class she channeled her image as the anti-elite rebel, similarly, Modi has emphasised his humble beginnings as the “chai wala” (tea seller). 

Both types of populism focus on pro-poor agendas, their solutions are oversimplified and inadequate in bringing about real economic equality. For example, demonetisation and privy purse, both claimed to be for the benefit of the poor, anti-elite, but neither had a significant impact in bringing real economic and social change for the masses. 

The recent Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that prohibits illegal migrants from becoming citizens of India with exceptions for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian minorities was defended by supporters of the government and mainstreamed a huge populist anti-immigrant sentiment. Suddenly, elite, upper middle-class and majority religious groups who may have never before concerned themselves with the rights of the Indian working class, expressed deep concern about Muslim immigrant workers from Bangladesh taking jobs of the Hindu working class. The focus of the political sphere thus shifted from the real causes of unemployment to the them vs. us narrative of Muslim immigrants taking the jobs of natives. This has been highlighted as the “scapegoating phenomena” by Colantone and Stanig who explain that anti-immigrant sentiments tend to be higher in areas with greater unemployment and in the presence of a right-wing populist party. They explain that unemployment and lack of opportunities trigger this belief that the labour market is a “zero-sum game”, wherein, in order to get a job the individual needs to take it from another person thus making immigrants a perceived threat for natives. 

“nativism means that ‘states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.’ He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been ‘whitewashed’ by using the term populism.”

Mudde argues that this anti-immigrant ideology used by populist parties is actually “nativism” couched in a less explicit racist term as “populism”. He explains that nativism means that “states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group – the nation – and that non-native people and ideas are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state.” He argues that this idea of nativism has essentially been “whitewashed” by using the term populism. In India, the CAA along with the NRC (National Register of Citizens) is not only a threat for migrants and refugees but also against people who don’t have the paperwork to prove their citizenship, with the CAA  specifically excluding Muslims who entered India on or before December 2014. Thus, further reinforcing the exclusive populist narrative of India in the 21st century. 

“The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs.” 

The present day form of Indian populism is very different from post-colonial populist beliefs. Post-Independence, in the backdrop of partition, the Indian government laid emphasis on ideas of pluralism, secularism and diversity, with the phrase “unity in diversity” coined by Nehru. These ideas were deeply ingrained in education, government policies and cultural references. In the present day, until the issues of “nativism”, economic inequalities and political propaganda of right-wing populists who pretend that they care about the working class are effectively tackled, populism will continue to thrive, and fake news and positive media coverage will enable it to do so.

Navika is the Editor of Bol Magazine and created this platform to inspire conversations and action.

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