Majoritarian Politics in South Asia: Introduction

From the Series: Majoritarian Politics in South Asia

Photo by Mythri Jegathesan.

The last decade has been witness to the seemingly meteoric rise and consolidation of a wide range of majoritarian and authoritarian political regimes across South Asia, be it the Hindu supremacist BJP government in India that has not only consolidated its majoritarian base by stoking Islamophobia and violence against religious minorities and oppressed caste groups more broadly but also intensified and extended India’s long-standing occupation of Kashmir; the newly resurgent military-state nexus under Imran Khan’s PTI in Pakistan that promises to remake Pakistan in the mold of past glorious Muslim empires; the return of the Rajapaksa family to power, under whose earlier regime the intimidation and disappearance of ordinary Sri Lankans is thought to have increased; the centralization of power within the prime minister’s office in Nepal, most recently manifest in the president’s decision to dissolve the House of Representatives in December 2020; or the increasingly repressive Bangladeshi state apparatus controlled by the Awami League, which has been accused of manipulating the 2018 national election in which it won a landslide victory. This series of essays seeks to understand not only the situated emergence of such regimes but also how they stick, that is, how they acquire legitimacy and longevity through attaching themselves to the quotidian desires, aspirations, fears, and resentments of ordinary people in the region.

Instead of treating majoritarianism or authoritarianism as self-evident categories, this collection breaks down these conceptual abstractions to explore how such politics comes to be meaningful and, perhaps more importantly, desirable across time and space. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in and across arenas as varied as Nepal’s far western region, the newly anointed Union Territory of Ladakh, bastis in Kolkata, the pend in Indian-occupied Kashmir, Christian neighborhoods in Faisalabad, tea plantations in North Sri Lanka, sites of urban political protest in Dhaka, and the border villages of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, to name just a few, our authors illuminate how right-wing politics gathers affective force by crafting a web of surprisingly heterogeneous, contingent, and often conflicting alliances and affiliations. These essays demonstrate how right-wing politics knit together a diverse range of locally situated struggles and ambitions even as it seeks to draw them into a transcendental community of those who have been injured or violated by an Other.

The essays gathered here build on the insights of scholars who have noted that fascist politics works through the production of an ordinary subject who is “under threat” of “violation” by the “invasion” of imagined others (Ahmed 2004; cf. Thapar 1989; Brown 1995). Across South Asia, right-wing discourses of “historical injury” aspire to align differences of caste, ethnicity, religion, language, and region into a stable and rigid hierarchy. They do so through the invocation of painful histories of “invasion,” colonialism, partitions, wars of independence, and civilizational conflict rendered in terms of insurmountable and primordial religious differences that defines collective interest and territorial belonging. This ideology of injury and violation, we argue, is remarkably creative and malleable in the ways it can be invoked to address the specificity of local grievances while, at the same time, operating as a meta-narrative that arouses and electrifies the sentiments of the body politic. The politics of purity that is at the heart of majoritarian politics, our authors show, is pursued through a range of impure articulations at nested scales.

In this Hot Spots series, essays by Sarah Besky, Mabel Gergan, Mythri Jegathesan, and Amy Johnson trace how Hindutva politics intersects in myriad ways with subnational political movements for autonomy and/or justice among Gorkhas in Darjeeling, Ladakhis in the newly created Union Territory of Ladakh, Tamils on tea plantations in Northern Sri Lanka, and high-caste Hindus in the lowland Terai region of Western Nepal, respectively. Malini Sur’s essay takes up the virality of majoritarian politics across class boundaries, demonstrating how widely circulating rumors about Muslims spreading coronavirus convinced Hindu migrant laborers in Kolkata to accept the harm caused by the government’s disorganized lockdown as a sacrifice necessary to save the nation from those who seek to harm it. Seuty Sabur shows how the Bangladeshi state shored up its authoritarian power by appropriating a feminist protest led by Bangladeshi women’s organizations seeking justice for women who were assaulted by the Pakistani army and its allies in the 1971 war. Building on the same theme, Bhoomika Joshi’s essay demonstrates how temple construction becomes a key site for the fusion of micro-cartographies of sacredness with the nationalist geography of temple nationalism. Ultimately, our essays show, the construction of the transcendental community that is at the heart of majoritarian and supremacist politics requires a delicate and difficult balance between appealing to situated sensibilities, on the one hand, and eroding localized attachments, on the other.

It is precisely in its everyday efforts to maintain this uneasy and ever-shifting balance between a range of contending desires, we argue, that majoritarianism both thrives and encounters its limits. It is when the contradictions burst forth that the fundamental impurity at the heart of a politics of purity is revealed for all to see, permitting the possibility of a politics that is otherwise. Thus, for example, Mohammad Tahir Ganie explores how authoritarian secrecy in Indian-Occupied Kashmir is both reified and challenged through ordinary people’s efforts to seek information at the pend (neighborhood hangouts), particularly in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370. Noman Baig and Sidharthan Maunaguru center the crucial role of ethical quandaries in their essays to show how the arrest of a Pakistani supermodel on charges of laundering money for politicians and an encounter between a Tamil socialist activist and an LTTE militant sent to assassinate them can deepen the affective attachments of populism, fiscal in one case and militant in the other, while also weakening them.

But what of those who cannot be embraced by the community of the pure that right-wing movements across South Asia seek to create? How does majoritarian politics contend with its Others and vice versa in quotidian life? Focusing on interreligious, intercaste, and racialized relations, our essays reveal a multiplicity of approaches to the management of those against whom family, community, and nation must be defended. Dolly Kikon explores how logics of racial difference and stigmatization are a key facet of nation-making in India’s northeastern states, animating projects of both national “integration” and violent, militarized exclusion. Sarah Eleazar and Arsalan Khan trace how accusations of blasphemy go hand in hand with the invocation of constitutional rights for Christians in Pakistan, demonstrating that majoritarianism relies on the incorporation of religious minorities within the national community, albeit as subordinates and dependents. Nosheen Ali suggests that the militarized division of Kashmir’s rivers, valleys, and, indeed, families along the Line of Control speaks to the patriarchal structure that is at the heart of nationalist community-making. Sanober Umar’s essay points to the insufficiency of the secular/religious distinction in South Asia by demonstrating how Muslim religious identity in Lucknow is “secularized” through the invocation of and appeals to Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb—harmonious cosmopolitan ties between Hindus and Muslims; this “secularization,” she argues, is testament to the ways in which Muslims must downplay the routinized violence they encounter at the hands of Hindu supremacists in favor of a fragile peace.

At a time when majoritarian nationalism is an omnipresent concern across the region, the essays gathered here provide insight into the micro attachments and alignments that feed and, sometimes, stunt its seemingly unstoppable growth. While recognizing the explanatory force of theories that attribute the rise of populism and majoritarianism to the failure of politics globally to challenge capitalism (Bilgrami 2018), these essays demonstrate how, on the ground, a right-wing politics of purity and progress is woven into everyday life through its capture of and by a wide range of often contradictory ideological and political forces, desires, and interests.


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. “Affective Economies.” Social Text 79, vol. 22, no. 2: 117–39.

Bilgrami, Akeel. 2018. “Reflections on Three Populisms.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 44, no. 4: 453–62.

Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Thapar, Romila. 1989. “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity.” Modern Asian Studies 23, no. 2: 209–31.