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North-South Divide In India: Exploring The Debates – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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North-South Divide in India: Exploring the Debates

TK Arun

Instead of waxing anxious of on North-South divides, opposition leaders would be better of thinking of how to build democracy in this country, which has only it’s rituals and form, and not it’s substance.

After the Congress rout in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, even as the party staged a comeback in Telangana, there has been much commentary on a North-South political divide in India, in which the BJP finds it difficult to find purchase for its brand of anti-Muslim politics in Southern India and the Congress, in turn, struggles to find takers for its secular politics in Northern India. This is a false narrative, devoid of any explanatory power that could lead on to rectification and redemptive political action.

The BJP, as some commentators have already pointed out, accounts for the largest block of Members of Parliament from South India. In the 2019 general elections, it won 25 seats in Karnataka, four in Telangana and none in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. This, however, does not rule out potential for the BJP to mobilise support for its Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim cause in these parts.

People cite three major kinds of reasons in support of the thesis that the BJP would find it tough going in the southern states that have spurned its charms hitherto. One is the absence of Muslim rulers in the past, from whose mistreatment the Hindus smart generations later. This is supposed to be the principal contrast to the North Indian experience. The proposition of memories of religious oppression by Muslim rulers transcending generations is specious, for the most part, even for North India.

Muslim rulers and Hindu elites of India

During wars of conquest, and in order to demonstrate their total authority over their realm and subjects, Muslim rulers have demolished temples and built mosques in close proximity to temples. But the proposition that they carried out sustained religious persecution has neither historical evidence nor logic in support. Most were more than happy to enrol Hindu elites into their apparatus of rule and administration and most Hindu elites were more than happy to serve in such capacity.

Nor are aggression and rapine associated in public memory with Muslim conquerors alone. In Eastern India, the six expeditions of the Marathas to areas that span parts of today’s Bihar, Bengal and Orissa are a cursed memory that involved massacres of civilians, rape, plunder and torture at the hands of Maratha soldiers, particularly the Bargis.

The principal difference between a bandit and a king is the temporal framework which either party deploys for separating the objects of their predatory attention from their possessions, in order to appropriate those possessions. The bandit thinks of one-off operations, and has no stake in the continued well-being of his victims. The king, on the other hand, wants his subjects to thrive and keep paying taxes, rent and tribute. Kings, whatever their religion, wish to create stable conditions for the pursuit of prosperity by his subjects. That means enforcement of law and order, reinforcement of the legitimacy of their rule by patronising whatever keeps society stable and functional.

It was not just North India that had been ruled by Muslims. The battle of Plassey, which students across India learn as a decisive marker in the consolidation of British rule over India, had been fought between the forces of the British East India Company, under Robert Clive, and the army of the Nawab of Bengal. But Bengal has not automatically fallen into the BJP’s electoral lap. 

Nor is South India bereft of a history of Muslim rule. Large parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were ruled by the Nizam. Mysore, under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan waged war across large swathes of present-day Karnataka, northern Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. Tipu has a reputation of savage reprisals against those who resisted him, including forced conversions, but also of lavish gifts to temples. Malabar had small kingdoms with Muslim rulers, which Tipu did not spare either, if they did not swear allegiance.

The short point is that having had Muslim rule in the past is neither necessary, nor sufficient to prepare the ground for BJP’s success in elections.

Education factor

Another reason cited by analysts for the South’s rejection of the BJP is the region’s relatively advanced level of education. This facile correlation of educational advance with rejection of regressive values is at total variance with historical experience or anecdotal evidence of highly educated people expressing exasperation for the constraints democracy places on privileging economic growth over all other considerations.

When Hitler rose to power and popularity as Germany’s Fuhrer, that country had more PhDs per capita than any other place in the world. It was the fear that Nazi Germany would produce an atomic bomb before any other nation that drove Albert Einstein to join other scientists to urge the US president to develop the bomb. Among the supporters and practitioners of Apartheid, there was no shortage of erudition. The caste system, arguably the most oppressive system of organising society, had the support of the upper castes in India, who were educated, for the most part.

Among India’s well-off, it is not uncommon to find support for China’s model of development, in which giant projects are executed at blinding speed, unhindered by any need to obtain the consent of ordinary people, who might need to be displaced for a large economic project to be undertaken. The utilitarian logic of benefit for the majority trumping any cost for a minority informs their choices, including in the case of economic development. A democratic sensibility would put an upper bound on the cost an individual or a minority would have to bear for the majority’s benefit. The Mayans were skilled at calculating the movement of the sun, the moon and the stars in relation to the earth, and so produced accurate calendars. They also practised human sacrifice — the life of a slave was expendable, for the welfare of the majority.

A third reason cited for the South staying outside the BJP’s grasp is a history of social reform movements in the South, unlike in the North. Tamil Nadu’s social justice movement, Kerala’s Sree Narayana-Guru-led social reform movement, and Karnataka’s caste-rejecting Veerashaiva movement are cited. While these movements have been immensely helpful in loosening the stranglehold of caste, they have far from eliminated caste. In fact, these anti-caste movements have morphed into caste solidarity movements of some backward castes. The organisation founded to carry forward Sree Narayana Guru’s social reform in Kerala is today openly allied with the BJP. Ambedkar statues in Tamil Nadu have to be housed inside steel cages to protected from the wrath of middle castes intent on putting uppity Dalits in their place. Caste thrives in Karnataka and Andhra, no less than in Gujarat, where a Dalit was recently forced to apologise to his erstwhile employer, holding in his mouth the shoe taken off from the employer’s foot, as punishment for the temerity of asking for his unpaid wages.

Hindutva is a political ideology

Islamic radicalism afflicts a tiny minority of Muslims in Kerala, the majority of whom share a deeply ingrained culture of harmonious coexistence with Hindus and Christians. The shared Malayali identity is vibrant, but does not obliterate faith- and region-brd cultural specificities that permeate into one another, in song, dance, cuisine and social rituals around marriage and death, to a greater or lesser degree. Yet Islamic radicalism centred on Arab lands, its violent breakout in Europe, such as the attacks in France and Belgium, and Christendom’s response to it — these make waves in Kerala, too. These do make fissures in Kerala’s traditional inter-community harmony, especially given the reluctance of the Communists and the Congress to call out Islamic and Christian radicalism. The reaction to this is exceedingly favourable for the BJP.

The BJP might try to peddle a line that the DMK and its ally, the Congress, are anti-Hindu, focusing on Udayanidhi Stalin’s remarks against Santana Dharma. The DMK has a rationalist past, but hostility to religion has dissipated from its discourse and practice, with the breakaway faction, the AIADMK, openly embraced temple rituals. Sanatana Dharma, in DMK lingo, is shorthand for a caste society.

South India has a Hindu culture and sensibility, sourced from close interactions with North India. The foremost proponent of Advaita, who travelled the expanse of land from the Himalayas to the Ocean, defeating other scholars in argumentation, hailed from Kerala. Dignaga, a prominent Buddhist philosopher wrote in Sanskrit, called Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu his home. Appayya Dikshitar, sixteenth century scholar, wrote Kuvalayananda, a definitive book on Sanskrit poetics.

A Hindu sensibility does not mean automatic support for Hindutva. On the contrary, mainstream Hindu practice recognises no deviance in theology, taking the view that all forms of spirituality are fine. Vivekananda compared different streams of spirituality with different rivers flowing to the same ocean. Neither this tradition nor the philosophy of Advaita that says everything in the world is manifestation of the self-same metaphysical entity, the Atman, has any space for sectarian hatred of any faith.

Hindutva is a political ideology, altogether distinct from traditional Hindu belief or practice, modelled on European nationalism brd on homogeneity of language and culture over a territorial expanse, including faith. It seeks to redefine Indian nationhood as Hindu, and wants to reduce followers of other faiths to second class citizens. The counter to this is democracy, not caste-centric mobilisation, welfare handouts or being scared to champion the rights of minorities for fear of offending Hindu voters.

Instead of waxing anxious on North-South divides, Opposition leaders would be better off thinking of how to build democracy in this country, which has only its rituals and form, and not its substance.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as Much ado about North Vs South on December 11, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more from the author at:

Beyond Contention: Kissinger and the Absence of a Foe

Silent Diplomacy: The Significance of a Bark-Free Biden-Xi Meeting for Bilateral Ties

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Tanu Paliwal, a research intern at IMPRI.

  • IMPRI Desk
  • TK Arun

    TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Columnist based in Delhi.

  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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