Sacred and Sectarian Games

6th Apr 2022 by Simon Mabon

Sacred and Sectarian Games

"Poor fellow, he’s not a good enough Hindu" […] “where does that leave you and me?” Sartaj said. “I’m not a very good Hindu”[…] “sartaj”, he said, “you’re not even a good Sikh” (Chandra, 2006:77) 

In the 2006 novel Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, the criminal protagonist Ganesh Gaitonde engages in a struggle to assert dominance over a city beset by criminal gangs, corrupt politicians, an underfunded and corrupt police force, and the role of Hindu Gurus seeking to shape the world. Set predominantly in the Maharashtran city of Mumbai, the novel explores the role of faith, caste, politics, corruption and the urban in modern India through the exploits of Gaitonde and the policeman investigating his case, Inspector Sartaj Singh. 

Sartaj, a rare Sikh policeman on the Mumbai force, investigates the case of Gaitonde, a Hindu criminal who follows the teachings of the Mephistophelean Guru-ji, a spiritual guide seeking to transform the world from a state of Kalyug- a state of darkness and discord - to a state of satya yuga - one of peace and possibility. Across their respective journeys, Gaitonde and Sartaj engage with complex questions of identity, belonging, N, spirituality and faith, all underpinned by socio-economic pressures and the looming spectre of nuclear war with Pakistan. 

Central to Gaitonde’s arc is a struggle against Suleiman Issa, a rival gang lord of Muslim descent. In an attempt to better Issa, Gaitonde becomes the Hindu Don, engaged in struggle against the anti-national activities of soleiman Issa. Here, we see the emergence of a sectarian schism along religious lines, with Gaitonde seeking to capitalise on Hindu demographic dominance over Issa. This, however, puts him at odds with members of his own gang, a number of whom were themselves Muslim. Similarly, Inspector Parulkar (Sartaj’s boss and mentor) is unpopular with his superiors because of his collaboration with Issa, which creates problems that even bribery cannot resolve.

Seven years in the making and spanning close to a thousand pages, Chandra weaves a complex yarn, creating sympathies for the most deplorable of characters amidst an introduction to life in Mumbai; the formal and informal ways in which life is ordered across the city are quickly revealed. From the corruption of the Mumbai police force - justified through highlighting the lack of official funding - to the quasi-familial links between Sartaj and Parulkar - the reader leaves with a more nuanced understanding of the rhythms of everyday life in Mumbai, which makes what happens at the end of the novel that much more emotive. 

While undeniably a thriller, Sacred Games is a literary thriller, focussed as much on the ambiguities of life as the quest to understand Gaitonde’s actions, ruminating on the nature of the state, the role of religion, and questions of morality along the way.  In an interview given to India Today, Chandra later reflected on the idea of the state and its place in the modern world: “The maintenance of the state and its continued survival always - throughout history-has had some very dirty business connected to it. The state is you and me, it's our state. I think every policeman has first-hand knowledge of the ambiguity of moral action. And every gangster thinks of himself as a samaj-sevak”.

Having recently spent a number of weeks in India - and with family based in Maharashtra - I seek to offer number of reflections on the concept of sectarianism and of sectarianism in India. While in no way a holistic account, in what follows I offer initial reflections that require further detailed exploration by others more qualified to engage with such questions. This piece draws on discussions with urban planners, members of religious and caste communities, and ethnographic observations across February and March 2022. 

Sectarianism in India

Those interested in sectarianism in the Middle East would do well to read Chandra’s novel and, more broadly, to consider questions of sectarianism in India. While a vast literature exists reflecting on sectarianism in the Middle East, comparatively little work has been undertaken looking at sectarianism in South Asia, despite over half of the world’s Muslims residing in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; India alone is home to around 200 million Muslims

Although notoriously difficult to define, literature on sectarianism typically focuses on inter-sect tensions, albeit with occasional manifest ions of inter-religious or inter-ethnic tensions. Yet as the case of India highlights, identity is more fluid, complex, heterogenous, ambiguous and context specific. As a consequence, sectarianism in India can be viewed in several ways that include inter and intra-religious tensions, inter and intra-sectarian tensions, inter and intra-caste tensions each of which plays out within and across cities, states and political parties. 

India is a federal territory comprised (officially) of 28 states and 8 union territories organised on a linguistic basis according to the 1956 States Reorganisation Act. Although home to hundreds of distinct languages, in India Hindi and English are the officially recognised official languages, with a further 22 regional languages recognised in the Indian constitution. These regional languages - and ethnicities - create particular experiences across the state, manifesting in prominent regional identities which, in the case of some cities, take more specific forms. 

Although the constitution of India defines it as a secular state, five major religions are practiced across the state: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, and Buddhism. Whilst an overwhelmingly Hindu country, India is home to a large Muslim population, spread out across the country. This Muslim population is divided along sectarian lines, with rough estimates pointing to an 85-15% split between Sunni and Shi’a, whilst class, geography and political identity all shape communal identities.  The role of religion in decisions around partition and the violence that ensued means that religious identities in particular places are often imbued with inter generational trauma which exacerbates communal tensions.               

Cutting across these communal groups are caste divisions. Originally conceived of as a form of social ordering - with society divided into four main group - the social stratification of the caste system cuts across religious cleavages, albeit in subtly different ways. Although discrimination on the grounds of caste was banned, latent structural violence and xenophobia remains visible, both in the treatment of particular groups and media coverage.  Moreover, last names are generally indicators of caste membership. Such identities are further complicated by a range of intersectional challenges which typically affect women, LGBTQ+ movements, and minorities hardest.  

This heterogeneity, however, is a source of pride to many, a reflection of India’s rich cultural, religious and geographic traditions. For others, however, the presence of myriad groups is antithetical to ideas of India. The manipulation of lines of inclusion and exclusion between communal groups - an increasingly common phenomena - can be viewed through the lens of sectarianism. Here, I view sectarianism as deviation from a common whole: in the Indian context, that common whole is a shared sense of Indian-ness, and thus deviation includes the privileging of other communal identities at the expense of that shared collective. This Indian-ness allows for the transcendence of different ethnic groups and their languages, along with caste and religion. Yet the divergence from this shared Indian-ness - either a process facilitated by the state or by opposition figures - creates lines of exclusion that can be understood through the lens of sectarian difference. 

Whilst the most immediate line of exclusion concerns Hindu-Muslim tensions, shaped by centuries of conquest, partition and structural violence, the presence of other communal groups and grievances depicts a complex and intersectional political landscape and set of relations between both rulers and ruled, and different communal groups. This landscape differs across state lines, between cities, within – and across – families and generations, and in geographic rivalries. Fundamentally, the landscape of communal relations is determined by the complexities and contingencies of time and place.

The nature of these relations is conditioned by the complexities and contingencies of political, social, and religious life. In particular, the dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), backed by the powerful Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a nationalist paramilitary organisation, has shifted the contours of political life in India, framing politics to a majoritarian-minority distinction defined by Hinduness. While such views have become more prominent since the election of Narendra Modi of the BJP to the office of Prime Minister in 2014 the roots of such exclusionary processes run much deeper. 

A common perception exists that Hindus have been oppressed throughout history - seen in a legacy of conquest across India - resulting in a belief that Hindus will be oppressed again. To counter such possibilities, the argument goes, Hindus need to reassert their identity in opposition to internal and external others. This reassertion serves as the process of boundary-making, either the development of new boundaries or the articulation of stronger boundaries. This plays out in a range of different ways, perhaps the most extreme is the emergence of Hinduvata. 

The concept of Hinduvata - of Hindu-ness or Hindu nationalism - is a political ideology emerging from the RSS in the 1920s and playing a central role in the political machinations of the Modi government and the RSS. First articulated in V.D Savarkar’s book Hinduvata, the concept articulated “criteria for Indian identity based on citizenship, common ancestry, common culture and regard for India as fatherland (pitrbhu) and sacred land”. This exclusionary and homogenising vision prohibits Muslims and Christians from becoming ‘true’ Indians, despite their long presence in India. At its core, Hinduvata articulates a majoritarian vision that is exclusionary and openly violent against those not included.

Since Modi won a second term in 2019, the BJP has doubled down on its policy of majoritarian politics, becoming increasingly sectarian and communal in its politics. Such developments are best captured in three events: first, the abrogation of article 370 in the Muslim majority state (the only one of its kind in India) of Jammu and Kashmir. Second, the establishment of a National Register of Citizens in Assam, which excluded 2 million people, pushing them to the brink of statelessness and what Giorgio Agamben terms bare life. Third, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which gives Hindus, Christians and Jains in neighbouring countries access to citizenship – viewed as the anti-Muslim act – and prompting fears that Indian society will be further divided along communal lines.

Taken together, these policies point to a move towards a majoritarian politics defined by an exclusionary vision of Indian politics and society, supported by legal mechanisms and the securitization - and sectarianization - of communal difference. While these moves went some way to enshrining difference within law, it also homogenised complex identity groups. This piece, by Hillary S. Wiesner, neatly sets out the ways in which identity and memory is used to produce power and regulate in the Middle East and beyond; similar processes can be seen in India through the (re)imagination of the role of religion in socio-political life across the state.

Beyond this, the cultural field has become dominated by Modi, whose social and religious capital has allowed the BJP to establish what Pierre Bourdieu terms the principles of vision and dominate the social field in an exclusionary way, predicated on a vision of India as home to Hindus. To ascertain attitudes to the other, a social experiment was set up: interviewees were residents in a hypothetical apartment bloc which was overwhelmingly Hindu. In this bloc an apartment becomes free. Interviewees were asked who they would rather move in: a rich Muslim couple, or a Hindu couple from a lower caste. An overwhelming majority of those asked would prefer the Hindu couple from a lower caste over the rich Muslim couple, revealing the factors shaping lines of inclusion and exclusion. Once again, sectarian difference can be seen in different forms through the deviation from a collective whole.

For some, sectarianism in India manifests in different ways. As Ajay Gudavathry observes, subaltern groups have sought to stress their secular nature yet remain parochial, ghettoised, and exclusionary, a process referred to as secular sectarianism. In this environment, conflict has broken out between sub-caste groups, and left-wing political groups who should normatively be associated with Dalits and OBCs (Other Backward Classes) has faced a decline, engaging in conflict with their natural support base as a consequence of the arrangement of social power.

Furthermore, as Gudavarthy and Nissim Mannathukkaren observe in the afterword to Gudavarthy’s excellent edited collection on secular sectarianism, in order to counter the dominance of the Hinduvata right wing ideology, a dismantling of caste is needed, a context specific process of desectarianization. Here, the re-imagining of identity politics requires the untangling of history, culture, religion and politics. While a number of social movements have sought to engage in context specific forms of desectarianization - creating a form of issue based politics that transcends identity markers - such efforts have ultimately proved futile in a environment where Hinduvata ideas of the BJP and RSS are increasingly dominant.

Sectarianism and Urban Politics 

Driving through the Banjara Hills district of Hyderabad one might be surprised to come across Imam Khomeini Road. Upon closer exploration one quickly discovers the Iranian consulate and a large mosque. The area is home to a wealthy upper class and is in stark contrast to the older parts of Hyderabad, particularly around Charminar which are home to another large Muslim population albeit in a led affluent area. 

A city of over ten million, Hyderabad is divided communally and spatially along religious, ethnic, caste and class lines. Although hard to verify, 50% of the population of the city are Hindu and overwhelmingly of the Telugu community, while a further 40% are Muslim. 13% of the city’s population live below the poverty line. 

Despite facing serious challenges with regard to water and infrastructural challenges, Hyderabad remains a site of transformation, with large scale housing and building projects emerging across the city. In addition, the city is increasingly a site of Gulf influence from both the Iranian and Arab sides, which contributes to the reimagining of space. Such transformations can be seen in the speed of growth across the past decade, as the city’s population grew from 7-10 million. 

In cities, complex communal cleaves come to the fore in different ways, contingent on spatial, socio-economic and political contexts. Understanding the modern history of communal tensions requires an understanding of localised urban struggles against outsider groups, ranging from the violence of the Mughal armies and East India Company, to traders settling in urban centres and flows of people from neighbouring states. Such experiences transform the nature of cities over time, in some cases creating communal areas home to particular groups. 

In Bangalore, for example, the areas of Frasertown and Cooktown were home to British traders who – in settling – transformed the nature of those areas in an Anglicised manner. Other areas of Bangalore became home to traders seeking to take refuge close to market areas. Its Muslim community typically resides around Mosque Road. As such, Bangalore is a city spatially divided along communal lines, albeit largely free from tensions as a largely liberal environment. Yet underneath the surface, latent frustrations remain. As one interviewee revealed, there continues to exist a suspicion of the other, even though both are members of the broader Indian state. This xenophobia is born out of a legacy of conquest and struggles to assert independence, conditioned by the peculiarities and particularities of time and space. As a result of different experiences, communal relations vary dramatically across state borders and from city to city. In Mumbai, the migration of people to the city resulted in the establishment of slum areas, themselves often micro-enclaves of particular identities, ordered in accordance with the rhythms of their erstwhile homes. 

In Nanded, a city home to Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians spread across caste and class, communal groups who have a general history of peaceful coexistence. The exception concerns tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities, where structural violence is exacerbated by the changing political environment, resulting in clashes between members of different groups.

Previously, local businesses were run by directors from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds, yet the increasingly fraught political and social environment has left such relations in an increasingly precarious environment. Although Nanded is run by the Congress Party - the BJP’s main rival - the rising prominence of this Hinduvata vision shapes the broader cultural environment. In such an environment, the empowerment of caste created fears that shared identities would cut across other intersectional divisions, particularly in legal matters. Regardless of the veracity of these fears, they point to an increasing precarious environment.

As spatial theorists such as Henri Lefèvre, Doreen Massey, Eduard Soja and others observe, space can play an existential role in transforming life. In some cases this is merely a repetition of the mundanities of everyday life, yet in others it may be more violent. One such example of this is the destruction of the Babri Masjid on 6th December 1992 by members of the Vishal Hindu Parishad and other organisations – and supported by the BJP - in Adyodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The 16th century mosque had long been targeted by right wing groups due to its location on a site identified by some as the birthplace of the God Ram.  The destruction of the mosque triggered riots between Hindus and Muslims which cost the lives of thousands and deepened tensions between the different groups.

Beyond spatial transformations, Indian cities themselves have undergone an existential transformationa moving from the British names for cities to more indigenous names. In doing so, Bombay became Mumbai, Bangalore became Bengaluru, and Madras became Chennai. Such transformations were not always popular, with many continuing to use names they had known and used their whole lives. Aside from such nominal changes, there is a more existential transformation underway, with one person suggesting that Mumbai is “something different” to Bombay. 

Lessons from India

Although largely under explored, sectarianism in the Indian context can offer important insights for the study of sectarianism in the Middle East. Perhaps most important is the need for contextual nuance across time and space. Communal groups are not homogenous or static, but rather are products of their environments.  As such, it is important to stress the spatial and temporal contexts within which actors operate, meaning that two members of the same community and class may identity and behave in different ways due to context. 

The internalisation and later projection of such grievances does not represent a primordial hatred. Rather, in something akin to what Margaret Archer’s Critical Realism presents, is something that is internalised and reproduced over time. Although this may give the impression that such hatred is static and immutable, there is scope for change if structural conditions permit. From such an acknowledgement, we can see that localised historical experiences shape the present and urban environments. Moreover, such historical experiences serve as the facilitating conditions for elites to sectarianize, further cultivating difference. 

Acknowledging this can help better understand the ways in which historical experience can shape the present. Violence between sectarian groups at particular times and places should not be ignored but nor should it be overstated. Escaping the hegemony of such structures is increasingly difficult. Efforts to reject the dominance of caste and Hinduvata have prompted groups to engage in acts of protest which have parallels with acts of desectarianisation across the Middle East. 

Lastly, as Sacred Games shows, lines of inclusion and exclusion across India are not static, but rather themselves are shaped by the complexities and contingencies of time and space. Although lines of exclusion may be drawn between different groups, care should be taken not to homogenise those excluded; indeed, the celebration and articulation of difference can play an important role in desectarianization.