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Communal djinn and the vanishing State

Though There Is No Direct Evidence That Unemployed Youth Are Drawn Into Furthering The Communal Agenda, They Have Lately Erupted In Job-related Agitations For Reservations And Inclusion In OBC Lists


The djinn has escaped from the bottle and is rampaging across India as the hijab row segues into objections against the use of loudspeakers for azaan (call for prayer) and the cacophony merges with Ram Navami violence. In Aligarh and Varanasi, chanting of Hanuman Chalisa outside mosques five times a day competes with prayer timings for Muslims. Raj Thackeray has threatened to replicate this in Maharashtra.

It seems clear that in the second term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Hindutva social forces have decided to push ahead with their maximum agenda. Minorities will constantly be kept insecure and their religious and cultural practices will have to conform to the wishes of the majority. Where possible, this agenda is couched in the idiom of constitutionality and law -- the hijab issue was posited as one of school uniform, azaan is questioned on grounds of noise pollution norms, etc. However, extra-legal means are plentifully evident with the planting of saffron flags on mosques or the bid to disturb Muslim prayers by reciting Hanuman Chalisa.

It would be erroneous and hasty to link this upsurge to the electoral needs of a particular party. That would suggest it was just a conspiracy of certain individuals and organisations or that the State was using them as its instrument. Such explanations are grossly inadequate.

The agenda of Hindutva social forces is autonomous of any party’s political needs. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), although a political front of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), does not control and define the activities of the RSS. Nor is the activity of the RSS coterminous with the BJP’s tenure in power. It would not give up its agenda if the BJP lost power. The RSS also does not dictate the agenda of the Hindutva social forces inspired by it, or function as their front organisation. Each entity creates the environment for the birth of others. As they mutate and adapt to local issues and conditions, they retain their basic genetic material. Today no one can prove that the Ram Navami riots or recitation of Hanuman Chalisa outside mosques was orchestrated by a single conductor.

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Who could be these foot-soldiers of Hindutva forces with time on hand to travel to nearby mosques to read the Hanuman Chalisa five times a day? They possibly come from a large population of the unemployed who feel powerless, unimportant, and have little or no money.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the Labour Participation Rate (LPR) in March 2022 (at 39.5 per cent) was lower than that during the second wave of Covid in June 2021 (39.6 per cent) and the average LPR for April-June 2021 (40 per cent). Despite the absence of a Covid wave and far less restrictions on mobility, the CMIE notes: “The labour force shrank by 3.8 million during March 2022 to 448 million. This is the lowest labour force in eight months since July 2021. Employment shrank by 1.4 million to 396 million in March 2022 which was the lowest level since June 2021.” This means that while the working-age population has continued to grow, job opportunities have not expanded simultaneously and there has been an absolute shrinkage in employment opportunities.

The youth unemployment rate is also food for thought. According to a study by Ashoka University and CMIE, India’s youth labour force (which includes “unemployed but willing to work and actively looking for employment”) has shrunk by 22 per cent between January-March 2016 (134 million) and October-December 2021 (104.3 million). It warned of the impact of low employment generation for youth on social stability.

According to the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey for April-June 2021, a quarter of the youth (15 to 19 years) in 22 states surveyed is unemployed (25.5 per cent). While youth unemployment was in double digits in the states surveyed, it was considerably higher in the states where communal incidents had taken place – MP (34 per cent), UP (24.7 per cent), Rajasthan (35.2 per cent), Chhattisgarh (40 per cent), and Jharkhand (34.2 per cent). Hindutva social forces may well be tapping into this vast reserve of unemployed youngsters. Success may depend on a mix of circumstances, especially the stand taken by state governments – for example, Kerala (with the highest youth unemployment rate at 47 per cent) has been less communalised than, say, Gujarat (11.6 per cent).

Although there is no direct evidence that unemployed youth are drawn into furthering the communal agenda, in recent times they have erupted in job-related agitations for reservations and inclusion in OBC lists. Astounding numbers of job applications for even the lowest-paid government jobs and increased suicides among the unemployed are other indicators of the great strain that this section of the population is under. The government was taken aback when massive protests by youth broke out in Bihar and in parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh in January this year over alleged discrepancies in the Railway Recruitment Board (Non-Technical Popular Categories) examination, in which over 700,000 candidates were shortlisted for just 35,000 posts!

There could also be other sections of society that join in the ostensibly religious push to put the minorities in their place. But communalism increasingly serves another purpose -- mass distraction, taking attention away from issues of jobs and livelihood while ostensibly giving a sense of power and meaning to the lives of those excluded from society’s economic activities. This suits the State, which is unable to fulfil the employment aspirations of this generation.

In the growing communal imbroglio, however, the State has inexplicably taken a backseat. Although the ruling dispensations at the Centre and in some states are also busy ‘othering’ the minorities, it is difficult to claim that they are consciously in step with mushrooming popular communal initiatives.

Could they be turning a blind eye because they cannot control these communal forces? Their response to these initiatives is to treat them at most as a local law-and-order problem. Even if the political leadership is opposed to the anarchist methods of Hindutva’s subalterns, perhaps it is doing nothing for fear of being unable to control them. What will then remain of its carefully cultivated branding of a 'strong' government?