Jasmeen Bassi: How India Uses Communications To Extend Hindutva And Vilify Sikhs

Violence used towards homogenizing ends in an increasingly undemocratic country may not always be incredibly obvious.

Jasmeen Bassi
February 2, 2021 | 5 min. read 

The past few days have been incredibly difficult for the global Sikh community as we watch that which we had feared since the inception of the kisan mazdoor ekta movement unfold before our eyes.

Right now is a critical time in which we must support protestors in any capacity. It is also an important time for us to reflect on the Sikh and state relationship, which goes far beyond this movement, that has allowed for the situation to develop in this way. 

Specifically, we must understand the state’s relationship with violence against Sikhs.

To begin, many contemporary ‘democratic’ states have adopted models of managed democracy that allow for participation in inter-state democratic systems without the actual application of democratic values domestically. Unfortunately, the benefits of bilateral trade and cooperative economic engagements often supersede interest in investigating the democratic integrity of said states, resulting in steady regression towards kleptocracy. 

Let’s narrow in on India. Particularly since the 2014 inauguration of PM Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing political party with close affiliations to facist paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the country has seen a rise in hindutva ideology- an intolerant form of nationalism which poses serious risks to the many minority groups living in the country as well as the democratic integrity of the country. 

For reference, hindutva is a type of hindu nationalism that aspires to produce a fundamentally hindu state where all people and all functions of society participate in hindu-ness. That said, by virtue of this concept, otherness cannot exist if the goal is a fundamentally homogenous hindu state.

Now, violence used towards homogenizing ends in an increasingly undemocratic country may not always be incredibly obvious. French philosopher, Louis Althusser, in his Theory of Ideology, explains that every state has a complex relationship with violence that can be broken down into two forms. First being the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA), which is the use of physical force empowered by state power through institutions of the government, army, police, prisons etc. This is the more overt and obvious form of violence involving coercion and physical violence.

The state also functions through Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), which is, put simply, a process of knowledge production and covert execution through institutions such as the political system (including political parties), media (radio, television, etc), culture (literature, the arts, sports, etc) as well as the education system, and religious institutions. In other words, these institutions push out ‘knowledge’ approved by the state. This is known as ‘soft power’ as it involves the use of a more covert form of violence and control. 

The RSA and ISA share a relationship of mutualism where both operate to support each other. Together, the two forms afford the state monopoly over physical and ideological violence.

One of the most useful ideological state apparatus institutions in a managed democracy is communications, which can catalyze the distribution of state-approved ‘knowledge.’ In India, for example, communications are used, in many cases, at present, to extend hindutva values through the fabrication and production of knowledge on the Other. 

The ‘knowledge’ produced and mass distributed either provides support for and justifies the state’s past use of force against the Other or it allows and enables future use of violence against the Other, both by validating state actions as necessary and just, and by vilifying and silencing those on the receiving end. In India, we see this primarily through fabricated news stories pushing out manipulated content.

During the recent Farmer’s Tractor Rally to Delhi, for example, which was spearheaded predominantly by Sikh kisan and mazdoor protestors from Punjab, compromised Indian News outlets such as Zee News, Republic, and OpIndia focused their energy on pushing several defamatory stories falsely accusing protestors of initiating violence and replacing the Indian flag at Lal Qila with a Khalistan flag in efforts to support earlier vilification campaigns which singled out and accused Sikh protestors of using the farmer’s movement to pursue anti-national interests. 

They did so while silently omitting eye-witness accounts and ground reports of police violence, specifically tear-gas shelling, the unlawful arresting of journalists and protestors, as well as the enabling and participating in mob violence which involved throwing rocks at protestors, breaking their tents and trolleys, and beating them with batons.  

Most recently, police have also cut power supply at protest sites, and they have blocked off access to public washrooms (Singhu) rendering the protestors, many of which are seniors, unable to, both, shower and use the toilets. Not only is this incredibly undemocratic, but it is also extremely dehumanizing. Further, there have been alarming reports of the abduction, arrest, and custodial sexual violence faced by dalit activist Nodeep Kaur by Haryana police.

That said, with interests to depict the many Sikhs protesting as domestic terrorists, the media continues to remain complicit in the state-sanctioned violence and protect Delhi police, a disreputable, repressive institution that has a long history of instigating and remaining complicit in violence against Sikhs. 

To make matters worse, Sikh ground reporters and kisan mazdoor ekta movement affiliated accounts such as @iamparmjit @sikhsiyasat @PunYaab @panth_punjab @Kisanektamorcha @Tractor2twitr @kisaanivichaar were suspended by Twitter en par with what seems to be a growing pattern of Sikh censorship on social media.

This process of ideological violence earlier held functional value following the June Sikh Genocide of 1984 where tele and radio communications were used to incite mob violence against Sikhs in many of India’s urban centres, and the press was used to present Operation Blue Star as necessary while carefully erasing its illegality and gross human rights violations. 

The basis of a lot of the produced knowledge in 1984 had much to do with the conflating of the Sikh identity with terrorism and anti-nationalism. As such, Sikhs were presented as an enemy or imposter that, in the words of Indian nationalists, “must be crushed.” As aforementioned, this narrative has since been regurgitated by communications in India many times over the years, and continues to be weaponized today. 

Continuing, by projecting falsified information as factual, communications disallow Sikhs, in this case, the ability to share their truth; the media cement fabricated knowledge as an objective given. The state, thus, not only creates new ‘truths’ about a group of people but, it interjects in and attempts to erase the history of an entire peoples. More still, when knowledge is produced about the Other with purposeful intent, generally, part is associated with the whole. As such, the Other is denied their subjectivity and the fabricated ‘knowledge’ becomes an invariable part of their outward identity. 

Pair knowledge production with growing suppression and criminalization of dissent and you are looking at mass systemic silencing of the Sikh voice. 

What is particularly infuriating about this process of misinformation and ideological violence is that a great deal of the perpetrators of encouraged violence against the vilified Other, the repressive state actors and the majoritarian right, genuinely believe that they are dissidents acting with integrity to protect their homeland. In the case of Sikhs in India, the liberals and progressives also contribute to our collective frustration through their feigned naivety and deafening silence. 

For Sikhs, understanding the optics of ideological violence in India is an important first step. The second being continued unremitting persistence in our demands for change. 

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Jasmeen Bassi works as Researcher with the ONDP Legislative Affairs and Research Department at Queen’s Park. She is also a Research Assistant with the Social and Political Psychology lab at Ryerson University. Previously, Jasmeen worked as RA with the Brain and Early Experiences lab as well as the SHiFT lab, both also at Ryerson. You can find her on Twitter at @___jkaur.


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