What is common between the attack on women at a Mangalore bar by activists of the Sri Ram Sene last month and assaults by activists of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena against people from the state of Bihar working in Mumbai? Not the fact that both are groups defined by extreme right-wing Hindu ideology. Instead, what ties them together is their fringe status and the fact that they are made up of what is best described as the lumpen proletariat, to borrow Marxist terminology.
Karl Marx, as quoted in the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, defined them as “social scum”, who are not only disinclined to participate in revolutionary activities with their “rightful brethren”, the proletariat, but also tend to act as the “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue”.
The Indian context is no doubt different, but the triggers are similar. In both instances, it is these groups that are left out of the process of economic transformation and then gather together in a loose constellation to indulge in reactionary violence. To put it simply, in the Indian context, this is largely because of the inability of political parties in the country to address the rapidly growing aspirations of the populace. They are not yet equipped to deal with the complexities of an entirely new situation where the demands of several social groupings cannot be politically addressed.
The resulting vacuum is being exploited by these kinds of fringe groups that derive their strength from very reactionary and populist claims: whether it means blaming people from Bihar for the lack of employment opportunities for locals in Mumbai or whipping up a campaign against women drinking in bars. Concentrated media attention gives their presence often a larger-than-life profile.
Since they are bound by some populist cause, these kinds of movements rarely go the distance and largely remain as local pockets of power. Some are even reduced to operating as the local mafia.
This is not to underestimate their ability to engage in wanton violence. But it is unlikely to transform into a political movement, at least, as yet. A lot will depend upon how the political parties address the underlying causes that lead to their emergence in the first place.
It is a process that has been unfolding for a while; ever since the Indian economy began to unshackle itself, beginning with the structural adjustment loan availed of from the International Monetary Fund in 1981. As the status quo of a centrally governed economy gave way to a more market-friendly system, the process of social change accelerated.
By the late 1980s, it was obvious that the hegemony of the Congress party was beginning to face challenges. Regional parties were gradually becoming stronger as pan-India issues became more difficult to come by with local aspirations taking flight. The 1990s drove home this undeniable point as coalition regimes became the norm rather than the exception. A process that culminated in the Congress party taking power in its first ever attempt at a coalition in 2004.
This process is now moving forward. The new faith in the markets means that more people are being gradually left out of the mainstream political discourse. Since most of India—almost three out of 10 Indians live below the so-called poverty line and four out of 10 are illiterate—is not equipped to participate in the new economy, it has resulted in either more people being left out or being restricted to the fringes.
Ravinder Kaur, a social anthropologist with the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, argues while drawing on the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim that during rapid change, individuals and groups are often in a state of confusion and uncertain of their place in society; this is defined as a “state of anomie or normlessness”.
Writing in the edit page of The Times of India on 14 February, Kaur said the lack of norms “may be held responsible for many of the responses of the incidents (such as the attacks by the Sri Ram Sene)”.
Some political parties are seized of the problem. “Yes, we are aware that where we cannot enter or we do not take up (an issue), some forces come and take it away (and make it) divisive. They pitch one set of people against another; it can be on the basis of region or caste. All the more we are trying to enter into areas and these issues now to take them up,” said Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in a recent interview to Mint.
Other political parties, too, seem to be aware of the challenge, if their voluble claims to extending the benefits of the growth process to more people are to be believed. Taking cognizance is the first step towards addressing the problem. Unfortunately, given the scale of change and the vast populace, a delayed response may be a catastrophe.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and will write every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org