Thomas Blom Hansen

Danish anthropologist

Thomas Blom Hansen (born 22 January 1958 in Frederiksvaerk) is a Danish anthropologist and leading contemporary commentator on religious and political violence in India.


  • Historical powerful forces have attempted to restrict democracy to a set of strictly procedural routines for governance and legislation, but once in motion, democratic procedures have over time tended to remold the very form in which a society represents and imagines itself, its institutions and its history. It is my contention that the history of Indian democracy may be fruitfully interpreted in these terms as a gradual and circumscribed questioning of hierarchies and authority, spreading from the political field to other realms in society. As the political field acquired even more prominence due to the weight of the developmental state in all spheres of society in the 1970s, a new political culture marked by "political entrepreneurship" emerged. This gave rise to a new construction of politics as an "amoral vocation," a construction that reflected a widespread discomfort with the proliferating populist techniques of political mobilization and governance, and a disapproval of the new breed of public figures from modest social backgrounds who used their language, manners, and social background to consolidate mass followings. In the face of this "plebeianization" of the political field, sections of the educated urban middle classes and upper-caste groups began to denounce the political vocation, question the legitimacy of the state and discard the principles of democracy and secularism. For decades democracy and secularism meant protection and extension of social privileges to the educated Hindu middle classes, and condescending paternalism vis-à-vis lower-caste groups and minorities. However, as it became clear that political democracy was slowly giving birth to this new and unfamiliar form of society, the "softness" of the secular state became the target of the Hindu nationalist critique of a "pseudo secularism" that was "pampering minorities." Anti-democratic attitudes are today widespread in the same urban middle class in India that for years was regarded as the bedrock of political democracy in the country, and the backbone of the nation. Hindu nationalism emerged successfully in the political field in the 1980s as a kind of "conservative populism" that mainly attracted more privileged groups who feared encroachment on their dominant positions, but also "plebeian" and impoverished groups seeking recognition around a majoritarian rhetoric of cultural pride, order, and national strength.
  • The notion of a single Hindu [culture, incommensurable with Islamic or western epistemes and forms of organization, is the real fiction at work here, imposed by orientalism and painstakingly promulgated, organized, and reformulated by generation of Hindu nationalists and other Indian nationalists for more than a century. [...] In order to understand Hindu nationalism we need to analyze carefully the official secularism it opposed. Textbook versions of secularism as the absence of religion from the public sphere, or a more fashionable understanding of secularism as a metonym of scientific rationalism, will not suffice. We need to take a closer and more informed look at the practices and meanings of secularism in the public culture of independent India. The dominant interpretation of secularism in India did not entail the removal of religion from the political sphere, but rather the belief that religion and culture were elevated to an ostensibly apolitical level, above the profanities of the political. This institutionalized notion of culture and religion as apolitical, and the derived notion of selfless "social work" as ennobling and purifying by virtue of its elevation above politics and money, provided an unassailable moral high ground to a certain genre of "antipolitical activism," conspicuous among social and cultural organization but also often invoked in agitations and in electoral politics in India. I submit that it was from this discursive field of "antipolitics" and "religious activism" that the Hindu nationalist movement, with great ingenuity, built its campaigns and organizational networks for decades. Like other forms of cultural nationalism, the Hindu nationalist movement always entertained a complex ambivalence vis-à-vis democracy and apprehension toward the "political vocation." The evolution of the movement, its organization, and its political strategies must be understood in the context of a constant negotiation and oscillation across the deep bifurcation in modern Indian political culture between a realm of "sublime" culture and realm of "profane" competitive politics.
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