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The Crumbling Idea of India

Saturday 25 May 2019, by siawi3

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The Crumbling Idea of India

Publié le 25 mai 2019

par Siyad Sayid

Unpublished text for Ballast’s Website

The results of the legislative elections in India fell : a large majority of votes went to the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, renewing its leader Narendra Modi as Prime minister for a second five-year term. Surely the project he’s carrying out, based on political Hinduism, does not correspond to the vision that the founding fathers of India — Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar — had developed for their country after gaining independence, in 1947. But the ideology of the hatred he instils in society and the strategy of communities division which he constantly resorts to is rooted in a long history, during which an elite caste remained in power for centuries.

India has a specific social reality : in addition to the general class context, it has a caste context, whose origins go back to ancient times. When groups from Persia, called the Aryans 1 or Indo-Iranians have arrived within the geographical confines of what is now called India, they drove away, down south, the native population from the Indus valley. The members of the ruling class soon came to be called arya and the non-Aryans were called dasa (« slave »). This is the beginning of the stratification of society, based on the participant’s role in the production process. Over the course of centuries, society came to be divided into four endogamous groups called jati (« caste ») : at the top of the ladder was the Brahmin (« priest »)2, then came the Kshathriya (« ruler), followed by Vaishya (« traders ») and finally the Shudra (« labour ») — those outside the caste system were literally the outcastes whose descendants called Dalits 3 (« the untouchables ») continue to lead the most wretched lives, even now 4.

[( « The gradation of people based on birth and occupation managed to survive social reforms and political realignments throughout history. »)]

By virtue of its sophisticated design and implementation, the gradation of people based on birth and occupation managed to survive social reforms and political realignments throughout history. This was further helped by the revivalist movements by individuals and organizations belonging to the priestly class. Their philosophy, called « Brahmanism », include mechanisms of resistance to change in power equations and subjugation of those below them in the social, political, economic and spiritual realms. Thus, Brahmanism and the caste system that underlies it is prevalent across classes and religions — albeit it is most prevalent among the Hindus 5. The arrival of Islamic invaders to the North of India after 10th century significantly changed the cultural and religious ethos of the population. A large number of lower castes converted to Islam primarily due to the oppression in the parent « Hindu » religion. Forced conversion to establish subjugation and voluntary conversion by the ruling class for power sharing, were other reasons.

« British Raj » and Indian struggle for Independence

When Europeans came in India with the stated aim of trade — and unstated aim of plunder (looking for gold) —, the land was divided into several kingdoms. Before the gradual British acquisition of most of India’s territory, indeed, no single ruler had ever ruled the entirety of the immense sub-continent 6. The British East India Company started ruling and colonizing the sub-continent in 1757, for cheap procurement of raw materials which would drive the industrial revolution in Europe. Its expansion into the rest of India created large scale discontentment among the kings who ruled the various smaller kingdoms, though some of them supported the British in exchange of military support to fight the other kings. Soon after the local resistance from the kings was quelled by the company, a mutiny erupted among the Indian soldiers of the British Army, in 1857, who were followed by feudal nobility, rural landlords and peasants. This is known as the First war of Independence, where people of all classes, religions and castes fought together against the British. Following 1857, the company was dissolved and the Indian « subjects » directly came under the British Crown.

Rebellion of 1857. Jason Askew’s painting

Though the « British Raj 7 » initially spoke the language of reform, it started to become authoritarian and paternalistic. In order to impart the illusion of power sharing, the colonisers introduced representative politics. They decided that the interests of Indians could not be individual, i.e. it had to be for a group or a clan or a commune. The legislatures of British India’s administrative provinces almost arbitrarily demarcated territories, represented societies of communities, not individuals. This division of communities was based on religion, as if all classes and castes of a religious community had similar interests. Wary of another rebellion from the lower classes, the British started adopting the policy of « divide and rule 8 ». Till 1857, though Muslims and Hindus had socio-cultural differences, they lived and traded amicably among the working and trading classes. It has to be noted that the ruling class especially priestly class among the Hindus, the Brahmins, would more often than not, align with the British. This made it easier for the British to disrupt the communal harmony by inciting riots.

« In order to prevent consolidation of the colonized, the British encouraged divisions. »)]

But the elites were disgruntled with the ways of the British who demanded subservience in addition to treating all castes as more or less equal. The colonizers also played a not so insignificant role in legalizing widow remarriage and abolishing abhorrent practices like sati 9, much to the displeasure among the upper castes of the Hindu society. The Indian National Congress (INC) was formed primarily by British men to moderate the resistance of the elites. Though founded as a loose association, it soon developed into an umbrella of resistance led by the elites combining people from all castes, classes and religions. It demanded more and more representation in administration, finally demanding the British to quit, eventually under the leadership of Gandhi (the only unanimous leader for both Hindus and Muslims).

In order to prevent consolidation of the colonized, the British encouraged divisions leading to the formation of All India Muslim league by the Muslim elite, in 1906, and Hindu Mahasabha by the Hindu elite, in 1915 — soon replaced in its scope by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), formed in 1925. Both the Muslim League and RSS preferred consolidating people from their respective religions thus weakening the Congress. This culminated in the « Two-Nation theory » which advocated a separate nation for the Muslims as they were portrayed and believed to be culturally different. The formation of the Muslim League and RSS played an important role in the large number of communal riots which occurred with increasing frequency 10.

The RSS proclaimed themselves to be a cultural organization, but it visualised India to be a theocratic state of Hindus, led by the priestly class (Brahmins) within 100 years from its formation (i. e. by 2025) by any means. Its ideology is inspired from Nazism 11 and its military training program is driven by Mussolini’s methods 12. RSS firmly believes in « Aryan supremacy » and chauvinistic nationalism where non-Hindus are accorded secondary citizenship. They started establishing shakhas (branches) across the country to organize and militarily train Hindus to enable them to fight the « enemies » including Muslims, Christians and another new group who were becoming increasingly powerful and organised, the Communists 13. The communists in India faced vehement opposition from the elites at all points in their history. In addition to not being able to come to power at the national level, communists found it hard to penetrate their ideology among the masses (except in 2–3 states) primarily due the fact the their ideology do not fit with the Indian conditions and that they also failed to acknowledge the importance of caste in the social structure of the country. Led by these three groups, there were three major ideas of the nation : Communist vision where independence from the British was only a first step, followed by organization and triumph of the proletariat, Congress†vision of a secular social democracy based on anti-colonial inclusive nationalism and the RSS’ vision of a theocratic nation based on political Hinduism called « Hindutva ».

Photo: Gandhi (Getty Images)

Post-Colonial India

Immediately following independence and partition, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who belonged to the RSS. His death alienated members of the Congress and the public in general from the militant Hindu organization. Gandhi’s anointed successor, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a staunch secularist ; he believed that religious communalism will remain the foremost threat to the idea of India. Under his mandate, he made sure that RSS is kept under check. Nehru also understood the fact that the inherently inequalizing tendency of capitalism would undermine the political equality promised by the concept of « citizenship » enshrined in the Constitution. He believed that a model of governance heavily inspired from the Soviet model of planning, led by a democratic parliamentary system, would permit economic independence. Nehru charges his Law and justice minister, B. R. Ambedkar, to write the constitution behind the parliamentary model and to establish social equality. Ambedkar was a vehement critic of the caste system, not just because he was a Dalit, but due to his understanding that the major obstacle to India’s progress was this system of graded slavery deeply instilled in the minds of her people. He made provisions in the constitution to uplift the depressed classes and fought for reforming Hinduism.

[( « The influence of Nehruvian Socialism and Ambedkarism made the Hindu elites jittery over the prospect of losing power. »)]

But the influence of Nehruvian Socialism and Ambedkarism made the Hindu elites jittery over the prospect of losing power. Since its foundation in 1925, the support for RSS was primarily limited to people of upper castes ; they first tried thus to continue their work in a covert fashion expanding its reach among various communities including the working class 14, farmers, neo-landlords and even tribal people, forming various organizations collectively called the « Sangh Parivar ». The Parivar’s attempt at social extension resumed, years later, when a parliamentary report known as the Mandal Commission report established that 52 % of India’s population (40 % of the Indian voters) belonged to a section called Other Backward Class (OBC). The report advised the government to allocate a percentage of jobs and seats in educational and other institutions to this OBC population — a populist measure which could benefit not only the financially backward people belonging to the Shudras (the labour class in the caste system) and Muslims, but also to the Hindu OBC population.

At the same time, in 1980, the political wing of the RSS was formed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP realised the importance of spreading its influence among the Hindu OBC population. To do it, it need to deepen the chasm between Hindus and Muslims initiated by the assassination of Gandhi. Hindutva activists started the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir movement (the « temple of Ram’s birthplace » movement), asking for the construction of a temple for the god Ram in the city of Ayodhya. Ram is an Aryan god important for the priestly class, believed to have reincarnated in this city. But the sacred site of the Babri Masjid, which should host the temple is a mosque, built by the first Mughal emperor, Babar, around 1528. Though this dispute originated in the second half of the 19th century, it regained prominence after the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. In order to consolidate the Hindu OBC population under its umbrella and to maintain the power of elites, BJP conducted in 1990 religious processions across the country known as the Ram Rath Yatra (« The charioted procession for Ram »). The processions resulted in Hindu-Muslim riots across the country as it was successful in provoking Muslims and evoking anti-Muslim sentiments among Hindus. A few Hindus under the auspices of RSS, placed idols of Ram and Sita and started laying claim to the site to erase the mosque — news spread that the idols had appeared miraculously and the miracle indicated that the god wanted a temple built on that very location. The site became disputed and the mosque was closed.

Photo: Rath Yatra led by one of the founders of the BJP, L.K Advani

But it’s during the tenure of Indira Gandhi 15, Nehru’s daughter, that the Sangh Parivar started infiltrating government institutions. In her bid to come back to power after an electoral failure, Indira cooperated with political parties and organisations of all religions and castes. She deployed radical activists to infiltrate political parties of the opposition and weaken them. In turn, bureaucrats aligned with these organizations started getting important positions in the government. Sangh Parivar was the most important beneficiary in this exchange of favors. This strategy led her, in 1984, to send the military « Operation Bluestar » to kill Sikhs regional political militants in the Golden Temple (operation that caused her assassination by two of his own bodyguards, who were also Sikhs). After her death, a decision from her son and successor as the prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, further increases the influence of RSS : he succumbed to the pressures of Muslim religious groups to reverse a progressive judgement issued by the judiciary to reform some religious practices, which gave the RSS an opportunity to portray him and his government as pandering to orthodox Muslims. The Sangh Parivar roused emotions among people on the need to organize Hindus to fight the consolidation of orthodox Muslims, who were supposedly aiming to destroy Hindu culture. They demanded to open up the disputed Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya for worship by the Hindus ; and Rajiv duly obliged. Such a nationwide mobilisation led some 200,000 RSS workers (led by elected members of the central and state parliamentary bodies) to travel from across the country to Ayodhya and occupy the mosque then take it down in an organized fashion — extracting revenge, in 1992, on Muslims who had hurt their pride by demolishing a Ram temple in 1528.

Rise of Hindutva and Capital

[( « Religion for votes — though prohibited by the constitution — became the norm and the most effective method to get to power. »)]

This episode marked a watershed moment in the history of the young nation. The demolition was widely telecast on TV across the nation. Hindu groups led victory processions across the country which led to widespread riots. In quite a few areas, Muslims organized protest marches which more often than not, turned violent. The city of Bombay, now called Mumbai 16, known to be the most cosmopolitan city in India, witnessed large scale riots leading to the death of around 1000 people. The polarisation which had been initiated during colonial period, now started accelerating at breath neck speed. Religion for votes — though prohibited by the constitution — became the norm and the most effective method to get to power.

In the meantime, the government initiated reforms to open up the economy. India which had a fixed exchange rate system till 1991, started having problems in balance of payments since 1985. By 1990, the government was close to default and IMF agreed for a bail out, based on conditions for liberalising the economy. The Congress abandoned its socialist project to pursue neoliberal economic policies under the Oxbridge educated finance minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, who went on to become the prime minister in 2004. The pursuit of neo-liberalism meant a shift, even in official pronouncements, from the inclusive Nehruvian nationalism which had till then been subscribed to, towards a bourgeois nationalism of the conventional aggrandizing kind, similar to the one in Europe at the time industrial revolution. GDP growth irrespective of conditions of the working population, a dichotomy reminiscent of both mercantilism and classical political economy, was an indicator of this. But there was also a common refrain about India becoming an « economic superpower », and almost every problem began to be seen with reference to this goal.

Photo: Demolition of the Babri Masjid (T. Narayan)

This kind of bourgeois nationalism sees the nation as distinct from its people, and standing above them (people were expected to sacrifice themselves for the nation and gain no material benefits from it) ; in parallel, Hindutva forces also place nation as a metaphysical concept. Neoliberals insulate themselves from democratic politics (the financial bureaucracy typically hired from the World Bank and the IMF remains unchanged even when the government changes), but not sufficiently : they have to look for additional ways to ensure that democratic assertion of the people doesn’t jeopardize their plans, especially in times of an economic crisis 17 ; thus began the association of Hindutva and capital.

The Congress government completed its term in 1996, not before deep chasms were created in Indian polity. The first overtly right wing Hindutva government came to power in the large state of Maharashtra (whose capital is Bombay, also the financial capital of the country) ; in 1999, it’s the central government which is given to the founder of BJP, A. B. Vajpayee. The government continued to pursue neoliberal policies along with ushering in a new wave of Hindutva. Curriculums of educational institutions were changed and bureaucrats favourable to the ideology were given important positions. Clearly, the RSS had its eyes set on long term goals. The BJP government’s rule was marked by the genocide of Muslims 18 in the state of Gujarat in 2002 19, under the leadership of its Chief Minister 20 — a former RSS worker of Gujarat, who later proved to have had bigger ambitions of power than anybody else in the history of the country : Narendra Modi 21.

[( « In a deeply polarised Gujarat, he made sure that Muslims were treated as second hand citizens by creating fear in their minds. »)]

Modi had established himself as the unrivalled leader in the state of Gujarat, after the genocide. He publicised himself as the « Hindu Hriday Samrat » (« Emperor of Hindu hearts ») who is unforgiving towards « injustices » meted out to Hindus. In a deeply polarised Gujarat, he made sure that Muslims were treated as second hand citizens by creating fear in their minds. Hindus unabashedly declared their pride in having shown Muslims « their place ». Many people of Gujarat consider the rivalry in trade and industry contributed to the genocide ; soon, Hindus started side-lining their Muslim counterparts in various other sectors. Within a few years, Modi reinvented and publicised himself as the man for development. Gujarat, with its community of industrialists, traders and businessmen followed a capitalistic model under Modi’s auspices and grew faster than most other states. Labour laws were weakened, land was given at throw away prices for businesses to be setup and expanded. Add to it the gigantic marketing campaign which Modi and BJP used, which helped magnify his repertoire many times, across the national media. The fact that many of the business conglomerates were from Modi’s home state of Gujarat helped his cause 22, in making claim to be BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The BJP — with help of media — led by its cronies successfully portrayed the main leader of opposition, Rahul Gandhi, as an ignoramus (« Pappu »). RSS identified fight against corruption as a platform to unite the supporters of Modi ; without coming to the forefront, RSS mobilised gurus, bureaucrats and prominent members of the civil society to launch an agitation « India against corruption », in Delhi. All these elements coupled with massive public relations exercises led by world’s best agencies and the lack of a prominent opposition resulted in Modi becoming the prime minister in May 2014, with a majority for the first time since 1984. The promise was a « Gujarat model ».

Beginning of an era of darkness

In the initial period, Modi went about consolidating his position in the party and the government, side-lining everybody who could possibly be a threat to his power. BJP government soon became « Modi government ». He also created grand plans (like « Make in India », purportedly to increase industrial output), but none of them materialised into action. He also visited the neighbouring countries — including India’s arch enemy Pakistan — portraying himself as a world leader. Many of Modi’s decisions were aimed at the state elections in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, held in May 2017. BJP won with a thumping majority winning 325 out of 403 seats. Modi and the BJP’s leader, Amit Shah, with the advice of RSS, installed a monk, Yogi Adityanath, with a proven record of anti-minority violence as the head of the state.

Photo: BJP flags (DR)

In 2017, the Modi government introduced legal restrictions on slaughtering cattle further legitimising violence related to cow. Instances where the victims were charged with cases for killing cows increased in the country. Cow is considered holy by many in North India. Though all sections of the population used to eat beef and other animals till as recently as 10th century AD, upper castes started prohibiting meat around the time of Islamic invasion to ascertain their purity and to distinguish themselves from the others. Moreover, the lower castes were increasingly considered dirty for their work of skinning dead cattle and meat eating habits. The idea of purity became not just limited to mating habits but eating habits. To the Sangh Parivar, this belief — which he largely contributed to popularize — play a strategic role : to create a figure of « the other », based on eating habits. It made it convenient for the Sangh Parivar to consolidate the Hindus across castes and attack Muslims and other minorities including Christians and Dalits. Incidents of killing by lynching mobs became banal events in a short time. If they received prominent coverage in the media initially, it has almost become a non-issue, lately.

[( « The Hindutva forces are not only reactionary, but counter-revolutionary. »)]

The government went on an all-out attack against educational institutions as is the case with every authoritarian rule. Those who spoke against the government are treated as anti-nationals. Moreover those who spoke against the policies of Modi are being increasingly treated as anti-India. Aided by the continued privatization and commoditization of education since the 1990s, the Modi government promotes anti-intellectualism by appointing academicians with very limited credentials apart from being sympathisers to the Sangh Parivar. The latter realised a long time ago the fact that intellectual hegemony is the precursor to other forms of hegemony. The aggressive stance of these « academicians » is clearly an assault on thought and reason, which helps to thwart all progressive social change, achieved in the last 70 years including the upliftment of the downtrodden, however little it might be.

The Hindutva forces are not only reactionary, but counter-revolutionary. Their entire agenda is centred on the concept of Hindu Rashtra (« Hindu Nation »), where a small group of people belonging to the Sangh Parivar and corporate oligarchy determines state policy — though, right now, it is only one man, Modi. Another notable point is how the caste system is central to institutionalized Hinduism. The aggrandizing nationalism espoused by the Hindutva forces aims to bring back the old hierarchies as per their ideologues’ veiled and vague concept of « Integral Humanism ». Turning the clock back on whatever social and political change India has had since independence, engineering a social counter-revolution, employing terror against anyone who dreams of a less unequal society, using sedition laws against those who speak of social injustices, cannot lead to any kind of social equilibrium. A dangerous situation, with no end in sight and no progressive potential, would then ensue, which would only make India join the ranks of the so-called « failed States » like its immediate neighbour, Pakistan, leading the country back to a collection of states divided by language, caste and religion often feuding with one another.

Photo: Narendra Modi (AFP)

Therefore it is essential that a collective of progressive elements would unite the oppressed classes across the population by opposing the Hindutva elements’ assault on democratic institutions in the name of nationalism. Given the current state of fragmentation in the opposition, this is highly unlikely to happen in the immediate future. However, the fall of Modi is more likely to happen due to his differences with the Sangh Parivar, which have already started coming to the fore : the Sangh does not appreciate the authoritarian tendencies of Modi and his unwillingness to share power. Their inability to find an alternative to Modi combined with Modi’s side-lining of all possible alternatives has resulted in a deadlock. Modi will find it difficult to cling onto power without the help of Sangh, and Sangh will find it very difficult to find another leader of Modi’s stature and cold-bloodedness required to convert India to anything close to a Hindu Nation.

What will remain of the idea of India in the multidimensional battle between the all-powerful Modi and his coterie, the Sangh Parivar and the oppressed population led by progressive intellectuals and political leaders, remains to be seen. « India is like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously » wrote Jawaharlal Nehru. The prevailing trend of Hindu nationalism is threatening to destroy the palimpsest altogether, and to replace it with a print of Danse Macabre. That idea of India which for a vast majority of people, is an emotion, difficult to explain, is being threatened. This is a battle which, however long and arduous, should be fought at all costs.

Photographie de bannière :


1. The name « Aryan » draws on misinterpreted references from Rigveda (one of the earliest scriptures) by Western scholars in the 19th century. Though academics object to its usage, this term will be continued to be used in this article as it has wide ranging implications for the current political economy of India.

2. The priestly class, the Brahmins enjoyed and continues to enjoy disproportionate share of the various shades of power despite forming only less than 5% of the population. This power chiefly derived from their status in society to promote or demote people to and from various castes. They held exclusive rights to the learning and use of religious scriptures and the conduct of rituals associated with the gods. The caste system evolved into a socio-political religious system dominated by the upper castes.

3. The term Dalit was coined by B. R. Ambedkar, the Father of the Indian Constitution, who himself was a Dalit. Dalit literally means « broken ».

4. In some villages, water from certain wells are denied to the Dalits.

5. The variety of religious practitioners came to be collectively called the Hindus after the arrival of the Europeans.

6. The largest kingdom or empire was under the emperor Akbar, from the Muslim dynasty Mughal (which ruled parts of north India from 1526 to 1858).

7. Raj means rule in Hindi.

8. The same method was used in Palestine, later on.

9. Sati is he funeral custom where a widow immolates herself on her husband’s pyre or takes her own life in another fashion shortly after her husband’s death. This was practised to make sure that property does not go outside the family.

10. The creation of Pakistan, exclusively for Muslims, led to large scale migration of Hindus and Sikhs into mainland India and Muslims into the newly created nation ; it also led to large scale riots and to the death of around 2 million people and about 15 million being rendered homeless. Kashmir, the northern most state of India remains a contentious area to this date, with both India and Pakistan laying claims to it. Memories of partition still haunt the country, and are often politicised for electoral benefits.

11. M. S. Golwalkar, the second premier and the most important leader of the RSS wrote : « To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races — the Jews… Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole… a good lesson for us in Hindustan [Hindustan means abode of Hindus, nda.] to learn and profit by ».

12. One of its leaders spent considerable time in Italy during Mussolini’s regime to understand the methods of the fascists by visiting fascist military academies.

13. The Communist Party of India was formed in the 1920 by M. N. Roy, who also founded the Communist Party of Mexico (the first communist party outside Russia) and who was sent by Lenin to spread revolution in India. At the same time, the socialistic leanings of many leaders in the Congress, especially Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, was due to the influence of Marx and Lenin.

14. The worker’s wing of the RSS played a pivotal role in weakening the communist party as they started exerting considerable influence among factory workers in industrial cities and areas.

15. Indira is not related to Mahatma Gandhi.

16. Bombay was renamed « Mumbai » in 1995 after a Hindu goddess, when the Hindu nationalists came to power.

17. Political support for neoliberal regimes in democratic countries like India is far more threatened, due to heightened inequality in an already deeply unequal society based on caste.

18. The term « genocide » is discussed among commentators. We use it in the wake of Martha Nussbaum’s book, The Clash Within : Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (Belknap Press, 2007), whose first chapter is entitled « Genocide in Gujarat ».

19. The genocide in Gujarat which led to the death of more than 2000 people and displacement of more than 200 000 is different from other riots in the history of independent India. On their return from offering prayers at the Babri Masjid site at Ayodhya, a compartment of the train in which the Sangh Parivar workers were traveling was set on fire due to an altercation at Godhra railway station. 59 of them died. In what is said to be a reaction to this incident, Muslims were killed, raped and looted across the state of Gujarat. The majority community of Hindus was extensively supported by the political machinery and the bureaucracy in identifying, marking and killing by burning and butchering Muslims. Hundreds of women were brutally gang-raped and burned to destroy evidences. Housing societies were set on fire. Even high court judges had to shift from their official residences to safe locations. In the elections following the genocide, Narendra Modi won with a thumping majority. He and his party was to head the government in Gujarat for 12 years.

20. Equivalent to the Governor of a state in USA.

21. Modi was nominated to be the Chief Minister by the BJP central leadership under directions from the RSS.

22. Modi’s caste is closer to the caste of traders/businessmen.


☰ Lire notre entretien avec Vandana Shiva : « Gandhi est plus pertinent qu’il ne l’a jamais été », février 2017
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