Yugoslavia’s cautionary lessons for Modi’s India
When the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was inaugurated in 1918 and later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929, it was more than a noble experiment. Yugoslavia represented an attempt to create a sense of sovereignty, nationhood and economic unity among peoples who for centuries had lived under the Ottoman yoke and in some cases the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the final years before the First World War.
After the Second World War, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia sought to pursue equality between ethnic groups using the methods of modern socialism and federalism. The results were a non-aligned state that was among the most successful in southern Europe.
Its economy boomed in the second half of the 20th century. Secularism was the rule and religious extremism was a thing that happened elsewhere. Society was tolerant and surprisingly open by the standards of 20th-century Europe and governance was more stable than in neighboring Greece and vastly freer and more developed than neighboring extremist Albania.
Triumph of equality over sectarianism
Not long after the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed, India became independent of British rule in 1947, becoming a fully independent republic in 1950. Like Yugoslavia’s, modern India’s early leaders worked tirelessly to overcome the dual legacies of colonial oppression and sectarian religious and caste divides simultaneously.
Many were surprised when India emerged as a non-aligned country more shaped by social-democratic values than by sectarian strife. Many were also amazed at the speed with which the caste system was stripped from politics during the years of rule by India’s modern founder Jawaharlal Nehru.
Today, while India remains a technically unified nation, Yugoslavia is long gone. However, unlike in many other states that were once part of a greater union, many people in the Balkans look fondly on the Yugoslav years. This is particularly because in the years since, economic standards have plunged in much of the former Yugoslavia and the threat of sectarian division continues to loom as many political questions deriving from the breakup of the state remain unresolved.
Yugoslavia’s initial failure itself had noble beginnings. It traces back to clauses in Yugoslav leader Tito’s 1974 constitutional reforms, which offered autonomy to non-Serb-majority provinces within Serbia, namely Vojvodina and Kosovo, while not offering similar autonomy to Serb populations in other federal units of Yugoslavia, namely Bosnia and Croatia.
Reform or destruction?
In 1986, Serbs, feeling disfranchised at the outcome of the 1974 reforms, published the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. The publication was immediately denounced by the ruling Communist Party as reactionary, although the document itself proposed only moderate reforms to the existing state.
As the 1990s approached, the combination of ethnic-Albanian violence against Serbs in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo combined with foreign encouragement of Croat and Bosnian separatism led Yugoslavia to descend into war, which ultimately resulted in its collapse.
In the 20th century, India and Yugoslavia shared many of the same virtues and accomplished such things in similar ways during a similar period of time. However, while India continued to make progress as a state in the 1990s and into the new millennium, there exists a danger that it could be doing to itself what a combination of noble causes and ignoble external factors did to Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The Hindutva problem
In many ways, the dangers India faces are even graver. When Narendra Modi assumed the office of Indian prime minister in 2014, it represented the crowning modern achievement of modern Hindutva politics.
Originally framed by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in the 1920s, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party) in many ways adopted an even more extreme interpretation of Hindutva in 1989 when it accepted the Palampur resolution as its guiding doctrine.
The result has been a Hindutva movement with the BJP as its most important party political vehicle, which attempts to create second-class citizens of India’s indigenous non-Hindu minorities, including Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.
The movement seeks to combine the idea of Hindu and Indian identity, thus depriving non-Hindus – or, perhaps better put, those who do not practice the BJP’s style of Hinduism – of a fully fledged Indian identity.
Yugoslavia’s leaders, including and most especially Tito, worked to create the idea where a Yugoslav civic identity could co-exist with one’s ethnic identity. Tito after all came from a mixed ethnic background himself. Likewise, the founders of the Indian National Congress sought to create an anti-colonial Indian identity that did not infringe on one’s right to hold private religious beliefs, including the absence of religious beliefs.
With the ascent of Modi and a strong BJP, that balance may be lost. It is as though the Partition of India, one of the most brutal legacies of British rule, is now seen as incomplete rather than a long-settled matter belonging to the past.
What’s more is that in modern India, minorities are not advocating for separatism or special status as is the case in many movements leading to the breakup of large states. Instead, minorities are simply arguing for their right to be Indians with the full rights of all other citizens. Instead, discrimination, social exclusion and, most worryingly, mob violence are becoming the rules rather than the exceptions in modern India.
India’s Muslims, Sikhs and Christians are increasingly being relegated into a new caste of untouchables based not on the ancient internal Hindu definition of caste but based on a perverse modern understanding of the inability of different religious sects to co-exist in what is formally a secular state.
Make India united again
The danger is that while religious minorities in India are now arguing to “become Indian again”, there is a danger that such people, if pushed hard enough by the Hindutva extremists, may come to the conclusion that they are not wanted as “Indians” and that an Indian identity is something reserved exclusively for Hindus.
What might they do at that point? They might argue for the re-partitioning of the state, only this time without population transfers but merely for new states to form in areas where Hindus are not the majority. Such a solution would undoubtable cause violence, especially in cosmopolitan areas of India.
This violent solution, one which would make India economically and geopolitically weaker, is the logical conclusion of Hindutva.
The once politically unassailable Indian National Congress appears unable to stand up to the BJP’s extremist form of governance. In many ways, the Congress was a victim of its own success. As a result, complacency and corruption set in. The scenario is not entirely different from what one is witnessing in South Africa, where the African National Congress is becoming a similar victim of its success.
The solution in both cases is for India and South Africa to realize that they can have a party that is inclusive, modern and economically equitable without needing to retain a brand that represented anti-colonial nationalism.
The need for the Congress party either to reinvent itself or be replaced by a new moderate force is even more urgent than in South Africa for the simple reason that there is no danger of South Africa returning to apartheid, but there is a grave danger of India regressing into a state based on a Hindu tyranny.
India can either return to its modern roots or go the way of Yugoslavia. If the latter option is chosen, the Hindutva leaders will only have themselves to blame, and once India’s economy suffers as the economies of many former Yugoslav entities have suffered, only then might they realize that ethnic and religious extremism have many bad consequences and hardly any saving graces.