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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 41 New Delhi October 3, 2015

Preparing for that Make-over?

Saturday 3 October 2015, by Badri Raina

The Hindu (September 23, 2015) reports that at an RSS meeting, the hitherto routine discourse about true secularism and pseudo-secularism (alleged “minority appeasement’) has come to be superseded by a bolder formulation. Noting that the stipulation about “secularism” was clandestinely inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency period, as per the above report, Shri Manmohan Vaidyaji has given voice to what one always knew to be the real position of the Hindutva Rightwing: he is reported to have said that secularism is “irrelevant” to India.

This new enunciation requires to be read alongwith a concatenation of cultural moves that have been in evidence lately.

The advice sent to the Nepalese political power-structure that the new Nepalese Constitution ought to, in accordance with the wishes of the Madhesis, and in consonance with its over-whelming Hindu majority, declare Nepal a “Hindu Rashtra” again could only be read as an adumbration of what the RSS has always wished for India. It is well to recall that during earlier times before the Nepalese monarchy came apart, the Hindtva Rightwing in India used to look upon the Nepalese monarch as an avatar of Vishnu. Understandably, therefore, the choice that the Nepalese Constitution-makers have now made in favour of a “secular” state divided into seven federations must come as a rude denial to the RSS in India. Imagine that a polity comprising some ninetyfive per cent Hindus should have failed to constitute a theocracy.

A reconstitution of the Indian state into a “Hindu Rashtra” of course poses many diffi-culties. Chiefly, it is to be doubted that a majority of Hindus in the first place would go along with such a Constution were it to be formally attempted. Even those noveau riche vanguards of the post-Reform era, who have been emphatically behind the rise of Narendra Modi, may not go as far as to acquiesce in such a venture. Even as they proudly align themselves with an amorphous form of Hindu culture, and express more than a modicum of empathy for a “globalised” Islamophobia, their material aspirations, corporate dreams, and linkages with “Western” culture may stand in the way of their declaration of support for a theocracy in India. Such a course rather threatens to shame somewhat their self-image of a smart, up-country, consumerist, gadget-savvy modernity, even as their social instincts remain frozen in a conservative body of predilections.

The Hindutva Rightwing, led by the RSS, therefore, heeding Polonious’ counsel to his son in Hamlet, seeks to find directions through indirections. Not that those indirections are not direct enough. And the goal is always trans-parent: to unleash an Essentialist body of perceptions which establishes in the popular imagination the plausibility of the old Savarkar thesis that only those who consider the “fatherland” to be also their “holy” land qualify as Indians.

The first task in that project has to be to assert that the Aryans were indigenous to Bharat, and that the Harrapans were Aryans as well. Never mind that the icon of a horse sought to be “discovered” by Shri Rajaram and Shri Natwar Jha within a Harrapan seal as evidence that the Harrapans were indeed Arya was wretchedly found to be a fake. Nevertheless, efforts are once again afoot to push back the antiquity of the Vedas to prove the good old point. Those whom the “secularists” call the Adivasis (original/oldest dwellers) of India are, as we know, nomenclatured Vanavasis (forest people, presumably like other animals, not tantamount quite to human status, following animist superstitioins) are hence denied the position of the oldest inhabitants of India (somewhat like the native Indians of America, and the Aborigines of Australia?). The idea of course is to indubitably establish an Aryan/Hindu ownership of the land as a grand ontos, and to diminish all those who came later to the status of interlopers tolerated here per courtesy of the enlightened Aryans/Hindus whose contributions to all sorts of knowledge of the here and the hereafter must be deemed to be unsuperseded by any and all world-historical events or civilisations. Thus everything that “Western” science came to discover/invent was already known to Vedic India, until the conquests one after the other conspired to erase that golden history and raise to dominance “Western” pretences. The Hindutva resentment against the Moghuls and the British (read, inter alia, Muslims and Christians) therefore goes deep into a self-fashioned narrative of the “authentic” and the “inauthentic”. It is no surprise therefore that the limited number of canonical texts that define the Hindutva archive (chiefly penned by Savarkar and Golwalker) should have these limited issues as the centrality of their concern.

A defining feature of this centrality is to seek to cast Indian nationalism into a European mould—to base it in a uni-racial, uni-lingual, uni-religious framework of legitimation contrary to what India’s struggle for freedom had uniquely achieved, namely, a nationalism rooted in and powered by a rich multiplicity and plurality of social, ethnic, linguistic, and religious identities. It must remain a cruel irony that this aping of the West in so crucial an issue as the forging of a national profile (think how Golwalker was to praise Hitler) should remain obscure to the Hindutva ideologues even as they never tire of castigating “Western” distortions of Indian life and thought. Exactly as a market-friendly Hindutva seems never to worry about the “Western” origination and legacy of an economic order which they wish everday to perpetrate with greater and greater devotion.

A second plank of this indigenising project is now to forge a unity among what are called by the Sangh the “Indic” religions. No prizes for saying which these are. Thus the RSS proposes to celebrate one noted festival of all these “indic” sister faiths—Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, even Valmiki etc.,—as if to pointedly designate once again that Islam and Christianity as non-Indic and hence invading faiths whose “holy” lands lie outside Bharat. Never mind here the history of what Indian Brahminism once did to Buddhism and Jainism, and how the descen-dants of Valmiki continue to be treated in free India. As always, the manoeuvres of “cultural nationalism” have little to do with social and material realities of the vast mass of Indians on the ground. Their chief object remains the keeping in place of a hegemony that any combined force of low casts and low classes may not breach.

This reassertion of a sectarian indigenism now seems to take a further unfortunate and potentially disturbing turn: it seems to be now the order that considerations that may be accorded to a three per cent Jain population in respect of their religious observance may not be accorded to a fourteen or so per cent Muslim population in deference to their religious rights. This seems to go hand in hand with the manner in which the festivals of Eid and Christmas have been sought to be rather relegated over the last two years, with some official obligation or the other declared on both days. As we write, the festival of Eid is round the corner, and even in an overwhelmingly Muslim majority Kashmir Valley a defunct old Penal Code (1931) has been brought alive to deny the rights of slaughter to the Muslims. It should not be far from any common understanding as to how such things pan out in the popular imagination of citizens who are thus affected. The Hindu now reports (September 24, 2015) that a booklet has been brought out by the Muslim forum of the RSS making the claim that cow dung makes the hydrogen and atom bombs ineffective; and, more to the point, that Muslims in India ought to give up eating beef. This, in their view, would generate harmony among social groups. All this must be read in the more overarching counsel that Golwalker had furnished to Muslims especially—that they must acknowledge their status as converts, embrace their Hindu lineage, learn to honour Hindu rites, customs, gods in order to be eligible for full citizenship.

A third plank that has been let loose to the same purpose —of consolidating the notion of an undifferentiated Hindu India—is the suggestion made by the RSS chief that it is perhaps time to rethink the affirmative policy of reservations. Such affirmative policies that set caste apart from caste have never found favour with the Hindutva Rightwing for the simple reason that such a policy framework forever separates Hindu from Hindu, under-mining the claims of a homogenised Hindu nationalism. All that even as the RSS holds fast to the doctrine of Varna vyavastha (caste distinctions). Indeed, it may be recalled that at the time of the Constitution-making exercise in India, the then RSS chief had proferred the view that there was no need for a Constitutiion since one already existed in the form of the Manusmriti. For now, thankfully, the political compulsions of the contemporary moment are such—chiefly the forthcoming elections to the Bihar Assembly—that the Bharatiya Janata Party has had to pick up the courage to demur and say they are not in favour of any such rethink. But for how long is the question.

Then there is the renewed putsch to foreground Sanskrit. Had this been a straight-forward recommendation to invest in the dissemination of and proficiency in the language, there might have been little educated resistance. But the suspicion remains that quite another thought informs this love of Sanskrit. It is once again premised on two suppositions, both in the service of the Hindutva agenda. One, that Sanskrit is “the mother of all languages”, and two, that it is the bedrock of India’s civilisational identity. The first supposition is held only by a school, while most others contest the claim; even at home, Tamil is arguably an older language and has not a trace of Sanskrit. As to the second, the idea clearly is to link the propagation of the language to Hindu Scriptural archives. But the questions to ask there are the following: why, if Sanskrit is the issue, does the Sangh not foreground the original Ramayana by Valmiki which is in Sanskrit rather than Tulsi’s centuries later version which is not in Sanskrit? Clearly, the former, although in Sanskrit, raises awkward questions about the Katha, beginning with denying the status of an avatar to Rama. Valmiki’s narrative also involves the decapitation of a praying Shudra, Sambook. Thus, Sanskrit does not help much there. In the Tulsi version, Sambook yields to Shabri whose jhoothei baer the high-caste Rama is seen to eat with delight, and of course Rama is accorded the status of an avatar by Tulsi. Wheras Valmiki far from lauds Rama’s act of deference to a washerman’s finger-pointing at Sita, Tulsi raises the episode to the status of an ideal of kingship, a noble proof of the Lord’s willingness to jettison his own beloved wife in the larger interest of acceptability among the praja.

A further question that might be asked is whether this furthering of Sanskrit would include the study of such Sanskrit texts as Mudrarakhshsa and Mrichakatikam, both rather fiercely subversive of authority and orthodoxy. Or, indeed, whether the Megha Dootam, Ritu Samhara and Kamasutra would form objects of study in schools and colleges. After all, we are told to regard everything written in Sanskrit as an infallible storehouse of wisdom, are we not? Alas, this insistence on Sanskrit may again only turn out to be the thin end of another sort of programme.

Things are therefore going well beyond the mere matter of appointments to various institutional headships etc., with one exception: the gathering assault upon Nehru and the Museum dedicated to his life and work and concomitantly to the history of the freedom struggle needs to be seen as an attempted demolition complementary to that of the Babri mosque in 1992. Not without a demolition of the work, thought and legacy of India’s first Prime Minister, who laid by and large the guiding path to scientism in everyday practice, to a socialistic economy, to a non-alignment designed to protect the new fledgling nation from the machinations of global power blocs, especially the Western ones, and who most of all advocated separating the affairs and operations of the state from the interests of any one religion, may the Hindutva project truly be complete. Nehru needs be brought low as other icons have been in recent times in country after country. Without that accomplishment, the hoot of victory as it were may continue to sound hollow. Some test for how much meat and stamina his work and legacy has.

On all fronts, in short, the task of decons-truction and reconstruction has been undertaken in earnest. What remains to be seen is how the contradictioin between the oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the substance of the recasting thrust may play out as between the state and the government of the day and the ideological support-base which put it there. The support-base, it must not be forgotten, crucially includes a clutch of the Corporate world. Their devotion to freeing economic activity wholly from regulation, except to expect the state to be ready-at-hand to further their interests, and, contrarily, their chagrin medievalist cultural shenanigans that impede the amorality of profit-maximisation unleashed by the very forces that welcome their unfettered economic activity may come to define in time a contradiction that thwarts the now rampant advance of reviva-lisms. But it is a bind that they and the government may not be expected to transcend too easily, given the fact of their embeddedness in that cultural revivalism.

We always believe there is a vast silent majority of Indians who wish to keep to the straight and narrow of pluralist secularism. They will need to be heard from in the days to come in as much concord as the forces that are ranged against them. We do not understand the conflict to be between religions; we understand the conflict to be between the tolerant and the intolerant among all religions. And there can be little doubt that tolerant Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and others on the one side together far outnumber their corresponding counterparts. The more this reality dawns on all sections, the safer the republic will be.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.