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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 30 New Delhi July 16, 2016

Introspecting Today’s Divisive Politics to Preserve the ‘Idea of India’ Gandhi Lived and Died For

Sunday 17 July 2016




by Aejaz Ahmad Wani

Hindutva or Hind Swaraj by U.R. Ananthamurthy (translated from Kannada by Keerti Ramachandra and Vivek Shanbhag); Harper Perennial, Harper Collins; 2016; pages: 120+ xxii (foreward); Price: Rs 350 (Hardcover).


In the wake of a recurrent rallying cry of Hindutva in the country, U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Hindutva or Hindu Swaraj is a chef-d’oeuvre that purports to light up the inherent ‘darkness’ of nation-states. In doing so, he attempts to make sense of the rise of Hindutva nationalism, its underlying ideological motifs, and seeks its justification in a comparative analysis of Savarkar’s Hindutva, and Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj. For him, the recent power changeover represents a transition from Gandhi’s dream of Hind Swaraj to Savarkar’s Hindutva. This book aims to understand the thematic effects of new power structures on the ‘idea of India’. The author employs diverse ways—stories, speeches excerpts, personal experiences, and scriptural references, to unleash narratives that make a case that India needs Gandhi even more desperately now than ever.

Making Sense of Ultra-nationalism and Ideological Rhetoric of Development

Is democratic majority an end in itself? For the author, the real test for a democracy is whether it provides space for those not in that majority. For this reason, there must never be political gratification of masses of any sort with the democratic majority. The author has his reason to believe so. For him, goodness and evil are inextricably linked up; thus, the love for the nation also hides within it an inherent evil. This evil is ever present in society. Like Ravana’s head, it grows again and again each time it is cut off. But Savarkarism wants us to believe that there is no evil in us; in fact, it celebrates that. The author understands well the fact that when each action is seen through the national prism, the everyday morality that Gandhi wanted us to preserve, vanishes. Notwithstanding this tide, the author boldly says that he wants to swim against this tide. Note that Ananthamurthy was a controversial figure all his life whose death was actually celebrated by the Hindutva fans.

With the rise of Modi, a new discourse of ‘development’ is doing the rounds thought to be for the nation, by the nation and for the nation. But the author is curious to know its foundational philosophy. For him, development so conceived is, in essence, a move away from nature. Things are filtered and commodified as per their utilities. This sort of development melts ‘big hearts’ into ‘brokers’ of business and benevolence is considered a feudal legacy and food to the hungry as an impediment to development. In the past, a skill would speak of its origin, but with the great game of hunting—globalisation, it mixes skills in a melting pot, the big hunters lay somewhere else, local participants only get a meagre share. Unlike the Gandhian concept of localisation aiming at sustainability, and self-sufficiency—the globalised localisation is a mechanistic way of appropriating the cheap countryside labour.

For the author, this is the brand of development that Modi wants us to believe in. This recent trend—a power changeover—represents, for Ananthamurthy, a transition from Hind Swaraj to Hindutva, from Gandhi’s dream of self-sustainability to the emulation of the West-induced dependency. This is the transition for the author that has recently been heralded by Modi through the rhetoric of national consolidation.

The Integrative and Ecological Hindu Vision, not the Hindutva Leviathan

Away from a very utilitarian and an extrapo-lative narrative of Hindutva, UR unravels a more holistic Hindu vision from the Hindu scriptural traditions. Why do only the poor suffer while the wicked prosper? In one of the stories mentioned in the book, this question is posed by a staunch believer to God to which God tells him to abstain from questioning His decisions. For Ananthamurthy, the Abrahmic religions have no reply to this question. On the other hand, there is no one God in Hindu Dharma but numerous and hence many avatars of Satans, all seeking to reach one god or the other. In the Abrahamic religion, only the committer of a sin is punished, but in Hindu tradition, the perpetration of any sort has a cumulative effect on all and sundry. The guilt is felt widely whosoever commits a crime.

This metaphorical exposition is remarkable in the book because for Ananthamurthy, it is this realisation that keeps people like Gandhi, Teesta Setalvad, Medha Patkar passionately active in the constant fights against the Israeli atrocities, Gujarat pogrom, and for tribal rights respectively as if they themselves have perpetrated these crimes. This integrative Hindu vision is a crucial plank of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, unlike the divisive and exclusive vision of Hindutva.

Napoleonic Obsession of Nation-Building and the Modi Regime

Ananthamurthy observes that there is a Napoleonic obsession of nation-building in the world. Rulers are hailed even after they have perpetrated mass murders. This obsession was as much in Stalin’s USSR as in France, as relevant in China as in today’s India. The word history is replete with an unpalatable praise of the ‘heroes’ devoid of any moral invocation. He argues that even though Indian history is generally thought to be non-violent, the songs, movies and the art in India clearly indicate that the very Indian psyche is violent. In this, he takes up the historical presentation of India in Savarkar’s writings. Savarkar, taking the cue from Napoleon as well as from the pan-Islamic unity, sought to build such a strong nation-state which shall reign paramount with other entities being secondary to it. This utilitarian defence of a nation-state acknowledges the aggressive acts of Indian history as India’s ‘essence’; but it to that extent avoids any acts of morality or immorality. Thus, Shivaji is not known for good governance, but for his arms tactics and wars.

With the continuity of this obsession and narrow understanding of history up to our day, Ananthamurthy groans, the heroes of our time have been hailed without any moral retrospection. Thus, Modi, given his Savarkarite ideological pedigree, paradoxically pays tribute to Gandhi. He might have changed from outside, but inwardly his moral dilemma is evident. By playing down differences for the sake of nation-building, the Modi regime has isolated liberals for their skepticism of a possible fascist state should the rhetoric of a nation be stretched too far. With the recession of the Left in India under the rhetorical and oratorical developmental agendas of Modi, Ananthamurthy is quite sure that such develop-mental agendas under the guise of global capitalist expansion and intensification is an anathema for the environment in India which will show its vengeance in the form of uneven rain, climate change, floods, and thunder. This ‘Modi vision’ is proximate to Savarkar’s ‘mighty India’ but quite far away from Gandhi’s schema of ecologically sensitive self-reliant agenda of Hind Swaraj.

This book is what the author calls a ‘satvik’ (analytical and gentle) response to the vehemence of the sort of nationalism as envisaged by Savarkar. The author, in order to understand the rise of ultra-nationalism in Modi’s India, seeks to unravel the roots of Modified nationalism which takes him to Savarkar. Savarkar passed through an initial phase from being a supporter of Hindu-Muslim unity in his early writings to his latter aggressive and exclusive avatar when he viewed the Hindu nation exclusive of Muslims and other groups. Inspired by social Darwinism, utilitarianism and rationalism, Savarkar propounded a creed of nationalism on an essentially violent edifice. It was perhaps, the author points out further, the ideal character of Savarkar and his aggressive ideas which Gandhi refutes while defending the eloquence of Ahimsa in his seminal work, Hind Swaraj. Ananthamurthy visualises the arrival of Modi’s regime as a reversal of the dream of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj to Savarkar’s Hindutva. What made this reversal possible was the ineffective Congress (which otherwise have many credits to its name), the inactive Manmohan Singh, and sentient Rahul Gandhi but equally Modi’s oratorical skills and the propaganda that the media manufactured for him.

Comparing the Dialogical Hind Swaraj with Oratorical Hindutva

Ananthamurthy reviews Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? to underscore his project of an exclusive Hindu nation. Savarkar formulates his ideological construct from a larger Hindu civilisation, its thoughts and actions rather than the Hindu religion. Hindutva denies unity in diversity by framing the identity of Hindus as those whose Pitrabhumi (fatherland) and Punyabhumi (holy land) lay in India, geographically imagined from the Himalayas to the sea. This qualification excludes all except Hindus who have unflinching faith in the Vedic heritage. Ananthamurthy asserts that while Savarkar portrays only one side of the Hindu history that he calls as ‘Glorious Epochs’ (Savarkar’s book Six Glorious Epochs in Indian History), he overshadows equally negative aspects and evil sagas that manifest deep even in the scriptures. He warns that if one glorifies and lionises one’s entire existence, one often forgets oneself in the act.

In this comparative task, Ananthamurthy finds Savarkar’s historical analysis and arguments very excessive in comparison with Gandhi’s still and constructive presentation. Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj has dialogical argumentations, first expounding the opponent’s radical arguments in great detail followed by a presentation of Gandhi’s moral and non-violent answers. In such an open exploration of ideas, the reader makes an informed judgment being acquainted with both sides of the coin. On the other hand, Savarkar’s Hindutva is a monologue written in an excellent oratorical manner that only performs an elevation of the exclusive Hindu civilisation, its achievements but masking its ugly sides in totality. Secondly, Savarkar recognised the contribution to the making of modern India of only those who celebrated Vedic cultural ethos. This exclusive mode of argumentation is but based on emotionalism but Gandhi’s is on robust introspection. Gandhi is convinced in his belief that the removal of a rung from a ladder will render it useless. For Gandhi, the seeds of nationalism in India were sown by many who had unflinching faith in his non-violent principles. This inclusive and integral approach, for Ananthmurthy, is what makes Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj a remarkable humanistic illustration of politics that has an apparent relevance in today’s India.

In a rather introspective manner, Anantha-murthy argues that the meteoric rise of a ‘lower caste’ person like Modi actually illustrates the Vedic regimen of flexible Varna where one could make a move to another caste though merito-cratic means. However, it was not Savarkar’s glorification of Hindu civilisation that made it possible for Modi, rather it was only with the therapeutic contribution of Gandhi, Ambedkar and V.P. Singh who removed fetters on the lower caste that caste Hindus had put on them since ages.

‘Unity in Diversity’ or the ‘Fear of Diversity’?

In the concluding chapters, Ananthamurthy lays out some excerpts from Godse’s speech justifying the killing of Gandhi, which for him reflects clearly the credibility of both Gandhi and Godse and in effect, Savarkar. The killing of Gandhi, who fought for the ideal of ‘unity in diversity’, by a person, whose ideal was ‘unity among the Hindus only’, exposes the prejudiced and exclusive character of Savarkarism. Savarkarism sharpens the Indian memory of its ‘glorious past’ but causes a deliberate amnesia about the multifaceted origins and development of the Indian nation, of its diversity.

In this comparative exercise between Hindutva and Hind Swaraj, Ananthamurthy attempts to reflect upon the changing political milieu in India and presents both alternatives to the people of India—an aggressive one or an accommodative one. For him, what is desperately needed in today’s India is not the development of the Modi way, but Gandhi’s Sarvodaya—empowerment of all rather than the development of the corporates and MNCs.

Laconically speaking, Hindutva or Hind Swaraj is an excellent reflection on the ongoing political, social and economic changes taking place in India with the arrival of Modi. At the same time, it seeks to convince Indians about the need for introspection in today’s divisive politics so as to preserve, maintain and cherish the ‘idea of India’ that Gandhi lived and died for.

The reviewer studied at the Political Science Department, University of Delhi. He has authored the book Political Process in India. He is also the contributing author of the forthcoming book Modern South Asian Thinkers being published by Sage. He has contributed to Economic and Political Weekly and Mainstream.

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