Hindutva is embarrassed by Hinduness. A new generation of confident Indians has started to move beyond its logic of fear and hate. Will the BJP be able to seize this moment for creative reinvention?
Ashis Nandy with Shoma Chaudhury
The cascading crisis within the BJP since May 16 and their confused debate on the role Hindutva has played in their electoral defeat tells a fascinating story. It would be premature to read any of this as a signal of either the disintegration of the party or Hindutva, but one could safely say the idea of Hindutva has been defeated by Hindustan for the moment – it has been put on a backburner and challenged to reinvent itself.
The BJP’s dependence on Hindutva as its defining characteristic was bound to turn problematic. Data suggest that at most about 10 percent of BJP supporters vote for the BJP on ideological grounds. The Hindutva project was constructed by tapping into and fostering fear and a psychology of siege among the Hindus—a sense of being a minority in a country in which they are 82 percent of the population.
By itself, choosing Hindutva as its core ideology by a party is not harmful to Indian democracy. If there is a sizeable section of the people who believe in Hindutva — or for that matter Maoism, anarchism or unfettered capitalism — you need political parties to summate these sentiments and even represent them in Parliament, so that you can manage them through normal politics. The Republican Party in America, for instance, always encourages and routinely takes help from the Christian fundamentalists at the time of elections. They know it is a small vote bank but it can be crucial when contests are close. But after the Republicans win an election, they might give their fundamentalist friends some minor, indirect rewards but never cabinet posts, important constitutional positions or even the chance to openly hobnob with the party stalwarts.
The BJP has not learnt this art of political management. They do not know how to treat Hindutva groups like Bajrang Dal, VHP and Ram Sene as merely minor sects to be used only during elections in homeopathic doses. The BJP is stupid enough to allow its lunatic fringe to antagonise its own larger support base of the party. A national party in a highly diverse, plural democracy cannot afford to take its ideology — any ideology — seriously. Nor can it afford to behave as if its entire existence depended on an ideology. This whole ideological stance — making Hindutva their central official line and making the lunatic fringe its official cadre — has been myopic and suicidal. (So has been to take the RSS seriously. The RSS has never been in politics so their understanding of politics is often infantile.)
The Indian genius is to manage contradictions. Most people forget that at one time the Congress Party, the original party of the freedom movement, allowed many of its members to simultaneously belong to the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha or other Hindu nationalist formations. This was quite common in Bengal because a large huge proportion of Bengali freedom fighters came from a background of Hindu nationalism. (For many years you could also be a member of both the Congress and the Muslim League.) It is because such contradictory political impulses were accommodated within the Congress as factions that they were easier to negotiate in the early years. The BJP’s dilemma is that it believes its existence to be predicated on Hindutva; now that they have lost badly, they think Hindutva has become a liability and should be jettisoned. Now the relationship between the BJP and Hindutva will probably become more clandestine.
Gandhi was no romantic. He knew that India could have its own version of a nation state
The debate they are trying to have within the party is actually nothing more than a power struggle wearing the mask of policy choices.
In itself, such power struggles are healthy and, contrary to all the speculation going on, the BJP is not slated to disintegrate like the Janata Party. In India most parties no longer have power struggles; they are dominated by individuals and families. They only have court politics. The Janata party was a coalition of caste factions; the BJP might turn out to be one of the few parties having political factions. (The CPM is another such party.) With charismatic leaders like Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani past their prime and the second rung of leadership wielding very little charisma, if the BJP wants to survive and do reasonably well, they should “do a Congress”: they should find a Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh to lead them. Most of their current and prominent leaders are too high-pitched. They need a low-key leader.
The BJP may be short-sighted in analysing its defeat, but its electoral defeat does point to a defeat for Hindutva itself. At the core of the Hindutva project is a war between Hinduism and Hindutva that is around 150 years old. It began in the middle of the 19th century, when the ideas of Hindutva began to take shape with the Hindu reform movements. These movements were modern and borrowed much from the imperial West. And the new Hinduism that emerged out of these reforms can be considered a colonial product. That is why Gandhi was convinced that all these reform movements, in the long run, would do more harm than good to Hinduism. In this sense, the recent defeat of Hindutva today is also a defeat of the colonizing West in India because the Hindutva project was a gift of the colonial West to Indian consciousness. That does not mean that the globalising West has lost its clout.
Reformers were trying to produce tamed versions of religion able to sustain pan-Indian nationalism
Today, both the detractors and defenders of Hindutva are confused about what it stands for. This truth may be unpalatable to many, but Hindutva grew in an atmosphere of admiration of the European nation-state, nationality and nationalism and our attempt to have an indigenous forms of all three. When Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the one who formalized Hindutva by writing a Bible for it, insisted that Hindus must not read the Vedas and Upanishads but read science and technology and western political theory, this is what he had in mind. He was looking for a way to transform a chaotic, diverse, anarchic society into an organized, masculine, western-style nation-state, something akin to Bismarck’s Germany.
To achieve this, the Hindutva project required Indians to repudiate their Indianness, and Hindus to repudiate their Hinduness. That was part of the war. It required a chaotic, diverse society to homogenize itself into something that could be more globally acceptable and would conform to European norms. Public memory is short. Few people remember that Savarkar was an atheist in his personal life – in the western sense. He refused to have his funeral rites according to Hindu custom; he willed that his body had to be taken for cremation in a mechanized vehicle rather than on the shoulders of relatives, admirers and friends. He also refused to give his wife a Hindu funeral, even though women members of the Hindu Mahasabha sat in front of his house on a dharna.
Savarkar’s main criticism of Gandhi, in fact, was that Gandhi was unscientific, irrational and illiterate in modern political theory. By conventional criteria of scientific rationality and political commonsense, Savarkar was not wrong. But Gandhi’s understanding of politics had deeper roots; it came from both his encounter with the bottom of Indian society and with dissenting cultural strands within the West. Gandhi did not believe in the sanctity of the modern nation-state or in conventional ideas of nationality, nation and nationalism. Nor did he care much for the dominant, western, political theories and the West’s concept of scientific rationality. He went on record to say that armed nationalism was no different from imperialism. And some scholars have identified him as a philosophical anarchist. At that point of time, in the high noon of modern colonialism, he seemed a romantic fuddy duddy trying to return to the past.
But the way to the future is often through our past. Gandhi understood that India was particularly well-equipped to craft its own version of a state. It was under no obligation to follow European textbook definitions of the nation-state. He had not read Hegel. The irony is that today many western nations are moving away from the old model and becoming more flexible on issues such as sovereignty, national security and nationality: 14 countries in the world today do not maintain any army and the countries in the European Union have porous borders and have agreed to suspend their sovereignty in matters like human rights and capital punishment. On the other hand, because of our colonial past, India and China are two of the purest forms of 19th century nation-states you can find in the world today.
To begin with, this is precisely what the Hindutva project was about: western political theory telescoped into Hinduism and the West’s political history projected into India. Initially, Savarkar believed in an integrated, secular nationhood and dreamt of a masculine European-style nation-state in India. He was not alone and he was also not the first. Arguably, in the 19th century the idea of Hindutva was first articulated by the Bengali freedom fighter, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay and some would trace to an even earlier period, to figures like Rabindranath Tagore’s friend, Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, a Catholic who called himself a ‘Hindu Christian’. (The protagonists of all three of Tagore’s political novels were partly or wholly modelled on Upadhyay.) Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Vivekananda and Nivedita too expressed ideas that could be co-opted by the Hindutva brigade.
But Savarkar was the one to decide that mere geography was too insipid a basis for building a nationality and began to look for an emotional basis and a national community and found them in Hindu nationalism and in the Hindus. The clenched-teeth hatred of Muslims and other minorities came from him. It was not there in the earlier forms of Hindutva, or was present in some in a muted form.
After its defeat in this election, the BJP feels its middle-class base has moved away from it because the middle classes are disenchanted with Hindutva. This is not entirely true. A large section of the Indian middle-class has a weakness for at least the less strident forms of Hindutva. Primarily, this is because the RSS and BJP have strong links with the Hindu reform movements, particularly the Arya Samaj. Both BS Moonje and KB Hedgewar, founders of the RSS, and the Sri Lankan Buddhist nationalist, Anagarika Dhammapala, were inspired by the Ramakrishna Mission. The reason for this in retrospect is clear. All these reform movements contributed to the growth of a new, reformed Hinduism which was perfectly compatible and comfortable with the European concept of a nation-state.
This continuity has led to a form of Hinduism that is perfectly compatible with a modern nation state – in the same way that Protestant Christianity in Europe was the first religion to feel compatible and comfortable with the nation-state, industrial capitalism and secularism. Ultimately, all Indian religious reformers were trying to produce house-broken, tamed, homogenised versions of religion which would sustain a pan-Indian political consciousness and a form of Hinduism for similar purposes. All these reformers had internalised aspects of masculine, Protestant Christianity and so had Dhammapala’s Protestant Buddhism, which many Sri Lankans find very convenient.
Hindu society, however, is notoriously chaotic, diverse and plural. Anyone wedded to the conventional idea of a nation-state obviously finds it unmanageable and subversive. The idea of Hindutva is supposed to be something Hindus can hold on to – become, docile, obedient citizens of a modern nation-state.
All this makes sense to the middle-class, which has naturally invested in the conventional notion of the nation-state and modernity and also wants to protect its Hinduism. The middle class therefore is a natural constituency for Hindutva and its version of Hinduism. In Savarkar’s novel Kala Pani, the only futuristic novel produced by Hindutva, there is an utopian vision of a future India — a totally homogenous society, in which people marry across caste, sect and language and become good, pan-Indian citizens — almost like the insipid, boring predictable versions of Indians one sees nowadays in India’s metropolitan cities. No difference in language or custom: everyone speaking in the same accent, everyone having the same choice in music, cinema, clothes.
Savarkar was prescient because this does look like contemporary, urban, middle-class India. A class that has access to a globalised economy, speaks English as its primary language, and is shaped by its exposure to a homogenising media. What resonance does a Malayali or Bengali or Tamilian of this generation, if brought up in Delhi, have with the vernacular Hindusim of his grandparents or parents? Do all those myriad gods and goddesses with strange names, family priests, ishtadevs and ishtadevis make any sense to them? What is emerging instead is a pan-Indian Hinduism that allows you to dip into a bit of Onam and a bit of Diwali and a bit of Durga puja, and that too not very deeply. Contrary to the ‘millenia-old’ tradition Hindutva ideologues claim, these young Malayalis, Bengalis and Tamilians are a part of a new Hinduism that is a proper religion in the West’s sense of the term. This new faith is no more than 150 years old. It was born in the middle of the 19th century and was directly inspired by Protestant Christianity. And this faith is also a faith you can carry with you wherever you go. It is a kind of laptop Hinduism.
The Hindutva project in India is destined not to ever occupy centre space though, because when one talks of a Hinduism which is 4,000 years old, we have in mind a religion or tradition that might be shrinking everyday but which still moves a majority of Indians. Most Hindus live with a concept of faith that is diverse, local, intimate and highly ritualised. Hindutva has no access to that world. Apart from economic reasons and the crunch on jobs and infrastructure, one of the reasons why the Shiv Sena could garner so much support for their opposition to the influx of Biharis in Mumbai was the proliferation of chhat puja. The Mumbaikars felt threatened; the Biharis would have faced less of a hostile backlash if they had participated in the Ganesh pujas instead. Interestingly, there are many more Durga pujas in Mumbai and Delhi than there are chhat pujas, but there is no hostility against Durga puja because it has graduated into an all-India phenomenon. Chhat hasn’t – yet.
It would be a mistake to conflate the occasional eruption of these hostilities with the belief that the idea of India’s plural traditions is a romantic myth. Different castes and sects within Hinduism and different religions have always participated in each other’s religious festivals, but they were not steam-rolled into a portable, anodyne faith. Whatever might its middle-class intelligentsia believe, the rest of India has never opted for the Enlightenment model in which you are deemed cosmopolitan only when you feel the other person to be completely equal to you. In Indian traditions, you are equal to others only in the sense that you have the right to think the other communities as inferior to yours, and grant the other person’s right to think that your community is inferior to his – even though neither of you say so openly. In a homogenised, individualised society, the former is seen as cosmopolitanism. In a communities-based society, it is the latter cosmopolitanism that works.
In this continuing war between the traditional, chaotic, diverse Hinduism and the ordered, homogenising Hindutva of the Hindu nationalists, the BJP’s electoral defeat is a sign that Hinduism has probably defeated Hindutva. Hindutva expects Indians to live according to European norms of nationhood. But we are Indians: we are incorrigible, cussed and have learnt to live with contradictions for centuries. We have learnt to live with chaos and ill-defined ideas of our selfhood and we have not learnt to be — in fact, we refuse to be — scientific, modern, well-organized and rational. We want to keep options open for the next generation. These are the attributes that have ensured our survival when so many other major civilisations have died. These are attributes that the BJP has to find ways to accommodate.
(I once interviewed Madanlal Pahwa, one of the assassins of Gandhi and a hardboiled Hindu nationalist, when he was quite old. It transpired that ultimately his most memorable years were his childhood spent in a Pakpattan in the Montgomery district in West Punjab, which had Baba Fareed’s mazar. There was a religious fair every year to which he would go to listen to the qawwalis being sung. He called himself akattar Hindu but his most nostalgic memories revolved around that mazar, the fair and qawwalis. This tells you something. We Indians are accustomed to living with multiple selves and multiple moral ledgers. He was a Hindutvawalla and his language came from there, but his memories came from somewhere else.)
None of these arguments add up to an assertion that Hindutva will die out. What is true though is that, unless it metamorphoses, it will never enjoy the same vigour it did in the last three decades because it is inherently uncomfortable and embarrassed by Indianness and traditional Hinduism. For a generation newly emergent from colonial dominance, there was a fascination and sense of respectful subordination to things Western. But with this new post-independent, post-colonial generation, things are different. Indians have gone back to their own rhythms of life now, so even for the middle-classes, Manmohan Singh’s ‘West’ — with its hair-brained idea that anyone can be a Tata or Ambani — is more attractive to many than Savarkar’s ‘West’. Aspiration for a global, material identity has overtaken cultural identity.
Given the perceived, electoral defeat of Hindutva, it will be interesting to see what future route the BJP charts for itself. In many ways, Advani is a tragic figure. It is possible that no one has yet been able to read him correctly. Unlike Vajpayee, Advani had lived in a Hindu minority state and went to a Christian missionary convent. Having lived in a Muslim-majority state, Muslims are not strangers to him, and, perhaps, he did not feel the intrinsic discomfort with them that many Maharashtrian, Brahminic politicians do. He was a part of the RSS — and believed in it — but there is a strong possibility that he also recognised in some ways that Hindutva was a political instrument rather than an all-encompassing ideology.
There is much Advani has to answer for. He is culpable for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and cannot escape history’s judgement by saying he was talking of Ram as a cultural icon and not a religious figure. He knew he was creating a explosive communal situation. But his party’s reaction to his statement on Jinnah makes him a tragic figure. There was nothing new he said about Jinnah – it is an indication of the state of our political culture that no one seemed to understand what he was trying to convey. Strangely enough, despite the basic differences in their personalities, Jinnah like Savarkar was a person who thought entirely in western terms. Advani was only recognising that when he called Jinnah secular. Let us not forget that Pakistan’s first law minister was a Dalit like ours, its first national anthem was also written by a Hindu, upon Jinnah’s invitation, and Jinnah avoided the Mullahs like pest. Both men shared the idea that nationality was crucial to a nation-state and a certain amount of violence and bloodshed was normal in the jostling for dominance. Though, I have to admit, Jinnah probably was less open to the idea of violence than Savarkar.
The ‘millenia-old’ tradition Hindutva ideologues claim is actually a very new faith
Advani tried to cast himself as a statesman in the Vajpayee mould, but could not repudiate his past. At the same time, he could not project himself as an ideologue with heroic pretensions either as, say, Narendra Modi has done for the sake of the Gujarati middle class. Advani did wear different masks at different times in his career to gain political mileage, but it is likely that he personally has remained somewhat distant from all of them. For all I know, he may be too human to be a perfect politician.
But this only intensifies the problem for the BJP, for if Advani is not fully convincing in his new incarnation, even Narendra Modi seems to have passed his zenith. This election has revealed the limits to his popularity. And his case in some ways is worse because he has not left any escape routes for himself, not even with a cosmetic, dishonest, hypocritical apology or expression of regret for the events in Gujarat 2002. This is likely to haunt him for years, if not for his entire career. So the search for the right leader for the moment has become the BJP’s biggest headache – a leader who can lower the divisiveness and high-intensity politics the party has become associated with.
There is much Advani has to answer for, but he is quite a tragic figure. No one has read him right
If the BJP abandons Hindutva, what shape can its right of centre politics take? Its economic program cannot go too far right because a majority of Indians live outside the spoils of the neo-liberal economic system. If only for electoral gains, they have to be appeased. What this means is that the BJP could be headed for a different kind of ideology, in which Hindutva will play a part, but there will be other competing, coexisting concepts. There is no reason why even Hindutva itself cannot take on a more benign form. Some of the early thinkers who toyed with the idea of Hindutva — Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Vivekananda and Nivedita — were not light-weight thinkers. Even Tagore had played footsy with Hindutva during the Hindu mela days in the first decade of the 20th century. His Gora was not only a response to both Kipling’s Kim and revolutionaries like Savarkar but also to his own weakness for Hindu nationalism.
Vajpayee, for instance, held Hindutva as a kind of vague, emotional frame. There’s no problem with that; in fact, it can in sometimes be a help. Nawaz Sharif once reportedly told Vajpayee that he, as the leader of the Muslim League, and Bajpai as the leader of the BJP, were best positioned to break fresh grounds in Indo-Pak relations as their constituencies could never accuse them of being wishy washy liberals and ignoring national interests. Above all, like the Maoists must be encouraged to come above ground and become part of the democratic process, the Hindu right too must be politically accommodated. They cannot be annihilated or wished away, just as the Naxals cannot be wished away. (The Charu Mazumdar group in Bengal was wiped out by the police rather ruthlessly, but in barely 30 years, Naxalism has come back as a more powerful political formation. These are idealistic people. It is a pity they have opted for the gun, but the problems and grievances they represent are real. Sitting in urban citadels, one might imagine that one can solve these problems and meet these grievances over the next 100 years and wait for the “trickle down” effect to work, but one cannot expect everyone to wait patiently in the meanwhile.) The same way, if there are rump groups that are rabid enough to believe that they must break down the Babri Masjid, they cannot just be wished away. They have to be politically handled and tamed.
India’s pre-colonial states probably have something to say to us. The Mughal empire, for instance, was a quite a successful state and made some interesting experiments. Contemporary India might get some new ideas from them. The conventions of the empire were in some ways so attractive that the British left them more or less intact for the next 100 years or so. Even the Delhi Durbar of 1911 followed all conventions of a Mughal court. One of the most important of these conventions was that the empire allowed different degrees of allegiance to the centre. The Jaipur state, for instance, was more central to the Empire than the sultans in Bengal.
Savarkar’s novel Kala Pani covets exactly what the middle-class is today: insipid, boring, uniform
The BJP has been demanding that Article 370 be abolished and the Uniform Civil Code introduced throughout India. These are legitimate demands in a European-style modern nation state. But why must we follow that route? Instead of haggling on Article 370, one should use it more effectively: go the whole hog with it. Could we have deployed it or some variation of it in Sikkim instead of gobbling it up? Maybe we could have used other versions of it at Nagaland and Manipur, instead of opting for 30 years of bloodshed which has made a whole generation bitter? I am giving off-the-cuff, random examples how we might have thought about the Indian state and given it greater manoeuvrability. We could have even used some of the ideas of Gandhi to avoid overloading our State; we are uniquely well-equipped to design our own version of a State. We did not have to build a standardised nation-state. By default, we have gone in for some innovations — Indian secularism is one example. Both secularists and communalists complain about the compromises we have made with our concept of secularism. So, even though I am a critic of the concept of secularism and do not think it is working well in India, I cannot consider it all bad. But we shall have to innovate and experiment with the building blocks of our polity; we cannot allow the core concepts of our polity to harden into ideas that are too defined. Ours is a political culture in the making.
The current upheaval could be a creative moment both for the BJP and the RSS. Unlike earlier RSS heads before him, Mohanrao Bhagwat is neither a charismatic figure nor a conspicuous ideologue. Nobody expects anything from him and he, therefore, has the opportunity to be more creative. But then 19th century Western political thought, combined with self-hating, compensatory nationalism, Brahminism and half-digested modernity, is a lethal combination. It cuts you off from your native Indian genius. So one remains doubtful whether they will be able to cease the moment?