Politics of Nationalism

Creating the enemy

Print edition : February 15, 2019

Delegates of the 15th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas function during a visit to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on January 24. The Hindu Heritage Foundation launched a “signature campaign for construction of Ramjanmabhoomi mandir” at its stall at the venue of the “sammelan”, which was replete with Hindu symbols meant to influence the thinking of the delegates. Photo: PTI

The politics of “nationalism versus sedition” is a Sangh Parivar project to essentially divert attention from the failures of the government and enthuse the Hindutva support base.

Two seemingly unrelated developments in the second fortnight of January 2019 highlighted the diverse methods used by the Sangh Parivar to perpetuate its “nationalism versus sedition” campaign and its impact on different sections of the political class. One of these was in Varanasi during the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Sammelan (conference of non-resident Indians, or NRIs) held between January 21 and 23. The sammelan is a biennial event that has been held since 2000 and this year’s edition was built up as a special parade in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency to showcase some of his pet projects, including the “Ganga Darshan Pathway”, one of the key components of the “beautification and modernisation” drive that has progressed in the temple town over the past six months (“Target Varanasi”, Frontline, December 7, 2018). Along with this, a new form of the “nationalism versus sedition” campaign was launched at the event.

A specially created organisation called the Hindu Heritage Foundation (HHF) was the prime mover of this campaign although other Sangh Parivar associate organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal were also involved. The HHF set up a stall in one of the venues of the sammelan—at Bada Lalpur area of Varanasi—complete with posters and portraits of Hindutva ideologues and leaders such as M.S. Golwalkar, K.B. Hedgewar and Ashok Singhal as well as a picture of Abanindranath Tagore’s “Bharat Mata”. Ostensibly, the stall was set up to propagate Hindu heritage and Hindutva literature, but it also launched a “signature campaign for construction of Ramjanmabhoomi mandir”. The campaign was promoted through brochures and pamphlets depicting the Sangh Parivar’s Ayodhya agitations and campaigns. Significantly, HHF volunteers’ spin on this to the NRI delegates was that participation in the Ram temple signature campaign would be testimony to their patriotism.

The spiel had it that the Ram temple was a symbol of Bharat’s identity and pride and that the HHF wished that all patriotic NRIs would rally around the symbol. Indeed, the HHF managed to build up a discussion around the signature campaign at the “sammelan” and was reportedly able to rustle up a sizable number of signatures too. Apparently, the discussions at the stall covered many issues relating to the patriotism debate, including the charge sheet against Jawaharlal Nehru University student leaders such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid.

Congress’ silence

The other development (or non-development) related to the deafening silence of Congress president Rahul Gandhi on the charge-sheeting of the JNU student leaders. This silence was conspicuous because three years ago, when the JNU incidents unfolded, Rahul Gandhi had, as the Congress vice president then, come out in support of the student leaders, taking a strong position against the oppressive measures the police had unleashed. But, three years down the line, and with his rise in the Congress’ organisational set-up, Rahul Gandhi opted for silence and inaction.

The refrain within the echelons of the Congress was that this was in keeping with the “new soft Hindutva” approach of the Congress since the Gujarat Assembly elections held in December 2017. Since then Rahul Gandhi and his team have been repeatedly brandishing the Congress president’s Hindu credentials, especially as a devotee of Siva and as a sacred thread-wearing Brahmin. Almost all his election campaign trips were preceded by well-publicised visits to several temples. The Congress manifestos for the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh elections had definitive Hinduist overtones with promises about protection of cows according to Hindu tradition.

Evidently, it is an extension of this line that the Congress wished to adopt on the “nationalism versus sedition” debate too. In a larger sense, this is an acceptance of the emotive appeal of the debate that the Sangh Parivar has built upon this blatantly sectarian and inherently communal political construct. There are several Congress insiders who are not happy with this approach, but they also add that as a mainstream party that is working towards recapturing power at the Centre, it needs to understand and submit to the overall social climate. In other words, through the “nationalism versus sedition” debate, the Sangh Parivar has succeeded, to a large extent, in developing the sort of sectarian social climate it wanted to create.

Propaganda project

So, this is the state of play on the contentious and sensitive “nationalism versus sedition” propaganda project three years after it was launched by the Sangh Parivar following detailed deliberations and careful planning. On one side, the Hindutva forces’ campaign is proceeding apace. On the other side, the principal opposition party is coming up with its own softer versions of this debate and advancing them, at times, through silence and inaction.

However, Sangh Parivar insiders point out that the creation of this social climate and the Congress succumbing to it is perceived by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its associate outfits as only a partial victory. “The campaign is yet to result in a decisive and concrete gain, which should come in the form of conviction in any of the cases we are pursuing. It could be either the case against those like Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid or the ones that the security agencies are following against the ‘urban naxals’. Such a conviction would vitiate the social climate further,” said a senior RSS activist based in Lucknow. Sangh Parivar insiders are of the view that several factors, “including intervention of the intelligentsia and social activists with pronounced anti-national predilections”, have prevented the campaign from making tangible gains.

This is an argument that Hindutva cadres have brought up time and again over the last two years. It became shrill when five prominent social activists—Sudha Bharadwaj, Varavara Rao, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira—were arrested in August 2018 on the claim that they were “urban naxalites”, and this was questioned by a group of intellectuals, including the historian Romila Thapar, the economists Prabhat Patnaik and Devaki Jain, the sociologist Satish Deshpande and the human rights activist Maja Daruwala. These renowned personalities filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the arrests and this resulted in temporary relief for many of the arrested activists. But all this has not pushed back the Sangh Parivar’s agenda on this matter. Nor has its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the National Democratic Alliance led by it taken a step back. The government has been moving forward with one manoeuvre after another to advance the “nationalism versus sedition” campaign. The latest in this series was the December 20, 2018, order of the Union Home Ministry authorising 10 agencies to “monitor, intercept and decrypt” data from any computer in the country (“Surveillance state is a reality now”, Frontline, January 18, 2019).

Active plan

As Frontline had originally reported, the “nationalism versus sedition” plank was conceived as an active plan and its broad organisational parameters were marked at the Akhil Bharatiya Karyakarini Mandal Baithak (national executive committee meet) of the RSS held in October-November 2015 at Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand (“Offensive strategy”, Frontline, September 28, 2018). That meeting, attended by the leaderships of more than 35 associate organisations of the Sangh Parivar, including the BJP, was held against the backdrop of serious concerns within these units about the track record of the Modi government until then. The party’s electoral performance in some key States also added to their concern.

The government had completed nearly one and a half years at that time, and the assessment of the RSS top brass was that it was not commensurate with expectations despite the free hand given to Prime Minister Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. The assessment within the Sangh Parivar after the first year was that while the leaders of the government, including Modi, were good at making pronouncements, there was not much happening in concrete terms. In any case, the rank and file were not happy.

Not only that, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had roundly defeated the BJP in the Delhi Assembly elections of February 2015, and internal reports of the RSS had indicated that the party was likely to lose the Bihar elections too, scheduled to be held in October-November 2015. The results of the Bihar elections later confirmed the RSS’ internal assessment. It was against this background that the Ranchi meet outlined the contours of a new Sangh Parivar project, which would essentially divert attention from the failures of the government and enthuse the Hindutva support base.

Shortly after the Ranchi meet, the Sangh Parivar used its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, to raise the “nationalism versus sedition” issue forcefully through the incidents at JNU in February 2016, dragging the then JNU Students Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and other student leaders into a controversy. Parallelly, the action plan on this idea got advanced even more aggressively in Chhattisgarh, which had a left-wing extremist problem for long. It involved the creation of a police state, where a calculated and strategic suspension of the rule of law was imposed to oppress and suppress all voices of dissent that questioned the socio-economic machinations of the BJP and its corporate-Hindutva politics. Informally termed “Mission 2016” campaign, this offensive charted a new record in terms of brutal interference in the everyday lives of common people, including Adivasis and well-meaning social activists (“War on Bastar”, Frontline, April 29, 2016).

In the following years, different Sangh Parivar outfits and the BJP dedicated several of their conclaves to devise ways to take forward the sedition discourse. Thus, not shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and not standing while the national anthem was being sung were branded seditious activities. Samajwadi Party leader Professor Sudhirkumar Panwar pointed out that “as the government’s failures kept mounting, new chapters were added to the patriotism versus sedition game”. Panwar points to the HHF move at the Pravasi Sammelan as yet another manoeuvre in this game.

The manoeuvres of the HHF are to move into new areas after the Pravasi Sammelan. Its secretary, Sanjeev Sawhney, is planning to submit the signatures of the NRIs that the HHF has collected for the Ayodhya Ram temple to President Ram Nath Kovind in early February. Then, the country would witness yet another nuance in this game. More so, because the Modi government’s failures are getting repeatedly highlighted and also manifested in the form of electoral reverses.

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