The politics of hate

Print edition : January 30, 1999

The politics of hate pursued by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is aimed at undoing the traditions of secularism, democracy and socialism that are embedded in a substantial part of modern India, and remaking the whole of India in its own image.

AIJAZ AHMAD

THE politics of hate that sets the political agenda today is in reality as old as the century-old process that has gone into the making of modern India. It is more influential today than it has ever been. However, a politics of this kind has been with us for a century or more. In most kinds of such politics, religious extremism plays the same role that racialism has played in the history of European fascisms. Indeed, religion itself is viewed in such tendencies primarily not as spiritual faith or a system of beliefs but as racial particularity and a civilisational essence.

For V.D. Savarkar, the revered forefather of this extremism who was not even notably devout, what all Hindus share is "common blood". According to him, then, those Indians for whom India is undeniably a janmabhoomi but who subscribe to other religions have fallen out of this mainstream of blood and belonging. They have thus lost their rights as equal members of this nation and should therefore be prepared for repression or even extermination. As he eloquently put it: "Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by."

It is worth emphasising, though, that unlike Hitler, for whom the crossing over from one race to another was simply impossible, Savarkar does offer to non-Hindu "races" an alternative, namely that they can re-join this mainstream if they convert to Hinduism and bring up their children as Hindus. This demand, made some eighty years ago by one of the illustrious founders of Hindutva, sheds a rather interesting light not only on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's ongoing terror campaign against hapless Christians, precisely on the issue of conversions, but also on the proposition advocated by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, an old veteran of the Savarkar-inspired Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), that there should be a national debate on this issue. For 'conversion' has been central to the very ethos of RSS extremism, as bogey, as project and as threat.

They begin with a semantic sleight of hand. Opting out of Hinduism for some other religion is called 'conversion'; opting out of some other religion in favour of Hinduism is called 're-conversion'. The dominant media just take up this vocabulary and assist in creating a sort of common sense that anyone who is converting to Christianity or Islam is doing something out of the ordinary, possibly something anti-national as well (the famous "foreign hand"!), whereas anyone converting to Hinduism is only returning to his or her true essence.

If a Christian mission, after having been in the area for a hundred years or more, manages to convert some twenty-five thousand souls whom we, in our infinite wisdom, continue to call 'tribal' and/or 'untouchable', because these damned of this earth see in even the most miserable form of Christianity a way out of the filth of a caste-ridden society, that is said to be emergency enough for the nation to "debate" the matter solemnly while the various offspring of the RSS carry out their campaigns to slash the human beings and burn the crosses. But if a functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party announces an explicit plan to convert a hundred thousand or more to Hinduism within a year, he is supposed to be doing only the natural thing, the right thing, because he has the rights of the twice-born: born first as Hindu and therefore, logically, as the 'true' Indian as well. And the rights of this variety of the twice-born include their ability to hold out the threat that those who do not " re-convert" shall be treated as outcasts, even non-citizens.

It was well before Partition, when over a quarter of the Indian population belonged to organised religions other than 'Hinduism' even in its broadest definition, that Hindu extremism - the RSS, the Hindu Mahasabha, and the rest - adopted Savarkar's notion that only a Hindu was a 'true' Indian and that the rest could be treated as 'true' Indians only if they converted to Hinduism. In claiming that a quarter or more of the population should convert to a particular religion or else be denied equal status in society, Savarkar's was undoubtedly the most ambitious plan in pursuit of conversions that modern India has known. Neither the Christian missions nor the Tabligh movement spawned by the Muslim clergy can offer even a vaguely comparable scope or clout.

But for the power and devotion of the RSS to the pursuit of this design, one would dismiss the Savarkar project as one of those crackpot ideas that extremists think up. Given the power and the devotion, however, one has to take stock of the long-term implications of the project, and in doing that one has to understand what is unique about the RSS and the way in which it organises this project, quite beyond the electoral calculus.

SINCE its inception during the 1920s, the RSS has been primarily interested, from the side of the Extreme Right, in what Antonio Gramsci once called a 'war of position'. It has been engaged, in other words, not in short-term electoral power but in long-term historical change. For this reason, then, it is really not possible to gauge the power of the RSS from the electoral fortunes of the BJP, especially if we do not sufficiently appreciate that the design for historic change may go on even as electoral fortunes fluctuate. In that larger project of historical change, the RSS has always calculated, I believe correctly, that if they can continue successfully to engineer fundamental cultural change, dividends in the electoral arena may come later but will then come more reliably and enduringly.

A second and crucial element, a secondary layer as it were, was added during the 1950s and has been a part of their design ever since, for reasons very palpable. Once the Republic of the bourgeoisie emerged as the primary form of rule in independent India, the RSS understood, after some floundering, as everyone else in India also understood, also after some floundering, that the electoral process is the one through which governments would now rise and fall, in any foreseeable future. This process they have sought to address, and have so far addressed with impressive success, first through the Jan Sangh, which culminated in their central role in the Janata Government, and then through the BJP, an extremely sophisticated political machinery in charge of government these days which is run strictly by veterans of the RSS; there is hardly any significant leader of the BJP who is not such a veteran.

This game, too, the RSS has played with dexterity. Ordinarily, in mature bourgeois democracies, there are very sharp constraints within which any political force is permitted to propagate its politics of hate. In Germany or Italy, for example, where stable democracy is not much older than in India and where neo-fascists are fairly strong, the politics of hate in the post-War period has so far been contained on the margins of society. In India, by contrast, and through much trial and error over virtually half a century, the RSS has understood that the constraints are much less operative, but also that the constraints do exist. The BJP is there in order to keep testing the limits of constraints, so as to expand constantly the scope for irrationalist politics, but also to capture governmental power within the general framework of those constraints, however brittle these might be. The Shiv Sena, by contrast, cannot emerge as a major national force precisely because it recognises no such constraints. The RSS does.

The main objective of the RSS is not parliamentary politics, however, but the politics of hate so as to undo the traditions of secularism, democracy and socialism that have embedded so powerfully in at least a substantial part of modern India, and to re-make the whole of India in its own image. Most of that project it pursues not through the BJP, the parliamentary front, but through the other fronts, such as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, designed more specifically for those purposes. A mark of their great success is that they have convinced the liberal media, and perhaps many beyond even the liberal media, that the distinction between the BJP and the VHP is not merely procedural but real, and that what we are witnessing is not a division of labour within a cluster of fraternal groupings but a fundamental political difference.

Some of that basic project of uniting a majority of Hindus the RSS pursues through the BJP as well, however, and it is a sad comment on the nature of our polity that the BJP has benefited so spectacularly from campaigns of hate. This too we find difficult to concede. It is thought best not to recall, for example, that in the elections of 1989, which marked the resurgence of the BJP that is yet not over, 47 of the 88 constituencies that it captured were ones which had experienced the most virulent forms of communal violence during the preceding year.

Nor is it comfortable for us to contemplate the possibility that this politics of hate may actually be popular among key sectors of the Indian polity, notably the professional middle classes and the trading bourgeoisie in northern India. Thus, for example, a MARG opinion poll conducted between December 17 and 23, 1992, soon after the destruction of Babri Masjid and in the midst of the massive communal violence that ensued, showed that 52.6 per cent of those interviewed in the North approved of the demolition (as against 16.7 per cent in the South, it must be added).

That this is a derangement especially common among the well-off becomes refreshingly obvious, however, if we consider yet another statistic from roughly the same time: a survey conducted in Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh showed that while 60 per cent among white-collar professionals and 62 per cent of traders approved of the demolitions, among workers the support fell to 28 per cent.

The point in citing these statistics is not to suggest that the politics of hate has some inexorable logic in our society, equally among all classes and regions in the country. The point is to say, rather, that the politics of hate is much more popular among the beneficiaries of the system than among its victims, and that it is most effective among the social segments and in regions which have been much more influenced by right-wing politics in general.

At an RSS drill. In mature democracies there are sharp constraints within which any political force is permitted to propagate politics of hate, but the RSS has understood that in India the constraints are much less operative, although they do exist.-SUBIR ROY

Having said that, however, it is also the case that the consent it commands is very widespread in society, especially among the politically powerful and influential segments; and that this consent has been very much on the increase over time. What accounts for this power of the politics of hate in a society where at least the urban intelligentsia cultivates for itself and for the country an image of liberal tolerance, benign spirituality, and so on?

THE first reason can be traced back, I believe, to the earliest period of our modernity, and to the colonial character of this modernity. The very sense of history of the first generations of the Bengali intelligentsia was deeply marked by the colonially propagated ideologies of Aryan identity, Vedic purity and "Muslim tyranny". The typical reform movements of the late 19th century were markedly revivalist in character. Based as they were among the beneficiaries of traditional systems of caste and property, the reformers frequently had a vested interest in propagating a romantic notion of the cultures of the upper castes to which they themselves belonged and which were now presented as the very essence of being 'Indian' and 'Hindu'.

Precisely at the time, during the closing years of the nineteenth century and the opening ones of the twentieth, when representatives of Indian economic nationalism were formulating analytic procedures for explaining colonial exploitations, some of the most influential figures in the literary and cultural fields were deeply attracted by a cultural nationalism that was distinctly revivalist in character and religiously exclusivist by implication. Neither Bankim Chandra Chatterjee nor Aurobindo, neither the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal nor the Shivaji cult propagated in Maharashtra by such icons of Indian nationalism as Bal Gangadhar Tilak himself, were quite untainted by that kind of revivalist fervour. Indeed, so powerful was the revivalist culture of the upper castes that when anti-Brahminical movements surfaced in Maharashtra, whether under Jyotiba Phule or B.R. Ambedkar, it was the extremity of the backlash of the upper castes in that region that gave us the RSS in the first place.

This is not to say that either Tilak or Aurobindo would be quite approving of what the Hindutva of our own day is and does. And yet there is enough there for a common sense to prevail today among sections of the urban upper castes and middle classes, in various parts of India, especially the northern and the western, to be persuaded that the social vision and cultural idiom of this modern-day Hindutva is descended from that general ambience of our 'renaissance' and 'awakening'.

Indeed the potentials of that kind of revivalism were so pernicious that Rabindranath Tagore was to warn at length, already in the second decade of this century, that there was only a short step from revivalist zealotry to communal frenzy. In two of his great novels, Gora and Home and the World, whatever other shortcomings those novels might also have, Tagore was to portray with great sensitivity and acumen how revivalist politics and communal closures may be particularly tempting to the socially insecure and the upwardly mobile.

THAT, then, is the first point: the sheer persistence of Brahminical revivalisms at the very heart of what were expected to be structures of our modernity and which never did give us any kind of modernity, precisely because of the extensive compromises they made with colonial representations of Indian history and because of their interest in representing their caste cultures as our 'national culture'. Hindutva has derived much comfort from those revivalisms.

Second, then, one can say that since the advent of mass politics in India during roughly the 1920s, there have been essentially three alternative visions that have competed for dominance here.

There is of course the vision represented by the Communist and pro-Communist Left, which has been committed to creating a modern, civil, secular, democratic culture and which has held that such a culture cannot come into being, in the specific conditions prevailing in India, without also building a genuinely socialist society: socialist in a sense far more radical than the Nehruvian. Second, and far stronger, has been what one might call the vision of national independence together with social reform, industrial capitalism, and a political democracy - in short, a modern bourgeois order. Finally, there has been the conservative, caste-based elitism which came eventually to be monopolised by the RSS, with considerable fuel from the Hindu Mahasabha, which had itself come into being in opposition to both the Communist and the bourgeois-nationalist movements.

If the Communist movement was inspired by Marxism, Hindu extremism was undoubtedly inspired by Fascism, as the direct links between Italian Fascists and such leaders of this extremism as B.S. Moonje and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee would testify. The conflict between the two visions was inevitable because they represented radically opposed visions, both on the national and the international scales. Within the country, though, the third vision, that of capitalist democracy in the framework of an independent polity, was by far the dominant one. So, whether a culture of civic virtues or a culture of hate and cruelty shall prevail in our country has depended, in general, on the actual balance of forces among these competing visions, which we could also describe as visions associated with the Left, the Centre, and the Right respectively. Whether or not the Right could be contained depended, in other words, on whether or not the Centre would hold and incline, for its own survival if not anything else, toward the Left.

THE politics of hate has been both the moment of birth as well as the chief instrument of expansion for the RSS, considering that it was founded in the aftermath of the Nagpur riots of 1923 and was already playing a role in the later riots of 1927 in the same city. Then, before Independence, the RSS had two brief moments of growth: between 1939 and 1942, when the national movement was very much on the defensive and the colonial state was assisting all kinds of communal forces; and then during the 1946-48 period when the RSS had much room for action in the midst of the communal holocaust that accompanied Partition. Its involvement in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi put an end to all that, however, even though Sardar Patel did get it off the hook by legalising it again.

The astonishing fact about communal violence in India is that it was at its lowest level during the first decade after Independence, when the memory of Partition and the attendant violence was the sharpest; and that the intensity of this violence has increased with every succeeding decade even though Partition, which is said to explain the virulence in northern India, keeps getting more distant in time.

Although Nehru was relatively isolated even within the Congress, he and his associates seem to have been successful in stemming the communal tide during the 1950s. Political discourse within the nation was preoccupied with issues of land reforms, planned development and India's place among the newly decolonised states and in the anti-imperialist movement of the non-aligned. The Communist Party was the main Opposition, and the contest therefore was between what we have described as visions of the Left and the Centre. The Right, the RSS with its newly formed parliamentary front of the Jan Sangh, was simply sidelined.

What began to happen thereafter is that the Centre, or what could have been the Centre, kept collapsing. Powerful elements of the ruling class in northern India, from the former ruling families of the princely states to sundry Marwari capitalists, patronised the RSS with a vengeance; Vajpayee's own early parliamentary career from Gwalior is inconceivable without the key patronage from the Scindias. Then there was the political elite. The roll call of those who were associated with the RSS in one way or another is embarrassing for all those who believe in some essential secularism or even the civic decency of this elite. From Vallabhbhai Patel to Gulzarilal Nanda, with Jayaprakash Narayan and the whole Sarvodaya crowd in between, not to speak of myriads such as Dr. Karan Singh, large sections of this elite, so polite and liberal otherwise, trusted and cooperated with the RSS quite gladly.

But then, there were at least two other features of politics in India during the period after the 1960s, as communal violence began to escalate, which contributed to giving us a more generalised culture of cruelty. One was the routine participation of large numbers of police and paramilitary personnel in communal violence, almost always on the side of Hindu communalism and across a wide territory from, let us say, Meerut and Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh to Ahmedabad or Surat in Gujarat or Bombay in Maharashtra, without fear of any severe punishment from the ruling party of the day. The second was the propensity of the Congress itself to play what was quaintly called 'the communal card', so that one was faced with a macabre field of competing communalisms practised unequally but fervently by what were once conceived of as the 'Right' and the 'Centre', and it became difficult to tell between the pragmatic and the programmatic communalisms of the respective parties.

It is in this larger context, then, that images of those burned houses and torched crosses can be flashed into the living rooms of the affluent across the country, and nothing really happens in response. This kind of indifference to communal violence is made all the more possible, however, because the victims are poor and, even as Christians, at the lowest possible rung of the caste society. It is only the cynicism of the VHP which can terrorise them on the one hand and urge them, in the same breath, to return to a Hindu fold that was never very keen on them in the first place. Communal violence is combined here, then, with the violence of caste and class. For what has become more marked in independent India with each passing decade is not just a vortex of communal hatreds but a much wider culture of cruelty in which polarisation of castes and classes have been at least as bloody as conflict of religious or denominational communities.

Aijaz Ahmad is Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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