Hindutva and nationhood

The nation according to Hindutva

Print edition : March 18, 2016

V.D. Savarkar. His vision of the nation excludes religious minorities from any real entitlement to the country. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

M.S. Golwalkar. He had compared universal franchise to a piece of meat on which crows settle. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Godavari Parulekar, legendary communist leader and one of the founders of the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha, with Adivasi comrades in Thane, where the Kisan Sabha launced the historic revolt by the Warli tribal people in 1945. Photo: Courtesy: LIFE

Jyotirao Phule.

B.R. Ambedkar.

E.V. Ramasamy. The Phule-Ambedkar-Periyar tradition focussed on social justice as the first and indispensable condition for a civilised country. Photo: By Special Arrangement

An astonishing new generation is coming up from subaltern ranks, gathering some of its intellectual and political resources from leading public universities. This constitutes the real crisis for Hindutva.

“Where the mind is without fear, where the head is held high

Where knowledge is free…”

That place is the university. And that place is also the only country worth living in.

The lines are, of course, from Rabindranath Tagore, and I do not know if quoting him now constitutes sedition. As Bodhisattva Kar wrote recently, Tagore had said that he was not a patriot in the sense patriotism is commonly understood. He had also said that he opposed the very concept of nationalism as it contains within itself the potential for self-aggrandisement, for holding the nation above God’s justice and God’s mercy. He was a bitter critic of colonialism, which he thought was a particularly virulent form of nationalism. But, even for the colonised, he preferred self-correction before foreign rule was overthrown. If Indians seized state power before the internal evils of untouchability and peasant exploitation were addressed and removed, a vicious self-governance, he thought, would replace foreign rule. Despite such fundamental differences of opinion on a critical issue, both Gandhi and Nehru respected him, and he returned their respect in full measure.

But let me not wallow in nostalgia for the good old times when great men lived. For the present has just as much to amaze us, if not more. A great movement is growing and spreading among many universities—Hyderabad, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Jadavpur —pulling in people from the national media, from the international academic community, Dalits, and the poor from villages and small towns. And even from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The combat is between democracy and totalitarianism, between communal hatred and secularism: also between principles of hierarchy and of equality. The recent death of Rohith Vemula and the assaults on Kanhaiya Kumar, the witch-hunt against JNU students and the defaming of an entire institution famed for its intellectual freedom and debates show what exactly is at stake.

I referred to the country, and not to the nation. The country signifies a particular piece of land whose people, for historically contingent reasons, are placed together under the same state structure. It is a land mass and a people: and in India, almost 70 years after Independence, both remain in grave danger. A very large number of people are illiterate and poor, particularly so if they are of a “low caste” or women, or if they belong to religious minorities. If better placed people with an active and courageous social conscience help them, they are persecuted savagely.

That is what is happening in Chhattisgarh today, for instance. The land is thrown open to corporate capital to exploit it as they wish without the least regard for its environmental safety or for the communities and livelihoods that it sustains. If activists well versed in land and forest laws survey environmental damage, they are not allowed to publicise their findings. That is what happened to Priya Pillai. No one is convicted for the rapes, killings and burnings of religious minorities: this recently happened at Muzaffarnagar.

When Dalit students assert freedom of thought and expression, they are penalised to the point when death is the only option left to them. That is what happened to Rohith Vemula. When students refer to the sway of hunger, caste and patriarchy, they are picked up by the police, and patriotic lawyers heroically beat the hell out of them in law courts. That is what happened to Kanhaiya Kumar. When a student with a Muslim name shouts slogans—and we will never know who shouted what on February 9 as the audiovisual evidence has, by all accounts, been tampered with—a section of the media brands him a terrorist. That is what happened to Umar Khalid.

Lawyers have terminally defiled the sanctity of the court and the norms of their profession by brutalising a captive prisoner and journalists, and they have been publicly felicitated for that. A legislator did the same, and he was granted bail the next moment. Journalists and students who have marched against the attacks have been threatened with gang rape and death, as have been the sisters of Umar Khalid. The entire state apparatus stands in tatters today in the eyes of the world. And all that is done in the name of national interest, national pride, national security.

Let us also see what is never anti-national. Nirbhaya’s murderers were not called that, nor those who perpetrated atrocities at Khairlanji. If a village schoolchild complains about scanty midday meals, he is thrown down from the rooftop. Another student’s father is bashed up so brutally that he dies. But that is not an anti-national act. Dalit students at a private medical college are forced to take their own lives because their families sank their savings to pay for an education that the college simply did not provide. That, too, does not corrode the soul of the nation. Even when scores of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men are killed and public property destroyed on a vast scale, attackers are not called anti-national. Who, then, are the enemies of the nation, according to the Hindutva brigade in power?

RSS & freedom movement

Not the British, since our rulers, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), never collectively joined a single anti-British movement. On the other hand, its shakhas systematically preached hatred against Muslims, and its members engaged in anti-Muslim riots. The British used to systematically crush all physical training centres that were remotely suspected of revolutionary conspiracies. The fact that it never bore down on combat training in shakhas proves that no suspicion of anti-colonial activities fell on the RSS.

Neither the RSS nor its political twin, the Hindu Mahasabha, was ever banned in colonial times. This is in sharp contrast to the Congress, which faced relentless repression. This is also in sharp contrast to the fate of Communists, who, between the inception of the party in 1925 and 1947, faced no less than five separate trials on charges of conspiracy against Crown and Empire. Colonialism, therefore, was not the enemy of the nation as defined at present.

Let us turn to V.D. Savarkar, the founding ideologue of Hindutva, for a definition. He said the Indian nation is Hindu in its cultural essence and its rightful claimants are those whose faith had been born within the land. That immediately excludes our religious minorities from any real entitlement to their country. By that logic, moreover, no citizen of a Western nation should be a Christian since Christianity did not originate in the West.

Savarkar also spelt out the cardinal condition for forming a successful nation. Nothing unites a nation more than the presence of an enemy, he said. His nation is founded on perpetual antagonism.

Alternative visions of nation

There were other visions of the nation beyond anti-colonial nationalism. The Left’s anti-imperialism was driven by its critique of feudalism and modern capitalism, both sustained and nourished by the British in India.

The Phule-Ambedkar-Periyar tradition focussed on social justice as the first and indispensable condition for a civilised country. Several religious movements within Hinduism had denied that caste had sacred meaning and had proclaimed the spiritual equality of all humans. Yet, before the appearance of these modern critics of caste, there had been no struggles for its immediate destruction here and now. Nor had there been struggles for the material and political empowerment of the disenfranchised. All three leaders, moreover, also attacked Brahmanical patriarchy and the exploitation of the labouring classes who came largely from “low castes”. Ambedkar refused to tread the path of caste reform, nor would he accept the Gandhian agenda of abolishing untouchability while retaining caste. He demanded nothing less than the annihilation of caste.

These alternative visions did not sit easily with the Hindutva one. The RSS was founded at a time when non-Brahmin movements were fast gaining ground in western and southern India; when Gandhian mass movements, based on remarkable Hindu-Muslim unity, had made rapid strides, presaging some of the largest popular uprisings known to world history; when a small but determined Left confronted imperial might with working class and peasant struggles; when Adivasi movements, sometimes allied with the Congress leadership and sometimes working outside its fold, organised insurrections for entitlements to land and forests. And when women’s organisations were multifarious and multifaceted, articulating demands for gender equality as well as actively participating in anti-colonial, Dalit and Left movements. The Sangh and its affiliates scrupulously kept away from them all.

The Jan Sangh, the electoral wing of the RSS and the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had at first opposed universal franchise, and Guruji Golwalkar compared it to a piece of meat on which crows settle. But faced with the inevitable, it had to woo the subaltern classes to establish a wider constituency beyond the overwhelmingly upper-caste and urban-middle-class RSS. Moreover, the Left, feminist and Dalit focus on class, caste and gender contradictions challenged their image of an organically unified Hindu community. The RSS tried to achieve Hindu unity with the vision of a Hindu nation, pitted against minority religions, alongside some degree of routine gestural obeisance to Ambedkar. Perpetual invocation of the enemy outside the nation of Hindus sought to hide the persistent presence of the inner demons of Hindutva: the poor and the Dalit.

An astonishing new generation is, nonetheless, coming up from subaltern ranks, gathering some of its intellectual and political resources from leading public universities. This constitutes the real crisis for Hindutva. Let us turn to some of the unforgettable words of Vemula and Kanhaiya, both coming out of deeply disadvantaged milieus, and both articulating a politics of dissidence and defiance in unforgettable words:

“If a nation does not have space for the hungry, the poor, the workers, then it is not a nation…. We are of this country and love the soil of India. We fight for the 80 per cent of this country’s people who are poor. For us, this is deshbhakti…” (Kanhaiya Kumar).

“The value of a man was reduced to a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust…” (Rohit Vemula).

These are the words that constitute the actual “sedition”—they challenge the nation of Hindutva.

Tanika Sarkar was formerly a professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.

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