Culture

The State of the Nation

Print edition : June 13, 2014

Gandhi and, to his left, Vallabhbhai Patel, a 1939 picture. The political Right in Gujarat selectively appropriates and taps into Gandhism for its own purposes, says the anthropologist Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

M.F. Husain. He was hounded from court to court because hundreds of cases were filed against him for "hurting" the litigants' religious sensibilites of the litigants. Photo: V. Ganesan

It remains to be seen whether and how social and cultural engineering on the lines unleashed in Gujarat will be tested in the country under Modi and the BJP.

EVEN before this stunning mandate for Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—or, as some observers would like to see it, against the rest in the fray, which adds up to the same thing—the elements of the Right had more or less perfected a ruse of aggressive self-appeasement to counter what it saw as the appeasement of “the other” by the Congress and its “pseudo-secularist” cohorts. The tactic was to exploit the frailties of the judicial system to scatter and attack whoever or whatever they considered culturally unacceptable. So, an internationally acclaimed artist like M.F. Husain would be hounded from court to court across the country where hundreds of cases were filed against him for hurting, retroactively (because the paintings that purportedly gave offence were mostly done in the 1970s) the litgants’ religious sensibilities with his paintings, until he was forced to flee the country and seek asylum in Qatar where he was given citizenship. The cases may eventually have come to nothing, but, as the lawyer Rajeev Dhawan put it in another context to characterise the frustrating delays in the Indian judicial system, the “process was the punishment”.

The more recent target and victim of such badgering litigation was Wendy Doniger’s scholarly work, The Hindus: An Alternative History. The publishers, many would say abjectly, chose to withdraw the book rather than see the case against it through to its logical conclusion in the courts of law. There are far too many such instances of tugging at and flexing the judicial branch to intimidate those with no appetite, or staying power, for vexatious litigation into abandoning their creative freedoms or rights which, for its blinkered keepers, run counter to their strait-jacketed religio-cultural version of Hinduism, for this kind of offensive to be incidental or spontaneous. Such legalistic harassment proceeds apace with other forms of pressure and threats, including direct mob action against the “offending” work or its creator. If this guerilla-like juridical action to suppress any heterodoxy proved a successful tactic even when the BJP was not in power, the implications of the party’s brute majority in the central legislature and the absolute executive control likely to be exercised by one who ran a presidential style campaign are only too obviously ominous. We may be headed for a juncture in our democracy when the executive, the legislature and, by default, the judiciary, may in tandem bear down on society with (apart from a uniform civil code) a uniform cultural code which tolerates little by way of difference or dissidence.

School textbooks may again become sites of cultural contestation and assertion; chauvinistic anthems may again be forced down unwilling throats; literature and art, theatre and cinema may again be subject to lakshman rekhas, drawn and undrawn, stated and implicit, imposed and pre-emptively self-censored, legislated and enforced by the street. A corporatised economy bristling with crony capitalism, much like under Manmohan Singh but with newfound vigour, and a de-secularising society with the imprimatur of Hindutva would be the BJP polity of Brand Modi. At least there is no reason to expect anything else or different. The departure from Nehruvian socialism and secularism initiated by Rajiv Gandhi and paced up under the Sonia-Manmohan arrangement would become complete and be compounded by a shift towards doctrinaire fundamentalism in which the religions of the majority and minority populations would be pitted against one another in a stand-off that could periodically spiral out of control.

The stated and demonstrated priority of the Hindutva Right fits to the T the functional contemporary definition of fundamentalism by Gabriel Almond, Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan in their work Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms across the World as “a discernible pattern of religious militance by which self-styled ‘true believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and to create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviours”. The work, based on “The Fundamentalism Project” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published between 1991 and 1995 (which became valuable research material for scholars rethinking religion in the light of the 9/11 attacks on the United States), characterises the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the BJP as having “an ethnonationalist component—an Aryan, ‘blood and soil’, nativist, preemptive ideology” and Hindutva as rejecting “the secular, separated, pluralist state” and seeking to “replace it with a Hinduised state fully occupying the land within sacred boundaries and peopled homogeneously by believing and practising Hindus”.

While Modi and the BJP this time round seem fairly forthright about upending the Nehruvian legacy, they are rather more cautious and equivocal about the other strain that runs through the Indian psyche—that of Gandhism; and this notwithstanding the fact—thrown at them, and accepted without much demur, every now and then—that it was their ideology that inspired the assassination of the man. Against the dynastic dominance and rule of the Nehru family they posit and buttress other leaders of the Independence movement who, they point out, have got a raw deal—Vallabhbhai Patel, B.R. Ambedkar, Madan Mohan Malaviya, and so on. There is the highest ever statue for a person coming up for Patel in Gujarat; it was the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, Modi kept reminding his election audience, which posthumously awarded Ambedkar the Bharat Ratna, while the Congress neglected the Dalit icon; and Malaviya’s statue in Varanasi being garlanded by Modi prompted workers of the Samajwadi Party and the Congress to ritually cleanse it with water from the Ganga.

Appropriating Gandhism

In his very empirical work laced with what sometimes appears mandatory theory, Pogrom in Gujarat: Hindu Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence in India (2012), the anthropologist Parvis Ghassem-Fachandi offers an interesting insight into how the political Right in Gujarat selectively appropriates and taps into Gandhism for its own purposes. There is the nativist celebration of Gandhi as the son of Gujarat who is a national icon and international interlocutor of ahimsa. But the concept of ahimsa is neatly twisted out of its Gandhian context to privilege the root term himsa, or violence. Ghassem-Fachandi cites a rare interview with the RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan in the dark days of 2002 where he goes into a contorted explanation of the term that, far from implying abjuring violence a outrance, actually predicates it on violence. “If you have the capacity to do himsa and still do not take recourse to it, then it becomes ahimsa,” says Sudarshan. “A coward cannot follow ahimsa—Mahatma Gandhi used to say this—because he does not have the capacity to practise himsa. I’ve got the capacity to slap someone if he abuses me, but I can walk away, thinking he is ignorant. If I do not have the capacity to retaliate—then ahimsa has no meaning. So we must first have the capacity, the strength. After having the strength, then if we do not retaliate, that is ahimsa. Ahimsa is not to be followed by weak persons.”

This disingenuous description closely skirts Gandhi’s own realisation and internalisation of ahimsa, but is in effect quite the opposite. As Ghassem-Fachandi points out, while Gandhi held that one cannot “practise ahimsa and be a coward at the same time”, the essential difference between himsa and ahimsa, for him, was not one of “cowardice versus bravery”, but hinged on the “soul force” of satyagraha, the striving for truth. “Sudarshan”, Ghassem-Fachandi goes on, “is saying that only if you are absolutely sure that you possess the capacity to inflict harm you can choose non-violence. If you are not violent, how do you know that you actually possess the ability to be violent? ...In the logic of Sudarshan, violence is equated with the affirmation of power. The powerless lack not only the strength to retaliate but also the ability to opt for non-violence…. In consequence, Sudarshan suggests that non-violence can only be achieved when violence has first been meted out. This is because the timid and non-violent Hindu has to prove capable of defending himself against the ever bold and naturally violent Muslim….”

The author extrapolates on how this mockery of ahimsa played out in the riots of 2002 to which he had a ringside exposure: “During the Gujarat pogrom, many residents in Ahmedabad—including Dalits and Adivasis—represented the violence unleashed as a successful experiment in overcoming Hindu timidity and attaining the strength to be bold and retaliate. They claimed, contrary to fact, that this was the first time the Muslims had been at the receiving end of collective violence. After the pogrom, prominent members of the Sangh Parivar were ecstatic about their success at social engineering, and those among them that held no public office (and thus did not risk public rebuke), made their excitement widely known.”

Exemplifying vegetarianism

Ghassem-Fachandi also investigates how Gandhi, in the same manner, is showcased to exemplify vegetarianism which, in turn, becomes synonymous with Gujarat as part of the scheme to exclude and vilify the meat-eating community. A year after the carnage in Gujarat, Modi, in the face of international opprobrium to what was widely seen as his collusion in or indifference to the killings, decided to mark the 135th anniversary of Gandhi at his birthplace, Porbandar, where he declared that “Gujarat’s main strength lies in its vegetarianism” and prescribed that “vegetarianism is the first step for a healthy society”. He went into some arcane detail about how the bodily fire or heat that assimilates vegetarian food is akin to that of the ritually purifying yagna sacrifices, whereas the fire which consumes flesh is like that of the shamshaan, or of the cremation of a corpse. He invoked Gandhi to clinch the message: “As per Bapu’s principles, vegetarianism is unavoidable for the purity of thought and action. It is a kind of purity of means. You reap what you sow…. We have to listen to and understand the pain of speechless animals being taken to the slaughter house. Bapu said that it is a very dangerous situation when a dead animal is more precious than a living one….” That Gandhi had time and again come out strongly against the fetishisms, including the one against meat eating, of sanatana dharma did not disturb these cherry-picked views ascribed to him.

Themes like these are narrativised for retail pamphleteering in Gujarat. Ghassem-Fachandi reproduces an excerpt from Gopinath Aggarwal’s fast selling 43-page Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian: Choose Yourself—the doleful autobiography of a goat which finds itself, in its cursed reincarnation, a dish on a table in a restaurant and proceeds to recount in graphic detail, and moving terms, the traumatic travails it had to undergo before it became cooked meat. It would be unexceptionable as a plaintive and persuasive call for vegetarianism but for the dark and narrow hints about who subjects the goat to its slow slaughter for halal meat—which makes you see through the plot. But for the communally converted it becomes heady stuff for anger and spite. Imagine if we took to heart a devout Jain monk rendering a pitiful first-person account of a living organism like a worm or a germ scrambling to avoid being trod underfoot or sucked in when one of us took a step or a breath and being snuffed out of existence. We would all be, willy-nilly, villains in a Brobdingnagian nightmare magnified to the power of ten.



Spatial markers

Ghassem-Fachandi also draws attention to the spatial markers in the urban milieu of Gujarat which distinguish the minority community out “there” from the majority “here”. Such ghettoisation of Muslims is not uncommon in other cities and towns of India. There have been reports time and again about Muslims finding it difficult to lease apartments in areas where upper-caste Hindus live. What seems unique about Modi’s Gujarat is that such discrimination and segregation are normativised as peaceful and mutually comfortable coexistence. There is then the unsettling presence of an uprooted and floating population, a lumpenised category combining the aimlessly urbanised, those forced into the ranks of the jobless (and their families) by developments like the closure of textile mills in Ahmedabad (which, according to Jan Bremen who has studied the situation, rendered at least 1,25,000 people out of work), and those at the receiving end of the casualisation and informalisation of labour. This indeterminate band becomes a volatile force vulnerable to the machinations of identity politics.

Gujarat under Modi has been the locus and laboratory not only of a specious brand of development but also of invidious social and cultural practice which, beneath the veneer of good governance, is deeply divisive and polarising. The development model was glibly marketed and found purchase with the bulk of the electorate in the elections just concluded. It remains to be seen whether and how, in the country under Modi and the BJP, social and cultural engineering on the lines unleashed in Gujarat will be tested.

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