DURING the 25 years of its publication, Frontline has carved out a critical space in the intellectual life of the country by defending progressive causes, supporting popular struggles and exposing irrational practices. While championing secular and democratic values, it has provided a platform for the campaign against communalism, which emerged during this period as a powerful entity in Indian politics. The magazines interventions have helped demystify the communal discourse and expose its divisive politics.
While rightly highlighting the dangers of majority communalism, it has not failed to emphasise that communalism is not a phenomenon confined to any one community; the followers of all religious denominations have been susceptible to its influence. Yet, the organisational advance, social reach, political clout and ideological influence that Hindu communalism achieved during this period were so extensive that it could succeed in bringing the government under its control. However, while in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political wing of Hindu communalism, could not consolidate and further its mass base, mainly because of its obscurantist, divisive and pro-imperialist policies. The situation was worsened by the different constituents within the Hindu communal formation pulling in different directions, advocating different programmatic preferences.
Although the Sangh Parivar, as the Hindu communal collective is called, increased the number of its constituents by setting up several new social and cultural organisations, it could not remain cohesive and united as before. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the mother organisation of Hindu communalism, tried to dominate over the others; the BJP, on its part, was keen on distancing itself from the RSS; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was trying to expand its popular base; and the Bajrang Dal was engaged in street squabbles, regardless of religious considerations. As a consequence, the Parivar faced the elections of 2004 and 2009 hardly as a united and happy family. The BJP lost the race in both elections, with a clear decline in its popular support in 2009.
This sudden discomfiture of the party, which was the result of a variety of reasons, became particularly glaring in the context of the political possibilities foregrounded by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The campaign for the construction of a permanent abode for Ram Lalla at the site of the Babri Masjid was expected to clear the path for Hindutva to gain political power. It did not happen immediately as the Hindu vote bank it created was not sufficient to march past the post. But the BJP gained enough political clout to work towards marshalling the support of parties that were prepared to sacrifice principles at the altar of power. It was the opportunism and lack of principles of parties such as the Telugu Desam Party, the Janata Dal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that catapulted the BJP to power in 1998. The power, though, was not a windfall for the BJP. For almost 50 years it had patiently worked for it, assiduously supported by the cultural work of the RSS and the VHP. The politics, the BJP knew, was a game of patience.
The major impediment the BJP (as well as its earlier incarnation, Jana Sangh) faced was its political isolation as other parties, wedded to secular ideology, were not prepared to do business with the communal BJP. The Emergency provided the first opportunity to break out of this isolation and to share political space with secular parties. For instance, the RSS was an active participant in the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan and used that connection to expand its social base and to earn political acceptability. It enabled the Jana Sangh to participate in the coalition government formed after the Emergency. The access to state apparatuses thus gained by the communal forces was a major breakthrough, which was most effectively used by them to spread their influence.
Yet, the failure of the Janata experiment of the post-Emergency period left the Jana Sangh considerably weakened, and it had to rebuild its base by regrouping its cadre, both organisationally and ideologically. The party was quick to realise that the secular and democratic legacy of the anti-Emergency politics did not enthuse its hard-core supporters. Nor did anti-imperialism, which a section of Janata coalition had advocated, appeal to the BJP leadership. The new path charted out, as a consequence, was based on bringing religion to the centre stage of its politics and invoking culture as the defining constituent of nationalism.
Among the strategies adopted for the realisation of the first was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The second was attempted through the cultural inclusion of all Hindus, on the one hand, and, on the other, the exclusion of non-Hindus from the nation. The ideological and cultural justification for such a strategy was provided much earlier by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar. The programme that emanated from this dual strategy was a heady cocktail of religion, culture and politics, which appealed to all segments of the Sangh Parivar as it gave working space to all of them. The BJP could harp on nationalist politics, the RSS on religious ideology and the VHP and other like-minded organisations on cultural identity. In pursuance of these three objectives, the Sangh Parivar launched the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which was described by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as an expression of Indian nationalism.
The nationalism that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement invoked had greater salience with religion than with the nation. It was basically a strategy of religious mobilisation using Ram as a symbol to attract the allegiance of the believers to a political cause shrouded in religious garb. The Hindu consolidation such a mobilisation would entail was expected to ensure easy access to power. Only Ram had to be taken to the people couched in an emotional idiom, which the Sangh Parivar did through a variety of programmes associated with the construction of the temple at Ayodhya.
The most effective of them was the rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya led by Lal Krishna Advani. It was communal in conception, aggressive in execution and religious in appeal. As a result, violence erupted along the entire route of the yatra, in which several people were killed and injured. The yatra, however, did not yield the expected dividend; in terms of political gains, it did not produce the desired result. For, it did not lead to the consolidation of the Hindus as the BJP had believed it would. On the contrary, it foregrounded the internal differences within Hinduism and raised the question, Who is a Hindu?. The overwhelming majority of Adivasis and Dalits could not be convinced that the construction of the temple at Ayodhya was a matter for their concern. At least a section among them believed that their incorporation into the Hindu fold would only perpetuate the cultural oppression practiced for centuries. Nor did the yatra attract the pious believers to the BJP fold; in fact, they were repulsed by the aggression and violence perpetrated in the name of Hinduism.
The yatra proved to be a misadventure, which considerably damaged the image of the BJP and also deprived it of a possible symbol of mobilisation in the future. Advani was largely responsible for this suicidal mistake. Although he became the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minster-in-waiting, the yatra signalled the end of his political career. He continued to be in the limelight only because of the backing of the RSS and later because Vajpayee was ill and the BJP had no credible leadership to match his reputation.
Yet, the yatra was a traumatic experience for the nation. It demonstrated as never before the danger to democracy inherent in majority communalism. The introspection the secular forces undertook as a consequence highlighted the weaknesses of their political practice. A large number of civil society organisations, sensing the danger, tried to stem the communal tide by organising local-level resistance. Such efforts, however, did not coalesce with broader secular politics, and as a consequence, Hindu communalism succeeded in coming to power in 1998. A major reason for this success of the BJP was not its own strength; it was more owing to the political decline of the Indian National Congress and the opportunism of some regional parties.
The violence and brutality inherent in communalism found unprecedented expression during this period. Ashgar Ali Engineer has systematically documented the number of communal conflicts witnessed in independent India. But there is no reliable estimate of the number of innocent victims who succumbed to the violence unleashed in communal conflicts. What is on record is that the brutality of violence has increased with every incident.
The communal violence of the 21st century is qualitatively different from the communal incidents of the 20th century. If the 20th century conflicts were mostly spontaneous, the recent events are meticulously organised and systematically executed. In most of the latter, the members of the Sangh Parivar have been both instigators and participants. What happened in Gujarat in 2002 and in Orissa in 2007 are glaring examples. In both cases, they were not riots or conflicts between the members of two communities. In Gujarat, it was practically a genocide perpetrated with the active support and consent of the government. In Orissa, on the other hand, it was the members of the VHP who literally hunted the Christians out of their establishments and tortured them. In both cases, the inhuman brutality elicited universal condemnation. It is worth probing whether the violent image of the Sangh Parivar adversely affected the fortunes of the BJP in the 2004 and 2009 elections.
In the last 25 years, the BJP (and the Jana Sangh) got the opportunity to govern at the Centre twice and for longer periods in several States. In all of them, the BJP came to power on a promise to provide a different administration. The difference, however, was not felt in efficiency or honesty. The BJP administration proved to be as inefficient, insensitive and corrupt, if not more, as the rule of the Congress. The only difference was that the BJP was ideologically committed to saffronise the administrative machinery and use it for furthering the Hindutva agenda.
The Hinduisation of the police and other apparatuses of the state in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan are well-known examples. More attention was devoted to the ideological apparatuses of the state like education and culture. When the Ministry of Human Resource Development was under the charge of Murli Manohar Joshi, schools and universities were commissioned to propagate obscurantism in the guise of promoting traditional knowledge. As a consequence, secular and rational content in education gave way to religious fundamentalism, undermining the already fragile scientific temper in society.
The dislike of the fascists and fundamentalists of the thinking and the creative class is well demonstrated in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. A large number of the people from this class were forced to migrate to other countries in order to escape the possible brutal treatment. Although the rule of the Sangh Parivar did not have the chance to fully blossom as a fascist order, its treatment of artists and intellectuals indicated its potentially repressive character. Several artists were intimidated and their works were vandalised. The secular historians were particularly the target of its ire as the Sangh Parivar was keen on legitimising a religious interpretation of Indias past. With that in view, it rewrote the textbooks to project India as a Hindu nation.
The Parivar was interested in creating a thinking class of its own. With that in view, it took several initiatives to reorder education on religious-communal lines. It set up a large number of schools in which the curriculum was heavily loaded in favour of religious instruction. The Parivar took particular interest in educating tribal people in order to recruit them to the Hindutva fold. In fact, its infiltration in the field of education has been pretty successful.
The initiatives of the Sangh Parivar in the field of education and culture reflect a long-term view of power. From the 1980s, the Parivar has been engaged in expanding its social base through grass-roots-level activities undertaken by cultural and social organisations. The unprecedented increase in the number of shakhas of the RSS and the expansion of the VHP and Bajrang Dal during this period are symptomatic of the increasing clout the Parivar was gaining among Hindus. Apart from these all-India organisations, the Parivar also authored a large number of local outfits, continuously engaged in issue-based activities.
The BJP is a part of this large network and is not just the political wing of the RSS. Only that the BJP is subjected to the control of the RSS in all crucial decision-making. No other political party has such a vast cadre-based organisational support structure as the BJP, as its strength does not actually lie in its cadre alone, but in the social reach and cultural influence of a large corpus of its sister organisations. Although the recent electoral reverses and internal bickering have inflicted a body blow, the BJP continues to be an influential factor in Indian politics.
Even during the worst of times, as in the 2009 elections, it has managed to garner the electoral support of about 20 per cent. It has a sufficiently large political base, in a highly fragmented polity, to manoeuvre for power through alliances with other parties. About a five percentage increase in its popular support would make the BJP a serous contender for power. Even though it would mean a long haul, it is not beyond the BJP if the cohesion and unity of the Parivar are regained and its leadership is overhauled, which is a distinct possibility, through the intervention of the RSS.
Will the popular disenchantment with the United Progressive Alliance government, in view of its pro-imperialist and pro-affluent policies, bring the BJP into contention, even if it shares considerable common ground with the Congress?
Given the present political conditions and economic prospects, such a possibility cannot be ruled out.
K.N. Panikkar is a former Vice-Chancellor of the Sri Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady, Kerala.