Essay

Nationalism in peril

Print edition : April 14, 2017

RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a file picture. Modi was groomed in the Sangh by Bhagwat’s father, Madhukar Rao Bhagwat, who was the pant pracharak of Gujarat. Photo: PTI

Dattatreya Hosabale, RSS' joint general secretary. On March 17, 2016, he declared that "anyone who refused to say "Bharat Mata Ki Jai' is anti-national for us". Photo: VAIDYA

Sunil Ambekar, ABVP's national organising secretary. He said: "We will not allow a person like Umar Khalid to speak on a campus." Photo: T. Vijaya Kumar

The Sangh Parivar’s brand of patriotism connotes a perverted concept of nationalism and intolerance of dissent. Its aim is to erase the national consensus that sustained the freedom movement and prevailed in India for decades after Independence.

"Patriotism having become one of our topics, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong, determined tone, an apothegm, at which many will start: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’. But let it be considered that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but the pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.”

--James Boswell in The Life of Dr. Johnson.

IT helps, always, to trace an oft-quoted remark to its source and context to find its true purport. It is sheer self-interest that moves the minions of the Sangh Parivar—the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the rest—to proclaim their brand of patriotism. It connotes a perverted concept of nationalism and intolerance of dissent. Its aim is to erase the national consensus that sustained the freedom movement and prevailed in India for decades after its independence. It was symbolised by Jawaharlal Nehru. At its core was a liberal democracy in a secular polity.

Nehru was by no means its originator, but he was its most articulate exponent and, in the face of the challenge from the Sangh Parivar mounted by V.D. Savarkar’s acolyte S.P. Mookerjee, its most resolute and dogged advocate. It took the BJP long to accept Gandhi. It adopted other icons to gain respectability, to wit B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. But its target remained the same—Jawaharlal Nehru. The RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha were never part of the freedom movement and never shared its values. After Partition, they sought to ride to power on the wave of communal fury. Gandhi thwarted it and paid for it with his life. It took the Sangh Parivar over 40 years after his death to accept him, for tactical reasons. A portrait of Savarkar, the man who conspired his assassination, was put in the Central Hall of Parliament to face that of his victim, Gandhi. But Nehru, the Sangh could never, never accept.

In the aftermath of the BJP’s victory in the elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, its president Amit Shah proclaimed, with all the gusto of an upstart, on March 11, that Narendra Modi was the tallest leader since Independence. Never mind the absurdity of the claim. What it reveals is a determination to wipe out Nehru’s vision of India and replace it with that of Modi. The RSS has sought to recast our polity radically, discarding secularism in favour of Hindu Raj. Since its pracharak Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he has been trying assiduously to promote Hindutva in educational and cultural institutions, in appointments to public posts and in wilful indifference to outrages against the minorities—Muslims and Christians—and Dalits.

Ambedkar had warned us about it. He told the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948, as he moved for the adoption of the draft Constitution: “While everybody recognises the necessity of the diffusion of Constitutional morality for the peaceful working of a democratic Constitution, there are two things interconnected with it which are not, unfortunately, generally recognised. One is that the form of administration has a close connection with the form of the Constitution. The form of the administration must be appropriate to and in the same sense as the form of the Constitution. The other is that it is perfectly possible to pervert the Constitution, without changing its form by merely changing the form of the administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the Constitution. It follows that it is only where people are saturated with Constitutional morality such as the one described by Grote, the historian, that one can take the risk of omitting from the Constitution details of administration and leaving it for the legislature to prescribe them. The question is, can we presume such a diffusion of Constitutional morality? Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic” ( Constituent Assembly Debates; Volume 7, page 38; emphasis added throughout).

On June 5, 1947, a leading industrialist, B.M. Birla, wrote to Vallabhbhai Patel to say that the partition of India “is no doubt a very good thing for the Hindus”. He asked: “Is it not time that we should consider Hindustan a Hindu state with Hinduism as the state religion?”

Patel’s reply was swift (June 10) and categorical: “I do not think it will be possible to consider Hindustan as a Hindu state with Hinduism as the state religion. We must not forget that there are other minorities whose protection is our primary responsibility. The state must exist for all, irrespective of caste or creed” (Durga Das, Sardar Patel’s Correspondence, Vol. 4, p. 56).

But as Ambedkar warned, no such formal declaration of a Hindu state would be necessary to “pervert the Constitution, without changing its form, by merely changing the form of the administration”. That is done by policies and politically motivated appointments to public offices of strategic importance.

Another essential is to foster an ideology that facilitates the perversion. As the BJP president, L. K. Advani declared on November 19, 1990: “Henceforth only those who fight for Hindu interests would rule India.” They would be in charge of the administration to ensure that the secular polity is denuded of its contents. Hindu state need not be declared constitutionally. Hindu Raj will be ensured administratively.

National consensus

A democratic state rests on a national consensus, on some basis and fundamental principles. A democratic government rests on the consent of the governed, electorally, the majority of the people. Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau, an intellectual giant, brought out these truths with characteristic precision.

“Consensus is the general precondition for any civilised government; the consent of the governed is the precondition for a particular democratic government. All politically civilised societies owe their continuing existence to a consensus concerning the foundations of society. Thus, the citizens of a democratic society conclude among themselves, as it were, a social contract in which they agree upon their common purposes, the procedures by which these purposes are to be effectuated, and the institutions intended to serve them.

“The consent of the governed concerns itself not with the fundamentals of the democratic polity, which it takes for granted as vouchsafed by the consensus, but with the specifics of a particular democratic government, at a particular point in time. Without consensus, no civilised political society can survive; without the consent of the governed a democratic government cannot survive in power. The dissent of the governed, in turn, far from being tainted with the stigma of disloyalty, since it rises from the common foundation of consensus, is a prerequisite of democratic vitality. The vitality of democratic competition is predicated upon the chance, in principle open to all, that today’s dissenters may carry the day tomorrow. By equating the consent of the governed with consensus, people equate dissent with disloyalty.”

An intolerant party identifies its own ideology with consensus and seeks to impose it, riding roughshod over dissent. A new “ideal” is set up. It identifies that consent to rule with the consensus on which the state rested. “The new ideal is consensus, that is, the convergence of the public and private sphere on the terms of the former. In that view, private dissent from public policy is at best a nuisance and at worst akin to disloyalty.

“The [U.S.] government’s attempts at establishing a consensus in support of its policies are continuously frustrated by critical voices from the private sector. The government, quite logically from its point of view, calls them ‘irresponsible’. These attempts are supported by the traditional conformism of American society and by the government’s access to, and support by, the mass media of public opinion, which private dissent cannot even come close to matching. They are also supported by systematic deception, paralleling that practised by the CIA. A high official of the government, charged with public information, has been quoted as having referred to the press as ‘handmaidens of government’ and to have added: ‘Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, then you are stupid. Did you hear that?—stupid.’ This is the philosophy not of democracy but totalitarianism” ( Truth and Power, pp.19-20 and 53-54; vide the chapter on “How Totalitarianism Starts”). As in the U.S., large sections of India’s media are accomplices in the campaign to build up a “hero” and to manufacture consent in his support.

Modi has swallowed the BJP as a party. It is now a mere tool in his hands. The Cabinet system worked very well under Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai, V.P. Singh and even Indira Gandhi in her earlier years. Modi has reduced Cabinet Ministers to stooges. That is one aspect of the rise of totalitarianism. The other is more dangerous. It is the spread of the poison of Hindutva, through official encouragement.

The RSS and its political fronts, the Jana Sangh and the BJP, never accepted the national consensus with secularism as its vital component. The writer is reminded of a talk with a top BJP leader, a good friend until then, on the lawns of his house in New Delhi, just after the 1989 elections to the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s gains had shot up to 85 seats from two in 1984. Elated, he unburdened himself revealingly. “What is the Urdu for the idol breaker?” Before I could reply “ butshikan”, he explained: “We must break the idols set up in recent years.” Two, he articulated—planned economy and non-alignment. The third, which he left unsaid, was exposed in a speech in Mumbai shortly thereafter. “In India Gita, Ganga and the Gai [cow] are derided.” The unspoken idol for destruction was secularism. The Sangh Parivar has been trying to destroy the roots of Indian nationalism. It has done so by imposing qualifying nationalism menacingly—it is “cultural nationalism”. No other political party has sought to qualify Indian nationalism. M.S. Golwalkar and Savarkar did so. It underlay the Jana Sangh’s campaign for “Indianisation” in 1969, came to the fore after 1989, became prominent in the BJP’s election manifestos since 1991 and is the ideology that moves the policies of the first RSS pracharak to become the Prime Minister of India.

Consistently with its rejection of this “territorial nationalism”, the BJP rejects the concept of a “composite culture” also. Its election manifesto (1996 as well as 1998) declared: “The BJP believes in one nation, one people, one culture.” That “one culture” which it flaunts is the heart of its “cultural nationalism”. It is Hindu nationalism. The 1998 manifesto is more explicit in the section on “Our National Identify, Cultural Nationalism”. It says, plainly enough, that “the cultural nationalism of India… is the core of Hindutva”.

Arun Jaitley has fought elections to the Lok Sabha on these declarations of faith made in the BJP’s manifestos. He remarked arrogantly on March 2, 2017, “Nationalism is a bad word only in this country”, oblivious to his party’s perversion of the concept. Not surprisingly, this former leader of the ABVP said: “Some separatists and communists raised slogans against the country in a university.” Dissent on Kashmir is thus treated as treason to the country. Censure of the state’s policy on any subject—be it Kashmir or the boundary dispute with China—is worse than blasphemy. It is treason. Since Modi came to power, we have been treated to a profusion of such assertions on a host of matters. Sample these: On March 17, 2016, the RSS’ joint general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale declared that “anyone who refused to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ is anti-national for us”. Two days later, Amit Shah said that the BJP “will not tolerate criticism of the country”, adding “anti-national activity cannot be justified on the plea of freedom of expression”.

The ABVP’s general secretary Ankit Sangwar said on February 27, 2017: “If anyone raises a finger on [sic] this country that finger will be cut.” A day later its national media convener Saket Bahuguna laid down the line, “It is anti-national if somebody demands freedom of Kashmir [from India]. This is misuse of freedom of speech.” Both remarks were made in the context of the ABVP’s recourse to force at Ramjas College to prevent two invitees to a seminar on February 22. They were Umar Khalid and Shehla Rashid, both of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Umar Khalid faces a sedition case because of his views on Kashmir.

The ABVP’s national organising secretary Sunil Ambekar said: “We will not allow a person like Umar Khalid to speak on a campus.” (What place has this 49-year-old in a students’ body?)

Saffron agenda

These utterances have a background that suggests a planned effort to foist a saffron agenda. RSS-backed think tanks like India Policy Foundation have been particularly active. Like Donald Trump’s “alternative facts”, the RSS will “create space for alternative voices”. Modi himself was the first Prime Minister to chant “Jai Shri Ram, Jai Jai Shri Ram” at a Dussehra event in Lucknow last year ( Asian Age; October 13, 2016).

Modi has no concern for the Muslim women and their brothers, husbands and sons who were butchered in the Gujarat pogrom. But he suddenly developed an interest in abrogating the triple talaq. “What is the crime of my Muslim sisters when someone says talaq thrice over the phone and their life is destroyed?” he said in Lucknow on October 24, 2016. After Modi’s assumption of power, the triple talaq has been targeted by the Sangh Parivar. Its aim is not protection of Muslim women. It is eradication of the Muslim Personal Law as a symbol of Muslim identity.

In this “nationalist” agenda fall ghar wapsi (conversion) and ban on sale of beef. The RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat declaimed with supreme satisfaction in Jammu on November 13: “Our country is Hindu Rashtra and our ancestors are Hindus.… We are all sons of Bharat Mata.” Ergo— ghar wapsi (return to the home). That is precisely what the Sangh Parivar means when it says, as Bhagwat did, “We want unity.” Divide the nation on communal lines, foist Hindutva on all and hail unity.

The RSS has every reason to be satisfied. Its pracharak is the Prime Minister, after all. More, he was promoted by Mohan Bhagwat himself. Modi and Bhagwat were both born in September 1950. Modi was groomed in the Sangh by Bhagwat’s father, Madhukar Rao Bhagwat, who was the pant (State) pracharak of Gujarat. “Bhagwat is known to have pushed Modi’s candidature for Prime Minister over L.K. Advani.”

The implications of this relationship are obvious and grave. Advani fell like Lucifer after he deviated from the RSS line (on Jinnah and much else, besides). Modi is intelligent enough to heed the lesson. Also, since he owes his job to the RSS, he cannot afford to displease it. The result is that we have a full-fledged RSS regime in power in India.

These startling facts are narrated in Pradip Kumar Maitra’s excellent article in Hindustan Times of October 31, 2016. Modi’s victory in 2014 is owed to the “groundwork by over one lakh RSS group leaders and about six lakh swayamsevaks from the 50,000-odd shakhas”, he mentioned. Ideological affinity and gratitude for past favours apart, which politician will not treasure such support? And what will Modi not do to preserve it? They might differ now and then, but the two will always patch up—the RSS prevailing whenever it wants to. Bhagwat and his aides had worked hard on the drawing board to plot a strategy for electoral success.

Planning has already begun not only for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but for 2025, a year that will mark a century of the RSS’ birth and 75 years of the political twins Bhagwat and Modi’s lives. Which other political party does such hard work? Facing the RSS is a rapidly depleting Congress and regional satraps of varying hues and strengths. We are in for hard times. The NGOs are divided and none too strong. Large units of the media have been infiltrated. Meanwhile, the bandwagon of the RSS’ ideology will roll on. A new set of “ national heroes” will be promoted. An interesting lot of “intellectuals” and operators have cropped up to push the agenda.

Imaginary grievances

Amidst all the talk of “nationalism”, one finds Bhagwat complaining of imaginary grievances. “Are the Hindus able to perform their religious rites and activities freely and fairly across India? Are human rights of the Hindus well established in this country?” he asked in Kolkata on January 15, 2017 ( Asian Age, January 16). He explained the reason for this tragic state of things. “Hindus are facing this situation because they are not united and strong. …We are only working to unite the Hindu community and to empower Hindu society.” Where does Indian nationalism figure in such a programme? ( Asian Age, January 15, 2017).

Bhagwat recalled: “Even our early leaders had said that we should not blame the British or the Mughals for our downfall. United Hindu strength should be such that no one would look down upon them”—this is Modi’s lament at a thousand years of slavery in his first speech to the Lok Sabha. The RSS is at war with India’s history. Muslims are branded as heirs of the Mughals; Christians as heirs of the British; and the Left is attacked because it has consistently fought the RSS. Its ideology has no room for RSS’ fascism and fascism it is, not nationalism, like Hitler drumming up imaginary grievances, to stir up nationalist fervour and mobilise the people behind The Supreme Leader.

On February 8 this year in Bhopal, Bhagwat elaborated on his theme. Every person in India is a Hindu. Muslims are “Hindu by nationality but Muslim by faith”. However, “everyone who respects Bharat Mata is a Hindu”. At the same time he asked Hindus to unite. This is not a riddle. It is an exposition of “cultural nationalism” that is Hindutva.

Indoctrination of students in this fascist breed of nationalism has begun. Students of Prof. Kausal Kishore Mishra of Banaras Hindu University “are writing papers on ‘Cultural nationalism of M.S. Golwalkar” (RSS boss) and “Relevance of Hindu Mahasabha leader Savarkar in political science”. Sonia Sarkar records: “More and more MPhil and PhD students are being encouraged by the faculty in various universities to explore Hindutva-related subjects” ( The Telegraph; February 19, 2017).

A correspondent noted that in the U.S. hate crimes increased after Trump’s election ( Hindustan Times, February 25). Is it not true of the climate of hate that Modi’s rule fosters? But even Trump denounced the Kansas murder, however belatedly. Modi’s silence is deafening. Manini Chatterjee, while explaining the reason for his silence, regrets that barring a few “hardly anyone seems concerned about the erosion of long-held values and rights in what was not too long ago a boisterous democracy” ( The Telegraph, February 27, 2017). While the BJP’s men beat the drums aloud on TV, the space for dissent has shrunk significantly. Reportedly the government contemplates a new law on sedition ( The Telegraph, March 3, 2017).

Sangh Parivar’s McCarthys

All this is reminiscent of Joseph McCarthy’s campaign of calumny in the name of a hunt for “Un-American Activities”. There is something even more sinister about the Sangh Parivar’s McCarthys. They are out to snuff out Indian nationalism and replace Hindu nationalism in its place; gradually, step by step, but systematically in a planned manner.

Nehru foresaw it. He warned Foreign Service trainees in 1959: “The danger to India, mark you, is not communism. It is Hindu right-wing communalism.” On May 11, 1948, he told a meeting of the All India Congress Committee that the “communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority”. He was certainly not condoning the latter. But, as he explained later: “When the minority communities are communal, you can see that and understand it. But the communalism of a majority community is apt to be taken for nationalism.”

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