The Indian media has, over the past twenty years or so, obsessed over the rise of the Right in India in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP and its feeder groups (like the Shiv Sena, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal, etc.) have been labelled as Rightists, fascists, communal and anti-secular by Macaulayite academicians, journalists, and activists of various stripes. In a country with three broad political coalitions, nine national parties, and at least forty-eight parties
at the state level (a scarier list is HERE
), one thing that unites them all is an anti-National Democratic Alliance (coalition led by the BJP) position. These accusations are, at best, misrepresentations or an indication of a complete ignorance of the English language. In truth, they reveal an entirely make-believe world critics of the BJP live in, a world entirely divorced from reality where facts are twisted beyond all recognition. What makes this dangerous is that many of the inhabitants of this make-believe world are in positions of great power and responsibility in the Indian state structure and civic society.
To clarify terms, an exercise of definitions is required here. Labels laden with venom such as secular, communal, and fascist need to be deconstructed (to borrow a word from the JNU Critical Theory crowd) and seen if they apply to the Indian context and if so, how. After all, many of these words were invented elsewhere and transplanted to the Indian context. Indeed, the entire medium of communication is foreign to Indian soil. In the true sense of many of the terms bandied about, the BJP is innocent of the charges. Yet in the battle for public opinion, the BJP has only managed to preach to the choir. Let us look at the so-called Right coalition in Indian politics today.
The political dimension of organisations based on ‘hindutva,’ or Hindu-ness, is at least eighty years old, its roots beginning with the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha (ABHM, henceforth HMS for Hindu Mahasabha) in 1915. Created by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Keshava Baliram Hegdewar (who founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – RSS – in 1925), its main purpose was to oppose the secularist tendencies of the Indian National Congress (INC, henceforth Congress) and serve as a counterweight to the Muslim League. Both Savarkar and Hegdekar were strongly influenced by the ideas coming out of the Hindu Revival Movement that had begun in the late 18th century. People like Raja Rammohan Roy, Dayananda Saraswati, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo Ghose, who spoke out against centuries of cultural malpractices and attempted to modernise Hinduism served as an inspiration and a foundation upon which a political organisation espousing the interests of the neglected and mistreated majority could be based. Under MK Gandhi’s hypnotic spell, an underfed, illiterate nation ignored its own interests (with much support from the British Government) and decided to embrace minority groups in the soon-to-be-independent India.
The first altercation, the Marriage Bill, intended to outlaw primitive marriage customs that had accumulated over the centuries ran into major opposition in Parliament. Eventually, it became the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, exempting Christians and Muslims from its provisions but holding Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs to be quasi-Hindus and hence subject to this Act (Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi covers this well). The resolution of the Shah Bano divorce case in 1986 was another major event that further poisoned communal relations. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi amended the Indian Constitution to allow the inheritance of a Muslim woman from her deceased husband revert to the family, leaving Muslim women since destitute and entirely at the mercy of their in-laws (More information HERE,
Supreme Court DECISION,
women’s position HERE
). This was a blow not only against other communities (by setting the precedent that even the Constitution can be amended to further narrow sectional interests) but also against women’s rights. The most controversial provision of the Act was that it gave a Muslim woman the right to maintenance for the period of iddat (about three months) after the divorce, and shifted the onus of maintaining her to her relatives or the Wakf Board. The Act was seen as discriminatory as it denied divorced Muslim women the right to basic maintenance which women of other faiths had recourse to under secular law.
In 2004, there was an attempt by the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh to classify Muslims as backward people. This would entitle them to at least 5% reservation of seats and appointments in the state. Thankfully, this was defeated in the Supreme Court. Many such incidents created a fertile base for the rise of parties and groups like the BJP, RSS, HMS, and the Shiv Sena. Frustrated with what they termed the Congress policy of pseudo-secularism, more people began to take the warnings of the erstwhile Swatantra Party and Jan Sangh seriously. The BJP was the most electable successor of the Sangh Parivar with a fairly decent pedigree of politicians inherited from the Jan Sangh and other like-minded parties in the Lok Sabha. From a meagre three seats the Jan Sangh won in the 1952 elections, the BJP and its allies amassed 303 seats in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The media shrieked that a New Right had risen, not withstanding the century-old roots of the Parivar.
Secularism is the view that religious considerations should be excluded from civil affairs or public education. Espoused vociferously by people like Voltaire and Condorcet during the French Revolution, its origins in the modern sense of the word are clearly European. Voltaire would have probably taken secularism a step further and dismissed religion altogether. However, at its core, secularism implies that there will be no preference given to any religion over another in the public sphere. In independent India, the poster boy for secularism was Nehru. Although the word secular was inserted into the Preamble to the Indian Constitution by the 42nd Amendment Act of 1976 during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Nehru had neither the time nor patience for religious superstitions. In fact, he described the Rourkela Steel Plant as a temple of modern India. While Nehru may personally have been secular, it is evident that he did not grasp the full meaning of the term and its applicability to India. Not only did he compromise the promised secularism for political expediency, but he also misunderstood the nature of the people he ruled over. Ancient India was religious yet secular – it did not interfere in the religious practices of Zoroastrians, Jews (even the State of Israel recognised this in 1992), or even Christians and Muslims. The state did not differentiate between its citizens
based on religious belief, yet the ruler was strongly guided by religious principles, Samrat Ashoka for example. This experience cannot be transposed to the West because unlike Hinduism, Christianity and Islam believe in, strongly emphasise in fact, conversion. Hinduism does not share the bitterness and hatred amongst its different schools that Protestants and Catholics or Shi’i and Sunnis have shown. Consequently, there was never a need to separate religion and state in India under Hindu rule. Indians think secularism means inclusion. This is because we have no precise word for it in any Indian language. The word actually means distance from religion, but in no Indian language can distance from dharma be a good thing. The word does not exist because the concept is alien to us. Hindi uses बिन्संप्रदायिक (binsampradayik), which means non-sectarian, and that is why secularism cannot be tranposed onto the Indian context.
The converse, however, that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and the hodgepodge Third Front are not secular is very true. Remember that secularism means that there shall be no preference for one religion over another – the Marriage Act, the Shah Bano case, the banning of the Satanic Verses, and the HAJ SUBSIDY
(In 2007 the Haj subsidy paid by the Indian government was Rs. 595 crores, and for 2008 it was Rs. 700 crores. Since 1994 the round trip cost to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia has been fixed at Rs. 12,000 per pilgrim, and the government has footed the rest of the bill. In 2007 this difference came to Rs. 47,454 per passenger) are but a few examples of the many ways in which the Congress and the Third Front have been anti-secular. They are the ones who have violated the Constitution and the supposed wishes of Gandhi and Nehru, not the BJP.
There is the additional point that Hinduism is not, in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic sense, a religion. The Supreme Court agreed with this assessment in lieu of the fact that Hindus could be monists, monotheists, henotheists, polytheists, or even atheists and still be considered Hindu. In a system in which there are no commandments or laws but suggestions, there were six schools of thought as late as the 1300s (only three survive now), and it was relatively easy to switch from one to another, the Western category ‘religion’ fails to encompass the richness of the phenomenon.
In all fairness, it must also be conceded that many of the lower strata of Parivar supporters see the BJP as a platform from which to target Muslims. Rather than return to the secular hindutva of Ancient India that they espouse, the Muslim community has been targeted, Ayodhya and Godhra being two extreme examples. Again, in the interest of full disclosure, anti-Islamic feelings are not restricted to India. With the rise of Wahhabist Islam, more and more parts of the world are beginning to reject the veneer of a peaceful religion that moderate and liberal Muslims try to project. Islam came to India in 712 with the conquest of Sindh by Mohammad-ibn-Quasim (it may have come earlier through traders, but there is no strong evidence for this). By 1192, after the Second Battle of Tarrain, Islam established a firm grip in the subcontinent with the capture of Delhi. With the exception of a few rulers like Akbar, the Muslim sultans proceeded to loot and pillage India, desecrating the temples of the ‘infidels.’ Muhammad Ghori, Mahmud Ghaznavi, and Aurangzeb hold the dubious distinction of being the most destructive of all invaders, eclipsing even Nadir Shah. Centuries of subjugation and mistreatment, to put it mildly, has finally come back to haunt the modern generation of Muslims. Regrettable though it may be, the sins of the father will be visited upon the sons. Such is human nature – there is a strong demand for a pound of flesh or the complete retreat of Islam into the private sphere (which is antithetical to the Islamic understanding of the universe).
Recent violence against Christians was instigated by churches in India funded by evangelical American mega-churches publishing and distributing pamphlets that have called Shiva lustful, Ganesha an illegitimate child, and Vishnu a eunuch. Although violence and vigilantism cannot, in principle, be condoned, there was clear provocation from missionaries. The attacks on Christian establishments were not a manifestation of Hindu intolerance. Similar incidents happened during the Raj as well but these were fiercely opposed by public debates and speeches by Vishnubawa Brahmachari, Muttukumara Kavirajar, Arumuga Navalar, Nakkirar, Centinatha Aiyar, Nirveli Civa Shankara Panditar, Dayananda Saraswati, and others. The uneducated masses, in some cases, resorted to violence. (Kenneth Jones’ edited volume, Religious Controversy in British India covers Hindu reaction to Christian proselytsing quite well.)
The Sangh Parivar has been labelled India’s New Right, the Hindu Right. Although there is nothing pejorative in the word ‘Right’ itself, the twentieth century has seen too many right-wing movements clamp down viciously on basic freedoms. Hitler, Franco, Pinochet, Rhee, and Diem are but a few examples (interestingly, these are also Western sagas). As a result, most political parties identify themselves as Conservative rather than Right, for example the Tories in the UK, the CDU in Germany, or the UMP in France. Political Hinduism, on the other hand, is very much an entity of the Left. Chanakya, the archangel of Realism, wrote in his Arthashastra that even prostitutes should be provided free education and board (and subsequently licensed and taxed!). Dharamshalas were built along roads for travellers to rest and eat, usually free of charge. The ruler was expected to give to his people generously and often in the form of services and alms. In most if not all definitions of ‘Left,’ using Western Europe as the yardstick, Ram Rajya falls clearly in the Leftist camp. Its exponents are keenly aware of this and are active in volunteer work across India at different levels and fields. During the Chinese invasion of India in 1962, RSS volunteers were sent to the front to perform secondary duties to free up more soldiers for fighting (for which the RSS was invited to march in the Republic Day Parade in 1963 and the ban on them that had been in place since Gandhi’s assassination repealed). During riots, earthquakes, and other emergencies, HMS and RSS volunteers work tirelessly in the effected areas to bring relief. For the BJP to be seen as Right-leaning, one must indeed be quite far on the Left.
In the strict definition of the word, which seems irrelevant to journalists and academics alike, communalism is the identification of a group based on religion and then positing that the group’s other socio-economic or political interests must naturally coincide. The primary identity of the group though, is religious. The BJP, in asking for a uniform civil code, is quite the opposite of this. In effect, they are saying that all Indians, regardless of religion should be treated equally under one law. It is the Congress and the Third Front that wish to give preferential treatment through separate jurisdictions and reservations to Muslims and Dalits. In this, they are the ones positing that the most important facet of the identity of these people is religious and therefore other interests coincide, making them communities that need representation. Like the
British before them (most famously, the Government of India Act of 1935), the UPA and the Third Front create communities that further divide the Indian population. The HMS and the RSS had, since the 1920s, opposed such carving up of India into many little Indias.
Critics have accused the ‘Hindu Right’ as trying to impose a tyranny of the majority upon minorities in India while they themselves support proportional representation, weighted quotas in jobs and education, and personal law. This is a thorny issue inherent in the democratic structure. Although it allows for a tyranny of the majority, if the solution is to imbue the minorities with special privileges and powers, it would then be called minorityism, where the minorities can hold the majority at ransom. There is no way out of this dilemma except to stress tolerance and make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
It is also worth noting that communalism is not bad in and of itself. In the Ottoman Empire, Maronites, Jews, Orthodox, and other non-Muslim communities were divided into their own separate millets. Although politically inferior to the Sultan’s Muslim subjects, this system provided for a secure political status and much internal autonomy to each group. This system exists today in Iran and Pakistan. Although this arrangement may be criticised for not bringing equality to everyone, it has proven to sometimes be the lesser of two evils – after the forced secularisation of the Ottoman Empire by the British and French after the Crimean War, violence.
against minorities increased and even genocide of the Armenians was conducted in 1915. Under the forced secularisation of Ataturk in Turkey, anti-Greek violence drove the Greeks out of Istanbul in the 1950s and the Assyrians and Chaldaeic Christians were chased out of south-eastern Turkey in the 1960s. Despite centuries of living under the millet system, Christians were a third of the Ottoman Empire in 1900; by 2000, after less than a century of secular rule, they are less than 1% of the Turkish population.
There is one final accolade left to be distributed, and this one goes to the Congress, Third Front, the media, and the JNU professors who have followed a Nehruvian/Marxist formula in lashing out at the BJP and its allies. The accolade is Macaulayism. It was Thomas Babington Macaulay who said that the purpose of British education in India was to create a people Indian in colour but British in every other respect. Macaulayites are those who have internalised the ideology of, as Rudyard Kipling put it, the White Man’s Burden are are intent on liberating the “half devil and half child” natives from their superstitions and nonsensical customs. They are a class of self-hating Hindus (Nehru had written to his father to allow him to transfer from Cambridge to Oxford as Cambridge was beginning to have ‘too many Indians’) and Indians who knew all the bad things that had happened in their culture but none of the positive contributions. They are Indians in blood and colour but anti-Indian in intellectual and emotional orientation. Their self-alienation has wreaked havoc in India’s social and political spheres.
Finally, there remains the accusation that the Sangh Parivar is particularly anti-Muslim. This is a difficult issue the Parivar can perhaps NOT be exonerated from entirely. It is not that Hindu organisations make Muslims the focus of their ire for the sake of creating a convenient Other. Militant Hindus have targeted Christians as well for certain actions. The real opposition is to intolerance. Islam has, irrespective of its scriptural stance, been intolerant around the world these past two centuries. Christianity has been less so but the surge of evangelical ministries may make Christianity equally unwelcome to the Parivar. Hindu rulers welcomed other religious communities that have thrived in India since their arrival. Buddha and the Jain teerthankaras were able to preach beliefs opposed to the orthodoxy freely their entire lives without fear of persecution. Jews and their monotheistic G-d have been left alone, the only place in the world they have never been persecuted. Then why the ire against Islam (and Christianity to a lesser extent)? One answer could be that proselytising religions are in essence intolerant – they seek to convert, by force if possible. Centuries of bad behaviour – desecration and destruction of temples and monuments (eg. Bamiyan), extra taxation, wars – have left some Hindus a little short on patience. India came into Hindu hands for the first time in almost a millennium when it became independent in 1947. This time, the Hindu ‘Right’ did not want to surrender so easily.