Debating India


In the Name of Nationalism

Friday 26 March 2004, by PANIKKAR*K.N.

The rise of Hindutva was neither sudden nor spontaneous. It owes much to the slow transformation in social consciousness as a result of sustained interventions in the cultural and religious life of the people.

A NEW identity is being foisted on Hindus. The identity of Hindutva. Are Hindus being coerced to accept that identity, socially and culturally and indeed politically? Apparently, no society can be forced to own an externally induced identity. It has to emerge from within as a part of social dynamics. Yet, when ideas are implanted in social consciousness and nurtured through legitimising interventions, they do succeed in exercising a powerful influence in society. Hindutva is such an idea `invented’ about 80 years ago, intellectually elaborated thereafter by several communal ideologues and recently given wide currency through state sponsorship, political support and socio-cultural mobilisation. Although alien to Hindu philosophical tenets and religious practices, Hindutva has gained legitimacy as a commonly shared heritage among a large section of Hindus. The implications of this development has pitch-forked Hindutva to the centre stage of contemporary Indian politics.

Hindutva and Hinduism

But then what is Hindutva? None of its contemporary advocates, including Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his less imaginative colleagues in the Sangh Parivar, have spelt out its character and its constitutive elements. For good reasons. They are seeking to evolve an overarching political ideology to bring together the followers of a highly differentiated religious faith. Hindutva is, therefore, conceived as an undefinable quality inherent in the Hindu `race’, which cannot be identified with anything specific in Hinduism. Hindutva, in the opinion of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the progenitor of the concept, "is so varied and so rich, so powerful and so subtle, so elusive and yet so vivid" that it defies all attempts at analysis. Therefore, he had stopped short of defining it; instead he only tried to underline its relationship with Hinduism. He had asserted: "Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva." He, however, argued that this distinction would help to consolidate the Hindu community: "Failure to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism has given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of our Hindu civilisation... It is enough to point out that Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism. By an `ism’ it is generally meant a theory or a code more or less based on spiritual or religious dogma or system. But when we attempt to investigate into the essential significance of Hindutva, we do not primarily - and certainly not mainly - concern ourselves with any particular theocratic or religious dogma or creed... Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race." Despite the above distinction, the relationship between Hindutva and Hinduism is well marked even in Savarkar’s scheme. Savarkar had argued that a Muslim or a Christian, even if born in India, could not claim to possess the qualities of Hindutva. The essentials of Hindutva, according to Savarkar, are "a common nation (rashtra), a common race (jati) and a common civilisation (sanskriti)".

Later Hindu ideologues such as M.S. Golwalkar elaborated this idea to exclude all non-Hindus from the ambit of the nation. Hindutva, therefore, serves as an ideological justification for the construction of India as a Hindu nation. The statement of the Prime Minister that the demolition of the Babri Masjid is an expression of national sentiment and his reluctance to condemn the Gujarat massacre unambiguously demonstrate his commitment to the political ideology of Hindutva. So does the Sangh Parivar’s general view that the rath yatra of L.K. Advani, currently enacting a repeat performance, represents the resurgence of India as a nation. In the Hindu communal practice, therefore, the distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism has disappeared, which has helped the militant communal Hindu politics to command the support of unsuspecting Hindu believers. In the last few elections, this strategy has returned high dividends.

The next election is another test case as to whether Hindus can be coerced in the name of their faith to act against the basic tenets of their own religion. Despite the new slogans of development and statesmanship, Hindutva would continue to be an issue in the forthcoming elections. For the Sangh Parivar cannot ensure the support even of its ardent followers without feeding them with irrational politics. Such politics commands wider support when imbued with cultural content. The Sangh Parivar is fully alive to this mobilising potential of culture, which accounts for the foregrounding of cultural nationalism as central to its politics.

Cultural nationalism

The concept of cultural nationalism conceived and propagated by Hindutva is based on a misrepresentation of the nature of national identity. Nationalism, like democracy, is indivisible, with its constitutive elements - political, economic and cultural - intermeshed with each other. Privileging any one of these attributes tends to undermine the holistic character of nationalism. There is no denying the importance of culture in the make-up of national identity; yet culture alone does not mould the nationalism of any country. This was true of India as well where nationalism emerged and evolved as a part of anti-colonial consciousness. Culture was deeply implicated in this process of national reconstruction, both by trying to develop a national culture, which was distinct from the colonial and the traditional, as well as by invoking culture as a locus of resistance. Yet, the struggle for national culture during the anti-colonial period either remained an epi-phenomenon, or an instrument of political mobilisation. Therefore, the cultural question was not adequately addressed during the anti-colonial struggle and Hindutva has appropriated the space thus left open.

Hindutva’s conception of nationalism is rooted in the primacy of culture over politics. The meaning attributed to culture by the ideologues of the Sangh Parivar and their cultural practices further qualifies the character of cultural nationalism. According to their interpretation, culture "is but a product of our all-comprehensive religion, a part of its body and not distinguishable from it". It naturally implies that the national culture is Hindu religious culture. Cultural nationalism is, therefore, a euphemism invoked in order to mask the creation of a state with Hindu religious identity. Such a character of the nation was clearly spelt out by Golwalkar: "In Hindustan, the land of the Hindus lives and should live the Hindu Nation... Consequently, only those movements are truly `National’ as aim at rebuilding, revitalising, and emancipating from the present stupor, the Hindu Nation."

The contemporary advocates of cultural nationalism and the movements they lead are engaged in creating a nation in which the Hindu religious identity coincides with the cultural. This is attempted through intervention in culture rather than cultural intervention. The importance of this distinction is realised by the activists of the Hindutva who, as a result, constantly intervene in the actual cultural life of the people in order to transform it in a religious direction. As a part of this endeavour, the Sangh Parivar has set up cultural organisations in almost every conceivable area. They are constantly engaged in imparting a Hindu religious character to the quotidian cultural practices of the people. The secular forces, on the other hand, even at the face of the successful cultural advance of Hindutva, continue to be trapped in an instrumentalist view of culture and persist with their faith in the transformative power of cultural performance.

The multi-faceted cultural intervention of Hindutva is primarily intended to appropriate the cultural past as Hindu and to expropriate the `other’ as anti-national. As a part of the former, a new Hindu cultural pantheon is being constructed. The icons of this pantheon goes back to the Indus Valley Civilisation, renamed now as Saraswati River civilisation, as a part of the attempt to impart to it a Hindu character. At any rate, the lineage of the Hindu nation is traced to the culture of the Vedic era and, though not yet firmly, to the Indus Valley. Identifying the roots of the Indian civilisational process to the achievements of the Harappan and the Vedic people is indeed unexceptionable. That, however, does not establish either its contemporary relevance or its being the sole source of national culture, as Hindutva seems to advocate. In doing so, the historical process, which has ushered in a fundamental transformation in social and cultural mores, is ignored. Nevertheless, it has admirably served its ends. It has given to the Hindu, culturally and psychologically ravaged by colonial subjugation, the knowledge of a credible and honourable cultural past. In the process, Hindutva has not only succeeded in creating a new, even aggressive, cultural confidence among Hindus, but at the same time cast itself as the defender and preserver of Indian heritage. Thereby Hindutva claims to represent the cultural interest of the Hindu `community’ as a whole.

The success of Hindutva was its ability to implant its Hindu representative character in social consciousness. Through a series of social and cultural undertakings, initially at the grassroots level, such an impression was slowly but surely created. An interesting example is the movement for the renovation of village temples, which were in decay. The members of the Sangh Parivar positioning themselves in the forefront of this movement received the general approval and approbation of the Hindus of the locality. It was believed that they were acting not only to maintain a religious place of worship but also to preserve the cultural tradition. At a national plane, the Ram Janmabhoomi issue provided an unprecedented opportunity, which was used by celebrating Ram as a national icon and by undertaking the popularisation of symbols linked with him. The agitation centred around the temple, including the rath yatra of Advani, established Hindutva’s claim to represent Hindus. The effort, however, goes on. Bhojshala in Madhya Pradesh and Baba Budangiri in Karnataka are the new sites invented to defend Hindu interests.

In order to realise this claim socially and culturally, the Sangh Parivar has adopted an aggressive policy of homogenising the diverse groups among Hindus. Many were taken by surprise when Dalits participated in the Gujarat pogrom or when Adivasis supported the Bharatiya Janata Party in the recently held elections to the State Assemblies. But it is not altogether surprising as the ideology of Hindutva has been at work among these groups for a long time in order to inculcate a Hindu identity in them. An indication of this change is the transformation in their worship pattern. Their traditional places of worship are being refashioned as Hindu temples and their modes of worship are being replaced by those of the Brahminical order. The Hinduisation thus taking place amounts to cultural denial and oppression. Yet, a large number of Dalits and Adivasis are attracted to the lure of sanskritisation, which is a major achievement of Hindu consolidation.

Appropriation of cultural tradition

A selective appropriation of cultural and intellectual traditions and their privileging through the intervention of innumerable organisations have lent credence to Hindutva’s claim to represent Hindu interests. It is selective because it excludes those with non-Hindu affiliations. Even in the Hindu past only what is ideologically useful is invoked. The purpose of this appropriation is to inscribe on Hindutva the stamp of the authentic tradition of the nation. As a part of this endeavour, Hindu religious events have been turned into national cultural celebrations, even when they are alien to regional cultures or unknown to different sections of Hindus. Rakshabandhan and Ganapati festivals, for instance. Sponsored by the Sangh Parivar, they have now become public celebrations even in South India where they were earlier unknown.

The appropriation is not limited to cultural tradition alone; even political and intellectual leaders of the past are being turned into Hindu nationalist icons. Ancient and medieval rulers, even if they had followed the principles of secular governance, are claimed as Hindu. So are those who fought against colonial rule. Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, Velu Thampi, Nana Saheb and Kattabomman are being made into Hindutva’s cult figures. Similarly, Hindu religious reformers of the 19th century, such as Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda and Aurobindo, who gave much importance to the universalist spirit in all religions, are celebrated as the progenitors of Hindu nationalism. But their ideas of inclusive nationalism are completely overlooked. Vivekananda, for instance, had argued that the union of Hindu and Islamic civilisations offered an ideal solution for India’s regeneration. Aurobindo’s concept of nationalism was riven with contradictions and at any rate he did not subscribe to a Hindu denominational nationalism in which the followers of other faiths had no place. Even Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh are in the process of being co-opted into the Hindutva fold!

At the same time, what is excluded from the nationalist tradition helps to reinforce Hindutva’s religion-based concept of nationalism. Liberal and tolerant rulers such as Ashoka, Akbar, Jai Singh, Shahu Maharaj and Wajid Ali Shah do not figure in Hindutva’s list of national heroes. Among those who revolted against the British, Bahadur Shah, Zinat Mahal, Maulavi Ahamadullah and General Bhakt Khan, are conspicuous by their absence. Even syncretic traditions such as the Bhakti movement are generally ignored. It is quite interesting that the advocates of religious universalism, including modernisers such as Rammohan Roy and Keshab Chandra Sen, do not figure in the Hindutva pantheon.

The selective appropriation is based on the premise that national regeneration and resurgence would require the recreation of an authentic culture by reclaiming the indigenous and purging the exogenous. Hindutva’s cultural project, encoded in the slogan `nationalise and spiritualise’, therefore, is twofold: First, to retrieve and disseminate the cultural traditions of the `golden’ Hindu past; and second, to eliminate all accretions that had become part of the heritage. The educational policy as adumbrated by the BJP-led government is inspired by the first. The entire exercise of curriculum revision undertaken by government agencies during the last few years was mainly intended to achieve this end.

The involvement of the government, obsessive and lopsided, with the pursuit of Vedic knowledge is an obvious example. The government, it appears, is spending an enormous amount of money for research in Vedic studies, which in itself is not undesirable. But it is a different matter when undertaken to prove certain preconceived assumptions. It is reported that several science organisations funded by the government are scouting for scholars and institutions who would be willing to testify the golden age thesis. Such efforts are likely to create false notions about India’s past.

The authentic cultural tradition Hindutva seeks to construct does not respect either the trajectory of its own historical evolution or the importance of external influences in its make-up. It, therefore, takes a static view of cultural tradition, ignoring its inherent dynamism. One of the consequences of this attitude is the intolerance of different interpretations and conflicting representations for which the Indian cultural tradition is justly famous. The plural cultural traditions, therefore, have been continuously under attack. Well-known examples are the vandalising of M.F. Hussain’s paintings of Hindu goddesses, disruption of the shooting of Deepa Mehta’s film, the campaign against the Malayalam writer Kamala Suraiya and the destruction of SAHMAT’s exhibition on Ayodhya. The instances in which the Hindu cultural police has intervened, often in a violent and intimidatory manner, in defence of Hindu cultural tradition are far too many to cite. The denigration of secular historians, writers and journalists are also done with the same purpose.

These fairly orchestrated assaults are meant to silence any opposition to the communal colonisation of the cultural sphere. The legitimacy Hindutva has managed to garner is the most decisive development in contemporary Indian politics. A marginal force until about 10 years ago, it is now in a position to dictate the political and cultural agenda of the nation. Yet, the rise of Hindutva was neither sudden nor spontaneous. It owes much to the slow transformation in social consciousness as a result of sustained interventions in the cultural and religious life of the people. The decline of the Congress(I) and the inability of the Left to emerge as an alternative provided the space for Hinduva to imbue such interventions with a political content. It was compounded by the willing collaboration and cooperation of secular formations, particularly after the Emergency, which lent to Hindutva the legitimacy it lacked before. Hindutva thus succeeded in integrating politics with culture. Hence cultural nationalism is the real shining motif of Hindutva. Given its exclusivist character, however, cultural nationalism is anti-democratic and anti-national. The existence of India as a nation is possible only with the rejection of cultural nationalism.

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 06, March 13 - March 26, 2004.

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