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‘Hindu nationalism has changed... sometimes tactics may affect strategies’

Thursday 5 April 2007, by JAFFRELOT*Christophe

The core ideas of Hindu nationalism have not changed over almost one hundred years. First, the Hindutva ideology has always been rooted in a deep sense of vulnerability of the majority community. This feeling crystallised first in Punjab where Hindus were in a minority in the first years of the 20th century. This sense of vulnerability developed vis-a-vis the Muslims who were looked at as more muscular and more united (hence the Hindu nationalist obsession with the sangathan). But it was also fostered by the rise of the lower castes.

Secondly, the Hindutva ideology is rooted in the Brahminical ethic as is evident from the strong emphasis on samskaras in the RSS shakhas: RSS pracharaks are still savarna in large numbers. Thirdly, Hindu nationalists have always entertained an ambivalent attitude vis-a-vis the so-called threatening Others, be they the Muslims, Christians or the British.

They have always stigmatised them and emulated them at the same time, evident from the re-interpretation of the notion of shuddhi which has been transformed into a re-conversion ritual (whereas it was a purification ritual to begin with). Last but not least, Hindu nationalism is rooted in a reading of history which has not changed much in the course of time. The notion of a Golden Age is still associated with a Vedic antiquity that is largely ideological; the Muslim invasions are still depicted in a controversial way, to say the least.

On the other hand, besides the resilience of core notions laying the basis of Hindu nationalism, some others have evolved in the course of time. They need to be scrutinised because we tend to look at Hindu nationalism as frozen in time whereas there have been some changes in some quarters. I have identified three areas in which one can see some change over the last fifty years: Language, reservations, economy.

Language is one of the touchstones of Hindu nationalism, evident from the key position of Sanskrit and Hindi in the thought process of the founders of this ideology. “Hindu, Hindi, Hindusthan!” was the motto of Savarkar.

Hindu nationalists, including S.P. Mookerjee, fought for an all-Hindi policy within the Constituent Assembly. They lost when the final text gave English an extended lease as India’s official language for an interim period of 15 years. They lost again when the map of India was redrawn according to the linguistic criterion in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, still, the Jana Sangh argued against the carving out of a Punjabi-speaking state. And they lost again.

The Hindu nationalists were not only opposed to English in the name of Hindi, they were opposed to regional languages in the name of Hindi. But in 1967 the Jana Sangh’s position began to shift. It had obviously realised that it would alienate large sections of the public by sticking to a ‘Hindi only’ position. In its election manifesto it conceded that the public service entry examinations could be taken in the regional languages. It also declined to set a deadline for making Hindi the national language and insisted that its adoption had to be voluntary.

This evolution was consummated in December ‘67 when the Jana Sangh held its first session in South India — in Calicut! It then said: “Immediate steps should be taken to make the regional languages the official languages in their respective states.

A similar evolution took place on the reservation issue. The Sangh Parivar has traditionally been one of the most vocal opponents to positive discrimination. It immediately criticised V.P. Singh’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. The Organiser then said: “The havoc the politics of reservations is playing with the social fabric is unimaginable. It provides a premium for mediocrity, encourages brain drain and sharpens caste-divide”.

Things changed in the late 1990s. In 1998 at a time when the Supreme Court had cleared the caste-based reservation policy, the NDA’s manifesto said: “We propose to continue with the current reservations policy for the Other Backward Classes till they are socially and traditionally integrated with the rest of society.

On economic policy, the Hindu nationalists have always been opposed to the pattern of a state-owned economy that Nehru and Indira Gandhi implemented. At the same time, they did not advocate the case of the corporate sector as did the Swatantra Party which was much closer to the business world.

The Hindu nationalists were opposed to socialism as well as to capitalism. Their position had affinities with Gandhiism: They were fond of cottage industries based on family cells. They were also keen to protect traditional crafts. As a result, they were protectionists.

That was their recipe for swadeshi — a Gandhian notion to which they remained faithful till the early 1990s. In 1992 the BJP National Executive declared that it stood for “liberalisation with self-reliance or, to stress the Swadeshi angle, self reliance with liberalisation.” In fact, the party dissociated domestic liberalisation from two things: Growth of big capitalist business and integration of India with the global market.

Things really changed when the BJP came to power in 1998.

The three areas in which we can see some change — language, reservations and economic policies — have some features in common. Changes have taken place in one quarter only: The political wing of the Sangh Parivar, the Jana Sangh and the BJP. We may therefore attribute the dilution of the original approach to a tactical motivation. The aim is to get the votes of the south and of the OBCs in the cases, respectively, of language and reservations.

One may argue that tactics are not strategies. The party may pursue the same strategy behind the smoke screen of some new tactics. I beg to differ. Tactics, sometimes, may affect strategies. To my mind the BJP has given up the “all Hindi policy” for good and may not be able to soft pedal on the reservation issue.

However, while the BJP might have changed for good, the RSS and other components of the Sangh Parivar might stick to their initial stands. My hunch here is that such a resistance to change may not make much of an impact simply because the BJP on that front is in tune with social — even societal — deep evolutions.

Excerpted from a talk on ‘Hindu nationalism: Past and present’ organised by the India International Centre and Permanent Black on April 3 in New Delhi

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