by Suhit K. Sen
The recent cultural blowback we have seen from the Hindu front line in the form of the absurdly precipitous move to introduce Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalayas midway through an academic session should not occasion any great surprise. To be fair to the Hindutva pedlars, they have never made any secret of their allegiance to what they are pleased to call cultural nationalism, never mind that by riding roughshod over the cultural diversities of the “nation”, they imperil its integrity, to which they are rhetorically wedded.
Before and after Independence, what lay behind the ideological postures of the Hindu Right—comprising, at different points of time, several combinations of a section of the Congress party, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu Mahasabha, the Jan Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and a raft of sundry organisations—was the notion that the Indian subcontinent and “nation” had some kind of an inherent “Hindu” essence and those not prima facie Hindu had to absorb and inculcate it to be truly Indian. Since logical consistency, rational thinking and a desire to acquaint oneself with empirical knowledge were never the forte of the Hindutva merchants, what was never appreciated, in the first place, was that there was no such thing as a Hindu essence, primarily because, at the least in the social and sociological senses, Hinduism as a way of life was too protean to admit of such a pigeonholing. The obvious reason for eliding this was that the project adopted by the Hindu Right was not exactly academic, nor was it theological or moral; it was primarily political. Reference to reality or old-fashioned facts would dilute the political content of the ideology.
Let us leave aside for the purposes of this discussion the record of the Hindu Right as far as its agenda of cultural nationalism is concerned and concentrate on the latter period, when the “nation-state” had come into being, though, in many real senses, the nation was still under construction. After Independence, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jan Sangh, and later the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar, have fought their divisive, atavistic, and often quixotic, battles on many fronts, but in matters of “culture”, they have concentrated on some fundamental issues—language, for instance, stands out, as do assaults on ways of life that are purportedly not Hindu.
Banning cow slaughter, or, in other words, preventing people from consuming beef, has been, for instance, a matter of great concern. It is true that many who would not normally be described as votaries of the Hindu Right have weighed in in support of this cause—I am thinking primarily of Mohandas Gandhi, and his adherents, as a nod to whom, more than anything else, the injunction to ban cow slaughter was enumerated among the directive principles of state policy in the Constitution. But latter-day Gandhians have not run with this particular ball with the same tenacity and apparent conviction as the Hindu Right. In 1966, for instance, it contributed all it could to the agitation for banning the slaughter of cows, which led to an armed march on Parliament House by Naga sanyasis, leading to great violence and ultimately necessitating stringent police action. The reluctance of Gulzari Lal Nanda, then Union Home Minister and the senior-most member of the Cabinet, to quell the sanyasis cost him his job, which, of course, is a different matter.
Much jejune debate has swirled around the economics of what we may call the dairy economy and the undesirability of killing cows to provide meat for those who want to consume it, but the real point is simple: the fact that the majority of people who populated the subcontinent, and, later, the Indian nation, at some point of time decided that the cow was indeed holy and was not to be consumed is hardly a justification to force others who are not similarly persuaded to fall in line. Despite Gandhi and his injunctions, most of which no one takes seriously anyway.
Then, of course, there is the matter of language. I will skip the issue of the radical and narrow-minded advocacy of forcing Hindi as a lingua franca on those not prepared to accept it, mostly because a broad array of north-Indian partisans, including the socialists until the end of the 1970s and later their descendants, the heartland satraps, were and continue to be as vocal about it as the Hindutva champions.
In addition to their advocacy of Hindi, the champions of the Hindu Right distinguished themselves with their opposition to Urdu. In the early 1970s, the Jan Sangh was in the forefront of a movement in Uttar Pradesh against according official status to Urdu. No suggestion had been made, of course, that such official recognition would in any way militate against the status of Hindi, or, for that matter, the Devanagari script. By this time, of course, Congress hegemony had broken down, followed by the split in the Congress party, and the Jan Sangh had had an intermittent taste of power as part of motley alliances in the Hindi heartland—Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh —and elsewhere, which emboldened it to raise its agitation a notch.
The equation worked out seems to have been clear. Urdu was the language of the minority Muslim community, though historically that was hardly the case, a fact that the excessively, though inaccurately, historically minded Hindutva pedlars paid no heed to. The minorities had to have a secondary place in the life of the nation and the subjugation of their language was to be a symbol of their status.
Around the same time, Jan Sangh leaders ignited a debate, if it can be so named, over the question of assimilation. Briefly, they argued that the minorities, especially Muslims, must assimilate themselves into the mainstream of Indian culture if they were to participate fully in national life. Mainstream obviously meant majority. In other words, minorities would have to dress themselves in the accoutrements of Hindu society and culture if they were to be fully acceptable as Indians.
The debate was joined by other political groups and parties, which is not the point. What is to be noted are two assumptions, both erroneous, that the Hindu Right in the shape and form of the BJP most importantly, since it is the ruling party, has not shed until the time of writing: one, that Hindu society is a monochromatic entity; thus, a Hindu from the deep south of India is culturally indistinguishable from a Hindu from, say, the heartland; and, two, that this putative majority has a cultural salience and privilege that empowers it to seek and receive obeisance.
Given the spaces in which these “cultural” arguments have been registered historically and contemporaneously, it is almost impossible to engage with them on rational terms. Thus, to point to the Constitution, the idea of the rule of law and all the fundamental tenets of a liberal, constitutional order is to try to engage with an impenetrable paradigm, which has its own outlandish language.
It would perhaps be valid to end with a rider. The debate about culture in the context of the nation-building project or the nation, assuming for the sake of debate that the building phase is over, is rooted in history and historiography, or readings of history, some of which are more or less falsifiable. Most of the Hindu Right’s constructions are not just falsifiable, they are also risible in their attempts to weave fiction and mythology and claim historicity for the resulting tapestry. I shall forebear from enumerating these extended attempts as scholastic and ideological gymnastics. Thus it has been from at least the second half of the 19th century, when “nationalist” historians began discovering, constructing and reconstructing their past. Most of these projects of discovery, construction and reconstruction have had political dimensions: the Hindu Right’s project distinguishes itself in being exclusionary, disempowering for the excluded, majoritarian and, in that limited sense, fascist.
But, this project cannot be reduced to the categories of secular/secularism versus communal/communalism, because all of these play themselves out largely in the sphere of the state, while the cultural project that Hindutva encompasses lies to a large extent beyond that sphere even as it looks towards it. In other words, what is most disturbing about the Hindutva project is that it uses history to privilege its reading of what constitutes the Indian nation even as it seeks to use state power to validate it.
The incontrovertible conclusion is that the Hindu Right is culpable on two counts: one, propagating a distorted view of history which essentialises Hindu society and culture and renders it a monolith to be used to batter minorities into submission; and, two, implicitly, that it does not accept the template of the nation and the nation-state laid out in the Constitution, to which, at least technically, it says it owes allegiance.
Suhit Sen is associated with the Calcutta Research Group.
This story first appeared on frontline.in