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Updated: March 1, 2011 13:18 IST

Of a ‘holy' war on heterogeneity

J. Sri Raman
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The book starts with an essay on teaching John Keats to an Indian audience and ends with thoughts on interdisciplinary research and scholarship. But the main part of Heterogeneities deals with the Ayodhya movement, that political-ideological effort to homogenise India — as an idea, a society, and a state.

The essays in this collection are themselves heterogeneous, written at different points of time over the past two decades. But what binds them together is a “commitment to heterogeneity,” as opposed to homogeneous identities based on “a binary opposition between the figures of self and the enemy.” Says the author, Pradip Kumar Datta: “For us in India, the intensities and implications of the identitarian turn were rendered obvious and inescapable with the rise of Hindutva.”

Not every reader may share Datta's views on political ethos or responses to events. For instance, his memory of the “simmering” city of Kolkata in the 1970s and his recapitulation of the anti-Emergency revolt (and the anti-climax of the aftermath). But all these do not colour his discussion of the Ayodhya movement as a defining historical development or a point of departure for the country's polity.

Ayodhya campaign

What Datta attempts is to discover the revanchist agenda behind the Ayodhya campaign. He refers, without disagreeing, to the perception of Hindutva as a “fascist formation” or a “hard form of authoritarianism.” While he does not disapprove of a “caricature” of Hindutva, he stresses “the clear distinction between modes of caricature and of substantive social analysis”. He sets out to understand “the specificities of Hindutva.” The quest takes Datta to ground zero — to Ayodhya at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation. His interactions with the participants in a strange past-redeeming project, after which India would never be the same, yield several insights. He notes, for example, how an anti-minority offensive was rooted, among other things, in Ram as an image of liberalism and universalism. This discourse made “universalism itself the particular [and primary] attribute of Hinduism, facilitating another move: Hinduism is superior to other religions.”

Talking of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's agitprop against the largest minority community, he argues that the VHP tried to magnify the “power” actually possessed by Muslims by invoking the “image of Babur.” Before ‘Ayodhya' came on centrestage, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the patriarch of India's far right ‘family'', had a “shadowy presence, opting for a gradual and evolutionary road to cultural and political hegemony.”

The Ramjanmabhoomi movement saw the RSS shifting gear and moving on to a path of “rapid and aggressive growth.” The author points to what he considers a crucial difference between Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, leading ideologues of the Hindutva movement. Savarkar's “regard for evidence creates a hurdle in the way of making history a pure resource for the present.” Free from this constraint, Golwalkar replaces Savarkar's Hindutva with “an uninterrupted relationship between the representations of the past and the ideological concerns of the present.”

Encounters

‘Ayodhya' carried the process considerably forward and erased “the distinction between the living and the non-living”. Result? “Pre-Ramjanmabhoomi riots — especially pre-Gujarat 2002 riots — had been characterised by certain redemptive stories, especially concerning the way in which neighbours and friends rescued the victims. However, the Gujarat riots are known for the many encounters in which neighbours and intimate friends actively participated in killing Muslims.”

In his literary essays, too, the author talks of other heterogeneities — like the ones illustrated by his own dhoti-clad professor from Uttar Pradesh whose teaching of Keats combined well with the tirade against Delhi's commercialism. The book also makes a brief reference to the heterogeneity-denying observation of Salman Rushdie that “the English novel in India is undoubtedly superior to its vernacular counterparts.”

More related to the central theme, however, are portions on Bengali literature, especially the works of Rabindranath Tagore, in particular his pioneering novel Ghare Baire (Home and the world), one of the earliest critiques of Hindu nationalism. A chapter on Revisiting Rabindranath: Thinking the Global suggests that the poet's idea of globalisation put “people over profits.”

Datta quotes Mexico's Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Chiapas movement, on the globalisation of the anti-globaliser. The mountain guerilla describes himself thus: “Marcos is a gay in San Francisco, a Black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe... a Palestinian in Israel, a Jew in Germany... a single woman on a metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, an unemployed worker...” Or, one may add, an ordinary and sub-consciously tolerant or secular Indian lost helplessly in the unholy land of Ayodhya politics.

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