Force of Hindutva

An overview of the breadth and scale of the VHP’s operations and why it is such a potent outfit

Published - October 14, 2017 09:24 pm IST

Hinduising Democracy: The Vishva Hindu Parishad in Contemporary India
Manjari Katju
New Text

Hinduising Democracy: The Vishva Hindu Parishad in Contemporary India Manjari Katju New Text ₹495

The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) was founded in 1964 to advance the project of a Hindu Rashtra. It first shot to prominence in the 1980s with the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, and kept gaining momentum until the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.

Today, VHP leaders occupy influential positions within the secular-democratic framework of the Indian polity, with Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj being the most famous names among many others. The question of how and why avowedly majoritarian religious leaders rise to the top in a secular democracy has been a subject of intense debate among political scientists.

In Hinduising Democracy: The Vishva Hindu Parishad in Contemporary India , Manjari Katju, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, tries to answer this question by breaking it down into smaller, sharper ones: What is the VHP’s understanding of democracy? What is its idea of freedom? What is its vision of citizenship? And what kind of influence does it wield over Indian politics and social life?

To answer these questions, she tracks the VHP’s activities between 1995 and 2015, and over eight chapters traces the evolution of its strategies in response to changing political realities.

Demolishing democracy

On the VHP’s vision of democracy, Katju observes that it attempts to “conflate the notion of parliamentary democracy with the will of the religious majority,” so that democracy in India comes to signify nothing but the rule of the Hindu majority, thereby “obfuscating the understanding of democracy itself.”

The VHP’s idea of freedom is “articulated mainly as religio-cultural freedom of the Hindu community.” Freedom, for the VHP, is “an exclusive domain of the Hindu community and is considered substantiated only with the political ascendancy of Hindu nationhood.”

Why so? Because in its view the “‘oppression’ of the Hindu community did not come to an end in 1947, but has continued under the rule of the so-called secularists.” In other words, ‘freedom’ for the Hindu community would only come with the ‘liberation’ of the Ramjanmabhoomi, which would presumably mark the moment when Hindus finally take ownership of the Indian state. This is why the construction of the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya is at the top of the VHP’s agenda.

An interesting aspect of the VHP’s influence that Katju dwells on is its “dual power”, which it leverages by representing itself, both, as the will of the ‘marginalised’ or ‘victimised’ Hindus, and also as the voice of the dominant Hindu majority, in whose name it challenges the constitutional framework.

Though the VHP is synonymous with shrill national campaigns on issues such as the Ram temple, abrogation of Article 370, and a call for banning the conversion of Hindus to other religions, it is the section on its quiet grassroots work that is the most fascinating one in the book.

In the chapter titled ‘Building Hindu Nationhood in Towns and Villages’, Katju presents an overview of the breadth and scale of the VHP’s operations in parts of the country where the developmental reach of the state is either minimal or non-existent.

Pointing out that “one of the three aims of the VHP is sewa or service (the other two being suraksha and sanskar ),” Katju notes that “it continuously works at this aim with the larger aim of Hindu rashtrawad in India.”

The VHP runs thousands of projects across the country in the fields of education, health, social welfare and self-reliance — ranging from schools and hostels to libraries, sewing centres, mobile clinics, and dispensaries. It is also active in organising festivals, melas , and yatras , which offer an avenue for aggressive public display of Hindu religiosity.

In urban areas, the VHP works primarily in working class and lower middle class localities and slums. These are overcrowded neighbourhoods with mixed populations of Dalits, Muslims and OBCs. By playing on economic insecurities, aspirations for social recognition, and pitting neighbours against each other, it becomes possible to build “institutionalised riot systems” that can be activated almost on demand, typically before elections.

In the countryside, especially tribal villages, the VHP’s work of “Hinduisation”, Katju points out, has communalised relations between tribals and non-tribals, especially Dalits.

Double-decker approach

A common feature of the VHP’s work is a clever double-decker approach to Hinduisation that first creates a strong base of community-based welfare work, on which it then builds, on the one hand, Hindu identitarian pride, and on the other, hatred and suspicion of minorities.

The VHP’s approach to building Hindu unity, Katju writes, is based on a strategy of bringing “the upper and the marginal castes under the same ideological umbrella without challenging caste structures.” One explanation for why this strategy often succeeds, forwarded by sociologist Achyut Yagnik and which Katju endorses, holds that it is because Dalits, tribals and OBCs see in Hindutva “an opportunity to achieve social acceptance from the savarna society.”

Ultimately, what has made the VHP such a potent force is its ability to use the pluralistic spaces and democratic freedoms offered by the Constitution to undermine those very spaces and freedoms.

It goes without saying that those with a vested interest in constitutional freedoms need to be vigilant of the forces that endanger them.

Hinduising Democracy is a valuable resource for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of an outfit that has become one of the largest, most energetic, and most uncompromising proselytisers of Hindutva.

Hinduising Democracy: The Vishva Hindu Parishad in Contemporary India ; Manjari Katju, New Text, ₹495.

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