Key Indian symbols are undergoing a major revision: Shruti Kapila

Shruti Kapila on why Ashoka stood for India’s unity to Nehru, but was an enemy of the nation for Savarkar and Hindutva forces, and how these political thoughts inform the present 

July 22, 2022 04:18 pm | Updated July 23, 2022 04:13 pm IST

“I think there is a tension in the Hindutva family between those who are kind of more religiously-minded and those who see this as very much a political, almost a non-religious doctrine,” says Shruti Kapila.

“I think there is a tension in the Hindutva family between those who are kind of more religiously-minded and those who see this as very much a political, almost a non-religious doctrine,” says Shruti Kapila. | Photo Credit: special arrangement

As the title, Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age, suggests, Shruti Kapila’s latest book deals with fraternity, violence and sovereignty. Her core argument is that violence has not been as distant from India’s politics as we have been told. In an interview, Kapila talks about the role of violence in the making of the Indian republic. Zeroing in on the ‘power of ideas’ in instituting the political foundations of modern India, Kapila also looks at the role of Buddhism. Edited excerpts: 

Let us begin with your views on Emperor Ashoka who you say represented the ambitions of the Nehruvian order. We have a new version of the Lion Capital of Ashoka on top of the new parliament building. Critics of the BJP see a violent, aggressive version of the Ashoka lions. Emperor Ashoka was seen as an enemy of the nation by Hindutva, as you point out in the book. What does the new iteration of the national emblem say about our present? 

It’s entirely unsurprising that the key Indian symbols are undergoing a major revision. The point to note is that Jawaharlal Nehru deliberately used the Ashoka symbols, partly because in some ways it also speaks to the founding of the Republic after a major civil war, that of Partition. Nehru wanted to remind the Indian nation of Ashoka’s spirit, the Buddha’s spirit. In V.D. Savarkar’s writings, there is a different view. He is very clear about Ashoka being the key figure who makes India vulnerable to so-called foreign invasions. Ashoka is singled out as the one who disallows the formation of nationality in the modern sense, in India, precisely because of his commitment to non-violence, after Kalinga. Hindutva is fashioned around a kind of strong sentiment against Islam and Muslims. But we forget that the original internal enemy for Savarkar is Buddhism. 

Critics and supporters of Savarkar think that his definition of Hindutva, the ‘pitrubhumi-punyabhumi’ concept, is the touchstone of nationality and inclusive of Buddhism... 

Buddhism is interesting, we never really talk about it much, but it is there in all our founding figures from Bal Gangadhar Tilak to B.R. Ambedkar, and particularly Savarkar. For Ambedkar, Buddhism points to a more egalitarian future of India. There’s a kind of appropriation today by, say the current government, to give a kind of more militant, aggressive look to Buddhism. Savarkar’s point is that in India — this is a strange story of disconnection and even what I’m calling privation or deprivation — while Hindus can lay claim to it as ‘pitrubhumi [fatherland]’ and ‘punyabhumi [sacred land]’, they did not really exercise power in it. The fatherland is kind of estranged from them (Hindus). And it’s the opposite for the Muslims, which is that their sacred geography is not here, it’s elsewhere. In a way, both Hindus and Muslims are estranged from a kind of close connection with it (their sacred geographies), and he wants to resolve it through, I would say, a particular theory of violence, a kind of violence which produces a new subjugation for Muslims. But with the question of Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, Hindutva seeks incorporation, as part of the great Indic tradition today. Also, I think there is a tension in the Hindutva family between those who are kind of more religiously-minded and those who see this as very much a political, almost a non-religious doctrine. Savarkar was an atheist. He saw Hinduism as an obstacle, precisely because it is so diverse, and it has so many cultic persuasions, that actually militates itself against being a centralised nation.

Alongside the appropriation of Buddhism, there is also an appropriation of Ambedkar by Hindutva forces, right? 

Absolutely. Ambedkar does a kind of complete reversal of what Savarkar says on Buddhism. For Nehru, of course, Ashoka is a symbol of India’s unity, the greatest emperor who unifies the peninsula and northern India for the first time. For Savarkar, Buddhism militated against nationality; Ambedkar said caste society took shape after Buddhism was banished out of India by the Brahmins. So they are all interested in ancient history. And they use ancient history to project the future.

Ambedkar and Savarkar both viewed caste as an impediment to the formation of a new fraternity in India. Were their views similar? 

Yes and no. Our historians and even public debate have over-emphasised the question of freedom and liberty. Actually, what is more pertinent is the question of fraternity, i.e. how to live with distinct others. In India’s case, for fraternity, there is the Hindu-Muslim question, the caste question. And Ambedkar is interested in both these questions. Both Ambedkar and Savarkar believe in inter-caste marriage and miscegenation, which is a way of producing fraternity in India. Savarkar is saying you can actually produce a new Hindutva body. Ambedkar of course wants miscegenation, but ultimately wants the end of caste. Ambedkar is quite despondent and quite angry, after the Hindu code fails to take off — that’s when he returns to the Buddhist question. And he says, you just have to exit Hinduism.

You question the idea that the formation of the Indian Republic was through a non-violent national movement. 

Yes. The formation of a modern state and Republic is a big achievement. But no state can be formed without the question of violence because a modern state is ultimately concerned with producing order and controlling violence.

It is at the border that violence is limited by the modern state. In India, it actually gets into society. 

Absolutely. The difference is precisely this: the modern state in the West, post its religious wars, has pushed violence to the borders, violence conducted in uniforms. The problem in India is that it is inside — be it caste, Hindu-Muslim relations; it is intimate. So, in the West, the idea of the foreigner or the refugee always produces enmity. In India, it’s always the known, the intimate, the brother.

Questions of fraternity and sovereignty are framed in terms of Hindu-Muslim relations and the relationship between caste Hindus and untouchables in the heartland. How relevant was the demand for a Dravida Nadu? And the question of other OBCs? 

Well, I really ought to have done something with Periyar in the book. In a way, the anti-caste, anti-Brahminical movement came much earlier in southern India. Also, on the question of OBCs, even till date, you don’t see the Congress addressing that issue at all — the party is in denial.

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