(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu . You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)
The divisions we export
In a recent edition of Political Line we discussed the growing tendency of communal divisions from India being exported to the diaspora.
The incidents of communal tensions between people of Indian origin in the U.S. were the backdrop to that discussion. It has happened yet again -- this time in the U.K., where masked gangs of Hindus and Muslims marched through neighborhoods, threatening one another.
India has taken up with U.K. authorities “the violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and vandalisation of premises and symbols of Hindu religion.”
The Hindu-Muslim divide in South Asia is playing out in foreign lands now. The Indian government thinks that is should be acting to protect the interests of the Hindu communities. Muslims and Hindus from different parts of the world form communities based on faiths in western societies, but they face similar challenges and usually make a bonding. But this has changed due to the hardening of religious nationalism in their countries of origin. I discuss this question in some detail in my book, Open Embrace – India, U.S. Ties in a Divided World.
A section of the Sikhs in Canada is mobilising support for Khalistan, even as there is a spate of violence against people of Indian origin in the country. We are witnessing an era of nationalism that is playing out internationally and in international relations. This is not entirely a new phenomenon. During the anti-colonial struggle, groups that were fighting for India’s independence were operating from the U.S., Europe and several Asian countries.
What explains the BJP’s new love for the Jats?
Meghalaya Governor Satya Pal Malik rarely loses an opportunity to take potshots at Prime Minister Narendra Modi but still remains in office. Confounding as it is, all of that makes sense when one takes into account a BJP overdrive to keep the Jat community in good humour. Mr. Malik, a former socialist and a Jat leader, has taken up the cudgels against Mr. Modi on several occasions primarily on behalf of his community. Jats are a jawan-kisan community- agrarian and warrior. Mr. Malik questioned the Modi government on its farm policy and the Agnipath recruitment scheme for the Indian military. Still, he has kept his job -- so far.
There is a concerted effort by the BJP to woo the Jats, in a reversal of approach. The BJP’s politics involve the mobilisation of the rest against the dominant caste, or at any rate the sidelining of the dominant caste within the Hindu unity plank. The Jats, Marathas, Yadavs, Jatavs and Patels saw their clout reduce with the BJP’s rise in U.P., Bihar, Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat. The BJP and these communities are negotiating their terms of engagement. The party seems to be very accommodative towards the Jats, at this point.
Three State presidents of the party are now Jats, including the most recently appointed one for Uttar Pradesh. Party presidents in Rajasthan and Haryana were already Jats, and it elected Jagdeep Dhankhar, also a Jat leader, as Vice President, recently. The community is strong financially, physically and in terms of cohesion. It can mobilise its members in large numbers, that too visibly around the national capital. Their sheer location makes them a fierce political adversary for any dispensation in Delhi. The Jats aligned with the Sikhs during the farmers’ agitation against three controversial laws that were subsequently withdrawn by the Modi government. The Jat-Muslim unity in western U.P. did not add up to much in the U.P. Assembly election but it was still discomforting for the BJP. The BJP has difficult relations with both minority communities. The BJP seems to be more than eager to make peace with them, and pre-empt a more organised resistance from them.
‘Gujarat is not Pakistan’
The controversy over the location of India’s first semiconductor plant in Gujarat which pipped Maharashtra to the race continues to roil. Gujarat is not Pakistan, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said in defence of his party, the BJP, which stands accused of betraying Maharashtra. But the competition between States to woo investors and companies will remain a major thorn in Indian federalism.
By invoking Pakistan, the BJP leader also betrays the party’s constant obsession with the neighbouring country to define itself. It was an India-Pakistan cricket match that triggered communal clashes in the U.K., though tensions have been simmering for long. In the forthcoming Assembly elections in Gujarat, we are sure to hear more about Pakistan!
‘Bhagavad Gita’, ‘Mahabharata’, Ambedkar
A society or a nation is endured by its foundational principles. We tend to argue that the Constitution is the sacred text of a republican society but that is only partly true. Religious texts and legends contribute to the formation of the collective consciousness of a society. At the funeral of the British Queen, Prime Minister Liz Truss read from the Bible recently. American Presidents take oath with their hand on the Bible.
When it comes to the teaching of religious texts in schools or universities, it gets a bit more complicated. What text get selected by the state, and to what effect, become controversial questions. The question of minority faiths in different societies also comes into play.
From December, Karnataka will include the Bhagavad Gita in schools as part of moral education, while no decision has been taken yet on teaching it separately. The BJP government is facing criticism from its own MLAs on the delay in starting the teaching. The BJP government in Gujarat is also introducing Bhagavad Gita in schools. Not everyone is happy about it.
RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat referred to the Mahabharata as the “essence” of India, speaking at the launch of the book, Connecting with the Mahabharata, in Delhi, on Monday. It is authored by Neera Mishra and Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) Rajesh Lal, son of the late B.B. Lal, who carried out excavations to locate Hastinapur and Indraprastha in search of the historicity of the epic.
The Sangh Parivar evidently sees the need for popularising the Mahabharata even more, but it is not stopping at that. The Hindutva nation building project is encumbered by the resistance of Dalit and other challenges from the periphery -- religious, linguistic and cultural. Incorporation of local and regional practices and legends into the larger narrative of a Hindu nationhood is one route to unity. Adaptation of political rebels is equally or more important. The recent announcement of an Ambedkar tourism circuit is to be seen in this context. Ambedkarites complain that the selection of locations associated with him for the purpose of this project erases the real radical legacy of the man. It creates a narrative that fits into the nationalistic narrative.