One of the reasons for celebrating the completion of 75 years of India is that it has survived as long. At Independence there had been scepticism whether it would. The chief doubter was Winston Churchill, who claimed that India was no more than a geography, the peoples of which the British had helpfully brought under one umbrella through conquest. But as we celebrate India’s journey, it would do to recognise that today forces are at work that weaken its unity. In particular, two projects that appear to have the blessing of the present political dispensation at the Centre have the potential to actually destroy it.
The Gyanvapi issue
First, we watch with shock and awe the developments related to the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi. The court has been petitioned to allow Hindus to worship at what has for centuries been a mosque. Impartial observers state that there is incontrovertible evidence that the mosque was once a temple that was demolished at the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Now, we have the Places of Worship Act of 1991 that disallows a change of status of a religious structure. This ought to be sufficient to protect the mosque concerned from the threat of a change in its status as a site of worship for Muslims. But should we see this solely in legal terms? Should, if it comes to that, Indian Muslims of today be asked to vacate a mosque based on an act in the distant past that they are not responsible for? Should India’s Hindus not rise to a magnanimity that would reconcile them to the injustice done to their ancestors, heart-rending as it is even to imagine? Not only are they the overwhelming majority of this country now but they also have plenty of places to worship in.
From another democracy
Last year, the United States President, Joe Biden, even if he now enjoys a diminished popularity globally, made an important speech at Tulsa, Oklahoma. U.S., where he had gone to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. He had said, “We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or it doesn’t impact us today, because it still does impact us today. We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know, and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides.....” Mr. Biden was suggesting that while Americans must remember, they must also move on without hoarding grievances. This message is valid for both the Hindus and the Muslims of India, depending upon the context.
There is something incomplete in the project of singling out Muslim rule in north India for a record of violence in our history. Though it is yet to be established whether the decline of the great Dravidian settlements of northern India was due to Aryan expansion or environmental causes such as drought, we have reason to believe that this expansion was not without violence. After all, verses in the Rig Veda invoke Indra, the pre-eminent Aryan god, as the slayer of the “dasyu”, literally “the enslaved” inhabitants of India. All over northern India, there was till quite recently a pride expressed in the subjugation of the local population by the Aryans upon their arrival. But Hindu nationalism sits uncomfortably with such exultation, for it renders the Aryans foreigners in this land, without the legitimacy to define its cultural norms. The pattern of settlement in India whereby the Adivasi have been corralled into inaccessible spaces such as mountains or banished to the extremities of villages suggest that this was the result of a concerted move to exclude them from social life. This could not have been possible without the threat of violence.
Another project, of language
Speaking of the destruction of religious icons, there is evidence that the Aryans may not have been so ecumenical after all. Archaeologists who participated in the excavation on sites of Harappan civilisation in western India have pointed to the deliberate destruction of remnants of the phallic symbol carved in stone. Admonition of the worship of shishnadeva, literally phallus god, may be found in the sacred literature of Vedic Hinduism. So, the destruction of the religious icons of conquered peoples in India is not confined to Islamic rule in north India. For some Indians, it dates back into our pre-history. This is not to even suggest a moral equivalence, for violence against any defenceless people is cowardly, but it does serve to bring some perspective into the debate about retributive justice related to the injustices of the past. It is the Adivasi amongst us who are least likely to have blood on their hands.
Aligned to the project of isolating the religious minorities of India is Hindu nationalism’s second project — that of establishing Hindi as the dominant language in the country. Purely a reflection of the will to dominate, it cannot be rationalised as the pursuit of retributive justice, and, unlike the other project, has unabashed state support. The issue has remained dormant in the country after a very mature settlement of it in the 1960s, whereby it was agreed that English would be used in the communications of the Government of India so long as the southern States want it.
Since 2014, we have seen a renewed thrust being given to Hindi by the Central government. The attempt to impose Hindi on the rest of the country is both insidious and predates the present. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being disingenuous when he speaks of the equal importance of all Indian languages while his Home Minister does not miss an opportunity to remind the country of the special status of Hindi. Far too much time and resources of Central government institutions are wasted on promoting Hindi when all its functionaries understand English perfectly well. Nothing but linguistic chauvinism keeps this pursuit alive. Even the so-called socialists of north India are not above it, as revealed by Mulayam Singh, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, writing in Hindi, in the 1990s, to his counterpart in Kerala, a politician with a far longer tenure in public life. Sadly, the sentiment that Hindi should prevail is quite widespread in India, as seen in the recent comments of Bollywood actors. These purveyors of mostly costume drama may aspire for Hollywood status but do not have the large-heartedness of a Marlon Brando, who championed the rights of native Americans.
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The relentless thrust to impose Hindi came close to succeeding in the mid-1960s, but it took arson and self-immolation in Madras State to fend it off. Today, the moment is less propitious for the Hindi chauvinists. The south is far more advanced than the Hindi heartland in terms of both social and economic progress. In fact, it serves as a beacon of hope for north Indian workers in search of a livelihood. Even the ordinary southerner sees Hindi as the language of the most backward part of the country, one where Muslims are bullied, women are subjugated and politicians are treated as minor feudals. So, why would south Indians agree to be ruled in the language of a region they view as unworthy of emulation? It is not even necessary for them to recall that Hindi is the language of the most recent migrant to this ancient land. They simply reject the majoritarian grounds on which it is deemed to be the national language.
A diverse peoples
Constitutionally, India is a union of States. Its founders crafted an entity that has so far held out under great adversity. But India is also a coalition of peoples that are diverse in terms of their histories and culture. For it to hold together requires leaders with large hearts and not merely big chests. We see today the ascendancy of a political ideology with little understanding of the idea of India as a coalition of the willing. Incapable of winning hearts and minds, it has spawned a divisive politics which has the potential of wrecking a union put together with great care. Only a determinedly active citizenry can avert this outcome.
Pulapre Balakrishnan teaches at Ashoka University, Sonipat