Rewriting the nation state

“Hindutva ideologues have been successful in owning Mahatma Gandhi, who dreamed of Ram Rajya, while equally venerating Godse as a misguided patriot.” Picture shows Chandra Prakash Kaushik, with the bust of Nathuram Godse in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan  

Days after Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Sakshi Maharaj >called Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, a “patriot,” the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, an ideological affiliate of the Sangh Parivar p >etitioned the government to provide space for installing busts of Godse at public places across India. Describing him as ‘an irreplaceable asset to the intellectual discourse of Hinduism’, the Mahasabha’s national president, Chandra Prakash Kaushik, stated that, “There needs to be a thorough investigation of the events that led to the assassination, so that vilification of Nathuram Godse ends and the people of this country know that he was not an assassin by choice but was forced to make the decision to kill Gandhi.” The controversy has since moved from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, to Tamil Nadu, where two factions of the Hindu Mahasabha recently announced the installation of Godse’s statue in 13 districts.

The raising of Godse’s statue is not an isolated act by fringe elements. It is a political manoeuvre, aimed at rewriting the history of the Indian polity, and its principles of secular, pluralistic statehood. Godse’s narrative, as told by the Hindu Mahasabha, functions in important ways to posit Hindus and Hinduism as being under siege and asserts the idea of India as a Hindu nation. To retell the story of the Mahatma’s murderer, as a patriot, goes to the heart of politics seeking to manipulate, manufacture and mobilise public support to consolidate the power of the majority. Revisionist history strategically demands for revenge as a form of justice to right historical wrongs committed under non-Hindu rulers. They do this by spreading anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiments by rewriting history and often replacing it with myths that are clearly at odds with reasoned historical works for public consumption.

This stratagem of rewriting history dates back to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the ideologue, who articulated the ideological foundations of Hindutva. In his 1922 essay “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” he speaks of the Hindu nation as being grounded “in land, blood and culture.” He defines the Hindu identity based on inclusion and exclusion. He includes Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs as inheritors and partakers in the legacy of Hinduism. But he clearly excludes Islam and Christianity as foreign ideologies brought from outside. In 1925, he writes, “Hindu Pad Padshahi” where he propagates Hindu-self rule, and writes about the 17th century Maratha ruler Shivaji, who led the Marathas in a series of battles against Muslim rulers. Savarkar transforms the local histories of Marathas into an emblematic national struggle between the foreign conquerors and the son of the soil, mounting an indigenous resistance. For Savarkar, his Hindu nationhood is an inclusive “territorial, racial and cultural entity”, and in his later writings he specifically identifies Muslims as the “paradigmatic other, and the most persistent threat to Hindutva”.

Violence manufactured through riots and appropriating political icons are carefully enacted acts of mobilisation.

Hindutva ideologues, following Savarkar’s precedent, have over the past two decades regularly invoked the history and the heritage of the national movement in their favour. They have already done this with Sardar Patel and systematically appropriated and retold stories of local leaders and historical figures, to further their ideological ends. They have been successful in owning both Gandhi, the Hindu thinker, and the Mahatma who dreamed of Ram Rajya, while equally venerating Godse as a misguided patriot.

Mobilising the Gods

Mobilising the Gods for political ends has a long chequered history in the subcontinent. As the political movement for Indian independence took shape, mobilising the masses through use of religion and religious symbols, became an important political strategy employed by various factions. This included Gandhi, who understood the value of powerful political symbols that can be used to mobilise the country’s disparate population. He actively employed Hindu symbols, phrases and icons towards nationalist ends – bonfires; the image of India as a Hindu goddess; and invoking Ram Rajya as the ideal form of governance. In India where poverty and illiteracy are rampant, these symbols had profound political implications. While it galvanised the Hindu majority, this political practice severely alienated Indian Muslims who were unable to find themselves reflected in a nation defined by Hindu history, gods, symbols, and the Gandhian ideals of Ram Rajya. It also contributed to the communalisation process that would eventually lead to the partition of India. Almost fifty years later, the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi campaign employed similar strategies to mobilise popular support for its vision of Hindu nationhood. It reintroduced and promoted Lord Ram and Ram Rajya as the symbolic centre of Hindu India.

The most consistent and principled critique of the use of religion in the name of nationalism is found in the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. His novel, The Home and the World (‘Ghare Baire’) dramatises how violence and killing become requisite rituals when the individuals place blind, uncritical nationalism on a pedestal. Tagore analysed symbols, phrases, chants and icons employed towards nationalist ends, and the harm they could do. Throughout his life, he consistently critiqued the use of religious symbolism as exclusivist and sectarian in nature, warning as early as 1915 that violence would be an inevitable and a natural consequence of the strategy of mobilisation that uses “symbols embedded in an exclusivist cultural-religious idiom”. His prophetic words came to be played out not once, but many times since.

H.M. Seervai, formerly the Advocate General of Bombay, jurist and author, writing in Partition of India: Legend and Reality, opines that M.A. Jinnah’s object was not partition but ‘parity’. He presented his authoritative arguments after painstakingly sifting through 12 volumes of The Transfer of Power 1942-7 documents and historical records. It was also Seervai’s argument that Jinnah greatest fear was Hinduisation of India and its effects on its Muslim population.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the ‘parity theory’ advanced by H.M. Seervai is secondary. However, it remains relevant today that we recognise that growing “religious nationalism” is a genuine fear among the country’s minorities. The imperative for a secular polity, where the country’s minorities have real political choice and constitutional safeguards are crucial today, as it was in 1947. In a secular democracy, citizenship is the civic religion. Religious nationalism is the antithesis of this principle and excludes the notion of a secular state, and denies equal participation of those who do not identify with the dominant religion. Without equal citizenship, Article 15 of our Constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race or caste becomes meaningless.

Violence manufactured through riots, destruction of religious sites such as churches, organising religious conversion camps, beef bans, rewriting textbooks, censoring works of history, literature and fiction that challenge the ‘Hindu’ version of history, appropriating political icons, and raising monuments are all carefully enacted acts of mobilisation aimed at constructing the Hindu nation. This disastrous marriage between religion and nationalism will ultimately subvert the values that have held this nation together, because it substitutes with murderers and symbols the place meant for substantive values of secular statehood, equality, and justice. India’s future lies in pluralism, parity, reasonable and principled cosmopolitanism and not with settling scores in history.

(Suchitra Vijayan is a barrister, political theorist and a writer.)

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 12:09:59 PM |

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