The proposed ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on August 5 has generated three broad responses: euphoria from supporters; outrage from the Left, Ambedkarites and secularists; and strong disapproval on procedural grounds from eminent Hindu saints. While the first two responses were expected, it is dissenting voices emanating from Hindu religious authorities that merit attention. The accusations of the Dharmagurus deal with the emerging process of de-ritualisation of the Hindu religion by Hindutva in the following ways.
One, many Hindu Dharmagurus, including a Shankaracharya, believe that August 5 is an inauspicious day for the ceremony. According to them, astrologically, and in consonance with established religious practices, the second day (Dwitiya) of the dark fortnight (Krishnapaksh) of the Indian month of Bhadrapad (July-August) is considered inauspicious. Besides, gods are supposed to be resting during this month and must not be called upon. Despite this, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has decided to go ahead with the ceremony on this date.
Two, last year, before the Lok Sabha election, in open disregard of established traditions, the Ardh Kumbh was celebrated as the Kumbh in Prayagraj (Allahabad) with fanfare. Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed the populist act of washing the feet of sanitation workers. While the act got broad political applause, the Dharamagurus were pained to see the Kumbh being celebrated without auspicious sanction by unique astrological combinations.
These instances signify the growing process of de-ritualisation of the Hindu religion, primarily by the trustees of Hindutva, thereby pitting Hindutva against a section of religious authorities. Hindutva’s response to such criticism has been to invoke the paradigm of subaltern religiosity wherein disregard for the ritual domain is an accepted practice since the Bhakti movement. Doing so not only labels the dissenting Brahmanical religious authorities as obscurantist and ultra-orthodox, but also magnifies Hindutva’s appeal among the subaltern masses, the numerical majority.
The popular interplay of religion and politics is not new. Its votaries include Lokmanya Tilak, who started the Ganapati festival for political mobilisation against British rule; M.K. Gandhi, who used religious imagery during the freedom struggle; and Swami Karpatri Maharaj of the Ram Rajya Parishad in independent India. On the global level, political Islam does the same. This has been the position of Liberation theology too.
Hindutva seems to follow the above template but transcends it in practice. The issue here is not whether it uses religion in politics or not; rather, it is the status of religion in the political framework of Hindutva. In the case of old Indian votaries at the national level, and political Islamists and liberation theologists at the global level, the status of religion is either superior to or on a par with the political. Nowhere do we find religion to be inferior to the political in these cases. The old votaries invoked religion in political affairs by reinterpreting the sacred texts, but without questioning their sanctity. However, driven by the incentive and appeal of subaltern religiosity, Hindutva pushes the horizon when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) argues that texts like the Ramcharitmanas and Manusmriti should be edited in the light of subaltern sensibilities. For instance, Amir Chand of Sanskar Bharti, an RSS outfit, stated, “In collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, we are debating the removal of portions from the Manusmriti which are anti-Dalit and anti-women and often quoted in arguments against Hindu scriptures.” Similarly, Balmukund Pandey, the head of Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, another RSS outfit, announced a plan for modifying the Ramayana to weed out verses that are not in sync with the ideal image of Ram. These endeavours circumvent the traditional Hindu framework of multiple interpretations of texts and traditions. For instance, the Bhagavad Gita has undergone radical interpretations at the hands of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Tilak, Vivekananda, Gandhi, etc., thus becoming a creative tool to mobilise the masses. However, the sanctity of the text was never sought to be altered; the political game stopped at interpretation. Political Hindutva has no such restraint.
A new hierarchy
This unique characteristic signifies a new hierarchy between religion and politics. Here, religion is not only relegated to an inferior position but has also been effectively vanquished and used as a handmaid by the political. Therefore, the dominant other of Hindutva is not just the secular, the Left, the Ambedkarites and the assertive religious minorities. In fact, in its populist avatar, Hindutva finds it easier to tame these rivals. These oppositional discourses suit its political project. The real other that contemporary Hindutva shies away from acknowledging, but is perpetually wary of, is internal to the discourse: the Dharmacharyas and their devotees. Hindutva seeks to show them their marginal place in the age of subaltern religiosity. However, in doing so it faces a challenge as it ends up alienating a section of the core support base.
Therefore, the real question in the event at Ayodhya is how far Hindutva is willing to up the ante. The brazenness with which it is proceeding with the programme while disregarding ritual objections ironically places it on the same page as the Ambedkarites, who oppose Brahminical ritualism. Yet, Hindutva is taking this bet because this suits its populist appeal. The more it de-ritualises religion, the stronger is its appeal among the subaltern. The logical end of this quest could only be a religion without rituals — a handmaid which would dance to the tune of the political. In that state, the rational approach of political economy would be on a slippery ground as a religio-cultural framework without the restraints of rituals would be malleable enough to find a resonance with the majority.
This explains the counter-intuitive moves of Hindutva to disregard the dissent of the conservative Dharmacharyas, whose prominence denies the saffron an exclusive claim to the religious sphere. Without marginalising them, Hindutva would neither vanquish the religious, nor employ it popularly to find resonance with the subaltern and the technocratic youth. The latter two are not religiously conservative in orientation. Though it may sound ironical, at present the most formidable challenge that Hindutva faces is not from the secular forces, but rather from the conservative discourse from within. However, Hindu conservatism is on the retreat. This has been primarily due to the addition of two new constituencies within the fold of populist Hindutva: one, a thicker chunk of lower OBCs and Dalits and, two, a post-globalisation middle class looking for rapid disruptive change. The first constituency was never deeply interested in Hindu conservatism as it wasn’t a beneficiary of it. The second has actually made a generational shift from a conservative base and, in the words of Danish political scientist Michael Bang Petersen, shares the mindset for a “need for chaos”. It seeks disruption while paying lip service to conservatism. Nevertheless, Hindu conservatism is the last bastion that right-wing populism seeks to vanquish effectively.
Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst associated with Peoples Pulse