Rosa Luxemburg, in her arguments with Lenin, had famously said that freedom means the freedom to oppose. Increasingly, this freedom is seen as an act against the State, within a larger binary where citizens are either viewed as proponents or adversaries. The onus is on the latter to continually disprove nationalistic sacrilege and pledge allegiance to the State, while simultaneously argue against its methods.
Conventionally, democracy is understood as the power of the people to exercise their freedom and express dissent when their power is threatened. In the Indian context, however, the State is aggressively wary of the people’s power to dissent and is deploying its institutions to constrain, contain and suppress the exercise of such power. Placing this in the current political spectrum, the opposition has not been able to infiltrate these institutions with secularist principles, which would ensure an organic growth from society itself – neither during their regimes nor as opposition. The political right’s orthodoxy has therefore never been defeated within society. These views have gone unchallenged and it is in this context that we ought to understand Hindutva – the greatest challenge to Indian democracy, today.
MS Golwalkar, former chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in We or Our Nationhood Defined, posits the nation as a cultural unit, which in the Indian scenario is a Hindu Rashtra. In Golwalkar’s view, “the non-Hindu people in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and revere Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but the glorification of Hindu nation”.
To elucidate further, Balraj Madhok claims that the Parsis have adjusted themselves with the country and society of their adoption so well that they have become a classic example of Indianisation in practice. Fast forward 80 years to today, and the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party’s election strategy in Uttar Pradesh could be seen as the revival of the sectarian idea of a chauvinistic "Hindu" nation, undeterred by constitutional promises and the rule of law.
If Savarkar believed that only religion could be an efficacious building block for nation and state formation in South Asia, then nationalism today is merely a fabrication of a religious community.
The political right has propagated Indianisation as a positive concept, which is just another name for creating a strong sense of nationalism. According to Madhok, it only means that if there is a clash between the interests of a State and India as a whole, or between interests of a religious community and the country as a whole, one should be prepared to sacrifice the interests of his community or province for the sake of national interests. This aim to radically transform India was ushered in with a national liberation movement, which required a struggle against, rather than an exaltation of, the existing nation.
The moment arrived when the Indian National Congress grew complacent and the cries against corruption grew louder. The Bharatiya Janta Party, at the decisive moment, displayed religion in a militant, ideological and politicised form. Narendra Modi, the protagonist, embodied the ancient traditions, the faith of the ancestors, and the sense of oldness. In a rapidly changing world, they offered a sense of security, belonging and stability whilst also transforming the familiar “others” as objects of fear or hate – who can be blamed for all that has gone wrong since the day of liberation. “Some Hindus dream of going back to the Vedas” Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India.
Perry Anderson writes “the nationalist party that came to power after independence... distanced itself from the confessional undertow of the struggle without ever being able to tackle its legacy head on. In each case, as the ruling party gradually lost its lustre, it was outflanked by a more extreme rival that had fewer inhibitions about appealing directly to the theological passions aroused in the original struggle. The success of these parties was due… to their ability to articulate openly what had always been latent in the national movement, but neither candidly acknowledged nor consistently repudiated.”
Today’s religious passion is on account of the nationalists’ insistence that the injuries India has suffered is because of its persecutors and conquerors. Ashis Nandy, therefore posits that Hindutva ideologues want a more muscular religion to go with their nationalist project, but their project remains dependent on a religious base. Savarkar, who invented the term Hindutva, imagined an inclusive Hindu community; wanted to bring in Jains and Sikhs and to bring back men and women who had converted to Islam or Christianity. But they could come back only if they returned to the “culture” of Hinduism, which was in fact a religious culture.
If Savarkar believed that only religion could be an efficacious building block for nation and state formation in South Asia, then nationalism today is merely a fabrication of a religious community. But this construction is synthesised with a range of other structural reforms. Take for instance the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, the mainstay of which is a clear attempt to bolster Hinduism while perpetuating the exclusion of Muslims in particular. The Bill seeks to purge the pluralistic and inclusive conception of the presently religion-neutral law. The amendment Bill stipulates favourable treatment for Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians and Buddhists, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan by providing that such persons belong to “minority communities” and must not be treated as illegal immigrants. For the said group of persons, the period following which one would be eligible for citizenship is recommended to be reduced to six years of residence in India from the existing requirement of twelve years. Effectively, religious identity is proposed to be made a ground to determine eligibility for fast-tracked citizenship in India.
The Bill is essentially an attempt to cement the differentiation between Hindus and Muslims introduced by the amendments to the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950 and the Orders under the Foreigners Act, 1946 in 2015. These amendments in 2015 exempted the same six religious groups from the requirement of holding valid visas and passports and effectively inoculating them from being deported or prosecuted. The message between the lines is clear – and contrary to the constitutional promise of secularism.
The amendments made in 2015 and the one proposed in 2016 are bricks in the wall of BJP’s promise to make India a natural home for persecuted Hindus as had been declared in its manifesto. In a rally in Assam, Modi had said “We have a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. India is the only place for them.”
For all the constitutional promises of secularism and equality, the ruling party in India continues to treat Hindus as primary constituents of India while adopting a systemically exclusionary approach towards targeted religious sects.
The political right demands the idea of the nation to be perceived through a unidimensional perspective, leaving no space for alternate imaginations. Such a demand combined with the readiness to kill dissent is not where a debate starts, but it is where all matters end. The murders of Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Narendra Dabholkar are an unambiguous threat to silence those who oppose the tenets of Hindutva.
Dabholkar, founder of Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, opposed the outbreak of superstition that exploited society and advocated for an understanding of science in society. MM Kalburgi was an established scholar with over 700 published articles and 115 books to his credit on diverse projects.
Govind Pansare, a member of the Communist Party of India, was voicing a widespread fear – that violent Hindu groups were growing in prominence, and restraining free speech and thought. It was as if challenging fanatical imaginations violated the boundaries of right wing politics, which needed to perpetuate superstitions and lack of reason to preserve BJP’s communal rhetoric.
An offshoot of such a sentiment is the urge to locate modern science in ancient Hindu texts, a claim Hindu nationalists vociferously make.
This overzealous approach to claim ownership over the way we think of science, history and religion is commonplace when there is right wing governance. These rationalists posited an alternate view of thinking – a search for truth, a counter force aimed at restoring the freedoms that were snatched from the people, a mode of dissent. It became a vehicle of resistance, which had to be gunned down in order to be halted. As the political soul of democracy, dissent is the voice of those challenging power. In a Marxian understanding, dissent fosters a vibrant society, for in a political scenario, the State is the structure of the society and the two are not different things.
The actions of today are not new formations, they have always survived on the political margins. Antonio Gramscii writes, “the fact of hegemony presupposes that one takes into account the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony will be exercised, and it also presupposes a certain equilibrium, that is to say that the hegemonic groups will make some sacrifices.”
Political Hindutva has made the larger populace cynical of progressive thought, and to borrow from George Orwell, it desires a "new speak", that sees everything in black and white, abhors all complex thinking and wishes to limit the tools available for critical thinking. In the words of philosopher Ernest Gellner, "Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist".
Modi has made strategic political moves to predict the kind of political opposition that will emerge in the future and it is only with a strong counter narrative that demolishes political Hindutva as a dominating tactic and advances rational thinking will we progress to the promised freedoms.
The communal rhetoric adopted by the ruling party remains a blade that threatens the fabric of democracy and secularism woven by the founding fathers of independent India and citizens must unite in an effort to form an effective counter-narrative of equality, rationality and progressive thought.
And it is this continuous engagement, which will have some chance of appealing to people with lived experiences of religious polarity and bigotry.