A View from Swapan Dasgupta's book 'Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right'

Swapan Dasgupta
Swapan DasguptaJun 08, 2019 | 11:58

A View from Swapan Dasgupta's book 'Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right'

Swapan Dasgupta’s fascinating book explores the rise of Hindu nationalism and various factors over time that created India’s secularism. A riveting read, a must-have for those who want to understand today's India.

Presenting an exclusive excerpt from Swapan Dasgupta's book Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right (Penguin India).

The book showcases the phenomenon of Hindu nationalism in terms of how it perceives itself and its deep roots in the country's intellectual culture. 

awakening-bharat-mat_060719072454.jpgAwakening Bharat Mata (Photo: Penguin India)

(Excerpted from Awakening Bharat Mata by Swapan Dasgupta, published by Penguin India) 



The controversy (over Somnath Temple) resurfaced after it was proposed that President Rajendra Prasad would inaugurate the restored temple and participate in the consecration of the Jyotirlinga. Nehru objected strongly to the presence of the head of state on such an occasion. Prasad disagreed and went ahead. At the inauguration, his speech articulated a vision that seemed very normal in those times but would probably trigger a culture war today.

By rising from its ashes again, this temple of Somnath is proclaiming to the world that no man and no power in the world can destroy that for which people have boundless faith and love in their hearts . . . Today, our attempt is not to rectify history. Our only aim is to proclaim anew our attachment to the faith, convictions and to the values on which our religion has rested since immemorial ages.

 Nehruvians, if not Nehru himself, considered the president ‘of inferior intellectual quality and with a social outlook which belonged to the eighteenth century’. In his fortnightly letters to the chief minister, Nehru gave vent to his profound disappointment with the president’s action over Somnath: ‘Our frequent declarations that we are a secular state are appreciated abroad and raise our credit. But they are not wholly believed in . . . The recent inauguration of the Somnath Temple, with pomp and ceremony, has created a very bad impression abroad about India and her professions.’


Nehru’s fears of negative impressions of India were largely in his own mind—and probably limited to his social circle of ‘progressives’: the ‘pomp and ceremony’ in a remote part of Gujarat attracted little attention in the pre-television age. Nor did his firm warning against any state identification with religious ceremonies become the norm. It has become routine for state and political functionaries to attend religious and quasi-religious functions, including those hosted by god-men, as a show of respect for religious India. Indira Gandhi was a fierce opponent of Hindu nationalism and professed her father’s secularism, but she was a passionate temple-goer and patron of religious gurus. Her successors have kept up the tradition but more as necessary political gestures, particularly during elections.

somnath_647_06031505_060719073403.jpgNot just peace: The Somnath Temple became a bone of contention between Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru. (Photo: India Today)

The bone of contention between Nehru and his colleagues on Somnath was not the involvement of the state per se in religious activity but the quantum of association with Hindu culture. Nehru’s anxieties stemmed from the need to maintain a distinction between an appearance of even-handedness and majoritarianism. According to the assessment of Nehru’s ‘official’ biographer, S. Gopal, the likes of Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, and even the Jana Sangh founder Shyama Prasad Mookerjee ‘believed not so much in a theocratic state as in a state which symbolised the interests of the Hindu majority’. It was this failure to maintain the pro-Hindu tilt by the relatively inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi that fuelled Hindu resentment and shifted the social consensus in favour of explicit majoritarianism. The restoration of the Somnath temple in 1951 led to a sense of quiet satisfaction among Hindus but it was not accompanied by boisterous muscle flexing. However, by the time BJP leader L.K. Advani chose the Somnath temple as the start of his rath yatra to Ayodhya to press for the building of a Ram temple on the site of a sixteenth-century mosque, ‘soft Hindutva’ was rapidly becoming a diminishing option. To Advani, the restored Somnath temple served as ‘a sobering reminder that a weak nation that cannot defend itself against external attacks stands to lose more than its political freedom; it risks losing its cultural heritage’.


Much of the sparring over secularism in the past three decades has centred on perceptions of ‘cultural heritage’. In 2001, a political storm erupted after the education ministers of Congress and Left-ruled states boycotted a conference convened by the Union minister for HRD Murli Manohar Joshi in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP-led government. Their objection was to the fact that the ceremonial inauguration included the invocation to Saraswati, worshipped by Hindus as the goddess of learning. The Congress-left protests were perhaps calculated to focus attention on Joshi’s larger ‘saffron’ agenda that included the rewriting of history textbooks to rid them of their supposed ‘anti-Hindu’ bias. But by directing their ire on the singing of the Saraswati Vandana, an incantation that is broadly comparable to the genuflection to Nataraj that precedes a Bharatanatyam dance performance, the secularists reinforced a stereotype of themselves as being unmindful of the Hindu underpinnings of India’s cultural heritage.

lal-krusn-advani_060719073838.jpgEye on the past: LK Advani termed the restored Somnath Temple as 'a sobering reminder' for India to protect its heritage. (Photo: PTI)

To the cultural nationalists such as Advani and Joshi, Indian secularism had become distorted over time and had steadily acquired an anti-Hindu bias. In Nehru’s value system, ‘the problem of minorities was basically one for the majority community to handle. The test of success was not what Hindus thought but how Muslims and other communities felt...’ Now this asymmetry was sought to be turned on its head, not by discarding secularism altogether, but in repudiating what Advani famously dubbed pseudo-secularism. What has propelled contemporary Hindu nationalism was a simmering anger that the Hindus were being taken for granted because they were not either religiously or politically organized as Hindus. In an article on the need to support the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the head of the Chinmaya Mission, Swami Chinmayananda, stressed the need for Hindus to acquire a corporate identity.

I know that religious organisation is against the very principle of Hinduism, but we have to move with the times. We seem to have entered today all over the world . . . into an age of organisation . . . If disorganised, there is no strength, no vitality. Therefore, in the spiritual field, even though the individuals proceed forward and develop if religion wants to serve the society, it also has to get organised.

The VHP sought to provide coherence to the fragmented world of Hinduism.

Since Independence, the population of Hindus in the Indian Union has not fallen below 80 per cent, although there have been significant regional shifts, particularly in eastern India. In view of the overwhelming preponderance of what may be loosely called the ‘majority’ community, it may seem surprising that Indian politics from the mid-1980s was marked by a rising tide of Hindu assertion. More surprising, perhaps, was that this assertiveness arose from a profound sense of grievance. The target of Hindu ire was the sustained policy of what is dubbed ‘minorityism’.

The genesis of the phenomenon may well be located in another of the loose ends of Indian secularism: the special privileges granted to religious minorities. In particular, minorities (and minorities alone) were given the right to manage their own religious, cultural and educational institutions without state interference. That India’s secular Constitution felt obliged to create differentiated citizenship was itself a departure from the idealized, Western versions of secularism based on state indifference to religion. But the recognition of group rights (along with a charter of uniform rights) was dictated by the legacy of the freedom struggle.

5ce900575f331_060719075749.jpgThe 'minorityism' phenomenon: Is this located in the special privileges granted to religious communities? (Photo: PTI)

First, there was Gandhi’s sustained campaign against an iniquitous caste system that condemned a significant section of the people to pariah status. For Gandhi, the abolition of untouchability and the right of all self-professed Hindus to enter temples were integral features of the national resurgence that had to accompany political independence. Since Hindus were made up of diverse communities and lacked any ecclesiastical command structure, the project of social reform had to have a large measure of state involvement—as it indeed did under imperial rule.

Secondly, in the wake of the creation of Pakistan and the exodus of large numbers of Muslims from independent India, the leaders of the Congress, and Nehru in particular, felt a compelling need to assure the large Muslim minority which remained in India that their faith and identity would be statutorily protected. It was made sufficiently clear that common citizenship and integration did not automatically imply assimilation. Muslims, it was decreed, could retain their distinctive Muslim-ness and still be good Indians.

Finally, as a political philosopher, Rajeev Bhargava argued, ‘India needed a coherent set of intellectual resources to tackle inter-religious conflict, and to struggle against oppressive communities not by disaggregating them into a collection of individuals or by derecognising them but by somehow making them more liberal and egalitarian.’ The state was conferred the right to balance aloofness from religious affairs with the ‘demand for equality and justice which necessitates intervention in religiously sanctioned social customs’. In recent times, it has been the courts rather than the legislature that has been at the forefront of reformist interventions. The Supreme Court has declared the iniquitous triple talaq divorce among Muslims to be illegal and permitted the entry of women into the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, much to the distress of the local community. Indian secularism, Bhargava had argued, was based on keeping a ‘principled distance’ from matters of faith and custom.

manmohansingh-kl3e--_060719075952.jpgCrossing the line? Did former PM Manmohan Singh exacerbate tensions by promising minorities first claim on resources? (Photo: PTI)

The problem lay in defining the red lines. On 9 December 2006, for example, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, told a meeting of the National Development Council, ‘We will have to devise innovative plans to ensure that minorities, particularly the Muslim minority, are empowered to share equitably the fruits of development. These must have the first claim on resources.’ Did he cross those lines then? Was the National Advisory Council led by Sonia Gandhi being even-handed when it, in a draft Communal Violence Bill in 2011, defined victims of communal violence as ‘a religious or linguistic minority, in any state . . . or Scheduled Castes and Tribes’, thereby ruling out the possibility of any member of the ‘majority’ community being victims?

One of the first important legislation undertaken by the Nehru government after the Constitution came into force was a series of changes in the personal laws of Hindus. Among other things, the modified personal laws outlawed polygamy and gave women equal inheritance rights. There was resistance from Hindu conservatives who argued against tampering with traditional laws and customs, but the resounding victory of the Congress in the 1952 general election—where the reforms were a talking point—settled matters conclusively. Unfortunately, the reforms governing Hindus were not accompanied by initiatives to modify the personal laws of the Muslim community, which continued to be governed by the regressive provisions of the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, 1937.

The Constituent Assembly had recognized that all Indians should be governed by common laws relating to marriage and inheritance. However, at the urging of the leadership, which felt that the time was not yet ripe to expose a Muslim community still suffering the trauma of Partition, to such radical change, the issue—along with the Gandhian pipedream of prohibition and Nehru’s quest for a ‘scientific temper’—was listed as one of the Directive Principles of state policy. It was further felt that the demand for a uniform civil code had to come from within the Muslim community rather than be thrust on it by well-meaning modernizers.

For nearly four decades, the uniform civil code issue lay in cold storage. It was occasionally raised by Hindu nationalist parties not so much as a part of a modernizing agenda but as an instrument to combat the ‘emotional separatism’ of Muslims. From within the Muslim community, no meaningful reform movement arose. The community itself remained preoccupied with issues such as representation in legislatures, the status of Urdu, the character of Aligarh Muslim University, and ever-recurring communal riots.

All that changed in 1986 following a Supreme Court judgment directing nominal alimony payment to one Shah Bano. In his judgment, Justice Chandrachud also referred in passing to the forgotten promise of a uniform civil code for India.

(Excerpted with the permission of Penguin India) 

Last updated: June 08, 2019 | 15:46
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