Neo-Hindutva and the challenge to national unity
RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat in Ghaziabad, UP, July 4
WHAT CAN, EVEN should, be the basis of Hindu-Muslim unity in India? This question has both challenged and overcome us since the early phases of Indian nationalism. It is, no doubt, an unresolved problem, whose catastrophic consequences resulted in the partition of India in 1947. Careful attention to the statements of Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), shows both continuity with its past pronouncements as well as bold, innovative initiatives when it comes to the vexed question of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement.
But to appreciate better the RSS position as well as Bhagwat’s contribution to its furtherance, we must go back to the roots of the problem. The conventional wisdom is that Pakistan was the result of the two-nation theory. First advocated by Syed Ahmed Khan, it later found support among several influential, mostly feudal and professional, Muslims who gravitated towards the Muslim League. Yet it would be no exaggeration to say that the Pakistan movement was not supported by all or even the majority of Indian Muslims.
If so, why was Pakistan produced? Why did the movement for a separate Muslim state triumph though its foundations were so shaky and unnatural? Contrafactually, if we had solved the Hindu-Muslim problem, obviously, Partition might have been prevented. Why did we fail? Was it because our British colonial masters tacitly or overtly supported the divorce between Hindus and Muslims? While it is all too convenient to shift the burden of all our problems onto our erstwhile rulers, shouldn’t we accept a portion of the blame ourselves?
The truth is that the Congress headed by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, which spearheaded our struggle for freedom, were unsuccessful in preventing Partition. It was unable to convince either the All India Muslim League or those Indian Muslims who backed it to give up the demand for Pakistan and to forge a conjoint republic.
In fact, till too late, the Congress leadership, particularly Nehru, did not take the Muslim League seriously. To be fair, Nehru was able to sustain such an opinion not only because Congress had many Muslim leaders in its fold, but also because the Muslim League was not a party of great consequence till after the letdown of the Quit India movement.
But the deeper, if overly optimistic, delusion of Congress was its claim to represent all of India. Congress believed that it was the big tent under which all Indians embraced each other irrespective of ideological, regional, linguistic or religious affiliations. Congress, indeed, tried to welcome all shades and stripes of the national movement. Yet, quite clearly, it excluded revolutionaries who believed in a violent overthrow of colonial rule.
Again, when it came to incorporating Muslims and depressed classes, Congress, as a platform, proved inadequate. While it was quick to proclaim that it could protect Muslim interests better than the Muslim League, unfortunately, a sizeable and immensely influential section of Indian Muslims disagreed. The result was an endless process of placation from Congress and escalating demands from the Muslim League side.
Given that the Muslim League was determined to establish a separate state, what better way than to call the Congress bluff? It was after 1942, with most of the Congress leaders in jail, that the Muslim League became the leading alternative political force. In the 1946 elections to the Central Legislative Assembly, it won 30 out of the 102 seats while Congress bagged 50. The Bengal Provincial Muslim League, a branch of the All India Muslim League, was elected to power in Bengal in both the 1937 and 1946 provincial elections. On August 16th, the Muslim League resorted to “Direct Action Day”, engineering Hindu-Muslim riots in which thousands were killed.
Gandhi himself believed that no sacrifice was too big to maintain the unity of India and Indian society. His formula of sarva-dharma-samabhava or equal regard for all religions was not intrinsically wrong. Gandhi was a champion of interfaith harmony, believing that all religious traditions were equally valid and worshipped the same God. In Hind Swaraj, he had already anticipated RSS in asserting the common ancestry of all Indians, which he considered sufficient for them to constitute one nation. But Congress never applied its own formula honestly. Once committed to the slippery slope of differential or preferential treatment of minorities, the only way was down.
Neo-Hindutva advocates do not seem to realise that for compatibility and coexistence at the Vyavaharika or practical level theological consonance is not prerequisite
In addition, Gandhian non-violence and non-retaliation meant that when Muslims were instigators or perpetrators of communal violence, only a change of their hearts would save Hindus. Gandhi himself managed to bring peace by fasting and self-purification. Yet, he too, as I have shown at length in my book The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (Penguin, 2015), was unprepared for the orgies and horrors of Partition violence. He admitted that non-violence had failed to preserve either national unity or safeguard the lives of Hindus and Muslims.
It was because Congress did not succeed in protecting Hindu society that RSS was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. Himself a former Congressman, Hedgewar never wanted RSS to be a political organisation. That task was left to the Hindu Mahasabha, of which he had also been a member, and whose president VD Savarkar became in 1937.
According to his pamphlet Hindutva, written when he was in Ratnagari jail and first published in 1923, only Hindus could be the true and natural citizens of India. The rest, unless they accepted India as their holy land in addition to their motherland, were suspect of extra-territorial loyalties. The onus of proving their nationalism was upon such non-Hindus as showed little respect or cultural affinity to their Hindu past and ancestry.
Savarkar’s own position had altered considerably since his pathbreaking revisionist history of the great revolt of 1857 called The Indian War of Independence. In this book, Savarkar did not see Hindus and Muslims as separate nationalities. Hadn’t they fought together against their colonisers under the banner of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar? What, then, made Savarkar change his mind?
According to his biographer, Vikram Sampath, Savarkar was disillusioned by the Khilafat Movement. Outraged by the Mopla atrocities against Hindus in Kerala, he found the Congress approach to Hindu-Muslim unity nothing short of suicidal for Hindus. Far from protecting the lives of innocent Hindus who were raped, converted or massacred, Gandhi and Congress failed to condemn the religious violence or jihad of Moplas. The Congress sellout to subcontinental Muslims supporting a retrograde cause such as the continuation of the Turkish Caliphate, arguably, presaged the truncation and division of the Hindu homeland.
Savarkar was thus in favour of both preventing Partition and imposing conditionalities upon Muslims before granting them full nationality. In the run-up to Independence, however, the Hindu Mahasabha was able to muster little support. It was not a political force to reckon with. Its idea of Hindutva had few takers then. Only after the rise of BJP in the last 20 years or so has this unfinished agenda resumed.
The RSS leadership, for its part, has stuck to its stand that India is a Hindu Rashtra despite the Indian Constitution’s overtly secular disposition. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi not only imposed Emergency in 1975 and banned RSS, but, the following year, through an amendment, introduced the words “secular” and “socialist” in the self-description of the nation in the Constitution. Given that we are, today, far from being a “socialist, secular republic”, isn’t our very existence as a nation a living contradiction?
Congress continued the colonial “divide and rule” formula by creating multiple minoritarian coalitions to retain power. The precondition was keeping the Hindutva genie tightly bottled up. Indeed, from Nehru to Rahul Gandhi, RSS has been the Number One threat, if not enemy, of Congress. Their communist allies came in handy to ridicule Hindu traditions, festivals and practices while maintaining a studious and calculated silence over the superstitions and misdeeds of our so-called minorities.
Votebank politics were deployed with the primary purpose of keeping Hindus divided over region, language, caste and community. Unity, at all costs, had to be prevented. Even the equal rights guaranteed by the Constitution were in name only. They were immediately diluted in the name of caste, backwardness, regionalism, tribalism and religion. If Hindus made up nearly 80 per cent of the population, Congress could not win without splitting them in some way or the other.
One example of differential treatment is the management of Hindu shrines and other matters of faith. The state, as a matter of course, controlled temples and appropriated their revenues. But no one would dare to do the same to Muslim dargas, Sikh gurdwaras or Jain temples. Clearly the Congress formula of Hindu-Muslim unity failed, both in pre and post-Independence India.
What then of Pakistan or, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh on the other side of the religious divide? Here Hindu minorities have not only diminished in numbers, but in Pakistan are at the point of extinction. The last phase of ethnic cleansing is underway, with the regular and routine abduction of Hindu girls to be converted to Islam and married off, sometimes to grooms who are much older and already married.
What, given the above, could be the new formula for Hindu-Muslim unity? Surely not Congress-style appeasement nor Pakistani-style ethnic cleansing. It is here that RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks on July 4th, 2021 at a book release function in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh assume importance. Widely reported in the media, these remarks immediately attracted controversy for asserting the common DNA of Hindus and Muslims.
Apart from the usual disapproval by avowedly Islamist leaders such as Asaduddin Owaisi or a section of leftists and Dalits, the severest censure of Bhagwat’s speech came from middle-class neo-Hindutva chatterati and literati. They accused Bhagwat of soft-peddling the Muslim problem by repeating the Gandhian fatal flaw of failed appeasement. To them, RSS had lost its spine and could no longer be trusted to speak on behalf of Hindus.
What was wrong with Bhagwat’s statements? Why was he attacked by hardline Hindus? And what would his critics really expect from him or RSS?
What they failed to fathom is that without quite spelling it out, RSS demonstrates a graded and incremental approach to Indian Muslims—from ghar wapsi or a formal return to the Hindu fold, to an osmotic assimilation without conversion, to cultural-civilisational absorption and integration while retaining a well-defined, religious identity. Thus, RSS offers a variety of options to minorities merging into the mainstream. What it does not, never has accepted or tolerated, is separatism by Indian Muslims. Regardless of whether this is politically sponsored within India or encouraged from abroad by what it perceives as anti-national forces.
The complexity of this multi-layered and flexible approach, without any compromise on essential principles, is something that middle-class ‘born-again’ Hindus or advocates of hardline neo-Hindutva have persistently rejected. For the RSS method to work, not only the concept and experience of being Hindu must be malleable to variable connotations, but a similar multivalency must also be extended to the definitions and identifications of being Muslim in India.
What exactly does this mean? If ‘Hindu’ is a term of geo-cultural piety and civilisational identity, then no one in India should have any objections to being labelled a Hindu. But if it means giving up one’s religious identity, whether Muslim, Christian, even Sikh, Jain or Buddhist, then it is a very tall order to impose. A nation is founded, as Deen Dayal Upadhyaya asserted, by a shared consciousness or chiti.
It is in this sense that Bhagwat meant that India was a Hindu nation. There was no attempt to browbeat non-Hindu Indians into giving up their different faith traditions, belief systems or modes of worship. What was wrong with Bhagwat’s statements? Why was he attacked by hardline Hindus? And what would his critics really expect from him or RSS?
In their newfound zeal, neo-Hindutvavadis do not understand or appreciate that by insisting on rigid, often incommensurable definitions of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, we stand the risk of precluding precisely such a new and viable covenant between the two communities. Would they prefer an intolerance towards minorities, with the demand continuously to prove their loyalty and patriotism? Or two types of citizenship? Or a ghettoisation and oppression of those considered ‘Hindu-unfriendly’ or ‘anti-national’?
Neo-Hindutva advocates do not seem to realise that for compatibility and coexistence at the vyavaharika or practical level theological consonance is not prerequisite. As to the expectation that large sections of believers will publicly disassociate, let alone denounce, their own prophets and scriptures, that is totally unlikely, if not dangerous. A pragmatic realignment of relations, such as Bhagwat has advocated, on the other hand is already underway.
History has shown seemingly incompatible faith-traditions co-existing amicably on the ground. This is possible because regardless of what they profess, people do not practise religious tenets to the letter. The domain of religion can remain a matter of private faith. When it comes to day-to-day transactions, most of us are able to keep it out of the reckoning. Especially when obvious self-interest and material advantage are involved.
Not only does the Indian Constitution guarantee equal rights, but the general run of Hindus in India accepts, as the recent Pew Survey has shown, and respects other faith-traditions. Most Indians, moreover, wish to live in peace. RSS understands that many Muslims have accepted that it is preferable to be junior partners in a broader Hindu narrative provided it is humane and equitable than hitch their wagon to some extraterritorial or foreign idea of Muslim solidarity or Umma.
Once the ground rules for such a compatibility are clearly laid out, there is no need to attack or question anyone’s patriotism.What, moreover, is the point of escalating continuous hostility and hatred between the two communities? When it comes to nation-building, politics will not do the trick, as Bhagwat rightly said. On the contrary, politics can be divisive, thriving on differences rather than social cohesion. What is needed is an extra-political push which is grounded in culture, tradition and shared values. Love and reverence for the motherland and the willingness to serve it and sacrifice for it can easily be the common ground of Hindu-Muslim amity if not unity.
RSS was founded to safeguard the Hindu nation and to build solidarity in Hindu society. But if it can, in addition, take on the mantle of building bridges between Hindus and Muslims, then it deserves kudos rather than criticism. Bhagwat has declared that RSS must eventually work for the whole Indian society, not only for Hindus. Instead of deriding his overtures, both Hindus and Muslims should welcome his efforts in this direction. For as Sri Aurobindo wisely observed in the opening chapter of his magnum opus, The Life Divine, “all problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony.”
Finally, the protection of Hindu dharma cannot be left to those who are so ‘Abrahamic’ in their approach that they risk ceasing to be Hindus ourselves. Some may consider it ironic but it is in keeping with the times that RSS today is more moderate, centrist and conciliatory when other Hindu groups have taken to much harsher and extreme anti-Muslim positions.
(The series on Indian aesthetics and politics will resume with the next instalment of this column)
Makarand R Paranjape