The struggle for a nationalist halo
THE IDEA OF Hindu nationalism conflates ideas of religion and culture with those of nation and state. Nationalism is by definition indivisible, whereas religion and culture take on multiple manifestations. Culture of course contributes to national identity; yet culture alone cannot mould the nationalism of a country, leave alone that of a plural land like India. In India, during colonial rule, the reassertion of Indian culture was a nationalist project, which witnessed the revival of dance forms like Bharatanatyam and traditional classical music, as well as modern literature in Indian languages and what evolved into the gaudy cinema of Bollywood.
But an India confident in its own cultural diversity could celebrate multiple expressions of its culture. Hindutva sees culture differently; as the RSS’s MS Golwalkar wrote, culture ‘is but a product of our all-comprehensive religion, a part of its body and not distinguishable from it’. For Hindutvavadis, India’s national culture is Hindu religious culture, and cultural nationalism cloaks plural India in a mantle of Hindu identity.
Since Hindutva’s conception of nationalism is rooted in the primacy of culture over politics, as the historian KN Panikkar has pointed out, the Hindutva effort is to create an idea of the Indian nation in which the Hindu religious identity coincides with the cultural. In this process, Indian history, following the Muslim conquests of north India, has become ‘ground zero’ in the battle of narratives between Hindutvavadis and pluralists.
When, with the publication of my book An Era of Darkness: the British Empire in India, I spoke critically of 200 years of foreign rule, the Hindutva brigade, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, condemned 1,200 years of foreign rule. To them, the Muslim rulers of India, whether we refer to the Delhi Sultans, Deccan Sultans or the Mughal Emperors—or the hundreds of other Muslims who occupied thrones of greater or lesser importance for several centuries across the country—were all foreigners. I responded that while the founder of a Muslim dynasty may well have come to India from abroad, he and his descendants stayed and assimilated in this country, married Hindu women, and immersed themselves in the fortunes of this land; each Mughal Emperor after Babar had a thinner and thinner connection of blood or allegiance to a foreign country.
If they looted or exploited India and Indians, they spent the proceeds of their loot within the country and did not send it off to enrich a foreign land as the British did. The Mughals received visitors from the Ferghana Valley politely, enquired about the well-being of the people there and perhaps even gave some money for the upkeep of the graves of their Chingizid ancestors, but they stopped seeing their original homeland as home. By the second generation, let alone the fifth or sixth, they were as ‘Indian’ as any Hindu resident of the land. This challenge of authenticity, however, cuts across a wide intellectual terrain. It emerges from those Hindus who share VS Naipaul’s view of theirs as a ‘wounded civilisation’, a pristine Hindu land that was subjected to repeated conquests over the centuries at the hands of rapacious Muslim invaders and was enfeebled and subjugated in the process. To such people, Independence is not merely freedom from British rule, but an opportunity to restore the glory of their culture and religion, wounded by those conquerors. Historians like Audrey Truschke, author of a sympathetic biography of Aurangzeb, have argued that this account of Muslims despoiling the Hindu homeland is neither a continuous historical memory nor based on accurate records of the past. But there is no gainsaying the emotional content of the Hindutva view of the past: for them, it is a matter of faith that India is a Hindu nation, which Muslim rulers plundered and sought to destroy, and documented historical facts that refute this view are at best an inconvenience, at worst an irrelevance.
Hindutva sees culture differently. As the RSS’s MS Golwalkar wrote, culture ‘is but a product of our all-comprehensive religion, a part of its body and not distinguishable from it’
Indeed, Professor Truschke has remarked on the widespread belief in India that Aurangzeb was a Muslim fanatic who destroyed thousands of Hindu temples, forced millions of Indians to convert to Islam, and enacted a genocide of Hindus. None of these propositions, she demonstrates in her work, was true, least of all the claim—made by many of those who fought successfully to remove his name from a prominent road in Delhi—that his ultimate aim was to eliminate Hinduism. Historical evidence suggests that Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples as is claimed and that the ones he did destroy were largely for political reasons; that he did little to promote conversions, as evidenced by the relatively modest number of Hindus who adopted Islam during his reign; that he gave patronage to Hindu and Jain temples and liberally donated land to Brahmins; and that millions of Hindus thrived unmolested in his empire. Like many rulers of his time, whether Muslim or Hindu, Aurangzeb attacked Hindus and Muslims alike. But such nuanced accounts of the emperor enjoy little traction amongst those who prefer their history in unambiguous shades of black and white. As Professor Truschke has written, ‘Aurangzeb is controversial not so much because of India’s past but rather because of India’s present…. The narrative of Aurangzeb the Bigot, which crops up largely in polarising debates about Indian national identity, has more to do with modern politics than premodern history and is a byproduct and catalyst of growing intolerance in India.’
In this Hindutva-centred view, history is made of religion- based binaries, in which all Muslim rulers are evil and all Hindus are valiant resisters, embodiments of incipient Hindu nationalism. The Hindutvavadis believe, in Professor Truschke’s words, ‘that India was subjected to repeated defeats over the centuries, including by generations of Muslim conquerors that enfeebled the people and their land. The belief … that Muslim invaders destroyed their culture, religion, and homeland is neither a continuous historical memory nor is it based on accurate records of the past. But… many in India feel injured by the Indo-Muslim past, and their sentiments [are] often undergirded by modern anti-Muslim sentiments.’ As Panikkar has pointed out, liberal and tolerant rulers such as Ashoka, Akbar, Jai Singh, Shahu Maharaj and Wajid Ali Shah do not figure in Hindutva’s list of national heroes. (Indeed, where many nationalist historians extolled Akbar as the liberal, tolerant counterpart to the Islamist Aurangzeb, Hindutvavadis have begun to attack him too, principally because he was Muslim, and like most medieval monarchs, killed princes who stood in his way, many of whom happened to be Hindu.)
Historical evidence suggests that Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples as is claimed and that the ones he did destroy were largely for political reasons
Communal history continues past the era of Islamic rule. Among those Indians who revolted against the British, Muslims such as Bahadur Shah, Zeenat Mahal, Maulavi Ahmadullah and General Bakht Khan are conspicuous by their absence from Hindutva histories. Syncretic traditions such as the Bhakti movement and universalist religious reformers like Rammohan Roy and Keshub Chandra Sen do not receive much attention from the Hindutva orthodoxy either. What does is the uncritical veneration of ‘Hindu heroes’ like Maharana Pratap (portrayed now in Rajasthani textbooks as the victor of the Battle of Haldighati against Akbar, which begs the question why the Mughal Emperor and not he ruled the country for the following three decades) and of course Chhatrapati Shivaji, the intrepid Maratha warrior whose battles against the Mughals have now replaced accounts of Mughal kings in Maharashtra’s textbooks. (The educational system is the chosen battlefield for Hindutva warriors, and curriculum revision their preferred weapon.)
THE DEBATES OVER history are not confined to the distant past alone. Prime Minister Modi chose the anniversary of the Quit India movement in 1942 to launch a campaign called ‘70 Saal Azadi: Zara Yaad Karo Qurbani’ (Seventy years of freedom: remember the sacrifices). The BJP which, led by the Prime Minister, has sought to drape itself in nationalism, is now seeking to appropriate the freedom struggle for its cause. Ironically, Quit India was a mobilisation the BJP could well have chosen to criticise rather than celebrate, since it resulted in the jailing of thousands of workers and all leaders of the nationalist movement by the British, which left the Muslim League with a free hand to build up a support base it had lacked in the elections of 1937 and thus strengthened those who wanted Partition.
But the Modi Government has no intention of repudiating Quit India as a Congress folly. It wants to make heroes of freedom fighters, placing them by implication on its own side in a contemporary retelling of history pegged to the seventieth anniversary of our independence. The complication is that the political cause to which the BJP is heir—embodied by the RSS, Jana Sangh and the Hindutva movement—had no prominent freedom fighter of its own during the nationalist struggle for Aazadi. The BJP traces its origin to leaders who were not particularly active at the time. This lack of inspirational figures in the party’s parent body means politicians like Modi have to look for role models elsewhere.
Lest we forget, the process had already begun before the General Election of 2014, when Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat moved aggressively to lay claim to the legacy of one of India’s most respected Founding Fathers, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. In his quest to adopt a more distinguished lineage than his party can ordinarily lay claim to, Modi called upon farmers across India to donate iron from their ploughs to construct a gigantic 550-foot statue of the Iron Man in his state, which would dwarf the Statue of Liberty and be the largest statue in the world. But it will be less of a monument to the modest Gandhian it ostensibly honours than an embodiment of the overweening ambitions of its builder.
Modi’s motives are easy to divine. His own image had been tarnished by the communal massacre in Gujarat when he was Chief Minister in 2002. Identifying himself with Patel (who is portrayed as the leader who stood up for the nation’s Hindus during the horrors of Partition and was firm on issues like Kashmir) is an attempt at character- building by association— portraying Modi himself as the tough, decisive man of action that Patel was, rather than the destructive bigot his enemies decry.
Identifying Modi with Sardar Patel is an attempt at character-building by association, portraying the BJP Prime Minister as the tough, decisive man of action that the Congress leader was
It helps that Patel is widely admired for his extraordinary role in forging India that gave him his unchallenged standing as the Iron Man. Patel represents both a national appeal and Gujarati origin, which suits Modi well. The Modi-as- latter-day-Patel message has resonated well with many Gujaratis, who are proud to be reminded of a native son the nation looks up to, and with many of India’s urban middle-class, who see in Modi a strong leader to overcome the confusion and indecision of India’s messy democracy.
But Patel’s conduct during the violence that accompanied Partition stands in stark contrast to Modi’s in 2002. Both Patel and Modi were faced with a serious breakdown of law-and-order in their respective domains, involving riots and violence against Muslims. In Delhi, in 1947, Patel immediately and effectively moved to ensure the protection of Muslims, herding 10,000 living in the most vulnerable parts of the city to the walled security of the Red Fort. Because Patel was afraid that local security forces might have been affected by the virus of communal passions, he moved Army troops from Madras and Pune to Delhi to restore calm and maintain peace. Patel also made it a point to reassure the Muslim community by attending prayers at the Nizamuddin Dargah, a gesture to convey the message that Muslims and their faith belonged unquestionably on the soil of India.
Patel also went to the border town of Amritsar, where there had been attacks on Muslims fleeing to the new Islamic state of Pakistan, and pleaded with Hindu and Sikh mobs to stop victimising Muslim refugees. In each of these cases, Patel succeeded and there are literally tens of thousands of people who are alive today because of his interventions.
The contrast with what happened in Gujarat in 2002 is painful. Whether or not one ascribes direct blame to Modi for the pogrom that year, he can certainly claim no credit for acting in the way Patel did in Delhi. In Gujarat, there was no direct and immediate action taken by Modi, as the state’s chief executive, to protect Muslims. Nor did the Chief Minister express any public condemnation of the attacks, let alone undertake any symbolic action of going to a mosque or visiting a Muslim neighbourhood to offer reassurance. On the contrary, he is seen by many as having provided protection and comfort to the rioters rather than their victims.
One cannot imagine Patel saying to an interviewer, as Modi did, that he felt sorry about the killing of Muslims as he would about a puppy run over by a car in which he was a passenger. There is a particular irony to a self-proclaimed ‘Hindu nationalist’ like Modi, whose speeches have often dripped with contempt for Muslims, laying claim to the legacy of a Gandhian leader who would never have qualified his Indian nationalism with a religious label.
Sardar Patel believed in equal rights for all, irrespective of their religion or caste. It is true that at the time of Partition, Patel was inclined to believe, unlike Nehru, that an entire community had seceded. In my biography Nehru: The Invention of India (2003), I have given some examples of Nehru and Patel clashing on this issue. But there are an equal number of instances where Patel, if he had to choose between what was the right thing for Hindus and what was the right thing morally, invariably plumped for the moral Gandhian approach.
An example, so often distorted by Sangh Parivar apologists, was his opposition to Nehru’s pact with Liaquat Ali Khan, then prime minister of Pakistan, on the question of violence in East Pakistan against its Hindu minority. The Nehru-Liaquat pact was indeed criticised by Patel and he disagreed quite ferociously with Nehru on the matter. But when Nehru insisted on his position, it was Patel who gave in, and his reasoning was entirely Gandhian: that violence in West Bengal against Muslims essentially took away the moral right of Indians to condemn violence against Hindus in East Pakistan. That was not a Hindu nationalist position but a classically Gandhian approach as an Indian nationalist.
History has often been contested terrain in India, but its revival in the context of 21st century politics is a sobering sign that the past continues to have a hold over the Hindutva movement in the present. While the Mughals will be demonised as a way of delegitimising Indian Muslims (who are stigmatised as ‘Babur ke aulad’, sons of Babur rather than of India), the arguments over Patel confirm that he and other heroes of the freedom struggle will be hijacked to the present ruling party’s attempts to appropriate a halo of nationalism that none of its forebears has done anything to earn.