Indian Nationalism versus Hindutva Nationalism

The RSS–BJP objective of replacing the secular democratic modern Indian Republic with their concept of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is, a ‘throwback’ to the Westphalian nation-state model, says the writer

Indian Nationalism versus Hindutva Nationalism

Sitaram Yechury

The RSS–BJP objective of replacing the secular democratic modern Indian Republic with their concept of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is, in a sense, a ‘throwback’ to the Westphalian nation-state model where national majorities control the state, and hence minorities are at their mercy, says the writer. An excerpt from a chapter in the book penned by him:

The results of the 2019 general elections in India marked the consolidation of the political right. The sweep of the victory and the manner in which it was achieved define the impending challenges for both our people and our secular democratic Republic.

The RSS–BJP combine successfully shifted the poll narrative away from the day-to-day livelihood concerns of the people. The last couple of years saw the peoples’ discontent expressed in various protest actions and movements. However, the terrorist attack in Pulwama on 14 February 2019 followed by the subsequent Air Force bombing in Balakot (Pakistan) on 26 February were successfully utilized to mount a new narrative. The RSS–BJP combine was able to successfully run a campaign centred around nationalist jingoism. The sharpening of communal polarization that took place over the last five years dovetailed with this, creating a communal, nationalist, jingoistic narrative. The larger-than-life projection of the Modi persona provided the principal actor for the unfolding of this narrative. Largely, the 2019 elections were more in the nature of presidential rather than parliamentary elections. Eventually, the candidates did not matter and the voting took place on the basis of emotions generated by this narrative for a Modi government. This narrative fit neatly into the RSS construct of the elections as a battle against terrorism emanating from ‘Muslim Pakistan’ targeting ‘Hindu India’.

The success achieved by the RSS–BJP could not have been possible but for the humongous money power displayed in these elections. Corporate media was enlisted through corporate donations of unprecedented magnitude to unleash a propaganda offensive that went unmatched. Independent constitutional authorities such as the Election Commission also played a role in permitting such a propaganda blitzkrieg, violating all norms and political moral codes.

A corporate communal alliance has come into dominance, vigorously propagating the ideology of aggrandizing nationalism, putting the ‘nation’ and its interests above the people, demanding sacrifices from the people including the forfeiture of their democratic rights in the name of the ‘nation’. The leaders of the current government in India often proclaim that ‘freedom of expression cannot be at the expense of the nation’! Recently, when the amendments to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Act were being considered by the Lok Sabha, the home minister thundered that those who opposed the amendments were supporting terrorism and protecting terrorists, statements that can be inferred even from the official report of the government. These draconian amendments severely impinge on the democratic rights and civil liberties of all individuals. Any expression of dissent against the BJP government and its policies can lead to arrest and detention, on the grounds of being ‘anti-national’—the legalization of a ‘police state’. The challenge to this right-wing political consolidation will necessarily have to come from the left and left-of-centre political consolidation. This can, however, succeed only when there is clarity over what is at stake.

What is at stake is the very survival of our secular, democratic, constitutional order. It is the very survival of modern India as contained in the expression ‘idea of India’.

‘Idea of India’: Backdrop and Evolution

The emergence of nation states was integral to the long process of transition of human civilization from feudalism to capitalism. This period also threw up in Europe the struggle for the separation of the state from the church. The triumph of capitalism over feudalism, at the same time, signified the separation of the political authority from the myth of a divine sanction to rule invoked by kings and emperors across several civilizations at the peak of feudalism.

The agreements of Westphalia, finally signed in 1648, laid the principles of sovereignty of the nation state and the consequent international laws, and are widely believed to have established an international system on the basis of the principle of sovereignty of states, equality between states, and non-intervention of one state in the internal affairs of another state, usually referred to as the Westphalian system. Westphalian peace was negotiated in the period 1644–48 between major European powers. These treaties laid the basis for a host of international laws, many of which remain in force today.

During the course of the defeat of fascism in the Second World War and the consequent dynamics of decolonization, the people’s struggles for freedom from colonial rule threw up many constructs regarding the character of these independent countries. For sure, such constructs arose out of a long struggle in individual countries against colonialism, including India, during this period.

The concept of the ‘idea of India’ emerged during the epic people’s struggle for India’s freedom from British colonialism. What is this ‘idea of India’? To put it in simple terms, though conscious of its complexity and multiple dimensions, this concept represents the idea that India as a country moves towards transcending its immense diversities in favour of a substantially inclusive unity of its people.

In his introduction to a Seminar special issue containing revised versions of lectures on the relations between politics and political economy in India given at a 2010 seminar at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University, New York, Akeel Bilgrami says the following about my observations on the ‘idea of India’:

‘[This] might be viewed as an ideal of a nation that rejects the entire trajectory in Europe that emerged after the Westphalian peace. What emerged then (and there) was a compulsion to seek legitimacy for a new kind of state, one that could no longer appeal to older notions of the ‘divine right’ of states personified in their monarchs. It sought this legitimacy in a new form of political psychology of a new kind of subject, the ‘citizen’, a psychology based on a feeling for a new form of entity that had emerged, the ‘nation’. This feeling, which came to be called ‘nationalism’, had to be generated in the populace of citizens, and the standard process that was adopted in Europe for generating it was to find an external enemy within, the outsider, the ‘other’ in one’s midst (the Irish, the Jews, to name just two) to be despised and subjugated. In a somewhat later time, with the addition of a more numerical and statistical form of discourse, these came to be called ‘minorities’ and the method by which this feeling for the nation was created came to be called ‘majoritarianism’.’

The RSS–BJP objective of replacing the secular democratic modern Indian Republic with their concept of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is, in a sense, a ‘throwback’ to the Westphalian nation-state model where national majorities control the state, and hence minorities are at their mercy. In this case, the Hindu majority subjugates other religious minorities (mainly Muslim: the external enemy within) to foster ‘Hindu nationalism’ as against ‘Indian nationhood’. Ironically, it is they who import the Western concept of a nation and impose it over Indian experience. This, in fact, represents a throwback to notions of nationalism that dominated the intellectual discourse prior to the sweep of the Indian people’s struggle for freedom. Such a state, based on ‘majoritarianism’—their version of a rabidly intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’—negates the core around which emerged the consciousness of Indian nationhood contained in the ‘idea of India’ as a reflection of the emergence of ‘a political psychology of a new kind’.

RSS–BJP ideologues dismiss the ‘idea of India’ as a mere idea—a metaphysical concept. They reassert as a given reality Indian (Hindu) nationalism, negating the epic freedom struggle of the Indian people. From this struggle emerged the concept of Indian nationhood, rising above the Westphalian concept. By contrast, Bilgrami claims: ‘The prodigious and sustained mobilization of its masses that India witnessed over the last three crucial decades of the freedom struggle could not have been possible without an alternative and inclusionary ideal of this kind to inspire it.’

India’s diversity—linguistic, religious, ethnic, cultural, etc.—is incomparably vaster than any other country that the world knows of. Officially, it has been recorded that there are at least 1618 languages in India; 6400 castes; six major religions, four of which originated in these lands; and six anthropologically defined ethnic groups. All this put together is being politically administered as one country. A measure of this diversity is that India celebrates twenty-nine major religio-cultural festivals and probably has the largest number of religious holidays amongst all the countries of the world.

Those who argue that it was the British who united this vast diversity ignore the fact that it was the British who engineered the partition of the subcontinent leading to over a million deaths and a communal transmigration of a colossal order. British colonialism has the ignominious history of leaving behind legacies that continue to fester as wounds through the partition of countries they had colonized—Palestine, Cyprus, countries in Africa, apart from the Indian subcontinent. It is the pan-Indian people’s struggle for freedom that united this diversity and integrated more than 660 feudal princely states into modern India, giving shape to a pan-Indian consciousness.

Battle of Visions

The emergence of the conception of the ‘idea of India’ was a product of the Indian people’s freedom struggle. It arose from a continuous battle between three visions that emerged during the course of India’s struggle for freedom in the 1920s over the content of the character of independent India. The mainstream Congress vision had articulated that independent India should be a secular democratic Republic. The left, while agreeing with this objective, went further to envision that the political freedom of the country must be extended to achieve the socio-economic freedom of every individual, possible only under socialism.

Antagonistic to both these was a third vision which argued that the character of independent India should be determined by the religious affiliations of its people. This vision had a twin expression— the Muslim League championing a ‘Muslim nation state’ and the RSS championing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The former succeeded with the unfortunate partition of the country, engineered, aided and abetted by the British colonial rulers, with all its consequences that continue to fester tensions to date.

The latter, having failed to achieve their objective at the time of independence, continued with their efforts to transform modern India into their project of a rabidly intolerant, fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination reflected the disappointment over the fact that the Indian freedom movement rejected the RSS vision and political project.

Clearly, the ideological battles and political conflicts in contemporary India are a continuation of the battle between these three visions. Needless to add, the contours of this battle will define the direction and content of the process of the realization of the ‘idea of India’.

Role of the Left

The Indian left played an important role in this process of the evolution of this ‘idea of India’. Indeed, for this very reason, given the left’s visionary commitments to the long struggle for freedom, the left’s role is absolutely central to the realization of the ‘idea of India’ in today’s conditions.

Let me illustrate this with reference to three issues that continue to constitute the core of the ‘idea of India’. The struggles on the land question unleashed by the communists in various parts of the country last century (Punnapra Vayalar in Kerala, the Tebagha movement in Bengal, the Surma Valley struggle in Assam, the Warli uprising in Maharashtra, etc.), the highlight of which was the armed struggle in Telangana, brought the issue of land reforms to centre stage. The consequent abolition of the zamindari system and landed estates drew the vast mass of India’s peasantry into the project of building the ‘idea of India’. In fact, such struggles contributed the most in liberating crores of people from feudal bondage. This also contributed substantially in creating the ‘Indian middle class’.

In today’s conditions, the issue of forcible land acquisition has acquired a very dangerous dimension. Amongst the first announcements made by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government after being sworn in for the second time is the introduction of ‘land pooling’. This legalizes the indiscriminate forcible acquisition of agricultural land, dispossessing lakhs of farmers, aggravating the current agrarian distress even further. The question of land, hence, remains a crucial issue for the realization of the ‘idea of India’.

Secondly, the Indian left spearheaded the massive popular struggles for the linguistic reorganization of the states in independent India. It, thus, is chiefly responsible for creating the political ‘map’ of today’s India on reasonably scientific and democratic lines. The struggles for Vishalandhra, Aikya Kerala and Samyukta Maharashtra were led, amongst others, by people who later emerged as communist stalwarts in the country. This paved the way for the integration of many linguistic nationalities that inhabit India, on the basis of equality, into the process of realizing the ‘idea of India’.

Even after the linguistic reorganization of states, today, many problems and demands for smaller states keep recurring, reflecting the lack of equality amongst the various ethnic identities that exist in the country, particularly in the north-east. These can only be resolved by ensuring that all the linguistic groups and ethnic national identities are treated equally. This must be accompanied by concrete plans backed by finances, to tackle the economic backwardness of these areas, and to provide equal access and opportunities for all, irrespective of ‘caste, creed and sex’ as our Constitution declares.

Thirdly, the left’s steadfast commitment to secularism was based on the recognition of India’s reality. The unity of India with its immense diversity can be maintained only by strengthening the bonds of commonality within this diversity and not by imposing any uniformity upon this diversity. Such imposition of uniformity is precisely what the communal forces are aggressively pursuing today. While strengthening the bonds of commonality is true for all attributes of India’s social diversity, it is of critical importance in relation to religion. Following the partition of India and the horrendous communal aftermath, secularism became an inseparable element for the realization of the ‘idea of India’. Unfortunately, in practice, however, this went only halfway in meeting the objective of practising secularism as the separation of religion from politics. This means that while the state unflinchingly protects the individual’s choice of faith, it shall not profess or prefer any one religion. In practice, this has been reduced to define secularism as equality of all religions. Inherent in this is the inbuilt bias towards the religious faith of the majority. This, in fact, contributes to providing grist to the mill of the communal and fundamentalist forces today.

These are illustrative of some attributes of the ‘idea of India’. The drawing in of the exploited majority of rural India; the drawing in of the socially oppressed people, especially those who continue to be subjected to obnoxious caste-based oppression and atrocities; the drawing in of the numerous linguistic nationalities; and the drawing in of the multireligious Indian population, and above all, the drawing in of all Indians in an inclusive path of economic and social justice, constituting the core of the inclusionary ‘idea of India’, remains an unfulfilled agenda. The struggles for realizing these incomplete tasks define the essential agenda to defeat the current aggressive efforts to transform the secular democratic Republic into the RSS project of a rabidly intolerant, fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

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