Sunday, September 20, 2015

Mukul Kesavan - Hindus and others: The republic's common sense

The historical significance of Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist regime will be measured not by its economic record but its success (or failure) in changing the political common sense of the republic. Modi is a Hindu strongman committed to remaking India in his own image. He inherited a country where political virtue had been synonymous with pluralism. This pluralism consisted of celebrating India's religious diversity, invoking a tranquil pre-colonial past, blaming communal conflict on colonial wickedness, supporting affirmative action for depressed castes and insisting that India, despite its huge Hindu majority, was not a Hindu nation but a pluralist, non-denominational State.

Narendra Modi's core supporters elected him to confront these pieties. Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, sees pluralism as the effete legacy of its ideological other, the Indian National Congress, the anti-colonial party that ousted the British raj. Having reduced the Congress to a dynastic rump, Modi's goal in office is to free India of this straitjacket of political correctness that stifles its Hindu majority and panders to religious minorities.

The alternative understanding of the republic that the BJP sponsors is explicitly majoritarian: it swears by an ethnic nationalism that would remake India into a Hindurashtra, or nation. The party has been in power before but Modi's success in leading it to an absolute majority and the reputation he acquired as Gujarat's chief minister, as a man who takes no prisoners, has created both expectation and foreboding.

Indians know that conceptions of political correctness can change. Fifty years ago to bring up caste in political argument or government policy in India was to demean the discourse; caste was real but residual. Like widow-burning or untouchability, it was a bad smell from the past that needed to be purged from modern India, not formally acknowledged or taken account of. Even the affirmative action quotas for Dalits, the most exploited and segregated of India's plebeian castes, were meant to be temporary. By the end of the 20th century, though, caste had become respectable not just as a sociological category, but as the natural unit of political mobilization and as an authentically Indian measure of deprivation or privilege.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP led by Modi seemed to overturn the electoral relevance of caste by routing entrenched caste coalitions in the two largest north Indian states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. If this first step in the consolidation of India's Hindus into a political bloc undivided by caste identity can be followed up by the creation of a governing culture where India's 'Hindu-ness' becomes a normal and matter-of-fact part of public life, the reorientation of the republic might become a reality.

To this end, the BJP wants Muslims and Christians to acknowledge that Hinduism isn't just the largest faith in India, it is also a cultural inheritance that defines the nation state and all its citizens. Central to the BJP's understanding of Indian history is the notion that Hindus are India's aboriginal community. Indian Muslims and Christians are, therefore, originally Hindu, branches of a parent trunk. Their religious beliefs are foreign grafts on fundamentally Hindu bodies. When Modi's minister for culture speaks of Abdul Kalam being a patriot "despite" being a Muslim, he isn't being snide, he's being honest. He genuinely believes that being Muslim (or Christian) gets in the way of being Indian.

The model minority citizen for the BJP would be someone like Francis D'Souza, deputy chief minister in the BJP's state government in Goa, who announced in July last year that "[a]ll Indians in Hindustan are Hindus, including (me). I am a Christian Hindu, I am Hindustani. So you don't have to make it a Hindu nation; it is a Hindu nation".

In the winter following the 2014 election, ideological affiliates of the BJP, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organized 'homecomings' where hundreds of Muslims and Christians were publicly converted to Hinduism except that the word 'conversion' was never used because Muslims and Christians were primordial Hindus merely returning to the fold. The chief of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, described Christians and Muslims as ' apna maal' ('our material'), a crudely colloquial way of asserting the Hindu ownership of Christian and Muslim bodies.

The most radical attempt by Modi's government to reset the dial of political correctness was its bid to steal Christmas. In its first year in office, the new government decided to rebrand Christmas. December 25 was renamed Good Governance Day and dedicated to the memory of two Hindu nationalist leaders. Civil servants and public school children were required to attend schools and offices to worship at the altar of good governance. This dilution of Christmas as a public holiday had a simple goal: the symbolic appropriation of a day sacred to Christians.

In the same month, a minister in the Union government, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, made a speech dividing Indians into Ramzaadon (Ram's children, or Hindus) and har*****don (b*****ds, the rest). She was mildly reproached for profanity but not at all for the bigotry of her speech. Similarly, last October when there were minor riots between Muslims and Hindus in Trilokpuri, a poor, densely populated neighbourhood in East Delhi, two BJP legislators from the area took partisan, pro-Hindu positions without being reprimanded by Modi or the party leadership.

If the summary treatment of minorities is one aspect of the BJP's campaign to reform republican common sense, another is the party's deference to 'Hindu' sensibilities. A few months into his prime ministership, Modi encouraged a gathering of Indian doctors to imitate the extraordinary achievements of ancient Indian surgery, which, according to him, had successfully attached an elephant's head to a human body. He was referring to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. It is unlikely that Modi believed that Ganesh was the product of plastic surgery; he said what he did because he, like his party, believes that a glorious Hindu present is best built on a storied Hindu past. The same logic animates Modi's elevation of the Gita, a sacred Hindu scripture, into India's national text, and his enthusiasm for leading vast public sessions of yoga.

This willingness to pander to a 'Hindu' culture leads to perverse policy. The BJP chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, refused to let eggs be served in the state's mid-day meal programme. Over half the children in Madhya Pradesh under the age of six are underweight and a majority of Indians are not vegetarian, so Chouhan's fiat amounted to imposing the dietary preferences of upper-caste Hindus on a malnourished public. Modi's BJP is indifferent to the human cost of its no-egg policy. Vegetarianism is intrinsic to Hinduism; it follows that it ought to be promoted as a national virtue.

Has Hindu patriotism begun to displace a benign pluralism as the republic's cardinal virtue? It's too early to say but this much is clear: Modi's regime has made majoritarian ideas respectable by owning them and taking them seriously.

The State in India subsidizes, directly or indirectly, every academic and intellectual institution of any standing. Its patronage matters. A small but growing cadre of 
Hindutva fellow travellers who might once have been discreet about their prejudices, now fight their corners in television studios, university departments, quasi non-governmental bodies like the Indian Council of Historical Research and newspaper columns. Twitter and Facebook resonate with the enthusiasm and passion of Modi's champions. Whether this passion will survive the next electoral cycle or the entropy that is the fate of every Indian government is unclear, but it is a fact that the Muslim's fabled propensity to breed and the Christian missionary's sinister designs on needy Hindus are a part of the public conversation in a way that they weren't before.

The anti-colonial movement that brought the republic into being was singular in its refusal to define the nation in terms of the standard European templates of language and faith. Its fetishistic celebration of India's diversity was based on the belief that Mother India was too large to be stuffed into petticoats designed for smaller European women.

India is surrounded by south Asian states that chose to define themselves in terms of their dominant faiths. Pakistan is an Islamic republic, Nepal used to be a Hindu kingdom and Sri Lanka flirted with the idea of becoming a Sinhala-Buddhist nation state. Nations owned by their religious majorities make their minorities second-class citizens, a fail-safe prescription for hectoring violence and alienation. If Modi succeeds in displacing Gandhi's idea of India with Hedgewar's Hindu rashtra, India will become just another South Asian chauvinism: Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh or Mahinda Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka, this time on a subcontinental scale.