- AJAY GUDAVARTHY
In the new political mode, the universalism and integrative capacity of the development discourse sits well with the homogenisation of the cultural sphere, and therefore with the project of radical Hinduisation
The new political dispensation is caught between two visible political discourses that do not look compatible at the moment but the political experiment to find a middle ground that obliterates the tension between them is on. The conflict is between development and governance on the one hand and communalism on the other, where the former is ostensibly universal and all-inclusive, while the latter is divisive, discriminatory and sectarian.
The possible way to balance this is to browbeat the religious minorities in terms of their claims to an independent cultural identity and visible religious practices; thus the announcement by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief that “all Indians are Hindus” or Narendra Modi’s refusal to wear the skullcap, while making appeals to Muslims and attempts to reach out to them to be a part of the new development agenda. Therefore, it is important to claim that Muslims in Gujarat are better off than under any other government that claims to be secular. This resonates with the slogan that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went to the polls with — “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas.”
Onus on minorities
Cultural subjugation is sought to be made good through economic integration. This trade-off also lays the onus on Muslims to carry out internal reforms within their community to be eligible to be a part of the modern education and economic opportunities available due to ongoing market reforms and efficient governance. Here the claims to a separate cultural identity begin to look out of place since it can be very easily perceived not only as anti-development but also as anti-national in its “refusal” to get integrated, thereby becoming obstructionist to modern development.
This further leads to the BJP’s claims that while it is prepared to integrate the religious minorities, it is they who are unprepared to do so. If there is tension between communities or between the discourse of the government and the minority community, the blame can squarely be laid on the latter. In this new mode, the universalism and integrative capacity of the development discourse sits well with the homogenisation of the cultural sphere, and therefore with the project of radical Hinduisation. Further, secular discourse here signifying protective policies and social welfare schemes for specific communities can easily be made to look like appeasement and unsustainable doles, in place of an efficient and robust economy. Secularism is therefore an outmoded discourse of the Nehruvian era that holds back economic advancement.
This logic however does not or cannot be limited to the religious minorities but needs to necessarily be inclusive of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), Dalits and also tribals. In only such an inclusion can the discourse look universal and all encompassing. It is in order to make this adjustment that the BJP has to reach out to OBCs, Dalits and tribals. It is this project which is visible in the anointment of Mr. Modi as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, signifying a process of the Bahujanisation of the Hindu right-wing party. The BJP, as is widely believed, is the first party to have taken upon itself to make an OBC the Prime Minister, unlike all other mainstream political parties, including the Left parties. Representation trumps all other forms of pursuing social justice. It is to further this very mode of pursuing a new kind of politics that Mr. Bhagwat has recently and for the first time publicly supported the policy of reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes at an event in Delhi marked by the release of three volumes on the history of three Scheduled Castes that included the Balmikis, the Khatiks and the Charmakars.
Equality is alien
These volumes have been authored by Vijay Sonkar Shastri, a Dalit and a former MLA with the BJP from Uttar Pradesh. They broadly make the claim that there was no untouchability in the Vedic ages and it was a later day practice that came into existence with the “Muslim invaders.” The volumes further claim that while the Khatiks were originally Brahmins, the Balmikis and the Charmakars were Khastriyas. Since these were the warrior communities which refused to convert to Islam, they were assigned menial jobs such as scavenging, dealing with leather and sweeping. Some of them were prisoners of war who were forced to do manual work and forcefully segregated from the rest of the society, and thereby introduced to the hitherto unknown practice of untouchability.
The volume on Charmakars claims that the word “chamar” is an Arabic word, denoting those dealing with leather work. It was with the advent of the British, colonial rule and the process of codification, that the practice of untouchability against the depressed classes came to be rigid. The volumes make a further claim that Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are all variants of Hinduism; therefore, there were no forced conversions in any of these religions; in fact, even Brahmins willingly converted to these “forms” of practising Hinduism. The volumes make a further plea to write a more detailed history of the tribals also (which the RSS has already taken up). As these were the communities that also resisted attempts at conversion but were unable to resist the might of the “Muslim invaders,” they chose to run away into the forests in order to protect themselves. It is these Hindu communities that began to inhabit forests that are the tribes of today and who have been deprived of the benefits of modern development.
The volumes suggest an interesting way out of the current logjam. They argue that the idea of equality is alien to our culture as it promotes antagonism, and what our civilisation is based on is cultural diversity. Therefore, what we need is not equality — Samantha, but Samarastha — social harmony. The volumes further suggest that by repeatedly referring to certain castes as being Dalits, we only further reinforce their demeaned status. Instead, we need to look at the history of how they have come to be one and pull them out. Therefore, we need to preserve our cultural and community differences but also fight against untouchability, resonating the Gandhian strategy (which partly explains the newfound love of the current dispensation for Gandhi). We also need to celebrate the glorious legends of/in each of the castes in order to restore to them their original pride in Hindu society. These volumes clearly reflect a move towards a de-Brahmanising of the Hindu religion by finding a place of pride for Dalit castes, while blaming the Muslim rulers and not the Hindu sacred scripts or ritual hierarchy or other Brahmanical practices.
While development and governance promise to be inclusive of everyone including the tribals and also Muslims — even if they are reminded against brandishing their religious symbols as that alone is arguably the cause of communal tensions — a de-Brahmanised Hinduisation that talks of Samarastha is sought to be inclusive of all caste groups.
The recent shift in leadership in the BJP is a pointer to this, and undoubtedly presents new opportunities to the caste groups that were perhaps kept at some distance in the past by the BJP that was known as the Brahmin-Bania party. It was in this context that Dalit-Bahujan scholar Kancha Ilaiah, in a recent interview, remarked that “if Modi starts the liberation of backward classes, castes and tribes, he can become a cult-figure for backwards” and can be comparable to Abraham Lincoln. With no effective imagination outside modern development and growth, and little reason to have effective opposition to a more representative and de-Brahmanised Hindusim pursued by the BJP-RSS combine, there is a clear possibility of moving towards a new kind of politics without opposition. There is no doubt that the current dispensation is being reasonable in expecting itself to be playing a long innings.
(Ajay Gudavarthy and Sudhir Kumar Suthar are Assistant Professors at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)