Troubled Times for the Constitutional Republic

Sunday 31 August 2014, by Badri Raina

Modiji became the Prime Minister of the Republic by virtue of two circumstances: one, having been declared the prime ministerial candidate by the Bharatiya Janata Party which won the elections, and, two, by taking the all-important oath of office to protect and preserve the Constitution as by law established. As a reminder to ourselves, that Constitution defines the republic as “India that is Bharat” rather than as anything else, such as Hindustan.

Those who have recently, however, reminded Modiji that his victory was owed neither to him nor to his party but to the people (read Nagpur cadre), not having sworn to protect and preserve the Constitution as by law established, have been rather pointedly reiterating their long-held view that this country is a “Hindu Rashtra”, and that the inhabitants of the Rashtra are all Hindus.

We are thus witness to a dyarchy within the ruling establishment, wherein the government of the day must follow the constitutional principles whether they like it or not, and the support base and driving engine of the new executive furthers the agenda of seeking a very different sort of Constitution, one that would be consonant with a “Hindu Rashtra” rather than “India that is Bharat”.

Just as well to note en passant that this dyarchy is qualitatively very different from that which obtained within the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in two fundamental ways: there the Congress party and indeed the UPA were led by a duly elected entity, and, two, policy interventions, wherever these were pressed on that government, fell squarely within the four walls of the constitutional regime.

What obtains now is radically different: those pressing policy have neither electoral nor constitutional locus standi or legitimacy, and the object of their pronouncements seems transgressive of the Constitution. In this last respect, even the erstwhile National Advisory Council could be viewed to have been on the straight and narrow path, since their exertions were after all directed at seeking an implementation of those provisions of the Constitution which favoured economic and social equity.

Now as a first thought, this insistence that everybody living in India is a Hindu is a fraught one. According to the best scholarship on the subject, and without exception as far as I know, the word “Hindu” is wholly of “foreign” origin, the product of a fortuitious linguistic transmogrification quite unrelated to what is now called “Hinduism” or “Hindu culture”. To wit, the word became a Persian variant of the Sanskrit word “Sindhu” (the river in western India), alternately “Indos” in Greek, and finally “India” in English. As the Oxford don, Gavin Flood, one of the most indubitable authorities on Saivism and the archive of Hinduism generally, puts the matter, “those that reside other side of Indus” came to be called Hindus. (An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 6) Unsurprisingly, the word “Hindu” finds no mention in any Sanatan (eternal/orthodox) or Reformist or Bakhti or any other cult text associated with what has come to be called “Hinduism” since about the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Indeed its first mention of any note occurs towards the eighteenth century in Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnava texts (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Chaitanya Bhagwata) used to contrast Hindus with Yavanas and Mlecchas.

How profoundly ironic therefore that those who never tire of pointing fingers at antagonists of one kind or another for being of “foreign” origin should think nothing of wishing to christen the nation and the republic in a word of foreign origin! Were the object of this insistence truly apolitical, and were the claims of devotion to indigenism more credible, words like “Sanatani” or “Bharti” for the inhabitants of the republic would indeed have some authenticity. The unfortunate fact is that this insistence derives from the first political use of the terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” as collateral occurrences within the politics of colonialism, and is aimed at carrying forward a notion of Nation and Nationality grounded in a principle of racial majoritarianism, one that may both conceal and assert simultaneously the telos of religious dominance.

That concealment, however, did not afflict the theoretician who first formulated the notion of “Hindutva”, namely, Savarkar. In defining as to who is indeed eligible to be called a “Hindu” (and thereby to be eligible for citizenship rights in a post-colonial, independent nation) Savarkar laid down that only those for whom this country was both “fatherland and holy land, that is, the cradle of his religion” was entitled to be called a “Hindu”. This from an atheist who thus sought to use the notion of religious belief and practice to formulate a “legitimate” and dominant majoritarianism as a purely political act. It is thus noteworthy that, in contrast to the view expressed by the RSS, Savarkar did not think Indian Muslims and Christians to be at bottom Hindus too, since their religious persuasions dictated that Mecca and Jerusalem were their respective “holy lands”. Savarkar’s inference is clear that such inhabitants could not be expected to be loyal to the “fatherland”.

It is instructive to contrast this way of being “Hindu” with that of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a Congress firebrand of the anti-colonial struggle, in order to underscore the nature of the ideological and political contention which has been festering all the decades since the twenties of the twentieth century, and which seems now to have come home to roost with the coming of the Modi Government to power with a full parliamentary majority. Here is an encapsulation of Tilak’s seven point definition of a “Hindu”: one who accepts the authority of the Vedas/ practices tolerance of other and many-sided views of truth/ contemplates great world rhythms and vast periods of creation/ accepts the notion of cycles of dissolution and renewal/ subscribes to the notions of rebirth and pre-existence/ believes in the truth of many roads to salvation/ accommodates both idolatry and non-idolatrous worship/ is not tied down to any one system of philosophical exploration. Nowhere in this encapsulation does any consideration of nation, nationality, territorial loyalty find any place, and well may the Congress even now in its politically and ideologically depleted state pride itself on the inclusive breadth and sweep of those formu-lations which found their apogee in the emble-matic presence and practice of Gandhi. Clearly, this was a paradigm of belief that could not lead to the seeking of a homogenised, semitised, militarised, indeed fascicised view of either faith or nationality.

The abiding and historically and intellectually engrossing feature of that archive of knowledge, speculation, objects and systems of worship, axes of debate and exploration, all in their formidable diversity, that we now know as the Hindu archive of thought and religious life, has since the first stirrings of the formation of an independent nation-state come to be almost an insurmountable obstacle to a hegemonistic Brahminism which has for long sought to dominate the cultural, religious, and political life of India. Thus the periodic calls to unity of all castes and sects, quite in the teeth of continued oppressions practised upon the lower order of Hindus, Dalits and women especially, namely, more than a two-third majority of the “Hindu” community (oppressions grounded in one or the other high caste and patriarchal orthodoxy “authorised” by one or the other religious text), are calculated to meet the supposedly homo-genised clout of the Muslim community in particular. An accompanying psychological warfare calls upon Indian Muslims to acknow-ledge their “Hindu ancestry” (to recall: Golwalker had clearly enjoined upon Muslims to accept the primacy of the Hindu religion, its rites and rituals, its gods and goddesses, and teach themselves to pay due obeisance to that conglomerate, or else prepare to lose all rights, including those of citizenship, as seen in Bunch of Thoughts).

For better or for worse (most certainly better for the likes of this scribe and his fellow mates), the Constitution-makers who included men and women of all social groups and all shades of ideological persuasion, over three long and fascinating years of deliberations (1946-49) rejected any monolithic or monochromatic construction of the nation’s history and contemporary life, giving to the new republic a democratic Constitution which forthrightly acknowledged the almost unparalleled pluralism of “India that is Bharat”, grounded in the recognition that its “civilisational” history, far from being unipolar, has been a conjoint bouquet of interminable cultural, religious, linguistic, and ethnic inputs—a fact that contributes to guaranteeing its democratic existence and the uniqueness of its contributions to the world community, such as, for example, offering refuge to believers of practically every countable religious faith who experienced persecution in the lands of their nativity.

On the other side, the Hindutva Right continues to insist, disingenuously, that being Hindu does not connote a religious but a cultural identity which ostensibly embraces all inhabitants of the land, in the full knowledge that this is not so, but purporting that it ought to be so. If the Hindutva Right indeed believed that no religious connotation attaches to the word “Hindu” and that all Indians are Hindus, why should there ever be any objection to inter-marrying or inter-dining? Why should a “conversion” raise murderous hackles, since conversions would then be taking place among Hindus after all? Why should the need be felt to engage in “shuddhikaran” (purification) of those who are brought back to the “fold”? If every Indian is a Hindu, where is the logic of bringing anyone back to any fold? Why would there be any need to encourage “Hindus” to grab “Muslim” properties, or to gloat how the last elections were won without any input from the Muslim voters, rendering them thus redundant to policy-considerations? Why would any consideration of “minority appeasement” arise, since govern-mental measures directed at ameliorating the provenly abysmal condition of Muslims could be interpreted as catering to a section of Hindus who for some reason have been relegated? Indeed, are we to understand that the many inter-community riots that have been occurring have been merely intra-Hindu contentions?

As stated above, it is not that the Hindutva Right believes all Indians are Hindus; it is that they wish all non-Hindus to so believe, or else. To put it piquantly, the aspiration to a Caliphate is not the preserve of any one community but an impulse far more widespread than we think. After all, there is a reason why our Hindutva Right has since the days of Savarkar and Golwalker favoured a racial basis for national identity and lauded the idea of Zionism. It is only Islamism that seems troubling, something that makes it a deep irony that our own form of majoritarianism should be expected to appear benign and acceptable to inhabitants of other faiths.

There is, therefore, a question of deep consequence that requires to be asked and explored: is the dyarchy that is now underway in India’s political/ideological life an expected but unintended occurrence, or is there perhaps a collusive method to it?

Many observers have been noticing the odd fact that the Prime Minister, who derives the legitimacy of his office from his constitutional oath, has been wholly silent about the many statements rather routinely made by members of the Hindutva Right that abrasively challenge and contravene the constitutional scheme of things. Indeed, one recalls that the one time he made a public reference to these matters was when he said that such questions are being raised by sections who are used to “vote-bank” politics—a Hindutva code for allegations about so-called pampering of religious minorities.

That being so, is it perhaps the case that a larger plan is at work? Is there a silent governmental mandate to the scions of the Hindutva Right to make repeated assertions calculated to consolidate in the public mind the view that India indeed is and ought to be a Hindu state, and, concomitantly, seek to obtain endorsement of this ideological shift every time there is an election or a byelection anywhere in India, especially in the north and north-west? All that aimed at bringing about a weltan-schauung leading to a “popular” demand for a new Constitution for India—one that replaces the text “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic” by something like “sovereign, Hindu Rashtra”?

It will be crucial to see in the days to come how segments of the corporate class, who exerted enormously to bring about the present government in India, may evaluate these developments. Will they, and the media outlets they control, let pass so much extra-constitutional Hindutva rant so long as their economic agenda is implemented by the Modi dispensation without dithering, or will they and the social classes that root for this dispensation think beyond self-regarding considerations to thwart any systemic sub-version of the constitutional regime? Every-thing not done for now continues to seem forgiveable to those classes—an increase rather than promised decrease in prices of commodities, stasis on the agenda of eradicating “corruption”, absence of any warlike initiative on Pakistan, not to talk of bringing back severed enemy heads from the Line of Control, and so forth, including a perceptible undermining of democratic and federal practices (notice the recent cases of heckling and booing of Congress Chief Ministers at official functions of the Prime Minister without any demur from the chief executive) in government. According to a report in The Economist (“Early Days”, August 23), rumour has it that Ministers have not just been directed not to speak out of turn, especially to the media, but that their phones are being tapped.

The question, then, is: can the Hindutva Right successfully argue the case that no desirable “nationalist” agendas may be carried out so long as India remains secular, pluralist, and republican?

And is Modiji waiting to see how that cookie might or might not crumble?

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimedDickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.