by- George K Verghese


The starting point for anti-Hindutva politics must be the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. Else, it’s doomed

Any rigid secular approach, unrestrained by considerations of electoral politics, could only lead to disapproval of Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s demonstration of his religious faith and his characterisation of the Congress as a “party of Hinduism”. His approach has been widely termed “soft Hindutva”, and as an attempt to compete with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in its game. Those who deride Hindutva and those who swear by it both consider Mr. Gandhi a poor imitator of it. Centrist politics by definition is vulnerable to criticism from radical perspectives of different hues — for instance, Marxist M.N. Roy, Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar and Hindutva proponent, and later his assassin, Nathuram Godse, were all critical of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideas of Hinduism. What is worth a closer analysis in the current context is the suggestion that the invocation of Hindu symbols for electoral gains is Hindutva, albeit a softer version.

A clear trajectory

Mainstream Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism shared a range of symbols and personalities during their formative decades, and distinguishing one from the other can appear a challenging task often. Consolidation of the Hindu society was a preoccupation of several reformists and leaders of the struggle for independence, who were not linked to Hindutva. In a classic essay written in the 1990s, at the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, historian Sumit Sarkar marked the stages of the evolution of Hindu nationalism in two distinct phases: first from the use of the word Hindu as a geographical marker to ‘Hinduism’, an attempt to codify the cultural and religious practices, and then to Hindutva. Swami Vivekananda was the seer of the first shift. “Of the Swami’s address before the Parliament of Religions, it may be said that when he began to speak it was of the religious ideas of the Hindus but when he ended, Hinduism had been created,” wrote Sister Nivedita, the Swami’s closest disciple. Three decades later Veer Savarkar, who invented Hindutva, did not merely seek to unify Hindus, but tried to achieve it by imagining the other as those who do not consider India their sacred land. While secular nationalism’s adversarial image was imperialism, the edge in Savarkar’s Hindutva was against Muslims and Christians. Vivekananda’s Hinduism had no enemy figure.

The political rise of Hindutva has been directly proportionate to the success of its proponents’ attempts to equate itself with Hinduism.

The Gandhi-Nehru way

For Gandhi, Hinduism was the essence of his existence, but even the avowedly secular Jawaharlal Nehru was not dismissive of faith and tradition. The Discovery of India draws from sacred texts and beliefs; “though I have discarded much of past tradition and custom… yet I do not wish to cut myself off from that past completely,” he wrote in his will, asking for some of his ashes to be immersed in the Ganga.

The vertical rise and the horizontal spread of Hindutva challenge its opponents to devise new political idioms. A puritan view is that Hindutva can be challenged only with an unyielding secular paradigm, devoid of Hindu symbols. Those leaders and parties that are directly involved in electoral politics are more conflicted on these questions than those who have the convenience of a quarantined approach. In the early 2000s, when critics began to use the neologism saffronisation to describe the A.B. Vajpayee government’s policies that advanced Hindutva, within the Congress there was a debate on the wisdom of it. A.K. Antony and Digvijay Singh vehemently opposed the expression, arguing that it amounted to legitimising the Hindutva agenda given the cultural association of the colour saffron with sacrifice and renunciation. The Congress discontinued use of the word.

Other parties too have used Hindu symbolism and terminology. Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad, whose mastery of electoral politics broke the Hindutva momentum in Bihar, connects his community to Lord Krishna. “Haathi nahin Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai (this is not merely an elephant, but is Lord Ganesh; and Brahma Vishnu Mahesh)” was the Bahujan Samaj Party’s 2005 slogan referencing its election symbol, the elephant. Groups associated with the Communists Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala recently organised events around Ramayana month. “The Sangh has created a particulate image of Ram, that a majority of the faithful do not relate to,” said V. Sivadasan, CPI(M) State committee member, who was closely associated with the programme. “Given this context, it is the duty of the secularists to come in support of the believers who understand Ram different from the way the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) tries to make him. All secular people have this responsibility to help protect the plurality of faith that exists among religious people.”

Whether or not these attempts add up to a robust and credible challenge to Hindutva is an open question. However, the notion of ‘soft Hindutva’ is detrimental to anti-Hindutva polemics and mobilisation.

For one, it ignores the tactical components of electoral politics, which the moralist might dismiss as opportunism, for good reasons. What is more critical is that the notion of expressive faith as ‘soft Hindutva’ is an inadvertent endorsement of the Hindutva claim that it is equivalent to Hinduism. The proponents of Hindutva also acknowledge the existence of ‘hard’ and ‘fringe’ elements within its fold. Categories of soft and hard, being relative terms, trick moderates and offer an alibi to opportunists to side with the softer versions — Vajpayee against L.K. Advani, Mr. Advani against Narendra Modi, and who knows, perhaps Mr. Modi against Yogi Adityanath in the future?

Any equivalence between Hinduism and Hindutva, conversely, is taken to mean that any criticism of Hindutva is an attack on Hinduism. That one could be accused of being anti-Hinduism for questioning the logic of building a temple on the site of a destroyed mosque at Ayodhya draws from the logical premise of likening Hinduism to Hindutva. To take another example, the Hindu American Foundation claimed recently that even the questioning of ‘Brahminical patriarchy’ is a an act of Hindu-phobia.

To Hindutva’s advantage?

And most consequentially, any polemical negation of the wall between Hinduism and Hindutva makes the transition from the first to the second easier. It could even encourage believers to consider Hindutva their natural political abode, if they sense hostility in the anti-Hindutva camp. If non-Hindutva platforms expect temple-goers to explain their conduct, that is not an enticing recruitment pitch. The fact is that there are numerous people who visit temples and even believe in vastu, astrology, tantra, etc. while still being secular in a political and public context.

The only politics that benefits from associating Hinduism to Hindutva is Hindutva. The practice of Hinduism, even when it is exhibitionist and for political ends, is not Hindutva — soft or hard. Hindutva stands out for its conceptual clarity, leaving little scope for a spectrum within it. A manifesto for any durable anti-Hindutva politics is still a long way away, but its singular starting point is an assertion of the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. Anything else is doomed.

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