The author is professor of political science and director, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
Having successfully hitched its long-cherished Hindu nationalist dreams to the new public anxieties over security and terrorism, the Bharatiya Janata Party laid itself open to the charge that, after Gujarat, it would fall in behind the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in pushing their version of the Hindutva agenda. This raised concerns among its National Democratic Alliance allies, cast a shadow over its role as the leading force in the sangh parivar and even generated speculations about a generational split within the party itself. Seeking an ideological formula that would retain its credit line with the VHP-RSS Hindutva bank while distancing itself from the embarrassing excesses of the Singhals and the Togadias, the BJP has come up with a new slogan. It says it will now fight to uphold cultural nationalism. It is not the Hindu religion that the BJP wants to defend and promote in politics, but Indian culture.
What is this Indian culture' Is it something that can be identified and described in the way Indians live their lives' The Anthropological Survey of India is a major scientific institution run by the government of India whose business it is to document the cultural practices of the people of this country. A few years ago it carried out a massive countrywide survey whose results are now being published in 43 large volumes. The survey decided to identify communities of people who shared some major cultural characteristics such as language, caste, religion, occupation and the rule of marrying within the community (endogamy). It was found that there were as many as 4,635 distinct communities in India that could be identified by these characteristics. Were there any major cultural traits that were shared by all these communities' No. In fact, for virtually any cultural trait that might seem to be peculiarly Indian, there were hundreds of Indian communities that did not follow it.
Thus, as many as 80 per cent of Indian communities allow the eating of meat or fish; more than half the communities allow their men to drink and as many as one-fourth had no problems with their women drinking too; and smoking or chewing tobacco was practised by men and women of most communities. The director-general of the survey commented, albeit jocularly: “We are largely a drinking, smoking and meat-eating people!” I doubt that any cultural nationalist will accept this as a true description of Indian culture.
The point is not whether this description is correct. Rather, the point is that no description of any cultural trait will hold generally for all groups of people in India. Physical anthropologists have shown that apart from some tribes of northeastern India and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there are no pure racial types in any Indian community; we are all utterly hybrid. We may think Indians have a great regard for lineage and ancestry, but it turns out that this is a trait that belongs only to the upper castes. We may think that after the Hindu code bill, all Hindus are monogamous. It turns out that several hundred Hindus actually continue to practice polygamy along with monogamy, in spite of the law. We have been told that Hindus do not proselytize. It turns out that the most frequent changes of religion in recent years are moves into Hinduism, larger in number than conversions to Christianity, Islam, Sikhism or Buddhism.
So, if culture is something that is lived and practised every day by actual groups of people, then Indian culture can only be defined by its diversity, not by anything held in common. Of course, some cultural nationalists recognize this fact and even proclaim it with pride. However, they also insist that in spite of this diversity, Indian culture still has a fundamental unity that cannot be found in the actual day-to-day practices of people, because those practices have been corrupted by many influences. That unity is to be found in the true and authentic ideal of Indian culture.
One must acknowledge that the BJP ideologues are not the first to try to define this ideal. For more than a century now, many nationalist thinkers in India have sought to describe the essential unity of Indian culture in terms of such an ideal representation. It is fair to say that these attempts have been largely textual, searching ancient works of religion, philosophy and law written for the most part in Sanskrit. The older the texts, the stronger the claim to belong to the origins of Indian culture and hence to its continuous authenticity — this is the implicit assumption. If I were to argue that Indian culture today is that which has been created and practised in the various regional and local Indian languages in the last four or five centuries, cultural nationalists would dismiss me with contempt. The essence of Indian culture must be shown to be ancient and continuous, they will say. Because only then can the diversity of the later period be properly encompassed within the unity of the origins. Of course, since access to higher learning in Sanskrit was monopolized by Brahmins until very recent times, the content of the religious and philosophical core of this ancient and continuous Indian culture as propounded by cultural nationalists turns out to be thoroughly Brahminical. It excludes from the essential core that which belonged to the oppositional traditions (Buddhism, for example, which rejected the Vedas and the authority of the Brahmins) and to the local and the folk (the many heterodox and hybrid local practices and the so-called tribal cultures). Needless to say, it also excludes as foreign the centuries-old presence in India of Islam and Christianity. All of these cultural elements may exist among the people of the country, the cultural nationalist will say, but they do not belong to the essential identity of Indian culture.
When the BJP says it is for cultural nationalism, it means Indian culture in this ideal sense. Actual social practices can continue as they always have. What we need, the BJP says, is a political ideology that will uphold the national cultural ideal. Why should anyone object to this'
There are several reasons why this ideology is dangerous and potentially disastrous. First, it is an easy slide from the apparently benign promotion of a cultural ideal to the aggressive flaunting of cultural chauvinism. It is not difficult to see how quickly the so-called cultural nationalism of the BJP can turn into the Hindutva of the VHP. Second, if the state decides to pursue this particular cultural ideal in the arena of education, broadcasting or official patronage of culture, it cannot but affect the actual practices of various Indian communities. Large numbers of them will be required to conform to the so-called ideal or be excluded from government support. Third, cultural nationalism as official policy is deeply at odds with India’s democratic Constitution and is more akin to the authoritarian national ideologies of pre-war Japan and Nazi Germany. Those examples show beyond doubt that the argument that the national culture should be the culture of the majority is a perverse one.
The following hypothetical case will make the point clear. Imagine a situation where the two major political parties in Britain decide to take a leaf out of the BJP’s book and make cultural nationalism the official policy of Britain. Suppose they declare that true British culture is white, Christian and English-speaking — the culture of the majority. Everything contrary must be wiped off the face of Britain. Imagine the genuine outrage that will be felt by British Asians. I expect the BJP leaders will be among the first to protest. Yet they will not admit that the case is exactly symmetrical to what they are now propagating in India.
In trying to tackle Islamic fundamentalism and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, the BJP is proposing a politics that actually replicates the politics of their enemy. Officially supported cultural nationalism will make India authoritarian, militarist and intolerant — not a country to be proud of.