PREHISTORY OF HINDUTVA - The space for each Hindu to decide what Hinduism is must remain

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By Politics and Play / Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 17.04.04

In June 2002, just as the riots in Narendra Modi’s home state had finally run their course, I was visited in Bangalore by G.N. (Ganesh) Devy, a sterling representative of another and better Gujarat. Devy was for many years a professor of literature at M.S. University in Baroda, and won a Sahitya Akademi award for his works of criticism. But when his career was at its height he chucked it up to become a social worker. His inspiration was a Bengali matriarch named Mahasveta Devi, who had once been a teacher of literature herself. Like Mahasveta, Ganesh Devy became a champion of that most oppressed and least understood segment of Indian society, the adivasis. For the past decade, Devy has worked tirelessly at recovering and celebrating adivasi art, culture and language. In a more practical vein, he has sought also to intervene on their behalf with the state, to seek justice for nomads unfairly stigmatized as “criminals” and for slum-dwellers thrown out of their homes.

I have known and admired Devy for a long time. When he came to see me in June 2002, he asked to be taken to the home of another admirer of his. This was M.N. Venkatachaliah, the former chief justice of India. Venkatachaliah had just then submitted the report of a constitutional review committee of which he was the chairman. Those who appointed him to this job knew him to be a devout Hindu. But perhaps they did not realize that he was also a man of independence and integrity. Thus the report he finally turned in recommended the retention of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution, rather than its radical overhaul, as the ruling coalition had probably hoped for. And, unlike most other such appointees, he quit his government bungalow in Delhi the day he demitted office.

After leaving Delhi, Venkatachaliah returned to his ancestral home in the old Bangalore locality of Basavangudi. It was there that, with me as a silent witness, Devy told the jurist of the happenings in Gujarat. Beginning with the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, he then narrated the incidents by which that act was avenged. He spoke of the torching of homes in Vadodara, the killings of women and children in Ahmedabad, and the attacks on the shops owned by Muslims in the interior. At first Venkatachaliah listened quietly, but then he broke out, in anguish: “No, no, Devy! That is not Hinduism!” It was not the jurist’s Hinduism, certainly, nor Devy’s, nor (I hope) mine. But, as the social activist reminded the judge, those avengers of the Godhra outrage certainly saw themselves as Hindus, acting on behalf of what they understood to be Hinduism.

The judge and I were deeply moved by Devy’s account, although, unlike him, we were experiencing the pain and the shame only at secondhand. His own feelings ran far deeper still. As we were leaving, Devy told Venkatachaliah to use whatever influence he still had in Delhi to ask for a CBI enquiry. As he put it, in a flash of bitter and evocative sarcasm, “Sir, we need to know from the CBI — was Gandhi really born in Gujarat?”

I was reminded of that conversation when reading Jyotirmaya Sharma’s recent book, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism. This presents a prehistory of the most influential political movement of contemporary India. It does so through a careful examination of the ideas of four patriotic Indians: Dayananda Saraswati, Aurobindo Ghose, Vivekananda and V.D. Savarkar.

In Sharma’s view, what binds this quarter of thinkers is their “systematic marshalling of a Hindu identity in the service of Indian nationalism”. He identifies some crucial, one might say foundational, ideas common to all four. Thus there is a common privileging of the Vedas as constituting the authentic texts of Hinduism, to be upheld over and against locally valorized myths and legends. There is a common desire to build a unity among the “original inhabitants” of Aryavarta, in an assertion of a race-based nationalism that bears a marked similarity to German ideas of the “volk”. There is the downgrading of the feminine, and a corresponding glorification of the masculine, and of violence, seen as necessary to overcome the temptations of competing faiths. There is the pervasive suspicion of the outsider, this combined with a penchant for conspiracy theories in which Hindus are the victims of the scheming foreigner. There is a partiality for abuse and invective, to be expected in a totalizing ideology in which, as Sharma points out, “there was little scope for moderation or compromise”.

An excavation of the intellectual genealogy of Hindutva is long overdue. What makes Sharma’s book especially notable is that he is no Marxist secularist, but a Hindu steeped in his own cultural and religious tradition. A scholar of Sanskrit, he is as comfortable in Gujarati and Hindi as in the language of Mill and Macaulay. But he is also a trained political philosopher, trained to examine and analyse the genesis of political ideas and their consequences. Fortunately — since political philosophy can at times be a science even more dismal than economics — he also has a gift for communicating complex ideas in lucid prose.

The book starts with Dayananda Saraswati, a thinker who was singularly devoid of doubt and irony. His “philosophy left little room for conversation”. He opposed idol worship, but his own god — abstract, formless, yet all-knowing — seems disconcertingly like Allah. We move on to Aurobindo, who, again, at times propagated ideas uncannily similar to Islam, as in the wish to return to a Golden Age where all was truth and righteousness. Then we come to Vivekananda, to this writer the most ambivalent, and hence most appealing, of the four. On the one side is his celebration of masculinity: Sharma quotes a passage in which the Swami is dismissive of Chaitanya for promoting a form of Krishna worship through which “the whole nation has become effeminate — a race of women!” On the other side is his keen interest in other faiths. While holding Hinduism to be the “mother” of religions, Vivekananda can yet spot qualities to admire and honour in Christ, the Buddha, and in Mohammad too.

The book ends with V.D. Savarkar, who actually coined the term “Hindutva”, and who was unquestionably the most hard-headed of the quartet. The rhetoric of revenge and retribution is palpable in his work. Savarkar hated Islam, if only to emulate it. He wished to put Muslims in their place — to make them, as he said, “behave as good boys”. That indeed is how minorities were treated by Islamic states: allowed to exist if they were subdued and deferential, but crushed if they spoke up for their rights. Interestingly, of the thinkers profiled here, Savarkar was the most opposed to the divisions of caste. For he sought to build a unified “qaum”, or community, of believers, thus to more effectively take on the qaum of Islam.

I think this book would have been complete if it had ended with a chapter on the life and work of the long-serving head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, M.S. Golwalkar. Sharma sees Golwalkar as merely an “intelligent pamphleteer”. Certainly his ideas were not as original or interesting as Dayananda’s or Savarkar’s, but they were greatly more influential. Golwalkar was to that duo what Stalin was to Marx and Lenin: the vulgarizer, but also the great popularizer, of the faith. Mao and Ho Chi Minh and our own E.M. S. Namboodiripad learnt the catechism of communism from the summaries provided by Stalin. Likewise, the men who now rule India learnt how to hate and revile the “Other” from the speeches delivered by Golwalkar.

The anthropologist Verrier Elwin once called the Baptists the “RSS of Christianity”. The sangh parivar has done to Hinduism what the evangelicals have done to Christianity — reduce an alive, supple faith to a set of absolutist dogmas. Indeed, the damage in this case is even greater. For Hinduism has always been the most decentralized of religions — with no church, no holy book, no central committee, in a word, no authorized interpreters. It is this autonomy that the Hindutva movement seeks to destroy. It is for us to ensure that they do not succeed. For, as Jyotirmaya Sharma observes, “Every Hindu decides what is Hinduism. That space ought to remain inviolable. It is a space worth living and dying for.”