Rise of Communalism: Thorn in Bouquet of Multi-faith India


(Dr Shujaat Ali Quadri)                   

These days, a common scene on Delhi roads and in colonies is hordes of devotees gathering and marching to perform their religious rituals. Expectedly, the majority of such devotees are Hindus who are passionately taking out tableaux of goddess Durga, marching barefoot to long distances. They are organising Ram Leela, a stage performance of the story of Lord Ram, at various places. Similarly, in Muslim areas, devotees are holding holy gatherings (milaads) in the evening to mark arrival of Prophet Muhammad into this world. Such harmony, in a more diverse mix with participation of other faiths like Sikhism and Christianity, makes India a perfect bouquet of multi-faith society. However, this picture is not so perfect in the political realm.

All religions have been exploited by its followers to achieve political gains. Most notable is the use of Hindutva, as Muslim Brotherhood using Islam.

Etymology of Hindutva

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Hindutva is originally the state or quality of being Hindu, or ‘Hinduness’. It is described as an ideology advocating, or seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and Hinduism within India. It may also be called Hindu nationalism. Its etymology, according to the OED, is from modern Sanskrit Hindutva (Hindu qualities, Hindu identity) from Hindu from hindu (from Hindi hindu) + classical Sanskrit -tva , suffix forming abstract nouns, after Hindi Hindupan, in the same sense. The etymology and meaning of Hindu, according to the OED, is “partly a borrowing from Hindi and Urdu and partly a borrowing from Persian”. Etymons: Urdu Hindu, Persian Hindu from (i) Hindi hindu and Urdu Hindu, originally denoting a person from India, now specifically a follower of Hinduism, and its etymon (ii) Persian Hindu, in the same senses (Middle Persian Hindug, denoting a person from India), apparently formed already in Old Persian … Hindu, denoting an eastern province of the Achaemenid empire.

According to Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions, Hindutva is a concept of “Indian cultural, national, and religious identity”. The term conflates a geographically based religious, cultural, and national identity: a true ‘Indian’ is one who partakes of this ‘Hindu-ness’.

Some Indians insist, however, that Hindutva is primarily a cultural term to refer to the traditional and indigenous heritage of the Indian nation-state, and they compare the relationship between Hindutva and India to that of Zionism and Israel.

Hindutva was coined by Chandranath Basu and was propounded as a political ideology by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923. It is used by the organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other organisations, collectively called the Sangh Parivar.

Rise of Hindutva in Politics

The politics of Hindutva, as represented by India’s ruling party, the BJP, cannot be separated from the larger grassroots social movement from which they stem, though the two aspects of the movement clash periodically. The BJP belongs to a family of organisations, described earlier Sangh Parivar (or “Sangh Family”), which collectively represent the ideology of Hindutva in its many social and institutional forms. The primary ideological organisation within the Parivar is the VHP, or World Hindu Council, supported by its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. The RSS provides the organisational backbone of the movement, and is paramilitary in nature.

The organisational roots of Hindutva go back to 1914, to the creation of the Hindu Mahasabha, an organisation founded to unite the nation against British imperial rule under the banner of Hindu culture. The Mahasabha’s work was bolstered in 1925 by the creation of the RSS by Keshav Hedgewar. Hinduism is a religion that is amorphous in its teachings, open to diverse interpretations and modes of practice, and polytheistic. The Mahasabha saw these values as a weakness, since they provided few means for united mobilisation, and therefore were perceived historically as offering little resistance to conquest, either by Muslim conquerors, or by European imperialist powers. The hierarchical social character of Hinduism that privileges its upper castes, coupled with India’s complex regional and linguistic diversity, were further barriers to cohesion. The Hindutva movement sought to “re-create” a golden age of Hinduism — a vision best epitomised by the rule of Ram, a human incarnation of the god Vishnu. The political goal of the Hindutva movement was the creation of a Hindu Rashtra, or nation, modeled on the golden age of Ram. The ingredients of this golden age, and of a unified Hinduism, however, had to be created, and this has been an ongoing process for the Sangh Parivar.

During the movement for independence, the Hindutva movement mobilised against the Congress Party’s secular and pluralist platform. The uniting and mobilisation of Muslims against the British government, through the Khilafat movement of 1919, launched with the help of Mahatma Gandhi, fed the insecurities of the Hindutva leaders. Later, the Muslim League’s negotiations with the Congress to ensure rights for Muslims further strengthened those insecurities within the Hindutva fold, which from the beginning conceptualised Hinduness in very territorial terms. The Congress decision to accede to the Muslim League’s demand for a separate nation of Pakistan and the subsequent creation of Pakistan were seen as betrayals of the principle of a single “united Hindu nation” (Akhand Bharat). The Congress and Mahatma Gandhi were portrayed as pseudo-secularists who were eager to pander to the Muslim minority at the cost of Hindu pride and the Hindu nation. The themes of injured Hindu pride and of victimisation, at the hands of Muslims in particular, bred a “majority’s minority complex” that has remained powerful within the movement. Mahatma Gandhi was also resented because of his mobilisation of the lower castes in Indian society, the empowering of whom was seen as a threat to the upper caste ideological core that was defining the Hindu nation.

While the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS enjoyed a modicum of popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of a Hindu fundamentalist in January 1948, soon after independence, was a turning point for the movement. Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a former Swayamsevak (as members of the RSS are called) and a member of the Hindu Mahasabha. The immediate reason for Gandhi’s assassination was his pressure on the Indian government to pay reparations to Pakistan for certain losses during partition, but this was only the last in what Godse saw as a series of betrayals. Gandhi’s assassination horrified the public and created a popular uproar against the RSS and the Mahasabha. Nehru and the government clamped down on Hindutva organisations, and while the organisations continued to operate, they fell out of the larger public perception for almost four decades. The VHP was founded in 1964 to further Hindutva’s ideological program. The political arm of the Sangh Parivar and the precursor to the BJP, then called the Jana Sangh, was generally a marginal presence in Parliament.

March of BJP: Mandal and Rath

Two related fractures helped to change the political arena from the 1980s onward. The first was the unraveling of the Congress Party’s nationwide political hegemony, and the resulting fragmentation of Indian politics. Since the Lok Sabha elections of 1989, no party won an outright majority in the polls till 2014, and a succession of volatile coalition governments ruled the nation. Regionally based parties grew in power and prominence.

The end of the Congress monopoly heralded the end of Nehru’s cohesive vision of India as a state united in its diversity, run in a highly centralised manner, and based on a Fabian socialist economic model. Although this opened the political field for regional parties — including the BJP, which remains more regional than national in scope, with most of its support concentrated in North India’s “cow belt” — it also left an ideological vacuum and it was this vacuum that Hindu majoritarian sentiment quickly helped to fill. In order to compete with increasingly vibrant regional parties at the state level, the Congress Party played religious politics and relied on an obliquely defined “populist Hinduism,” a strategy that the Parivar emulated with far greater ideological zeal in the northern heartland of India.

The second “fracture” came in 1990, with the central government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission Reforms, an affirmative action program that created reserved seats at universities and in government jobs for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) of India. This was the first step towards empowering lower caste politics in India, traditionally seen as a Congress “vote bank”.

The BJP traditionally received the bulk of its political support from upper caste urban voters. The empowerment of the lower castes created a rift in the Hindu community; with the OBCs constituting over 50 percent of India’s Hindus, this was a vote bank the BJP could not afford to lose. Nor could it afford to publicly disagree with the Mandal Commission reforms without further alienating this key demographic. The issue that the Parivar chose to unite Hindu sentiment and buttress its support was that of building a temple to Ram on the site of a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid, named after India’s first Mughal emperor, Babur. The BJP claimed that the mosque stood on the site of Ram’s birth (Ram Janmabhoomi), and had been built after the destruction of a much older Hindu temple at the site. The goal of building a temple to Ram at this site has been an integral part of the Sangh Parivar’s program of re-creating the history of Ayodhya to substantiate the myths of Ram, but now an opportunity had presented itself to use the issue in a highly dramatic, politicised way. L K Advani embarked on a Rath Yatra (sacred pilgrimage) through North India in a golden chariot, much like one in which Ram might have ridden, on an ethno-religious campaign. The Sangh Parivar turned all government efforts to restrain them in their march into a highly effective cult of martyrdom, and gained a wider range of Hindu supporters in the process among the urban and rural lower middle classes, as well as among the unemployed and upper caste students whom the Mandal Commission had disadvantaged. Sangh Parivar workers eventually tore down the mosque in December 1992, unleashing a wave of Hindu-Muslim riots across the nation.

Pragmatic Route to Power

Although Hindutva gained ground as an ideology from the 1980s onward, the BJP was unable to form a lasting government at the Centre until 1999. More importantly, the primary factor enabling the BJP to form the central government after the 1999 elections was structural, not ideological. After the 1999 elections, the BJP was willing to make significant concessions on its ideological platform to build bridges with secular allies, and was able to form a government with twenty-three primarily regional parties, under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s image as a moderate BJP leader, and the emphasis he placed on social and economic issues, helped to keep this coalition together.

While it proved to be a successful political strategy, it caused tensions within the Parivar, most notably with the RSS and the VHP. The BJP had to toe a fine line between alienating its governing coalition and alienating the Parivar by not following its lead on all ideological issues. It depended on both for political power and legitimacy. This tug of war between two competing needs led to contradictory statements and policies by the BJP on a range of issues, including the dispute over Kashmir, the Babri Masjid issue, and, most recently, over the Gujarat riots. By following largely centrist policies, the BJP charted a practical route to power.

While the BJP put aside its ideological agenda in the interests of building its broad coalition after the 1999 elections, it remained disturbingly passive on certain key issues, such as the VHP’s virulent stance against conversions of Hindus by Christian missionaries. The most serious omission of the government’s constitutional duties occurred during the communal violence that broke out in Gujarat in February 2002. Anti-Muslim riots in the state, in retaliation for an alleged attack on Hindu pilgrims returning by train from Ayodhya, remains one of the darkest moments in modern India’s history. The BJP-run state government did little to stop the violence, leading some analysts to conclude that what occurred was a politically supported pogrom against Muslims in the state. Under pressure from the Sangh Parivar, the BJP allowed Narendra Modi to remain chief minister of Gujarat, despite the law and order breakdown in the state. While the BJP’s secular allies at the center protested, they remained passive and unwilling to risk their own positions to confront the BJP. In the state elections that followed later that year, the BJP, led once again by Narendra Modi, won with a thumping majority.

Gujarat Model and Thumping Success

The BJP consistently fared well in Gujarat polls in the early years of the 2000s. Its success was not a major upset, but its landslide proportions in the wake of the riots were a surprise. The impact of the riots was expected to make the Congress Party a stronger contender in the polls. In the months that followed the riots, however, Chief Minister Narendra Modi waged a virulently communal campaign designed to inflame Hindu sentiments and, by association, patriotic zeal. This connection between being a Hindu and being a nationalist is a central tenet of Hindutva ideology, but was used in a uniquely successful way in the Gujarat election. Pulling foreign policy and domestic politics together, Modi was also able to effectively utilise anti-Pakistan and anti-Musharraf rhetoric to garner support in the wake of a terrorist attack that had left people in Gujarat feeling particularly vulnerable. While Hindutva was not the sole or even the determining factor contributing to the BJP’s success in Gujarat, it is significant and will continue to play a role at the state and national level, in conjunction with and in reaction to a range of other political drivers.

The passivity of the moderate middle, which does not espouse the Hindu fundamentalism of Hindutva ideology, and the political exigencies of secular parties created an atmosphere conducive to the growth of extremism. The fear following the Gujarat elections was that the BJP might be tempted to move from its largely centrist policies to fully embrace in practice the ideological positions of the VHP and a new political strategy that political wags are calling “Moditva” or “Modi-ism.” There is also the real fear that the increasing acceptability of religious rhetoric in the political arena is moving the terms of political debate to the right.

Several factors set the Gujarat elections apart. Gujarat’s urban density, degree of industrialisation, economic priorities, and the absence of caste politics all played in favour of the BJP. The riots played a key role, and it is noteworthy that they did not spread to any of India’s other states.

The Gujarat “test case” also highlighted a critical aspect of the Sangh Parivar’s work as an effective grassroots social movement. The RSS and the VHP spent years cultivating a base in Gujarat, through labour unions, social work, building schools, and focusing on backward communities, particularly tribal communities, to draw them away from their traditional Congress support. The different Sangh Parivar organisations also reached out to the lower castes with reasonable success. The victory of the BJP in the Gujarat state elections of 2002 was bolstered by unexpected wins in the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan state elections in 2003.

Setbacks in 2004 and 2009

The BJP called for early Lok Sabha polls in 2004, expecting to ride this winning streak to another term in office. The BJP’s loss in the elections was a result of several factors. Anti-incumbency was strongly played against the BJP. The BJP’s “Shining India” campaign, focused on middle class consumerist ideals, had a negative reaction amongst India’s millions of rural and urban poor. The election results were also seen as a “Gujarat verdict” — a reaction by the national electorate against overt ideological politics. The BJP also suffered because many of its regional allies suffered losses at the polls, while the Congress’ allies fared well. In 2009, the Congress and its allies trounced the BJP-led NDA more handsomely.

2014 and beyond

In the run up to and clinching the 2014 general election, the BJP meticulously stitched together a unique coalition, drawn not only from its traditional upper-caste supporters but also from many voters belonging to marginalised communities, including OBCs, Dalits, and Scheduled Tribes (STs). This social equation was meticulously choreographed by BJP, intermixing hardcore communal Hindutva politics. The fervor in favour of the party was built after Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013. The riots broke out after Hindutva leaders, many of them being BJP MLAs and MPs, led a boisterously violent mob of Jats who were angry after murder of of their youths by Muslims. The riots rendered thousands of Muslims uprooted and it rained votes for BJP in 2014 elections.

Narendra Modi, who was the PM candidate of BJP and a star campaigner, selectively used language to taunt Muslims and appease Hindus.

With its landslide win in 2014, the BJP ushered in a far-reaching recalibration of the social coalitions that confer political influence in India. Following the 2014 general election, the BJP steadily expanded its electoral footprint across India, especially in states where the party was not previously considered a viable option; along the way, the party extended its reach across great swathes of the country.

Modi’s party has retained its aversion to state intrusions on social normative issues when it feels the state is unduly disrupting Hindu interests (for example, the Sabarimala temple entry issue in Kerala), although it draws a firm line against some Muslim customs (like the Islamic practice of instant divorce known as triple talaq).

The Future

The larger question underlying the analysis of electoral politics is the future of Hindutva and its implications for India’s multi-religious population. While in power, the BJP followed a policy of de-linking governance and development from its core ideological issues, and following largely centrist policies.

Under Narendra Modi, the very democratic advantage that shaped Brand India’s image in the world is being steadily hollowed-out at home. The rise of hyper-nationalist Hindutva politics is framed precisely within this contradiction: it cashes on India’s democratic credentials to gain external recognition even as it weakens those institutions and values within.

Therefore, the marches of devotees to different locations — temples, mosques, gurdwaras and churches — continue in India, albeit under the sharp shadow of shenanigans of Hindutva.

(The Author is the Chairman of the MSO)

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