There are times in a person’s life when one gets to observe and/or realise certain disturbing nuances of an ideology or organisation in such stark contrast that he/she is led to introspect and ponder over the ripple(s) in one’s mindscape for a fairly long time. On 22 February 2017, one such incident happened.
Figure: Deen Dayal Upadhyay (right) receiving a glorious reception at Calicut Railway station after being elected National President of the Jan Sangh in 1967. Atal Bihari Vajpayee can be seen in the centre background.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the ruling party in India. I have been a supporter of the party since my high school days (maybe even earlier mainly due to the graceful, endearing presence of Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, an astute statesman and politician). I liked various stances that the party fundamentally took, be it justice for all and appeasement for none, or politics based on Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s fairly centrist ideology of ‘Integral Humanism’. The tolerant, fairly centrist viewpoint that BJP had under Vajpayee passed its biggest test when he led a 13-party coalition in the centre. However, there was and has always been one point in the workings of the BJP that I have found problematic. Hindutva, as they see it. And by they I am referring to the fringe hardliners and ultra right wingers in the party, which constitutes a small but oft-fairly vocal section of the party. The word Hindu encapsulates a cultural and geographical identity more than a religious one. Those living in the land of the Indus (to the east of the river Indus, to be more precise) were called Hindus. There was never a religion called Hinduism before the word was coined in this context. There was Sanatan Dharma and the Vedic ways but no Hindu religion. Even Sanatan Dharma, Sankhyakarika and the Bhagavad Purana, besides the Vedas and Upanishads, gave us a way of living more than a religion, as modern religions are structured and defined, per se.
If one were to look at the word religion etymologically, one could see that it defines a relation of ‘reverence to the gods’. Even though, we, in the modern ‘Hindu religion’ are said to have 33,00,00,000 gods, it was never put forth in that way. The unity of the creation and the ways in which energy manifests have been described at length, as have esoteric concepts of nature and associated ‘divinity’, but Sanatan Dharma gives an ‘everlasting code of righteousness and conduct’, if one were to go by the transliteration and not rules for praying. Hence, even if one were to go by the ancient schools of thought, the Indian subcontinent had ways to organise society socially and culturally more than in a strict religious umbrella (although at different points in history, different schools of philosophy have gained the upper hand, due to political and socio-cultural reasons). Cutting the long detour into the ideas of Hinduism short, I would like to mention that in the light of such a conception of the Hindu way of life, Hindu-ness or Hinutva stands more as a socio-cultural concept encompassing the Indian subcontinent than as a religious construct. That is why I fundamentally disagree with those who want to associate it with certain schools of ideology or philosophy.
Illustration: Colourless with the coloured, much like ‘Vairagya’ in a tinted world; tinted in social, cultural, political and philosophical constructs
Santana Dharma talks of Vairagya which means ‘colourless’. What it truly refers to is the transcendent nature of something that is not tinted, coloured in parochial ways of thinking; something which tries to address the human desire for knowledge and quest for truth: truth of existence, of creation. It refers to a culture of renunciation (which incidentally is what the colour saffron truly represents) and keeping to a healthy and yet not-excessively-indulgent lifestyle, and not a culture of capitalism necessarily as the Indian Right are also into promoting. The idea of enterprise, of seeking to know and get a firm standing in life and society is an integral part of this culture, but in a manner that is conducive for sustainable growth, keeping the interests of others, of society as a whole, of nature and the world around us in mind. It is such a rich heritage that it represents. Not petty politics over which piece of land Lord Rama was born on or why a certain road should be renamed since Emperor Aurangzeb apparently does not deserve his name there (being a ‘despot’).
Figure: The conception of ‘Akhand Bharat’ or undivided India. Here too the idea is to see, socio-culturally, as per the Hindy Mahasabh, the manner and extent of the Hindu-ness of people in the subcontinent and in adjoining places, which itself arose over centuries (that too at different points in history). The inclusion of Myanmar and portions of Thailand are due to the invasion of these lands by Indian rulers at certain points in history and the subsequent introduction of ‘Indian culture’ in those lands. Politically, ‘Akhand Bharat’ is not only archaic but also highly absurd.
What we find today in India, in certain places, is an extreme form of nationalism. A form of nationalism that seeks to assuage the demands of some people – of expunging what they see as the dark ages of Indian history: a time when foreign invaders came in, foreign religions and cultures mixed into the indigenous ones, and the Indian subcontinent constantly remained in a state of flux. Of reclaiming Indianness in a highly assertive if not violent way. In all of this, unfortunately, the majoritarian discourse tends to flow into endless cycles of meaningless rhetoric and grandstanding that, ironically, hit at the foundation of the tradition that it so espouses. Religion, culture, society and nationalism are conveniently intermixed (as it can and should be to an extent) so much that Hindustan is a name frowned upon simply because it is taken to be a land of the followers of the ‘Hindu religion’. And the followers of this so-called ‘Hindu religion’ have done little to resolve this paradox: of the followers of ‘divinity in unity’ -Vedantic, as it comes- being described as being driven to segregation and social division, at times! Historically, given the ancient history of the way of Sanatan Dharma, the concept has undergone so many changes that nowadays its proponents even have to start imposing bans on beef (considered holy in a fairly recent rendition of ‘Hinduism’, more due to the use of the cow in the Gangetic plains and elsewhere than on religious reasons) to bring the people to the ‘right way’. Ridiculous as it comes!
Other more fundamental constructs such as caste seem to be a corruption of a system that if based on meritocracy is much like the formation of guilds based on occupations in society. What we, unfortunately, cannot pin down is the ‘correct’ version of this tradition and this ‘nation of Bharata’. Which is why, Palingenetic Ultranationalism, is a dangerous way to violate and disturb a delicate balance (that has come to the Indian subcontinent after centuries of upheaval). It seems to be a misplaced idea of rebirth. Rebirth of the nation, if it ever exited in its present form, in the first place. A rebirth of the Golden Sparrow (as India was known in the past).
On 22 February 2017, the incident that took place at Delhi University (and which led me to write this behemoth of an article) was shameful. Umar Khalid is a youth leader, associated with left-wing student parties in JNU who had taken out a protest last year and had been booked for sedition as well. His participation in a seminar in the University was prevented by some members of the student community. What followed thereafter was utter chaos: student members and activists from the BJP’s youth wing ABVP and the leftist AISA clashed after some students wanted to lodge a complaint with the police regarding some cases of violence and stone pelting by ABVP members, who did not Khalid to speak. What may seem to be a minor fight sprouting out of clashing student political-groups veiled a much bigger threat to not only free speech and tolerance but fundamentally to the idea of Hindutva. Hindutva, in its truest form, has and can never profess intolerance. A way of life that promotes the quest for truth and harmony is hardly a way of violence and intolerance. Yes, there is violence in the act of creation and during evolution of the cosmos (black holes, anyone?) but this is a case of absolutely vindictive violence. The photograph above is of a professor in Delhi University whom I have met and know personally: Dr. Prasanta Chakravarty. A gentle person, who often comes in his dhoti (an Indian attire) and is a positive presence to be around, was thrashed in the very same mob. His helpless state in this photo singed in my mind a pertinent question: what kind of nationalism is it that is so weak in its conception that it needs validation and violent subjugation of free speech and conduct by its citizens for it to survive? What kind of nationalism is it that gets imbalanced (apparently) when a person with a different viewpoint than yourself is given a chance to speak in a public gathering? Do we need such a form of nationalism? If not for the chance of being born in a certain geographical location, could we not have been associated with a completely different national identity? Does a concept that was literally built upon a map and a subcontinent divided into partitioned parts by hand (courtesy: Radcliffe) really mean all that much at the end of the day? Yes, maybe there are concepts, ideas, cultural constructs in India that can help all of mankind and stand as a unique entity but is it so important so as to make borders more than an administrative convenience and more of a psychological barrier? A barrier to living the harmonious lives that we read so much about in stories of the past in the very Hindu nation that some people call the last remaining portion of Akhand Bharat?
Even as I hang my head in sadness and shame at such an incident in my country, I hope that we truly understand the meaning of what Indianness, or for that matter any form of nationalism, truly represents: a cultural and socio-political commonality arising out of an administrative convenience (borders) and a shared history at some points in time, in the times of yore.
Nothing more, nothing less. In balance, I rest my pen.