By Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee
June 18, 2019
The Opposition has not done enough to defend India’s inclusive and plural ethos
Talking to the American political journalist, Norman Cousins, in 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru shared his idea of democracy: “I would say that democracy is not only political, not only economic, but something of the mind.” Nehru emphasised democracy as “a certain tolerance of others and even of others’ opinions... a certain contemplative tendency and a certain inquisitive search for truth.” Democracy for Nehru was akin to a political culture where a hundred opinions could bloom.
Since the Narendra Modi government took power in 2014, the mind of democracy is under attack. There is intolerance towards differences. Democracy is facing political authoritarianism. The return of the Modi government at the Centre has tightened Hindutva’s grip on the political narrative. Despite the agrarian crisis, job unrest, and the hardships of demonetisation, the electoral outcome was in the BJP’s favour. Making political capital out of the air strikes on Balakot, playing up the threat to the nation’s security over real issues, and using divisive language worked for the BJP.
Ideology of the State
Hindutva is no longer a political ideology of a political party. It is now an ideology of the Indian state. In 2015, when about 40 writers and artists returned their Sahitya Akademi awards in protest against the silence on the killing of writers by Hindu right-wing organisations, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called it a “manufactured paper rebellion” by writers of “Left or [with] Nehruvian leaning.” The murder of writers was sidelined by an ideological allegation. The political tactic was to turn an issue of public morality into a friend-enemy discourse.
Since the JNU incident of 2016, we witnessed the mainstreaming of the term “anti-national” by BJP members. Anyone who raised concerns on violence against Kashmiris, spoke against war, supported writers and journalists facing threats, welcomed the idea of Pakistani artists in India, spoke up for Muslims attacked for allegations of cow slaughter or beef consumption, or simply questioned the government faced the epithet. The BJP became the sole custodian of national pride and security.
Defending Nehru’s Idea of India
Nehru’s idea of India was defended by sections of India’s civil society rather than the Congress or other secular parties. A section of mainstream media dropped its ethics and peddled the government’s line. A handful of journalists braved legal, physical and verbal threats in order to ask the truth. When journalist Ravish Kumar asked Congress president Rahul Gandhi why he did not defend “Nehru’s legacy”, Mr. Gandhi skirted the question. Mr. Gandhi also spoke against hate, and for love, in his election campaign. But he was iffy in naming the real victims of hate politics. This weakened the counternarrative, and failed to bolster confidence in the electorate.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee took the BJP’s anti-minoritarian agenda head-on. She risked public mood to oppose the National Register of Citizens (NRC) being implemented in Assam, and welcomed the refugees in her State. Earlier, she sided with the United Nations in support of granting asylum to the Rohingya, against the position of the Central government. She managed a thin victory — the BJP made big inroads into West Bengal with an unprecedented 40% vote share. The general secretary of the CPI(M), Sitaram Yechury, admitted that Left supporters shifted allegiance to the BJP. The instrumental aim of the Left parties was to dislodge the local rival, not the BJP, and this helped the BJP’s cause. Improvising on Lord Acton, the conservative writer, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, had warned in Thy Hand, Great Anarch! that “loss of power corrupts, and absolute loss of power corrupts absolutely.”
Has “the mind of India” (to borrow Nehru’s phrase) shifted to the right? If the mind has abandoned the spirit of democracy and fallen for territorial paranoia, then yes. In We Or Our Nationhood Defined, the ideological guru of the Hindu right, M.S. Golwalkar, defined the nation as “hereditary territory”. Hindutva is a territorial project. Thinking is reduced to marking territory, an act of self-preservation. It promotes exclusionary laws, as seen in the move to implement the NRC nationwide. This will throw the lives of poor migrants into a legal quagmire. The detection, detention and deportation of “foreigners” will make people turn into stateless populations without rights.
According to Golwalkar, “Hindu religion, Hindu culture and Hindu language (the natural family of Sanskrit and her off-springs) complete the Nation concept.” India is imagined as mono-religious, mono-cultural and mono-lingual. Golwalkar’s options for minorities were either to “adopt” the majority culture “or to live at its mercy”. When the Hindu vigilantes force Muslims to chant “Jai Shri Ram!” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” it isn’t just perverse cultural pride that is involved, but the surplus pleasure of humiliating others.
Since 2014, India in the nationalist narrative is being imagined as a fortress being guarded against imagined enemies and hated political opponents and minorities. Ideological opponents are forced to fear every word and act of nonconformity. Muslims are killed or harmed on mere allegations of beef eating and cow slaughter. Territorial nationalism is a predatory idea that hunts for enemies.
Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India, “A Buddhist or Jain in India is a hundred per cent product of Indian thought and culture, yet neither is a Hindu by faith. It is, therefore, entirely misleading to refer to Indian culture as Hindu culture.” Nehru’s idea of India is not reducible to a single faith. “In later ages”, Nehru wrote, “this culture was greatly influenced by the impact of Islam, and yet it remained… distinctively Indian.” Cultural transformation of religions in India is the basis of its heterogeneity, and a historical fact. In Nehru’s enlightened view, India is not a Hindu idea, or a Hindu nation.
The poet-critic, Octavio Paz, in his book In Light of India, wrote: “India, as a country and as a history, is much greater than Hinduism.” Despite being an admirer of Hindu thought and architecture, Paz was aware of the immense contributions made by other cultures.
Humility is a desirable ethic for civilisations to live by. If India lives in territorial paranoia and exclusion, it will lose its mind.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of ‘Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India’
Source: The Hindu