• February 23, 2024

The Hindutva consolidation

Rome was not burnt in a day. Many thought they could stop it. But not our Nero. His fiddle is a metaphor for an unparalleled wild abandon and perhaps a tortured form of twisted wisdom. Embracing Murphy’s law. That which can go wrong will go wrong. Why burn your own hands in the process? Today, I am here to embrace the same caveman wisdom. For like Marc Antony I come to bury Indian secularism, not to praise it. And before the army of Hindutva trolls attack this hapless scribe I want to quickly remind them that I finally see their point, them and their country. Your country, your rule. Right?

Then why all the hostility? In my defence, let me state that since Narendra Modi’s shock victory and his inevitable expansion of his mandate in the subsequent election, I have gone through all stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and now this final one — acceptance. The reason I did so owes itself to being a lifelong witness to the ravages of fanaticism. Pakistan, after all, since my childhood, has been trying or at least threatening to be a very conservative theocracy. The attempts did not succeed, and eventually, the country went to war with the very elements it once idolised. We lost over eighty thousand souls. And counting.

Punters kept reminding us of our mistakes and that there was a better example to emulate. A secular democracy of over one billion. Why not copy that? By the time the message sunk in, the teacher had developed problems of his own. I found out it hurts when a dream is shattered, but it hurts more when the model inspiring the dream disappears. And what do you do when the model inspiring that dream is itself a phantom? 360-degree confusion. So, I would have continued to sulk and, at least in my mind, resist had it not been for a singular book. But before I mention that book, let me offer some context. If you have read Orson Scott Card’s brilliant book Ender’s Game, or watched the movie based on it, you might also know that it was written as a prequel to another story called Speaker for the Dead.

After the conclusion of the war, at the end of the first book, Ender sets off for a new home in space and assumes the role of the Speaker, which involves telling the story of the departed in a way which sets everyone free from their terrible burdens. This book just did that for me. The book is called Being the Other: The Muslim in India and is written by senior journalist Saeed Naqvi. I briefly met him a decade ago in New Delhi. By then, I was familiar with his television work and since I was being subjected to what I then considered patronising talk on democracy and secularism, I was unimpressed. If you travel to another nation for the sake of peace, take out time to mingle with the local influencers, you do not want to be showered with dire predictions about your own country.

But then you forget your own lived experience. A citizen’s desire to prove one’s loyalty again and again. Especially a citizen whose worldview, like mine, deviates from the kosher versions taught in the school textbooks. Was I doing anything different? But now that I have read this book, I am compelled to revisit and revise my view of the mind I encountered. The book tells the story of the systematic othering of the Muslim community in India. And here and there, it is littered with personal anecdotes, bon mots and priceless insights. I will cite only one example. An interview with the most significant idealogue of the RSS at the time, Bhaurao Deoras is reproduced almost verbatim in the book. To a sceptic, this interview may seem placatory, even indulgent. I found a son of the soil using every iota of his shrew while almost pleading with the powerful not to abandon the idea of the pluralist composite culture, the so-called GangaJamuni Tehzeeb.

The line of argument was this. If you want Akhand Bharat (greater India, a federation of all South Asian nations ruled from New Delhi) you must abandon the idea of a Hindu Rashtra in favour of secularism because if the country is not an example of pluralism why would any nation want to rejoin. Abandon what you can achieve now in favour of an emotive, if elusive, ideal. Naturally, he was turned down. But I could see what was being done. A plea not to other his people. I tried something similarly silly with our conservative lot at the start of my career in the vain hope that they could be reformed. But then I learned that they were so insecure they could not be asked, and I at once abandoned that wild goose chase and have spent considerable time atoning for my mistakes.

Throughout the book, a thesis emerges. That Hindutva is not an outlier that recently emerged. It is what India is about. Since its inception, the state began its journey to Hinduise the country. At the start, consolidation of state power was needed. That is why secularism was a useful slogan. But once this consolidation was complete, this slogan was abandoned all but in the name. Now it is about consolidating the fractious Hindu base, which is achieved by othering and alienating their favourite hobby horse — Muslims. And this will never stop. Someday, another hardline leader will officially declare India a Hindu Rashtra and the journey will be complete. The Hindu Rashtra versus Akhand Bharat binary gives way to another one, the secularism versus democracy binary. India is so complicated that it cannot be both.

To placate and consolidate the Hindu base, the othering of the minorities becomes almost a foregone conclusion. And in all this, the Congress, not the BJP, played the most crucial role. It looks like the men who divided India in 1947 had the right idea. Politically, as they are shaped, the two dominant identities of South Asia cannot help but dominate each other. The Muslims who chose not to migrate to Pakistan knew the risks and yet stayed back. This homogenisation process is a force of history; it will not stop. In all this, the BJP and Modi are only symptoms, not the cause. It is pointless to blame them. I do not want to spend more time worrying about that. Perhaps from the safety of their separate countries, the two nations can find a way to coexist and be friendly.

First published on October 29, 2022

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