“…a past that has never been present, and which will never be.”
-Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy
Published in The Hindu, March 2013
Days after BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj called Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, a “patriot,” Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, an ideological affiliate of the Sangh Parivar petitioned the Government to provide space for installing busts of Godse at public places across India. Describing him as ‘an irreplaceable asset to the intellectual discourse of Hinduism’, the Mahasabha’s national president, Chandra Prakash Kaushik, stated that “There needs to be a thorough investigation of the events that led to the assassination, so that vilification of Nathuram Godse ends and the people of this country know that he was not an assassin by choice but was forced to make the decision to kill Gandhi.” The controversy has since moved from Meerut, Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu, where two factions of Hindu Mahasabha recently announced installation of Godse’s statue in 13 districts.
The raising of the Godse’s statue is not an isolated act by fringe elements. It is a political maneuver, aimed at rewriting the history of the Indian polity, and its paramount principles of secular, pluralistic statehood. Godse’s narrative, as told by the Hindu Mahasabha functions in important ways to posit Hindus and Hinduism as being under siege and asserts the idea of India as a Hindu nation. To retell the story of Mahatma’s murderer, as a patriot, goes to the heart of politics seeking to manipulate, manufacture and mobilise public support to consolidate the power of the majority.
This revisionist history strategically argues for revenge as a form of justice to right historical wrongs committed under non-Hindu rulers. Retribution, it argues can be sought in the present by targeting of the Indian ‘other’. Spreading anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiments by rewriting history and often replacing it by myths for public consumption that was clearly at odds with reasoned historical works. Historian Romila Thapar, for instance, has repeatedly emphasized that historical reasoning in India’s public life is imperative. She has argued that: “In the retelling of an event, . . memory is sometimes claimed in order to create an identity, and history based on such claims is used to legitimize the identity. Establishing a fuller understanding of the event is crucial in both instances, for otherwise the identity and its legitimation can be historically invalid.”
This rewriting of history dates back to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the ideologue, who articulated the ideological foundations of Hindutva. In his 1922, essay “Hindutva: Who is an Hindu?”, he articulates the Hindu nation as being grounded “in land, blood and culture”. He defines the Hindu identity based on inclusion and exclusion. He included Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs as inheritors and partakers in the legacy of Hinduism. But clearly excludes Islam and Christianity, as foreign ideologies brought from outside. In 1925, he writes, “Hindu Pad Pashahi” where he propagates for Hindu-self rule, and writes about 17th century Maratha King Shivaji, who led the Marathas in a series of battles against the Muslims rulers. Savarkar transforms the local histories of Marathas into an emblematic national struggle between the foreign conquerors and the son of the soil, mounting an indigenous resistance. For Savarkar, his Hindu-Nation-hood is an inclusive “territorial, racial and cultural entity”, and in his later writings he specifically identifies Muslims as the “paradigmatic other, and the most persistent threat to Hindutva”.
Hindutva ideologues, following Savarkar’s precedent, have over the past two decades regularly invoked the heritage of the national movement in their favour. They have already done this with Sardar Patel, KM Munshi and systematically appropriated and re-told stories of local leaders and historical figures, to further their ideological ends. They have been quite successful in owning both Gandhi, the Hindu thinker, the mahatma who dreamed of Ram Rajya, while equally venerating Godse as a misguided patriot.
Mobilizing the Gods
Mobilizing the Gods for political ends, has a long chequered history in the sub-continent. As the political movement for Indian independence took shape, mobilizing masses through religion and religious symbols, became an important political strategy employed by various fractions. Including Gandhi, who understood the value of powerful political symbols that can be used to mobilize the country’s disparate population. He actively employed Hindu symbols, phrases and icons towards nationalist ends – bonfires; the image of India as a Hindu goddess; and invoking Ram Rajya as the ideal form of governance. In India where poverty and illiteracy was rampant, these symbols had a profound political implications. While it galvanised the Hindu majority, this political practice severely alienated Indian Muslims who were unable to find themselves reflected in a nation defined by Hindu Gods, Hindu symbols, and the Gandhian ideals of Ram Rajya. It also contributed to the communalization process that would eventually lead to the partition of India. Almost fifty years later, the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi campaign will employ similar strategies to mobilize support for its vision of Hindu nation hood. It will re-introduce and promote God Ram as the symbolic centre of the Hindu India.
The most consistent and principled critique of use of religion in the name of nationalism is found in the writing of Rabindranath Tagore. His novel, The Home and the World (Ghare Baire) dramatises how violence and killing become requisite ritual when the individuals place blind, uncritical nationalism on a pedestal. Throughout the narrative Tagore traces symbols, phrases and icons employed towards nationalist ends, and the harm they can do. He consistently critiqued the use of religious symbolism as exclusivist and sectarian in nature, warning as early as 1915 that violence would be an inevitable and a natural consequence of the strategy of mobilization that uses “symbols embedded in an exclusivist cultural-religious idioms”. His prophetic words came to be played out not once, but many times since.
H.M.Seervai Supreme Court Judge, jurist and author, writing in Partition of India: Legend and Reality, opines that Jinnah’s object was not partition but ‘parity’. He presents his authoritative arguments after painstakingly shifting through 12 volumes of Transfer of Power 1942-7 documents and historical records. It is also Seervai’s argument that Jinnah greatest fear was Hinduisation of India and its effects on its Muslim population. Rajmohan Gandhi’s writing in 1986, also echoes this argument when he criticizes his grandfather Mohandas Gandhi for introducing religion into politics and refusing to accommodate the Muslim demand to share power. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the ‘parity theory’ advanced by HM Seervai is secondary. However, it remains relevant today that we recognise that growing “Religious nationalism” is a genuine fear amongst the countries minorities.
Violence manufactured through riots; physical destruction of religious sites, burning of churches; religious conversion camps, publicity seeking acts like “love jihad”; rewriting textbooks, censoring those works of history, literature and fiction that challenge the Hindu version of history; politics of appropriating religious and political icons, and raising monuments are all carefully enacted acts of mobilization that aids in capturing, redirecting state power in constructing the Hindu nation.
Religious nationalism excludes the notion of a secular state, and denies equal participation of those who do not identify with the dominant religion. Without equal citizenship, Art 15 of our constitution that prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race or caste becomes meaningless. A marriage between religion and nationalism will ultimately subvert the values that have held this nation together, because it substitutes murderers and symbols in the place of substantive values of secular statehood, equality, and justice. India’s future lies in pluralism, reasonable and principled cosmopolitanism and a citizenship as the civic religion.