But for the formal declaration, India may already be a Hindu Rashtra.
A government that so eagerly criminalised triple talaq but still can’t act on the Supreme Court’s advice to enact a law to curb mob lynching is a Hindutva government, making India a Hindutva state where minorities are second-class citizens with unequal rights.
A government that wants to bring in a law that grants citizenship to refugees on the basis of their religion is a Hindutva government. When Bengali Muslims in Assam have to prove that their grandfathers were Indian, and the government says it will extend this process to the whole of India, how are we still a secular state?
Making India a Hindu rashtra does not need replacing the tricolour with a saffron flag. As scholar Asim Ali recently wrote: “What most people don’t understand is that symbols need not be abolished, because they can always be appropriated and then subverted. The tiranga that represents liberty and equality for most Indians is proudly displayed on social media by people bent on destroying those very ideals. It was indeed the Indian flag, and not a saffron one, that was used to drape the body of a man accused of lynching a Muslim.”
What’s interesting here is that Hindutva needed to appropriate the Indian flag to gain legitimacy. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fused Hindutva with Indian nationalism. Hindutva forces now decide who is a nationalist and who is anti-national.
At the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in Nagpur, the Indian flag was hoisted on 26 January 2002 after a gap of 52 years. They didn’t have to do this; they are not bound to hoist the Indian flag, not even on Republic Day. That they were able to drop their inhibitions about a flag that stood for secularism spoke a lot about what had changed in the meaning of the tricolour.
Defining the nationalist
The beginning of the end of secularism is often linked to the mistakes committed by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the campaign for Ram Mandir spearheaded by BJP veteran L.K. Advani. In doing so, we rarely look at how secularism worked in the period before the troubled 1980s.
Given the influx of Hindu refugees from what was now Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru was on the back foot before Hindutva forces. Muslims now had their own nation, Hindus were arriving as dead bodies in trains, and M.K. Gandhi and Nehru were championing secularism? So intense was the Hindu hurt that Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu.
Nehru and his daughter Indira sold secularism through a campaign called “national integration”. You might think the operative word in that phrase is ‘integration’, but it is actually ‘national’. The plank of “unity in diversity” was sold as an essential pre-condition of India’s success. In other words, if you didn’t back secularism, you were not a good Indian nationalist.
Nehru defined nationalism thus: “nationalism does not mean Hindu nationalism, Muslim nationalism or Sikh nationalism. As soon as you speak of Hindu, Sikh or Muslim, you do not speak for India. Each person has to ask himself the question: what do I want to make of India — one country, one nation or 10, 20 or 25 nations, a fragmented and divided nation without any strength or endurance, ready to break to pieces at the slightest shock? Each person has to answer this question. Separateness has always been the weakness of India. Fissiparous tendencies, whether they belong to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or others, are very dangerous and wrong. They belong to petty and backward minds. No one who understands the spirit of the times can think in terms of communalism.”
He fused the idea of secularism with nationalist pride: “the main thing we have to keep in mind is the emotional integration of India… We have to build up this great country into a mighty nation, mighty not in the ordinary sense of the word, that is, having great armies and all that, but mighty in thought, mighty in action, mighty in culture and mighty in its peaceful service of humanity.”
Just as Hindutva has risen by selling a version of history, Nehru used his version of history to sell secularism. He said in an address to the nation in 1964: “ever since the distant past it has been the proud privilege of the people of India to live in harmony with one another. That has been the basis of India’s culture. Long ago the Buddha taught us this lesson. From the days of Asoka, 2300 years ago, this aspect of our thought has been repeatedly declared and practised. In our own day Mahatma Gandhi laid great stress on it and indeed lost his life because he put emphasis on communal goodwill and harmony. We have, therefore, a precious heritage to keep up and we cannot allow ourselves to act contrary to it.”
Nationalism for good
Secularism is dying – or is already dead – because the secularists gave up on nationalism. They did this partly because of growing discomfort with nationalism. Yet, as Nehru showed us, nationalism doesn’t always have to be a force of oppression. Most recently, Kanhaiya Kumar showed us how nationalism could be reclaimed from Hindutva. Nationalism is the masala that can make any food tasty. Both secularism and Hindutva have used nationalism to succeed.
Even the Lokpal movement in 2011 used the tricolour and other nationalist symbols in a big way. They needed to appropriate nationalism to show they were speaking on behalf of the nation; indeed, they were the nation, not the government of the day.
The only way to reclaim secularism is to first reclaim nationalism. If secularists are uncomfortable with nationalism, they should be ready for the declaration of India as a de facto Hindu nation-state very soon.
Those born after the cable TV revolution may not have any nostalgic memories of the ‘national integration’ campaign. This patriotic song, for instance, speaks subtly of “desh dharam”, the religion called the nation.
With the hindsight of history, an examination of the national integration propaganda reminds us how national integration was a fusion of nationalism and secularism. In 10 years of the Congress-led UPA rule, we saw no such effort. Who is going to do it today?
Views are personal.