The recent debate on Hindutva versus Hinduism is another reflection of what I call liberal intellectual laziness. It is too little, too late.
It is too late because Hindutva is an established idiom of Indian politics for over two decades. The non-BJP parties did virtually nothing to engage with Hinduism during this crucial period of time. They adhered to a highly vague and politically disastrous form of secularism.
It is also too little because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its associated organisations have spent considerable intellectual energies supported by conscious political moves to offer a completely different imagination of Hindutva. The liberals still rely on the old Savarkar-Golwalkar thesis as if nothing has changed in the last three decades. Author-politicians such as Shashi Tharoor, Pavan K. Varma and now Salman Khurshid are taking refuge in this Hinduism-Hindutva debate.
Two questions are important here. What is the immediate history of the term Hindutva, which has given it an unprecedented political acceptability? And what have been the reasons behind the liberal class’ intellectual laziness to respond to it?
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The present history of Hindutva
In his presidential address of 2004, Lal Krishna Advani made a powerful claim. He said, “I am saddened that from being a description of the core of our nationhood, Hindutva has been misrepresented to denote a political approach. Hindutva is a sentiment; it is neither an electoral slogan nor should it be confused with religion.”
Despite this desire to make Hindutva a legitimate expression for Indian nationalism, Advani and other BJP leaders continued to rely on the 1995 Supreme Court judgment that defined Hindutva as “a way of life”.
The Narendra Modi-led BJP did not spoil its energies in defending Hindutva as its ideological commitment. Instead, it worked hard to expand the scope of this term — something which Advani once envisaged — to redefine Indianness in Hindu terms.
It is worth noting that Modi does not use the expression Hindutva to describe his political moves. Unlike Advani or Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he stays away from any direct discussion on this issue.
The speech that Modi delivered on 3 December 2018 in an election rally is perhaps the only occasion in the last seven years when he made an attempt to reflect on his imagination of Hindutva. Responding to Rahul Gandhi’s claim that the prime minister did not have any knowledge of Hindu religion, Modi said: “Oh brother …Hindutva…is a rich heritage. This Hindutva, this Hindu knowledge is so profound … so vast, and so ancient…it is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the sea. No one can claim that he or she has complete knowledge of it. Even the sages never claimed to have full knowledge of Hindu and Hindutva. I am a very small man and I do not claim to have such vast knowledge.”
There are two important points here. First, Modi is not interested in reiterating the old argument that Hindutva is a way of life and it has nothing to do with politics. He interprets Hindu religion and tradition through the prism of Hindutva to proclaim a kind of theology. This is exactly what Anustup Basu calls ‘political monotheism’ in his new book.
Second, Modi actually conceptualises Hindutva as an uncontested, neutral and self-evident cultural expression. He confidently asserts that there is no need to discuss Hindutva in the realm of electoral politics because it is a real manifestation of Indian-ness.
The BJP’s electoral success in the post-2014 period has actually contributed significantly to transform Hindutva into a new political commonness. Non-BJP parties — Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and even Communist Party Marxist (CPM) — are not in a position to ignore the presence of a powerful Hindutva constituency.
This transformation of Hindutva from an ideology to political commonsense is so powerful that the BJP does not need to defend it as a way of life. This may be the reason why Hindutva is no longer listed as the official philosophy of the BJP.
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The failure of the non-BJP parties (and a section of self-claimed liberals) in interpreting the changing meanings of Hindutva and its emergence as a political hegemony must not be seen through the prism of their perceived victimhood.
They were in power for a long time. In a way, a conducive environment for the gradual and sustained spread of Hindu essentialism was created during the time of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule. In fact, the non-BJP parties did not engage with the changing realities and continued to uphold their old, outdated, evasive, and ideological templates.
The Congress gave up the economic imagination of Nehru, while defending his secularism. Fractions of Janta Dal ignored the social philosophy of Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan, while upholding the banner of social justice. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) took a complete U-turn in celebrating caste-based electoral engineering in the name of Ambedkarism. And, the Communists lost interest in class questions, while adhering to Marxism.
In this context, secularism and social inclusion perhaps were the only ready-to-use phrases that could provide an ideological justification for their political manoeuvring against the Sangh Parivar-led BJP. The BJP’s electoral success exposed the limitation of this political consensus. The non-BJP parties have been clueless about Hindutva since 2014. Their ideological templates are out-of-date and they do not have intellectual capabilities to offer any fresh set of political ideas.
This is precisely the reason these parties and the intellectuals associated with them are getting attracted towards Hinduism-Hindutva binary. They want us to believe that the collective aspirations of Indian people are always determined by their religious belief. Hence, the right kind of Hinduism is needed to counter Hindutva politics.
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Elite Hinduism vs subaltern Hindutva
Pavan K. Varma, for instance, argues in his book The Great Hindu Civilisation: Achievement, Neglect, Bias and the Way Forward, that Hindu civilisation survives a number of historical onslaughts because there is something called Hindu-Satya. Interestingly, this Hindu pride argument is based on a defeatist Hindu history: Hindus were defeated by Muslims and so on.
By this logic, one can also think of Muslim-Satya to write an equally essentialist history of a ‘great Muslim civilisation’ — a narrative of success and triumph of Islam in India by using similar sources and arguments.
After all, Varma’s Hindu-Satya, like Savarkar’s Hindutva, does not tell us why a sizeable number of Hindu converts, who became Muslim by accident or force, could not give up Islam and merge in the Hindu-fold in the past 600 years.
Salman Khurshid’s new book Sunrise over Ayodhya: Nationhood In Our Times is a serious, thought-provoking study of the Ayodhya verdict. It certainly makes a set of nuanced arguments on the possibilities of recovering secularism of a different kind.
However, Khurshid relies heavily on the textual meanings of Hinduism. Like Varma and Tharoor, he goes on to celebrate Hinduism on philosophical bases and refutes Hindutva purely as a political doctrine. This uncritical adherence to text-centric interpretation of Hinduism does not allow Khurshid to understand the actual reception of Hindutva among non-dominant Dalit and Adivasi communities.
Badri Narayan’s book Republic of Hindutva shows how the RSS incorporated the unknown Dalit icons in wider Hindutva fold in the last two decades. This kind of socio-cultural accommodation offers a new collective identity to these marginalised communities. The distinction between Hinduism-Hindutva, in such cases, becomes entirely irrelevant.
These non-BJP sympathisers of Hinduism, we must note, have not yet realised that the success of Hindutva is actually an outcome of the failure of their version of secularism. If they are really serious about offering an alternative to Hindutva, they must pay attention to Indian realities to find out everyday forms of India-specific secularism and democracy. Unfortunately, no one is interested in the messiness of everyday life of the common people.
By the way, this is the most important secular question of our time.
Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. He tweets @Ahmed1Hilal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)