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‘This govt is of Ram bhakts, and Gita is above the Constitution’—Inside Modi’s India

In 'Modi's India', Christophe Jaffrelot takes a panoramic, yet detailed view of Modi's politics that transformed India.

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The nature of new legislation to promote Hinduism, the extent of which remained very limited, indicates that it was not through lawmaking that the BJP primarily intended to operate: discourse and practices were the preferred means of action in their repertoire, as can be seen in debates about the respect owed to India’s very name.

The country’s Constitution baptized it both India and Bharat in article 1, which states, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of states.” This duality, at the root of a fundamental ambiguity, refers to debates in the Constituent Assembly from 1946 to 1950 in which two ideas of India were competing. The idea of India promoted by Nehru and Ambedkar was embodied in the English word India, whereas Hindu traditionalists in the Congress had opted for the Sanskrit Bharat, the name of the tutelary figure who, in Hindu mythology, presided over the creation of the territory bearing the same name. Their demand reflected a very Hindu conception of the nation. One of the champions of this idea of India, Hargovind Pant, made no secret of it: “The word ‘Bharat’ or ‘Bharat Varsha’ is used by us in our daily religious duties while reciting the Sankalpa. Even at the time of taking our bath we say in Sanskrit: Jamboo Dwipay, Bharata Varshe, Bharat Khande, Aryavartay, etc.”

Bharat Mata has moreover been depicted as a mother goddess in the popular imagination ever since the famous novel by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Anandamath (The Abbey of Bliss) (1882), and then, in the early years of the twentieth century, in the nationalist discourse to the tune of “Bande Mataram!” (Hail to the Mother!), before she came to be associated more with Hindutva iconography in the years 1920–1930.

The 1946–1950 debate was rekindled in 2014. While the BJP was not asking to rebaptize India officially (unlike Buddhist Sinhalese Sri Lankans in 1976), the party wanted to spread the use of the name Bharat, in keeping with its strategy of operating through practices rather than the law. The party thus made promotion of the expression “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” (Hail Mother India!) its hobbyhorse and in March 2016 passed a resolution stating, “Our Constitution guarantees Freedom of Expression to every citizen; but that freedom is enjoyable only within its framework. Talking of destruction of Bharat can’t be supported in the name of freedom of expression. Similarly, refusal to hail Bharat—say Bharat Mata ki Jai—in the name of freedom is also unacceptable.”

The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, went so far as to conclude that, in view of the universal nature of Hinduism, the whole world should chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” But the objective was indeed a domestic one: the aim was to advance the Indian-Hindu equation by stigmatizing minorities that were reluctant to embrace a symbol of the majority community. The BJP chief minister of Maharashtra applied this approach to the letter by asserting that those who refused to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai!” did not belong in India. And he concluded: “We are open to criticism against the BJP. But not against country.”

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At the same time, Modi government ministers and RSS leaders continued to make statements aiming to assert the Hindu essence of Indian identity to the detriment of secularism, although the latter is enshrined in the Constitution. Nitin Gadkari, a former BJP president who became transport minister in 2014, said of the Modi government upon inaugurating the stretch of highway linking Ayodhya and Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh: “This is government of Ram bhakts [devotees of the god Ram] . . . a government of those who gave the slogan Jai Shri Ram”—which enjoyed great success during the Ayodhya movement. The usually more moderate foreign affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, came out in favour of the Indian state recognizing the Bhagavad Gita (the jewel of the Mahabharata epic) as “National Scripture” (Rashtriya Granth), in the religious sense of the term, basing her recommendation on the fact that Narendra Modi had just given a copy of the book to President Barack Obama. M. L. Khattar, the BJP chief minister of Haryana, followed suit, claiming that the Gita was “above the Constitution.”

Opposition parties rose up against such challenges to secularism. Sharad Pawar, the leader of the National Congress Party, protested, “I am a Hindu and proud of my religion’s rich heritage. But does that mean I have the right to hurt the sentiments of other religions? All religions should be treated equally.”

One of the Tamil Nadu‒based NDA parties, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), also reacted in eloquent terms through the voice of its founder, S. Ramadoss: “There is no denying that Gita has noble values. The same values are in Holy Quran and Holy Bible. While this attempt only strengthens the argument that the Modi government is making efforts to make India a Hindu nation.”

Six months after the Modi government was formed, two visions of Indian identity were thus at odds, and the question of secularism—and thus a possible revision of the 1950 Constitution—was subject to debate.

Discussion often took on an extrareligious or ethnoreligious dimension, proving that what was at stake was the identity of a people that supposedly descended from the “sons of the soil.” In December 2017, Anantkumar Hegde, union minister of state for skill development and entrepreneurship in the Modi government, said, “Those claiming to be secular and progressive do not have an identity of their parents and their blood. One will get self-respect through such identity.

“A few people say the Constitution mentions the word secular, so you have to agree. Because it’s there in the Constitution, we will respect it, but this will change in the near future.”

The Constitution has changed many times before. We are here and have come to change the Constitution. We will change it.” The following day, the opposition boycotted the parliamentary session and demanded Hegde’s resignation. The minister reasserted his party’s respect for the Constitution and said no revision was on the agenda. In any event, the BJP did not have the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to revise the Constitution without proceeding by referendum.

But it was clear that one of the new government’s objectives was to challenge the secularism enshrined in the Constitution.

Advocates of Hindutva set out to delegitimize secularists (which Hindu nationalists call “sickularists” in the social media) by attacking present and past Congress leaders. Nehru remained a prime target, accused by the BJP of marginalizing Hinduism in Indian political life and of conducting policies in favour of Muslims. But Gandhi was not spared, either.

A BJP member of the Lok Sabha, Sakshi Maharaj, a cleric who had developed a chain of ashrams and schools in Uttar Pradesh, glorified Nathuram Godse, the man who assassinated Gandhi. Maharaj, who had also been investigated by the police for two cases of rape and murder, called Godse a “patriot,” unleashing a profusion of praise on social media. The Mahatma’s grandson, Tushar Gandhi, made a much-noted comment on this outburst: “Sakshi Maharaj is at least honest enough to come out and say what’s in his heart. . . . The government should endorse what Sakshi Maharaj has said, they shouldn’t be double faced.”

The challenge to secularism was not merely a matter of speech, and it is not because the BJP was not in a position to reform the Constitution that their policy was without impact. Among their significant acts was the access it gave the RSS to the state apparatus.

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The State Apparatus Opens Up to RSS Influence

 While promoting a given personality within the BJP—and even acceptance of a certain personality cult—was new for the RSS, another novelty was the interest this organization showed in the state apparatus as soon as Narendra Modi was elected. Within the RSS, appetites for political power were traditionally frowned upon, as the organization preferred to work on changing society from within, as noted previously.

At least two reasons can explain this new attention turned to the state.

First, the RSS could expand even more rapidly if it enjoyed state protection.

Second, the RSS could envisage using the state apparatus to accelerate reforms it felt strongly about without diverting it from its traditional missions. And indeed, the organization sought to influence key ministers via, for instance, the new BJP president, Amit Shah, who went to the RSS headquarters in Nagpur even before his appointment was ratified by the BJP’s National Council.

There, he was told “not to allow [sic] Modi government to overshadow the party” and reminded about the “Sangh’s Hindutva agenda,” which included the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the abolition of article 370 and the making of a Uniform Civil Code.36 To tighten its grip on the BJP, the RSS took part in the formation of the National Executive of the BJP.37 As a result of these negotiations, Ram Madhav, a member of the RSS executive committee who had been spokesman of the RSS since 2003, was appointed to the BJP National Executive, as well as Shiv Prakash, another RSS cadre.

Extracted with permission from ‘Modi’s India – Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy’ by Christophe Jaffrelot, published by Context, November 2021.

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