By Shambhavi Saxena:
As the 3-day Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s World Hindu Congress came to a close on Sunday, 23rd November, it’s now time to review the conference, its relevance and its hits and misses.
1. At the very outset, the word “Hindu”, with all its historical and cultural connotations (and I urge you not to get trapped in arguments of etymology and geography) implies a deliberate exclusion of non-Hindu communities in India, of which there are many – those who practice Islam, Christianity, Judaism, (dare we say Wiccanism?), identifying agnostics and atheists, etc. Also, tribals, Dalits and other Hindu communities who are relegated to a sub-human position in the still prevalent caste-system.
2. VHP patron Ashok Singhal’s rather ominous proclamation of, “There will be many more things made compulsory.” The statement was made in the context of the proposition that Sanskrit replace German as a taught language in Kendriya Vidyalayas (Central Schools). Which, considering right-wing fundamentalism in India today, sounds vaguely threatening, at least to the ‘sickular feminist’ writing this article! Since there is talk of exercising control over the languages we use to communicate, what other areas is that control likely to spread to? Are we to see more moral policing, then, of how women dress and talk and how late they may remain out of the house, of what kind of professions are suitable for men, of what sort of gender expression is ‘appropriate’, etc? Might I remind the reader that these things are already happening without being ‘compulsory’; one can only imagine a situation where this is formalized and enforced by law.
3. The VHP leader’s need to “achieve our nationalism and cultural freedom,” (Source) brings up a very old debate about nationalism itself. The pre-independence era was a conducive environment for cohesive nationalist politics, having identified a common enemy in the Empire. Post-independence Indian Nationalism is rather vulnerable to neo-colonialism – that is, the guy at the top is Indian, but the structures of oppression are just as they were. The main problem with nationalism today is that it falls into the trap of carving out a single national identity, the majority identity, and pass it off as representative of India. This, for the most part works, because statistically, the selected group or identity is very visible, but is responsible for marginalizing hundreds upon hundreds of other identities. I don’t think that in 2014, 64 years after the enforcement of our constitution, we should still be struggling with the problem of marginality. One hopes that Singhal’s idea of nationalism and the national identity includes every kind of linguistic, regional and religious group as well as every gender, orientation, age and physical capability in the country.
4. The VHP leader stressed on protection of cows, save Ganga and prevent Hindus from conversion, as a part of Hindu revival programme. While saving cows, generally wouldn’t raise objections, especially from vegetarians and vegans across the nation (and I’d like to remind you food choices are exactly that, choices – they aren’t genetic or religiously-inherited), the cow protection programs in India are guilty of vilifying traditionally beef-eating communities, and furthering that corrosive Hindutva propaganda. Singhal’s statement on preventing conversions confused me, until I remembered the very, very recent ‘love-jihad’ furore. I needn’t say more, except that following a faith of your choice is, again, a choice and should you choose to convert, you are constitutionally granted that freedom, and if you happen to be forced, once again, the law is on your side there. The anti-conversion stance is just a ploy to maintain the purity and numbers of the Hindu majority in India. Throwback to Hitler’s pure-race ideology, anyone? I must admit that his point on Ganga, which is of course an important symbol for Hindus and is therefore motivated by religion, isn’t so bad as long as the river gets to breathe easy after decades of rot.
5. Union Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping Nitin Gadkari- “Our development should be based on our history, culture, values and our family system – our biggest capital.” Certainly problematic, as the main effort seems to be negating non-Hindu histories or versions of history, including Mughal and British rule in the subcontinent, which contributed greatly to India’s image
There is no mention whatsoever of a sustainable model of development that will protect, among these, the ecological health of India, which is dwindling with only 23.07% of forest cover (World Bank, 2011) that is about ten-percent under the lowest limit any country should dare to have, 47 endangered species (International Union for Conservation of Nature, 2011), and having 15 of the most polluted cities in the world (World Health Organization, 2014). In fact, the BJP’s priority is environmental clearances, not conservation, and the environment should really have been a huge concern for a Congress that prides itself on affiliation with religion that deifies nature and whose pantheon includes animal-gods.
The family system Gadkari is so enamoured with is obviously the traditional patriarchal set up, leaving no room for non-normative family units, the nuclear family, single-parent households, same-sex partnerships (with or without children), live-ins and individuals choosing to live independent of family, no matter how much economic contribution each of these makes to the Gross Domestic Product of India.
Did the WHC Get Anything Right?
Maybe. There were some pulls in the right direction, but even those seemed a little half-baked or murky. This Congress would have really benefited by focusing solely on those issues rather than what is obviously a Hindutva thrust (once again) in the light of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral victories this year.
The Dalai Lama’s rather poignant statement about the abundance of temples in the face of a lack of learning centres was significant. He said: “There should be less of routine rituals, and more of intellectual rituals,” but with a promise of making more things “compulsory”, the RSS and VHP members appear to be entertaining other ideas – particularly of cultural hegemony – a Hinduizing of education and discourse, so to speak, which contradicts the Tibetan spiritual leader’s intent entirely.
Gadkari’s insistence that “existing acts (of rampant corruption) needed to be altered and streamlined” rather than introducing new acts, is rather sensible. What doesn’t add up though is why such a statement emerges from a specifically Hindu-oriented conference rather than a regular cabinet meeting of state functionaries?
While the idea behind the WHC seems to be to reach out to Hindus that are minorities in other parts of the world, and to promote cultural heritage, it takes on a self-aggrandizing tone here in India, and wants to function as something more. Still, when one lives in a democracy, one tends to observe from a safe distance, and hope for the best. The only assurance in the face of an event such as this is that India’s democracy is grounded in the idea of improvement. There is always room for improvement, should the WHC prove to be problematic, that is, falls short of secular, inclusive and peaceful expectation. And that can soothe discomfort somewhat.