Sometimes in life, a person observes or realises certain disturbing nuances of an ideology or organisation so contrastingly that they are led to introspection and pondering over the ripples caused in their mind for a long time. On February 22, 2017, one such incident happened.
I have been a supporter of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP – the present ruling party) since my high school days (maybe even earlier primarily due to the graceful and endearing presence of Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, an astute statesman and politician). I liked various stances that the party fundamentally took, be it justice for all and appeasement for none, or politics based on Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s fairly centrist ideology of “integral humanism”.
The tolerant viewpoint that BJP had under Vajpayee passed its biggest test when he led a 13-party coalition in the centre. However, there was and has always been one point in the workings of the BJP that I have found problematic. Hindutva, as they see it. And by they, I am referring to the fringe hardliners and ultra right wingers in the party, who even though constitute a small section of the party but, are a fairly vocal.
The word Hindu encapsulates a cultural and geographical identity more than a religious one. Those living in the land of the Indus (to the east of the river Indus, to be more precise) were called Hindus. There was never a religion called Hinduism before the word was coined in this context. There was Sanatan Dharma and the Vedas ways but no Hindu religion. Moreover, the books Sanatan Dharma, Sankhyakarika and the Bhagavad Purana, besides the Vedas and Upanishads, gave us a way of life more than a religion, as per the definitions of religion in modern times.
If one were to look at the word religion etymologically, one would see that it defines a relation of “reverence to the gods”. Even though, we, in the modern “Hindu religion” are said to have 33 crore gods, religion was never put forth in that way for us. Instead, the unity of the creation and the ways in which energy manifests have been described at length, as have the esoteric concepts of nature and associated “divinity”; the Sanatan Dharma gives an “everlasting code of righteousness and conduct”, if one were to go by the transliteration and not the rules for praying.
Hence, even if one were to go by the ancient schools of thought, the Indian subcontinent had ways to organise society socially and culturally rather than in a strict religious umbrella (although at different points in history, different schools of philosophy have gained the upper hand, due to political and socio-cultural reasons). Cutting the long detour into the ideas of Hinduism short, I would like to mention that in the light of such a conception of the Hindu way of life, Hindu-ness or Hindutva stands more as a socio-cultural concept encompassing the Indian subcontinent than as a religious construct. That is why, I fundamentally disagree with those who want to associate it with certain schools of ideology or philosophy.
Santana Dharma talks of Vairagya which means “colourless”. What it truly refers to is the transcendent nature of something that is not tinted, coloured in parochial ways of thinking; something which tries to address the human desire for knowledge and quest for truth: truth of existence, of creation. It refers to a culture of renunciation (which incidentally is what the colour saffron truly represents) and keeping to a healthy and yet not-excessively-indulgent lifestyle. It does not necessarily promote a culture of capitalism, as the Indian Right are doing. The idea of enterprise, of curiosity and a firm standing in life and society is an integral part of this culture, but in a manner that is conducive for sustainable growth while keeping the interests of others, of society as a whole, of nature and the world around us in mind. It represents a rich heritage. Not the petty politics over which piece of land Lord Rama was born on or why a certain road should be renamed since Emperor Aurangzeb apparently does not deserve his name there (being a ‘despot’).
What we find today in India, in certain places, is an extreme form of nationalism. A form of nationalism that seeks to assuage the demands of some people. It’s a nationalism that seeks to expunge what they see as the dark ages of Indian history: a time when foreign invaders came in, foreign religions and cultures mixed into the indigenous ones, and the Indian subcontinent constantly remained in a state of flux. It is about reclaiming Indianness in a highly assertive if not violent way.
In all of this, unfortunately, the majoritarian discourse tends to flow into endless cycles of meaningless rhetoric and grandstanding that, ironically, hits at the foundation of the tradition that it so espouses. Religion, culture, society and nationalism are intermixed (as it can and should be to an extent) so much that Hindustan is a name frowned upon, simply because it is taken to be a land of the followers of the “Hindu religion”. And the followers of this so-called “Hindu religion” have done little to resolve the paradox of the followers of “divinity in unity” – Vedantic, as it is – being described as being driven to segregation and social division, at times!
Historically, given the ancient history of the way of Sanatan Dharma, the concept has undergone so many changes that nowadays its proponents even have to start imposing bans on beef (as cows have started to be considered holy in a fairly recent rendition of “Hinduism”, more due to the use of the cow in the Gangetic plains and elsewhere than on religious reasons) to bring the people to the “right way”. Ridiculous as it comes!
Other more fundamental constructs, such as caste, seem to be a corruption of a system that if based on meritocracy is much like the formation of guilds based on occupations in society. What we, unfortunately, cannot pin down is the “correct” version of this tradition and this “nation of Bharata”. Which is why palingenetic ultranationalism is a dangerous way to violate and disturb a delicate balance (that has come to the Indian subcontinent after centuries of upheaval). It seems to be a misplaced idea of rebirth. Rebirth of the nation, if it ever even exited in its present form in the first place. A rebirth of the Golden Sparrow (as India was known in the past).
On February 22, 2017, the incident that took place at Delhi University (and which led me to write this behemoth of an article) was shameful. Umar Khalid is a youth leader, associated with left-wing student parties in JNU who had been booked for sedition. His participation in a seminar in Ramjas College of Delhi University was prevented by some members of the student community. What followed thereafter was utter chaos: student members and activists from the BJP’s youth wing, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the leftist student parties, clashed when some students wanted to lodge a complaint with the police regarding cases of violence and stone pelting by ABVP members. This was because they did not want Khalid to speak.
What may seem to be a minor fight, sprouting out of clashing student political-groups, veiled a much bigger threat to not only free speech and tolerance but fundamentally to the idea of Hindutva. Hindutva, in its truest form can never profess intolerance. A way of life that promotes the quest for truth and harmony is hardly a way of violence and intolerance. Yes, there is violence in the act of creation and during evolution of the cosmos (black holes, anyone?) but this is a case of absolutely vindictive violence.
I have met Dr. Prasanta Chakravarty and I know personally. A gentle person, who often comes in his dhoti (an Indian attire) and is a positive presence to be around, was thrashed in the very same mob at Ramjas college. His helpless state in one of the pictures that I saw of that incident, singed in my mind a pertinent question: what kind of nationalism is it that is so weak in its conception that it needs validation, and violent subjugation of free speech and conduct, by its citizens for it to survive?
What kind of nationalism is it that gets imbalanced (apparently) when a person with a different viewpoint than yourself is given a chance to speak in a public gathering? Do we need such nationalism? If not for the chance of being born in a certain geographical location, would we not have been associated with a completely different national identity? Does a concept, that was literally built on a map and a subcontinent divided and partitioned into parts by hand (courtesy: Radcliffe), really mean all that much at the end of the day?
Yes, maybe there are concepts, ideas, cultural constructs in India that can help all of mankind and stand as a unique entity but is it so important so as to make borders more than an administrative convenience and turn them into a psychological barrier? A barrier to a harmonious life that we read so much about in stories of the past, in the very Hindu nation that some people call the last remaining portion of Akhand Bharat (united/undivided India)?
Even as I hang my head in sadness and shame at such an incident in my country, I hope that we truly understand the meaning of what Indianness, or for that matter any form of nationalism, truly represents: a cultural and socio-political commonality arising out of an administrative convenience (borders) and a shared history at some points in time, in the times of yore.
Nothing more, nothing less. In balance, I rest my pen.