World

For India's Hindu Nationalists, Religion Alone Defines Entitlement, Rights and Citizenship

The game of parliamentary numbers is on the side of Hindu nationalists. Will democracy protect all of India's citizens?

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at the UN Paris COP21, 2015.
Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

It’s a worldview at odds with modernity and republicanism crafted in the Indian Constitution and the state: A fundamental belief, indoctrinated through skewed ‘history’ lessons in the shakha, that asserts religion and faith systems, some more than others, inherently determine entitlement, rights and citizenship.

It is this prism that governs officialdom and India today and that tells us—quite unashamedly—that the Rohingyas (never mind that they are poor, distraught and below any poverty line) are a security threat, simply because they are Muslim. The Chakmas are not, the Hindus from Myanmar are not, but Rohingyas are a threat, simply because of their faith. (Source: Indian government’s affidavit before the Supreme Court of India dated September 18, 2017.)

Who is or can become Indian? Only non-Muslims—Hindus, of course, but “Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan... shall not be treated as illegal migrants,” says a draft legislation proposed by the Narendra Modi regime, which signals, again, the institutionalization of discriminatory citizenship. It eventually all boils down to the construct of India, its Motherland and citizenship. 

Way back in 1991, while working with Business India, I was gifted a map of Ahmedabad, by Vishva Hindu Parishad, then far more tentative. The VHP, formed in 1964, is a branch of the now 92-year-old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), earlier restricted by its own contours of being both Brahmanical and misogynist.

(The Bajrang Dalit, too formed in the 1980s, was mandated to ‘woo’ the Dalit. An RSS publication, Matrusansthas [literally, ‘mother organizations’], on the numerous affiliates and organizations which the RSS has spawned over the decades and which form part of the Sangh Parivar, describes the Constitution and need of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and the VHP, which are clearly defined.)

As Citizens for Justice and Peace describes:

The VHP was born in 1964, when the RSS chief, Shri Golwalkar, met a select group of sanyasis and heads of religious organizations in Mumbai with the aim of launching a new organization to unite all Hindu religious sects under a single umbrella. In legal terms, the VHP was conceived of as a trust, with a 100-member board of trustees and a 51-strong governing council. The latter body includes a nominal sanyasi, an indication, perhaps, that the ultimate controlling power rests not with traditional religious leaders, but with the RSS patriarchs. VHP activists are called hitchintaks (well-wishers). Beginning with the tribals of the north-east, the 'Hinduization' of exploited social groups became urgent. As Raghunandan Prasad Sharma’s VHP says in itsAims, Activities and Achievements,the VHP advises the spread of the ‘chief religious samskaras’ among ‘vanvasis, girijans and harijans.’ Clearly these are meant to replace existing beliefs and practices among tribals and ensure a homogenized version of religion.”

The Bajrang Dal, first formed in 1984 to take forward the Ram Janmabhoomi movement launched by the VHP, is defined by the organization itself as the ‘youth wing’ of the VHP, and calls itself different names in different parts of the country, a useful tool to convey heterogenity and omnipresence. In Bengal, for instance, it is known as the Vivekananda Vahini. All these outfits, with their core being the RSS, have from their outset, had clearly defined political aims though their garb is overtly religious.

Coming back to the VHP’s metamorphical map of Ahmedabad. The map had clearly defined course zones, the green and the bhagwa/saffron. Coding the green (read: Muslims) into the old city (where a vibrant culture exists), the message to its fire-breathing cadres was clear. Use any means, fair or foul, to limit ‘Muslim’ spread into the rest of Ahmedabad. Covering the post-Rath Yatra violence in 1991, a particularly crude and bloody incident, haunts me.

Two buxom Gujarati woman shoved a middle-aged Muslim professional to his death from his second-floor home in Narangpura, seen as a posh part of this go-getter city. This was one among increasing instances of women engaging in acts of neighborhood terror. The message for Muslims was both loud and clear, a message against integration, for confining and segregating Muslim existence to the ghetto. The fact that this pair of Gujju behens were also felicitated that Navratri of 1991 (the 10 days of fasting and ‘atonement’ before Dussehra when the metaphoric ‘good over evil’ battle was once fought) tells us more than a little about the kind of militarized, exclusivist ‘Hinduism’ politically bartered by these closely connected outfits. 

B.S. Moonje's Diary No 6-17,November 1946, written en route to Islampur in Bihar, makes for fascinating, if chilling reading. This RSS ideologue, who after a visit to Benito Mussolini’s camps in 1931, started first the Rifle Association in Nagpur and then established Bhonsala Military Academy in Nashik and then Dehradun in 1936, was touring districts affected by the Partition-related riots. Sixty Muslims of Junair Patna had been converted to Hinduism ‘of their own accord’ by some Arya Samajists. Moonje recounts, in almost gloating terms, the ‘power of the fear of death’ among battered Muslims, signaling that this was the way to go.

Addressing a meeting in Delhi, here’s what Moonje then said: “I found the Moslems were so frightened from their experience in the Bihar disturbances that they came to me and said with folded hands, Huzoor, Babuji, hum Hindu hokar rahengay.... This was the first experience of its kind in my life. Fear of death is great. Concluding my speech, I said, This is how people are to be converted to a new religion. Freedom of conscience and propaganda are of no use. They only cause waste of money with practically no result whatsoever."

Fear of death after the use of targeted violence to achieve a political objective: An unbeatable combination that has been nurtured since 1946, and has been evident in bouts of orchestrated and targeted violence, bouts that have transformed into full-blown pogroms, post-Independence and Partition. The power and influence of Moonje’s worldview has grown to dominate India’s parliament and rope in 31 percent of the Indian electorate (in many states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, that percentage of support is much higher, over 40 percent).

At the core of this instrumental use of a militarized form of faith is the transformation—through a climate and fear of violence and death—of India as articulated in the decades long struggle for independence from British colonial rule and exemplified in India’s founding document: its Constitution.

Theocracy, or religion based nationhood, was unequivocally rejected by India’s Constituent Assembly, by leaders of all ideological dispositions. It was exclusivist outfits who were one in their worldview, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, with the Muslim League—who also successfully projected that Muslims could not be part of a composite nation with India’s Hindus.

Today, this worldview, which unashamedly articulates nationhood, citizenship and entitlements based on narrow definitions of faith, dominates Indian Parliament and rules 12 states (another five in alliance). The game of numbers, finally, is on their side. It is no wonder then, that be it Govindacharya (2015-2016) or Mohan Bhagwat now, they make bold assertions calling for a paradigm shift away from India’s Constitution. Mohan Bhagwat recently said that laws and the Constitution should be based on the ‘ethos of our society.’

Is the ethos that the RSS speaks of the one that Moonje so accurately described after the bloodletting of 1946? An ethos of violence crafted around the fear of death?

For any dispensation in the 21st century, in a country of over 1.324 billion people, a good 15 percent of whom are Muslim, 2-3 percent Christian, 27 percent Dalit, a physical ethnic cleansing of those ‘not Hindu’ may not be easy nor practical. But periodic and brute lynchings, by the brainwashed and armed cadres of these multi hydra organizations, are useful to build such an ethos, based on the fear of death.

It is this fear of death that Moonje believed to be the best tool, that would then keep Muslims in line and Christians sufficiently fearful. Top this with the assassin’s bullets, aimed at dissenting voices that question the very construct of the homogenized Hindu, and who assert as Narayan Dabolkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh did, that our ethos has been one of resistance to any homogeneity, an ethos of the assertion of dissent and difference, an ethos epitomized in the questioning of the shravana—not the controlling fear by the Brahmana—and the stranglehold on our freedoms is near complete.

Basavanna (Basava), the radical philosopher and mass mobilizer rejected the crude exclusions bases on gender, community and caste contained in Brahmanical Hinduism and inspired the birth of a Lingayat tradition that stood rational and apart. This was in the 12th century. Before that, we had Eknath and Namdeo in Maharashtra. After that, Tukaram, Kabir, and of course Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, and our very own Ambedkar.

Which ethos does Ambedkar belong to? The Sangh claims him as theirs, but arguably, Ambedkar, with his sharp and biting articulations—read Annihilation of Caste, State and Minorities, State and Shudras, State and Women—would, if alive, have also been a target of elimination. To drive home the fear of death.

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