The struggle for India’s soul

Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi pays tributes to Vinayak Damodar ‘Veer’ Savarkar. Photograph: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The dream of turning India into a place for “One God, One Country, One Goal, One Caste, One Life, One Language” has long been in the making.

Originally fantasized by Vinayak Savarkar, an arch Hindu nationalist, and pursued over the past hundred years by numerous Indian leaders, now has a new Commander-in-Chief. As India’s second-term Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has made no secret of his desire to finally make Savarkar happy. So confident he and his BJP have been about the mission of turning India into Hindu Raj – a combination of Punyabhoomi and Matribhoomi – that they have pledged to bestow upon Savarkar the highest national honor, Bharat Ratna.

Everything seemed to be going well.

Once Modi’s second term was assured, he quickly moved to implement one of his early election promises, abrogating Kashmir’s special status. That went almost without a ripple (or so the Government wanted everyone to believe). Then came the National Citizenship Register, a law originally enacted in 1955 but implemented for the first time in Assam in 2013-2014. The results released last year show nearly two million people are out of the register, who now face possible expulsion from India. The next move was with the Supreme Court which, like good party loyalists, turned the Babri Mosque into a new Ram Janmabhumi Temple, an original BJP demand. That, too, went without much of a fuss. Now emboldened, Modi made his next move: adopting an amended citizenship law that, for the first time, asks Indian citizens to pass a religion test before they can be considered citizens.

Here something went awfully wrong.

The move backfired as much of India rose in a spectacular protest, rejecting Modi’s dream of Hindu Bharat, and renewing a call for Ambedkar’s secular India.

On its face, the Citizenship Amendment Act – or CAA – seems quite harmless, in fact, rather magnanimous. It assures minorities from Bangladesh and other countries surrounding India who have fled persecution in their homeland a quick accession to Indian citizenship.

The two laws are linked and need to be viewed as such to understand the motive behind the Modi government’s decision. Modi wants the Citizenship Register to be a nation-wide initiative. Once completed, it will list every single Indian citizen not just by their name or address but by religion.  Thus, in secular India – that’s how the constitution describes the country – citizenship will require a ‘religion test’.  With Hindus – even when illegal - being granted citizenship, the Muslims are automatically pushed to second class status. More worrisome for the Muslims is the fact that many of them don’t have proper documentation to prove their bona fides as citizens.  After all, how many people in this part of the world are known to have birth records?  Anyone unable to produce proper documentation could be heading to the ‘detention centers’ (read ‘concentration camps’) that are being set up for illegal aliens.

While the protest against the twin whammy has forced the Muslims out on the street, this has clearly angered many Indians who are worried at India’s serious turn towards religious intolerance and bigotry. This is a clash of two ideas: a Hindu India VS a secular India.  This is also a clash between two cultural and political icons, V D Savarkar, a hardcore Hindu ideologue, and B R Ambedkar, a secularist.

Savarkar, a former President of Hindu Mahasava, the predecessor of today’s BJP, championed the call for turning India into the homeland for Hindus alone.  To him, Hindus, the original Aryans, were part of a single nation and India was their homeland. The Hindu Nationalism that he championed – what we now call Hindutva – was inspired by his mantra, “One God, One Country, One Goal, One Caste, One Life, One Language.” His dream was that of an ‘Akhanda Bharat’ – an undivided India that stretched from the Indus to the seas and below the Himalayas.  For Savarkar, India was more than a ‘matribhoomi’ (motherland) for Hindus, it was also a “punyabhoomi’ (holy land).  Not so for Muslims and Christians, as their punyabhoomi was in far off Arabia and Palestine.

There were many who zealously took up Savarkar’s cause of “Akhanda Bharat’ based on one religion and one language, but none more successfully than Narendra Modi. The Indian Prime Minister is unabashed about his adulation for Savarkar.  Modi calls himself a Hindu and a Nationalist, and argues, "It is due to Savarkar's sanskar (values) that we put nationalism as the basis for nation-building."

Standing squarely opposite to Savarkar is B R Ambedkar, a legal and constitutional scholar who is regarded as the Father of Indian Constitution.

Unlike Savarkar and Hindu nationalists, Ambedkar embraced the vision of a different India where a shared history and culture, shaped by common struggle against colonialism, was the defining characteristic of Indian citizenship. He coined the term ‘composite culture’ which referred to what united the Indians most and not what divided them. He vehemently opposed Manusmriti, the second most revered religious tract for Hindus after Veda for its unapologetic promotion of caste-based hierarchy. This led to Ambedkar’s fierce opposition to Hinduism, which he called ‘a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity’. He famously declared, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country.”

Many in today’s India have no problem calling themselves Hindu, but are unwilling to endorse the Hindutva of Savarkar and his BJP followers. Among them is Shashi Tharoor, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and now a member of the Indian Parliament.   In his book, India, from midnight to the millennium and beyond, Tharoor pointed out, the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.

“This pluralism emerged from the very nature of the country; it was made inevitable by India’s geography and affirmed by its history. There was simply too much of both to permit a single exclusionist nationalism.”

What is unfolding in India now is a battle between these two narratives. Its outcome will not only define the very meaning of ‘Indianness’ but also unveil the very soul of India. The outcome will also greatly impact all those surrounding India, including Bangladesh and Pakistan. A secular India has been a great source of inspiration for those fighting for religious tolerance and cultural pluralism. A triumph for Hindu nationalism will embolden those who want their own ‘religion test’ for their citizens.

5 January 2020, New York

  • The struggle for India’s soul
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 27
  • Hasan Ferdous
  • DhakaCourier

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