Dominance and Dissent: Interrogating the Terms of Discourse
This paper is a reflection on academic pragmatics in contemporary India. More particularly, it examines how the predominantly secularized, Hindu academy has responded to the threat posed by the political upsurge of right-wing, Hindu majoritarianism. It argues that the academy has responded by a peculiar politics of its own, a politics which, by virtue of its oppositional and progressive stance, cheats itself into feeling satisfied, but actually prevents it from discharging its larger social and cultural responsibilities. In other words, this paper tries to show that much of the counter-communalistic academic discourse is, paradoxically, a distorted reflection of the very thing that it seeks to defeat and destroy. This discourse has its own paranoias and insecurities which, upon closer scrutiny, reveal an uncanny resemblence to those Hindu fundamentalism itself. Consequently, the secular academy is not just fearful and aggressive, but also partial and selective in its methods and strategies.
Simply speaking, anti-Hindutva academics is born out of the insecurities of the secular Hindu intelligensia. Alarmed that the very middle-classes whose vanguard and champion it supposed itself to be was now deserting it allured by what was so obviously an inferior ideology, it has reacted with predictable anger and bitterness. This secular intelligensia had almost come to equate Hinduism with its brand of secularism, having been paternalistically tolerant of minority fanaticism, whether Muslim, Sikh, radical, or caste-based. None of these extremisms threatened it in the way Hindutva does. This sort of selective opposition to Hindu political militancy suggests the presence of an inverse communalism at the very core of this discourse. Such implicit tolerance or even support of minoritarian extremism actually lends strength to the insecurity of the majority, thus, perversely abetting militant majoritarianism. Hence, ironically, the academy ends up feeding and energising the very beast that it wishes to bind and tame.
I am offering this paper not as one who hates or distrusts the academy, but as concerned and committed member who finds himself almost driven to silence or despair at his own loneliness within it. While I fervantly hope and wish that I am proven wrong, that the fears and anxieties informing this paper are actually unfounded, I suspect that they may not be all that fanciful or irrelevant, after all. We who have taken upon ourselves the task of interrogating and unmasking Hindutva, need to interrogate and unmask ourselves first. Only then can face our adversary effectively.
I begin with the assumption that the official discourse, at least in Indian academics, is anti-caste and anti-patriarchical. I say this because I am hard put to find anyone endorsing either the caste system or the patriarchy from any of the academic fora in our coutry and I dare say that this has been the case for the last few decades.
This does not mean that Indian academics is totally free of caste prejudice or male chauvanism. Ideology, according to one definition, is what is hidden. If so, then, both casteism and male chauvanism, in various guises, lurk in unlikely places. However, finding them is not as easy as it used to be. It calls for various sophisticated textual strategies and methods to voice suppressed and hidden meanings. The compulsions to do so have given rise and currency to a new hermeneutics, which claims to decode the hidden political incorrectness of texts. What follows, in turn is that resistance and subversion are valorized over cooperation and affirmation.
Such a state of affairs has led to a curious academic politics, which I shall touch upon only briefly. On the one hand, it has led to the narrowing of the space of criticism because each critic must be "purer than thou," more politically correct than the text under scrutiny. Otherwise, how can one uncover the secret oppressions of texts which seem to be benign and politically correct? One might add that while very high and at times totally unreasonable standards of political correctness are made upon the texts one reads, one's own life shows all sorts of compromises and collusions with corrupt and illegitimate postcolonial intellectual power structures. So a peculiar contradiction and miasma pervades much of what passes for radical academic discourse today.
On the other hand, such a hermeneutics, with its deep chasm between thought and reality, breeds the peculiarly anamolous situation in which the main texts of the culture or society represented become totally denuded as the whole academic community jostles for room in the margins. The margins, consequentlyy, become overcrowded. Space here is at a high premium, just as in an exclusive highrise apartment building at the city centre. One's credentials and qualifications to occupy it must be proven time and again by the quality and quantity of one's subversiveness. Thus, without going so far as to actually be victimised, it has become imperative to occupy victim-positions, to speak on behalf of others who are underprivileged or oppressed. All the while, the oppressors, the victimisers, the objects of the criticism are nowhere present. Their absence makes one wonder about their whereabouts in the first place. When we are all on the side of the resisters and subverters, when we are all endorsing some marginality or the other, when we are all victims or fellow-travellers, then whom are we addressing? Where are all those whom we seek to subvert or resist? Not finding them easily, it follows that we must invent them. How else can we meet the never-ending demands of surplus subalternism?
It seems to me that "Hindu nationalism"--as distinct from Hindutva—is just such a category. It is a category invented by the offcial champions of resistance as a convenient enemy to joust with. It used to be that the oppositional categories were "nationalism" vs. "separatism," or, if these nouns needed qualifying adjectives, "Indian," not Hindu nationalism vs. "Muslim," not Dalit or feminist, separatism. It was assumed that Indian nationalism was not necessarily of exclusively Hindu parentage, that there were Muslims, Parsis, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and so on, who also championed it and contributed to it. Nationalism, by definition, was not seen as the exclusive property of one class, community, caste, region, or religion, but of the entire country. As opposed to this cooperative and collaborative project, a section of vested interests raised the slogan of Muslim separatism and, with the help of the British, secured an independent country for themselves, using the disguise of Islam to camouflage their political ambitions.
This used to be what we were brought up to believe. It, alas, is no longer good enough for us. With the failure of the project of Nehruvian secularism, we have begun to suspect that what was thought of as Indian nationalism was simply Hindu nationalism, with the token participation of other communities thrown in as window dressing. What was worse, it seemed that all you had to do was to scratch an Indian and beneath him lurked a Hindu fundamentalist. How else would our secularlist intellensia explain the rise of the proto-Fascistic BJP? For this left-liberal intellectual class, which had grown complacent and secure under state patronage for decades, what could be a greater disaster than the destruction of the Babri Masjid?
This class conveniently forgot that not only were several thousands of temples destroyed during eight hundred or so years of Muslim rule, but there has been a history of conversions in this country, not only of individuals and communities, but also of places of worship. Thus, there are records of Buddhist viharas being converted into Hindu temples, of Hindu temples being converted into Jaina shrines, or Shiva temples being transformed into Vaishnava temples, and so on. What is more, these were secular acts, not necessarily religious ones. They were secular because they were sanctioned by the state which by defintion always acts in the secular space. These captures and conversions of shrines were fuelled by worldly greed and the compulsions of realpolitik, not by motives of spiritual advancement. What is more, there are competing and conflicting versions of such take-overs, crossings, and conflicts. Thus, as Shahid Amin has shown us, a site of religious conflict gradually becomes transformed into a site of religious syncretism. Or, the villains and heroes change depending on whose version you're listening to. In the Periapuranam, which is a Shaiva text, the Jaina's appear to be villainous.
If one goes to Sri Lanka, then the Shaiva's are portrayed as bloodthirsty and trecherous while the Buddhists are ethical and compassionate. Gandhi wished to down-play majoritarian politics in his vision of democracy. In a Gandhian democracy, the single individual, the absolute minority, was as important as the masses who belonged to any one ethnic or religious group. Of course, the Congress, which ruled continuously for three decades, were always playing the numbers game, dividing and ruling, cobbling together a majority by forming a collective of minorities, each wooed, appeased, and maintained. India, then, had never been a secular state in the Gandhian sense. It had been a state in which the minorities had enjoyed a disproportionate political power because of their capacity to vote en-block. The destruction of the Babari masjid was a signal that the politics of minoritism has suffered a serious set-back by the newly emerging majoritarain politics. This was a politcal and secular crisis, not a religious one.
Threatened with the rising tide of Hindu majoritarianism, our secularist, left-liberal academic community, naturally, felt threatened. No one way buying their histories. Their explanations as well as their prognostications had been falsified. They came together, as never before, to denouce the destruction of the masjid. That was, of course, a good thing. All thinking people, including several people of faith, also denounced this act of senseless vandalism. Gandhians, spiritualists, sufis, Sai Baba devotees, followers of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, the Radha Saomis, and several other sects also expressed themselves, both publically and privately, against the demolition. This wider, people's displeasure was, of course, underplayed by the secularists. Their agenda was to isolate the Hindutvavadis, to give them no fleeing room. So anyone who refused to accept their terms of discourse was, willy nilly, branded a Hindu fundamentalist. This led to the absurd situation in Indian academics wherein Hindu fundamentalism became the default mode: the only way to prove one was not so was to declare oneself to be a secularist. If you're not one of us, you must be one of them—was the logic, not very different from the logic, or should one say, illogic of the Cold War. Though more books and collections of critical essays have been published about the demolition of the Babri masjid than on any other single event since the Emergency, the people, the voters are not been listening. I predict, somewhat cynically, that if the BJP is voted to power in these elections, several of our secularist academics will be singing a different tune. Because, after all, our intellectuals are not so much secularlist as statist.
My point is that the tendency in recent times to equate communalism with nationalism, to consider both to be invented through similar processes and manipulations, is an example of back-formation, the attempt of the beleagured secular intelligensia to invent a past for Hindu fundamentalism, which seems to be gaining the upper hand, at least in upper India. What better way to do this than by suggesting that Hindu fundamentalism and Indian nationalism, which seemed to be opposed discourses, are actually co-extensive and overlapping. It is only one more rhetorical step before subsuming the whole of Indian nationalism into the category of Hindu fundamentalism: this way you can kill both the Hindu and the nationlist, two birds of the same feather, with one discursive stone. This brilliant conflation would turn all Indian nationalists into Hindutvavadis.
For this long preamble, I must apologise, but I believe that the terms in which the topic of this seminar have been framed illustrate the kinds of processes that I have been describing. From the topic it seems that Hindu nationalism is an inherently hegemonic and oppressive category, which has then been challenged by lower-castes and women. I am not sure I subscribe to such a formulation. The key question for me would be what we include under this term. Does Hindu nationalism refer primarily or exclusively to the Hindutvavadis, the proponents of a Hindu state? This, I believe, would make sense, but then the topic ought to have read, "Dalit and gender challenges to Hindutva," not to "Hindu nationalism."
Simply speaking, I believe Hindu nationalism to be a bogus, even mischievous category. From its very inception, I believe that Indian nationalism has been consensual and inter-communal, not purely Hindu in character. It might have had hidden majoritarian underpinnings and might have used Hindu symbolism extensively, but that does not make it exclusively Hindu in character.
By this token, I find it difficult to brand everyone from Bankim to Gandhi as Hindu nationalist. Such arguments are flimsy: is Tagore a Hindu nationalist? Is Nehru a Hindu nationalist? is Radhakrishnan a Hindu nationalist? What about Sri Aurobindo? Subhas Chandra Bose? C. Rajagopalachari? J. P.? Should all Hindus who were nationalists be considered Hindu nationalists? What about Christians like W. C. Bannerjee or Theosophists like Annie Besant? What about Muslims like Maulana Azad or M. A. Ansari, or Saifudding Kitchlu, or M.C. Chagla? Or athiests Sikhs like Bhagat Singh? And Ambedkar who was born a Hindu but died a Buddhist?
If all of these--whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Parsi, or atheistic are Hindu nationalists, only then has the category some validity. But then it comes very close the RSS line of substituting Indian with Hindu. Or, the term has meaning if it signifies the opposite extreme, the Hindu Mahasabha, RSS, and its allies who wanted a Hindu Rashtra in India. If so, then Hindu nationalism is nothing but Hindutva. Hindu nationalism, therefore, can be a useful term as long as it refers to either extreme. But if, on the other hand, by Hindu nationalists is meant a group of nationalist leaders who functioned politically as Hindus versus those who functioned as secularists, then I think the term is very mischievous and ill-conceived. It then becomes an attempt to take the paranoia of the secularist intellectuals backwards into history so as to separate the sheep from the goats, the benign secular nationalists from their pernicious co-religionists, who thought along communal lines even though they claimed to be national.
I am not denying that there were communal elements in the Congress, nor am I seeking to erase the religious leanings or vocabularies of the nationalist leaders. All I am saying is that being religious, being Hindu or Muslim, is perfectly compatible with being not only a nationalist but also an advocate and adherant of a secular polity. Let me put it bluntly: being religious cannot be equated with being communal, nor can being secular be equated with being tolerant. Secularism is not the sole provenance of tolerance just as religion is not the sole province of intolerance.
Similarly, being a Hindu and a nationalist, does not automatically make one opposed to lower castes or to women. Gandhi was not only a Hindu and a nationalist, but was also a great champion of the emancipation of the lower castes. Gandhi was not the only one; there were many others like him. Similarly, Mirdula Sarabhai was a Hindu, a nationalist, _and_ a feminist. To assert that a Hindu and a nationalist, by definition, must be anti-Dalit or anti-women is, therefore, fallacious. Hence, the opposition implied in the title of the topic is an artificially constructed one. It, moreover, reflects as I have been trying to argue, what might be termed the dominant academic ideology of our times, which automatically valorises lower-caste and women's struggles against what is all-too-readily dubbed as hegemonic and homogenous Hinduism. May I say that in an alternate formulation, Hinduism can seen as being different from Hindutva. While the latter is the supremecist ideology of a particular political party and its supporting organizations, the former is the religion, faith, and way of life of over 80% of Indians. Hinduism, then, is a loose and almost undefinable conglomeration of belief-systems which allows for variety and inner contradictions. Hindutva, is but one fringe of Hinduism, a rather militant, extreme fringe, and must not be equated with the whole spectrum of what may be considered to be Hinduism. Hinduism, in other words, cannot be assumed to be monolith and then attacked for being one. This is logical fallacy in which one is ignoring the burden of proof. Such narrow and restrictive definitions of Hinduism have always had a polemical rather cognitive motive.
Ambedkar's was one such formulation in which Hinduism could have no existence without caste. Because caste had to be destroyed, Hinduism itself had to be destroyed or forsaken. But we have begun to see that Hinduism is flourishing even as caste, in the traditional sense, is withering away. Similarly, gender challenges imply that the whole structure of Hinduism is necessarily and inescapably patriarchical. Actually, it is not Hinduism which is patriarchical so much as a particular society is. When that society changes, its religious beliefs change too. We know how the patriarchy gradually reduced the independent status of Goddesses to that of consorts. Of course, we also know that the patriarchy could not totally dethrone the Supreme Mother Goddess from her supra-omnipotence, nor could it totally deny the social and familial implications of such worship. Yet, just as the status of Goddesses was lowered, it can also be raised. Hinduism is not static, just as society is not static. Just as castes have risen and fallen in history, so have Gods and Goddesses.
Lest I be misunderstood, I must make my position very clear: I am not claiming that Hinduism, or Indian nationalism were perfect or devoid of ills. Nor am I claiming that there was no necessity to challenge them from the stand point of the Dalits or of women. Indeed, I hold the contrary view that our traditions are prone to corruption and must be constantly challenged. Gandhi did this in his time and in our time we must do the same even to Gandhi's own legacy. All I am objecting to is a narrow, motivated, and prejudiced definition of tradition, a definition which is self-serving as it is inaccurate, upon which to base the critique of tradition. I believe that such narrowness is counter-productive, that it undoes what it seeks to do. Instead of producing greater justice and equality, it actually substitutes one injustice by another, one inequality by another.
In fact, it might even be useful to reverse the terms in the topic and to talk in terms of the religious challenge to the Dalit and feminist extremism. Because, the fact is that Dalit discourses and feminist discourses have begun to wield greater and greater institutional authority. They are backed, to varying degrees, by political and administrative power and have become the officially sanctioned ideologies of our times. This is not to imply that Dalits or women are no longer oppressed or brutalised. On the contrary, it is to remind ourselves that the oppression and brutalization of Dalits and of women exists simultaneously with the unprecedented power and patronage that their academic and intellectual proponents enjoy. It would be a dangerous mistake to overlook or deny the offical power and privileges of one because of the real victimization and exploitation of the other. It is important to recognize that these officially sanctioned discourses, sometimes with unbelievably brutal cynicism, exploit the very oppression of their constituencies to extract greater benefits and privileges for themselves, somewhat in the manner in which our NRI novelists sell the poverty and exoticism of India to avid Westerners.
The time has come to question not just Hindu nationalism and its hegemonies, but also to interrogate Dalit and feminist challenges and the counter-hegomonies that these endender. This is not to equate the violence of the oppressed with the violence of the oppressors, but to question the ideology which believes that violence can only be overcome by counter-violence, that means justify the end, that it is better to violate the other than be violated by the other. The real choice is not between the oppressor and the oppressed but between both and neither, between being either oppressor or oppressed and between being neither oppressor or oppressed.
If so, then sooner or later, women, Dalits, Hindus, Muslims, nationalists, critics of nationalism, and all kinds of others will have to find ways of talking to one another, negotiating with one another. But in order to do this, they must all agree on an agenda of minimum cooperation and cooexistence. And this will happen only if we abandon the politics of special interests and accept the broader framework of sarvodaya, or universal responsibility. Of course, we need not give up our special interests in order to do so, but only align them to ever widening concentric circles of universal human welfare. After all, I must recognize that my interests are not inherently incompatible with the interests of others--true, they may appear to be so, but ultimately they are not. This ought to be my belief. But if, on the other hand, I were to believe that my interests can be secured only by denying or negating the interests of others, then I place myself in a state of continuous warfare and conflict. As a Dalit or as a woman I must be aware that if I commit myself to the latter course, then I may actually be undermining the justice of my own cause. For, as Gandhi said in _Hind Swaraj_, "We who seek justice will have to do justice to others."
We need a much greater degree of introspection and self-examination before we can occupy the higher moral and intellectual ground from which to mount an attack on Hindutva. But instead, we find ourselves incapacitated and blinded by the deceptions and distortions of the very secularism which we claim to espouse, having enjoyed several underserved privileges for decades as its offical high priests. Instead of preserving and protecting such a decadent and debilitating secularism, perhaps we need to abandon it in favour of those neglected yet vital religious traditions which still hold the keys to our survival as a civilization. Or, if we cannot abandon our secularism, we need at least to modify it, purify it, recognise that it can at best be a minority position in a country such as ours, a vast majority of whose denizens are people of faith and dharma. If we accept this we shall try not to convert these so-called ignorant and superstitious masses to our superior brand of secularism, but instead align our secularism with those benign and emancipatory religious forces which have both defined and sustained India's unique civilizational orientation for thousands of years. Our secularism cannot afford to be intolerant or insensitive to the religious identities and self-definitions of our fellow-citizens; rather, it needs to strengthen the best of these traditions by configuring itself into them, in a supportive and complimentary role if necessary.
What we need to recognize is that Hindu secularism is also a corruption of Hinduism just as Hindutva itself is. This Hindu secularism projects itself as the self-righteous other of Hindutva, the only anti-dote to the excesses and insecurities of the latter. In fact, secular Hinduism is a product of the assault of modernity upon our civilization. Such secularism, which takes us away from ourselves, is appealing to many of us at an early stage in our lives. Later, several of us, invariably return to the faith of our ancestors, finding the whole spiritual terrain of modernity invariably barren and sterile. In fact, the only secularism which survives such a crisis is one which has a strong humanitarian and communitarian component. But the more humanitarian and communitarian it becomes, the more it begins to resemble dharma. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that without recourse to the metalanguage of dharma, such humanitarian secularism still remains incomplete and flawed. If we agree that the rise of the forces of Hindutva is an alarming and dangerous trend, then we will have to do better than to knead all its adherants into one ideological dough. That would only betray our need to create a demonology against which we can begin our self-serving intellectual crusades. The room for a dialogue must be created precisely by wedging into the tell-tale divergencies not only between larger entities like the Shiv Sena and the BJP, but between the various members and factions of the so-called Sangh Parivar. Unless we recognize the differences between Govindacharya and Ashok Singhal, between Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Rithambara, we will make a dangerous and costly error. We shall have to admit that there is a space in India not only for a right-wing party, but also for one which claims to espouse the interests of the Hindus.
What we must argue, however, is that the interests of the Hindus are not really different from the interests of the Muslims and of the other minorities because these interests are economic, political, social, and cultural. If the BJP tries to claim Gandhi's swadeshi for itself, we shall have to remind them that swadeshi is for both Hindu and Muslim, that the desh is belongs alike to all those who live in it. We shall have to remind them that our religion does not condone, let alone encourage, the destruction of the shrines of other religions, that it does not equate temporal power and glory with spiritual upliftment. In brief, Hindutva can be challenged by showing how un-Hindu it is. We can defeat it not by retreating from Hinduism, leaving its rich and nourishing terrain to be appropriated by Hindutva, but by contesting Hindutva's claims over Hinduism, by disputing them, fighting them, and, ultimately disproving them. Hinduism must not go on the defensive, apologetically seeking refuge in secularism; instead, it must take the fight into the enemy's camp, challenging Hindutva to prove its bona-fides. Hindutva can be defeated not by substituting Hinduism with secularism, but by replacing a corrupt and rotten secularism with a genuinely pluralistic and satisfying Hinduism. Or, to put it in another way, Hindutva can be defeated only when a genuine secularism works to support a genuine Hinduism.
Right now, however, what we have is a rotten secularism weakining and undermining an already embattled Hindu tradition by a politics of counter-minoritarianism, which its colonized mind has copied and derived from certain trendy modes of Western scholarship.
Such university-bred radicalism cannot survive without a continuous patronage from the West because, ultimately, it derives not only its agenda but its legitimacy from the West. Dalits and women, especially those among them who have reaped the benefits of affirmative action and social reform, and who now share the same privileges for which they attack high-caste Hindus, can make a crucial contribution at this stage by opting out of their pseudo-victim positions, abandoning the politics of special interests, and trying to evolve common causes with caste Hindus. A politics of cooperation and mutual responsibility needs to replace a politics of opposition and mutual hatred. And here, a sensitive and responsive majority looks towards a courageous and unselfish minority to take the lead.