Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

BJP would have us believe that in spirit it is about 2000 years old

WAS BORN IN THE SAME MONTH as the BJP: April 1980. […] As I watched Advani, the party’s grand paterfamilias, now in the twilight of his career, reminisce about the party’s dramatic leap in political fortunes in the 80s, I was taken back to the Sunday morning telecasts of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan on Doordarshan in the Cuttack of my childhood. No one was to be seen on the streets between 10:00 and 11:00 on those mornings; one article estimated the audience for the serial at 91 percent of those owning television sets. These broadcasts, although the work of Rajiv Gandhi’s Information & Broadcasting ministry, did much to create a pan-Indian Hindu consciousness that would work in the BJP’s favour and broaden the appeal of its own agitation on the issue of the disputed Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
I thought, too, of the day the Babri Masjid was brought down by kar sevaks and miscreants late in 1992, and the riots and reprisals, some of them the handiwork of the BJP’s ideological ally, the Shiv Sena, that followed in the Bombay where I then lived—an experience from which the city has never quite recovered. […]

But in 2002, watching news of the genocide in Gujarat from the security of my room in Cambridge, the bubble of my youthful confidence in the party burst, and the dark underbelly of its politics, particularly its links with bloodthirsty right-wing groups, was laid bare. I was disillusioned, too, by the party high command’s equivocation over the Gujarat affair. In December 1992, in the wake of the demolition in Ayodhya, Advani had argued that the BJP was actually firmly committed to secularism, and that the party’s track record of preserving communal peace in the states where it had formed a government spoke for itself. Now that claim lay comprehensively dismantled.

Further into my 20s, as my own understanding of Indian politics and society expanded, the party’s view of Indian history and culture came to seem ever less satisfactory. Yet, through my interactions with people and on my travels, I had come to be intrigued, both as an observer of politics and as a novelist, by the narrative power exerted by the party’s founding fiction on the minds of many middle-class Indians like myself. This was the idea that Indian culture is rooted in a Hindu ethos and worldview, and that Indian Hindus, because a double-standard secularism that ignored the sentiments of the majority community, were disorganised, defensive about their faith, and therefore accomplices in the desertion of the central principle of their civilisational history. In centuries gone by, Muslim rule and British colonialism had been responsible for Hindu debilitation. But in an independent
India in which their primacy has been re-established, Hindus had no one else to blame but themselves for their marginalisation. Or, as an article called ‘Angry Hindu’ published in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Organiser in the 80s put it, “Really speaking, I am more angry about myself than about others.”

In this view, now widely shared and propagated by middle- class, upper-caste Hindus, India was really ‘our country,’ and the BJP was brave to speak the truth about the historical primacy and present inadequacy of Hindus in India, while the Congress merely flip-flopped and tried to be all things to all people. The other side of this belief, based on a longstanding and widespread animus now given the confidence to speak out, was a contempt for and pained sufferance of communities outside the Hindu fold, particularly Muslims, who were mainly imagined in the abstract and not in the particular. On many long-distance train journeys, I saw older people brought together only by the accident of adjacent seat numbers forging a bond over casual conversation, as one might discuss cricket or cinema, about the rapidly growing size of the Muslim community because of polygamy and high birth rates, or the wily conversion tactics and plots of Christian missionaries. […] A less sympathetic interpretation would note that the BJP not only channeled the agitation of a pervasive default setting in society but also stoked it, seeking to reinforce and multiply this suspicion and hostility, and, paradoxically, to boil down Hindu identity itself to a mirror image of the stereotypes of the other it generated.

At 30, then, I was more curious than ever to see and hear from up close the representatives of Hindutva, and to listen to the party in conversation with itself as an insider might. I was also curious to see first-hand how the party envisioned its own future direction after the chastening defeat at the hustings last year, and in a new time where the appeal of the colour saffron had begun to run dry. For three days I found myself wandering through the personalities, lexicon and imagery of an alternative, fully-formed universe very distant from my own: pracharaks and swayamsevaks, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, nationalism and pseudosecularism, Atalji and Advaniji, Hindutva and Bharat Mata, the cow and the Ganga, polysyllabic Hindi and Vedic advice for the 21st century, and green and saffron without the white in between.

A PARTY AS FIXED ON THE PAST as the BJP—and not just a recent, historical past, but a more distant, mythical past—must continuously be idealising that past on the one hand, as if seeking a return to it, and of funneling it into the present on the other. Although it is only 30, the BJP would have us believe that in spirit it is about 2000 years old. Two such examples at the convention demonstrate the enormous archive of narrative material available to the BJP. […] ALTHOUGH THE BJP is emphatically a nationalist party, it is not, and probably cannot in its current form be, a national party. This seemed clear even at a conference of its own delegates.

The default language of the convention was Hindi, which immediately divided the assembly into insiders and outsiders, those from the centre and the north much more at ease than those from the east, the northeast and the south. Of course, language is a minefield for every pan-Indian event, and there can be only so much accommodation for diverse tongues. But not the slightest concession seemed to be granted to non-Hindi speakers. Just as every Indian is assumed by the BJP to be a part of a monolith called Indian culture, so too it seemed an assumption of the convention that every delegate possessed a working knowledge of Hindi, both oral and written. […]

Although many of the speakers at the convention claimed that the party was far more open-minded than its opponents had made it out to be, in practise, the categories adopted for the sake of argument themselves gave the lie to this claim. It was claimed that the party was not hostile to Muslims per se, as was often believed—it was only opposed to those Muslims who, while they lived in India, bore allegiance to some other territory or idea or grouping. The very structure of this formulation was paranoid. It was hard to believe that the party seriously felt that any Muslim would buy such a contorted argument. A Muslim, even if not the first thing was known about him, was already in a special category in the eyes of the party.

Then again, the party seemed to project a similarly blinkered and reactionary view with respect to its own imagined core constituency of Hindus. A genuine commitment to the rejuvenation of Hinduism—if we assume for a moment that this Hinduism is actually in crisis—would require an organisation that celebrated the great diversity of thought and practice within Hinduism. This seemed well beyond the BJP’s Hindi-belt bias and militant tenor. Despite the odd instance of creative interpretation, the party’s nationalism still seems basically uncurious and inflexible, desirous of bending every Hindu to the adoption of a saffron kit consisting of the Ram temple, the Gita, the Ganga, ‘Vande Mataram,’ and Bharat Mata ki Jai rather than accommodating the divergent adherences of caste, culture and geography. […] But even if the new president came as a moderate and modernising voice, the tribalism and inhospitability of the ‘original formula,’ now deeply embedded in the party’s psyche, were plainly on view in Indore, and seem sure to come seeping through even in its fourth decade.

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