Prof. Panikkar is well known historian and secular activist. He teaches history at Jawaharlal Nehru University. We are grateful for his kind permission to reproduce this article here.
The politics of religious identity has gained unprecedented influence in the country in recent times, as evident from the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power. It reflects a qualitative change in the state of consciousness in civil society and a departure from the political culture so far practiced. After a protracted struggle against colonialism, India emerged in 1947 as a secular-democratic state and had set out to preserve and reinforce the rich heritage of its multi-religious and multi- cultural society. The foundational principles of the State and society that the nation then adopted as its credo were non- discriminatory with regard to caste, creed and religion, which imparted to Indian nationalism a territorial inclusive character. Both political culture and social relations initially drew upon these principles, and despite certain aberrations, sought to respect them in practice. The situation has radically changed today. Religious symbols and sentiments are invoked for political mobilisation and democratic principles are shrouded in majoritarianism. The secular territorial concept of nationalism is also under siege; it is sought to be replaced by an exclusionist notion of religious-cultural nationalism.
Although the political assertion of the Hindus is a recent phenomenon - the earlier attempts like the Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad were unsuccessful - its cultural and ideological roots have a long history, going back to the 19th Century. The religious bonds during the pre-colonial era were localised and within fragmented communities, with both communication and mobility confined within local limits. The only attempts to transgress were through pilgrimages to religious centres, which being sporadic did not lead to any continuous interaction or connection. A qualitative change occurred during the colonial period, when, influenced by a variety of initiatives by both the State and civil society, the boundaries of community consciousness were considerably enlarged.
The changes witnessed in the religious domain during this period, with multiple tendencies embedded in them, were particularly important in this context; they were revitalising on the one hand and revivalist on the other. Both were occasioned by colonial domination, which brought home the need for a social and cultural regeneration. A neo-Hinduism emerged out of this quest which, inter alia, sought to construct a homogenised religious community, by attributing to it certain common ideological and cultural traits. The reformation of the existing religious practices which neo-Hinduism attempted by identifying a common scriptural source and by formulating common modes of worship laid the ideological foundation for the incorporation of the hitherto disparate sects and castes into a single Hindu community. Although religious reforms did not mitigate sectarian tendencies within Hinduism, a consciousness of being part of a larger community did emerge out of them. Hindu revivalism, which made great strides during the course of the 20th Century, drew considerable sustenance from this historical experience.
A major catalyst of Hindu religious consolidation was colonialism: both the social engineering and cultural hegemonisation it attempted contributed to the formation of a community consciousness among the Hindus. Its interventions in the social and religious practices created a sense of cultural umbrage, widely shared within the Hindu community, despite the absence of uniform perspectives on social change. The discourse they brought into being was conducted within a commonly shared religious idiom. The initiatives of the colonial state to abolish sati and child marriage and to prescribe a minimum age for the consummation of marriage, for instance, generated a debate about the authentic cultural practices of the Hindus in the past. Both sides, who opposed and supported these moves, invoked the same religious texts, reinforcing, even in opposition, a consciousness rooted in religion. Unlike in the past, the controversies generated by these issues involved people across the country, enlarging thereby the boundaries of religious communitarian experience.
The response of the Hindus to the colonial cultural hegemonisation was essentially inward looking, seeking to revitalise the indigenous practice through a critical introspection about the cultural resources of the past. In such an introspection, culture was treated as synonymous with that of the ancient Hindu past, creating in the process a sense of pride in the achievements of a golden age associated with the Hindus. Hindu religious thought during the course of the 19th Century, as expressed by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Dayananda Saraswati, Vivekananda, Arabindo Ghosh and several others reinforced this tendency. Their interest in spirituality and comparative religion, instead of promoting universalism, led them to recognise Hinduism as a superior, universal religion. More importantly, they equated the regeneration of the country with the revitalisation of Hindu religion. That the Hindus constituted a nation and that religion defined the ideological parameters of nationalism were born out of this perspective.
The rationale for demarcating the Hindus as a nation was mainly drawn from two historical constructs. First, the Hindus are heirs to an uninterrupted lineage from the time of the Vedas and secondly, the members of other religious denominations by virtue of being the descendants of those who migrated from outside or converted to alien faiths do not belong to the nation. The roots of the nation were traced to an ancient glorious past in which the Hindus had attained a high level of civilisational excellence. The other religious denominations that became part of Indian society, either through invasions of conversions, were considered alien and hence outside the nation. Such an interpretation of history thus became an important source of justification for defining the nation as Hindu. The colonial construction of Indian past in religious terms and the Orientalists' discoveries of Hindu cultural heritage gave credence to this view.
If the Hindus had such a creditable past, their contemporary condition called for some explanation. The Hindu ideologues did not consider colonial domination as a possible reason. Instead, they traced the decline of the Hindus to the medieval times when the tyranny perpetrated by the Muslim rulers adversely affected the social and political fortunes of the Hindus. The Muslim rule, it was held, meant for the Hindus the loss of political power, forcible conversion to Islam, desecration and destruction of the places of worship and the stagnation of knowledge systems like Ayurveda and astrology. If the Hindus had lost their past glory, it was essentially because of Muslim aggression and logically, a pre-requisite for the revival of the Hindu nation was a clear demarcation from and consolidation against the Muslims. The Hindu revivalism, therefore, went beyond regeneration and internal consolidation. It took on a clearly communal character by stigmatising the Muslims as enemies. A series of developments like the Hindi-Urdu controversy, the cow protection movement, the use of religious symbols for political mobilisation and above all sporadic communal riots reinforced such a perspective.
Almost simultaneously a process of consolidation was taking place among the Muslims also, though for different reasons. The colonial intervention in their social and cultural life was not acutely felt, but the intelligentsia was conscious of the economic and educational backwardness of the community, for which they sought a solution through the instrumentality of the colonial rule. At the same time they were apprehensive that the prospects of the community would be adversely affected, if the political power were to be vested with the majority. The colonial rulers naturally exploited this fear and encouraged the growth of separatist tendencies among the Muslims resulting in the formation of the Muslim League in 1905. Such a development among the Muslims not only set them on a communal path but also provided further anchorage to Hindu revivalism, which found its political articulation in the Hindu Maha Sabha, founded in 1914.
Reclaiming the glory of the Hindu nation, which, it is claimed, had surpassed the achievements of all other civilisations in the past, but now enfeebled by the onslaughts of foreigners, was a major concern of revivalism. It naturally subsumed within it the resurrection of the cultural past and the creation of a polity which privileged the Hindu. The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangam (RSS) formed in 1925 undertook the former, whereas the latter was initially pursued by the Hindu Maha Sabha and the Jana Sangh and currently by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both these projects, the cultural and the political, are mutually complementary and coverged on salvaging the Hindu pride and interest.
The ideological and theoretical foundations of this quest were laid by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a former revolutionary and nationalist, who, in his later life was influenced by the racial theories of Adolf Hitler. In the book Hindutva-Who Is A Hindu, published in 1923 he traced the cultural, racial and political attributes of Hindus which constituted them as a nation. He claimed that the "Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections, warm, but also by the tie of common homage we pay to our great civilisation... We are one because we are a nation, a race and own a common sanskriti (civilisation)." According to him, the Hindus were bound together as a nation not only culturally but also politically when Ramachandra, the mythical god, was crowned the emperor of Aryavarta. Since then the Hindus have succeeded in preserving the nation against the invasion of foreigners from the time of the Shakas to the British. Savarkar detailed the saga of this heroic resistance, through which the consciousness of belonging to a nation crystallised in the Hindu mind, in an influential work entitled, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History. Much before Muhammad Ali Jinnah evolved his political strategy based on a two-nation theory, Savarkar had already propounded it. He had argued that the non-Hindus, even if they were born and brought up in India, could not belong to the nation. The RSS pursued this exclusionist idea of the nation by advocating that the minorities are not entitled to equal citizenship rights.
By interpreting Indian history as the record of a successful struggle of the Hindus against the foreigners, Savarkar was seeking to establish two historical "truths." First, India is a nation of the Hindus, which they have defended against all comers in the past, and second, there is enough in the history of India to prove, if proof is needed, that the Hindus have an inherently brave and intrepid character. They have become weak, passive and divided only because of their subjection to "foreign rule' for about one thousand years. Reclaiming the militant spirit of the past is, therefore, essential if the Hindu nation had to regain its former glory. Vivekananda had realised it, as evident from his call to the Hindu youth to improve their physical prowess in order to build a powerful nation. The RSS was quite conscious of this necessary mission, as evident from the importance it attaches to physical culture in its training. Its militant and disciplined cadre epitomises the new image of the resurgent, aggressive Hindu. The change in the representation of Sri Ram in the recent revivalist iconography from a serene, smiling god to an angry, aggressive warrior holding a bow and arrow is also symbolic of the new militant spirit.
The torchbearer of Hindu revivalism is the RSS, a para-military outfit, founded by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who had undergone some training in terrorist techniques in Bengal. In its constitution, the RSS describes itself as a cultural organisation with "abiding faith in the fundamental principle of tolerance towards all faiths" and dedicated to welding together the diverse groups within the Hindu society. But its actual activities went much beyond the stated objectives in the constitution. In reality it is an organisation wedded to the concept of a Hindu state from which all the other religious denominations are excluded. Its cultural work is only intended to prepare the Hindus to achieve such a goal, by imparting to them self-confidence and physical strength.
The cultural and ideological work undertaken by the RSS and its feeder organisations during the last 75 years have led to the internalisation of revivalist ideas in civil society. It is not easy to ascertain the number of these organisations, present in almost all spheres of cultural and social activities. Functioning under different denominations, they are actively engaged in creating a social consciousness rooted in Hindu revivalism. In this scheme, education, which helps to mould the mind of young children, is accorded a prime place. It is estimated that about 20,000 schools are now under the management of the RSS in which the curriculum is so conceived to foreground a Hindu revivalist agenda. Moreover, the BJP governments in the States and at the Centre have been quick to seize the opportunity to initiate steps to Hinduise education, by changing the syllabus and rewriting the textbooks. In an effort to "Indianise and spiritualise" education, these governments have sought to change Indian history into Hindu history, make Sanskrit a compulsory subject and incorporate Vedic knowledge in science courses. A separate pattern of education to impart training in domestic chores is envisaged for girls, which betrays a feudal, pariarchial perspective.
The communal content of Hindu revivalism has become more aggressive during the last two decades. The formation of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in 1964 heralded a particularly militant phase of Hindu revivalism by trying to marginalise the minorities from the mainstream and stigmatising them as enemies of the nation. The Parishad set out to remedy the "historical wrongs" committed by the minorities in the past, which led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and the physical intimidation and attack of Christians more recently. By foregrounding the Hindu grievances and interests, these initiatives have given an unprecedented fillip to the communal mobilisation and have consequently yielded considerable political advantage. Without that, the BJP's electoral success would not have been possible.
Hindu revivalism is not a "modern" phenomenon. In fact, it is antithetical to modernity, even if it is in harmony with capitalist development and globalisation. Obscurantism is writ large in its social agenda. Nor is it opposed to imperialism, although its origins can be traced to the colonial cultural and intellectual hegemonisation. What contributed to its progress is its communal character and its strategy of religious mobilisation. The cultural crisis of a fast expanding middle class provided it with an influential social base and the pathology of economic development, which, denied to a vast majority of people even the minimum of life, has ensured to it an expanding electoral support. Hindu revivalism is now well entrenched, politically powerful and socially influential. Whether it will succeed in subverting the secular-democratic polity of India is the puzzle of the next century.
Three Essays Press for books on history, education, culture, media, society and politics with a South Asian accent and a contemporary slant.