Can the cultural project of Hindu nationalism undermine the economic project of the Narendra Modi government? Or can the two simultaneously coexist?
The events of the last few weeks have brought these questions to the fore. On one hand, we have heard how Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lift the economy out of its UPA 2 morass. On the other, the shuddhi (reconversion) of Muslims and Christians and their ghar wapsi (homecoming) to the Hindu fold have become a battle cry for Hindu nationalists.
According to some commentators, it is the party’s fringe that has vigorously embraced the cultural project. That is a grave misunderstanding, sorely in need of correction. Can Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, by any stretch of imagination constitute the fringe of Hindu nationalism? The RSS is unquestionably the ideological fountainhead of Hindu nationalism, and its sarsanghchalak (supreme leader) is the patriarch of the Hindu nationalist family.
According to this newspaper, this is what Bhagwat said in Kolkata on December 20: “Bhule bhatke jo bhai gaye hain, unko wapas layenge. Woh log apne aap nahin gaye, unko loot kar, lalach de kar le kar gaye. Abhi chor pakda gaya hai. Mera maal chor ke paas hai. Aur yeh duniya jaanti hai. Mein apna maal wapas loonga, yeh kaunsi badi baat hai? (We will bring back our brothers who have lost their way. They did not go on their own. They were robbed, tempted into leaving. Now the thief has been caught and the world knows my belongings are with the thief. I will retrieve my belongings, so why is this such a big issue?).”
Bhagwat did not make an accidental assertion in a fit of absentmindedness. The RSS has repeatedly propagated the idea of conversions, because reconverting Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism is consistent with its ideological core. Economics does not drive Hindu nationalism; culture does.
Consider two of the basic propositions of Hindu nationalism. First, following Savarkar, Hindu nationalist ideologues believe that only the Hindus can be true Indian patriots, for India is both their fatherland (pitribhumi) and holy land (punyabhumi). Since India is their holy land, too, Savarkar’s definition includes the Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains as Hindus, however much these communities deny that they are Hindus, as they often have. Historically, the gurdwara reform movement in Sikhism was based on the idea that Sikhs were not Hindus, despite the close historical links between the two communities.
Four religious groups fall beyond Savarkar’s definition: Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews. Hindu nationalists don’t view the Parsis and Jews as a threat for they are, in their view, assimilated, or too small in size. It is the Christians and Muslims who have consistently ignited Hindu nationalist ire. India is not their holy land, their numbers are larger, and unlike Judaism and Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity are proselytising faiths.
Reconversion also follows from a second tenet of Hindu nationalism — that state power was historically used to convert Hindus to Islam and Christianity. The term “twelve hundred years of servitude (barah sau saal ki ghulami)” essentially covers the emergence of Muslim rule in various parts of India since the eighth century and British rule since 1757. According to Hindu nationalists, Islam and statecraft were fused in the former, and Christianity and governance in the latter. If now a “Hindu Raj” has come, they believe they should use the cover of state protection for reconversion.
That some coercion was used for Islamic proselytisation is beyond doubt, but professional historians have never agreed it was the only cause of conversions. They point to the severe inequities of the Hindu caste system and to the great social standing of Sufi saints, the former making the escape of the lower castes to Islam attractive and the latter, by their sheer popularity, becoming widely accepted agents of religious transformation. The Hindu nationalists have never conceded that the most popular variety of Islam in India historically took a Sufi form, led by dervishes and saints. Some exceptions notwithstanding, the Sufis have universally abhorred the idea of violence. The late Annemarie Schimmel, a leading scholar of Islam, has called Sufism the mystical version of Islam. It brought Indian Islam close to the Bhakti movement of Hinduism.
Similarly, by the time British rule stabilised in India, secular statecraft had become a norm in Britain. Even if some British district administrators protected Christian missionaries, many actively resisted them, thinking that if missionaries were allowed a free rein, unburdened by considerations of law and order, it would be impossible to govern India. If the British indeed used force to convert the Hindus over nearly two centuries of rule, how is it that when they left, not even 2 per cent of India was Christian?
In modern times, the idea of reconversion goes back to the 1920s, when the Arya Samaj launched a shuddhi movement. Mahatma Gandhi, whose Hindu religiosity was never in doubt, sternly critiqued it. He drew a distinction between institutional conversion and individual conversion, opposing all forms of the former, Muslim, Christian or Hindu, but not the latter: “I would personally like the stopping of all… shuddhis. One’s faith is a personal matter with oneself. It is open to any person of mature age to change his or her faith when and as often as he or she wishes.” Gandhi also said that conversion to Islam was a mixture of force, the humiliating degradations of the Hindu caste system and the equality of Islam: “That Islam was spread by force is a historical fact. But along with it… the potent cause of the spread of Islam was its simplicity and its special virtue of regarding all as equals. That the majority of converts to Islam were Hindus from lower classes is also a fact.” Finally, as a Hindu, Gandhi opposed shuddhi because proselytisation was not a Hindu religious idea: “In my opinion, there is no such thing as proselytism in Hinduism as it is understood in Christianity or to a lesser extent in Islam. The Arya Samaj has… copied the Christians in planning its propaganda.”
It should now be clear why Modi has not yet taken a public stand against conversions. He has grown up with the RSS ideology, which views shuddhi as part of its core. However, India’s prime minister has also taken a constitutional oath to be the leader of the nation, which includes millions of non-Hindus. A critical question, therefore, is: at what point would he draw red lines for the RSS? When can we expect him to view the RSS as a source of injury to his leadership?
Three possibilities can be readily envisaged. First, if they do break out, big communal riots will hurt his economic and governance agenda. (Small riots, however ethically objectionable, will not undermine him in the realpolitik of power.) Second, at least until 2016, the Rajya Sabha can create serious legislative obstacles. Executive ordinances are normally temporary; many economic reforms will, constitutionally speaking, require legislation. Third, if the Christian right in the US gets active as a result of shuddhi, it can have a serious impact on Republican support for India and damage the bipartisan consensus on improving India-US relations, a principal plank of Modi’s foreign policy.
When will Modi choose Mahatma Gandhi over Mohan Bhagwat? Will he? These questions will have to be answered before long.
The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’