Mehdi Hasan, who interviewed Ram Madhav on Al Jazeera last month, seemed to have been surprised by the map of Akhand Bharat that he had seen during his visit to the RSS’s Nagpur office. However, Akhand Bharat is one of the mainstays of Hindu nationalism.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh passed many resolutions that showed its attachment to this core issue. In 1953, its all-India general council declared: “We, therefore, reaffirm our faith in one and united India and pledge ourselves to renewed efforts for the fulfilment of this ideal of Akhand Bharat”. In 1965, the same body expressed its hope that one day “India and Pakistan will be united to form Akhand Bharat”.
This notion harks back to a specific view of the territory of India. While most students of Hindu nationalism have focused on its proponents’ emphasis on the figure of Bharat Mata, this metaphor of the body of the nation has obscured the key role of land in the ideology of Hindutva.
For V.D. Savarkar, a Hindu is first of all one who inhabits the land “from the Indus to the seas” and below the Himalayas, “so strongly entrenched that no country in the world is more closely marked out by the fingers of nature as a geographical unit”. But India is not only a geographical unit for Savarkar. It is also the Hindu holy land, whose sacredness is testified to by the cult of the rivers and mountains where pilgrims worship their gods. Therefore, India is not only the matribhoomi (motherland) or pitribhoomi (fatherland) but also the punyabhoomi (holy land) of Hindus. Hence Savarkar’s distinction between Hindus on the one hand, and Muslims and Christians on the other: “For though Hindustan to them is fatherland as to any other Hindu, yet it is not to them a holyland too. Their holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil”.
The RSS inherited this view of the Hindu land from Savarkar, as evident from the first stanza of the prayer that its members recite daily on the shakha ground: “Oh Mother (Bharatmata or Mother India) ever-affectionate to your children — salutation to thee. Oh Hindu land, I have been happily brought up by you. Oh the supreme benefactor holy land, this body be laid down for you.”
This mystique of the national land was further enhanced after Partition. In fact, Nathuram Godse decided to kill Mahatma Gandhi because he held him responsible for “the cursed vivisection of India”, as he told the jury during his trial. Just before being hanged, he and Narayan Apte shouted “Akhand Bharat amar rahe!”
After Partition, all the local branches of the RSS, on August 14 every year, began to hold a function called Akhand Bharat Sankalp Diwas for the formation of a reunited India. This perspective was supported by the conception of the territory of India that M.S. Golwalkar, the second RSS chief, spelled out in his book Bunch of Thoughts: “Our epics and our Puranas also present us with the same expansive image of our motherland. Afghanistan was our ancient Upaganasthan. Shalya of the Mahabharata came from here. The modern Kabul and Kandahar were Gandhar from where the Kauravas’ mother Gandhari came. Even Iran was originally Aryan. Its previous king Reza Shah Pehlavi was guided more by Aryan values than by Islam. Zend Avesta, the holy scripture of Parsis, is mostly Atharva Veda. Coming to the East, Burma is our ancient Brahmadesha. The Mahabharata refers to Iraavat, the modern Irrawady valley, as being involved in that great war… In the south, Lanka has had the closest links and was never considered as anything different from the mainland”.
The map of Akhand Bharat that Mehdi Hasan saw in Nagpur reflects this geography that is deeply influenced by history and mythology. In the modern era, the presence of Hindus in neighbouring countries, including Sri Lanka and Nepal, has reinforced such a weltanschauung. As a result, in 1983, one of the caravans of the VHP’s Ekatmata Yatra (pilgrimage of unity) was launched from Kathmandu to Rameshwaram. It converged in Nagpur, the headquarters of the RSS and the geographical centre of India, with those rallying from Gangasagar to Somnath and from Hardwar to Kanyakumari , before separating once again.
The valorisation of the cultural and historical borders of the Hindu civilisation (supported by the presence of Hindus in neighbouring countries) at the expense of the international frontiers of today’s nation-states echoes the past opposition of the Sangh Parivar to linguistic states, which in the 1950s-60s were seen as divisions of the nation. It may be interpreted as the root cause for interferences (and even intrusions) by New Delhi in the domestic affairs of foreign countries. Some observers saw the recent demand that was made to Kathmandu for amending the newly promulgated constitution of Nepal to take into account the interests of local Hindu groups in this light.
The revival of the Akhand Bharat issue may also adversely impact relations between India and Pakistan, which the recent meeting between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif seemed to have brought back on track until the Pathankot attack. Historically, this notion has fostered the fear of India in Pakistan and has been instrumentalised by Pakistani rulers. In 1961, after the Goa operation, a Dawn editorial claimed that “Pakistan faces exactly the same danger as Goa did, and as soon as India feels strong enough to do so she will try to wipe out Pakistan because Indians in their heart of hearts still regard the areas now forming Pakistan as basically parts of Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) over which some day Hindu rule must be extended”. Six years later, in his autobiography, Friends Not Masters, Ayub Khan argued that it was India’s “ambition to absorb Pakistan or turn her into a satellite”.
In the course of the Al Jazeera interview, and in subsequent pieces of writing clarifying his stand, Madhav has explained that Akhand Bharat had to be a popular movement and not a political decision. Indeed, the people of India and Pakistan have so much in common that they are in the best position to reinvigorate the civilisation that Hindus, Muslims and others have crafted in the course of more than one millennium. To refer to the Akhand Bharat project may be of little help for achieving this goal. Instead, mutual respect and recognition of minorities’ rights in both countries would prepare the ground not only for societal interactions, but also for political confidence-building measures. That was the agenda for both the PMs, it seemed, when they met in Lahore last month. They will hopefully pursue it, in spite of the attempts of jihadi groups to derail the whole process, as well as those of opponents within India.