Book: Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right
Writer: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 699
“There could be three reasons of why they (Muslims) start riots — one reason may be that our Muslim brethren have concluded that now there is no place for them in India, no guardian for them, so it is better to die fighting than to live… Another reason may be that some Muslims are connected with Pakistan and indulge in rioting at Pakistan’s behest… The third and most important reason seems to be that some Muslim leaders do not want Muslims to merge with the national mainstream.”
This extract, from a May 1970 discussion in Parliament on communal tension, is in one of the representative pieces selected by Swapan Dasgupta — Rajya Sabha MP nominated by the previous Narendra Modi government — which provide different strands of the “political beliefs” of the Indian right in Awakening Bharat Mata, through 24 articles, speeches and essays.
Now, when the political discourse is polarised between believers and non-believers, the fate of a leader making such a remark in Parliament would be bleak. However, the MP who made that remark in 1970 went on to become the first Indian Prime Minister with no Congress affiliation — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, considered the right man in the wrong party by the end of his political career.
Beliefs are flexible according to political expediency. As Prime Minister in the late ’90s, Vajpayee had suspended the political belief of the 1970s. But beliefs have a survival instinct that sustains them in adversity. The Hindu cultural nationalist belief not only kept itself afloat during the Independence movement that projected a composite nation until Partition jolted the country, but has also survived the charge of being the motivational force behind the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. It now animates the ruling establishment of India.
In these polarised times when one side’s believer is the other side’s infidel, Dasgupta’s book teases out the different strands of Hindu cultural nationalist belief. Acknowledging that “the right has often been distinguished by its quasi-spiritual vagueness”, the author has honestly declared that the book has a “sympathetic position” towards Hindu nationalism. It attempts to place Hindu cultural nationalist belief in two major arcs. First, this impulse is old and was shared by the early nationalists of late 19th century and early 20th century before the Congress began a hegemonic refashioning. Second, unlike Indian liberals heavily influenced by Western political thought, the beliefs of the Indian right are “largely indigenous”.
For the believers, it can serve as a primer. For non-believers, it attempts to provide a benign picture of a courtyard that they had abandoned as unworthy of attention, for it was peopled by the untouchables of Indian politics. As constitutional secularists are criticised for missing the pulse of the public twice over, the book offers sanitised sentiments of the supporters of the victors.
In fact, the choice of articles, and particularly the omissions, suggests that the book deliberately aims for an audience beyond the believers.
As expected, there are articles by Veer Savarkar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, but KB Hedgewar and MS Golwalkar of the RSS, SP Mookerjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya, who kept the flame alive since the 1920s despite the Congress belief of composite nationalism, are missing. They do find mention in Dasgupta’s introduction, but the omission of their work is curious. Does the author want to lure non-believers by not exciting prejudice against these figures, or does their writing fall short of the standards he set to present the image of a responsible Indian right?
The articulation of Hindu nationalist belief is so responsible that the selection could suggest an attempt to disassociate it from the methods deployed by its toxic street champions — cow vigilantes and love jihad vigilantes — and their vitriolic calls for “Jai Shri Ram”. And the attention to non-believers is drawn to the heartfelt sentiment of the loss of the cultural civilisational identity of the people of the subcontinent.
The selection of articles does not seek to provide a chronological evolution of belief, but a pattern emerges. As many as one third of the essays — by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Sister Nivedita, Aurobindo, MG Ranade, RG Bhandarkar, Ananda K Coomaraswamy and Jadunath Sarkar — doesn’t seem to be bothered about the Muslim question. They are reflections — mostly of Hindu society — against the backdrop of white supremacy under colonial rule, and express the angst of a vanquished people proud of their historical legacy. There is no antagonism towards Muslims. Interestingly, most of them were written before 1920, before the Khilafat movement, and before the proposal of separate electorates for Muslims.
Muslim issues begin to appear in articles from the later period of the Independence struggle. The writing chafes at betrayal by our own, the displacement of the idea of the sacred in the national consciousness by mechanical frameworks, the supremacy of constitutional patriotism over cultural patriotism, and the idea of composite culture over that of two competing cultures under the Hindu masters of Independent India. Vajpayee’s barb in Parliament in 1970 was just one way of articulating that frustration, at the peak of Congress hegemony.
Jadunath Sarkar invokes Shivaji’s challenge to Bijapur and Delhi (that they are ruled by Muslims is incidental) to suggest that the “Hindu race” can produce more than jamadars (non-commissioned officers) and chitnises (clerks). But the very next article by Savarkar, written much later, frames the Maratha conquests against unjust Muslim political domination. Only later work (by Savarkar, Ramananda Chatterjee, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel) from before the Indian Constitution was finalised invokes Muslims. “Proportionately, there are more Muslims than Hindus in the Army,” Chatterjee observed in the March 1929 session of the Hindu Mahasabha, for instance. But later writing by Nirad C Chaudhuri, RC Majumdar, Sita Ram Goel, NC Chatterjee, Vajpayee, Advani, VS Naipaul, Girilal Jain and S Gurumurthy, mostly from after the Constitution was adopted, features distinct angst against Mughal rule.
Dasgupta’s introductory chapters, framing the context of the book, benefit from his accessible journalistic style. But specific context is lacking — why were certain articles chosen, and what was their background? There is also a lack of social diversity. A Muslim voice is obviously missing, but the book does not show how the Northeast, or people speaking Telugu, Kannada, Punjabi or Malayalam, or victims of social injustice, historically envisaged their Bharat Mata. Most of the voices are drawn from the erstwhile Bombay or Calcutta presidencies. These are valid voices, nonetheless. One could argue with them, but that would be to miss the point. For they express beliefs, which are to be understood.