As one who is thought of as belonging to the “world of culture”, I would say that the first two years of the Narendra Modi government have been the most disturbing times that I can recall. It has been a period when the political context has forced me to ask difficult questions of what this nation really is as a cultural identity. An ideational collapse has occurred and you can see it even these paragraphs. I find I have used the word culture to describe what is essentially religious.
Would I have done this some years ago? I would not have. This too is a remarkable achievement by the present dispensation. It is not that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stood up at the ramparts of the Red Fort and made a proclamation to the effect that India that is Bharat has one culture, in body, mind and soul, and it’s name is Hindutva. He has not done that. In fact he has, both in India and abroad, spoken of “sabka saath”, but his colleagues and political partners have blatantly espoused Hindutva. And he has not contradicted them.
Hindus have been told by Hindutva’s spokespersons that for the last 60 plus years, this country has victimised and marginalised them. We have reached a point where this manifest untruth now carries the ring of historical truth. Hindus have been quite happily celebrating every festival with pomp, in fact the sizes of pandals during Ganpati utsav or Durga puja have only increased, the number of young people who visit temples has clearly been on the rise over the past decade or more and, let us not forget the proliferation of sadhus and gurus that dot our topography. If anything the Hindu, is far from being sunk or mass converted. But the fear of such a happening has been implanted in every Hindu mind.
Religious violence is not a creation of this government. The Congress can never atone enough for 1984. But there is a shift in the way society has taken to this new Hindutva political craftsmanship and that is for me the most worrisome trend. Today, violence of the religious/cultural kind is not just a tool of party politics and their attached lumpen outfits, today it is owned and worn on the sleeve with aplomb.
It is said with barely concealed anger if a Hindu celebrates his religion, he is accused of being right-wing but a Muslim is never asked that question. Let us think about this, seriously. In this world’s context, can we ever make this statement and actually believe it is true? If there is any community that has been globally vilified, it is the people of the Islamic faith, yet we are convinced that they have greater acceptance than the middle and upper class Hindu. There is enough data to prove that Muslims and Dalits are the most backward communities in this nation. There is no doubt that parties in and out of power including the Congress and many Muslim leaders wearing various political hats have only exploited the average Muslim voter, but should this make “us” insensitive to “their” real conditions? Worse is to think that Muslims are receiving benefits at Hindus’ cost. This idea in itself entrenches an underlying cultural thought — that this is a Hindu land and that Muslims are guests. Not to forget the allied belief that Muslims are terrorists or possible terrorists, unless Hindu thought has touched them, and just in case you did not know, Sufism is quintessentially Hindu!
Another invented truism being spread around is that the education system has made people anti-Hindu and pro-religious minorities. Even more laughable is the assertion that leftist academicians with the connivance of western socialist scholars have wiped out Hindu goodness and achievements from our history. If we were to visit the innumerable religious studies, art and language departments around this country, we will find more PhDs that are seeped in Hindu religiosity than of the other kind. But from what the naysayers claim, India by now should have become a mini-Soviet Union, but we are not, and thank goodness for that.
For all the Hindu pride that is demanded of us, the last few years have witnessed a strong misogynist (let us remember that this is not just a male attitude) and pro-upper caste/class articulation of India. There is clearly a cultural strategy to linearise Hindu sanskriti and within it engulf all that has in the past and present questioned its organisation. In the eulogisation of Hindu history I also smell a strong whiff of appropriation combined with the establishment of a certain idea of the Hindu — one that emanates from the middle classes. There has been no attempt to address issues of gender, multiple genders or caste. If anything there is a suppression of such discourses. Suppression today is not enforced via a dictatorial ban, it is mobilised using fear.
The world of the arts, especially the classical and wannabe classical community (nobody cares about the rest) has heralded this government, for they believe that they are the true representatives of Bharatiya sanskriti. All of sudden many Hindutvas have emerged out of closet. There is clearly a streamlining of what is artistically Indian, where religious Hindu inclined art forms are being pushed forward. Art and culture are going through a right-wing phase, even though at no point in India’s independent history were the Hindu art forms targeted. Hasn’t Bharatanatyam always been the “number one” symbol of Indian antiquity?
We should not allow people to subsume culture into religious belief systems. But I now wonder whether the larger society really cares to engage with this thought. Sociologists, activists and cultural liberals vouch for India’s syncretic identity providing us many living examples of wonderful people. But do these small pockets matter anymore? If anything they are being used to certify the real Indian – the one who accepts the Hindu as that mythic being.
As I end this piece, I feel another achievement of this government, at least in me — cultural pessimism.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines