To counter the politicized history of the BJP, India must promote historical multiculturalism

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The supporters of the Hindutva project, having failed miserably on the administrative and economic level, have only one crutch left: that of a misunderstood and distorted history. This was not always so, with the BJP at one time seen as the party of new ideas as opposed to the Congress. These “new” ideas were little more than new infrastructure initiatives coupled with efficient delivery of social benefits, but the BJP managed to present itself as the party of modern infrastructure as opposed to the old ideals of the Welfare state. No longer the young and fresh rebel party that it used to be, the BJP has now abandoned any pretense of a political appeal based on economic and material growth in favor of emotional appeals, based on an imaginary clash of civilizations.

The BJP is a parochial call, but pretends to be nationalist by promising mean Hindu revenge for past wrongs – both imagined and real. The BJP focuses on two indisputable facts: first, that Indians remain poor and without much hope for the future, and second, that large parts of the country have been ruled by non-Hindu rulers for much of the past millennium.

The first ensures that progressive promises of a better life are taken by the people with a huge pinch of salt, and the second ensures that there is a ready scapegoat for current poverty as well as future problems. It is an exploitation of an innate sense of despair. Hence the shamshan and Abbajan BJP campaign which believes that this type of policy is an effective response to promises of free electricity, more hospitals, better roads, etc.

This does not mean that there are no Hindutva adherents. in itself, but the common voter, though in sympathy with many popular Hindutva claims, does not necessarily identify as Hindutvavadi. Hindutva supporters remain, to this day, another faction vying for political power. They are still treading the path of an insidious weakening of institutions without the courage to formally declare a theological state.

Representative image of Hindutva groups. Photo: Reuters.

The reinstatement of FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) approval for Missionaries of Charity is a good example. For a party-led government that actively targets Christians for “illegal” conversions and whose henchmen regularly target Christians, this is a massive admission of the enduring appeal of secularism.

Policy on historical “injustices”

The BJP’s historical argument – of an oppressed Hindu population and cruel foreign (and non-Hindu) rulers – is flawed to say the least. The nuances of the story, however, make for bad politics. India, as the saying goes, is an old country but a young nation. Every city, town, and community in this country has a historical sense of itself. There is a feeling of old realizations and insecurities. These cannot be ignored. The expectation of tomorrow is rooted in a very personal understanding of the past.

The Indian voter is cynical enough, or perhaps wise enough, not to believe simplistic promises of a better future. What works is an emotional connection, whether through political organizing or rhetorical appeal. Voters want a historical argument that makes sense to them, that boosts their self-esteem. In this sense, non-Hindutva secular parties have much to offer. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Ambedkarite and Lohiaite schools of thought used the historical argument with great political effectiveness.

Over the past two decades, however, they have lost this focus on historical injustice and sought to focus on infrastructure development at the expense of social justice. The Congress party forgot its own “historical argument” of an India that counted Bodh Gaya, Goa, Vrindavan and Agra as equal measures of its civilizational brilliance, reducing the party’s perceived ideology to one word, “secularism”. . Once secularism was deftly discredited by the BJP, Congress began to look politically and ideologically clueless.

Need for historical multiculturalism

This discredit of secularism is however anything but irreversible. It is well remembered that in a pre-partition India that was even more multicultural than today, Hindus thrived, notwithstanding the BJP’s attempts to say otherwise. The struggle for freedom, admirable in its integrity, is also a fact that Hindutva groups can only seek to appropriate. They can’t dispute it.

It is the period of Mughal domination that becomes the most contested scene of this political battle. Mughal rule having been romanticized to some extent is central to this attack. The Delhi Sultanate, for example, does not attract as much opprobrium, although as a historical period it lasted much longer than the Mughal period. He just doesn’t have the ready-made cultural cache to be attacked or lied to. Aurangzeb, Akbar and Babar with just a bit of Shahjahan and Humayun is where Hindutva wants to restrict this debate.

Darbar Scene in a Mughal Courtyard. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

One seeks to apply the morality of the Constitutional Republic of India to these medieval rulers, a standard on which they can only be found wanting. Akbar was not a democrat, but he could not be. Every medieval ruler is bloodthirsty by modern standards, but the Mughals were definitely better than most of those rulers. What is also true is that the application of modern constitutional morality would also condemn ancient Hindu and Buddhist rulers.

Where Ambedkarite’s argument works against Hindutva is that he questions power not only over the past millennium but over the past two millennia to say that the current status of the country is the most desirable, historically speaking. He proudly defends modern constitutionalism as the fairest system this country has ever known. The Lohiait argument also works on the same call. Ambedkar and Lohia are until today brilliant examples of secularism that the right does not dare to attack, or even appropriate. Periyarism is, of course, another example and perhaps a more successful one.

None of this is to say that only these three schools of thought can tackle the Sangh.

What is needed is a confident proclamation of the India that should be, but rooted in the India that was. This includes recognizing historical injustices. India’s Muslim and Christian rulers, for example, both failed India by allowing the caste system to continue. In fact, letting go of caste was a matter of political expediency, keeping the people divided. They deserve to be condemned for this. What they don’t deserve to be condemned for are individual acts of politics or warfare that were legitimate political means at the time.

Regional and caste identities, as well as an understanding of secularism based on an Indian understanding of fairness and tolerance, are all political tools to counter the Hindutva project. Nehruvian secularism also has a bright future if it is handled with a sure hand. Leaders must recognize secularism without apologizing for it.

The “Hindu” and “Hindutvawadi” dichotomy fails in this respect. He assumes that Hinduism is a monolith, heedless of the many ways to please the average Hindu. The BJP’s appeal to the voter is not that it is the most religiously pure party, but the BJP’s appeal is that it is the party that promises redress for past wrongs. It promises its own brand of fairness, in opposition to ideas of constitutional fairness that are propagated and accepted by almost the entire non-Hindu political spectrum. The battle is to show the voter who is fairer and who will ensure equality.

The BJP argues that equality can only be ensured by bringing minorities, as the former ruling classes, to heel. The answer must be the celebration of a common history. India has had no Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian periods. All of these periods added together to form a larger whole and were unified by an underlying multiculturalism.

This historic multiculturalism must be remembered and propagated. Focusing on India’s rulers is a misguided story. The focus should be on the story of the people, call it Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb or under any other name. There is a remarkable unity in the social history of India. It is the truth of India which must be communicated and spread.

Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based lawyer and member of the All India Trinamool Congress.

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