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Storm over India

Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhumi Issue

edited by Sarvepalli Gopal
Viking/Penguin, 240 pp., 195 rupees

The future of India may have been prefigured in early 1990 in a riot between Hindus and Muslims which took place in the town of Mathura, two dusty hours drive from New Delhi. The violence broke out after a procession of Hindus carried a statue of Ganesha, a Hindu god, to the wall of the seventeenth-century mosque in the town’s center, and proceeded to install it in a niche previously cut into the wall. Local Muslims, enraged by this insult to their sacred precincts, ran to the mosque, and soon stones started flying. For two days mobs surged through the streets, leaving perhaps three hundred people injured and forty houses and shops gutted. Not long afterward, the Hindu leader who had organized the Ganesha procession was arrested.

I went to Mathura to see for myself how the rioting had started, and I had tea with a senior police officer, who told me that the Hindu ringleader had knowingly incited the riot, and deserved harsh punishment. Later I talked to a recently elected municipal representative, a member of the Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party (BJP), who saw the case differently. The arrest was a miscarriage of justice, he said, because all the man had done was “assert his Hindu identity.” On Mathura’s walls one could read the same resentment, in hundreds of graffiti: “Say it with pride, I am a Hindu.”

The Mathura riot was a scuffle compared to subsequent Hindu-Muslim clashes in which hundreds have died, but the diametrically opposed views of the policeman and the politician captured the heart of the political conflict that is sweeping India today. The challenge comes from the Hindu nationalists, a movement nearly as old as the ruling Congress Party itself, but until recently unable to win converts to its message of Hindu chauvinism and its claim that secularism amounts to suppressing the authentic Hindu heritage of the subcontinent.

During the past three years Hindu nationalists have shaken the country with a poisonous and divisive campaign to claim a dilapidated mosque, which they say marks the birthplace of the god Rama, the avatar hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. That movement has set off dozens of riots, while the BJP, the movement’s political party, has steadily improved its electoral position, rising from 7.4 percent of the vote and 2 seats in the 1984 elections to the 545-seat lower house, to 11.4 percent and 88 seats in 1989, and then to 23.2 percent and 119 seats in the 1991 elections.

The Hindu nationalists want to sweep away the concept of secular nationalism that Nehru, and to some extent Mahatma Gandhi, made into India’s founding political credo. Nehru had a socialist’s disdain for religion, and he believed that India’s survival depended on purging its politics and national identity of all sectarian impulses. Understandably, the deaths of perhaps a million people in riots at the time of partition only reinforced his thinking. Nehru insisted on a strictly secular discourse in politics—appeals on religious lines are expressly banned by law—and set out to create a basis for a modern Indian nationalism that would be acceptable to the groups who have survived the subcontinent’s strife-torn history.

In his Discovery of India, Nehru created a fable that celebrated the achievements of Mughal emperors and Rajput maharajahs alike, playing down the ceaseless conflict and fratricide. He gave a special, perhaps disproportionate, place to the vision of ancient emperors like the Buddhist convert Ashoka of the third century BC, and the Mughal Akhbar of the sixteenth, who could be portrayed as having a proto-secular outlook, or at least a strong impulse to harmonize contending religious forces within their empires. That view of India’s history is stressed in school texts, and on public posters throughout India, like the faded and dusty one at the Varanasi airport that reads:

We must cease to be exclusive Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs, Parsis, Christians or Jews. Whilst we may staunchly adhere to our respective faiths, we must be Indians first and Indians last.

—Mahatma Gandhi

The Hindu nationalists, on the other hand, see India’s history not as a record of proven and varied cultural achievements but as a blood-soaked battlefield on which the two main contenders, during several centuries of conflict, were Hindu civilization and Muslim invaders. Hindus, they argue, were the chosen people of the subcontinent, and in the view of one of the movement’s primary theorists, V.D. Savarkar, Hindus form a distinct, unified nation, one that is by all rights the appropriate basis of Indian nationalism. Muslims, in this account, were freebooters and religious fanatics who, arriving from Turkey, Afghanistan, Persia, and Central Asia beginning in the eleventh century, shattered Hindu society, broke temples, forced conversions at swordpoint, and imposed an alien culture. Justice demanded that the glory of past Hindu civilization be restored as the basis of Indian political identity, and all the followers of “alien” traditions on the subcontinent, especially Muslims and Christians, must bend their knee to the Hindu order, and forget the special privileges Nehru granted to them, as he put it, “to increase the morale of the minorities.”

The origins of the Hindu nationalist movement go back to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when a number of Western-educated Hindus, deeply impressed by the strength of character they saw in many of the colonial overlords and Christian missionaries, set out both to reform and revive Hinduism. Finding justification in Hindu philosophy and sacred texts, they rejected the most embarrassing or degenerate practices of Hinduism, like idol worship, child marriage, caste discrimination, and Brahminical supremacy. They preached a highly refined Hinduism based on the austere, ancient texts of the Vedas.

Many of those Hindu revivalists also argued that the sorry fate of Hindu civilization, dominated, as they saw it, by outsiders for nine hundred years, was the result of Hinduism gone wrong, a failure of Hindus to follow their spiritual obligations. They agreed with British writers of the period who described Hindus as weak, cowardly, and effeminate—as Swami Vivekananda, a major revivalist figure put it, “a race of women”—and argued that Hindus must cultivate their spiritual as well as manly virtues if they were ever to end foreign domination of Hindutva. Such thinking was invigorated by the Romantic ultranationalism sweeping Italy, Germany, and other European countries; the Hindu nationalists argued that saving Hinduism was a course necessary to “restore” the golden age—more imagined than historical—of Hindu civilization. As another influential Hindu revivalist, Aurebindo Ghose, put it, “Nationalism is a religion that has came from God.”1

One passionate disciple of the Hundu nationalist thinkers was Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, the founder of the organization that is the parent of the present-day BJP. Hedgewar was a young Brahmin medical doctor from Pune, a town in Maharashtra that was the scene of bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1920s. Hedgewar was distressed that Hindus in his town were too cowardly to confront the much smaller Muslim community in Pune. He believed that the divisions among Hindus, along lines of caste and religious faction, fatally weakened their society, and only a cultural renewal would bring back the leaders comparable to his personal hero, Shivaji, the seventeenth-century Hindu king who successfully fought the Mughal emperors.

Hedgewar conjured a new form of Hinduism, one that saw dharma, the path of virtue, not as the obligation to live according to the requirements of one’s caste, the traditional understanding, but an obligation to serve the Hindu “nation,” “the living god.” If this understanding of dharma could be instilled in enough Indians, India would rise up again by an almost ineluctable, mystical process. Hedgewar’s vision was a radical departure from the Hinduism of the sects, caste, idol worship, and all the other features of this very amorphous faith, and it was damned by the more traditional Hindu leaders.

To spread his message he founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) in 1925, and enrolled his followers in daily meetings that stressed both his mystical-nationalist philosophy, vigorous physical exercise, and martial drills aimed at instilling “vigor” in young Hindus. The RSS distinguished itself by guarding Hindus against Muslim rioters in Pune, and quickly grew into a nationalist movement, but it could not hope to compete with the Congress or the charisma of Mahatma Gandhi, its leader during much of the pre-independence period. The RSS opposed Gandhi’s emphasis on the nonviolent principle of “ahimsa,” which they saw as degrading the “virility” of Hindu men, and they rejected Nehru and Gandhi’s acceptance of a multicultural nationalism for India—a false premise that they believed was the root cause of partition in 1947.

The Hindu nationalists were pushed even further to the margins of Indian life after Nathuram Godse, a fanatical member not of the RSS but of a similar group, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. Prime Minister Nehru, who strongly disliked the Hindu nationalists and branded them “fascists,” banned the RSS and related movements for two years, even though no evidence has ever surfaced linking the RSS to the killing.

Yet the RSS has survived to become both one of the fastest growing organizations in India, with 2.3 million members, and the vanguard of the Hindu nationalist movement. It has thousands of lifetime members who pass up marriage and work as organizers and propagandists for RSS. They spend their days trying to instill right-thinking dharma among Hindus, particularly by recruiting boys and young men to take part in the indoctrination and gymnasium sessions—called shakhas—of the kind that Hedgewar pioneered.

In the big cities of northern India, the shakhas are easy to find. The RSS men and boys meet daily in small, grimy parks of lower-middle-class neighborhoods, the typical recruiting ground of the RSS; they play fast, rough games like kabbadi, a violent type of tag; they stand in ranks saluting a saffron flag while they recite ultranationalist slogans. I once asked a group of RSS boys in their early teens if a Muslim could be a good Indian. The quick response from several of them was no; but then they quickly discussed the question among themselves, and said that they had a better answer. “Yes, a Muslim could be a good Indian, if he worshiped Rama.” That is a most unlikely proposition, to say the least.

The current RSS leadership, departing from Hedgewar’s disdain for politics, has enlarged the organization’s scope beyond what the founder called “cultural” work. The RSS has entered politics, although indirectly, through allied groups more or less under RSS control. Most important is the BJP, a party formed in 1982 whose leadership is dominated by RSS men, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Organization), a Hindu religious group that promotes the cause of Hindu unity and militancy—usually in close coordination with the political maneuvers of the BJP. Though the RSS would like the BJP and other Hindu organizations to work in unison and follow its lead, relations among them are strained on some points, and RSS control has weakened as both groups have expanded rapidly; many of their new members have no connections with the RSS.

  1. 1

    These quotes are from Walter K. Anderson and Shridhar D. Damle’s The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism (Westview, 1987), which is an excellent introduction to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

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