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India: The Perils of Democracy

I was taken to a temple, managed by a bankrupt businessman from Bihar. In the courtyard was a group of widows, old and young, who chanted praises to Ram. They were literally singing for their supper, for without the right to inherit, they were a burden on their families. I had been told that a powerful figure in the Vishva Hindu Parishad, or VHP, was staying at the temple. Since the VHP, a militant organization founded in 1964 to forge a unified Hindu community, had played a vital part in the Ayodhya affair, and was in effect the radical wing of the BJP, I was interested in meeting him. His name was Acharya Giriraj Kishore, the secretary general. After being thoroughly frisked by a bodyguard, I was shown into his presence.

Kishore was a small, round man, with long white hair. He lay on his bed, his pudgy hands glittering with gold. White caste marks were daubed on his forehead. The bodyguard, who wore expensive shoes and smelled of perfume, hovered around the door. I asked Kishore about the state of Indian politics. The main problem, he said, was the lack of national unity. Appeasement of the Muslims was a threat, and so was the US, which was scheming to make India fall apart, like the Soviet Union. I asked him about the Ram temple. It would be built in two years’ time, he said. If not, the VHP would “agitate.” I inquired what that might involve. He closed his eyes and remained silent for a while. Then, all of a sudden, he said something astonishing: “The solution to the Muslim problem is simple. The white men, the Hindus, and the Israelis must get together, and we will take care of the Muslim problem once and for all.”

In fact, no one is allowed to build anything on the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid. Hindu activists of the VHP, or the paramilitary RSS, are banned from the area.7 And to avoid further trouble, the central government bought the land. Absurdly, it has been left to the High Court in Delhi to sort out who has more claim to the holy place, Hindus or Muslims. Lawyers will have to ponder whether the legendary Ram was really born there, whether there ever was a Hindu temple, and exactly what Babur did in 1528. Possibly, there never will be a verdict, which would suit the government just fine. Meanwhile worshippers are allowed to pay their respects to an idol of Ram, located in an improvised shrine on top of the demolished mosque. And hundreds of workmen in Ayodhya, paid by the VHP, are chiseling and carving away at expensive blocks of pink Rajasthani stone for a Ram temple that may never be built. “It is all political,” said a local journalist, who took me around. “They want to show the Hindus that work is in progress.”

At present the site is like an armed fortress. First you have to get through two police roadblocks. Then you wend your way through a steel cage, guarded by armed constabulary officers, past more check points, until you get to the shrine, which you can just see through iron bars and barbed wire. The shrine, containing Ram and Hanuman, the monkey god, is surrounded by policemen. Worshippers are told to keep moving on. No one is able to linger. A bank of ten television monitors covers every entrance. One was out of order. A monkey had bitten through the wire. I later thought of this scene when I visited the temples of democracy in Chandigarh. The irony seemed perfect: rationalism and religion, modernity and tradition, Corbu’s temples and Ram’s shrine, all of them under armed guard, all for political show.

And yet the neat juxtaposition would be misleading. For Hindu nationalism is as modern as Nehru’s secular idea of India. In a way, Ayodhya and Chandigarh are two sides of a single coin. The most exhaustive book on Hindu nationalism is by the French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot.8 It is perhaps too exhaustive for the non-specialist, who will be overwhelmed by detail. But it is a scholarly tour de force, and Jaffrelot’s argument is clear enough. Hindu nationalism is neither ancient nor religious; it is a political phenomenon which started in the 1920s, when Indian intellectuals were wrestling with ideas of the Indian nation. A key text, quoted by Jaffrelot, is V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, published in 1923. Savarkar was inspired by Mazzini, Darwin, and Herbert Spencer. But his main inspiration was fear—fear that the “weak,” diverse, disunited Hindus, who lacked an ideology, a dogma, a Mecca, or a universal church, would be swamped by “strong” Muslims and Christians. This fear is still at the core of Hindu nationalism today. That is why VHP demagogues in 1992 promised to purge Ayodhya of Muslims and make it the Hindu Vatican.

Savarkar, like many European thinkers who used religion to concoct national identities, was not a pious man himself. But he thought Hindu rituals and pilgrimages were useful “from a national and racial point of view.” Ram, the idol of worship in Ayodhya, is not worshiped as a deity by all Hindus. Only the Vaishnavas—the followers of Vishnu, of whom Ram is an incarnation—do so. But to Savarkar and his modern followers Ram is the symbolic king of the Hindus, the father of the nation. “Some of us,” he wrote, “worship Ram as an incarnation, some admire him as a hero and a warrior, all love him as the most illustrious representative monarch of our race.”9

Unlike Gandhi, who used the imagery of village India to challenge the British Raj, Hindu nationalists imitated the symbols of British power. The RSS, founded in 1925 as a para-military Hindu sect, drilled its youngsters, dressed in khaki shorts, to British martial music. Most Hindu nationalists were of high castes. Their idea of India was as a powerful, upper-caste Hindu nation. Gandhi wanted to emancipate the untouchables and protect the Muslims. This was enough reason for a Hindu fanatic with a fascination for Savarkar to assassinate him.

Indian political debates during the last decades of the British Empire were not so different from those taking place in Europe, or China, or Japan. Should a modern nation-state be secular, democratic, and ethnically neutral, or should it “reflect” a unified culture, religion, or race? Hindu chauvinism has often been compared to fascism, or even Nazism. Jaffrelot shows how some important Hindu ideologues admired Hitler, and were inspired by German ideas. He quotes the RSS guru, M.S. Golwalkar:

To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.

But Jaffrelot warns against simple equations. Hindus rarely made a fetish of blood or race. Rather, they wanted to incorporate all minorities in the Hindu fold. They still do. I saw pictures of Mother Theresa in shrines to Durga, the Mother Goddess. And I was told by a BJP spokesman in Lucknow that since Indian Muslims were converts, Ram was their divine ancestor too. The problem with Muslims has been their refusal to renounce their faith.


Still, for at least thirty years after independence, Nehru’s idea of India prevailed. It was forbidden by law to use religious symbols for electoral purposes. By securing the support for his Congress Party of most high-caste Hindus, including many traditionalists, and of the Muslims, whose interests he tried to protect, he pushed the Hindu chauvinists to the extremist fringe. And the socialists and Communists in opposition shared his secular views. Nonetheless, as Jaffrelot points out, the seeds of future trouble were already planted in 1948, by the Congress Party itself, in Ayodhya. The Congress candidate painted his socialist opponent in a by-election as a materialist lacking in Hindu spiritual values, while presenting himself as a paragon of Hindu orthodoxy. In the following year, Hindu fanatics broke into the Ayodhya mosque and placed an idol of Ram there. Devotees greeted this event as a miracle.

Further dents in Nehru’s secular edifice were made by his daughter, Indira, who replaced his de haut en bas democracy by what Sunil Khilnani calls “a Jacobin conception of direct popular sovereignty.” More and more people began to vote. And to gain their support, Mrs. Gandhi made deals with Sikh separatists, Hindu nationalists, and Muslims, promising state patronage in exchange for votes. Her son Rajiv continued the process. Despite India’s secular constitution, Muslims were allowed to retain special marriage laws—to the advantage of Muslim men but not Muslim women, whose rights, after a divorce, are limited. As though to restore the balance, Rajiv kicked off his 1989 election campaign near Ayodhya, because, he declared, it was “the land of Ram, this holy land.” And it was Rajiv who gave instruction to unlock the gates of the disputed but defunct Ayodhya mosque, as the first step to a Hindu restoration.

The result of these gestures to communal sentiments was described to me by a weary senior bureaucrat in Luck- now, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, whose confidence in politicians had ebbed with his years in their service. He had a picture of Nehru on his office wall. He said the worst mistake of the Gandhis (mother and son) was to make the Congress Party “play on the same wicket as the BJP.” By playing politics with caste and creed, they made Hindu nationalism respectable. So when the Congress monopoly on power collapsed roughly at the end of the cold war,10 many high-caste Hindu traditionalists transferred their allegiance to the BJP.11 V.S. Naipaul has described this as a great awakening, a necessary stage in “self-awareness.”12 This might betray a degree of historical naiveté. If anything was reawakened, it was Sarvarkar’s idea of India, which had been so deftly discredited by Nehru.

BJP politics plays on high-caste Hindu fears and frustrations: fear that lower castes, through positive discrimination (“reservations”), will squeeze high-caste Hindus out of overcrowded government jobs; fear that Muslims enjoy unfair privileges, or, by being “backward,” keep India weak and poor. Since Muslims and low-caste Hindus are getting politically active, high-caste Hindus feel vulnerable. They sense that their dominance is slipping. What the BJP promises is not so much the restoration of a Hindu Golden Age as a strong, modern Hindu state with Ayodyha as its Vatican. Nothing about this is traditional, or even necessarily antidemocratic. Although the increased importance of communal politics has shaken the faith of some people in India’s democracy, Sunil Khilnani is not one of them. He writes, again, I think, with wisdom:

Regional and caste politics, and Hindu nationalism, embody different potentialities, but they are all direct products of India’s first four decades of independence. It is wrong to see them as atavistic forms that repudiate or attack the ideas of the state and democracy; on the contrary, they exemplify the triumphant success of these ideas.

But what of his other argument, about the civilizing process of constitutional democracy? Destroying mosques and killing Muslims is hardly civilized behavior. The current level of violence is nothing compared to the carnage that took place during Partition, but it has been steadily rising since the 1950s. The reaction to the violence in Ayodhya has been interesting, however. Even the BJP leaders appear to have been shocked by what they had set in motion, if not actively organized. Advani, and others, were arrested by the central government for inciting communal violence. Public disapproval ran so high that the BJP did badly in the 1993 state elections of Uttar Pradesh. As a result, the BJP was forced to share the state government with the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), a party of Dalits, the lowest caste. The BSP is led by the forty-one-year-old Mrs. Mayawati, a Dalit herself.13 This peculiar alliance, of high castes and the very lowest, alternating in power every six months, was based on their shared dislike of a third party, the SP (Samajwadi Party), which represents the “other backward classes” (OBCs). These other low castes have increasingly moved out of dire poverty by becoming small landowners, businessmen, and civil servants. Many policemen are OBCs. So are most of the thugs who beat up Muslims or, indeed, Dalits.14

A short walk around my hotel in Lucknow revealed something about the present state of India, or at least of its Hindi belt. There was a general air of national assertion, with a hint of aggression. Outside the hotel entrance was a large new statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, the militant Bengali nationalist who allied himself to the Imperial Japanese army during the war. His picture can often be seen in VHP and RSS offices. Bose was one of those men whose idea of nationhood was based on military discipline and the Führerprinzip. There he stands, the rotund tough guy, in his jackboots and his uniform, a strutting reproach to the gentler Gandhi and the brooding Anglophile Nehru.

Behind the statue of Bose, I examined the billboards advertising computer courses, schools, and consumer products: “Totally modern, totally Indian.” A college, promising bright career prospects, advertised itself by saying: “Be Indian, stay Indian. Now go for an education that is totally Indian—with us.” Under the billboards was a slum of terrifying poverty: hovels made of rags, black with grime; children with copper-colored hair, caused by malnutrition, played in the rubbish, where men were defecating. They were Dalits.

The assertion of national identity was striking, but the assertion of caste identity was even more so. One of the first things Mrs. Mayawati did as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh was to build statues of B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the “untouchables.” Ambedkar, shown as a bespectacled figure pointing, Lenin-like, to a better future, was of the lowest caste himself. As Nehru’s law minister in 1947, he helped to frame the national constitution, which outlawed caste discrimination. But he was so disillusioned by the lack of actual progress that he resigned from politics and became a Buddhist. During the six months of Mrs. Mayawati’s rule, Ambedkar suddenly appeared everywhere, in Lucknow, in “Ambedkar villages” around Lucknow, and indeed all over Uttar Pradesh. The demand for Ambedkar statues was so pressing that there were not enough sculptors to go round. A large bronze Ambedkar now stands in the center of Lucknow, opposite an older, more modest-sized Gandhi.

Inside the back of Ambedkar’s statue is a heavily guarded police box. “Security problems,” I was told. Ashok Priyadarshi, the secretary to the Uttar Pradesh government, took me to see Mrs. Mayawati’s grandest project: Ambedkar Park. On the way he explained that Mrs. Mayawati had changed the political scene in U.P. forever. The statues and the Ambedkar villages may look like nothing but gestures, but they amount to more than that. The Dalits have woken up. They will assert their power through the ballot box. He told me this in the neutral style of a civil servant. But when we drove past Ambedkar Park, a huge building site with skeletons of fantastic, modern buildings in pink and white stone, his manner changed. He shook his head sadly, and said: “All that money. Where did it all come from? Who will account for it? All that corruption, that is there…” Mr. Priyadarshi was not even sure what the buildings were for. One was to be an international hotel, he thought, and another, well, a science institute maybe?

Perhaps we will never know. In October, the BJP took its turn to govern U.P. Instantly government jobs started going to BJP supporters. Dalits were officially warned not to “abuse” the laws that protected them against caste discrimination. Mrs. Mayawati was accused of corruption. Some members of her party defected. Violent scenes followed in the state legislature. Politicians pelted each other with chairs, microphones, inkstands, or whatever else came to hand. Some ended up in hospital. The central government was asked to dissolve the unruly government of Uttar Pradesh and impose presidential rule. Despite fierce opposition from regional parties in the government, it agreed to do so. But when the President asked the Cabinet to reconsider, the decision was reversed. The BJP called this a great day for democracy. But it was a bad day for Prime Minister I.K. Gujral’s shaky coalition government in Delhi. The debacle exposed divisions in the central government, which are as deep as those which tore apart the state government of U.P.

I called Mr. Priyardashi to ask him what was going on now in Ambedkar Park. Building was slowly coming to a halt, he said. It is now “subject to enquiry,” he said. “Massive bungling,” he said. “Many heads will roll,” he said. He didn’t sound overly disturbed. He had seen it all before.

—November 6, 1997

  1. 7

    RSS stands for the Rashtriya Swayamsevali Sargh, or National Volunteer Corps.

  2. 8

    There are others. At least two good books are available in the US: B.D. Graham, Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and P. van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (University of California Press, 1994). The Ayodhya affair is also discussed in Stanley J. Tambiah, Levelling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (University of California Press, 1996).

  3. 9

    Quoted in Tapan Basu et al., Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1993).

  4. 10

    There is an interesting parallel here with the Liberal Democrats in Japan. Once the monopoly of one party came to an end, its factions split into various parties.

  5. 11

    This was the trend in northern India. Politics are a different story in southern India, where the Muslim population is much smaller and Brahmin domination has been diminished.

  6. 12

    See the interview with V.S. Naipaul in India Today, August 19, 1997.

  7. 13

    The current president of India, K.R. Narayanan, is also a Dalit.

  8. 14

    One of the most disturbing and entertaining descriptions of the upwardly mobile classes in provincial India is in Pankaj Mishra, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (Penguin India, 1995).

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