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Modi has squandered the opportunity to modernise Hindu nationalism, says Foreign Policy magazine

The article argues that Hindu nationalism, which is rooted in the reaction of orthodox Hinduism to modern impulses, needed to be rethought for the 21st century.

If Narendra Modi was ever in search of a compelling reason to rein in Hindutva hotheads, he has to merely read the piece, Modi Is Married to the Mob, which the American magazine, Foreign Policy, published online hours before the prime minister commenced his visit to the United States.

The Foreign Policy article calls Modi a “disingenuous democrat” who has “done nothing to stanch…coarsening of public discourse and breakdown of civility in India”. It said that India, on Modi’s watch over two years, has been “revealed to be a depressing stage on which the demons of religious bigotry and hypernationalism hover unsleepingly over the vital debates of a society in transition.”

The consequence, the article argues, is that Modi “drags India with one hand and backward with another.” It then makes a withering comment:

“Modi rode to power on the back of a majority, but on his watch it has refashioned itself into a baying mob, resolutely opposed to religious and intellectual freedom.”

Modernising Hindu nationalism

These observations will predictably lead diehard supporters of Modi to fume and froth. But the bitter truth of the Foreign Policy article becomes palpable when you track Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan’s recent outing in Dadri, where Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim, was lynched on suspicion of consuming beef last year, or hear Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Sadhvi Prachi declare that “it is time to make India Muslim-free”.

As Uttar Pradesh hurtles towards Assembly elections next year, the Hindutva brigade is likely to fire on all cylinders. Already, Balyan wants the state government to find out who else partook of the meat found outside Akhlaq’s house that a Mathura forensic laboratory said belonged to a “cow or its progeny”. Balyan’s argument was that a cow provided 150 kg of meat, seemingly an amount impossible for just one family to consume.

Modi should take the Foreign Policy article seriously because its author, the novelist Chandrahas Choudhury, doesn’t critique the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rule from the Left-liberal perspective, which considers Hindu nationalism inherently illegitimate. Choudhury’s criticism stems from Modi losing out on the opportunity to modernise Hindu nationalism, of letting it wallow in the ideological slush of the early decades of the 20th century.

Delving briefly into the history of Hindu nationalism, the article says its adherents believe that the “Hindu way should continue to be the motor that stabilizes and drives the present.” In this respect, it says, Hindu nationalism shares several traits of other rightwing movements worldwide.

However, the problem with Hindu nationalism, he argues, is that “it ignores the major battles within modern Hinduism – the tension, for instance, between the traditional caste system and the egalitarian impulses of a modern democracy – and often reflexively labels Hindu reformers ‘anti-Hindu’.”

Thus, Choudhury says, Hindu nationalism consequently needed to be rethought for the 21st century, not least because it was rooted in the crisis of Partition and the reaction of orthodox Hinduism to modern social and political impulses.

A missed chance

Modi was just the person to rethink Hindu nationalism, the Foreign Policy piece suggests. For one, it is he who enabled the party representing Hindu nationalism – the Bharatiya Janata Party – to win a majority of its own. Second, in his 2014 election campaign, Modi scarcely ever referred to the “party’s majoritarian agenda of the past” and consequently took “Hindu nationalism over a bridge it had never managed to cross electorally.”

It was this fact, the Foreign Policy article argues, which placed Modi in an enviable position to stress the “need, when he had the ears of both friend and foe, for Hindu nationalism to lead the task of modernizing a society that leans reflexively on tradition.”

The article added:

“Had he explored this possibility further, he would have demonstrated that Hinduism is a continuously evolving entity, not a force that hit its high point 2,000 years ago, and therefore Hindu nationalism…needs to move on from the warlike formulations articulated by the often-splenetic thinkers of its early years.”

It added:

“Lastly, by emphasizing that there is no special line between belonging to a religion and being Indian, Modi could have shown to young Indians today that it was time to leave behind the ghosts and resentments of the 20th century, and that Indianness was a natural right given equally to all who live in India. It would have been possible to attempt all this and yet remain a Hindu nationalist.”

But these changes Modi hasn’t even attempted to bring about. Its consequence has been the persistence of a paradox – “that an ideology that always insists on demonising an ‘other’ can by definition never, except by coercion, create a platform on which everybody can be something together [emphasis added].”

Reining in Hindu nationalists

The Foreign Policy article then cites three of the several examples of the coercion built into unreformed Hindu nationalism. It refers to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh boss Mohan Bhagwat’s comment that adherents of all religions in India are Hindu, claiming it emboldened the Hindu nationalists to undertake the divisive ghar wapsi programme.

It then cites the example of the student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, on whom the government slapped sedition charges. Quoting Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who thought the Dadri incident was just an “accident”, Foreign Policy declares:

“There is in fact something frightening about the ruling party’s arrogance and siege mentality. Hindu nationalism manages simultaneously to exhibit a persecution complex and a prosecution complex.”

Predicting that Modi will receive a hero’s welcome by Indian Americans during his visit –which has indeed been the case – the article notes:

“They will likely have no sense of the irony of their position: They are at liberty to be both Indian and American, while millions back home must win a ‘tested OK’ sticker from the present regime before they are allowed to call themselves Indian.”

Obviously, the Sangh and its myriad outfits will dismiss the Foreign Policy piece, arguing that it is just one of the many opinions American publications have of India. They are also likely to say that it is typically a response that arises from the West’s hegemonic ideas of what is right and what is unacceptable, conveniently ignoring the fact that Foreign Policy’s critique of Modi is refracted through the prism of rightwing nationalism.

But Foreign Policy’s isn’t just a solitary voice emerging from the US. The New York Times, in a recent piece, President Obama and India’s Modi forge an unlikely friendship, makes the following observations:

“In India, Mr. Modi’s reputation among Muslims could broadly be compared to that of a Southern segregationist from the 1950s. Perhaps just as troubling, Mr. Modi’s government has increasingly used the country’s broad and vague laws restricting free speech to stifle dissent, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. Other laws have been used to intimidate and even shut down nongovernmental organizations, such as Greenpeace.” 

A week before Modi flew into the US, Washington DC-based journalist, Seema Sirohi, wrote a piece in Scroll.in in which she detailed the lashing India received at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Indo-US relations recently.

Sirohi wrote:

“Senator after senator rained down on Modi’s record…not for the last 15 years has India taken such a bashing on Capitol Hill, the home of the US Congress.”

But all these perturbing signals from the US will not ruffle the BJP’s sanguinity. It will claim that self-interest drives international relations, and the US and other global powers will not be unduly bothered by the zeal of Hindutva hotheads.

Is it true India doesn’t have to pay a price for the social tension and conflict the Hindutva brigade periodically trigger? In an interview to Scroll.in in February, former Indian Ambassador to the US, Naresh Chandra, answered this question thus:

“A lot of effort has been put into his (Prime Minister Modi) foreign tours and there is a greater awareness of India and what India stands for. But this negative publicity isn’t helpful and does not redound to India’s credit.”

Perhaps Modi knows all this, a possibility which has Foreign Policy predict that Modi will enjoy greatly his last meeting with Obama. This not because Modi and Obama are fellow ideological travelers, but because “India’s disingenuous democrat knows full well that he won’t be able to squeeze the same symbolic meanings and endorsements out of a summit with, say, Donald Trump.”

And to think, rightwing outfits have been conducting special prayer meetings for Trump’s triumph. The darkness in which the Hindutva brigade is trapped also prevents them from fathoming the consequences of their brinkmanship.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.


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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon.in and not by the Scroll editorial team.