In October, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at a function in Mumbai, made a rather starling claim: plastic surgery and reproductive genetics existed in ancient India. The birth of Karna, who, according to a literal reading of the Mahabharata, did not gestate in a womb, backed up the genetics, Modi said. The god Ganesh, who had an elephant head installed in place of his original decapitated human one, proved the existence of plastic surgery.
That this came just five months after Modi had won the first-ever Lok Sabha majority for the Bharatiya Janata Party was a stark reminder about the rise of right-wing Hindutva in India and what it meant for academic thought. Fantastic and frankly impossible claims about ancient India had always existed within the Sangh Parivar. What was new was that they had got a powerful pulpit: the office of the prime minister himself. By broadcasting this piece of Hindutva history, Modi’s speech was a sharp reminder about the academic gulf between left and right in India.
Intellectual thought, scholarship and ideas in India have been dominated by what could broadly be called the left, for most of the country’s post-colonial history. However, emboldened by power, the right is making a committed bid to now shape Indian thought and ideas. Unlike the traditional route of universities – a space that liberals still mostly controls – the right is instead looking to leapfrog knowledge production by investing heavily in think tanks and conferences.
Conclaves, manthans and dialogues
Held in November in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Goa, the third India Ideas Conclave exemplified this trend. The conclave was organised by India Foundation, a right-wing think tank with powerful ties to the Modi government. This association has helped the event rise to prominence with astonishing speed. The links between political power and the rise of right-wing intellectual capital are rather apparent in this think tank. Headed by Shaurya Doval, son of the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, it has as many as four Union ministers on its board of directors.
These links to the government mean that the India Ideas Conclave attracted a fairly impressive list of speakers. Historian Patrick French was there as were a number of Union ministers and BJP functionaries. Ironically, the event also highlighted the sheer paucity of right-wing thinkers itself. Other than David Frawley, an American convert to Hinduism who has written on ancient India and religion, there were few other men of letters who would explicitly identify with Hindutva and fulfil the conclave’s lofty ambition of “enhancing learnings from civilisations”.
Also in November was Lok Manthan held in Madhya Pradesh as well as the Jaipur Dialogues in Rajasthan – both BJP-ruled states. Said the Lok Manthan website: “For last few centuries, India was in a state of insularity facing political and social precariousness which not only had an impact on its social and religious values but also on knowledge and economic prosperity.” The way out of this supposed Indian Dark Age, at least for Lok Manthan, lies in close government collaboration. Organised by a group known to be close to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Prajna Pravah, the event had the government of Madhya Pradesh as a co-organiser.
The Jaipur Dialogues wasn’t directly associated with the government but its principal organiser was Sanjay Dixit, a senior bureaucrat working for the government of Rajasthan and an active Tweeter. Apart from a somewhat unimaginative pun on the word “right” in its caption – “a think-tank for the right people” – like the India Ideas Conclave, Jaipur had rather few right wing thinkers. The one exception to that being David Frawley again, who, impressively, had been invited to all three summits in November.
Toe-to-toe with the left
In spite of the lack of right-wing writers, what these summits have done is given a new vocabulary to right-wing ideas helping make them mainstream. The spit and polish of Goa was especially remarkable as was the immense government support in Madhya Pradesh.
In spite of this recent success, though, the Indian right wing is still aware of the vast lead of the left in India. “Most certainly the left has controlled the narrative and intellectual space until now”, said Rupa Subramanya, an economist and commentator who spoke at the India Ideas Conclave.
Aatish Taseer, a novelist who attended the Goa concave, however, doesn’t see this awareness as a positive force. “Everyone was consumed by a sense of intellectual grievance in Goa,” said Taseer. “They were a rag tag crowd of trolls and pseudo historians; a freak show to tell you the truth. They had one idea: remake India using a fictitious history. It was hardly an intellectual environment at all”.
At Lok Manthan in Madhya Pradesh, one speaker spoke about bringing in a dress code for women at Hindu temples. Earlier in 2015, at Delhi University history summit, flying chariots and Mahabharat-era televisions were discussed in all seriousness.
Subramanya explains this lack of depth as a result of the left’s intellectual domination till now. “Many intellectuals on the right today don’t have privileged perches in universities or independent means and many have day jobs giving them limited time to pursue writing and intellectual activity,” said Subramanya.
With a little help from my friends
The right, it seems, is serious on getting state help to bridge the divide. The BJP ministers and government have been directly involved in such activity, which spiked hugely after Modi won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “His [Modi’s] victory showed that the country could go in a different direction politically just as voices from the right would like to take us in a different direction intellectually,” said Subramanya.
Aatish Taseer, however, wasn’t happy with this coupling of politics and intellectual pursuit though. “I don’t think pursuits like history should serve a political cause so nakedly,” said Taseer. “To me, it felt odd to see [BJP President] Amit Shah speak at Goa. Felt odd to see that a thuggish politician should feel the need to discuss history. And he ended up caricaturing it. In one sweep, Shah wrote off colonial and Muslim history. Just wrote off 800 years like that.”
Till now, the right in India has depended on social media to make whatever intellectual case it can. Rajiv Malhotra, one of the leading Hindutva thinkers today and a resident of New Jersey in the US, started out on an Indian blogging website called Sulekha.com. However, with the election of Modi, the right’s new endeavour is to create a more mainstream form of intellectual capital using summits and symposiums.
This in itself has seen some success. Rajiv Malhotra, in particular, has gone on to take part in mainstream intellectual haunts such as the Jaipur Literature Festival, Bangalore Lit Fest and the Times Lit Fest in Delhi. This is a remarkable achievement for Malhotra, given that he has been caught plagiarising from other authors, an act Malhotra defends by arguing that his decision not to attribute material was driven by the fact that quotation marks were a Western convention not found in the Sanskrit language.
The right might take some time to catch up with the left intellectually – and learn more modern forms of punctuation – but as these recent summits show, it’s more than happy to use its newfound political power to speed up the process.
Corrections and clarifications: This piece has been edited to correct the date of Prime Minister Modi’s speech