In an op-ed piece in the August 15 issue of the Indian Express, Bharatiya Janata Party national spokesperson Ram Madhav exulted over the fact that for the first time since Independence, “high constitutional positions are all held…by individuals subscribing to a non-Congress ideology”.
Madhav went on to argue that India’s political leaders do not belong to the elite classes any longer, but rather, hail from among humble people. And these humble people – he calls them “the mob” – are fully in support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi because “they are finally at ease with a government that looks and sounds familiar”.
The BJP national spokesperson’s argument rests on the premise that the Congress headed by Jawaharlal Nehru was “dominated by a western liberal discourse that had very little Indian content”.
According to Madhav, Nehru apparently acted on “the ideas he had inherited from the colonial masters”. In developing these ideas, Nehru belittled Mahatma Gandhi’s interest in establishing a “Ram Rajya” in India – a state as prosperous and benevolent as the kingdom of the god Ram..
Let us set aside the fact that Nehru was at the forefront of the independence movement to expel the colonial rulers from India while the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of Madhav’s Bharatiya Janata Party, allegedly colluded with the British. Let us also set aside the fact that large sections of Madhav’s party valorise Gandhi’s murderer. Finally, let us set aside the fact that the reason Gandhi was murdered by Nathuram Godse was not because Gandhi supported a “Ram Rajya”. Quite the opposite.
Having set aside all these objections that have been raised at various venues by historians and political leaders, let us think about what Madhav is celebrating on this 70th independence day. As far as I can tell, he is celebrating two things. First, that all major constitutional posts are now occupied by non-Congress people. Second, that “the mob” is fully on the side of the party from which these constitutional post-holders hail because it is the first truly native party that does not cater to colonial ideas about India.
These claims merit further scrutiny.
Indian or un-Indian?
The fact that prime minister, president, vice-president, and the Speaker of the House all now belong to the BJP, and, according to Madhav, are all “truly Indian” – by which he surely means “Hindu” – may be a good thing for Madhav, but even as he celebrates this state of affairs, he should bear in mind that such a development is historically quite un-Indian.
Very rarely in the history of the Indian subcontinent have people working together all agreed with one another, or come from the same ideological or communal background. For instance, the Mughal emperor Akbar’s most trusted courtiers were the nine jewels – the Navratnas – among whom were both Hindus and Muslims: Tansen, Abu Faz’l, Todar Mal, Faizi. Similarly, Shahaji, the father of Chhatrapati Shivaji, was mentored and trained by a Muslim general, Malik Ambar. Madhav’s own example, Gandhi, held Nehru close even as the two disagreed with one another on matters of policy and protocol.
Indian tradition seems to be littered with examples of pluralism, multiplicities living cheek-by-jowl, and differences being celebrated rather than clamped down upon. Indeed, the role and rule of singularity is one that is much more frequently associated with the Protestant English who insisted that everyone should speak English, dress in a so-called civilised manner, and worship the same god. Unlike countless Indian rulers before them who married across religions and regions, the British investment in purity led them to pass miscegenation laws in India in the 19th century that insisted on separating Indians and the English. The British even actively followed the socio-political policy of divide and rule in which Hindu and Muslim neighbours were taught to be wary of one another. The chaotic traditions of India are more messy than singular. Singleness is a British imposition.
However, there was certainly one section of Indian tradition that was devoted to the singleness of the truth, and that was the Hindu caste system. The overwhelming notion of purity in India comes from this inhumane practice.
In his op-ed, Madhav describes caste as one of the “genius” ideas of India to which we should be fully committed. When this system found its soulmate in Protestant/Capitalistic fanaticism, the role of purity was cemented in India. This was possibly the reason why the Hindutva parties did not join in the freedom struggle against the British. If a group is invested in purity, then the British were partners rather than opponents of that group’s cause.
Indeed, the very idea of a pure India is an idea that the British encouraged because it furthered their colonial interests. It is precisely this purity that Madhav extols when he celebrates the removal of all Muslim names from constitutional posts in the country. Everyone now belongs to the BJP, and everyone is now a Hindu. Hamid Ansari, the outgoing vice-president, came in for particular flak from the BJP-RSS combine recently because he dared to say critically what Madhav is declaring jubilantly: that under the present government, India is being turned away from plurality to singularity.
To move to the second idea that Madhav is celebrating on the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from the British. He claims that the mob is on the side of Prime Minister Modi because the government is finally staffed by people from humble Indian backgrounds who wear saffron.
According to Madhav, this is what makes the people of India happy because it is, finally, authentically Indian. But innumerable examples in Indian history indicate that ideological and communal purity are much more recent phenomena (as is India itself) than part of the multiple histories of this land. Even worse, Madhav’s suggestion that people are now happy because the non-Hindutva majority has been cowed into intimidated silence, is shocking. (Of course the BJP national spokesperson is too suave to actually use these words, but one look at his article reveals these exact sentiments.)
Because why precisely would one be happy if everyone were to say the same thing? Why would it fill our hearts with joy if there were no disagreement or debate or dissent? Why would we celebrate the idea that people think exactly like us? Why would we validate the decline of the intelligentsia? Why would we assume that hatred should be the rule? And why would we hail the role of lawlessness (as suggested by the use of the word “mob”)? A mob is a fickle thing: it can turn easily. And the trouble with the notion of purity, of course, is that it can easily become impure. It is much better to embrace the impure because then one has nowhere to fall.
The title of Madhav’s op-ed piece – “Coming full circle at 70” – suggests that India was Hindu at first and is now becoming Hindu again. I wonder how the BJP spokesperson would respond to the fact-based evidence that the so-called progenitors of Hinduism came to the land now called India from Central Asia and Persia? But then why should a few inconvenient truths stand in the way of those busy celebrating the saffronisation of the tricolour?
Madhavi Menon is Professor of English at Ashoka University. Views expressed are personal.