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Awakening Bharat Mata

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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Modi and the idea of motherland


Awakening Bharat Mata | Swapan Dasgupta| Viking | 440 pages | Rs 699

THERE ARE TWO public faces of Narendra Modi. The first, always in evidence at official functions, is of an immaculately turned out Modi addressing issues of governance with solemnity and with single-mindedness. With an eye for detail and always well prepared, he comes across as a politician of vision who also has a firm grip on administration. Rarely rhetorical but always passionate, his speeches invariably convey his sense of commitment to both the subject and the occasion. This is Modi in his prime ministerial avatar.

There is a very different Modi in evidence at political rallies, especially during election campaigns. Always aggressive and polemical, and with a penchant for sarcasm and mockery, this Modi is unsparing of his opponents. Cheered on by his doting fan club, forever ready to work themselves into a frenzy chanting ‘Modi, Modi’, he works the crowds, combining national themes with local issues. His eloquence is often mesmerizing and cuts across language barriers, especially when he invokes victimhood to full political advantage, pitting his humble origins against the arrogance of an ancien régime, bloated with its sense of entitlement. Atal Bihari Vajpayee used long pauses and wordplay to weave his oratorical magic; Modi relies on passionate eloquence.

Modi’s conclusions are always characteristically robust. He leads the crowds into lusty and full-throated chants of Vande Mataram, the chant that has defined Indian nationalism since the beginning of the twentieth century. When the crowds are sufficiently large and worked up, Modi does a variation: he says ‘Vande’ and the audience replies ‘Mataram’. The effects are electrifying.

During the movement for freedom from British rule, Vande Mataram and the associated chant of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (Victory to Mother India) was associated with the Congress, although not exclusively. Vande Mataram was written by the Bengali writer Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in 1875 and included in 1881 in his novel Anandamath as the motivational song of the sannyasi rebels taking on Muslim conquerors. It was set to music and first sung at the 1896 session of the Indian National Congress (INC) by the poet Rabindranath Tagore. The iconic cry acquired mass popularity throughout India in the wake of the swadeshi movement that accompanied the protests against Lord Curzon’s Partition of Bengal in 1905. Popularized by the early nationalists, particularly Aurobindo Ghose and Bipin Chandra Pal, this ode to the motherland rapidly became India’s foremost nationalist anthem. Nationalist meetings invariably began with the singing of Vande Mataram and protestors walked the streets and courted arrest with cries of Vande Mataram. Aurobindo attached great mystical significance to the discovery of Vande Mataram and equated it to a revelation, ‘a sudden moment of awakening from long delusions’.

Yet, on 24 January 1950, by a ruling of the president of the Constituent Assembly—and therefore not subject to either debate or voting—‘Jana-Gana-Mana’, a composition by Rabindranath Tagore was selected as independent India’s national anthem. It was announced that Vande Mataram, ‘which has played a historic part in the struggle for Indian freedom, shall be honoured equally with Jana-Gana-Mana and shall have equal status with it’. Moreover, on the few official functions—such as the final day of a session of Parliament—where Vande Mataram is sung, it is never the full version—just the first two stanzas.

In the annals of Hindu nationalism, the story of Vande Mataram from being the icon of the national movement to becoming an extra—something which couldn’t be repudiated but which was at the same time awkward and embarrassing— epitomized betrayal and a distortion of nationhood. For all those associated with the RSS parivar and the BJP, continuing attachment to Vande Mataram—without, at the same time, undermining the importance of the national anthem—has become an article of faith. It has become customary for nearly all public functions associated with the RSS to begin with the singing of Vande Mataram—the full song and not merely the truncated, official version. Among the more boisterous sections of the saffron fraternity, a favourite slogan is: ‘Hindustan me rehena hoga, Vande Mataram kehena hoga (If you want to live in Hindustan, saying Vande Mataram is obligatory).’

THE ENCAPSULATION of nationalism in Bharat Mata, the ‘sacred nation’, became a definitive facet of Hindu nationalist thought, and which has endured till today. The idea was not confined to Bengal. It touched the nationalist movement throughout India and became inextricably associated with the Congress. Indeed, Vande Mataram and the worship of Bharat Mata served to connect the earlier ‘extremist’ phase of the national movement with the Gandhian movements that set the tone after 1920. It also linked the critics of Mahatma Gandhi with the mainstream of nationalism. At least on this count, those committed to revolutionary violence were one with the votaries of non-violence and passive resistance.

The association of the motherland with the sacred was a central feature of the RSS, established in 1925 in Nagpur, by Dr K.B. Hedgewar. In 1940, the RSS, now undergoing a phase of steady expansion outside Maharashtra, adopted a prayer to the bhagwa dhwaj (saffron flag) that epitomized a timeless Bharat. The Sanskrit prayer was recited at the beginning of all RSS morning and evening shakhas and has continued unchanged to this day.

In the annals of Hindu nationalism, the story of Vande Mataram from being the icon of the national movement to becoming an extra—something which couldn’t be repudiated but which was at the same time awkward and embarrassing—epitomized betrayal and a distortion of nationhood. For all those associated with the RSS parivar and the BJP, continuing attachment to Vande Mataram— without, at the same time, undermining the importance of the national anthem—has become an article of faith

YET, THE APPEAL of Vande Mataram and the sacredness of Bharat Mata was contested. A large section of India’s Muslims were never at ease with its explicitly Hindu symbolism and opposed its identification with Indian nationalism. Its context was seen as ‘anti-Muslim’ and its imagery ‘idolatrous’ and, therefore, anathema to Islam. The Muslim League, in particular, made the repudiation of Vande Mataram a prestige issue and saw the Congress’s attachment to it as evidence of its exclusive identification with Hindus. In the words of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the foremost leader of the Muslim League, Vande Mataram ‘is not only idolatrous but in its origin and substance a hymn to spread hatred for the Musalmans’. He made it clear Muslims would never accept Vande Mataram ‘or any expurgated edition of the anti-Muslim song as a binding National Anthem’.

The fierce opposition of the Muslim community to Vande Mataram put the nationalist leadership in a quandary. Always anxious to counter the British claim that India’s nationalism was essentially an exclusively Hindu phenomenon, it was hamstrung by the fact that for the foot soldiers of the nationalist cause, the idea of a free India reclaiming its destiny and Vande Mataram were inseparable. Vande Mataram was a sentiment and however much it sought to make the national movement all-inclusive, it could not really go against the popular tide. Mahatma Gandhi’s anguish over a controversy that assaulted the fundamentals of everything Indian nationalism had stood for was indicative of the helplessness of the nationalist leadership:

It never occurred to me that it [Vande Mataram] was a Hindu song or meant only for Hindus. Unfortunately now we have fallen on evil days. All that was pure gold has become base metal today. In such times it is wisdom not to market pure gold and let it be sold as base metal. I would not risk a single quarrel over singing Vande Mataram at a mixed gathering. It will never suffer from disuse. It is enthroned in the hearts of millions.

Eventually, after elaborate consultations that involved the entire Congress leadership and prominent individuals such as Rabindranath Tagore, the party decided that the first two stanzas of the song were ‘unobjectionable’ but, in any case, singing Vande Mataram should involve no compulsion.

The concession to Muslim misgivings to Vande Mataram didn’t succeed in preventing the Muslim League securing a huge endorsement for Pakistan in the 1946 election. However, the controversy proved successful in preventing even a truncated version of Vande Mataram from becoming India’s national anthem. In time, the commitment to a composite, inclusive nationalism saw even the chant being gradually substituted by Jai Hind, popularized by Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army.

The furore over Vande Mataram that set the political fault lines in the run-up to Independence hasn’t surfaced in a significant way after 1950. Yet, the relegation of this defining symbol of the freedom struggle to history had a definite political consequence. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, the post-Independence Congress slowly attempted to become more consciously ‘secular’ and shed explicit identification with Hindu imagery. In the process, it vacated a space that was gleefully appropriated by Hindu nationalism as its very own. More important, the present-day detachment of the secularists from an older tradition of nationalism, facilitated the linkage between past and contemporary Hindu nationalism. As the Congress became more and more associated with the fortunes of one family, important nationalist icons of the past such as Aurobindo, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and Rajendra Prasad, to mention only a few, came to be incorporated in the pantheon of the Hindu right. Till the lifetime of Indira Gandhi at least, the Congress—despite many secular adjustments—broadly represented the mainstream of Indian nationalism. However, as it progressively vacated the old ground and simultaneously lost its overwhelming political dominance, traditional Indian nationalism increasingly came to be identified with forces that had hitherto been on the fringes. The slow transition of Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata from being a mainstay of the Congress to becoming identified with the BJP epitomized the shift.

Despite the indifference—verging on contempt—of Prime Minister Nehru to the issue, a large number of Congress leaders, particularly in the Hindi heartland, were passionately committed to cow protection, although they hesitated to impose their views on other states where eating beef by non-Hindus didn’t carry a similar measure of social opprobrium

Since Independence, but particularly after the term ‘secular’ was inserted into the Preamble of the Indian Constitution without any meaningful debate at the height of the Emergency in 1976, there has been a temptation to read history backwards and underplay—if not entirely gloss over—the ‘Hindu’ dimensions of the national movement. There is an implicit suggestion that the leadership of the Congress by Mahatma Gandhi and, subsequently, Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that the ideology which guided the struggle for freedom was accommodative and inclusive and not mired in narrow Hindu sectarianism and bigotry.

That the nationalist leadership tried to speak for the entire nation and were deeply conscious of the need to involve the religious minorities in the struggle is undeniable. Gandhi, in particular, while being devoutly religious and regarded as a saint by his followers, took exceptional care to be respectful of all faiths. On his part, Nehru believed that religious divisions could be overcome by a common economic agenda that was loosely socialist.

The grass-roots reality was, however, a little more awkward. ‘In the building of a mass movement,’ wrote historian William Gould in his study of Congress mobilization in Uttar Pradesh in the 1930s and 1940s, ‘religion helped to provide the necessary framework, space, discipline and mobilisation, and in the process the political meaning of “Hinduism” was redefined as an idea. In the varied contexts, the Hindu people were represented as being conterminous with the Indian nation.’ What Partha Chatterjee concluded about the peasant disturbances in Bengal in the decade after 1926 may well be valid for the nationalist mobilization in the rest of India.

It is hardly surprising to discover that the ideology which shaped and gave meaning to the various collective acts of the peasantry was fundamentally religious. The very nature of peasant consciousness, the apparently consistent unification of an entire set of beliefs about nature and about men in the collective and active mind of a peasantry, is religious. Religion to such a community provides an ontology, an epistemology as well as a practical code of ethics, including political ethics. When this community acts politically, the symbolic meaning of particular acts . . . must be found in religious terms.

From revolutionary nationalists taking the oath on the Bhagavadgita to activists twinning gau mata with Bharat Mata, upholding a way of life and the honour of the nation were inextricably connected.

The protection of the cow and the abhorrence of beef eating formed an important element of modern nationalist consciousness. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, aggressive Christian missionaries had mocked the Hindu reverence for the cow and the social stigma attached to the eating of the ‘forbidden’ meat. This, in turn, had fostered a reaction in ‘native’ society against educated Indians who equated modernity with a repudiation of all Hindu norms and customs. The adherents of the Young Bengal movement who were enamoured of the idea of shocking Bengali society by flaunting their attachment to beef were treated harshly and often hounded out of society. Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, who emerged as one of the most articulate upholders of the Hindu inheritance against attacks by Christian evangelists and others, was particularly savage in his repudiation of the British-promoted beef culture. ‘And what shall I say,’ he wrote in Letters on Hinduism, ‘of that weakest of human beings, the half-educated anglicised and brutalised Bengali babu, who congratulates himself on his capacity to dine off a plate of beef as if this act of gluttony constituted in itself unimpeachable evidence of a perfectly cultivated intellect?’ Even the widespread respect for the literary talents of Michael Madhusudan Dutt couldn’t stop the stalwarts of society decrying the poet’s conversion to Christianity. Bhudeb Mukhopadhyay, for example, could never reconcile himself to ‘Madhu[sudan]’s despicable inclination to imitate’. Even Ramakrishna Paramahansa who showed an inclination to familiarize himself with the fundamentals of other faiths was known to stiffen at the mention of Dutt.

However, the contempt that much of bhadralok society felt at those who colluded in the undermining of Hindu society (and the food economy) did not lead to assertive opposition to cow slaughter. That was left to the Arya Samaj in Punjab and the Gau- Rakshini Sabhas that mushroomed all over Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, particularly the Bhojpuri belt, from the 1880s. These movements went beyond the landowners and rich traders that funded the gaushalas. They found a responsive audience among the intermediate castes such as Kurmis, Koeris and Ahirs, then involved in improving their ritual status—a direct consequence of the census operations that defined caste hierarchies. It was the participation of these ‘backward’ castes in the cow protection movements that gave the early expressions of nationalism a popular and populist touch. The Congress that evolved after the 1920s incorporated the traditions of the Gau-Rakshini Sabhas and cow protection became an associated feature of nationalist mobilization. ‘As nationalism and communal competition stimulated the search for categories of mutual identity and for definitions of nationality, the cow took on symbolic meaning.’ The process, quite inevitably, led to vicious rioting as Muslims often retaliated to cow rescue operations with demonstrative slaughter.

The consequences of the cow protection movements in northern and central India were twofold. First, the defence of the cow became a key feature of the Hindu identity, overriding other social and political differences. It became, like the sacredness of the River Ganga, a facet of Hindu ‘common sense’. Secondly, despite all attempts by important political leaders to gloss over its polarizing effects, cow protection was woven into the central fabric of Indian nationalism, and its fierce champions included Mahatma Gandhi. This was to persist after Independence when, following its incorporation in the Directive Principles of the Constitution, Congress governments in many states enacted legislation to ban cow slaughter.

Under the leadership of Nehru, the post-Independence Congress slowly attempted to become more consciously ‘secular’ and shed explicit identification with Hindu imagery. In the process, it vacated a space that was gleefully appropriated by Hindu nationalism as its very own. More important, the present-day detachment of the secularists from an older tradition of nationalism, facilitated the linkage between past and contemporary Hindu nationalism

For at least two decades after Independence, attempts by the Hindu right—notably the Jana Sangh and the lesser- known Ram Rajya Parishad—to initiate agitations for a national ban on cow slaughter made limited headway. There were two reasons for this.

First, despite the indifference—verging on contempt— of Prime Minister Nehru to the issue, a large number of Congress leaders, particularly in the Hindi heartland, were passionately committed to cow protection, although they hesitated to impose their views on other states where eating beef by non-Hindus didn’t carry a similar measure of social opprobrium. Consequently, attempts to portray the Congress as insensitive to Hindu interests didn’t make too much headway. It was the police firing, leading to eight deaths, on a demonstration of sadhus before Parliament House in Delhi on 7 November 1966 that created a divide between the cow protection activists and the Congress. The prolonged fast of the Shankaracharya of Puri demanding a total ban on cow slaughter did certainly influence devout Hindus all over the country. Cow protection could be said to have had some adverse impact against the Congress in the 1967 general election, though the headway made by the Jana Sangh in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh also owed to its strident advocacy of Hindi as the sole official language.

Over the decades, the Congress’s commitment to cow protection as a national issue worthy of serious political attention has waned enormously even to the point of hostility. The party’s promise to establish gaushalas in Madhya Pradesh in the 2018 assembly election, for example, invited charges that it was trying to emulate the BJP. This retreat can be explained partly by the Congress’s overdependence on the Muslim vote after 1989 and partly to accommodate a rising tide of Dalit assertiveness where beef eating is proudly flaunted as a badge of anti-caste politics.

Yet, regardless of the occasional rediscovery of its heritage, the Congress can be said to have vacated the cow protection space almost entirely to the BJP. As with Vande Mataram, a redefinition of national priorities and the attachment to ‘secular’ politics has seen the BJP claiming facets of the old nationalist mantle for itself.

The inheritance has not been without its share of political troubles. During its tenure, the Modi government has had to bear the political liabilities of aggressive cow vigilante squads—in most cases acting without political sanction— that have targeted beef traders. The incidents of lynching of Muslims suspected of possessing beef have provoked adverse reactions globally and made the BJP vulnerable to charges of intolerance. Given its strong identification with India’s recent history of cow protection politics, the Hindu right has often found it difficult to balance the average Hindu’s genuine abhorrence of cow slaughter with their distaste for the overzealousness and violent methods of self-appointed vigilantes.

One of the consequences of prolonged servitude and loss of national sovereignty is the loss of collective self-confidence of a nation. Whether India lost its powers of sovereign decision making with the Islamic conquests or British colonial rule is a subject of passionate dispute that often spills over into public life. In his legendary ‘tryst with destiny’ speech on the occasion of Independence at midnight on 15 August 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to the ‘period of ill fortune’ and the lost ‘soul of a nation long suppressed’. However, he did not get into specifics. Narendra Modi was different. In one of his first interventions in the Lok Sabha on 11 June 2014, he left no scope for ambiguity: ‘Barah sau saal ki gulami ki maansikta humein pareshan kar rahi hai. Bahut baar humse thoda ooncha vyakti mile, to sar ooncha karke baat karne ki humari taaqat nahin hoti hai (The slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us. Often, when we meet a person of high stature, we fail to muster the strength to speak up).’

Modi was referring to the diffidence that has often been said to be characteristic of colonized peoples, especially in their dealings with the cosmopolitan world. He probably had in mind the tendency of Hindus to be embarrassed by their own traditions, their gods and goddesses, and their associated rituals that had, in the eyes of the ‘enlightened’ world, ‘consecrated and encouraged every conceivable form of licentiousness, falsehood, injustice, cruelty, robbery, murder . . . Its sublimest spiritual states have been but the reflex of physiological conditions in disease.’ He may also have had in mind the tendency of India’s intellectuals to mould the country’s public discourse according to prevailing global fashions and to see nationhood—the so-called ‘Idea of India’—in narrow juridical terms, bereft of culture and history. Modi’s was an outburst against national self-flagellation.

To Rajaji, the ‘loosening of the religious impulse is the worst of the disservices rendered by the Congress to the nation. We must organise a new force and movement to replace the greed and the class hatred of Congress materialism with a renovated spiritual outlook emphasising the restraints of good conduct as of greater importance than the triumphs of organised covetousness’

Ever since Nehru secured total control of the Congress after the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s dominant left-liberal ecosystem has regarded itself as both intellectually and aesthetically superior. Their electoral dominance was matched by their stranglehold over the centres of intellectual power, institutions where contrarian thinking and challenges to prevailing fashions were, if not regulated, actively discouraged. Although the Swatantra Party managed to carve out a small niche for itself thanks to the personal reputation of its founder C. Rajagopalachari and the modest patronage of some Mumbai-based corporate houses, conventional wisdom deemed that there was no real future for right-wing politics in a country such as India. The harshest treatment was reserved for the Hindu nationalists. Apart from being stigmatized for their supposed associations with the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi, they were cast as crude bigots, social reactionaries, and insular Hindi chauvinists. There was some personal regard for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s abilities as a parliamentarian but, by and large, the RSS and BJP were viewed as both lacking in intellectual depth and being anti-intellectual. The perception did not change with the BJP’s rising influence and its spate of election victories after 1991. The writer Aatish Taseer’s snide description of the participants of a retreat hosted by a pro-BJP foundation in 2014 was representative of the dismissive scorn that was reserved for the new rulers:

It was a ragtag coalition that collected at a sprawling resort, with a golf course and a swimming pool overlooking the Arabian Sea. In addition to the senior leaders of the B.J.P., there were right-wing Twitter personalities who had taken to social media because of what they described as the ‘inherent bias’ of the traditional news media; there were American Vedic experts who railed against a secular state that rejected its Hindu past; there were Muslim baiters; there were pseudohistorians who have rewritten Indian history to fit the political needs of the present.

What all these people had in common was an immense sense of grievance against an establishment they had vanquished electorally, but whose ideas still defined them.

In the run-up to the 2014 general election and subsequently, Modi was denounced for being an affront to the very ‘Idea of India’. In power, the BJP was mocked for being devoid of ideas altogether and for being a jumble of prejudices. Describing the Modi era as ‘The Age of Cretinism’, Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote, ‘There is no doubt that India is in a full blown reactionary moment. It is hard to grasp the nature of this reaction because it wears the garb of deep democratic legitimacy; it is an admission of despair described as the politics of hope. All the attributes of a reactionary politics are now gathered in one coherent form.’

DEENDAYAL UPADHYAYA, whose theory of Integral Humanism is held by the BJP to be its guiding principle, wasn’t quite as brutal in his repudiation of individualism. But in his mind too, the individual was subordinated to society and dharma. While society, in his view, was a living organism with a defined chiti (ethos) that ‘protected’ the national soul, dharma was the ‘innate law’ that sustained individuals in a society. The power of dharma, in turn, was exemplified ‘in the ideal of the family’.

The Swatantra Party has often been held out as an example of a ‘secular’ right-wing tradition in India that was subsumed by the greater appeal of the Hindu right. While there is no doubt that the Swatantra Party showed a greater attachment to the free market, unlike the Jana Sangh and BJP that was often partial to state-sponsored redistributive programmes, the belief that it disavowed the religious underpinnings of conservatism is a myth.

The leading light of the Swatantra Party was unquestionably Chakravarti Rajagopalachari or Rajaji, as he is popularly known. A veteran Congressman and close associate of Mahatma Gandhi with a reputation for intellectual sharpness and independent thinking, Rajaji fell out with Nehru on the question of excessive state involvement in the economy. However, outside the realms of day-to-day politics, Rajaji was an archetypal traditionalist in the mould of an earlier generation of conservative thinkers.

To Rajaji, the ‘loosening of the religious impulse is the worst of the disservices rendered by the Congress to the nation. We must organise a new force and movement to replace the greed and the class hatred of Congress materialism with a renovated spiritual outlook emphasising the restraints of good conduct as of greater importance than the triumphs of organised covetousness.’ The restraint was, to him, born of dharma that would facilitate ‘an organic growth which it is our duty to respect and which we should not treat as mere Indian superstition or eccentricity’. He venerated the joint family and decried ‘the cult of individuality’ and ‘perverted social movements’. He believed that Hindu thought was ‘scientific’ and based ‘as a search for truth and not as a matter of dogma’. If ‘our 400 million strike out religion from their lives, India will be wiped out’.

Rajaji’s colleague in the Swatantra Party was K.M. Munshi, another former Congressman best known for his role in facilitating the rebuilding of the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, an example that inspired those who sought the construction of a grand Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Munshi’s other great contribution was the establishment of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan that sought to give dynamic expression to the idea of Bharatiya shiksha. ‘The ultimate aim of Bharatiya shiksha,’ claimed the Bhavan’s statement of principles, ‘is to teach the younger generation to appreciate and live up to the permanent values of Bharatiya vidya which flowing from the supreme act of creative life-energy as represented by Shri Ramachandra, Shri Krishna, Vyasa, Buddha and Mahavira have expressed themselves in modern times in the life of Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda, Shri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi.’

In hindsight, it can be gauged that the Indian right was characterized by a huge measure of continuity that extended from the middle of the nineteenth century. The themes that preoccupied conservative thinkers quietly resisting colonial encroachments are no doubt important as history. But many of these preoccupations did not die out with the onset of Independence and the recovery of national sovereignty. They have persisted as guiding forces in contemporary India. The idea of national resurgence is as important in a globalized twentyfirst century setting as it was in the India of the mid- nineteenth century. The ideas that drove Indians of an earlier age have persisted in one form or another in shaping contemporary politics. The quest for a New India has invariably involved the rediscovery of an Old India.

(This is an edited extract from Swapan Dasgupta's book Awakening Bharat Mata | Viking | 440 pages | Rs 699)

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