Modi, Hindutva and the Northeast

By Thangkhanlal Ngaihte, Columnist       

During the last few months, many of us in India have been exercised over the hate campaigns of the Hindu extremist groups. These groups were confined to the narrow right fringe of politics for much of independent India’s history, but have come out of the woodwork after Narendra Modi became prime minister in May last year. Since then, we have been witness to numerous ‘ghar wapsi’ ceremonies for Muslims and Christians who had left Hinduism earlier, subtle and not so subtle attempts to impose Hindi language as official language of communication, proposals to make Bhagwad Gita a national book and attacks of minorities’ places of worship. We have also been 'educated' on the sacred virtues of Sanskrit language and the glories of ancient Hindu wisdom and science which, we are told, have till date been hidden from us by the leftist westernised elite.

But if you are surprised about all these, may be you are not paying attention. The RSS – the cultural and ideological fountainhead of the BJP – and its affiliated bodies have been peddling these ideas since a long time. As the idea of partition took concrete shape in the early 1940s, many on the Indian side assumed that since Pakistan was to be a Muslim nation, India would also be naturally a Hindu nation. India’s violent partition at the time of independence on religious grounds and the killing of Gandhi by a Hindu fanatic, among others, however, nip these ideas in the bud. Nehru was so repelled by the Hindu right ideology that he has no qualms in comparing it to Nazism. For much of India’s history since then, the Nehruvian idea of Indian identity  which is loose, layered, open-ended and tentative, held.

However, the underlying assumptions of the modernist Brahminic imagination of the Indian nation, represented by people like VD Savarkar, moulded India’s political history more deeply than acknowledged. Even Nehru, the quintessential secularist, admitted in the end to the difficulty of governing a deeply religious India by secular means. To Savarkar, the terms Indian and Hindu are interchangeable. In his 1923 book, Hindutva, Savarkar defined an  Indian as he
(1)    Who looks upon the land that extends from Sindhu to Sindhu–Indus to the Sea–as the land of his forefathers (Pitribhu and Matribhu).
(2)    Who inherited the blood of that race whose first discernible source be traced to the Vedic Saptasindhus.
(3)    Who inherited and claims as his own the culture of that race expressed chiefly in common language (Sanskrit), history, festival, etc.
(4)    Who addresses this land (Sindhusthan) as his Holyland (Punyabhu)–the land of his prophets and seers, godman and gurus.

What is relevant to the present debate is the idea of punyabhu (holyland). Savarkar and his followers believe that since Muslims and Christians subscribe to religions that originate outside India, they cannot qualify to be genuine Indians (Hinduism, in their reading, encompasses all religions that originate and are native to the land). Their punyabhu lies outside India. Hence, their allegiance and patriotism is divided between their fatherland (India) and their holyland (Arabia and Palestine respectively). This may sound weird to you and me, but it found resonance with many others. The origin of vile propaganda about Indian Muslims being fifth columnist for Pakistan, Muslim population going to overtake Hindu population, Christian missionaries being agents of western powers bent on diminishing India, etc. may be located in this original suspicion.

One recurrent theme in Savarkar's Hindutva has been the claim that Hindus need to inculcate qualities of manliness and virility which they lacked, which resulted in their subjugation by Muslims through conquest and then Christians through the East India Company rule. Hence, there is  a perennial attempt to provoke a sense of hurt and injury and victimhood in the Hindus. Ironically, the attempt is to inculcate in the Hindus the same alleged musculine qualities of the hated enemy, the Muslims. The RSS's khaki uniform and martial rituals may have something to do with this.

This is where Narendra Modi comes in. Modi exemplifies a resurgent Hindu figure, breaking off the chains and emerging to reclaim the Hindus' rightful place in the sun. The Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 and Modi's unrepentance throughout, his autocratic style of leadership, and his claims of a '56 inch chest', all are emblematic of an attempt to appropriate the image of a Hindu warrior, coming to save the Hindus from their centuries-old subjugation.

Hence, there is nothing surprising about the Hindu right's reassertion in the wake of Modi's victory. Their time has come. With the BJP having majority seats in the Lok Sabha, they can pretty much do anything they want to do. The pet projects of building Ram temple in Ayodhya, doing away with Article 370 of the Constitution giving special provisions for Jammu & Kashmir, and Uniform Civil Code will come, too.

But, there are problems. Parties in opposition engage in mobilizational politics. Once they come to power, they make use of bureaucratic drags to subdue the mobilizational impetus. With the BJP obtaining a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha, Modi hardly have any excuse to give to his core supporters for promises that cannot be met. But his core Hindu supporters alone are not enough to take him to power. This lack was filled by a mass of secular-minded Hindus who bought into his economic growth story.

The problem is that these two constituencies have contrary agenda that cannot mix. It will not be easy for Modi to disentangle himself from the Hindutva agenda. After all, he’s their embodiment. But, the Hindutva agenda inevitably causes social tension and that in turn impedes economic  growth and damages India's image abroad. That hurts his middle class constituency and his corporate backers. Not only that. Modi craves for global recognition and respect - for himself as much as for India. His almost desperate attempts to get pally with ‘Barack’ Obama may be embarassing, but they are instructive of how he wants to be seen and regarded. However, as we see in the last few weeks, international opinion is intolerant of religious intolerance. How  Modi and his team negotiate this irreconcilable contradiction remains to be seen.

Does all these concern the northeast? To be fair, Modi’s speeches highlighting his vision for the northeast – during his election campaigns in the region and afterwards – represents a refreshing break from the past. They give voice to the potential and promise of the region, especially its youth. But, his government’s actions, ranging from transferring unwanted governors to northeastern states to priority placed on use of Hindi language rankled. The attacks on Churches and minority religions generally and misdescription of northeasterners in Delhi as 'immigrants' deepen mistrust and insecurity.  What can be done? For a start, there is ever greater need for the northeast as a collective to devise common strategy vis-à-vis the mainland politically. The northeast MPs forum need to revitalized. After welcome stirrings after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the forum and its members have gone quiet. The region may be insignificant in terms of electoral calculations, but the centre can ignore or neglect the collective voice of this vast and strategically important region only at its peril. Our MPs should get their acts together and give voice to common concerns. Everybody else should back them up.