Ascendance of New India: Whither our civilisation?

Last Updated 20 October 2019, 18:39 IST

This piece reflects on BJP’s narrative of ‘New India’, most notably encapsulated in its slogan of ‘Congress-mukt-Bharat’ (Congress-free India), vis-a-vis the narrative of India that took shape during national movement and guided the founding fathers of our Constitution.

The idea of New India has its roots in the project of Hindu nationalism which is around 100 years old. Religion lay at the base of the imagination of the national political community in this project.

In contrast, understanding of India as a civilisational entity formed the basis of a pluralistic and inclusive narrative that emerged during the national movement. This narrative overshadowed attempts at constructing singular and exclusivist narratives as the basis of national political community.

BJP’s New India re-imagines social relations, seeks to redefine the idea of citizenship embodied in our Constitution, and has contempt for rule of law.

The cultural project of Hindu nationalism is based on a flawed reading of our history, culture and Hinduism; it weaves issues of nationalism and patriotism into religiosity. Thus, it is unhistorical and divisive. It negates India’s rich cultural heritage and its syncretism.

A political discourse revolving around passions aroused in the name of nationalism, patriotism and religion creates discord and disharmony in society. This project is antithetical to our syncretism and composite culture.

The idea of New India derives its inspiration from the works of people like V D Savarkar, M S Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya who all believed that the Hindus constituted a separate political community than the Muslims, an exclusivist narrative that remained in abeyance till the emergence of the BJP as a force to be reckoned with in Indian politics in the 1990s.

In contrast to this, people from all faiths are integral to the imagination of India in a pluralistic and inclusive narrative and are equal stakeholders in its present and future. This pluralistic and inclusive narrative formed the backbone of our national movement and provided a check on exclusivist narratives.

We find this narrative in the vision and works of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who all believed that India was a mosaic of different faiths and cultures and therein lay the strength and resilience of its civilisation.

This imagination of India accounts for the secular nature of our Constitution and our polity during the Nehruvian era. The resurgence of BJP and success of the project of Hindu nationalism poses a serious threat to this image of India.

A counter-narrative based on an understanding of India as a civilisational entity is the need of the hour. Only a political discourse shaped by this understanding of India will promote tolerance, co-existence, concord and harmony in our society.

Lynching in the name of cow protection, vigilantism, utter disregard for constitutional values and rule of law and erosion of institutions characterise the last five years of BJP rule.

The cultural project of majoritarian nationalism seeks to establish the hegemony of the majority; there has been a systematic attempt at othering the minorities, particularly the Muslims and the Christians, and to relegate them to second-class citizens.

Plural and diverse character of our society is an anathema to this project. The real bases of authority seem to be shifting from the organs of the government to groupings managed by the custodians of this cultural project.

Thomas Blom Hansen, the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies and Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, opines that the “mightiest socio-political force in India” today is not the state or the law but “deeply embedded vernacular ideas of popular sovereignty”.

He further adds that one of the crucial enabling conditions for public violence is the lack of the “application of the force of law in the face of such exertions of ‘the law of force’.”

Religiosity has been let loose in the public sphere as the handmaiden of this project. How to restore sanity in the public sphere and confine religion to the spiritual and devotional realm where it rightfully belongs?

As students of society and politics, it is not only our duty to raise ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ about social phenomena, but also to produce social and political theory that provides a counter-narrative and performs moral function of reaffirming plural and diverse character of our society and restoring our faith in constitutional values and rule of law.

Political discourse

Such a counter-narrative can be constructed on the reading of India as a civilisational entity. We can continue to stake claims on the legacy of our rich civilisation and syncretism only when such a counter-narrative becomes the stuff of political discourse in our country. A political discourse shaped by plural and inclusive narrative will promote tolerance, co-existence and concord in our society.

BJP’s resounding victory in the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections is an endorsement of the project of Hindu nationalism. Brinkmanship and application of brute force to make a major chunk of the population in Jammu and Kashmir fall in line is being presented as acts of statesmanship by the leaders of the ruling dispensation and government-supported media.

As several commentators have argued, this marks a radical departure from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s approach based on Insaaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriyat. This is an abnegation of Gandhian principle that the end doesn’t justify the means, howsoever great a cause maybe.

Recent pronouncements by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on Hindi quickly toned down following public outrage, and National Register of Citizens (NRC) are deeply disturbing.

It is highly doubtful whether measures such as in Jammu and Kashmir and an approach as reflected in pronouncements on Hindi and NRC will strengthen substantive aspects of our democracy. At no other point in independent India has there been more need for a counter-narrative than at this juncture.

(Published 20 October 2019, 18:15 IST)

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