Does Modi really want Bharat, Sanatan Dharma?

Tamil Nadu minister Udhayanidhi Stalin, the son of Chief Minister and DMK chief M K Stalin, set the proverbial cat among the pigeons by declaring recently that people must work for the eradication of Sanatan Dharma.
Last Updated 15 September 2023, 22:33 IST

The stakes are always high in a general election. But in the run-up to polls in 2024, it is going to be even more so as very fundamental issues that can change the character and dynamics of the Indian Republic are likely to come up centre-stage.

Tamil Nadu minister Udhayanidhi Stalin, the son of Chief Minister and DMK chief M K Stalin, set the proverbial cat among the pigeons by declaring recently that people must work for the eradication of Sanatan Dharma.

This is a thinly disguised offensive against the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will try for a third consecutive term in power. BJP, a party strong in the north and west of the country, is seen as floundering in the south, where it holds no state governments. It was pushed out of power in Karnataka in the last Assembly elections in May and since then, the saffron party is looking for representation in South India.

Udhayanidhi’s declaration brought immediate adverse reactions from senior BJP leaders like Rajnath Singh and other Union ministers, who condemned the demand for eradication of Sanatan Dharma. But Udhayanidhi repeated his statement after the BJP’s condemnation to underline the fact that he made no mistake in saying what he did and that he stood by it. 262 citizens, including retired judges and civil servants wrote to the Chief Justice of India demanding action against the 33-year-old Udhayanidhi, who was a film star before he joined politics. Modi, after remaining guarded on the matter for a few days, has also jumped into the controversy, stating that disintegrating Santana Dharma is the hidden agenda of the opposition I.N.D.I.A. bloc. He said that Sanatan Dharma represented thoughts, values and traditions that have connected India for thousands of years.

Sanatan Dharma, a concept introduced in the third century via Manusmriti, broadly refers to Hinduism. The term Hinduism was introduced formally by the British in the first decades of the 19th century, and earlier by the Greeks. It has now been institutionalised as the religion of Hindus. Sanatan Dharma is an older term and refers to a timeless non-sectarian concept. It is in vogue in Aryan societies and generally not known in the Dravidian world. Among the societies in the north and west of the country, Sanatan Dharma is treated as something very serious, unlike in South India.

A day after Udhayanidhi’s statement, the President of Bharat’s invitation to dinner for delegates to the G-20 summit overtook the controversy surrounding the Tamil Nadu minister’s utterances. The matter is now poised to acquire a more serious dimension with widespread condemnation by the Opposition on the usage of Bharat as the name of the country. But Prime Minister Modi seems to be serious on the subject, although he has cautioned against everybody jumping into the ‘Bharat versus India’ controversy. This is seen as a sign that Modi is sensitive about the subject and would not want needless controversies with all and sundry holding forth on it.

In the south, ‘India’ is preferred to ‘Bharat’. It is thus conceivable that the entire matter could be perceived as an exercise of the BJP and the central government to ram through North Indian names, ideas and concepts in South India. This is not acceptable at all, for a variety of reasons, to people living in this part of India.

Before the British came, there was a problem about the name of the country, split into hundreds of empires and kingdoms as it was. India was not known and called as such before the British made it official. Though the British are known for breaking India into India and Pakistan as they exited, it is also true that before they came to the Indian subcontinent, the country was never politically and administratively united as it is today. Even the most expansive kingdoms and empires of the past did not cover the entire length and breadth of today’s India. In medieval times, the largest Indian empire to rule the country -- that of the Mughals -- never extended
to cover all of South India. Possibly, ‘Hindustan’ was the name of the territory they lorded over.

Before that, in the ancient times, the large Mauryan Empire, though it extended to Kabul and Kandahar, had little coverage of South India.

The British had incorporated India for administrative convenience to rule their new colony seamlessly and without hassle. After securing Independence, the founding fathers gave the country a new Constitution to cover the entire nation as it existed then. India became the nation it is today after the integration of the princely states into the Indian Union, largely by the efforts made by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who, as Home Minister in Nehru’s cabinet, headed the States Ministry created for this task.

Differences among the people of the newly independent country were sought to be ironed out by the overwhelming feeling of freedom and the creation of a new Union. India, therefore, became a country of ‘unity in diversity’. There were problems regarding a common language to govern India. The choice of Hindi as the common administrative language ran into rough weather. This was because the populace of South India was not conversant with Hindi, which was most widely understood in North and West India. In South India, a question asked in Hindi would, more often than not, draw blank expressions, and even lower-level employees in offices would understand English but not Hindi. Thus, perforce, the country had to fall back on English, though it was a foreign language, especially that of the colonisers.

Admittedly, over the last several decades, Hindi has come to be understood more widely in South India than before, but the spread of the language has had more do with the popularity of Bollywood and the Hindi film industry. But is that enough for Modi to really want a Government of Bharat that possibly uses Hindi to rule?

(The writer is a senior journalist and author)

(Published 15 September 2023, 22:33 IST)

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