Fight against Hindu nationalism & stand up for Secular India

January 30, 2015

People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism

Gandhi was murdered by Nathuram Godse on 30 January, 1948 while walking towards his regular evening prayer. He was shot point blank, the seventy eight year old had no chance to escape bullets. Ten days ago too, there was a bomb blast in his evening prayer. However, he had refused any security cover, and remained as open to ordinary people as ever. The two years before January 1948 were perhaps the most violent in the history of India. India gained independence from colonial rulers in August  1947. Its ‘tryst with destiny’ however, came along with communal carnage. Nobody knows exactly how many Indians were killed by other Indians in the months prior to, and following the Partition of the country into two nation states of Pakistan and India. Estimates vary from two lakhs to five lakhs. More than twelve million were forced to migrate in the provinces of Punjab and Bengal; leaving behind their houses, villages and towns, where they had lived for generations. It is considered to be the largest migration ever in human history.

One can only imagine that Gandhi must have been an extremely sad man in January 1948. He had managed to transform India’s struggle for independence into a mass movement. For him it was not just a struggle for political power. He saw it primarily as a struggle of truth and morality against immorality and injustice of the colonial rule. In August 1947, while the political power came to Indians, their moral world lay in shambles as they killed, burnt, looted and raped. What had happened? Gandhi’s followers in the saddle of the state power tried to control and manage the mayhem through channels of government machinery. He, true to his political principles attempted an active engagement with the people. When his countrymen and women were celebrating independence he was marching through the streets of Kolkata for communal harmony. He moved to Delhi in September 1947, hoping to lead a jattha of Hindus and Sikhs refugees from Western Punjab back to their homes there. Delhi, the national capital of independent India was itself in the throes of communal frenzy, with large scale violence against Muslims and takeover of their property. Gandhi’s last fast from 13 January to 18 January was for communal harmony in the city and the return of the dargah of Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Chisti in Mehrauli which was taken over by Hindus and Sikhs.

In his statement before the trial court Nathuram Godse gave his reasons for killing Gandhi. According to him Gandhi’s politics weakened Hindus and appeased Muslims. He believed himself, and his supporters and followers in Hindu Mahasabha and RSS continue to believe him to be a martyr for the Hindu nation. There is a clear contradiction between the idea of a nation believed by Godse, his organisation and supporters on the one hand, and of other Indians including Gandhi. Should a nation be defined on the basis of an already existing community, and driven by its animosity, desire for revenge and conflict with other communities? Or, should a nation be an open community that respects the dignity and rights of every one of its members, irrespective of their religion, language, or ethnicity? Veer Savarkar, the political mentor of Godse, in his 1923 book Hindutva/Who is a Hindu?, and RSS’s M.S. Golwalkar in his We, or Our Nationhood Defined (1939) ask for India to be a nation of the former kind. They imagine the political rule of Muslims before the advent of the British to be a complete catastrophe for the Hindu community, and basically call Hindus to settle scores. Their nation obviously can not have any place for Muslims as Muslim citizens. Their Hindu nation is a mirror image of the nation demanded by the Muslim League. Savarkar is on record having said that he has no quarrel with Jinnah’s two nation theory and that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nations.

Killings of the 1947, and transfer of Hindus and Sikhs to India, and of Muslims to Pakistan were not only a logical consequence of the politics of the two nation theory, but its progenitors were active participants in actual violence. The partition violence, particularly in Punjab was not a random violence of competing mobs. It was organised and led by bands of Muslim National Guards, Shahidi Jatthas of Akalis, and RSS volunteers. These bands received official patronage of state administration under British, arms and training from Muslim, Sikh and Hindu princely states, and financial help from propertied sections of these communities. Gandhi’s efforts in these circumstances achieved only a temporary and local effect. Yet his fast in Delhi against the depredations of communal orgy put the choice before Indians starkly. Should the Hindus and Sikhs of the city agree to Muslims living as free citizens among them, or should they be driven by revenge for happenings elsewhere and force Muslims of the city out to Pakistan? It was a direct challenge to the ideologues of a Hindu nation, and they decided to meet it the only way their politics allowed, through violence and murder.

The two nation theories of a Savarkar, Golwalkar, or a Jinnah, and the communal harmony and unity advocated by Gandhi were not the only two sets of national imaginings. Oppressed caste leaders like Ambedkar and Periyar brought the question of caste oppression among Hindus to the forefront. Internal reform of Hinduism was not sufficient for them. They wanted a reformulation of politics so that the stranglehold of upper castes on the economic, cultural and social life could be broken. Radical revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh, and the Communist party after him advocated a class based unity of the toiling masses against colonial rulers and native exploiters. They criticised the politics of compromise by Congress under Gandhi, and Bhagat Singh in his prison writings famously warned Indians against brown sahibs replacing white sahibs after independence. Subhash Chandra Bose attempted a broad based unity of all Indians, and through Azad Hind Fauj attempted a military defeat of colonialism rather than transfer of power through negotiations. None of these other trends in national politics conceived Indian nation on the basis of religion. It is interesting that the votaries of religion based nationalism, Savarkar and the RSS advocating a Hindu nation, or the Muslim League demanding a Muslim homeland, were not anti-colonial nationalists. They focused  their energies against imagined threats from other communities and rarely organised against colonial rulers.

Even though the politics of Hindu communalism of Savarkar and the RSS gained significantly through the months of partition violence, Gandhi’s murder also led to an immediate setback. Independent India’s constitution was drafted with an acute awareness of the dangers of communalism, as manifested in Gandhi’s killing. The secular nation visualised in the Constitution of India however, is different in crucial aspects from the ideas of Gandhi. For Gandhi, his political morality was inextricably tied with religion, and hence when dealing with Hindus and Muslims he could not but consider them as members of their respective religious communities. Constitution is premised upon a secular public morality, which is not derived from any religion. It recognises personal moral and political autonomy of every individual citizen, and does not necessarily considers them as members of any community. For a traditional society tied up in caste, gender and class hierarchies, the idea of a non-religious secular sphere, that provides equal freedoms to all, is no less than revolutionary. Its practice in independent India has at best been perfunctory. Elected governments taking oath in the name of the constitution have gone on to violate its secular spirit. Just one datum should suffice. India was not freed of communal virus after the murder of Gandhi, and under a secular constitution. Its post-independence history is also a history of communal riots against minorities. Communal killings in Jabalpur (1961) , Jamshedpur (1964), Rourkela (1964), Bhiwandi, Ahmedabad (1989), Nellie (1983), Delhi (1984), Malliana-Hashimpur (1987), Bhagalpur (1989), Mumbai (1992-93), Gujarat (2002), Kandhamal (2008) and Muzaffarnagar (2013), are major events of this dark history. Yet the criminal justice system of the country has regularly failed to punish the guilty and give justice to victims. All political parties have contributed to this state of affairs.

Votaries of Hindu nationalism in India have made tremendous advances in the past three decades. They were able to organise and lead the movement for the destruction of Babri mosque in Ayodhya, which turned out to be the largest sustained popular mobilisation in the country after independence. They have governed many states, changed education and cultural policies to reflect their ideology, and inducted their followers in bureaucracy and police. A portrait of V.D. Savarkar, the first ideologue of Hindutva, who according to the report of Justice J L Kapoor commission was aware of the conspiracy to kill Gandhi, was installed in the main hall of the Parliament of India under the last NDA regime. The current Modi avtar of Hindutva has managed to win parliamentary majority by a skillful combination of its politics of religious polarisation through riots and propaganda with the desire for quick economic prosperity of Indian propertied. Its current success is as much due to the sustained efforts of Hindutva organisation and leadership, and failures of its political opponents, as due to deep rooted changes in the ideology of dominant sections of Indian society. The upper caste milieu in India has always been conservative. It has avoided rationality and remained a prisoner to religious dogma and superstition. It is horrified by prospects of gender equality and a social sphere without caste privileges. The neo-liberal economic order has legitimised quick individual economic prosperity in any possible way, without regard to its consequences for people at large. Prejudice against selected minorities can easily take root in the common sense of these sections, particularly when its sense of security is threatened by economic crisis, terrorist strikes, or popular movements against Indian nation state at its periphery.

The earlier brand of Hindutva murdered Gandhi. Its current brand in power appropriates a sanitised version of the man for its ‘swachh bharat’ campaign, while its politics is against the very principle of communal harmony for which he died. Central ministers of current Hindutva in power publicly abuse minorities, and its M.Ps exhort Hindu women to have four, or ten children to serve the Hindu nation. All these are creating a fertile ground for the ghost of Nathuram Godse to rise. It is not surprising that determined efforts are on way to celebrate the man on the anniversary of the day he killed Gandhi. The death of Gandhi in 2015 is as much an occasion to ponder over the kind of  nation Indians want to make for themselves, as was the day of his murder sixty seven years ago.