The ugly controversy that continues to unfold at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has brought the questions of ‘nationalism’ and what it means to be a ‘nationalist’ back into the picture. Embedded in this controversy is the ongoing “intolerance” debate in India. Whilst the incident is ephemeral in the sense that ‘it too will pass’, it raises questions about the nature of India’s polity and society, especially after Right wing forces have assumed power. These forces go under the organizational rubric of the Sangh Parivar — the VHP, RSS and the BJP — and the ideology that animates and informs their approach and orientation is ‘Hindutva’. These forces seek to transform both the ideational and institutional fabric of India and correspond these to the core tenets of Hindutva. The ideology of Hindutva is also sought to impart ‘purity’, ‘pride’ and ‘vigour’ to the ‘wounded’ Hindu psyche and in the process creates an Other as a foil. The Other(s) in this schemata are Muslims.
Since the BJP’s ascent to power and subsequent developments like the beef ban controversy and the Dadri lynching, many are positing that the core assumptions that defined post-Independent India, or the “Idea of India” and the ‘composite’ nationalism that flowed from this Idea is in the process of being reviewed. And that India is on the cusp of far-reaching ideational and institutional change. There may be some merit to these assertions but to posit that the very nature of India may change is a bit of a stretch. The reason(s) pertain to the very nature of nationalism (a modern construct) and the ‘pure’ nationalism that Hindutva forces seek to construct. There is a clear-cut dialectic between these two.
By going into the hoary and mythical past, Hindutva seeks to create a ‘pure’ Hindu, untouched and unsullied by the forces of modernity.
Hindutva is essentially a reaction to modernity — initially, the colonial variant and now its globalized avatar. By going into the hoary and mythical past, Hindutva seeks to create a ‘pure’ Hindu, untouched and unsullied by the forces of modernity. It is an ideology that seeks to construct an ‘organic’, alternate reality for the contemporary Hindu. In the psychological schemata of Hindutva, Rama is sought to be elevated from the pantheon of Hindu gods and made the central figure; the Hindu consciousness is sought to be linked to Rama and this in turn is suffused with land or territory that is imbued with a certain sacrality. What is sought to be accomplished here is an ‘organic’ unity of Hinduism and Hindu-desh or Hindu Rashtra, eliding over or even compressing the diversity that defines Hinduism. Given that, historically, elisions and compressions require an Other, Muslims — held as ‘impure’ aliens in the Hindutva schema — are deemed as the perfect foil for fructifying the agenda.
Jostling against this “Idea of India” is the post independence “Idea of India” defined by a Nehruvian ingress wherein India is held to be a pluralist, modern, liberal democracy. The theme or idea of a “composite Indian culture” which Nehru alluded to in his Discovery of India is ancillary to this idea. Shorn of accretions peculiar to India, this idea is more or less a Western construct grafted onto India. In public discourse, it is held that the two Ideas of India are in competition; the latter is contested by the former. The dialectic between the two will ultimately determine the nature of India, in this schema.
I would, however, posit that both these ideas are flawed constructs.
The Hindutva Idea of India seeks create a utopian society but as the drift of events in the country suggest (and more importantly as the history of socially engineered utopias indicate), this approach usually leads to a dystopian reality. The major contradiction of the idea is that the Hindu self — both collective and individual — is too fragmented and disparate to be united by an overarching idea. The Nehruvian idea of India, on the other hand, is not only an import, but a flawed one; no organic unity ever defined India except perhaps in functional terms and this too was minimal. Indian culture, then, was not and is not composite. India is defined by diversity, plurality and difference. In other words, unless a paradigm of ideational and functional mechanism that speaks to this Indian condition is created and instituted, India, to paraphrase V S Naipaul , stands on the cusp of a “million mutinies now”.
The question is what could be this paradigm?
Multiculturalism is the answer.
Even though multiculturalism is somewhat denigrated in the West contemporarily, and has been critiqued for encouraging the “narcissism of small differences”, it allows people to both understand and negotiate their differences, especially in an idiom of the public sphere as adumbrated by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Accepting and negotiating difference is the paradigm that could be the antidote to India’s faultlines. In this sense, both the Nehruvian and Hindutva ideas of India may be ephemeral and even aberrations. If a longue durée view of the future is taken, then it is along the multiculturalist path that will evolve. But on the way, many victims will be exacted and the path will be torturous. India then is in the midst of “interesting times”. Their denouement will determine the nature and identity of India.
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