The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 15, 2002

Spelling out the dangers of fundamentalism
Himmat Singh Gill

Slouching Towards Ayodhya
by Radhika Desai. Pages 163. Rs 150
Breaking The Spell Of Dharma
by Meera Nanda. Pages 183. Rs 160. Both by Three Essays Press

HAS aggressive religiosity become the millstone around India’s neck, and is there a compelling need to break the "spell of dharma", are two salient issues that Radhika Desai and Meera Nanda have raised in their respective books. Three Essays Press, a comparatively new publishing house, has done well to bring out these two works of scholarship that touch upon contemporary concerns affecting India, and a discerning reader is bound to benefit from the in-depth research that has gone into in these unbiased narratives.

Desai, who teaches politics at the University of Victoria in Canada, has studied Hindutva on three planes — international, national and regional — and examined critically the historical roots and political hold of the Hindutva wave that has spread across the entire country, undoubtedly facilitated directly or indirectly by the VHP and the BJP-dominated NDA government at the Centre. She has assessed the direction that anti-Hindutva forces would need to take to stop the spread of this fundamentalist doctrine that, if not checked, could one day turn the country upside down. She has opined that to "bolster support in the violent mobilizational fashion associated with them", the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have employed methods like "Pokhran, Kargil, violence against minorities, December 13, 2001, and the subsequent military stand-off with Pakistan", and honestly speaking they seem to have got away with it. She writes that recent calls by those who support Hindutva to Indian Muslims to ‘Indianise’ or ‘nationalise’ themselves and not disturb the "cultural and therefore economic superiority of the predominantly Hindu capitalist classes" implies that those who do not toe the majority view, may find themselves at the receiving end of threats and violence from those in power.


On Gujarat and the recent happenings there, Desai rightly says, "for far too long, observers and practitioners of Indian politics have tended to underestimate the dangers represented by Hindutva". She feels that the politics of the Indian middle castes would not be able to put the brakes on Hindutva, and regrets that "Gujarat has become a byword for casteism and communalism". She goes on to add, "violence against lower castes, tribals, Muslims and Christians has become routine", and that the first large-scale post-Independence communal riots in Gujarat took place in 1969, "marking then, as they still do, the violent assertion of a predominantly Hindu propertied classes against the sizeable Muslim commercial and business element in the state". Hindutva has spread its reach to the "large community of overseas Indians", and within the country it "attempts to unite upper and, if less successfully middle castes, to constitute a more coherent power group". Desai concludes with the hope that the "horrific" example of Gujarat will not be followed by the rest of the country. One only hopes that average Indian will wake up to the dangers emanating from fundamentalism among the majority community.

Nanda’s narrative highlights to a lesser degree the dangers that Hindutva politics represent. She writes that, "with the rise of Hindu nationalism, Indian democracy has taken a fascistic turn". India is being defined as a "Hindu nation", with Muslims and Christians being cast as the source of the country’s "defilement and degradation". Interestingly, the Sikhs, another major Indian minority, do not find a mention anywhere in the book. Nanda feels that the only way to deal with Hindutva is by ensuring its complete secularisation.

There were many, Nanda writes, who resisted the aggressive strides of Hinduism after Independence. Bhim Rao Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in 1956 and is reported to have told Mahatma Gandhi, "I was born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu". Nanda says that Ambedkar in his book, Annihilation of Caste (1936), had declared that the real enemy "is not the people who observe caste, but the shashtras that teach them this religion of caste". The author writing about the practice of sati says, "As long as there are people who continue to treat sati as an act of piety, women will continue to burn". She points out that whereas a widow is treated as "inauspicious" among high Hindu castes, on committing sati she actually begins to be "worshipped like a goddess in these same communities". Nanda also takes a swipe at how the (nuclear) bomb and the science behind it are being packaged in a ‘Hindu idiom’ by the schools, temples and the entertainment media, who say that all these ultramodern sciences find mention in the ancient texts of yore. Today the names of some our missiles are Agni, the fire god, and Trishul, the trident and the symbol of Lord Shiva.

The conclusion of both the books is clear. The harsh contours of Hindutva have to be blunted by secular Indians. One has to concur with Nanda when she warns, "Hindutva parties are in the process of redefining the ideals of democracy, secularism and social justice into the idiom of Vedic Hinduism". One hopes that they do not succeed.