May 19, 2009

Book Review: The Violence of Cultural Nationalism in Orissa

People's Democracy, 17 May 2009

A Review of Angana. P Chatterji, Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present, Narratives from Orissa, Three Essays Collective, 2009

by Archana Prasad

THE continuous process of persecution of Christian minorities in the tribal region of Kandhamal has highlighted the organisational capability and the maturing of the Sangh Parivar in Orissa. Their confidence is evident from the fact, that despite widespread outcry, the BJP candidate from Kandhamal and its neighbouring area are the main accused in the attacks on the Kandhamal Christians in 2008. While Gujarat has received much attention as a laboratory of Hindutva, other tribal regions where the Sangh Parivar has spread its tentacles since the colonial times have received far lesser attention. Because of this Violent Gods, a book authored by scholar and activist Angana P Chatterji, is an important one as it provides the first compendium of material on the contemporary history of the Sangh Parivar and Hindu nationalists in Orissa.

The main argument of the book focuses on showing the dynamics and working of Hindu nationalism. It identifies nationhood and nationalism as the cornerstone of Hindutva ideology where the spread of Hindu nationalism is also linked to the failure of the Indian secular state. This is evident in the fact that the ‘nationalist” moorings of Hindu nation are analysed in the first parts of the book. The first part sets out the theoretical framework and aims of the book. It charts the framework within which the concept of a Hindu rashtra has been framed and the values it espouses. Thus the analysis claims that within this broader theme the author explains why it is important to study Hindu nationalism in the specific context of Orissa because it shows how Hindu majoritarianism instutionalises itself through a process where Hinduisation is equated with modernism and secularisation. While this process has been taking place through out the country, Orissa represented culturally the regional strategies of Hindutva expansion and the Hindutva ideology. This was necessary because the Hindus of the east were considered culturally different and more backward than the north Indians, and thus sought recognition from racially superior Hinduised groups of the north’. For this reason the strategies of Hindutva forces in the region had to adapt themselves to culturally specific milieus. The main aim of this organisation is the assimilation of these varied social groups into a broader ideology of Hindu majoritarianism which projects itself as a religion adapted to modern politics, society and economy. Thus Hindutva itself becomes associated with progress, development and globalisation, and which exploit existing social and economic inequalities. In this context the author also attempts to argue that Indian secularism has been unequal to this challenge and only enhanced the inequalities that can be exploited by forces of Hindu nationalism.

Following this background the second part of the book outlines the discursive terrain and institutional structures that Hindu nationalism uses in its project of assimilation and domination. The roots of Hindu domination, the author contends, can be traced to the creation of the ‘Muslim’ other in the process of partition. In the same manner Christianity was targeted as a foreign religion, thus creating a discourse where the categorisation of the “pardesi” and the “paraaya” became the cornerstone of the strategy. While this portion of the discussion has rich material of the perceptions of the minorities from different local regions, the discussion of these interviews is largely embedded in macro-political trends, adding little to the argument of the cultural and regional specificity of the Orissa context.

The author however attempts to make this up in the rest of her book. The section entitled ‘impunity’ (exemption from punishment) effectively shows how the Sangh Parivar and its various organisations have used the power of state and non-state institutions to spread their influence. The section provides valuable information on the ways in which Sangh Parivar organisations have targeted, not only the minorities but also institutions of democratic governance within the state. It also documents the process by which they achieve ideological polarisation especially through setting up of educational institutions, charitable organisations and trusts which are funded by foreign agencies. A third theme in this section concerns the economies of communal violence where it discusses the dispossession of tribals and dalits through projects like POSCO, the tribal rights movements and struggle over land. On the whole it concludes that the paradigm of development in the state has failed to address and confront relationships of oppression which have led to competitive identity politics in the region.

In the context of these developments, the last two sections of the book deal with the more recent conflicts between Hindutva forces and the Church. The section entitled ‘Erasures” deals with tales of reconversions. It also alludes to the caste divides within Christianity and the way in which the conflict between the tribals and dalit christians has been manipulated by the Sangh Parivar. Threatening social and economic boycotts, the Christian dalits and tribals are pressurised into accepting Hinduism and practicing Hindu rituals. This exercise of power by the forces of Hindutva use several methods to create communal polarisation some of which are discussed in the last section entitled ‘processions of violence’. Here the author concentrates on discussing the events of the last few years, in particular focusing on the anti-Christian attacks motivated by Lakshmananda Saraswati. The section gives us a rich account of the events that led upto the riots of December 2007 and the anti-Christian attacks of 2008. It also shows how the state and its inquiries fed into the hegemonic discourse of the Sangh Parivar despite contestations by minority groups. These oppositions however fail because the ‘post-colonial states’ and their actions are implicated in the spread of Hindu majoritarianism in these areas. However the spread of Hindutva forces is a negotiated one often stunting the growth of progressive rights based movements and assimilating them into nationhood. In this context, the last paragraph of the book poses a question of whether such movements and differences can be within the concept of a nation at all.

The value of the book lies in its empirical base and density and its analysis of the dynamics of Hindutva ideology and paradigm. However the style and vocabulary used in the book would make it a difficult read for most activists and scholars who are unfamiliar with the post-structuralist theoretical paradigm adopted by the author. But apart from this it is some of the political implications and formulation of the book that are troubling even while the author’s commitment to strident secularism cannot be doubted. The first problem lies in the fact that the author seems to believe that the Hindu nationalist discourse has defined the limits of nationhood in India and the solution to the problem lies outside nations and nationalism. This problem is signified by the fact that the author continuously counterposes the Hindutva identity to the identity of the ‘other’ minority communities. By the same measure she does not contrast the Hindutva concept of nationhood with the idea of a secular nation which was accepted by a majority of the Indians after independence. Though the author, through out the book, continuously points towards tendencies that show the ruling classes complicity with the Hindutva forces, she does not explain how and why the aggressive articulation of Hindu identity took place only in the last two decades. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was only one of these factors as pointed out by her in the second part of her book. Perhaps the complicity question needs to be further explored and located in the changing nature of the ruling class itself, especially after the advent of neo-liberal globalisation. This means that the process of consensual politics that had gone into the making of a secular state was weakened by the process of globalisation and by failing to make this contrast, it appears that the author feels that the only way of securing secularism is through a distant revolution and not through the immediate defence of the secular and liberal nation-state.

Another theme of importance which the book fails to develop relates to the way in which Hindu nationalism relates to movements and institutions which contest it. The main argument of the book is that Hindu nationalism weakens other tribal identity and rights movements and can only be incorporated in the larger political economy outside the framework of the nation state. This proposition underestimates the capacity of ethnic and class based movements to contest Hindutva nationalism and provide an alternative vision that reflects the aspiration of the oppressed and working classes. Thus, it closes the possibility of developing an anti-imperialist, and modern nationalist vision which ensures the equal space and rights of ethnic, religious and other minorities without considering them as second class citizens. In this context it is also pertinent to note that within this framework the author unjustifiably links nationhood to the apparent “national good,” thus implying that Hindutva is a nationalist and not an imperialist project. Finally even though the author rightly makes tacit links between forces of dispossession and globalisation and Hindutva, she does not follow the argument to its logical extent. This is largely because her analysis of changing development strategies and caste/class relations is not central to her thesis. The agency of Hindutva lies not in the politics of uneven development, but in an over determined Hindutva political ideology. Perhaps this itself is a problematic assertion that stresses the power of cultural discourse rather than the dynamics and structural changes in socio-economic relations within which these ideologies are embedded. More focus on this may perhaps have provided some answers to the important questions it raises.