September 09, 2015

India: Caste and the battle for secularism (G. Sampath)

The Hindu, September 9, 2015

Caste and the battle for secularism
by G. Sampath

Is a secular ‘Indian’ nationalism a viable project? The answer, according to the publications of the Gita Press, is a resounding ‘no’. Given that their ideological affiliates are in power, this answer merits serious attention since it denies the constitutional reality

Is Hindu nationalism a viable project? This is not an idle question, for the Prime Minister calls himself a Hindu nationalist and remains an active member of a cultural organisation that propagates a militant version of Hindu nationalism, also known as Hindutva.

This is not an idle question for another reason. According to the Constitution, India can never be a “Hindu nation”. As a nation-state, it must remain politically de-linked from any religion.

The same question can also be formulated differently: is a secular “Indian” nationalism a viable project? The answer, according to the publications of the Gita Press, is a resounding ‘no’. Their ideology is Hindu nationalism. Their goal, a Hindu India. Given that their ideological affiliates are currently in power at the Centre, their answer to this question merits serious attention, since it denies the constitutional reality.

Scrutiny of Hindutva

Among the several achievements of Akshaya Mukul’s new book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, the most significant is its below-the-hood scrutiny of Hindutva — the design of its engine, the kind of fuel it runs on, and the levers controlling its movement and acceleration. The entry point for this scrutiny is Gita Press, India’s oldest and most distinguished purveyor of muscular Hinduism, with long-standing links to various arms of the Sangh Parivar.

Gita Press, and the monthly magazine it published, Kalyan, were founded in the mid-1920s. Most such ventures of that era are long defunct. But not these two. As of early 2014, the press had sold 72 million copies of the Bhagvad Gita, 70 million copies of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas and other works, and 94.8 million copies of monographs on “the ideal Hindu” woman and child. As of today, Kalyan has a circulation of over 2,00,000, and its English counterpart, Kalyana-Kalpataru, over 1,00,000.

What is the secret of its longevity and success? Much of the credit goes to its founders, Jaydayal Goyandka, the owner of Gita Press, and Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the editor of Kalyan for more than 40 years. The book describes them as “Marwari businessmen-turned-spiritualists”.

By meticulously unpacking the background, affiliations, collaborators and editorial decisions of these two men over 400-odd pages, Mukul transforms his historical chronicle of a single religious press into a magisterial account of the socio-cultural, economic and human forces at play in the politics of Hindutva.

What stands out in this account is the caste aspect of this religious publishing enterprise. Gita Press and Kalyan were both funded by Marwari capital. Its longest-serving editor, Poddar, worked mostly with Brahmin writers, editors and artists. The narrative of Gita Press’s history is overrun by Dalmias and Dwivedis, Goenkas and Guptas, Birlas and Jains, Chaturvedis and Mukerjees. This combination of baniya and brahmin was not an accident. It had everything to do with why a Hindu nation was felt to be a necessary project.

Marwaris had begun to dominate Indian capitalism from the late 19th-early 20th century onward. As Mukul explains, this led to “two contradictory things”. One, the community became an object of jealousy; two, the Marwaris underwent an identity crisis: even though they had become economically the most powerful, being Vaishyas, they did not enjoy a “commensurate social standing”. The poorer brahmins and kshatriyas stood higher. But the decline of the landed gentry in North India in this period saw the Marwaris take centre stage in a process that the Indologist Philip Lutgendorf, cited by Mukul, terms “semi-involuntary upward mobility”. Baniyas became the new kshatriyas, “owning villages and getting kshatriya titles like Raja”. Most such estates were acquired via forced sales for tax defaults. At the same time, Marwari trade practices continued to evoke anger and distrust — of which they were not unaware.

Marwaris sought to resolve this identity crisis with moves aimed at gaining social standing, such as building temples, schools and hospitals, sponsoring recitations of Ramcharitmanas, and funding cow protection associations.

Another strategy was to set up printing presses and journals with the aim, initially, of reforming the Marwari community, and subsequently, of promoting Hindu dharma. Publications such as Rajasthan Samachar (started in 1889), Marwari Gazette (1890), Marwari Sudhar (1921), and Marwari Aggarwal (1923) were an outcome of this trend. So were Gita Press and Kalyan.

Through these initiatives, Mukul argues, “Marwaris replaced the ‘aristocracy and wealthy landlords’ as religious patrons and changed ‘the kshatriya-brahmin interface of Hindu society’ to a ‘vaishya-brahmin interface’ that eventually resulted in the ‘Marwarization of Hinduism’”.

The book offers ample evidence of militant Hinduism being bankrolled by Marwari capital. Even the model of Hinduism promoted by Gita Press and Kalyan, Mukul points out, was essentially “a baniya model of profit from bhakti”, duly attested by brahmin authorities on Hinduism.

The Hindutva project, then, was not so much about sealing the dominance of the Hindu religious majority as about securing the hegemony of the upper caste minority — the three dvija (twice-born) castes of brahmins, kshatriyas, and “the new kshatriyas”, the vaishyas. For instance, Kalyan’s vociferous opposition to the Hindu Code Bill, on the grounds that it would grant lower castes “access to upper caste homes through marital alliances that had the sanction of law” is just one egregious testimony of its loyalty to the varna system.

Another is that membership of Gobind Bhawan Karyalaya, the trust that owns Gita Press, is open to “any Sanatan Dharmi Hindu by caste brahmin, kshatriya and vaishya” and not to shudras, ‘untouchables’, Adivasis, or anyone else not a twice-born. Interestingly, the Gita Press also runs a Vedic school in Rajasthan that only admits children belonging to brahmin, kshatriya and vaishya castes.

The caste dynamic of Hindutva

Hindutva may present itself as a defender of Hindu pride. But this pride derives from a toxic source — the regressive order of sanatan dharma, which holds the varna system to be the heart of Hinduism. The real objective of Hindutva — never openly espoused, but evident from the remarkable consistency of the content put out by Gita Press over nine decades — is to emasculate the Other Backward Classes (OBC)-Dalit majority by keeping them under the Hindu umbrella but on terms determined by the dvija castes.

The Sangh Parivar’s seemingly irrational anxiety over demographic numbers — when Hindus apparently constitute about 80 per cent of the population — is therefore not all that irrational. The dvija Hindus are indeed a minority if we add up the non-dvija Hindus (shudras and Dalits), Adivasis, and the various religious minorities.

So, where does all this leave those who wish to preserve India’s constitutional secularism? Recent history offers a clue.

First, when the anti-reservation protests of 1990 brought caste conflicts under national political spotlight, both the “secular” Congress (under Rajiv Gandhi) and the “communal” BJP were opposed to implementing the Mandal report. But the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) responded to Mandal with the “Mandir” card — successfully, if temporarily, papering over the fissions of caste with the fusion of religion.

Second, the Gita Press has always enjoyed the patronage of numerous Congressmen and socialists whose beliefs and politics are indistinguishable from those of the RSS. Even today, regular osmosis between the BJP and the self-proclaimed secular parties is common knowledge.

This raises an obvious question: what if secularism as an alternative political platform to Hindutva has run its course, as it indisputably has, for instance, in Gujarat?

In such a scenario, the way forward for anyone hoping to save India’s tattered secular fabric from being torn to shreds by Hindu majoritarianism would be to make the non-dvijas — the OBCs and Dalits, who together constitute 60 per cent of the population — impervious to a supremacist ideology that seeks to foster a synthetic Hindu pride by positing select religious minorities as inferior to the lowest of the Hindus in the social order of the varna system.

But this is only possible through social empowerment and visible economic advancement of a great number of Dalits and OBCs, so that there is no basis left for a sense of caste-based superiority. Of course, it is easier said than done.

What is politically rational could seem socially quixotic as a project, despite the fact that secularism has no dearth of upper caste flag-bearers. History is yet to provide a single instance of a dominant social group that voluntarily ceded its power or privileges. If kshatriya-brahmin hegemony characterised the subcontinent’s social order till the advent of British colonialism, then bania-brahmin hegemony is equally a marker of contemporary India. But thanks to democracy, however flawed, and a socially progressive Constitution, this hegemony, compared to those of the past, is more vulnerable to being challenged, and therefore weaker.

The pages of Gita Press make it abundantly clear that no accommodation is possible between Hindutva and democracy, or between Hindutva and equality. But the battle for secularism cannot be won without first addressing the reality of caste, for it is the virus behind the pathology of Hindutva. To what extent democracy can unhinge caste hegemonies is, of course, one of the more intriguing narratives of modern India.