June 11, 2016

India: Different political forces in the country have either collaborated with or tacitly approved the Hindutva forces in their early days (Sumanta Banerjee)

The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 23, 04 June, 2016

Break the Umbilical Cord

Sumanta Banerjee

Sumanta Banerjee (suman5ban[at]yahoo.com) is a political commentator.

Different political forces in the country have either collaborated with or tacitly approved the Hindutva forces in their early days.

In the days of retreat, the fanatical has often sneaked into the liberal in Hinduism. Let that not happen….Compromise will once again repeat the errors of the past.

—Rammanohar Lohia.1

The wave of protests against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led regime by a large number of Indian intellectuals, set in motion by academics and writers returning awards followed by academics (both from India and abroad) coming out against the Modi government’s suppression of democratic rights in the campus have provided the Indian intelligentsia with an opportunity to historically examine the roots of the crisis. It also presents an opportunity to interrogate the concept of Indian nationalism that was chosen as a paradigm for building up the post-independence Indian nation state.

In other words, it is necessary to go beyond protests (against the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, the killing of free-thinking rationalists like M M Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar in Karnataka and Maharashtra, and the authoritarian brutalities against students in Pune, Hyderabad and Delhi). These demonstrations were, of course, extremely essential. But, it is also important to lift the debate to the level where we must face up to the basic issue, which was famously summed up by Jawaharlal Nehru way back in 1958, as the problem of “creating a secular state in a religious society” (during an interview with the French intellectual Andre Malraux). More important is the problem of creating a secular environment and a mentality among citizens, who should be allowed to follow their respective religious beliefs and practices in their private space, but not to extend them to be imposed on the public space, which lead to inter-religious violent conflicts.

Nehru inherited the problem from the legacy of religious and other divisive impulses that partly shaped the history and concept of Indian nationalism by heavily leaning on Hindu majoritarian identity—represented even in his own Congress Party by people like Madan Mohan Malaviya and Purushottam Das Tandon. Although uncomfortable with this legacy, Nehru left unfinished the task of eradicating those majoritarian Hindu socio-religious predilections in post-independence politics. It is the reinforcement of these deeply embedded mutually hostile prejudices (religious, casteist, ethnic) by politicians that induces the public to remain mute witnesses to—or even collaborators in—the atrocities we witnessed in Delhi in 1984, in Gujarat in 2002, and the killings in Dadri, Maharashtra, Karnataka and other parts of India. They stand in the way of building not only a secular state, but also the much required need of a humanitarian society in India today.

Dubious Alliances

What is more disconcerting is that while politicians of the extreme right are primarily responsible for the present communal violence, those from the centre–left (or to be more precise Congress and socialist) spectrum cannot escape their share of the responsibility either. They have quite often allied with the religious right, or allowed it a free space—either from shared religious beliefs and cultural values, or for immediate political gains. In the long run, however, such policies abetted in the consolidation of the power of the religious right, and helped it to gain legitimacy. In fact, however uncharitable it may sound, I think that the legitimacy that the BJP–Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)–Sangh Parivar has acquired in Indian polity and public mind today has been due to a large extent to the good terms that their leaders and activists enjoyed with national personalities like M K Gandhi, Rammonahar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan—to name a few—during various phases in the years immediately preceding independence, and the post-independence period.

Gandhi’s Ambiguous Relationship with RSS

To start with Gandhi, let us examine some of his observations on the RSS. In 1942, when asked about his reactions to the drills and virulent pro-Hindutva slogans of the RSS, instead of condemning them, in a rather distant tone of ingenuousness, he said that he had “heard of the RSS and its activities,” and knew that it was “a communal organisation.”2 Yet, as later revelations were to prove, Gandhi was not all that ignorant of RSS activities. He had visited an RSS camp in Wardha as back as 1934, and was reported to have met its leader K B Hedgewar.

Still later, Gandhi betrayed the same irresoluteness in taking the RSS by its horns, after the communal riots on the eve of independence. One day in Delhi, when one of his disciples praised the efficiency, discipline, courage and capacity for hard work shown by RSS workers at Wagah, a major transit camp for Punjab refugees, Gandhi quipped back: “But don’t forget even so had Hitler’s Nazis and Fascists under Mussolini.”3 Yet, a year later in September 1947, when in Delhi and other places, RSS activists were massacring Muslims, Gandhi fixed an appointment with the then RSS chief Golwalkar, and confronted him with the allegation. Golwalkar reassured him by denying the complicity of his ranks in the massacre, and Gandhi, taking his words at face value, merely quoted his words of reassurance in his prayer talk that evening—giving the impression that the RSS was innocent. He failed to publicly admit his own suspicion that he “did not find Golwalkar convincing”—a confession he made later to his circle of close followers.4

In the same September of 1947, when Delhi’s Muslims were being killed by the RSS activists, Gandhi on the 16th of that month chose to address RSS workers in Bhangi Colony in Delhi. Recalling appreciatively his earlier association with the RSS, he said:

I visited the RSS camp years ago (1934 to be exact) when the founder Shri Hedgewar was alive. I was very much impressed by your discipline, the complete absence of untouchability and the rigorous simplicity. Since then, the Sangh has grown.

And then, his final chit for the RSS:

I am convinced that any organisation which is inspired by the high ideal of service and self-sacrifice is bound to grow in strength.5

Curiously enough, during his address, there was not a single word condemning the RSS workers for their role in the killing of Muslims. Looking back at those tumultuous times, we may speculate—was Gandhi trying to appease the RSS activists by publicly sharing with them his social and personal priorities (regarding “untouchability,” “rigorous simplicity,” “self-sacrifice,” etc), with the hope of dissuading them from their political priority of eliminating, and driving out Muslims from a future independent India? Or, was there also his deep-rooted religious faith in Hindu sanatandharma that made him reluctant to condemn outright the RSS, which adhered to that faith?

When his attempts to appease the RSS failed, a distraught Gandhi resorted to the last weapon in his historical arsenal of tactics (ranging from public demonstrations of satyagraha to personal acts of fasting). He began a fast in January 1948. By an ironical twist of history, it was a follower of RSS that he acclaimed who assassinated him.

In Retrospect

Looking back at the past, we can trace the roots of sustenance—and re-emergence—of the Hindu right in Indian politics today to the early days of the national movement. The meshing up of national politics with religion (Hindu in this context) in the anti-colonial agitations, which in the Swadeshi movement in Bengal and Maharashtra in the early decades of the 20th century, reinforced the Hindu icons of the past like Chhatrapati Shivaji and Pratapaditya as the main symbols of protests against foreign invaders. The valorisation of Hindu heroes and institutionalisation of Hindu rituals like Ganesh Utsava (by Tilak) quite often alienated the Muslim masses, the Dalits and tribals, who did not feel a part of this framework of nationalism that was being formulated by the upper caste Hindu nationalist leaders.

This ideology of Hindutva (which in its formulation went through various stages) and its propaganda of setting up a Hindu rashtra began to acquire a stringent political organisational form from the 1910–20 period, when the Hindu Mahasabha was founded by a leader from within the ranks of the Congress Party—Madan Mohan Malaviya. Ever since then, the ideology of Hindutva had acquired legitimacy in the Indian constitutional political scene. Over the years, it took various political shapes—from Ram Rajya Parishad in the 1950s, and Bharatiya Jana Sangh in the 1960s, to today’s BJP. But the common source which supplied these political parties with both ideological inputs and human resources in the past—and continues to provide leaders for the present BJP-run government at the centre—is the RSS which was founded by Keshav Hedgewar (1889–1940) in 1925. This was a major step in the institutionalisation of Hindutva through a national organisation, that was to militarise its members on the lines of fascism in the 1930s. In March 1934, Hedgewar held a conference with his comrades in the RSS, planning how to organise Hindus militarily in accordance with contemporary Germany and Italy.6

Gandhi’s Role

Gandhi indeed in his innovative way tried to bridge the Hindu–Muslim communal gap by picking upon the issue of the Khilafat movement in 1920–22. He attempted to harness the Muslim public opinion of hostility against the Western plans to destroy the Caliphate, to his chariot of the Non-Cooperation movement, by aligning with the famous Shaukat and Muhammad Ali Brothers of the Khilafat movement. But, in his well-meaning efforts to consolidate the national movement in India, Gandhi lost sight of the ground reality in Turkey itself, where the Caliphate had already lost its power and credibility, and Kemal Pasha had mobilised the people to replace the feudal kingdom with a secular and modern regime. Unlike Gandhi, Jinnah was able to analyse the situation from a much more enlightened approach, preferring a secular regime to a theocratic Caliphate, and hence he opposed the linking of the Non-Cooperation movement with the obscurantist religious demand (for the restoration of the Caliphate) of his own community.

Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat movement—and collaboration with it— could have been much to do with his principle that each religious community should be allowed to retain its respective traditional beliefs and customs. Like his adherence to his own Hindu sanatanadharma, he respected the faith and practices of the orthodox sanatan Islamic system—which he believed was best protected by the Caliphate. His was a belief in peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims—but both strictly adhering to their separate beliefs and customs. In fact, Gandhi set the limits to Hindu–Muslim relationship in the following words:

If brothers and sisters can live on the friendliest footing without ever thinking of marrying each other, I can see no difficulty in my daughter regarding every Mohammedan brother and vice versa.7

Even at the height of the Khilafat–Non-Cooperation movement, when he was embracing the Ali Brothers of the Khilafat movement as his comrades, Gandhi continued to oppose Hindu–Muslim marriages. He said:

In spite of the greatest regard for the (Ali) brothers, I would not give my daughter in marriage to one of their sons, and I know that they would not give theirs to my son…I do not partake of their meat foods, and they scrupulously respect my bigotry, if my self-denial may be so named.8

In those days of bonhomie of the Khilafat–Congress alliance, Gandhi probably did not realise that this mutual respect for his (Hindu sanatana) “bigotry,” and for the parallel Islamic sharia “bigotry”—coexisting within a fragile framework of nationalism—could not last long. He failed to understand that it was the “bigotry” that had to be eliminated from within the social intestines of both the communities. The aggressive and mutually hostile edges of religious bigotry got sharpened over the years. Once the mutually helpful Congress–Khilafat alliance of the 1920s broke down, Hindu–Mulsim relations relapsed into the same old pattern of communal riots (for example, anti-Hindu outbursts in Kohat in the North Western Frontier Provinces in September 1924; waves of riots in Calcutta, Dhaka, Patna, Rawalpindi and Delhi between 1923 and 1926).

Let us keep in mind the fissures in Hindu–Muslim fraternity during various phases of the national movement— whether in the Swadeshi agitation in the early years of the 20th century, or the Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience movements later. What was ignored was the basic need to combine anti-colonial struggles with internal social reforms within religious communities, that could have destroyed the patriarchal religious authorities that dominated those communities, and broken down barriers in inter-religious relationships, and unite the people into a sense of national solidarity.

Socialist Parivar’s Empathy

Apart from Gandhi, the other Indian politicians who had engaged (and even sometimes collaborated) with the Hindu right-wing communal forces are the various socialist groups in post-independence India. The empathy between the then Socialist Party and the Jana Sangh (reincarnated today in the shape of BJP), grew from (i) their commonly shared visceral opposition to Jawaharlal Nehru and his family, and (ii) a sense of patriotism rooted to an equally visceral objection to any talks with China on the Sino–Indian border dispute.

The conflation of these two impulses found expression in the 1962 general elections in the Phulpur constituency, where the Socialist Party put up its veteran leader Rammanohar Lohia as its candidate to fight Jawaharlal Nehru and came to an understanding with the Jana Sangh which rallied its cadres in Lohia’s support. Although Lohia lost the election, he continued to maintain relations with the Sangh Parivar. On 12 April 1964, he met the Jana Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya and signed a joint statement urging both India and Pakistan to explore the idea of an Indo–Pak confederation for a peaceful coexistence and friendly relationship between citizens. While such a statement, at its face value, was of course welcome for the people of both the states, the Jana Sangh had a different strategy to turn the idea into a sinister ambitious plan of an “Akhand Bharat”—an indivisible South Asian subcontinent under the rule of a Hindu hegemonic order, which it claimed, held sway at one time, over the region from Afghanistan in the north to Sri Lanka, or even further in the south–east. Such a map of “Akhand Bharat” had always adorned the Nagpur headquarters of the RSS. Lohia, being a veteran in wading through the slimy waters of post-independence Indian politics, should have been aware of these sinister designs of the Jana Sangh before signing a joint statement with Upadhyaya, thus giving credibility to a communal organisation.

The RSS ideologue who acted as a conduit between the Socialist Party and the Sangh Parivar was a man called Chandikadas Amritrao Deshmukh (1916–2010)—later to be famous as Nanaji Deshmukh. It was he who invited Lohia to a Jana Sangh Karyakarta Sammelan, where he was introduced to Upadhyay—which brought them closer in their campaign against the Congress. Lohia, in his fanatical zeal to oust the Nehru Parivar, was now prepared to align with the Sangh Parivar—forgetting the warning against such alignments that he himself sounded in 1950 (the quote with which I prefaced this article).

Apart from Lohia, other socialist leaders like JP were also seduced by the Sangh Parivar. Deshmukh’s past participation in the Bhoodan movement earned him appreciation from JP, who along with Acharya Vinoba Bhave led that movement. This led the way to the future proximity between the socialists and the Sangh Parivar in the 1970s. JP was prevailed upon by Deshmukh to lead the students’ movement against the Congress government in Gujarat in 1973–74.

In Bihar, the old socialist–Jana Sangh bonhomie resurfaced in 1974, when the Bihar Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti was built together by Lohiaites like Lalu Yadav and Jana Sanghites like Sushil Modi. Rabid anti-Congressism prevailed over the issue of Hindu communalism among socialists who chose to push back communalism on the backburner in order to meet their own goal: throwing out the Congress regime at any cost. When reminded of the fascist character of the RSS, JP at that time was reported to have come out with the response: “If the RSS is fascist, so am I.”

The mass movement against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism that brought together various sections of civil society and political segments in 1974 provided an opportunity for the RSS (with its political spokespersons like L K Advani and A B Vajpayee) to sneak into the space of political opposition. JP, by incorporating them into his agitation, diluted the character of what could have developed into a secular, socialist and democratic movement against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian regime. At the later stage of the electoral campaign in 1977, the Socialist Parivar by supporting the Sangh Parivar candidates—unwittingly perhaps—under the canopy of the newly forged Janata Party helped them to win enough seats in the Lok Sabha by piggy-backing on the anti-Indira wave, to enable it to be a part of the Janata government. The dissensions within the Janata government over the refusal of the Jana Sangh (the predecessor of today’s BJP) to dissociate itself from the RSS were a foregone conclusion. But couldn’t JP and his followers in the Socialist movement anticipate this when they forged an alliance with the Jana Sangh?

Despite this past history of the Sangh Parivar’s betrayal of the Socialist Parivar’s hopes, the latter continued to nurse a perverse affection for the former by offering a peculiar logic. I remember George Fernandes telling me in the early 1990s—on the eve of the BJP-led Ayodhya movement—that we the leftists should not treat the BJP as untouchables, and push it to the wall that would make it take an extremist fanatical Hindutva stand, but should instead negotiate with them on agreeing on the issue of Indian nationalism and India’s sovereignty, and then persuade them to take a less fanatical stand on Hindutva. Was this a naïve hope, or a political opportunism that led Fernandes—a veteran socialist—to join the first BJP-led NDA government? It not only reflected the ideological degeneration of the Indian Socialist Parivar, but also the personal cupidity of its leaders.

Political Mileage of Sangh Parivar

The electoral compulsion to ally, or compromise, with the Hindutva stream of politics was not only confined to the Congress and socialists, but also at one time, shared by the communists. To give an example, in the 1958 municipality elections in Delhi, in a house of 80, the Jana Sangh won 25 seats, only two less than the Congress. The CPI (Communist Party of India) won eight seats—just enough to tip the balance in favour of either the Congress or the Jana Sangh. The CPI entered into an alliance with the Congress, which agreed to elect the former’s nominee Aruna Asaf Ali (the veteran socialist leader of the 1942 Quit India movement, who had joined the communists) as the mayor. The alliance broke up within a year due to internal squabbles, following which the CPI entered into an agreement with the Jana Sangh, whereby the offices of mayor and deputy mayor were to be shared by the two parties on a rotational basis—Ali as the mayor, and the Jana Sangh leader Kedarnath Sahni as the deputy mayor. The CPI being a minority in this uneasy coalition was soon marginalised by the dominant Jana Sangh which expanded its power over Delhi’s civic administration, and extended its political influence over its citizens through the well-organised RSS shakhas of propaganda of Hindutva, and military practices in the parks and squares of the national capital in the late 1950–early 1960 period.

The next phase in Indian politics which offered an opportunity to the Sangh Parivar was the 1967 post-electoral stage, when the Congress monopoly of power in some of the states was broken by the victory of opposition candidates who formed coalition governments in these states. On the waves of the popular anti-Congress sentiments, the Jana Sangh jumped into the fray and entered into alliances with the Socialist Party, Praja Socialist Party, Bharatiya Kranti Dal, and regional parties to be a part of the new governments that were being formed in these states. The CPI also agreed to share power with the Jana Sangh in Bihar and Punjab.

The Sangh Parivar’s best opportunity to gain respectability in the Indian political mainstream came with its acceptance by JP in his movement in 1974–75—a subject which has already been dealt with earlier. It was thus a platter that was offered to the Parivar, at various stages of Indian politics, by naïve or opportunist politicians (ranging from the Congress to socialists and communists), that enabled its political representatives (beginning from the Hindu Mahasabha, Jana Sangh and today’s BJP) to crawl into positions of power.

Challenges before Liberal Forces

When we come to the present times, we find that the Parivar, through a combination of constitutionally privileged opportunity to capture power at the centre (by an electoral support of only one-third of the voters for its political outfit, the BJP), and extra-constitutional means of terror employed by its foot soldiers (in the RSS–VHP–ABVP–Bajrang Dal) against minorities in the rural areas, and dissenters in cities, is today marching towards its goal of creating a theocratic Hindu rashtra.

The Indian liberal political forces (ranging from the Congress to the left) are today paying the price for their long history of appeasement of—and even collaboration with—these forces of majoritarian Hindu religiosity in national politics. Their belated attempts now to oppose the Modi government and the Sangh Parivar in the political sphere— however welcome—are not enough to stem the tide of the fascist forces. They have to take the bull of Hindutva by its horns through vigorous campaigns in the public domain to destroy its support base. This would require courage to break the umbilical cord with the political tradition of appeasing Hindu majoritarianism, and social toleration of obscurantist divisive religious beliefs and customs (which, to recall Lohia, allowed the “fanatical to sneak into the liberal in Hinduism”). The time has come to challenge the Parivar and its government in the socio-religious sphere, where they violate every now and then, that provision of the Fundamental Duties section in the Indian Constitution (Part IV A), which requires every citizen to “develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”


1 Rammanohar Lohia: Fragments of World Mind, July 1950, Bombay: Akshar Pratiroop.

2 Harijan, 9 August 1942.

3 Pyarelal: Mahatma Gandhi, The Last Phase, Ahmedabad, p 440.

4 The above references are from Ram Puniyani’s excellently documented article “What Was Gandhi’s Evaluation of RSS?,” 21 January 2015, www.countercurrents.org/puniyani 210115 htm. My conclusions are however different from his.

5 Reported in Hindu, 17 September 1947.

6 Re: Marzia Casolari: Hindutva’s Foreign Tie-up in the 1930s, in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol XXXV, No 4, 22 January 2000.

7 Young India, 25 February 1920.

8 Young India, 20 October 1920.
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