In the aftermath of 9/11, Mahmood Mamdani has noted how the western world created a discourse that tended to distinguish between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims” – with an added inference that Islam needed to be quarantined from the influence of the latter. I find a certain resonance of this debate in the Indian context, where competing notions of a ‘good’ Hindu and a ‘bad’ Hindu have existed since the time of the nationalist struggle. It reached a high point – or low, depending on one’s perspective – during Partition, but was forced to be low key during the ‘secular’ Nehruvian era. Since the later part of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st, however, as the Congress regime toyed with religious sentiments and the Hindu right began to make successful bids for political power, the debate around the ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ Hindu has taken a decisive and dangerous political turn.
It was Gandhi who had clarified to Millie Graham Polak, “to be a good Hindu meant I would also be a good Christian”. Elsewhere he also said, “I am a good Hindu so I am a good Muslim”. For Gandhi, the question of being Hindu is clearly defined in ethical terms and is not exclusive of values that a good Hindu shares with a good Muslim or a good Christian. However, in his reply to Gandhi’s critical response to The Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar challenged Gandhi’s idea of the “good Hindu” with scathing rhetoric, “… there can be a better or a worse Hindu. But a good Hindu there cannot be.” In the context of the caste system, Ambedkar reduced the political and ethical status of the Hindu to one who practices slavery against the untouchables. He clarified, “To a slave, his master may be better or worse. But there cannot be a good master.” This challenge to Gandhi’s idea opens another serious dimension to the debate, but it does not foreclose the possibilities of ethically defining a “good Hindu” in contexts where Hindus share a historical and political relationship with others.
For Veer Savarkar, on the other hand, the issue was “what is a Hindu”. Here the question is tackled in terms of a genealogy going back to the concept of the “Aryans”, a sacred sense of territoriality, and a historical sense of identity where the Hindu is one who is not the “others” he confronts – namely outsiders, Muslims, Christians, and the like. In complete departure from Gandhi’s interest in defining the ethical Hindu, Savarkar is interested in defining the authentic Hindu. This definition of the Hindu, particularly after Partition, managed to sideline Gandhi’s ethical dimension and survived as the key contender and rival to the Nehruvian distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ Hindu.
Limits of Nehruvian secularism
Nehru, and with him, all liberal and left ideologues, upheld the distinction between a secular and a religious Hindu or Muslim – where ‘secular’ replaced good and ‘religious’ certainly stood for bad. The former was understood as someone who made no distinction between one’s own and other religions, but more crucially, believed in a secular state that would be impartial towards any religion in its imparting of justice. The latter was understood as someone who is biased towards his own religion and whose political credentials were suspect and dangerous for the secular state. The religious Hindu or Muslim was seen as an anathema by the secularists and a legitimate reason for not allowing religious communities to gain political attention. But the ‘good’ Hindu or Muslim believer fell outside the Nehruvian, secular ideal. This has been a major source of criticism by scholars like Ashis Nandy, who give primacy to the Gandhian ethical subject.
However, a further complication arose between the two. The Nehruvian secularists were upholders of the minority-majority framework, where the secular state’s role was seen not only as a neutral one, but also as a protector of minority interests and aspirations. In this, the Nehruvian, secular state made a tacit demand on both majority and minority communities: Both had to relinquish their political roles, since the state does not favour demands based on religion, and hence religious communities can make political demands only on the basis of economic and social issues. The state is not interested in religious issues unless there is a legal dispute. Ironically, it is precisely when such disputes arose that the contradictions of the secular Indian state got exposed.
Much after Nehru, during the regimes of Rajiv Gandhi and Narsimha Rao, the deliberate mishandling of the Shah Bano case and the improper management of the Babri Masjid dispute found the secular state terribly wanting in imparting justice based on its stated principles. These examples did not serve the secular cause well and raised serious questions regarding its limitations. It gave rise to accusations from the Hindu right of the Nehruvian state being “pseudo-secular” and suffering from “minority-ism”. At the other end, the minorities – Muslims and Sikhs (post-1984) – increasingly saw the state as an institution which was unwilling to protect them from violence. Clearly, the principle of secular neutrality did not work (rather, it got compromised) on crucial matters when religious issues involved political stakes. And yet, Asghar Ali Engineer raised the question, “If Golwalkar wanted people to be good Muslim and good Hindu, why was the Babri Masjid was demolished? Was it being a good Hindu?” Engineer invokes a similar distinction as Gandhi’s to demand an ethical notion of being Hindu and Muslim.
The other pending debate between the secularists and the Hindu right in India is regarding the “uniform civil code”, where the Indian state has so far been clearer in its directive that a uniform code cannot be forced upon different communities unless they are ready for it. The secular Hindu or Muslim and the religious Hindu or Muslim felt differently about all these issues. Though it must be added, most secular Hindus were not happy about the Indian state’s handling of the Shah Bano case and find themselves terribly unsure of the fate regarding the Babri masjid dispute.
(Hindu) Nationalism over ethics
India has now entered a post-Nehruvian phase in the political sense (the economic having been ushered in by Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation). With the BJP coming to power with a clear majority, the ideological shifts in the political landscape are having a quick bearing on India’s cultural landscape as well. The ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ distinction between the Hindu and the Muslim still exists, but the powers are reversed: Today the resurgent spirits of the ‘religious’ Hindu dominate the political space against secularists – with writers, social activists and others who dare to criticise Hindu religious beliefs or its political strands often on the receiving end of threats, bans and sometimes even violence.
It appears something rather bizarre is taking place. The Hindu right’s investment in the ‘authentic’ Hindu seems to have now co-opted Gandhi’s ethical idea of the “good” Hindu by creating a devious political understanding of who is a good Hindu (or Muslim), and who – by extension of the logic – is a bad Hindu or Muslim.
The good Hindu, in the Hindu right’s view today, whether secular or religious, is one who serves the larger cause of nationalism, while the bad Hindu, again whether secular or religious, works against national interests. The Nehruvian distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ holds no water in this neo-Hindu right scheme of things anymore. It doesn’t matter to the Hindu right whether M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar were secular or religious, rationalist or irrationalist. Their internal belief system is not an issue till it poses a threat to the Hindu right’s own belief system. The Hindu right can be equally secular or religious, rational or irrational. But what is sacrosanct in its case is religious and nationalist sentiment rolled into one. It is a more radical departure from the Gandhian subject of the ethical believer – the ‘good’ Hindu and Muslim – than the Nehruvian distinction between the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ or even the ‘rationalist’ from the ‘irrationalist’. These modernist – left or liberal – distinctions don’t explain the shallow complexity of communal nationalism.
To go back in history, Gandhi, by all means a religious Hindu was seen as more harmful to the Hindu political cause than a secular Nehru. In Gandhi’s case, it was more his reconciliatory gestures towards Muslims that earned the ire of the Hindu right. But interestingly, Nathuram Godse, who killed him, claimed his intentions were secular and provided strictly rational reasons in his defence for killing Gandhi. The deeper problem is not whether Godse’s claim to be secular is convincing, but how the secular and the religious can be fused together in the interests of the larger value called nationalism. It must be noted in this regard, Godse in his famous speech in court accused Nehru of helping the formation of Pakistan, yet he didn’t criticise Nehru for being secular. In fact, Godse felt Nehru displayed double standards by believing in secularism and yet allowing a theocratic state like Pakistan come into being. Yet – and this is a crucial yet – for Godse the real enemy was still Gandhi and not Nehru.
So the modernist, Nehruvian distinction between secular and religious clearly failed to address or negotiate the problem that existed in real historical and political terms between an ethical and a communal identity among religious communities. Today, the usurpation of the secular-religious distinction has brought us back to the Gandhian question, though with a bizarre twist.
The Hindu right today doesn’t seem to straightforwardly divide Hindus and Muslims, but rather distinguishes good Hindus and Muslims from bad Hindus and Muslims. A (good) Muslim like the late President APJ Abdul Kalam is a desirable national icon, in contrast to the writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy, who exemplifies a (bad) Hindu and is hence an undesirable literary icon. The return of the distinction between the good and the bad Hindu or Muslim, is in disregard of all ethical criteria, religious or secular. Nationalism demands commitment and submission, not ethics. To speak against the Hindu religion is not just an affront to the religion but also to the larger nationalist cause. Even if the bad Hindu has ethical intentions in his criticisms and objections – such as the fight against superstition, prejudice and blind belief – he is an unwanted threat to the cause of religious nationalism. The bad Hindu, ironically, has to abandon his ethical principles in the service of his nation, to gain the status of a good Hindu under the new political definition. The remarkable, tacit assumption being that there is nothing particularly secular or religious about it. But the demand is, nevertheless, absolutely political: The good Hindu is one who upholds nationalism over ethics and the bad Hindu, one who upholds ethics over nationalism.
This post-Nehruvian moment is aimed towards overcoming the failures of neutrality by upholding majoritarian religious sentiments. It is easier to play the game between majority and minority by relinquishing those terms and reconfiguring them into the discourse of good and bad. Gandhi tried to address the problem of good and bad by privileging criticism and fraternal feelings as ethical principles over blind faith and animosity. Gandhian politics was involved in finding means to minimalise fear and mistrust between Hindus and Muslims through the sharing of power with the Muslim League. Nehru’s approach sidelined Gandhian politics by accepting Partition because it refused to share power in the name of secular politics with those it considered “communal”, even though that politics ended up favouring one community over another. The avowed neutrality of Nehru’s secular state could not overcome its contradictions. Its failure has exposed us to the original problem it sidelined. The good Hindu, be it of the Gandhian or Nehruvian variety, is today the bad Hindu who is under threat. That is history returning as tragic farce.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar from JNU. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi