Hindi-Hindu Nationalism and Secular Retreat in the Heartland

It is significant that the most striking decline of secular politics has occurred in the Hindi heartland, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the seat of Hindi and Hindu nationalism.

The bhoomi pujan for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya on August 5 has once again brought the secular question to the centre stage.

Even as there’s a waning prospect of punishment for those who planned and orchestrated the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the prime minister led the religious ceremony for the foundation of the temple on the ruins of the mosque.

The seamless fusion of religion, political power and state machinery in the temple event symbolised the secular crisis like never before. This has triggered a major debate on the future of Indian secularism. Much of this debate has focused on the follies of secular politics, especially Congress party’s inconsistencies, rather than on the role of the majoritarians and their actions in this denouement.

Also read: What’s Changed and What Hasn’t after Modi’s Ayodhya Show

The argument here focuses on the unfolding of the second set of processes principally in Uttar Pradesh.

The story of secular decline is much more complex and goes beyond the obvious retelling of the failure of secular political parties. It is true that the Bhartiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJP-RSS) are not solely responsible for the politicisation and instrumentalisation of religion in our society.

Hindu organisations celebrating the Ram Temple bhoomi pujan on Wednesday. Photo: PTI

A major part of the blame must fall at the door of the Congress party which found the idea of scoring quick electoral gains, by tampering with secular principles and institutions, too tempting to resist.

But for all their mistakes and failures, Congress and other secular parties are not the chief architects of the rise of Sangh Parivar and importantly the campaign for building a Ram temple at Ayodhya which has been strategically deployed to redraw the basic contours of the secular nation-state.

Hindu nationalism has a dynamic and a momentum of its own, independent of the failings of secularism.

This dynamic is based on two projects – one is the cultural project, and the other, is the political project. The origins of the cultural project can be traced to Hindi politics which played a key role in producing a Hindi-Hindu socio-cultural construct in the politics of north India and the cultural development of Uttar Pradesh society particularly.

Also read: National Education Policy Draft Amended to Address ‘Imposition’ of Hindi

It proved highly relevant to the emergence of the Hindu right in the late twentieth century.“Hindi worship”, to use Krishna Kumar’s apposite phrase, was a powerful current in this process since Independence. Uttar Pradesh’s political leadership succeeded in making Hindi the overriding language in the public domain.

By the seventies, most universities had been vernacularised creating a space for Hindi as the language of communication and culture. The rise of vernacular elites spearheading subaltern politics in the later decades further expanded the space for Hindi in the public arena.

However, Hindi expansion did not prevent Uttar Pradesh’s communalisation; in fact, it seems to have reinforced it. Hindi helped to construct the idea of the nation-state as one that belongs exclusively to the Hindu community by foregrounding conquest and conflict and a politics of historical vendetta to invigorate Hindu nationalism.From the mid-eighties these processes had moved from the popular discourse to the centre of political deliberations.

School children observe Hindi divas. Photo: PTI

This project, Alok Rai argues in Hindi Nationalism (2001), did not have space for diverse histories and variations of Hindi (Awadhi, Bhojpuri or Braj in the face of standard, Khari Boli), giving rise to huge resentments and conflicts among its speakers.

From the start Hindi promotion had been taken over by Hindi propagandists with a clear political agenda tied to “a culturally exclusive, socially divisive, and ultimately upper caste and anti-democratic politics which had produced it.”

This facilitated the transformation of the language from a people’s vernacular to Sanskritic Hindi, delinked from the masses. Rai notes that this was an important tactic in the formation of the regional elite which had consolidated its position from the late nineteenth century.

Hindi contributed to the formation of a revivalist strand in the political atmosphere which ultimately sparked off right-wing resurgence.

This process was further facilitated by the expulsion of Urdu from Uttar Pradesh.

Also read: Politics of Language in UP Reflects India’s History of Favouring Sanskrit Over Urdu

The state’s vernacular elite were deeply hostile to Urdu because of their long-standing paranoia that Hindi had been denied its rightful place because of Urdu. Hence, Urdu had to be totally eliminated from the state.

It cannot be a mere coincidence that the elimination of Urdu has coincided with the emergence of a Hindi-Hindu identity and the marginalisation of the rich and composite cultural traditions of the Indo-Gangetic belt. The proliferation of the Hindi media since the days of the Ram temple movement reinforced this cultural politics even further. Since then, the Hindi media has been an aggressive ideological tool in the dissemination of Hindu nationalism.

On the other hand, the political project was embodied in the nationwide campaign for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya which kick-started the rise of the current identity politics around religion.

PM Narendra Modi takes part in the bhoomi pujan for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, August 5, 2020. Photo: PIB

The systematic push against secular politics wouldn’t have travelled very far without the build-up of the Ram temple movement. The mass support garnered by this movement entrenched Hindu nationalism in the political sphere.

Importantly, this movement laid the groundwork for a permanent communal majority in the Hindi heartland, which given its overwhelming size, helps the Hindu right ta strong base to offset its weakness in other parts of the country.

Thanks to the democratic upsurge in the eighties and nineties, the social base of the polity had been widened considerably. This process aided the transfer of power to the regional-vernacular elites who were able to appropriate positions of power and dominate political and bureaucratic apparatus in the state.

By the time the BJP came to power at the Centre and in the state, regional-vernacular elites were already well entrenched in the establishment. Besides they didn’t have to fight the English-speaking elite or the Khan Market gang as the prime minister famously described them, as these elites had no real clout in the state.

Also read: Ayodhya: The Ruling Class’s Cynical Dream of Remaking India in Its Own Image

Nonetheless, the deliberately created binary of elite versus non-elite serves a useful ideological purpose of creating an enemy which had no real power, and more importantly, helps to camouflage the main issue – opposition to Muslims and their otherness in the the majoritarian narrative.

Hindu nationalism has colonised both religion and caste by popularising the idea that it is only the nation that matters. This nation is defined by the ethnic majority, mobilised around a common religious identity (and often a common language), which leaves little room for other identities.

The optimistic assumption that caste politics would be able to counter this agenda on a long-term basis was misplaced. Turning the politics of social justice on its head, Hindu right has crafted a broad-based identity to co-opt backward castes and Dalits who have been keen to align themselves to the cultural world of Hindi-Hindu in order to find a secure identity in the politics of Hindu nationalism than in the fragments of caste politics.

Finally, it’s significant that the most striking decline of secular politics has occurred in the Hindi heartland (and not elsewhere to the same extent), especially in Uttar Pradesh, the seat of Hindi and Hindu nationalism. This joint project set the stage for the dramatic expansion of the Hindu right and the resultant fall of secularism.

A renewal of secular politics, therefore, depends on the retrieving of its lost currency in the heartland.

Conversely, this also underlines the regional limits of Hindu right’s popular support. Arguably, the continental size of the country and its incredible cultural diversity and social complexity still creates real and powerful obstacles for the homogenising project of one nation, one culture.

Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Jawaharlal Nehru University.