In the dying days of 2017, Union minister for skill development and entrepreneurship Ananth Kumar Hegde said that those who considered themselves secular did not have their own identity and were ‘unaware’ of their own parentage. At an event to launch the website of the Brahmin Yuva Parishad, Hegde also said that the constitution would be changed in the days to come.
On the first day of the new year, an event held near Pune to mark the victory of Mahars against the Peshwas was attacked, allegedly by followers of two well-known Hindutva leaders. The event commemorates the defeat of Peshwa forces by the British, under whose command the Mahars fought. It has gone off peacefully for years – Babasaheb Ambedkar was a regular presence – but this time crowds waving saffron flags came and disrupted it, beating up participants and vandalising property.
The speech and the violence may appear unconnected but in fact are. For the Dalits, Hegde’s remarks and the attack in Pune are yet more examples of efforts to keep them suppressed. Though Hegde did not mention Dalits, to the latter, any mention of changing the constitution smacks of an intention to do away with caste-based reservations. While many Indians worry that the BJP-RSS plans to amend the constitution to remove the words secular and socialist, the Dalits see it as a conspiracy specifically aimed at them. In addition, any such assault on the constitution would undermine the great Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar, whom, despite all the lip service, the upper castes do not like.
Meanwhile, other BJP worthies made remarks that would have created a storm at another time but went by unremarked upon. Giriraj Singh, Union minister of micro, small and medium enterprises declared in an interview that Muslims in India were a threat to society; a BJP leader in UP said that since the country was called Hindustan, it belonged to Hindus and condemned those who stopped the ‘ones with long beards’ from leaving (during Partition); a BJP MLA in Alwar, Rajasthan posted on social media that the rate of growth of the Muslim population was putting Hindus in danger.
All business as usual, because we have now got used and inured to Hindutva leaders – from within and outside the formal Sangh parivar – openly expressing anti-minority views. It is not as if such elements did not exist earlier – the RSS is an old organisation and hard-core Hindutva believers have been around in society and in the body politic for years. There are still many who believe Gandhi gave away the country to Muslims and the vile rumours about the Nehrus being Muslim fifth columnists finds many takers. Social media and a credulous belief in whatever shows up on WhatsApp may have helped in spreading these fake theories faster, but even in the pre-digital era, the virus had affected many all over the country. Perfectly normal people going about their lives harboured deeply communal thoughts in their minds which they did not express till things changed and it was no longer unfashionable to talk about them. After that it was a free for all.
The resentment against the minorities – Muslims and Dalits, among them – was bubbling over and in the last three and a half years has come to the surface. Once Hindutva forces came to power, the lynchings and the killings have only increased. But while a lynching is dramatic, and still has the power to disgust us, we have got used to the tsunami of blatantly-communal statements of BJP leaders. In November 2015, we were alarmed when Adityanath compared Shah Rukh Khan to Hafiz Saeed; those were the days of debates on intolerance to which the one point answer used to be ‘Go to Pakistan’. By linking Khan to Saeed, Adityanath was in effect telling him to go to Pakistan, his ‘natural home’. Less than a year and a half later, the yogi was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Clearly, bigotry and hate are good career moves.
But Singh and Hegde are not careerists; they are ideologues, steeped in the teachings of the RSS and its gurus. They are saying what they believe in, what they have been taught and indoctrinated with from childhood. They are speaking their minds to their followers and find a media ready to give them a platform.
The sudden outburst of Hindutva assertion – whether in Pune, in front of the media or at lectures in obscure towns – may have something to do with what lies ahead. This is the year when eight state elections will be held, and is the last full calendar year before the general elections scheduled in May 2019. As Gujarat showed, the BJP, confident and arrogant even two years ago, cannot take anything for granted. In Gujarat, its die-hard supporters, the Patidars, moved away in significant numbers; what is to say this will not happen at the national level? There is no political opposition to Narendra Modi yet, but who is to know how things will pan out? Elections can be very unpredictable.
On many key fronts – jobs and investment – the government has failed; there is no time to perform any economic miracles. As has been seen in UP and now in Gujarat, when all else fails, there is always Hindutva. In the last stretch of the Gujarat elections, the BJP, led by the prime minister, played several Hindutva cards: Pakistan, dadhi-topi, Aurangzeb, all of which made complete sense to the faithful and rang a bell with the floaters; in 2018 many more such cards will be needed and many more players too.
The sorriest part is that there won’t be a strong counter narrative to it. The Congress, while not a Hindutva-oriented party, has decided to play it low-key on the issue. It seems almost nervous to mention secularism and its leader Rahul Gandhi doesn’t mind visiting temples for the optics. Tactical though it may be, it strikes at the very root of what the party has stood for all these decades.
Clearly, therefore, this is going to be the year when Hindutva will be front and centre in Indian politics. At one end there will be violence perpetrated by the pawns, at the other will be strongly anti-minority statements by the big guns. Much before ‘secular’ is cut out from the constitution, it will become an archaic word in our daily lives.