'Soft' and 'Hard' Hindutva: Where Has the Category 'Communalism' Gone?

The term 'communalism' served an important conceptual purpose. It made the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva amply clear.

A series of recent events are making many wonder whether the BJP alone is determining the template for politics these days and whether the Aam Aadmi Party is the latest to adopt that template.

The AAP has, in recent days, taken to lord Hanuman in a major way. Arvind Kejriwal visited a famous Hanuman temple before and after the Delhi assembly polls and AAP MLA Saurabh Bhardwaj announced that the party would hold Sundar Kanda recitals in various localities in the capital. The Sundar Kanda is a part of the Ramayana that is dedicated to Lord Hanuman.

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Meanwhile, the BJP has shown no signs of moderation after its defeat in Delhi. It had fought the elections on the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Party leaders had made a variety of provocative statements that targeted the protesters, among whom large numbers are Muslims.

Even as home minister Amit Shah said that these statements may have damaged the BJP, Union minister Giriraj Singh has yet again courted controversy by saying that Muslims should have gone to Pakistan in 1947.

Union home minister Amit Shah at an election campaign before the Delhi assembly elections. Photo: PTI/Kamal Kishore

The BJP’s hate speeches are being seen by many as hard Hindutva and AAP’s calls for public religiosity as soft Hindutva.

While it is entirely possible that AAP is trying to wean away sections of Hindus from the BJP by tactically employing Hindu symbolism, the question is whether this can be called soft Hindutva.

All religiosity isn’t soft Hindutva

The entire confusion springs from two related factors: the meaning of Hindutva isn’t as well known as it should be, and communalism as a term has fallen out of vogue in political commentaries after the rise of the BJP in 2014.

Coming to the first point, Hindutva isn’t the same a practised Hinduism. It is basically a modern ideology that seeks to organise Hindus by projecting the Muslim as the Other. Translated as Hindu-ness, the term Hindutva was popularised by V.D. Savarkar in 1923. In his text Hindutva, he argued that all those whose fatherland and holy land were in India were Hindus. This marked a sharp distinction between Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists, on the one hand, and Muslims and Christians, on the other.

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What is crucial here is that the distinction between soft and hard Hindutva is not one between public religiosity and hate speech. At its very core, Hindutva is about organising Hindus against the ‘Other’, primarily defined as Muslim.

Mahatma Gandhi was far more religious than Savarkar. But this does not make Gandhi a practitioner of soft Hindutva. He was a devout Hindu who rejected Hindutva.

The term communalism helps

The other reason why the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva has become blurred in the eyes of many is that the term “communalism” has gone out of fashion.

From the late 1980s to 2014, this was perhaps the most common term used by commentators when they wrote on politics. And they used it as the antonym of secular.

How did the term come about and what did it mean? There is considerable historical research on this.

Historian Gyanendra Pandey researched its origins. He argued that till the 1920s, service to one’s religious community was seen as part of service to the nation. The reason: many early nationalists had internalised colonialist historiography that said that religion was the moving force of Indian history, something that marked it as different from the west.

However, Pandey argues, this investment in service to community was taken as a threat to national unity because many Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in India between 1923 and 1926. Some of them were particularly devastating. Pandey says that this made Indian nationalists coin the term communalism, a pejorative word aimed at denouncing the idea of investing solely in one’s religious community as the Other of nationalism, which implied service to the nation, a collection of all communities and citizens.

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Historian Bipan Chandra offered a definition of communalism. He argued that communalism was the flawed belief that the material, or secular, interests of co-religionists converged and those of people belonging to different religions diverged, and were even in conflict. Chandra called communalism a form of “false consciousness”.

This term acquired currency since the 1920s and was the defining feature of an inclusive Indian nationalism that informed the freedom struggle. Before Partition, it served as a critique of the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha.

After Partition, when Muslims became a small minority – ranging from 10-% in 1951 to 14-% in 2011 – the term communalism was used as a counter to Hindutva, which was seen as divisive.

In its own worldview, however, Hindutva was Hindu Nationalism rather than communalism. It was a narrow, exclusivist, vision of the Indian nation while secular nationalism was a broad and inclusive vision of it.

The use of the term communalism to confront the BJP peaked after 1992 and most parties in opposition to it – apart from most columnists – used the term freely to denounce exclusivist Hindutva politics that made Muslims the other.

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The term “communalism”, while it was a construct of the 1920s, served an important conceptual purpose. It made the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva amply clear. Mahatma Gandhi, in other words, was deeply religious but not communal. His religiosity was positive – one choice among many for a free citizen, who can choose to be religious, agnostic or an atheist – and was not aimed at opposition to another community.

On the contrary, M.A. Jinnah and Savarkar, while they were not religious, were communal, as they used religion in an instrumentalist manner to divide society on religious lines.

Is AAP’s Sundar Kanda recital communal?

If we revive the term “communalism” as a central category to make sense of politics, the problem gets solved to a great extent.

Then we can ask pointed questions to discern the politics of the BJP and AAP. Is Kejriwal’s visit to a Hanuman temple communal? It isn’t, as he didn’t use the visit to target any other community. Is Bhardwaj’s announcement of Sundar Kanda recitals communal? Again, the answer is in the negative, because there is no hint that these recitals are to be used to target Muslims. Political scientist and co-author of the Everyday Communalism, Sajjan Kumar made this distinction clear in a conversation with me.

Let us now pose the same questions in relation to the BJP. Is Giriraj Singh’s statement that Muslims should have gone to Pakistan in 1947 communal? Here, the statement is clearly aimed at targeting a minority and thus falls under the definition of communalism.

Similarly, was the BJP slogan “desh ke gaddaron ko” in relation to the Shaheen Bagh anti-CAA protests – largely led by Muslim women – communal?

In this case, too, a protest against a law – peaceful protest falls within freedom guaranteed under Article 19 (1) of the constitution, subject to some reasonable restrictions mentioned in Article 19 (2) – was targeted by Union ministers and BJP leaders, who not only took part in hate sloganeering but also painted protest as treason. Ironically, the BJP as we know it is partly a product of protests during the JP movement of the 1970s.

Hate speeches coming from within the saffron party against the Muslim-heavy Shaheen Bagh protests open it to the charge of adopting communalism as a polarising tactic.

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The term communalism has gone out of fashion, but has been replaced by alternative words lacking precision. These days, many use terms like “identitarian”, “cultural politics” and “Indic”, which is used as distinct from the Semitic, or pertaining to Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

These terms – while relevant for academic analyses – obfuscate the central difference between the politics of the BJP and AAP.

The fact is that BJP and AAP politics isn’t organised around a single template. These are two different templates – one has an anti-Muslim message and the other doesn’t.

Whether one sees secularism as atheistic – like Bhagat Singh did – or something compatible with religious faith – as Gandhi did – is a matter of choice. None of the two is communal.

It is time critics of AAP understand this central, conceptual, difference.

Dr. Vikas Pathak, who has a PhD in modern history from JNU, teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.