To Counter BJP's Politicised History, India Must Promote Historical Multiculturalism

In India, the expectation of tomorrow is rooted in a very personally felt understanding of the past, which cannot be ignored. But what is needed is the history of the people – the 'Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb'.

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The proponents of the Hindutva project having failed abjectly at administration and economics have only one crutch left: of a misremembered and misrepresented history. It was not always so, with the BJP at one time being considered the party of new ideas as opposed to the Congress. These ‘new’ ideas amounted to little more than new infrastructure initiatives coupled with efficient delivery of welfare benefits, but the BJP did succeed in presenting itself as the party of modern infrastructure as opposed to the old welfare state ideals. No longer the young and fresh rebel party that it used to be, the BJP has now dropped all pretence to a political appeal based on economic and material growth in favour of emotional appeals, based on an imagined clash of civilisations.

The BJP’s is a parochial appeal, but pretends to be nationalist by promising average Hindu revenge for past wrongs – both imagined and real. The BJP focuses on two indisputable facts: firstly, that Indians remain poor and without much hope for the future, and secondly, that large parts of the country have been ruled by non-Hindu rulers for much of the last millennium.

The first ensures that progressive promises of a better life are taken by the people with a huge pinch of salt, and the second ensures that there is a ready scapegoat for the current poverty as well as future troubles. It is an exploitation of an innate sense of hopelessness. Hence, the shamshan and abbajan campaigning by the BJP which feels that this kind of politics is an effective answer to promises of free electricity, more hospitals, better roads and such.

Also read: Modi and His Brand of Hindutva Are Direct Descendants of the British Raj and its Policies

This is not to say that there are no adherents to Hindutva per se, but the common voter, while in sympathy with many popular Hindutva demands, does not necessarily identify themselves as Hindutvavadi. Proponents of Hindutva remain, to this day, another faction vying for political power. They are still treading the path of an insidious weakening of institutions without the courage to formally declare a theological state.

Representational image of Hindutva groups. Photo: Reuters.

The reinstatement of the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) approval for the Missionaries of Charity being a case in point. For a government led by a party which is actively targeting Christians for “illegal” conversions and whose goons regularly target Christians, this is a massive admission of the enduring appeal of secularism.

Politics on historical ‘injustices’

The historical argument of the BJP – of an oppressed Hindu population and cruel foreign (and non-Hindu) rulers – is flawed, to say the least. Nuances of history, however, make for bad politics. India, as the trite adage goes, is an old country but a young nation. Every town, village and community in this country has a historical sense of itself. There is a sense of old achievement and insecurities. These cannot be ignored. The expectation of tomorrow is rooted in a very personally felt understanding of the past.

The Indian voter is cynical enough, or perhaps wise enough, to disbelieve simplistic promises of a better future. What does work is an emotional connect whether it be through a political organisation or through a rhetorical appeal. The voters want a historical argument that makes sense to them, that adds to their sense of self. In that sense, the non-Hindutva secular parties have much to offer. There was a time, not long ago, when the Ambedkarite and Lohiaite schools of thought used the historical argument to great political efficacy.

Sometime over the last two decades, however, they lost this focus on historical injustice and sought to focus on infrastructural development at the cost of social justice. The Congress party forgot its own ‘historical argument’ of an India which counted Bodh Gaya, Goa, Vrindavan and Agra as equal measures of its civilisational brilliance, reducing the party’s perceived ideology to one word, ‘secularism’. Once secularism was skilfully discredited by the BJP, Congress started seeming bereft politically and ideologically.

Need for historical multiculturalism

This discrediting of secularism is, however, anything but irreversible. It is well remembered that in a pre-partition India that was even more multicultural than today, Hindus prospered, the BJP’s attempts to say otherwise notwithstanding. The freedom struggle, admirable in its integrity, is also a fact that the Hindutva groups can only seek to appropriate. They cannot challenge it.

It is the period of the Mughal rule that becomes the most contested scene of this political battle. Mughal rule having been romanticised to an extent is the focus of this attack. The Delhi Sultanate, for instance, does not attract anywhere near as much opprobrium, although as a historical period it lasted much longer than the Mughal period. It simply does not have the readymade cultural cache to be attacked or lied about. Aurangzeb, Akbar and Babar with just a smidgeon of Shahjahan and Humayun is where Hindutva wants to restrict this debate.

Darbar scene in a Mughal court. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The morality of the constitutional Republic of India is sought to be applied to these medieval rulers, a standard on which they cannot but be found to be wanting. Akbar was no democrat, but then he could not have been. Every medieval ruler is bloodthirsty by modern standards, but the Mughals were definitely better than most such rulers. What is also true is that the application of modern constitutional morality would equally condemn past Hindu and Buddhist rulers.

Where the Ambedkarite argument works against Hindutva is that it questions power not only in the last millennium but over the last couple of millennia to say that the current status of the country is the most desirable, historically speaking. It proudly defends modern constitutionalism as the most fair system this country has ever seen. The Lohiaite argument also works on the same appeal. Ambedkar and Lohia are till today shining examples of secularism that the Right dare not attack, or even appropriate. Periyarism is, of course, another example and perhaps a more successful one.

None of this is to say that it is only these three schools of thought that can take on the Sangh.

What is needed is a confident proclamation of the India that ought to be, but rooted in the India that was. This includes owning up to historical injustices. The Muslim and Christian rulers of India, for instance, both failed India by letting the caste system continue. In fact, letting caste be was a decision stemming from political expediency, by keeping the people divided. They deserve to be condemned for that. What they do not deserve to be condemned for is individual acts of policy or war which were legitimate political means at the time.

Regional and caste identities, as well as an understanding of secularism based on an Indian understanding of fairness and tolerance, are all political tools to counter the Hindutva project. Nehruvian secularism also has a bright future if wielded by a sure hand. Leaders need to own up to secularism without being apologetic about it.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi’s Speech Differentiating Hinduism and Hindutva Was a Watershed Moment

The ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindutvawadi’ dichotomy fails in this respect. It assumes Hinduism as a monolith, unmindful of the many ways to appeal to the average Hindu. The BJP’s appeal to the voter is not that it is the most religiously pure party, but the BJP’s appeal is that it is the party which promises redressal of past wrongs. It promises its own brand of fairness, in opposition to the ideas of constitutional fairness that are propagated and accepted by almost the entire non-Hindutva political spectrum. The battle is to show the voter who is most fair and who is going to ensure equality.

The BJP says equality can only be ensured by bringing the minorities, as former ruling classes, to heel. The answer has to be the celebration of a shared history. India has not had Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Christian periods of history. All these periods have added up to a larger whole, and have been unified by an underlying multiculturalism throughout.

This historical multiculturalism has to be remembered and propagated. Focus on the rulers of India is a flawed history. The focus has to be on the history of the people, call it Ganga Jamuni Tehzeeb or by any other name. There is a remarkable unity in the social history of India. This is the truth of India which has to be communicated and propagated.

Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based lawyer and a member of the All India Trinamool Congress.