Does Rahul Gandhi Only Believe in the Hinduism of the Upper Castes?

Rahul is making a concerted attempt to project himself as the representative of 'good' Hindus. This may not work unless he extends the idea of Hindu identity beyond what are primarily Brahminical ideas of Hinduism.

It is not for us to question Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s epiphany on a recent flight to Karnataka, which led to him announcing that he would undertake the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage post the Karnataka assembly polls. Yet people will read multiple political meanings into it, largely because it was Rahul who chose to make public what decidedly falls in the personal realm. It is no less significant that he spoke of this experience at a ‘Jan Akrosh’ (people’s anger) Congress rally in New Delhi on April 29.

Gandhi sharing his religious experience was aimed at placing it in the narrative crafted to express popular anger against the Narendra Modi government. His government neither speaks against horrific incidents of rape nor against the atrocities committed on Dalits, tribals and minorities; Modi makes promises he never fulfils; truth does not engage him; falsehoods reigns supreme, or so Rahul had his audience in the rally believe.

It is in this context that Rahul mentioned Lord Shiva, who is the destroyer of evil. He conveyed to the nation, even though subtly, that Lord Shiva protects him from those who have evil designs against him. In doing so, Gandhi relied on our prior knowledge about his traumatic flight to Karnataka.

Until he went public at the rally in Delhi, the nation only knew that the plane Rahul had chartered to fly to Karnataka suddenly malfunctioned and nosedived 8,000 feet. Congress leaders promptly tweeted demanding a probe into the technical snags that the plane developed, alluding to a sabotage attempt.

What saved Rahul was neither chance nor the pilot’s skills, according to him. As he said at the rally, “I thought the plane would crash. Then it came to my mind that that I should go to Kailash Mansarovar [which is said to be the abode of Lord Shiva].” The plane, miraculously, stopped losing height and seemingly stabilised on its flight path.

So Rahul was saved because of Lord Shiva. Accident is a freak occurrence. Sabotage is deliberate; it is evil’s very handiwork. Lord Shiva aborted the evil plan and saved Rahul from death. All this was not stated explicitly but hinted at, allowing the audience to join the dots, so to speak. It can thus be assumed that Lord Shiva will similarly intercede to save the Congress from those who wish to root it out from India.

To express his gratitude to Lord Shiva, Rahul announced that he would, after the Karnataka elections, take a fortnight off to go on a pilgrimage to Mansarovar. It symbolises both thanksgiving and invocation of his blessings for the future. Lord Shiva’s protection is required because Rahul is arraigned against the forces he thinks are evil. He will not spell out their names, but it isn’t hard to imagine who he thinks represents these forces – the Sangh parivar, obviously; his speech on April 29 was a testament to that.

It isn’t, therefore, just about Rahul reclaiming his Hindu identity and flaunting his Hinduness, the sign of which was first tellingly conveyed through his visits to many temples during the Gujarat election campaign last year. However, the symbolism of Kailash Mansarovar is altogether of another order – Rahul is making a concerted attempt to project himself as well as the Congress as representatives of good or noble Hindus, who will consequently encounter blowback from the forces of evil.

Rahul’s narrative is likely flawed, not just because many feel perturbed at the leader mixing religion with politics. The de-secularisation of the political realm need not necessarily be a cause for worry, as even the national struggle grew into a mass movement on a rich diet of Hindu symbols and politics. Then again, the Congress has always had a strong component of the Hindu Right, which has neither been a stout representative of progressivism nor of humanism.

Congress needs to introspect

It was because of the Hindu Right’s influence that the law against cow slaughter was passed in four states in the 1950s; it was because of it that the Hindu Code Bill was diluted. Nor should we forget the role of the Congress in several communal riots, particularly the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984. So before the Congress turns the political realm into the site of a quasi religious battle, it should apologise and atone, to quote Congress leader Salman Khurshid, for the blood on its hands.

It was because of the Hindu Right’s influence that the law against the slaughter of cows was passed in four states in the 1950s. Credit: PTI

Infinitely more worrying is that the Congress seems to have misread the nature of the quasi religious battle unfolding in the political arena. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party seek to turn the Hindus into a monolith, replete with its hierarchy of castes and distribution of unequal power among them.

For this purpose, the Sangh has adopted a three-fold strategy – it has sought to demonise the Muslims to unite Hindus; it has strived to include deities and icons of lower castes into the fold of Hindtuva; and it gives a share for power to such subaltern groups in order to co-opt them. On these three counts, the BJP has also faced opposition at the popular level, not only electorally, but also ideologically.

It is pertinent that on the day Rahul addressed the Akrosh rally, over 300 Dalits walked out of the fold of Hinduism to embrace Buddhism in Gujarat. Among them were the families of those who had been flogged for skinning a dead cow in Una in 2016. The converts accepted 22 resolutions, including one forsaking faith in Hindu gods and goddesses. It is surprising to find in the 21st century a replay of nearly two-centuries-old clash between Hinduism and Buddhism, a clash which involved large-scale violence and appropriation of religious places of worship, an aspect largely glossed over in Indian historiography.

From this perspective then, India isn’t just witnessing a clash between good versus bad Hindus. It is a fight against Brahminical cultural hegemony, a contest for power and status between lower and higher castes. It is hard to fathom which side the Congress represents. It is precisely why Rahul’s Hinduness, alarmingly for some, has what can be called the unmistakable upper caste sheen, regardless of the fact that he is a devotee of Lord Shiva, arguably the most interesting, loveable and mesmerising of Hindu gods who has a more subaltern, unruly streak.

But really, how many temples has Rahul visited that are dedicated to the deities of lower castes? In Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation, academician Badri Narayan narrates the story of how the BJP has concertedly tried to include lower caste icons into the Hindutva pantheon. Such cultural engineering requires both knowledge and a formidable organisational apparatus. On the second count, the Congress certainly lags far behind the BJP, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But even on the plane of knowledge, it is debatable whether Congress leaders know about the myth of Dina and Bhadri, whom the Musahar caste of Bihar reveres; or Raja Salhes and Chuharmal, whom the Dusadhs worship; or Raiya Ranpal, who is the repository of religious fervour of the Doms.

No doubt, Hindutva footsoldiers responsible for the rising incidences of lynching represent the malevolent forces of Hinduism, as do those who participate in motorcycle rallies shouting provocative slogans against Muslims. These rallies have triggered communal tension, even rioting, in many parts of India. The Congress hasn’t provided a clue as to how it intends to combat their malevolence or to persuade them that their fear of Hindu identity being obliterated is plain paranoia.

Indeed, we might just have reached a pass where Rahul’s very emphasis on his Hinduness could lead to a demand that his party either endorses or accepts Hindu belligerence. At the roots of the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984 was Indira Gandhi, subtly playing the Hindu card post-Emergency. For the moment, assume the BJP brings a bill in parliament to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya, a demand voiced, albeit mutedly, over the last few months – will the Congress vote against it?

For sure, Rahul has been emphasising his Hindu identity to dissuade people from believing the BJP propaganda that he and the Congress are pro-Muslim, anti-Hindu party. Whether this is the most suitable strategy for countering the BJP’s appropriation of the Hindu religious realm is besides the point. What is perhaps more relevant is that after months of harping on his Hinduness, it is time Rahul extends the idea of Hindu identity beyond what are primarily Brahminical ideas of Hinduism.