How should we understand the concept of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or ‘Hindu Nation’? Is it a reality or a project? Spokespersons of the Sangh Parivar sometimes do talk of Hindu Rashtra as an already long-existing entity but nevertheless also speak of the need to ‘transform’ India. This suggests it is a project yet to be completed.
Today, the hold of Hindutva has reached a new level – a hegemony across geographical space and social depth which, according to its acolytes, must be further widened and deepened.
But what is the end goal? When can the project be said to have been fulfilled? The fact is that a proper Hindu Rashtra cannot be secured until a Hindu state in all but name (or even explicitly) is established.
For a long period in its history, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) believed that the construction of a Hindu Rashtra required keeping a certain distance from the politically and morally corrupting influence of the state.
From the mid-1970s, this changed and occupying state power came to be seen as vital for building and institutionalising the structures that would undergird a permanent Hindu Rashtra.
As a result, two shifts have taken place over time. First, the balance in the relationship between the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), on one hand, and the RSS and other Sangh bodies on the other has shifted towards the BJP.
Second, there is a shift within the BJP towards much greater centralisation of power and authority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the select coterie around him. But it is the cadres and activists of the other main bodies of the Sangh that is vital for maintaining the electoral machine of the BJP and also for carrying out the homogenising drive within the broader society.
There is no escape now or later from a partnership between the BJP and the RSS and other key agencies within the Sangh; this means the Sangh is never going to be a basically one-person show.
While credit must go to the intellectuals of the Left who first and consistently highlighted the far-right fascistic (for some straightforwardly fascist) character of the BJP and Sangh, they now aver that there will not be a fascist state per se.
Liberals were more prone to talking about the BJP as a “rightwing force with an unfortunate communal dimension” but were hopeful that the responsibilities of power at the Centre would help to moderate this aspect. But if there is not going to be a one party dictatorship led by a ‘supremo’ that eliminates all basic features of democracy – and indeed retains, for crucial legitimising purposes, an electoral system at all levels of governance whose results can be broadly trusted as accurate – then what is the end goal?
It is not enough to say that in the coming period we can expect efforts to hollow out Indian democracy from within – through restrictions on the exercise of civil liberties of various kinds, through imposition of existing repressive laws, more manipulation and indirect influence of the public media, making favoured appointments and seeking to suborn investigating agencies and other sections of the civil services as well as the Election Commission and Supreme Court. This would be a continuation of what was being done in Modi’s first term and can be expected.
To move forward in establishing an enduring ‘Hindu Rashtra’, there will have to be the effort to push through a raft of new laws below the level of the constitution that will render Muslims, in particular, as second class citizens while providing certain individual and collective rights to Hindus not available for other religious communities.
Of course, there will be an effort to achieve a sufficient majority in both houses of parliament to make constitutional changes that the BJP and Sangh have long sought. These will not stop at repudiating Article 370 but will extend to securing special status for Hindus perhaps in ways similar to Nepal where the state is formally declared as secular but this is then undermined by the provision of a special status for Hinduism, i.e., “protection of Sanatan religion culture”.
The longer-term aim is a Hindutva version of Israel. Some observers, such as Christopher Jaffrelot, have recognised this. But they have accepted the dangerously misleading term “ethnic democracy” coined by Professor Sammy Smooha to rationalise and basically provide an excuse for Israel’s existence as a Jewish state with formalised second class citizenship for its Arab Palestinian population.
So yes, “ethnic democracy” means there are undemocratic features in Israel, but overall it can pass off as a democracy; a view supported by many pro-Israel liberals and of course by many Western and other governments keen to consolidate relations with the apartheid and therefore anti-democratic state of Israel It should not be forgotten that apartheid South Africa was held by many Western democracies to be the only democracy in Southern Africa even as they lamented its treatment of non-whites as second class.
A Hindu Rashtra will be a fundamentally undemocratic state and society but with various democratic features certainly for the religious majority and even extending somewhat beyond. But like Israel, which does not have a caste system requiring internal structures supporting ruthless repression by upper castes, it will not be a democracy.
No matter which party in Israel comes to power through the electoral process – whether it is considered Left, Right or centrist – this will not change the fundamental character of Israel as a Jewish state. Hindutva too will strive to create a similar political reality no matter which other party ascends to New Delhi.
Two other broad similarities of purpose can be seen. First, no party in Israel will allow any part of the occupied territories to secure full independent sovereignty. They must keep overall control over the land. The status of Jammu and Kashmir is totally different from Palestine in international law but the parallel with Israeli policy is that no party in India will contemplate full respect for the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, as was originally envisaged at the time of its accession, or even accord the people of the state the same respect for their human rights as people elsewhere in India expect under the constitution.
For both the Israeli and Indian political classes, “land is more important than the people”. Brutality over a deeply alienated people will reign. While Israel can offer varying degrees of autonomy – always retractable – in place of the international law obligation to end its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory and even contemplate annexation of larger and larger swathes of this land, the BJP will seek to eliminate the two articles of the constitution that give legal expression to J&K’s accession – Section 35A and 370.
While other ruling parties at the Centre have all presided over massive erosion in the autonomy to the state promised in 1948, the BJP would like to do away with autonomy as a legal category altogether.
Second, Israel has the ‘right of return’ for Jews all over the world as an integral part of its citizenship law. Similarly, the BJP is pursuing through the Citizenship Amendment Bill the initiation of a similar ‘right of return’ for non-Muslim Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Afghans and may eventually expand this to include persons of ‘Indic’ religions from outside the South Asian region too.
There is, of course, one basic difference between these two viciously exclusivist and undemocratic projects.
Zionism is happy to ride piggyback on current Islamophobia. However, its fundamental enemy is not Islam but Palestinians – regardless of whether they are atheists, Muslims or Christians. It is, therefore, a more tolerant religious state.
For Hindutva, however, anti-Muslimness is foundational and the Hindu Rashtra will be an intolerant religious state.
We are not there yet, but the warning bells have been sounded.
Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam. He is the author of The Painful Transition: Bourgeois Democracy in India and The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism.