Below is part two of a two-part series on the role of the nation today. Read part one here.
India’s twin – the Pakistani nation state, chose the very identity India shunned. Yet there were barely a few degrees of difference. Everything overlapped – from geography to history, culture, economy, mixed populations, agriculture and language. Even modes of governance, the armies and the nascent bureaucracy had all been schooled together under the British.
Only the idea of Pakistan was based on a narrow, majoritarian identity and its soil ethnically cleansed of almost all Hindu minorities. Despite this so-called ‘homogenous’ Islamic identity, those bare, few degrees of difference dispatched Pakistan to its ‘Somalia’ in 25 years. The sunny beaches remained a pipe dream because Islam was not enough to contain the Bengali Muslim.
From inception to break up, the land of the pure followed a trajectory that is being uncannily replicated in textbook manner by the Hindu right wing.
Common themes include the introduction of a fear/threat of demographic overwhelming, violence from another or the loss of power. Many of these are valid and concerning. They need to be resolved. But in calming, unifying ways that do not damage or break the civilisational unity that acts as the subcontinent’s glue.
Instead, a glorious past appears, to sell believers an ideal that must be re-attained. It divides populations by disparaging the ‘other’. Instead of resilience, it promotes obsession.
The makers of Pakistan promoted the glorious Empire, a ‘superior’ race of ‘rulers who could not be ruled’ and Arabic ‘warrior’ ancestry, demonising the Hindu as ‘cunning’ and ‘wily’. They warned Muslims their children would “wear “chotis” and “dhotis” to break up any hope of a shared country.
In India today, ancient ‘glory’, historical ‘wrongs’ of invaders and their ‘progeny’, the cow, ‘rightful’ citizens of the land and Pakistani terror ‘linked’ to the Indian Muslim are used as similar motifs. Moderates are isolated within and dissent is labelled anti-national because no one else can define the nation or India’s identity.
The Hindu right wing has battered away at the original idea of the nation, especially since 1992’s seminal moment. It has rubbished the founding fathers and proclaimed itself the ‘real’ and sole spokesperson. But its own alternative idea of India, the Hindu Rashtra, has not delivered peace, prosperity or stability the long-term goals of any nation. Instead, its narrow, ‘corrective’ vision has offered conflict, divided people and taken the ship far away from sunny beaches.
Could it be that the right wing ideologues are actually the ones driven by a giddy, utopian fantasy, ready to sacrifice all at the altar of a grand, unworkable vision? As with communism, will their relentless battering of the nation’s pillars weaken them till they can no longer hold up its superstructure?
Big and small hurts – the ignoring of a lynching, the uncaring disruption of an entire chain of livelihoods in the cattle trade without viable alternative, the grand schemes launched for a ‘greatness’ legacy that provoke and disturb instead, the institutional takeover from universities to media… All these suggest a sagging framework of the nation today, riven with divisions.
The ideology that lies behind these moves also limits governance to the single point agenda of ‘restoring’ ‘glory’. Any discussion on the economy, governance, culture, language, conflict, law, education etc circles back to this limit. When ideology becomes the key fuel of governance it will run out of answers beyond its perimeter.
So when inconvenient surprises surface like the large number of Hindus left out of the NRC, ideology cannot deal with the complexity of India’s diversity. It has no long-term solutions for knotty, intricate issues that won’t close with a deal or a diktat. Nor will it seek them, fearing a contradiction with its own central belief. Undiscussed legislation will be hastily rammed through to take care of the problem.
The protests in the North East are part of this zero sum game. Assamese Muslims speak Assamese, they eat practically the same food and are ethnically and racially the same as the Assamese Hindus who see them as part of their own. But Bangladeshi Hindu migrants who have grabbed top spots and outnumber the locals – in Tripura 3:1 – are very clearly not. In Assamese eyes they are as illegal and as undesirable as Bangladeshi Muslim migrants.
How can Hindutva’s tightly confined agenda resolve this complex conundrum where Hindus will shun other ethnically different Hindus? The short answer is – it cannot.
The founding fathers (and there were many beyond Nehru and Gandhi) knew this truth. They knew that to imagine a nation state the size and extreme diversity of India would need a containment of its natural centrifugal instincts. Therefore, it would require a broad definition within which vast differences and robust freedoms could be accommodated. This configuration would ensure that the idea of unity remained viable yet walk the tightrope on a strong Centre.
So they imagined it and so, the constitution, written by a Dalit who most understood the value of its freedoms, made it official. This is where this nation started and this is its origin story. It must be reclaimed.
Did it attract ‘correction’ because it went go off course? An acknowledgement has to be made that the term ‘secular’ has been a happy hunting ground for fundamentalists and political manoeuvrability in the history of the nation. Respect has to be paid to the anger and feelings of injustice this has aroused over years and decades. The expedient Shah Bano verdict reversal by another majority parliament is just the mirror end of the CAB. One cannot be ‘worse’ than the other. The hypocrisy of selective fundamentalism can only invite more such ‘corrections’ that set off the domino we see today.
Reclaiming the nation thus is not about the left wing that pokes a tiger or the right wing that wrecks a delicate balance. It is simply about the nation that can live by its own deeply thoughtful constitution. It is the nation that we started with. It is the one that should take us to our plotted destination. No corrections required.
Alpana Kishore has covered Kashmir as a journalist, writer and researcher for over two decades. She has focused on the competing narratives of India and Pakistan since Partition and the effect on their rival identities on the region.