New Delhi: Sir Jadunath Sarkar in his seminal book, Shivaji and His Times, recalled Jahangir as “flattering himself that he had killed” Akshay Bat of Allahabad. The Mughal Emperor had cut the tree “down to its roots and hammered a red-hot iron cauldron on to its stamp”. But within a year, the tree began to grow again and “pushed the heavy obstruction to its growth aside”.
The story of the right-wing and Hindu nationalism in India reminds of this tree. For, they have risen from the dead in the Nehruvian era of “secular triumphalism”. Many believed, as recorded by Nirad C. Chaudhuri in the early 1960s, “Hinduism is dying, if it is not already dead.” But as the obituaries were being written, the right-wing and Hindu nationalism rose like a phoenix from the ashes in the late 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi’s dilly-dallying with Muslim fanatics gave the BJP a political and electoral foothold, especially in the North.
To Rajiv Gandhi’s misfortune, Indians, in the 1980s, to use Sir Vidia Naipaul’s words, were “becoming alive to their history”. This “new, historical awakening”, which coincided with the Ram Janmabhumi movement, was a reaction to the Congress’ obsessive, often distorted, secularism, which, according to sociologist T.N. Madan, “is the dream of a minority which wants to shape the majority in its own image” and which “stigmatises the majority as primordially oriented”.
Three decades later, the “historical awakening” of the 1980s seems to have culminated with an unapologetically right-wing dispensation in power at the Centre. But the political belief of the Indian Right and the nature of Indian nationalism are still being judged by Western experiences and parameters, making many of its avowed critics call it “The Age of Cretinism”. This explains the relevance of Swapan Dasgupta’s new book, Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right. For, it not just attempts to explain the true nature of Indian nationalism, which far from being a narrow, jingoist Western phenomenon is a positive, inclusive idea, but also how, “in the building of a mass movement, religion helped to provide the necessary framework, space, discipline and mobilisation and in the process the political meaning of ‘Hinduism’ was redefined as an idea”, as historian William Gould writes in his study of Congress mobilisation in Uttar Pradesh in the 1930s and 1940s.
Dasgupta, through the works of the likes of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Sri Aurobindo and Sister Nivedita, showcases that religion in India, unlike in the West, is a uniting force. But Nehru put in place a perverted form of secularism which had nothing but distrust for Hinduism and the Hindu way of life. Such was the Nehruvian disdain for the Dharmic tradition, which it called the “RSS mentality”, that C. Rajagopalachari warned that “loosening of religious impulse is the worst of the disservice rendered by the Congress to the nation”.
At a cursory glance, these articles would appear disorganised and disjointed. But a closer look finds a common thread in the works of the likes of M.G. Ranade, R.G. Bhandarkar, Swami Vivekananda, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Sri Aurobindo. From widow remarriage to eradicating caste prejudice, they reveal the reformist nature of the Indian conservative movement. The projection of them being an inherently regressive group is a post-Independence construct.
The list of contributors ranges from parliamentarian N.C. Chatterjee, who exposes how the Nehruvian idea of secularism intentionally discriminated against Hindus and their customs, and V.D. Savarkar, exhorting us that “a nation whose armed might is evidently built up on the basis of its aggressive capacity is certainly capable of self-defence”, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in a fiery debate in Parliament in 1970 against the backdrop of Bhiwandi riots, and Girilal Jain, explaining the failure of Nehruvian socialism leading to the rise of the Hindu Right.
In his “History” section, Dasgupta has the articles of eminent historians such as Jadunath Sarkar and R.C. Majumdar, whose historical works excelled for their originality but the Left-sponsored ideological blinkers since the late 1960s and the 1970s relegated them to the academic margins. Amid these contributions, Nirad Chaudhuri’s “Hinduism: A Religion to Live By” stands out for its excellence and audacity. In the chapter extracted from the book Hinduism, Chaudhuri explains why South India, unlike the North, is a land of great temples. “In the south the temples have survived, and in the north they have not.” All the great cities of northern India dating from Hindu times, he says, were systematically destroyed by the Muslim invaders and conquerors of India. “It is only in the regions where Muslim power could not penetrate on account of their inaccessibility that the temples escaped destruction,” Chaudhuri writes, pointing at Khajuraho and Mahoba in Bundelkhand and at Bhuvaneswar, Puri and Konark in Odisha.
The most engaging part of the book, however, is Dasgupta’s long Preface and Introduction, exceeding well over 100 pages, especially the chapter “Motherland, Religion and Community”, which recounts the story of Vande Mataram “from being the icon of the national movement to becoming an extra—something which couldn’t be repudiated but which was at the same time awkward and embarrassing”. This explains why “on the few official functions—such as the final day of a session of Parliament—where Vande Mataram is sung, it is never the full version—just the first two stanzas”.
Awakening Bharat Mata, no doubt, is “an attempt to showcase the phenomenon of Hindu nationalism from a sympathetic position”. And the author’s admiration for the BJP and its leadership, especially Modi, is obvious. Yet, to his credit, Dasgupta never loses the balance, which along with the judicious selection of articles makes the book a compulsory reading, especially for those willing to understand the rise of the Right in India, why it isn’t just a copy of the West, and how Hindu nationalism, like the famous Akshay Bat, has risen from the dead.