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Year 1999, No 5
Stability for Whom?
The theme mainstream Indian parties, political pundits and media are obsessed with
By Utsa Patnaik
Women raise critical issues before political parties in India
The roots of violence in Pakistani society
By Eqbal Ahmad
How Mahajan and his spin-doctors dissect day's news
By Kaveree Bamzai
Conflict and Violence in the Educational Process in Pakistan
By Khurshid Hasanain and A. H. Nayyar
The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism
Review of the new book edited by KN Panikkar
By A. G. Noorani
The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism

The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism

edited by K. N. Panikkar


pages 252


The show of moderation is deceptive and is intended to deceive. Atal Behari Vajpayee does not enjoy command over the Bharatiya Janata Party. It suits its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to leave him alone till it is able to muster a solid majority in its own right. The allies will then be discarded - along with the mask of moderation. None should be surprised at the recent recruitments made to the BJP. Some joined it for the lure of power, others were closet Hindutva adherents anyw ay.

The situation lends added relevance to this collection of essays edited by an academic who combines scholarly pursuits with active espousal of causes he holds dear. Professor of Modern History at the Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, K. N. Panikkar has written extensively on the cultural and intellectual history of modern India.

An anguished concern at the present situation is reflected all over his incisive introduction. A religious concept of nationhood led to India's Partition. The two-nation theory was propounded by V. D. Savarkar in his book Hindutva in 1924. M. A. Jinnah b egan to advocate it from 1939 onwards. But as Nehru wrote in his Autobiography, "many a Congressman was a communalist under his nationalist cloak." Rajeshwar Dayal's memoirs, A Life of Our Times (1998), record how, as Chief Secretary of Utt ar Pradesh, he found damning evidence of the RSS boss M. S. Golwalkar's complicity in a conspiracy to stage anti-Muslim pogroms but the man was protected by the Chief Minister, Govind Ballabh Pant, from arrest and prosecution. Pant foiled Nehru's and Pat el's attempts to undo the forcible conversion of the Babri Mosque into a Hindu temple in the night on December 22/23, 1949.

Gandhi's assassination and Nehru's strong commitment kept the Hindutva forces at bay. The situation has "changed dramatically, particularly during the past two decades", Panikkar writes. Hindu communalism has spread its tentacles in civil society and als o succeeded in gaining access to state power. In the process some of the vital principles and practices of a secular state and society have been either undermined or endangered. The essays collected in this volume seek "to join the public debate made imp erative by the communal initiatives taken by the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party" during its brief term and by the social and cultural interventions of the members of the Sangh Parivar, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the RSS a nd the Bajrang Dal.

The contributors are writers of repute, each distinguished in his/her own intellectual discipline. It is only appropriate that historians should lead the charge against obsucrantism. "For, the Hinduised history is a deliberate construction, which seeks t o valourise the Hindu in the chequered history of the nation. It traces the lineage of the nation to the ancient Hindu past, claims the Hindu scriptures as the source of all knowledge, the Indian civilisation as superior to every other civilisation, and ancient India's achievement in science, mathematics and other branches of knowledge as unsurpassed by other civilisations. The political history of India is interpreted as a record of the heroic Hindu resistance against foreigners and the last one thousa nd years as a period of continuous conflict between the Hindus and Muslims."

Panikkar recalls that a Maharashtrian intellectual in the mid-19th century, Bhaskar Pandurang Tarkadkar, distinguished the Muslim rulers from the British. The only instance of foreign rule in India, he held, was British colonial rule. Although they ruled for about 200 years the British distanced themselves from Indian society. Unlike earlier rulers such as Mughals and Turks, they drained wealth out of India.

"The politics of Hindutva, as the essays in this volume bring out, is primarily engaged in defining the nation as Hindu through a process of cultural homogenisation, social consolidation and political mobilisation of the majority community and at the sam e time, by stigmatising the minorities as aliens and enemies."

ROMILA THAPAR, one of India's foremost historians, metes out deserved justice to the communal interpretation of India's history, a subject on which she has written extensively. British contribution to the writing of India's history was baleful in its per iodisation of Indian history as that of the Hindu, Muslim and British periods. Muslim and Hindu communalists took over and constructed two monolithic communities, uniformly hostile, utterly free from diversities, immune to interaction and indifferent to a nationalism transcending the communal divide.

Romila Thapar writes: "The tragedy is that actually the study of the past sends us very different messages but we choose not to read them. Indian society has always been a multi-religious, multicultural society where identities have inevitably been multi ple. Such a society is not in itself secular but is conducive to the evolving of a secular society protecting the civil and human rights of all its citizens. Our history in India has been very different from that projected in the two-nation theory and th e Hindutva ideology. If we can read our history with more sensitivity and insight, it would contribute to avoiding a fascist future."

What Nehru wrote of the Hindu Mahasabha applies to the RSS and its political front, the BJP. Their communalism "masquerades under a nationalist cloak," he wrote, and added insightfully: "The test comes when a national and democratic solution happens to i njure upper-class Hindu interests." It is a test in which the Mahasabha "repeatedly failed". So have the RSS and the BJP, repeatedly.

As Jayati Ghosh writes in her incisive analysis of the economic underpinnings, "In the Hindutva world view, the only internal enemies are those determined by social and cultural differences. There is no recognition of classes or even of domestic economic antagonisms in this perspective, and therefore no understanding of the constraining role on development which can be played by certain classes such as large landed interests and big capital." She points out that while the Hindutva brigade's rhetoric is majoritarian, "in actuality it represents the interests of a very small minority - typically male upper-class and upper caste - and even of a relatively small sub-section within that group."

Tanika Sarkar's essay exposes "the gender predicament of the Hindu Right" with a wealth of documentation carefully sourced. She points out a curious feature of its behaviour which has been overlooked. The Sangh Parivar consciously projects women to the f orefront. But "the women who are thus exalted do not come from women's organisations, nor do they have prominent bases among the women of their own political clusters. They also are quite indifferent to women's issues, problems and demands."

Sumit Sarkar's essay on conversions records how the fight against Christian missionary activity was an early plank of the Jan Sangh. Even as Prime Minister, A.B. Vajpayee sees nothing wrong in sponsoring officially (January 10, 1999) a debate on the righ t to practise and propagate one's religion. Rajeev Dhavan's analysis of the constitutional implications of the secular credo rises far above the level of arid legalism common to most lawyers. His interests are wide and his research is extensive.

Siddharth Varada-rajan caps the contributions with one of the ablest analyses of the role of the media yet written. He is one of the rare breed who can effortlessly glide from academia to journalism and back. The thesis is made good convincingly. "Mass m edia's tendency to fragment news serves to depoliticise the body politic... When combined with fragmentation, the immediacy of news generates individual passivity and a public sphere that is generally inert except when the mass media itself is used by po wer politics to mobilise it. In the context of communalism in India, the layers of combustible myths which accumulate around most riots as time passes make this kind of memoryless media all the more manipulatory and dangerous."

Nuances and complexity are shunned in "junk food journalism, which one author has labelled 'News McNuggets'." Varadarajan's essay, the longest in the volume, briefly surveys the history of Indian journalism to show how the communal slant became pronounce d over the years. "Most Indian newspapers in the latter part of the nineteenth century had internalised the colonial political culture to such an extent that even when colonialism was challenged or excoriated, it was often from a 'Hindu' or 'Muslim' poin t of view. Even language became a bone of contention. The Urdu-Hindi divide began shortly after the advent of British rule and was reflected in some newspapers using Devanagari and others the Persian script."

Some grave errors of lasting consequence were made by the Congress, not least, by Gandhi. His "tendency in his capacity as a Congress leader, to use 'we' and 'us' when referring to Hindus has also been criticised for its alienating effect on Muslims. See R. Palme Dutt, Inside India Today, London, 1940; page 326," a footnote points out.

Coming to present times, Siddharth Varadarajan discusses the role of the media during moments of trial - the Punjab crisis and the anti-Sikh riots; the Shah Bano case, the Ayodhya movement and the communal riots of which there seems to be no end. The Sha h Bano case, for instance, was essentially a gender issue. The BJP made it a communal one. Large sections of the media played the same tune.

"As a manager of news, the BJP has proved to be much more skilful than the Congress or any other political formation in the country. In the run-up to the Ayodhya agitation, the party pioneered the use of press releases, leaks and press conferences, which took place on more or less a daily basis, thereby ensuring that the BJP and its activities and views received continuous and prominent coverage in the newspapers. According to the media analysts Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma, the BJP's forte is the creat ion and management of the pseudo-event."

The print media is not the only culprit, Doordarshan and All India Radio played no mean role. Contrast Doordarshan's treatment of the film Tipu Sultan with its generosity towards Ramayana whose serialisation many now acknowledge was a mista ke of great consequence.

It is a very thought-provoking contribution, altogether. "Communalism in the media is a problem but it is only an instantiation of the largely undemocratic nature of the mass media. What we need, therefore, is journalism which raises the level of discuss ion in society by addressing the concerns of the people. In modern market economies, two obstacles need to be overcome. The first is the market mechanism itself."

The other is the stranglehold of the state. It is able to influence media coverage and mould public opinion. In India, for example, the police and paramilitaries are considered to be the authority on questions of law and order; the Reserve Bank of India, the Union Finance Ministry and investment banks on the economy; and the Defence Ministry and quasi-government think-tanks like the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, the last word on issues of defence and national security. Journalists looking for an objective assessment turn mostly to officials from institutions."

In bringing such a fine group of thinkers around the table for an informed discussion, Panikkar has rendered no small service.

(Source: Frontline, August 28-September 10, 1999)

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