NATIONALISM is swamping India as never before. It is pouring out of every orifice and crevice, assaulting the senses and deadening the ability to think sanely. Not even in the times of war and very palpable threats to its integrity has the issue of nationalism gripped the country as now.
As a resurrected Bharatmata strides across the country, newly reinvested in the imagination of the Hindu supremacist BJP as the prescribed icon of patriotism, most Indians are gasping for air. In the mishmash of mythology, nationalism and politics that’s been shrewdly cobbled together by the Hindutva ideologues who pull the strings of the Narendra Modi government, rational and secular India has been neatly trapped in its saffron chador.
Almost everyone and his uncle are now dilating on what constitutes nationalism/patriotism. Even the ideologues of the Maoists who would normally steer clear of such issues are now given to expatiating on what nationalism means to them. The BJP’s wily ploy of insisting that Indians must shout ‘Bharatmata ki jai’ (Hail Mother India) to prove their patriotic credentials has had the desired the effect.
What has been the reaction to the farrago of pseudo-nationalistic claims propounded by the saffron brigade in the wake of its failed assault on leading campuses in February? The more devious and convoluted the claims put forth by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu cultural organisation that spawned the BJP, the more fantastical has been the response from a host of its critics.
To begin with, there was RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat, using the organisation’s trademark tactic of whipping up national hubris, proclaiming that the time had come “to tell the new generation to chant Bharat Mata ki Jai.” That was clearly intended to teach the seditious upstarts in Jawaharlal Nehru University where they got off. But in India’s predictable politics, an opposite and equal reaction was not long in coming. Playing to his own gallery, the president of the hardline All India Majlis-i-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Asaduddin Owaisi declared that he would not chant that slogan even if Bhagwat put a knife to his throat.
India is immersed in vacuous debates on nationalism while the economy slides further.
Owaisi’s statement has had the effect of turning the issue into another Hindu nationalists versus anti-national Muslims, rendering ordinary Muslims extremely vulnerable to demonisation if not outright attacks, as has happened in Delhi. This polarisation is being used to good effect by the BJP in the election campaigns in several states going to the polls in the next month, especially in Assam.
An unexpected bonanza has been the reaction of the Darul-Uloom Deoband, India’s leading Islamic seminary, which issued a fatwa issued to Muslims not to chant Bharatmata ki jai because it is against Islam and tauheed or the “oneness of Allah”. In what seemed a non sequitur, the seminary has also argued that the constitution guaranteed the right to all citizens to practise their own faiths.
It is hard to understand why the Deoband seminary believes the chant is synonymous with worshipping the motherland — it adds, rather gratuitously, that Muslims love Bharatmata — but its fatwa is a godsend for the BJP which is desperate to capture states that have long been beyond its sphere of influence. With the opposition Congress also deciding to join the Bharatmata bandwagon the ruling dispensation has got the country exactly where it wants on this futile debate.
Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi has no problem in taking up the RSS-BJP narrative. He proclaims that one should often chant Bharatmata ki jai and “would forcefully express my right to raise the chant”. With pride, of course; to oppose it was mere childishness. Fellow Congressman Rashid Alvi has a more scholarly research for disapproval of the Darul-Uloom Deoband’s stance. In Urdu and Persian, he says, the slogan translates to Madre vatan zindabad. So there should be no problem in chanting thus.
While academics, secular thinkers and a host of players on the civil liberties stage have written reams to explain why the country should reject the RSS-BJP’s attempts to lay down the law on nationalism, the BJP might well have hit the jackpot — as one party member gloated privately — with its latest strategy to whip up passions and garner votes. In fact, by adopting the RSS’s rhetoric of nationalism as its own, unlike in 2014 when development was the catchphrase that swept Modi to power, the BJP has done two things. It has pleased the saffron hardliners in the saffron network, and more vitally, it has taken the focus away from the formidable economic challenges that face the government.
Providing employment is the toughest of all and so far the Modi regime has failed to provide a glimmer of hope to the millions of young job-seekers. The report card, in fact, has been depressing. According to The Hindu, a number of jobs created in eight labour-intensive industries has dropped to a six-year low after Modi came to power. In the first nine months of 2015, just 155,000 new openings were created compared to double that figure in previous years.
India’s industrial growth has been declining and the report said rationalisation of staff in the corporate sector combined with lack of recruitment by the government is a serious concern. Other analyses of the economy have been equally worrying. The just-ended financial year has seen growth rates lopped off sizably from the targets set by the government. The 2015-16 budget had set a nominal GDP growth target of 11.5pc. Instead, that rate has turned out to be just 5.2pc. A serious concern is the deepening rural distress.
That might explain why Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was one of the cheerleaders of the Bharatmata ki jai campaign. As he put it rather grandly, it was not merely a slogan, “it is the heartbeat of a billion people today. It is the reiteration of our constitutional obligations as citizens to uphold its primacy”.
While the reference to the constitution is an outright fabrication — nowhere does India’s statute enjoin its citizens to chant thus to prove their loyalty — there are good reasons why the BJP has turned to Bharatmata for deliverance. Nationalism is always the last refuge.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.
Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2016