THIS has been a week of mixed intellectual fortunes for me thanks to the range of dramatis personae that were on view. Professor Romila Thapar on TV gave a scholarly interview anchored on her new book Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts.
The book, although I’ve not yet read it, sounds promising as all Thapar books do. This one is apparently a fierce critique of right-wing shibboleths that promote a single monolithic culture as defining India’s past and future. India, according to all learned accounts, is a salad bowl, or occasionally a melting pot, of different strands of a rich heritage. The new book looks primed to engage us in an urgent debate on history, culture and politics. In the course of the discussion, Prof Thapar digressed to describe Hindutva’s quest for political hegemony through an imagined culture, likening it to Mao’s Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and ended after his death in 1976.
The Chinese tragedy, one should bear in mind, flowed from Mao’s advertised fear that capitalist ideology had wormed its way into the communist echelons. Hindutva on the other hand has an opposite impulse, financed and shored up as it is by India’s big mercantile capitalists, as a tool to keep democracy off balance. Indian democracy was underscored by Indira Gandhi as socialist and secular in its cut and thrust.
Both features — secularism and socialism — are anathema to the dominant merchant classes and they have slowly taken direct charge of the state, not least to subvert it from within. (Congress is my personal shop, claims a top tycoon who also equally crucially promotes the Modi government.) Mao’s suspicion of his own party colleagues led to their ouster and in many cases to their imprisonment or death. Almost 1.5 million perished, a large component being China’s best intellectuals. But intellectuals were hounded and killed in Germany and Italy in large numbers.
Both features — secularism and socialism — are anathema to the dominant merchant classes.
Mao shut down schools to commandeer young minds for his enterprise. Hindutva runs schools to brainwash a new cadre of myth-hugging Indians. The new book may yet throw light on Prof Thapar’s point about Hindutva’s strategy of cooking up a culture and whether the strategy seeks to emulate China’s unmitigated human disaster. For now the Chinese episode remains an attempt to get even with real and imagined ideological allergens by branding them pro-capitalist, not least because Mao’s Great Leap Forward gamble had failed with the party and the people. Hindutva manufactures its allergens using mythology and street power, and passes the benefits to its financiers. In this sense, the current Indian drift seems closer to the European experience (minus industrial capitalism) with tactical methods borrowed from the politicised clergy in Iran and Pakistan.
The other involved message last week came from Sonia Gandhi, mainly her remarks at a public event, which revealed that there’s a fear stalking the Congress. It is the fear of being seen as friendly with Muslims. Sonia Gandhi blurted it out unknowingly. The Congress, she complained to the well-heeled Mumbai audience, was being perceived as a pro-Muslim party. Really? Therefore, although its leading lights were avid temple-goers, the party had consciously put extra focus on Rahul Gandhi’s visits to Hindu shrines. She said it. But she forgot. A major reason millions of Muslims did not follow Jinnah into Pakistan was that they saw Nehru as their leader.
This was the social pyramid that worked for the Congress before the keystones began to shake, rattle and eventually slip under its own unwieldy weight. It was Brahmins and Thakurs on top and Dalit with Muslims at the base that shored up Nehru’s and up to a point Indira Gandhi’s party.
Sonia Gandhi made a laudable effort to woo back the abandoned minority when she got Justice Sachar to compile a report on their miserable lot in terms of political, social, and economic empowerment. And now the party sounds as if even its illusory patronage of Muslims has become a millstone round its political prospects. If it gets two extra votes by shunning Indian Muslims, one would consider it a great strategy. It was strange for Ms Gandhi to complain that cow vigilantes had killed Dalits, which is a fact, but avoided mentioning Muslims as the other victims.
In normal times, this dubious public aloofness would pass for a Shakespearean adage of “letting I dare not wait upon I would”. The cat wants the fish but without wetting its paws.
Sonia Gandhi also believes that as a private citizen, she could now focus on publishing her husband’s papers, including letters to his mother among others. Such a leisurely quest would require her to not hear Hindu godman Ravi Shankar’s warning last week. The man considered close to the ruling party has sympathisers in the Congress. If the Hindus are not awarded the disputed Ayodhya land by the Supreme Court, which is due to deliver its verdict in the case, Muslims should surrender the land anyway. If they didn’t, there would be a blood bath. So which corner would Sonia Gandhi like to find herself in if such an eventuality does erupt? She would appeal to Muslims to let the land go, wouldn’t she, the only possibility in a stridently polarised state. She will be appealing to the people her party doesn’t want her to be seen with.
Lingering confusion was compounded by another intellectual I respect. After the Tripura debacle, Prof Prabhat Patnaik, the Marxist economist, wrote a strong piece urging the left, which has voted to shun the Congress, to mobilise democratic forces to fight Modi. The last I saw the left was in the company of Shiv Sena in Mumbai, fighting for farmers’ rights. In his appeal to the left, Patnaik aptly quoted John Maynard Keynes, who said: “In the long run we are all dead.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018