THE assault by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has roots in India’s pre-Partition intra-Hindu battle lines. While the most cited example of this bitter rivalry is Mahatma Gandhi’s murder by Nathuram Godse, the pre-Independence standoff continues to stalk Indian society just as menacingly.
The murders of Gauri Lankesh and her rationalist colleagues — allegedly by members of a Brahminical group suspected in Gandhi’s assassination — confirms this narrative. Theatre icon Girish Karnad who died of a prolonged illness on Monday was on the hit list of the group.
Banerjee is a Bengali Brahmin of a secular hue and the RSS is a Brahmin-led body of the Hindu right with origins in the intense intra-Brahmin rivalry that goes back to pre-Independence Poona, now Pune. It was here that nationalist leader B.G. Tilak took a violently hostile stance against M.G. Ranade’s social reformist interventions at annual Congress sessions. Tilak’s men would raid Ranade’s camps with sticks and stones, not dissimilar to the hooligans unleashed by the Hindu right today.
Given the spurious but all-pervasive critique of Indian liberalism under way, blaming them for the opposition’s rout by Narendra Modi, this equation between Brahmins and Brahmins (or Hindus and Hindus) needs to be clearly borne in mind. In today’s context, Prime Minister Modi is vocal about a Congress-free India, which in the Hindutva echo chamber may sound like Muslim-free India.
It is difficult to understand the grudge against Indian liberalism, when that is all one has to save and fight for.
But the real targets are reformist and secular Hindus. Tilak wanted a Ranade-free India. W.C. Bonnerjee, the socially regressive president of the Indian National Congress, would have preferred a Brahmo Samaj-free India. The Samaj was the progenitor of reformist Ishwarchand Vidyasagar, whose bust was razed by Hindutva hooligans in their anti-Mamata melee recently. Likewise, in ancient India, the nastiks or non-believers (from the Hindu fold) challenged Brahmin hegemony and suffered for it.
Gleaning from several recent reviews of the landslide Modi win, it appears to have become fashionable to accuse an imagined airy-fairy, unintelligent intellectual class, supposedly unconnected with the masses and allegedly confined to the upmarket Khan Market and British-built Lutyens’ Delhi, for the political debacle of the Congress and the left. The truth is that barring the excellent Bahri bookshop that still holds true to its intellectual purpose, Khan Market was transformed into a hub of flashy consumerism bereft of any thinking capacity from the 1990s, offering a fertile ground for the arriving right-wing menace to grow and prosper. As for Lutyens’ Delhi, that is where Hindutva leaders reside, including Prime Minister Modi, mostly in quarters vacated by assorted architects of Nehru’s India. It is difficult to understand the grudge against Indian liberalism, when that is all one has to save and fight for.
The flip side is just as true. The point apparently missed by Muslim votaries of Partition to everyone’s detriment in the subcontinent was that the more real fight had existed towards the end of British rule not between Hindus and Muslims, but between Hindus and Hindus and between Muslims and Muslims. Imagine if Jinnah had met Gauri Lankesh or Girish Karnad and joined their fight against regressive Hinduism. What if they had struck up an alliance with the Dravida social justice movement of southern India and other equally progressive Hindu (though some called themselves anti-Hindu ideologues)? The Muslim League might have had a different view about the future of a united India.
Just as there emerged regressive forces to disrupt Jinnah’s secular quest in Pakistan, the intense rivalry between Tilak and Ranade presaged the contest between a secular opposition and the RSS. Tilak represented British India’s reactionary impulses laced in narrow nationalism, which were to be co-opted by Hindutva forces.
Many of his heirs have lurked on in the Congress. They include those who bear hostility towards Dalit reformist Ambedkar and other progressive groups. Ranade, the reformist stalwart, embodied the best in India’s quest for social equality, an amalgam of progressive forces set into motion in Bengal by Ram Mohan Roy, and in Maharashtra by Jyotiba Phule and several others.
History is witness to this phenomenon on both sides of the border. Soon after the Quaid’s death, his dream of a secular state was smashed by those lurking in the shadows of Muslim revivalism. In India, Nehru, who dreamt like Jinnah of a parliamentary democracy with an egalitarian intent, was overwhelmed in his own cabinet by stubbornly regressive but powerful satraps. (Read Nehru’s desperate letters to the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh under whose watch the early Ayodhya-centric communal campaign was unleashed.)
Detractors of the Nehruvian worldview gained enormously from the rise of the Hindu right, which was spurred unwittingly by Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms, although he claims to be an ardent devotee of the first prime minister. Singh helped create a nouveau-riche middle class with definitive regressive and feudal social features. This new urban populace can hardly qualify as a liberal vanguard of anything. Rather it has swamped the main opposition Congress as much as it has spurred the consolidation of the RSS and its many arms, including the BJP.
It may disturb some in the left to be reminded that the neo-liberal consumer society did not spare their rank and file either. If after 70 years of struggle for the Orwellian sugar-candy mountain, all that the left have to show for their cultural legacy is the annual Durga Puja in Bengal, then it becomes easy to see how the cadres slip out occasionally to vote for the BJP or desert the party altogether. Worse, the left’s innate sectarianism does not allow for a pause to see that if Mamata Banerjee goes, the Hindutva sway over Bengal would be complete.
Rather than holding her alliance with Muslims responsible for the BJP’s victory in Bengal — a dishonest assessment — the left should make an existential accord with Mamata to stave off its own and ultimately India’s disastrous denouement.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2019