Traders of dubious nationalism

Updated 27 Oct 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

DURING the peak of the JP movement that aimed to unseat Indira Gandhi — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) being its proud mainspring — the call rang out to the army and the police to disobey orders of the government of the day. There was little apparent impact of the unusual public request other than to give Mrs Gandhi a handier reason to impose the Emergency.

Fortunately, by most credible accounts, the Indian military was then and remains today, more observant of its constitutional oath than has been the case with its brethren in uniform in the South Asian neighbourhood. This may continue to be a critical factor in what lies ahead for Indian democracy.

Ponder the fate of someone of a non-right-wing stripe thinking of asking the military to disregard the government today, of which the RSS forms the ideological core. ‘Traitor’, ‘secessionist’, ‘anti-national’, and ‘foreign agent’ — the standard insults would flow if something worse hasn’t happened to an erring intoner. This was not the only moment, of course, when India’s right wing made a bid to violate the constitution, which has otherwise been steadily eroded by successive dispensations, including the current one. Another example of hypocrisy from the Hindutva stable pertains to the national flag.

Remember how they hurled loaded accusations at a former Indian vice president who happened to be a Muslim, for allegedly not saluting the national flag at a military parade? It was a bogus claim built on spurious notions of protocol, but the idea was to do damage and whip up a communal binary, which it did.

So, what gives the right wing the right to muscle its way to transgress the constitutional limits at will?

Currently, Mehbooba Mufti, the Kashmiri leader whose dream honeymoon with Hindutva turned into a full-blown nightmare — as it did with assorted intellectuals and political allies — is being pilloried for raising the issue of Kashmir’s own flag to be displayed with the Indian tricolour, which was the norm before Aug 5, 2019. ‘Look how she has insulted the national flag,’ went the chorus. ‘Charge her with sedition or something worse,’ screamed the anchors.

The fact is that Hindutva has had an uneasy and occasionally adversarial relationship with the Indian flag adopted by the constituent assembly. The tricolor was agreed after overriding intense pressure from the Hindu right to have a saffron flag to embody the new secular republic. The quest may not have abated even now. Nehru shot down the idea, another reason for the unceasing animus towards the first prime minister.

There is even an anguished letter from the archives, which Nehru wrote to cabinet colleague Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha and founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, forerunner of the BJP. Mukherjee had continued to use the saffron flag on his official car and residence as government minister, undermining the national pact. The matter was resolved only when Nehru nicely ticked him off. As for the national anthem, there’s hardly any love lost between its author, Tagore, a cosmopolitan visionary, and Hindutva’s patriarchal ideologues.

So, what gives the right wing the right to muscle its way to transgress the constitutional limits at will? What makes the centrist Congress and the left steadily surrender the nationalist space to the right wing, so much so that any questioning of the wilful government these days becomes a conspiracy against the Indian state? One compelling answer could be that India’s right wing, as happens with right-wing movements across the world, gets its clout from the business elite, which has held sway over politics since before independence and continues to dictate terms today.

Most among the self-regarding elite had favoured the British government over the Congress and only warily cosied up to Gandhiji’s leadership while opposing his non-cooperation movement or the Swadeshi campaign against foreign goods. That elite was to write the script also of the post-independence Indian republic. They actively disrupted the order when Nehru and Indira Gandhi expressed support for an egalitarian worldview.

Therefore, when The Wire published a detailed commentary by a former civil servant naming Indian corporates that finance communal hate on TV, it prompts us to go back to history to probe the essential character of the politically and communally motivated dominant bourgeoisie then and now.

“It is the dream of every merchant to be able to sell without having to buy.” The words and the thought belong to eminent historian Irfan Habib who was describing the East India Company’s siphoning of an untenable slice of India’s economy as goods, services and even monetary plunder. The description is worthy of today’s buccaneers plundering virgin forest tracts, rivers and fertile land at will. Jailed intellectuals and young tribespeople resisting the state-supported loot — by tycoons eyeing minerals, water, land and timber without having to buy — are protesting as Indian nationalists once did against the East India Company.

Historians Bipan Chandra, Amiya Bagchi, Aditya Mukherjee and Claude Markovits have studied the blow hot-blow cold relationship between dominant sections of the Indian bourgeoisie and the Congress under Gandhiji’s leadership. “The relationships established during this period were a factor in the business-government understanding that developed in the post-independence era,” says one assessment based on their work.

During the agitations between1918 and 1922, differences in the strategy of the business community emerged, however. Only three Bombay industrialists made substantial contributions to the Tilak Swaraj Fund in1920-1921. These were A.B. Godrej, Jamnalal Bajaj and Anandilal Podar.

Bajaj expressed his views at the 1920 Nagpur session of the Congress thus: “Fellow businessmen, our trade, industry and commerce will flourish a hundredfold by our participation in the great national endeavour for Swaraj. We must give up our attitude of indifference and we must shed our fear complex.”

It may not be a coincidence that Rahul Bajaj, the rare business captain who has resolved to fight TV channels and other vendors of hate, belongs to a business family whose forebears cautioned Indian nationalists against a climate of fear.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2020