The word independent has varying shades of meanings. It could mean anyone who is free from outside control and not subject to another's authority; one who is unwilling to be under an obligation to others; or one whose validity and value is dependent only on his/her opinion.
It was precisely why our forefathers felt so intoxicatingly liberated on 15 August, 1947: India, after all, was to become a self-governing nation, free from British control. Yet, their liberation was not absolute. They were to subject themselves to an authority they considered legitimate. They were to recognise constraints and obligations spelt out in the Constitution.
Our understanding of freedom, unfortunately, is increasingly coming under strain now.
On the 71st anniversary of India's Independence, the only section of people who seem independent, in the dictionary sense of the term, are the myriad radical Hindu groups mushrooming all over India. They seem to recognise no authority, bristle at the control imposed on them, feel they have no obligation to others, and their own validity is derived from their own sense of what India should be. Damn all those who differ from them, or so they think.
Examples conveying their idea of independence are captured in media headlines every other day — they lynch in the name of the cow, accost inter-faith couples, ride motorcycles shouting provocative slogans to trigger communal conflict, judge who is patriotic, and mount pressure to proscribe books and films. It can get as petty as objecting to the film Loveratri only because it rhymes with 'Navratri', and as dangerous as shooting at the student leader Umar Khalid.
Representational image. Getty Images
They have turned festivals — whether of Hindus or Muslims or Christians, and even public celebrations not linked to any religion — into days of alarm and caution. Who can tell what they might find objectionable and unearth a reason to protest and fight? They feel emboldened because the climate for their politics has become favourable, the most recent example of which is Madhya Pradesh.
As we celebrate the 71st anniversary of Independence and enjoy a day-off from work, the madrasas in Madhya Pradesh have been ordered to hold Tricolour rallies and send videos to the State Madrasa Board as proof. The board will then judge which madrasa staged the best show. Other schools too have been asked to organise rallies, but they have been exempted from furnishing proof to the authorities. It is a glaring instance of the State doubting the patriotism of Muslims. It is just the kind of cue radical Hindu groups are quick to pick on.
Madhya Pradesh illustrates why suspicion and aggression have become the primary drivers of the politics of Hindu radicals. Or why they think they are under no obligation to anyone or required to submit to authority. Their conduct is a manifestation of their ideological belief. As is true of other groups on the opposite side of India's ideological spectrum, Hindu radicals also believe India's Independence remains an unfinished business; it is just a milestone on the long path to making the nation a 'Hindu Rashtra'.
This fact has had Hindu radicals re-interpret "independence" and "independent". All their actions, from lynching to hate mongering, are part of a long struggle which they believe will make India truly independent. This will happen with the advent of the 'Hindu Rashtra'. It is altogether a different matter that their ideological gurus have not outlined the contours of 'Hindu Rashtra', beyond just venting anger and hate against some social groups and categories of people.
Yet, behind this thought is a long political tradition, best represented by the actions and ideas of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the high priest of the Hindu Right, who coined the term 'Hindutva'. Freedom from British rule was not always Savarkar's principal impulse. For instance, when the Congress ministries in provinces resigned in 1939, in protest against the British unilaterally making India a party to World War II, Savarkar offered to work with the colonial masters.
On 9 October, 1939, Savarkar met Viceroy Lord Linlithgow, who reported to the Secretary of State for India their conversation. "The situation, he (Savarkar) said, was that His Majesty's Government must now turn to the Hindus and work with their support," Linlithgow said.
Savarkar also pointed out to the viceroy that France and Britain had strong differences in the past, but came together to face Germany. Likewise, the "essential thing was for Hinduism and Great Britain to be friends, and the old antagonism was no longer necessary".
Given that Gandhi, Nehru, Patel — the triumvirate of the national movement — were Hindu, who were the Hindus that Savarkar wanted the British to befriend? Obviously, they were those who were not participating in the anti-colonial movement. They were the Hindus who had rejected the idea of territorial nationalism for cultural nationalism.
Savarkar said so in as many words: "If India, because it was a territorial unit and called a country must be a national unit as well, then all of us must also be Indians only and cease to be Hindus or Muslims, Christians or Parsees. So they, the leaders of those first generations of English educated people, being almost all Hindus, tried their best to cease themselves to be Hindus and thought it below their dignity to take any cognizance of the divisions as Hindus and Moslems and became transformed overnight into Indian patriots alone…"
Savarkar asked Hindu Sanghathnists to "first correct the original mistake". In other words, the struggle for Independence was not as important as the struggle to create the Hindu patriot — not the Indian patriot, mind you. On this kind of exercise, Muhammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League too had embarked, demanding Pakistan as a homeland for Muslims. Like Jinnah, Savarkar's idea, too, was anchored in the two-nation theory.
In his address to the Hindu Mahasabha on 30 December, 1937, Savarkar said, "There are two nations in the main: The Hindu and the Moslems in India." A year later, he added, "The Hindus are the nation in India — in Hindusthan, and the Moslem minority a community."
His definition was exclusivist; it kept out Muslims from the Indian nation. Savarkar's ideas, directly or indirectly, continue to inform the actions of radical Hindu groups.
Members of these groups hold aloft the Tricolour and demand that others — students of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Muslims, Christians — chant the slogan of 'Bharat Mata KI Jai' to display their patriotism. They would perhaps be shocked to know what Savarkar thought of the Tricolour. "I must emphatically state it (the Tricolour) can never be recognised as the national flag of Hindusthan… (which) Hindudom at any rate can loyally salute no other flag, but this Pan-Hindu Dhwaja, this Bhagava Flag as its national standard."
Or perhaps they will not be shocked because of the sheer continuity, and persistence, of certain symbols around which the Hindu Right has constructed its politics. Since India and Hindu are overlapping terms for Hindu radicals, might not then the Indian flag subconsciously symbolise to them the Bhagava flag? A necessary substitute that would inevitably be replaced in the Hindu Rashtra? Is it why they try to coerce all others to pay obeisance to the flag in the way they think it is appropriate?
Let alone the flag, the two dominant motifs of the Hindu Right politics today — the cow and a Ram Temple in Ayodhya — also date to decades preceding Independence.
The cow-protection movement began in the late 19th Century, but its insertion in democratic politics was tellingly made in 1947 when thousands of telegrams, under the coordination of Right-wing groups, were sent to Rajendra Prasad, who was then the president of the Constituent Assembly. These telegrams, as Akshaya Mukul in The Gita Press and The Making of Hindu India noted, demanded a ban on cow-slaughter. Five days before Independence, on 10 August, 1947, an anti-cow slaughter day was organised and observed throughout the country.
In the 1950s, four Congress-ruled states banned the slaughter of cows. But this did not satisfy the Hindu Right, which, to press for an all-India ban on cow-slaughter, gave a call for a mass protest outside Parliament on 7 November, 1966. When it seemed Parliament would come under attack, lathi charge was ordered. There was chaos and mayhem. But the State's strong pushback against the violence of protectionists quieted them down for decades until their resurfacing, with renewed vigour, after the BJP swept the 2014 elections.
The other motif of the Hindu Right — the demand to build a Ram Janmabhoomi temple — too has a long history, dating all the way back to 1885. In 1949, the idol of Ram Lalla was installed inside the Babri Masjid, sparking litigations over the ownership of the disputed structure.
From 1989 until the demolition of the mosque on 6 December, 1992, the movement to reclaim the Babri Masjid left behind a trail of death and devastation. It has to be seen how the Ayodhya issue will shape politics before the 2019 elections, given that the Supreme Court is hearing the matter.
For all of us, 15 August 1947 marks the birth of India as a nation-state. It is the end of history, so to speak, of being and becoming. For radical Hindu groups, 15 August is an interlude, a staging station to realise the dream of the Hindu Rashtra. The struggle for it will necessarily target those whom it excludes, as has been happening with Muslims around the country.
As was true of the anti-colonial movement, there are moderates, radicals and armed groups constituting the Hindu Right. But just where India is headed has been alarmingly underscored by the seizure of weapons and crude bombs from members of the Hindu Govansh Raksha Samiti.
We must note, grimly so, that Independence Day has a meaning quite different for Hindu radicals than what it has for you and I.
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