Riling the juggernautWe should understand that the historical paranoia of the angry Hindu elite is real in India
India is as diverse as it appears traumatised. Diverse ways of being, knowing and looking have balanced the fear and loathing caused by its traumatic past of a 1,000 years. Just think how hard it is for Nepal’s ruling Hindu elite to relinquish its 250 years of privileged access to the state in religion, caste, language. Now compare that to the loss of such privilege for a 1,000 years since the advent of Muslim marauders in the form of the Turks, Afghans, Mongols and, not least, the British who imposed their outlandish languages—Persian and English—and called their alien religions and ways of life superior.
To be sure, they added to the diversity and religion but the violence caused by the outsiders and the inability to control one’s political destiny as a community of people seem to have traumatised the ruling political, intellectual and religious elite of India for long. If you read Ibn Battuta’s 14th-century accounts of his more than a decade’s travel and stay in Hindustan; Al-Biruni’s 11th-century accounts of the Hindu way of life; or Baburnama of the 16th century, the memoirs of the founder of the Mughal dynasty, you will get an idea of what it meant to be a Hindu in one’s own homeland. The peasants were the peasants, of course, the Shudras; the merchants, the third in the Hindu hierarchy created by Manu’s code, did not fare badly either because any state worth its name needed people who plied the trade. Political and cultural adversity struck the beneficiaries of political and cultural dominance the most, the top two groups in the Hindu hierarchy—the Brahmins and the warrior castes—for centuries, only alleviated a little with the arrival of the British, who patronised the Hindus even as they despised them for their idolatry and primitive customs, such as Sati, and ignorance of their own glorious past.
After independence in 1947, Gandhi’s indigenous pluralism and Nehru’s Western secularism kept the ideological Hindu elite in check while channelising the English-educated Hindu elite’s energies into state power structures. If one studied in provincial India in the 1970s, as I did, one would have noticed two cultural tendencies even then: On the one hand, the elite Hindu, arriving from his centuries of dwelling in village India, expressed his ideological dominance in blatant upper casteism over the middle and lower castes; on the other hand, the English educated Hindu took great pride in his Westernised upbringing, education and manners, secure and confident in his future career in the Indian state, where his English language and Westernised manners would be a cultural capital.
The late 70s were the dominant days of this cultural capital even as the diversity of India in the form of the Backward Caste Movement led by the Mandal Commission Report and all it implied had begun to emerge as the new future of the Yadav political era in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. As an 18-year-old during the Mandal agitation, I had faced a considerable challenge in helping reach a compromise and make peace between the upper castes and what came to called the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in my college. But the emergence and assertion of caste diversity from below had halted the march of the English-educated upper caste elite and checked the simmering discontent of the ideological Hindu vernacular elite of the Indian villages for a while. But because this emergent diversity of the backward castes cropped up as an offshoot of the JP Movement rather than through gradual training and education of the population itself, leaders such as Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar who came out of the student movements in Bihar were not prepared to rule, steeped as they were in their own castes. Their native acumen and wisdom could take them only so far in the absence of widespread intellectual rather than just political preparation and training, on the one hand, and the lack of full cooperation from the upper-caste-dominated bureaucracy, on the other.
No wonder Lalu Yadav failed on two counts: In his fifteen-odd years of rule, Bihar witnessed a ‘Jungle Raj’, caused both by his own lack of vision and failures of the bureaucracy and, more seriously, from the failure to check the ideological Hindu juggernaut even though he stopped Lal Krishna Advani’s Chariot Yatra to Ayodhya. This Hindu juggernaut in India has now become the amalgamation of both the English-educated Hindu elite and the ideological vernacular elite. While the latter at times becomes a mob, lynching suspected beef eaters, and at other times hooligan nationalists beating the anti-national, the former writes columns, rationalises on television or defends in Parliament in the name of the nation, which is a new incarnation of religion, both demanding blood sacrifice. But can the Gandhian pluralism, Nehruvian English-educated secularism or vernacular emergent syncretism of the grassroots politicians succeed in restraining the firebrand, Hindu nationalist juggernaut?
That is why, when the JNU controversy erupted recently, I updated my facebook status thus: “Contest between two diametrically opposed ideas of India: baser instincts and narrow ideology versus pluralism, syncretism and openness. Let’s see which India wins but the whole South Asia, if not the world, has stakes in it.”
No matter which India emerges or the contest continues unendingly, we should understand that the historical paranoia of the angry Hindu elite is real. Only a
robust assertion of uncompromising diversity can help restrain the ideological Hindu juggernaut.