It is generally believed that the making and construction of identities necessitates the creation of certain historical facts. The creation of a pan-Hindu identity and, by corollary, a Hindu Rashtra has been on the agenda of the Sangh Parivar predating Independence and exemplified in the writings of its founders. Dr K.M. Shrimali, who retired as Professor of History from the University of Delhi in 2012, spoke to Frontline on the covert and overt agendas to use history in the making of a political project. He felt that the distinction between the sections labelled as “fringe” elements and their mainstream political fountainheads was no longer a valid one. Both were one and the same, he said, and had important portents for critical debate and inquiry.
Excerpts from the interview:
How would you view the renewed demand for a Hindu Rashtra?
After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the Assam elections, Amit Shah said there was no equivalent word in English for “Rashtra” and that people have been misled for using “state” for “Rashtra”. He said that India is a Rashtra and has always been one cultural whole. Even if one makes some allowance to his statement that they have power from Kutch to Kamrup, the whole notion of a Rashtra is questionable. What kind of a Rashtra are they talking about? What kind of a cultural whole are they talking about? The 1998 manifesto of the BJP said “our nationalist vision is not merely bound by the geographical and political identity of Bharat but it is referred by our timeless cultural heritage. This cultural heritage which is central to all regions, religions and languages, which is a civilisational identity and constitutes cultural nationalism of India which is Hindutva.” Ever since its inception, name anyone in the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh]—be it M.S. Golwalkar, V.D. Savarkar, or more recently, L.K. Advani or M.M. Joshi—and you will see that their concept of a nation is rooted in religion. For them there is only one religion; and being Hindu is being Indian. The idea of a two-nation theory came about well before Jinnah took it up. It was first proposed by Savarkar.
Should we take the calls for a Hindu Rashtra at the Goa conclave seriously, given the political environment?
It is an ideology-driven establishment. They have a one-point agenda, that has been fighting a battle of ideas. The network of Saraswati Shishu Mandirs is a case in point; there is no matching educational apparatus on the other side.
There is no point in being complacent today. They have all the power in their hands, and the political apparatus and the necessary constitutional mandate as well. We all know what Hitler did during the Third Reich. He also came to power through a duly elected process. And Hitler is their ideal. There is phenomenal documentation of the links these people have with the fascists in Europe. They are committed to their ideology and are working towards it. This talk that they are putting up a Dalit for President is all hogwash. We read about Ram Nath Kovind’s views on the Ranganath Mishra Commission report where he talks about Islam and Christianity as being alien to the nation. For them [the Sangh Parivar], the minorities, especially Muslims, are demons. Modi thinks he can win India without the Muslims. And he has managed to do that—the BJP has no Muslim M.P. in the Lok Sabha; it didn’t put up a single Muslim candidate in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. Muslims have been terrorised to such an extent that they dare not speak. It is terrorism of a different nature.
The idea of an exclusive Hindu Rashtra implies a certain religio-cultural hegemony.
Yes, of course. When Smriti Irani was HRD [Human Resource Development] Minister, a 44-page document titled “Some Inputs for the Draft National Education Policy 2016” was released. This was over and above the T.S.R. Subramanian Committee Report. Neither the note nor the report was discussed in Parliament, but policies are being formulated. In the preamble, the policy tries to implement the “one people, one nation, one culture policy”, which is an integral component of the idea of a Hindu Rashtra where Muslims and other minorities will have no rights.
I know of several hardcore RSS people who say openly that Muslims do not deserve any voting rights at all.
Sanskrit, say, being taught in the IITs. Why only Sanskrit? They talk about cultural unity. We know of so many scientific works in Arabic and Persian; there is no place for them. What about non-Sanskritic languages? Mind you, all through its 3,000 years of existence, Sanskrit has never been the language of the people—it was always the language of the elite, the classes. But they want to have cultural unity by teaching Sanskrit at all levels. That is in the NEP [New Education Policy]. That is an area where there is no alternative to counter the hegemony. I cannot think of any establishment that can take on the Saraswati Shishu Mandirs. That is one battle in the area of education.
Right from the first non-Congress government, the portfolios of education, culture and information and broadcasting have always been held by RSS people. They would never give these up, as these are the ministries through which they can control people’s minds.
During the first NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government, there were attempts to purge education of the influences of “Macaulay and Marx”. Do you see a continuum?
I would say there is much more aggressiveness from their end. Do not expect any norms of decency and liberal attitude from them. They will go all out to restructure everything at the earliest opportunity. What is Dina Nath Batra doing? In the name of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan, he got Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History pulped and led a campaign for the removal of A.K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas. These are people who cannot tolerate any voice of reason or critical inquiry. The whole idea of a scientific temper is anathema to them. They want regimentation. That is why in the NEP they talk about the “gurukul” which is teacher-centric, not student-centric. Any dissent is unacceptable. The whole space of reason is shrinking by the day. This is very scary.
How central is the writing and the rewriting of history to the notion of a Hindu Rashtra?
It is very central. I have been talking about the battle of ideas and minds. It is particularly through the discipline of history that they achieve their objective. It is not a coincidence that every time they come to power, the subject of history becomes their focus. Rewriting is not the issue; it is being done all the time. But the writing of history has to be done with a voice of reason.
History is a discipline of reason. It cannot be written with imagination and myth-making. Sadly, reason is the biggest casualty in their interpretation of history. The five Ms—Mill, Macaulay, Max Mueller, Marx and Muslims—are very central to their idea of writing history. Ironically, the vision and framework of history-writing of those who are shouting about patriotism and nationalism is taken from a colonial framework.
I was listening to the advertisements on International Yoga Day and Baba Ramdev saying on radio “Let’s make Bharat the Adhyatmik Shakti [spiritual power] of the world.” Max Mueller talked about India as a spiritual country and most colonialists had this approach that India was very spiritual, not materially oriented, and that Indian society was static. The main villain who propounded the notion of periodisation was James Mill, dividing periods into Hindu, Muslim and British (not Christian); in a small book called India: What can it teach us?, Max Mueller made Muslims the villains. For Max Mueller, everything glorious went back to the Hindu period and everything declined with the coming of Muslims. He called the Mughal invasion an “inferno”. This is what the Sangh believes too.
More recently, I read a report about the creation of a museum for Ram in Ayodhya. I am very apprehensive of this. I had an opportunity to study the Sri Krishna Museum in Kurukshetra which was established in 1987 and inaugurated in July 1991 at the peak of the Ayodhya movement. That museum does not show any representation of Krishna for a period of nearly 1,000 years in the so-called Muslim period, from A.D. 700 to 1700. If this is the approach, I fear the same will happen in the Ayodhya museum as well. Ayodhya has been a centre of multi-religious activity but the other religions are going to be eliminated, as Ram is more important for them [the Sangh] than the Buddha or Mahavira or the legacy of many medieval saints. The Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust organised the exhibition “Hum Sab Ayodhya” to convey the plural character of Ayodhya. But that kind of an orientation cannot be expected from them. The very notion of periodisation, that the colonialists started with a vested interest of dividing India, is being perpetuated by them. They forget that the Marxists were the first to question the colonial paradigm. A former HRD Minister called historians like Romila Thapar “terrorists”. The irony is that those historians who questioned the colonialists are branded as terrorists while those who perpetuate the theory of periodisation of the colonialists are now “nationalists”. All these ideas—pushing back the antiquity of the Vedas, Aryans being indigenous and hailed as the creators of the Harappan culture—are borrowed from the colonialists.
How are the antiquity of Hindus and the tradition of myths central to the idea of a Hindu Rashtra?
In the view of the Sangh Parivar, Hindus go back to the time when the whole world was populated by Hindus. As evidence of the antiquity of the Aryans, Bal Gangadhar Tilak traced the Aryans to the North Pole in his The Arctic Home in the Vedas. This went against the theory of indigenisation of the Aryans. Golwalkar put forth the continental drift theory to defend Tilak’s ideas. So, in their writing of history, the antiquity of Hindus is absolutely central, for the Hindu religion as they define it. Their ideologues speak about this quite openly.
This is the civilisational identity that Advani spoke about. He also said at a seminar at Sarnath during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime that Buddhists were Hindus, following which there was a walkout by the participants. Advani was being true to his ideology. And Golwalkar had said in as many words that the only religion they recognised was Hinduism. The Sangh Parivar maintains that Harappan religion was Hinduism.
It seems that the emphasis on restructuring education has now shifted to food habits and wider cultural idioms that define what Indian culture is and what is not.
I wouldn’t call it a shift. This has always been their agenda and is integral to their ideology. Gau raksha [protection of cows] has been a central idea. Do not forget the mayhem in the name of cow protection on the streets of Delhi by gau rakshaks in the 1960s. They still do not accept that beef-eating existed in India. Even today, it is a part of the diet of several million Indians. For a historian, the issue of beef is a non-issue. For them it is a matter of faith. Whenever they rake up these issues, it is to build the euphoria around the Hindu vote. The position against triple talaq is a ruse to consolidate the Hindu vote.
Do you think a Hindu Rashtra can be established given the kind of diversity that exists in our country?
I find that most people have a casual attitude because the great majority of them turn out to be Hindus, and feel they won’t be touched by it. But they shouldn’t forget what happened in Hitler’s time. It is scary. It is an ideological battle.
Is the use of violence central to the project?
The idea of a Hindu Rashtra is central to their idea of history. Homogenisation of Hinduism is their objective and “Hinduise India” and “Militarise Hinduism” has been one of the central slogans right from the days of the Hindu Mahasabha. I won’t be surprised if they communalise the army. If a Foreign Minister says that the Bhagavad Gita should be declared a Rashtriya Granth [national scripture], the portents are only too visible. I remember when Advani was Home Minister, he distributed the Gita to the Army on the pretext of Sindhu Darshan. It is an ideology and an ideologically driven apparatus. The fringe is an integral part of the apparatus. Three voices of reason, Dabholkar, Pansare and Kalburgi, were eliminated. It is not a small thing.