How Hindutva lost its first battle for India after Partition
Hindutva had failed to attract Hindus at the moment that was the most ripe for its growth: Partition. And it would be useful to recall that the Congress trumped it in those troubled times with a combination of Gandhi’s universalist Hinduism and Nehru’s secularism.
There has been much debate in recent times on whether overt secularism or soft Hinduism is a better answer to hard Hindutva. This was discussed a year back when Rahul Gandhi was visiting temples. It is being discussed once again with Arvind Kejriwal visiting a Hanuman temple before and after the Delhi polls, where his main plank was his government’s welfare measures.
Many commentators have now waded into the debate, taking one side or the other. Both sides admit that Hindutva is at its peak today, but suggest different measures to counter it.
But why did it take the Hindu Right almost seven decades to capture power in a Hindu-majority country that saw Partition on religious lines, bloodshed and displacement?
Hindutva had failed to attract Hindus at the moment that was the most ripe for its growth: Partition. And it would be useful to recall that the Congress trumped it in those troubled times by a combination of Gandhi’s universalist Hinduism and Nehru’s secularism.
In this history – which ended up not just pushing Hindutva back by decades but also forcing it to dilute its worldview for a long time to stay afloat – may lie some lessons for the present, when there is an unprecedented Hindutva surge.
India faced its most acute Hindu-Muslim polarisation at the moment of independence and Partition. While the Congress was the dominant political platform of the times and Hindutva outfits were much weaker, the massive violence that engulfed the country after Jinnah's Direct Action call made Hindu-Muslim animosity the dominant theme of the day.
The Congress could, however, successfully stall the rise of Hindutva in India in the wake of Partition, widespread riots, killings and the displacement of 6-7 million people. It was fortunate to have two key, and in many ways complementary, leaders at the helm in those days.
The most important was Mahatma Gandhi, the most popular national leader of his times. He was a devout Hindu, had lived in Ashrams, led a celibate life after a certain age and had immense faith in Lord Ram. However, his approach to religion -- what Ashis Nandy calls religion as faith, as distinct from religion as ideology -- made him essentially link faith to truth and justice. Injustice, in other words, had to be fought and not deflected. This was at the heart of Gandhi's public life.
He responded to the horrors of Partition with dogged resistance. He toured riot-hit villages, held prayer meetings for harmony and braved assassination bids. Finally, as Nathuram Godse killed him on January 30, 1948, for apparently being “anti-Hindu”, he also shot Hindutva in the foot. Hindutva outfits went on the back foot in the wake of a groundswell of anger after Gandhi’s death.
The consciously religious Gandhi was, thus, not indifferent to exclusivist identity politics. He chose to fight it, weaponising his moral capital and putting everything at stake in the process. This is different from AAP’s strategy of silence on cultural polarization, though it is true that Kejriwal may not have the stature to take it head on.
Nehru’s secular pitch
The next danger of an identitarian turn came when, in 1950, Syama Prasad Mookerjee started attacking Jawaharlal Nehru for the Nehru-Liaqat Ali Pact with Pakistan, aimed at guaranteeing minority protection in both the countries at a time when droves of Hindu refugees were coming to India in the wake of riots in East Pakistan. Mookerjee resigned from the Nehru government, accusing the Prime Minister of compromising Hindu interests in not taking a tough, retaliatory, stand. Around the same time, sections of the Congress under its president Purushottam Das Tandon -- a conservative leader who valued Hindu traditions and shared Mookerjee’s concerns over the refugee problem -- were also becoming receptive to a pro-Hindu approach to politics.
Nehru chose an openly secularist approach at this moment. He offered a fait accompli to the Congress at the Nasik session of 1950: either Nehru remains the Prime Minister with a stoutly secular policy or he leaves the post and fights for his principles from outside the Congress. With elections round the corner in just over one year, Nehru was able to use his stature to marginalize Tandon – who eventually had to resign – and took charge of the Congress as its president. In other words, he waged a frontal war on conservative opinion within the Congress, but this was perhaps possible because he was seen as the Mahatma’s successor and had public goodwill.
Christophe Jaffrelot argues that the Congress could stop the Jana Sangh in its tracks in the 1950s – the latter won just three seats in the Lok Sabha in 1952 and four in 1957 – because Nehru steered it towards a secular policy at the top while conservative elements in the Congress in the states, like Sampoornanand in UP and Seth Govind Das in MP, did not allow the Jana Sangh to appear to be the representative of a distinctive, Hindu, line.
The Congress could ideologically triumph over polarization in these troubled times because it had the fortuitous combination of the legacy of a spiritual Hindu in Gandhi, an uncompromisingly secular Prime Minister in Nehru – though Nehru as an individual valued tradition, as his 1946 book The Discovery of India shows – and conservative Hindus in the north Indian provinces, who prevented the Jana Sangh from becoming the representative voice of Hindus.
The Jana Sangh had, in fact, to change tack as it hit a wall: it had to dilute hard Hindutva and move towards alliances with socialists and other opposition parties in the 1960s and 1970s to stay afloat. This policy continued – with some ruptures, as during the 1989-1992 period of the BJP’s ascendancy due to the Ram temple movement – till the Vajpayee years. The party did taste power a few times but lost its hard edge, except for moments of deep polarization like in Gujarat during the riots of 2002.
The politics of Atal Behari Vajpayee was in some senses a result of this paradox: the Jana Sangh/BJP could come to power only if it abandoned hard Hindutva.
The impact of the Gandhi-Nehru combination was, thus, felt for long. It was a lethal mix of inclusive religiosity and strident secularism. And with Nehru being Gandhi’s chosen successor, all attempts to show his secularism as minority appeasement fell flat. This in part explains the deep hatred for Nehru that pervades the ideological world of the Hindu Right till date.
But for the combination of Gandhi and Nehru, Hindutva may have had fertile ground to grow in India soon after independence.
However, now that it is firmly in the saddle, opposition parties have to devise strategies – purely governance, the path AAP treaded, or an ideological critique of Hindutva – to stay afloat.
There is one difference, however, between today and 1947. Today, global conditions assist the rise of the right, with countries ranging from the US, UK and Brazil seeing right-wing populists at the helm. This offers people a sense of global resonance.
In 1947, the Axis Powers had already been defeated, and the horrors of global fascism, apart from the violence in India, had begun to become clear to the world.
The present isn't exactly the time when Nehru isolated the right. The strategies for today's battle for hegemony, too, are therefore not easy choices.