Towards Cultural Counter to Hindutva

Rahul Vaidya

The Bhoomi Pujan at Ramjanmbhoomi in Ayodhya at the hands of PM Modi on 5th August 2020 marks a major milestone in the triumphant march of Hindutva over past 40 years. It is a milestone in true sense of the word; it is unlike the other economic and defence policy failures of present dispensation which are nevertheless sheepishly touted as ‘masterstrokes’ and ‘historic’ achievements across the establishment media on a daily basis. The din and pageantry of this historic event was bound to be amplified- not only to crowd out the sobering news about corona pandemic, economy in crisis etc. but it was to tighten another screw in the firm reset of the foundations of Indian state that the Hindutva forces have undertaken. The 2019 Supreme Court approval for construction of Ram Temple at the site of Babri Masjid (despite SC accepting that RSS karsevaks destroying the Masjid in 1992 was a criminal act) was a successful culmination of an extra-parliamentary struggle which transformed the character of civil society, captured the state apparatuses ‘gradually; and then suddenly’, and achieved a firm hegemony so much so that the opposition can no longer muster any idiom of its own. It is this predicament which needs serious reflection. 

That the Hindutva forces were jubilant on the occasion of Bhoomi Pujan is quite understandable as it is culmination of their vision of an authoritarian, centralised Hindu state with all democratic institutional checks and balances envisioned in the constitution now subservient to ‘popular will’ and ‘civilizational ethos or faith’. What is rather astonishing and alarming is the near unanimous celebration across the opposition parties. Kamal Nath[1], the former chief minister of Congress from Madhya Pradesh sent 11 silver bricks for the Ramjanmabhoomi temple and duly reminded that it was a Congress PM Rajiv Gandhi who had opened the gates of temple in 1986. AAP[2], SP[3], BSP etc. parties also expressed joy at the ceremony taking place. Gone are the days when the forces of Mandal politics SP-BSP had joined hands in 1993 to keep the Kamandal politics of BJP at bay after Babri demolition and with slogans like ‘Mile Mulayam-Kanshi Ram, Hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram’; they had formed the government in UP. Now, in desperation, both these parties are trying to woo Brahmins in UP with a promise of Parshuram statue[4]. To be fair, the squandering of Mandal politics (along with its counter-cultural struggles) is also a long chain of events over two decades and not an overnight shocker. In short, there is a late, and desperate attempt to challenge the monopoly of BJP and Sangh Parivar over Hindu idols which only goes to show the depths to which these parties have fallen in terms of failure of their politics- electoral as well as ideological-cultural. The policy of ‘Beg, borrow or steal’ the slogans, projects of Hindutva by these parties will merely prolong the inevitable.

It will not be fair to say that there have not been any differing voices at all. Some like Digvijay Singh[5] of Congress attacked PM Modi and BJP for choosing ‘inauspicious muhurat’ for Bhoomi Pujan. Among the serious objections, AIMIM MP Owaisi[6] had raised the issue of PM attending the Bhoomi pujan would be violation of constitutional oath of secularism. NCP’s Sharad Pawar[7] questioned why ram temple was the priority for the government while the country is battling a serious health and economic crisis due to covid pandemic. The Left parties[8] raised the question of PM’s attendance for Bhoomi Pujan being against the Supreme Court verdict in the matter (which asked a trust and not government to carry out construction of temple) and also violates the spirit of the Constitution. They contended that participation of government functionaries legitimises the destruction of Babri Masjid, termed as a criminal act by Supreme Court as well.

Thus, the oppositional articulation from liberal/centrist forces as well as the Left is entirely preoccupied with optics of temple during pandemic and question of ethics in the Constitutional State maintaining its distance from religious domain. (such distance has always been more a liberal rhetorical article of faith than practice) The corollary of this argument is- had it been only the Trustees present for bhumi poojan, it would be an acceptable situation. Thus, the Left and other liberal forces find themselves in a predicament largely of their making: all through 1980s onwards, they tried to pose as the ‘party of Order’ against lawless lumpen crowds of Hindutva which did not care for legal niceties of judiciary process. BJP’s Lal Krishna Advani and others were constantly questioning the authority of courts to decide the ‘matters of faith’ and inciting the followers to do the deed- or kar seva. It was the forces of Mandal politics like Lalu Prasad Yadav[9] who stopped the Rath Yatra in Bihar in October 1990. After the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, Left and forces like Lalu and few other liberal/ centrist forces continued their principled opposition to communalism. However, these protests increasingly became a lone voice against the lethal combination of commerce and communalism. The very notion of what constituted ‘law and order’ was undergoing a critical change[10] along with the character of bourgeoisie after the 1990s reforms. The earlier social contract of negotiated appropriation among different sections of rural and urban bourgeoisie had run its course (as capital formation and surplus generation were not occurring at a pace desired by now impatient savarna dominant castes) and hence it was reversed in favour of LPG reforms. It led to enormous growth of clout of mercantile castes[11] which shared a long history of organic ties with RSS. Their gradually rising hegemony over economy, culture and politics was metamorphosed into ‘Gujarat Model’ under Modi in the aftermath of Gujarat riots in 2002. All this while, the drumrolls of ‘law and order’ started to sound as hollow as the much-derided word ‘secular’. The words ‘human rights’, ‘peace’ took on the meaning of being apologists for ‘terror’. The real ‘forces of order’ were now Shiv Sainiks or else the ‘Encounter specialist police’ which protected law-abiding citizens from riot, loot of property. Enormous popularity of extra-judicial killings in real as well as reel life, projection of a messiah government officer or an outsider novice taking on the corrupt politicians with a single-minded zeal were the popular wish-fulfilment tropes- which have come to fruition in proportions one could never imagine.

Hence, while it is understandable for centrist parties to invoke ‘law and order’ and respect of judiciary and thus uncritically submit to shifting notions of ‘order’ based on exploitation of the weak sections, and pursuit of wealth at any costs as an end in itself which naturally sought its ideals not in modern, secular republic but in nostalgic invocation of ‘Ramrajya’ and ‘Hindu golden age’ which would again sanctify the rule of rich, propertied and savarnas. However, it is naïve for the Left and parties for social justice to pin their hopes on judiciary, law and order to check the excesses of Hindutva forces. It is not to say they should be subversive of them; but they should not base their politics on such procedural stand; communist/ progressive position has to be distinct in that it should be politicise and question the conservative ‘common sense’. Kancha Illiah’s[12] argument In response to Bhoomi Pujan at Ayodhya is a welcome move to frame the caste question in the context of equality of worship and not to uncritically sing paeons of either the temple or the judiciary; however, it is no longer a dilemma for RSS- Illiah’s own admission of participation of Shudras in Ramjanmabhoomi movement is proof of that. What is more, it was a dalit[13] who was the first kar sevak in 1989 itself and plethora of shudra leaders in BJP including Modi is proof of that. What is more, Modi himself signalled an important shift in the slogan from ‘Jai Shri Ram’ to ‘Jai Siya Ram’ thereby acknowledging the equal importance of Sita and women; and undercutting some of the opposition emerging from Bihar[14]. The art of symbolic gestures and visuals of equality has been long perfected by the Hindutva forces. It is the issues like dilution of affirmative action through reservation on economic basis for savarnas, denial of caste-based census/ socio-economic survey, declining women participation in labour force, worsening women safety and health which need dramatization. Perhaps, it is tempting in a Lacanian vein to concede to Hindutva forces that since Hindu Rashtra of their dreams has largely been realised (with abolition of triple talaq, article 370 and beginning of Ram Temple construction); their political existence is no longer justified and the body politic should now return to more mundane matters of livelihood. BJP’s former partner of militant Hindutva, Shiv Sena did take such a stance last year when it left NDA. Perhaps, similar calculation is at work when other opposition parties are dodging the issues like Ramjanmbhoomi or Article 370 to turn the attention away to livelihood matters. However, this is nothing short of a ‘Faustian deal’ or submission to ‘superego’- the more you submit, even more is demanded from you. The dangerous proclamations of ‘Ayodhya toh jhanki hai, Kashi, Mathura Baki hai’, and demands for Krishnajanmbhoomi[15], mischievous claims over Taj Mahal are ominous reminders of that.     

The opposition parties have time and again raised fears over Hindutva’s threats to ‘idea of India’ as well as undeclared emergency and trampling of personal freedoms, lynchings, stifling of democratic institutions, media, judiciary etc. However, the class-caste interests of these bourgeoisie parties don’t allow them to put up a united or principled resistance to this regime which truly is ‘the vanguard of the counter-revolution’[16]. The protests against NRC-CAA were massive; at the same time, these protests bypassed the party structures and at times even ignored them. While these protests have been truly inspiring, lightening sparks in the dark night of fascism; Hindutva’s chilling response of Delhi riots and widespread arrests of progressive activists has met with shocking silence from opposition barring the Left. 

Perhaps, Left is alone in reaffirming its commitment to modern, secular, socialist republic. However, its articulation of this commitment has started to sound indistinct from other centrist parties (or their proclaimed programs/ histories) with its passionate embrace of structures and institutions of republic in the (largely vain) hope of finding the underlying spirit alive, at least in some degree. That hope is dwindling now, and so is its voice.

As mentioned earlier, it is necessary for the Left and other progressives to reimagine politics which would not be afraid to provide a cultural counter to Hindutva. This cultural counter will have to assimilate Phule, Ambedkar and also go beyond that. What separated Ambedkar (‘Riddles of Rama’) (and certain Communists) from others in opposition to RSS was their invoking of alternate histories and fearless questioning of ideal of ‘Ram’ itself- how Shambook, Sita, Tratika, Shoorpnakha were defeated at the hands of rising brahmanical patriarchy. As Com. Sharad Patil explained, it is true that Ambedkar’s critique was based on negative dialectics which ignored the historical importance of likes of Ram in destroying the primitive matriarchal gana societies and establish rule of patriarchal king run state for surplus production. It was the giant leap in production that ensured the popularity of Ram (and later of Krishna who destroyed the Kansa’s rule of royal slave owning state and founded a-rajak sangha-gana with the support of cattle farmers). Such historical appraisal is not just an academic exercise; it is necessary to provide necessary historical imagination, symbols and meaning to the struggles of the oppressed. It is of course naïve to think that merely by projecting alternative symbols and figures, one would be able to counter the project of Hindutva, as has been demonstrated in the case of Dalit movement and Buddhism. The question is not to replace one idol with another but to lay bare the structures of oppression under the wreaths of worship.

Where would be the audience for this? The establishment media, popular culture is producing consensus everyday in favor of Hindu Rashtra; every day it is claiming a new victory. The progressive forces have reached a dead end where every form of democratic structure won as reward for their struggles (trade unions, labor rights, electoral democracy) is being ripped apart and nothing new can be imagined. It is thus necessary to revisit Gramsci and undertake a ‘war of positions’ or ‘battle of the trenches’ to truly connect with people. As the spaces of labour turn more and more unreachable for mobilization, it is the leisure time where reinvigoration of battle can happen. On the Right, there is an immense fear of such looming battle. It is not surprising that documentaries like ‘Ram Ke Naam’[17], ‘Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai’[18] have faced the ire of Hindutva. What needs to happen is to move beyond chronicling and abstract appeal to humanism, democracy, secularism to a grand narrative of continuities and breaks of struggle of Indian people against patriarchy-varna- jati slavery over centuries and concretely relate them to structures of oppression. As the twin attacks of communalism and neo-liberalism take even more aggressive forms, there is a suffering, silent majority of working people which needs to articulate their opposition in a radically different fashion. There are several efforts like comedians standing up and mocking the falsehoods and fascist propaganda, fact-checkers like Altnews, alternative media channels especially on digital media which are keeping the fight alive. However, what is missing is a cultural imagination which inspires and is rooted in history beyond freedom struggle- it needs a consistent hammering of cultural productions which fought the Brahminical canon of the day; be it the plays by outsiders in sanksrit canon like Mrucchkatik, sankhyas, Buddhist literature like Jatakas, poetry of bhakti sects etc. The adherents of Manu and Shankaracharya are drawing their strength from their long traditions of oppression; their opponents also must learn to do so.

It is certainly a long and lonely road of cultural struggle. However, as a party not merely tied to parliamentary/ electoral calculations, Left is in the best position to undertake such a task- the partial rescue of Shivaji from reactionary forces is thanks to the enlightenment struggle waged by the likes of Com. Govind Pansare, Com. Sharad Patil (and organizations inspired by them like Sambhaji Brigade etc.[19]) ‘The past is not dead, it is not even past’ like Bhima-Koregaon[20] and other enlightenment battles over Brahminical oppression and at the same time exposing the appropriation of real heroes of the oppressed is the kind of cultural counter-politics that is urgently required alongside the usual battles over issues of livelihood.  

The author is independent researcher based in New Delhi

[1] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/mp-congress-will-send-11-silver-bricks-for-ram-temple-kamal-nath/article32268709.ece

[2] https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/ayodhya-ram-mandir-bhoomi-pujan-arvind-kejriwal-congratulates-countrymen-chants-jai-shree-ram/632116

[3] https://zeenews.india.com/hindi/zee-hindustan/national/akhilesh-yadav-tweets-on-shri-ram-before-ram-mandir-bhumi-pujan-in-ayodhya/723508

[4] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/after-sp-bsp-woos-brahmins-mayawati-says-will-build-hospital-in-the-name-of-parshuram/articleshow/77447400.cms

[5] https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/08/03/ram-mandir-digivijaya-sharpens-attack-on-pm-modi-over-inauspicious-mahurat.html

[6] https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/owaisi-warns-pm-modi-to-not-attend-ram-mandir-bhumi-pujan-1705252-2020-07-28

[7] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/some-people-think-building-ram-mandir-will-eradicate-coronavirus-sharad-pawar/articleshow/77052832.cms?from=mdr

[8] https://indianexpress.com/article/india/left-parties-say-ayodhya-bhoomi-pujan-against-sc-order-constitution-6537776/

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7XRvjYQOaI

[10] https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/gujarat-riot-nhrc-religion-elections-vote-bank-supreme-court-why-22-years-on-the-scs-hindutva-judgment-remains-elephant-in-room-4456258/ 1995 SC judgement bracketing of Hindutva with Hinduism and submitting that it is a way of life provided the necessary stamp of legality to Hindutva

[11] https://scroll.in/article/969775/the-making-of-modi-s-ramrajya-how-indian-citizens-became-subjects-and-the-prime-minister-king

[12] https://www.kanchailaiah.com/2020/08/07/what-about-dalit-priest-at-ayodhya-ram-mandir-even-communist-intellectuals-wont-demand-it/

[13] https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/first-kar-sevak-kameshwar-chaupal-recalls-day-he-laid-foundation-stone-for-ram-temple/story-yW7ALxDotKyNfBYaRLubWM.html

[14] https://theprint.in/politics/sita-equal-to-ram-jdu-rjd-want-modi-govt-to-now-develop-janaki-janmabhoomi-sitamarhi/480769/

[15] https://swarajyamag.com/insta/krishna-janmabhoomi-nirman-nyas-set-up-in-mathura-to-start-nationwide-campaign-for-its-liberation

[17] https://www.thequint.com/news/politics/fear-screening-ram-ke-naam-anand-patwardhan-documentary

[18] https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/muzaffarnagar-abhi-baki-hai-remains-in-the-limelight/article7509768.ece

[19] https://scroll.in/article/893168/protector-of-brahmins-or-peasant-king-why-a-historian-of-shivaji-is-on-sanatan-sansthas-hitlist

[20] https://vikalp.ind.in/2018/01/bhima-koregaon-battle-continues-even/