Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Postpartum depression: Complications after the birthing of the Hindutva project

This festival season my old friends from the Hindu Janajagruthi Samiti (HJS) have again stirred up the hornets nest. They started this particular round of agitation by protesting against the presence of an entirely innocent artwork at the Goa State Museum. The only irritant the artwork provided was it was produced by M.F. Husain. In response to this protest, Subodh Kerkar, one of the more famous Goan artists, brought out an image in the Marathi newspaper Lokmat, depicting the Shivaji’s reputed mentor Swami Ramdas in a suit. Normally portrayed as wearing only a caxtti*, the aberration was explained as done so as ‘not to offend the sensibilities of anyone’. In response, the HJS launched themselves at Kerkar, pointing to his illustrations of Ganesh in a variety of postures, including one as a sumo wrestler in a caxtti, as derogatory. They have now orchestrated a campaign that has threatened the life and limb of both Kerkar, and Raju Nayak editor of Lokmat.

The response has been predictable. There are demands for the State to take a stand, and punish them. Others have asked them who they are to define Hinduism for all. Some have pointed to Hindu tradition and the right to depict the gods in this manner. There is also a response asking them to be ‘real Hindus’, in a case of secular Hindus fighting the non-secular. There is every possible manner of response. And yet, I suspect that these responses are missing a point.

Visit the HJS’s website and you will see that they have a problem not just with Kerkar and Husain, but also with the manner in which the Ganeshotsav’s are being conducted. They very surprisingly encourage quiet, orderly celebrations that are eco-friendly and focus on the spiritual. They oppose huge figures of the deity and the melas that have currently become the norm for Ganeshotsavs. If one were not familiar with the normal violence of their method, one would assume that they were another eco-friendly group urging a responsible celebration of the festival.

It is these features of the HJS that complicate the scenario, forcing us to see the problem from other angles. I would like to reflect in this column, on the rather curious connections and circumstances of this entire fiasco that paint an image that refuses to be explained by the simple Hindu right wing versus secularists formula.

It was at the time of the Sri Ram Sene’s attacks on women in Mangalore, and the BJP’s official condemnation of the Sene that a friend suggested to me that what was going on showed an interesting tendency within the Hindutva family. There were now groups like the Sri Ram Sene that were even more Hindu than the BJP, threatening the position of the BJP to represent Hindu-ness across the country. This was a challenge that the BJP had to deal with, and hence the condemnations by the BJP. The BJP Chief Minister of Karnataka made a very telling statement when he indicated that “Sri Rama Sene has nothing to do with the Sangh Parivar. I am telling you honestly.” This was a surprising statement since Sangh outfits very often engage in similar acts of violence and intimidation. One way to explain this response therefore, is to return to suggestions that Hindutva, the RSS, BJP are in fact upper-caste organizations that have mobilized lower-caste groups as foot soldiers. These upper-caste groups hold the arrogant assumption that they as natural leaders can hold these soldiers in check. History has proved such assumptions terribly wrong and the upper-caste leaders of Hindutva are slowly and surely beginning to learn this to their dismay. They have unleashed a Frankenstein that they are not going to be able control, on the contrary, the monster will consume them as well, moving the country closer and closer toward conflagration.

I would argue that something similar is afoot in Goa. Let us not assume that the HJS is the first demonstration of Hindutva in Goa. In Goa, communalism has had a very nuanced presentation and should be seen in the context of the project of integrating Goa into the Indian Union. Given that a Hindu-ness was necessary for Goan integration, (since at the end of the day India was assumed to be Hindu) and Hindu-ness is defined on brahmanical terms, the project proceeded on those lines. The votaries of this project have been both Catholic and Hindu upper-castes, and the assumption of the project was clear, that leadership of the community would remain, either directly, or behind velvet curtains, in upper-caste hands.

Incidentally, the movement against brahmanical domination, in Goa, as in Maharashtra, has also used the language of Hindutva. These two caste tendencies have fed-off each other for a while, thus combining to give us the rowdy Ganeshotsavs, Dahi-handis and Narakasur Nites. The traditional upper-caste response has been to let the ‘children’ play, since they perform the useful role of asserting a Hindutva agenda and rolling back the polluting colonial impact. And yet, the internal tensions of this movement have not been resolved and I would argue that what we see happening right now is a confrontation between these two groups. There is no doubt that the HJS is poised to assert itself as the singular voice for Hinduism in Goa. The contradictions that the HJS has displayed between wanting Swami Ramdas to be depicted in a caxtti* and Ganesh not in a caxtti are in fact not contradictions. They are assertions of independence. The recommendations of the HJS for the appropriate celebration of Ganeshotsav are the posturing of a group that is seeking a larger legitimacy in society.

To understand this we have to also recognise that there are certain overlaps between the secular groups and the upper-caste votaries of Hindutva. Both support a certain soft Hindutva (i.e. Indian nationalism) that intertwines with the project of strengthening the power of the nation-state. Just as soft Hindutva allows upper-caste Hindus leadership of the national enterprise, the largely English-thinking secular group seeks control of the national project. Both groups use the lower castes and classes but don’t credit them with much intelligence or other capacity. They are seen as incapable of being responsible citizens, merely a lumpen that have to be held on a short leash. When comparing the HJS to the Taliban or the Wahabi elements in Islam, and accusing them of puritanical interpretations, they are using a similar grammar, one that suggests that these lower-order boors are incapable of nuanced, philosophical appreciation. Philosophy and nuance ofcourse are seen as the exclusive domain of the upper-classes, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic or otherwise.

This ‘lumpen’ is now asserting itself, indicating that it can be both, the foot-soldiers of the Hindutva Reich, as well as the cultural aristocracy that can hold the foot-soldiers in control. The response is to both, the secularists of the Indian nation-state, and the upper-caste leaders of the Hindutva project. To all of us this should be bad news, because this means that things are simply spinning out of control.

In a season that traditionally welcomes Ganesh, the destroyer of all obstacles, I also herald the imminent arrival of Frankenstein. God save us all.

[Subsequent to the publication of this column, I have to confess that I am as yet a little unsure of the analysis above. The HJS is not primarily a ‘lower’ caste group, and has in fact a large member of ‘upper’ castes (women who I encountered at their earlier exhibition on Kashmir) as well. Indeed, its leader has a Brahmin surname.The effort of this column, and its intended impact, is not to freeze analysis on the issue, but to suggest that there are other multiple factors in this equation that need to be probed as well. What has bothered me was the manner in which all discussion, and response, on this issue is being limited to a rather narrow and legalistic understanding of 'the Right to Freedom of Expression. While I do not wish to suggest that this right and debate around it is unimportant, I am convinced that looking at the manner in this way is going to allow us to believe that curbing the HJS, or banning them, will resolve the problem. It will not. On the contrary the problem will continue to fester. What we require to do is to address the emotive issues also involved in the case, which in any case, law does not seem capable of doing.]

* Caxtti : Konkani word for langoti, or loin cloth.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 19 August 2009)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The attempt to link the 'secularism-communalism' debate (and its self-limiting perspectives) with caste is interesting.

But I agree more with your footnote. Reading too much of "lower" caste presence into the Sanatan/HJS project is misleading and probably incorrect.

It's probably true that religious bigotry can be a runaway engine, which the mainstream Hindutva lobby could quickly lose control of. But don't underestimate the Hindutva potential for double-speak. The responses of their MLAs in Goa (as recorded by Herald) supports this view enough.

I think "mainstream" Hindutva (i.e. BJP, RSS, et al) is a political project. The HJS/Sanatan is a spiritual project for communalism. Incidentally, what's most interesting is the manner in which Sanatan/HJS turned from being an orthodox-spiritual project into a communal one. Wish more people would read their propaganda (largely in Marathi) instead of ignoring it.