India Undergoing an Ominous Slide Away From Secularism into Hindu Fascism

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What was latent all these years is finally surfacing. The autumnal wind of the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is shedding the fig leaf of secularism that was pasted on India by the idealists of the Indian National Congress. The BJP and its extremist Pariwar (cohorts) are diligently at work to establish Hindutva, a legendary state described in the ancient Hindu religious epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In such a state only the castes within the Hindu hierarchy exist, and there is no place for any such communities as Muslims, Christians and Parsees (adherents of Iran’s pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion).

Work on the Hindutva project has continued since the 1920s. Now that the BJP has attained power, this rush toward a sectarian state has taken on much greater seriousness. Until the 1990s, voices of Hindu nationalism were raised only from time to time, and communal incidents occurred only sporadically across the country. But now, under the ruling party impetus to formalize and institutionalize religious jingoism, communal violence becomes inevitable. Appointment of a commission to “review” and “update” the constitution of India is a clear indication of the backward direction in which BJP wishes to take the country that was liberated in 1947 by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the name of secular democracy.

Historical Backdrop

Rashtrya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an extremist pseudo-military movement that is a vital part of the BJP conglomerate, was established by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar and B.S. Moonje in 1925 in Nagpur, India. Inspiration and encouragement for the RSS came from the Italian Fascists. Moonje met Mussolini in Rome in 1931, and subsequently designed the RSS on the lines of the Fascist Academy of Physical Education. Now when BJP Home Minister L.K. Advani calls for making military training compulsory in schools, he is merely echoing the RSS doctrines of 70 years ago. Prime Minister Attal Behari Vajpayee has also endorsed the idea. V.D. Savarkar, an RSS leader, put it more tellingly when he said: “Hinduize all politics and militarize Hinduism.”

The RSS has spawned a whole new generation of extremist organizations, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Shiv Sena, the Bajrang Dal, the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Jagran, the Jagriti Manch and the various Sanskriti Raksha Samithis. These are all now part of the BJP Pariwar and zealously subscribe to the establishment of Hindutva.

BJP has both short-term and long-term action programs. In the short run it generates intermittent violence in which secularists and religious minorities like Muslims and Christians are physically attacked. The thinking behind such scattered, repetitive assaults is to condition the national psyche to accept violence against minorities and cushion the shock of institutionalized violence, as was the practice in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. After a while, the horror stories that had once generated front-page headlines lost their significance and became routine events relegated to the inside pages.

How many of the world’s major newspapers today give lead treatment to the shooting down of Palestinian kids, or bombing and shelling of Lebanese civilians in the Middle East? Toward this end, accustoming the media to violence in India, the Pariwar, particularly outfits like the RSS (Shiv Sena) and the Vishava Hindu Parishad, periodically choose religious occasions to foment rioting and communal violence. They already have identified several churches and close to 2,000 mosques and shrines across the country for eventual demolition. The destruction of the centuries-old and historical Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh in 1992 was part of this pogrom. Systematic burning down of churches last year was yet another example of the same. In both cases, these episodes were the catalysts for large-scale rioting when hundreds of minority community members were killed.

Replacement of Demigods

The BJP and its compatriots have a long-term plan of first removing the images of modern India’s national heroes, and then of replacing them with its own. In this regard a sustained assault is being made on the personality of the revered Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatama (the Great One) Gandhi, who was assassinated by one of their own, Nathuram Godse, on Jan 30, 1948.

Two years ago a play entitled “Nathuram Godse Boltoy” (Nathuram Godse speaks) was staged in Maharashtra state and played to packed houses. The whole play was the defense presented by Godse (he was sentenced to death and hanged) in his trial, where he had sought to justify the killing of Gandhi. The play was banned after it generated serious unrest in Bombay, although BJP Prime Minister Vajpayee unsuccessfully advocated its continued presentation as a matter of freedom of speech.

Since then, Gopal Godse, 80, brother of Nathuram and a co-conspirator in the Gandhi assassination case, has given an inflamatory interview to Time magazine’s Asia edition (Feb. 14, 2000) wherein he has described Gandhi as “a hypocrite” and “the most cruel person for the Hindus.” He charges that spinmasters of the Indian National Congress and the media have unjustly conferred an aura of near-sainthood on Gandhi, as part of a campaign of deification of secular Indian national heroes.

There has been another significant development in the state of Gujarat, which has a BJP government in place. By law, government employees are prohibited from becoming members of political parties in India. Nevertheless, the Gujarat government is allowing civil servants to wear RSS uniforms (khaki shorts and white shirts) to work. This uniform has the same symbolic value as Mussolini’s Black shirts, Hitler’s Brown shirts, and the hoods and robes of the KKK. Congress Party leaders including Sonia Gandhi and other National Democratic Front (NDF) opposition members have strongly protested the Gujarat government’s decision. However, Prime Minister Vajpayee has, predictably, come to the defense of the RSS on the grounds that it is not a political organization but a cultural body.

Another equally volatile situation is developing in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Preparations are underway by the Kar Sewaks (activists) of the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal to carry out the post-Babri Masjid program to construct a temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site where the mosque was demolished by Shiv Sena activists in 1992. That destruction was spearheaded by present-day Home (interior) Minister L.K. Advani. Thousands of bricks have been brought from all across India and stored at the site. The actual construction was stopped by the courts. However, the original, and successful, destruction of the mosque was in defiance of court orders.

As a long-term project, the history of India is being rewritten with a Hindu slant. The Indian government has been funding several bodies, including the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan and the Indian Historical Society, for this purpose. School textbooks already have been changed. The only historical figure who has been eulogized to date has been the Marhata leader Shivaji, who advocated the BJP philosophy in the 19th century. In the same revisionist histories all Muslim rulers invariably are described as “usurpers” and “tyrants.” This indoctrination is part of the on-going program to Hinduize Indian society.

Accompanying this effort, the Hindu extremists have launched a methodical program to convert India’s Muslims, Christians and Parsees to Hinduism. Where forced conversions are not working, government subsidies and special treatment facilities are being offered to entice the under-privileged minorities. This is being carried out with intensity in the rural areas, in particular where the numbers are huge and poverty is starkest among the minorities, and such actions do not normally draw international or national attention.

Assault on the Constitution

The latest decision of the BJP government to appoint a commission to “review and update” the constitution of India is a calculated step to initiate removal of the secular and democratic features of the highest law of the world’s “largest secular democracy.” The task is not likely to be completed during the lifespan of the current BJP coalition government, because the party does not have a clear majority in the Lokh Sabha (lower house of the parliament). A two-thirds majority of the parliament is required to amend the constitution.

What is significant is that the ice is broken and a beginning has been made. It is true that the present BJP leaders are in their 70s, and have not successfully passed the mantle of leadership on to the next generation. But as late as 1988 the BJP had just four seats in the parliament, while today it has over 180. With Congress still in disarray after its latest defeat in national elections, it seems likely that the BJP will remain in power for at least a while longer.

This will institutionalize the Hindutva agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party and tarnish the mantle of secularism that has so brightened the international image of India for the past half-century. Opposition to Hindutva by President K.S. Narayanan, the Congress Party leadership, and other opposition parties may delay the process. That it will be able to halt the backsliding into relgious particularism over the long run is unlikely. Worst-case-scenario pundits are even predicting a holocaust-type upheaval within the next two decades in India if BJP Pariwar encounter serious obstruction to their Hindutva program. Ominous indicators of such an eventual upheaval are becoming more visible with each succeeding year.

Prof. M.M. Ali is a consultant and a senior fellow with The Center for Planning & Policy Studies based in the Washington, DC area.

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