Foreign devils... keep out

Conspiracy theories and the Hindu Right? Ishtiaq Ahmed continues his series on the "unfinished business" of Partition

Foreign devils... keep out
Last week, I probed the Pakistani version of the so-called unfinished agenda of partition – the future of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir being decided in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, which prescribe a plebiscite through which the people of the state could choose to join either India or Pakistan. Such a standpoint does not enjoy any legal status in international law, although India’s presence in the Kashmir Valley is by no means popular and is backed by massive force and human rights violations.

But what of the Hindu Right’s stand on the so-called “unfinished business” of Partition? While they damn the Muslim League as being the villain of the piece, they also denounce Gandhi and Nehru as Muslim-appeasers who agreed to the partition of India and thus caused the breakup of Akhand Bharat.

Is the Hindu Right willing to swallow communal unity? - Courtesy India Times
Is the Hindu Right willing to swallow communal unity? - Courtesy India Times

The truth, of course, is that the Hindu Right itself has been a proponent of the Two-Nation theory. Its standpoint is as old as the Muslim separatist one – going back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Both complement each other’s fundamental conviction that Hindus and Muslims cannot become one nation through political reform and constitutional changes.

Theologically, this stems from the concept of mleccha (“unclean foreigner”). The caste system not only sanctions a strict hierarchical stratification of Hindu society, but also a horizontal system of boundaries that place upper-caste Hindus in the core, the very large Other Backward Classes (read “castes”) in the outer circle, and the rest – the Dalits and other religious minorities – outside that circle because they are supposedly polluted and, therefore, unclean. Consequently, in the Hindu nationalist movement that emerged in the early twentieth century, a number of scenarios were projected to deal with the Muslim “menace”: they should be pushed out of the Subcontinent into central Asia. The Subcontinent should be partitioned so as to exclude Muslim-majority areas from Hindu India. The Muslims should be reconverted to Hinduism or reduced to second-rate citizens.

J&K activists protesting against alleged human rights violations by Indian security forces - Courtesy The Hindu
J&K activists protesting against alleged human rights violations by Indian security forces - Courtesy The Hindu

The truth is that the Hindu Right itself has been a proponent of the Two-Nation theory

These “solutions” emanated in reaction to the Indian National Congress’ secular, inclusive nationalism, which emerged under M K Gandhi’s leadership. He began to speak of a “Ram Raj”: a concept he devised for an ideal government that would be based on deep ethical values. When asked to explain what it stood for, he admitted there was no Ram Raj in the Hindu past, but that the rule of Abu Bakr and Umar were examples of what he meant by an “ethical government”.

Such formulations perturbed moderate Hindus and Muslims, and M A Jinnah in particular disliked the mixing of religion and politics. However, Gandhi subscribed to the notion of sarva dharma samabhava (equal respect for all religions). Such an idea was anathema to Hindu extremists. Equally, his campaign against untouchability earned him the wrath of the Right, which made a number of attempts on his life.

The peace that almost was
The peace that almost was

Gandhi subscribed to the notion of equal respect for all religions - anathema to Hindu extremists

In contrast to Gandhi, the leader of the Hindu Mahasabha (founded in 1915), Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar, presented in 1923 the idea of Hindutva. This was an ethno-cultural category purporting to bring Hindus of all castes within a “communitarian” fold. Non-Hindus had to assimilate by accepting Hindu culture and India as their object of prime loyalty. They could, however, retain their religions as personal beliefs. In his will, he wrote: “If you wish, O Hindus, to prosper as a great and glorious Hindu Nation under the sun…. that State must be established under the Hindu flag.”

A more radical position was taken Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (founded in 1925) – ostensibly a cultural organization seeking to instil “martial arts” into the Hindus. At a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Europe and the expulsion of Jews had begun in Germany, Golwalkar wrote in 1939:

“To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by [sic].”

He went on famously to say:

“The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language – [they] must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture... or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment not – even citizen’s rights.”

During the freedom struggle, Hindu nationalism remained a marginal tendency. It was the secular ideology of the Congress that attracted both Hindus as well as Muslims and others who believed in a united India with equal rights for all citizens. This was confirmed in the Motilal Nehru Report of 1928, which prescribed universal citizenship based on equal rights for all Indians irrespective of gender, caste and religion; there was to be no state religion and India was to be a federation with a strong and effective centre.

Future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed strongly in the state as a medium for effecting progressive, egalitarian reform, had little sympathy for religiously charged argumentation in the area of rights claims. Nevertheless, he accepted Gandhi’s inclusive use of religion as a mobilizing strategy to build a broad united front of all communities against British rule. There was, however, a third strand of thinking in the Congress represented by Vallabhai Patel, which assumed an interdependent and mutually reinforcing relationship between Hinduism and the Indian nation.

India through Hindutva eyes
India through Hindutva eyes

In 1947, Partition resulted in the transfer of power to the Congress in India and to the Muslim League in Pakistan. The RSS and Hindu Mahasabha clamoured for Muslims to be driven out of India into Pakistan. The authors of Freedom at Midnight, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, have given harrowing details of Hindu attacks on Muslims all over India. The chief secretary of UP during 1947/48, Rajeshwar Dayal, has written that the deputy inspector general of the Railway Police, B B L Jaitley, unearthed a plot hatched by the RSS to carry out the genocide of Muslims in that province. The Congress chief minister, G B Pant, however, took no action and Gowalkar, who was in UP himself to supervise the attack, was not arrested.

However, when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948, the RSS came under a cloud and was banned for a while. The ban was removed in 1949 after the RSS adopted a constitution that satisfied Home Minister Vallabhai Patel, stating that it had formally agreed to adhere to the rules laid down by the Indian constitution. Whatever this meant is not very clear because the RSS has always spearheaded initiatives aiming to project Muslims as alien and, from time to time, when riots against Muslims have erupted, the RSS has always been involved.

However, by giving up his life for the rights of Muslims who had stayed on in India to be accepted as equal citizens, Gandhi created a surge of moral pressure, which halted the RSS and other extremist movements’ bid to expel Muslims from India. It also greatly strengthened the hand of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who must be credited for consolidating the secular basis of the state and for having the Indian Constitution prepared under the chairmanship of Dr Ambedkar – the biggest hurdle to India becoming a Hindu state constitutionally. The Gandhi-Nehru-Ambedkar combination produced that moral, political and constitutional balance, which prevented the Hindu Right from pursuing the completion of its unfinished agenda of partition, calling for the expulsion of Muslims from Bharat. However, whenever there is trouble in the Kashmir Valley, the Hindu Right cynically says that, if Kashmir is to go to Pakistan, so must all the Muslims who live in India.

Although Indira Gandhi was not a communalist in the narrow sense, she was a vindictive and dictatorial personality who did not hesitate to exploit religion to boost her image as ”India is Indira and Indira is India” (which her sycophants had coined). Later, the Congress itself, under Narasimha Rao, was implicated in letting the Sangh Parivar forces attack the Babri Masjid in December 1992. The tragedy resulted in more than a thousand casualties, overwhelmingly Muslim. Such attacks spread to other parts of India, notably Mumbai, where a Muslim terrorist attack finally halted the one-sided attacks being launched against Muslim communities by the Shiv Sena and other extremist Hindus. Earlier, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her two Sikh bodyguards, Delhi had witnessed carnage among the Sikhs in the backlash. The infamous Gujarat slaughter of Muslims in 2002 – while Narendra Modi was chief minister of the state – followed.

The 1947/48, 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars have rendered Indian Muslims vulnerable to the charge of being a “fifth” column. In the aftermath of the so-called Afghan jihad, a number of Pakistan-based Mujahidin groups began operating in India and Indian-administered Kashmir. The result was a series of heinous terrorist attacks in Delhi, Mumbai and other places as well as in Kashmir. These groups were able to recruit some Indian Muslims as well. Since then, the propaganda of the Hindu Right that Muslims are actually Pakistanis and should be despatched to their “true” homeland, has been carried out with renewed vigour.

The rise of the BJP has certainly given the Hindu Right a freer hand in blaming the Muslim minority as a whole for being disloyal and a threat to India and Hinduism. Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s bold decision to visit Minar-e-Pakistan when he was in Lahore in February 1999 is indicative of the will to reconcile to the fact of Partition, but on the whole, the BJP has been the democratic face of the rabidly communalist Hindu Right, comprising the various Sangh Parivar organizations.

The recent census in India shows an increase in Muslims from 13.4 percent of the total population to slightly over 14 percent. This has set alarm bells ringing about a grand “Muslim” plot to take over India sooner or later.

(To be continued)

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: