In a recent book Hindu Ekta Banaam Gyan ki Rajneeti [Hindu Unity versus the Politics of Knowledge] (Vani 2019), my colleague and friend Abhay Kumar Dubey raises some extremely important issues that have now become central to the struggle for a more just and inclusive India. The book is in Hindi and written in the highly provocative and combative style that characterizes most of Abhay’s writings but there is something profundly disturbing – and enlightening – about the key point that he has to make. In this brief piece I discuss it here for the benefit of the non-Hindi reader (which is not the same as ‘English-speaking’ or ‘English-educated’). However, those who understand Hindi and are interested can watch the 42-minute discussion between Abhay Dubey and myself (recorded in Janaury this year) for the Youtube book discussion channel Parakh run by Kamal Nayan Choubey. The video is embedded this post below.
The central concern of the book is with certain blindspots in what Abhay calls the ‘Centrist discourse’ [madhyamargi vimarsh] or interchangeably, ‘anti-majoritarian discourse’ [bahusankhyakvaad virodhi vimarsh] – which, for some reason, has been rendered as ‘secular ideology’ by Yogendra Yadav in a recent piece in The Print. (Yadav’s piece and Rajmohan Gandhi’s response in defense of ‘secular ideology’ can he read here and here). In keeping with Abhay’s usage, I will use the term ‘anti-majoritarian’ rather than ‘secular’ discourse for this specific configuration that emerges in the the 1990s, for as we will see, this is not a simple continuation of the secular discourse of the 1980s. For the earlier discursive formation, however, I will continue to use the term secular and we will see below how the two differ.
The blindspots that Abhay insistently and relentlessly draws the readers’ attention to, have to do with the very superficial and often hugely misleading understanding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its deeper connections with the much longer and larger history of the project of forging ‘Hindu unity’.
The Project of Hindu Unity and the RSS
Abhay Dubey’s concern in the book is not just with the fact that Anti-majoritarian discourse (also referred to as Centrist discourse) ignores longer histories of Hindu reform that sought to unite Hindu society and the myriad ways in which RSS’s discourse draws sustenance from it; he is equally concerned with the persistent tendency in it to see the RSS as some kind of oddity, an inauthentic outgrowth from within Hinduism that is fundamentally at odds with Hinduism. The key question here is of course, the question of caste – the bahujan and dalit castes and their relation to mainstream Hinduism on the one hand and to the changing character of the RSS itself.
Abhay tracks the internal shifts within the RSS over the period of the stewardship of Golwalkar right down to the watershed moment of 1973 when Balasaheb Deoras became the Sarsanghchalak and delivered his famous 1974 lecture in the Vasant Vyakhyanmala series. This was the landmark lecture where Deoras not only denounced untouchability, (where he proclaimed that ‘if untouchability is not wrong, nothing in the world is wrong’), he transformed the future course of the Sangh and initiated the phaseof its active role in drawing in lower castes into the organizational fold. This is also the phase of RSS’ move to a more active intervention in politics. Abhay’s complaint, rightly, is that secularists of the time and till much later were wont to take these proclamations as nothing but pure rhetoric that had no implications for the way in which the RSS too was changing and trying out different strategies to forge Hindu unity.
The other interesting feature of the book is that it demonstrates the long history of the Hindu unity project by mapping it through two important phases of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first phase, beginning with the founding of the Arya Samaj in 1875 and Viveknanda’s Chicago lecture in 1893 extends up to the middle of the second decade of the 20th century and includes figures like Swami Shraddhanand and Col. U.N. Mukherjee, who articulate key elements of the discourse that goes into the fashioning of the concept of Hindutva. The second phase, according to him, extends from 1915 to about 1925, when figures like B.S. Moonje and V.D. Savarkar can be seen taking the task of theorizing the idea of Hindu unity in a more systematic way.
Abhay’s insistence on underlining these connections is actually a much needed corrective since even scholars who are aware of this history are generally dismissive of the Hindutva relation to the lower caste/ dalit question as it does not sit well with their understanding that it is a brahmanical project. Nevertheless, I was intrigued to see him claim that secular discourse has faithfully followed the path laid out in 1970 by K. K. Gangadharan in his book Sociology of Revivalism, which he says, initiated the tendency to attack Hindu revivalism without contextualizing it with reference to other revivalisms like Sikh and Muslim. I must confess that this was news to me and indeed I heard of this foundational impact of Gangadharan’s work for ‘secularist ideology’ for the first time through Dubey’s book. (See chapter ‘Badalata hua Sangh Parivar aur Madhyamargi Vimarsh ki Jadata’, in Pratiman 7 (13), June 2019) Other more knowledgeable scholars might be able to say more on this but since I continue to be unaware of Gangadharan’s work or its context, I will let this matter rest here. Where Abhay is right is that in the world of political activism the tendency of seeing the RSS as an oddity or an inauthentic outgrowth continues unabated and I will return to it in a moment. Abhay’s point is particularly relevant in relation to the lack of attentiveness in discerning the shifts and changes in the RSS strategy, all of which are first articulated in the writings and speeches of its leaders.
However, I want to underline here that the care with which Abhay seems to discern the shifts in discourse and practice where the RSS is concerned, suddenly evaporates when it comes to berating the changes and transformations in ‘secularist discourse’. Suddenly there is a seamless line drawn between Gangadharan in 1970 and ‘anti-majoritarian’ Centrist discourse today. Methodologically, of course, it is worth asking why and how an RSS Sarsanghchalak’s procalamtion (who is the unchallenged patriarch whose word is law in the orgaaniztion) is in any way comparable to what an unattached academic like Gangadharan or even an attached one like Aijaz Ahmed (another name invoked by Dubey for a later period) are at all comparable? Academic like us can go on writing what we want but that does not automatically become the ‘line’ of the ‘secularist movement’ or of anti-majoritarian discourse. If anyone makes such a claim, it has to be shown with evidence. That unfortunately is not quite in evidence here. If at all the RSS or its Sarsanghchalak’s words can be compared to anybody’s it has to be the successive Congress Presidents’ or Prime Ministers’. To pick up a motely group of names of scholars at random and pronounce judgement on the entire ‘secular’ or anti-Hindu Right discourse does not seem to make sense.
‘Secular Ideology’ versus Anti-majoritarian Discourse
I think the key element in Abhay’s book that is worth unpacking is his recourse to the terms Centrist or Anti-majoritarian discourse instead of secular discourse or secular ideology. This is so because, as I suggested above in relation to Gangadharan, there is an occasional sippage in his use of the two categories. Even a cursory familiarity with the struggle of the last three and a half decades – and here I am not talking of scholarly work but of struggles on the ground – is enough to show that the conjuncture of the 1989-1992 was critical in many respects. Secular ideology or discourse, properly speaking, was guilty of all things that Yogendra Yadav in his piece linked above accuses it of – though interestingly, Abhay’s own reference point is not that. A certain ‘irreligious’ disdain for the beliefs and practices of Hinduism and a relative reticence about critiquing Muslim or minority communalism was pretty much in evidence. However, a caveat and a reminder needs to be added here since the tendency is to forget that Leftists from Muslim backgrounds were as critical of their community as Leftists from Hindu backgrounds were of theirs. This is evident all through the early days of the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association when the Muslim Leftists writers were most under attack from ‘their own’ community leaders – a situation that continued right through to the decade of the 1980s, witnessed in the stance of many of them on the Muslim Women’s Bill which was brought in to overturn the Shah Bano judgement. And since in the definition of both Abhay Dubey and Yogendra Yadav, the socalled ‘secularist’ community includes feminists, let us recall that the most vehement opposition to the MWB came from the women’s movement. To say that ‘Leftists’/ ‘secularists’ only criticized Hindu communalism is a travesty of facts and an oversimplification.
Nonetheless, it is true that secular discourse was largely a discourse primarily of a deracinated English-educated elite and a modernist vernacular literati – a point that is often deliberately overlooked. And it has had its successes in political terms for fairly long periods all over India – with all the variations ranging from the secular-nationalism of the Congress variety to the Leftist secularism in states like Bengal and Kerala. My own sense from whatever I have studied and perceived is that neither in Bengal nor in Kerala was this practice ‘secular’ in the oversimlified way in which Yadav and Abhay Dubey try to present it. Indeed, the experiment in these two states still awaits a serious study but it does show, as J Devika has suggested on many occasions, the construction of a Malayalee ‘national-popular’ (and by extension Bengali national-popular) that was not Hindu or Muslim, however problematic it might have turned out to be subsequently.
In other words, while many of the things Abhay seems to be arguing may be partially correct, the Left (and even the Congress) was engaged in a different project of which the founding categories were not Hindu and Muslim. Secularism actually moved centre-stage only in the 1980s. Secularism was a subsidiary concern at least in the project of the Left and to some extent Congress secular-nationalism. The crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed the weak point of both – the secular camp as well as the Hindu Right, with the coming to the fore of the massive lower caste upsurge, as was dramatically highlighted around the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations. Though it is worth recalling that a large number of those mobilized for the demolition of Babri Masjid were dalits and lower OBCs as is clear from Bhanwar Meghwanshi’s autobigraphical account (I Could Not be a Hindu) (Main ek Kar Sevak Tha, in Hindi), it was still early days and RSS was still learning to make some room for the dalit bahujans.
It is actually in this tumultuous period following the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the implementation of the Mandal Commission that old secularist discourse reformulates its propositions in two different ways – and both do not necessarily add up together. The first is the realization of the point that both Yogendra and Abhay underline – the increasing alienation of the ordinary practising Hindu from the discourse of secularism and the secularists’ sense of being beseiged by a virulent right wing force. Here the critique of both secularism and Hindutva being made by Ashis Nandy in particular was crucial. Nandy was at pains to underline the modernity and secuarity of the Hindutva project that he saw as an illegitimate child of colonialism. All the elements that Abhay accuses the Centrist discourse of are fashioned during this period, including the idea that Hindutva wanted to reinvent Hinduism as a Semitic religion. And all the arguments about the inauthenticity of Hindutva come from the arsenal of Nandy’s ‘anti-secularist’ critique, which valorized lived inchoate Hinduism; it was emphtically not an argument from the old language of secularism that drew on the idea of a syncretic culture but was hesitant to claim Hinduism in its attack on Hindutva.
The second move, that constitutes another direction of reformulation, emerged from a belated recognition of the injustices of caste oppression. In the 1980s version of secular discourse, this would have been anathema as it was believed that caste was a relic of the past and should be allowed to die a quiet death. Post Mandal Commission, there was a realization that that attitude only amounted to a repression of any talk of caste while its oppressive structures not only continued but found a new life in modern institutions. The articulation of the ‘bahujan thesis’ (Kanshi Ram) and the defeat of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh by an alliance of the SP and BSP made it appear that at last an answer to the resurgent Hindu right had been found. The project of Hindu unity was being fractured right here, before our very eyes, in the new grand assertion of the bahujan castes. A section of the radical secular community found in the rise of the dalits a new language of rejecting Hinduism but not from the high modern vantage point of secularism but rather of a counter-tradition.
What Abhay identifies as the anti-majoritarian or Centrist discourse envelopes all these different positions and indeed many more – Ambedkarite, Periyarite or any position that stands opposed to the Hindu Right.
While correctly identifying this new configuration as anti-majoritarian rather than secular, Abhay nonetheless papers over their internal antagonisms (e.g. Dalit versus Left) and seems to slip ever so often in drawing a straight and linear connection between this and the 1970 ‘Gangadharan line’. The terms ‘anti-majoritarian’ or ‘Centrist’ discourse become such catch-all terms in his rendering that he is not able to see that this is at best a new configuration within which there are any number of discursive possibilities; it is not a singular discourse. What is more, he also seems to overlook the fact that sections within it, despite disastrous failure of the politics of ‘social justice’ and attempts at Dalit-Muslim unity, have their own counter-tradition to draw on. That this is no longer a political enterprise in the narrow sense but a quest for a lost tradition – Mahishasur worship being one illustrative example of such a search – needs to be recognized. If the project of Hindu unity has taken a hundred years and many failures and setbacks to reach here, there is no reason to supose that this new configuration has already had its day even before it has actually begun its journey. I am convinced that this is a battle that cannot be fought at the political level of elections alone. Whether or not it becomes a powerful force in future depends upon how this attempt at reconstructing a counter-tradition plays itself out.