Assessing Vajpayee: Hindutva True and False

Assessing Vajpayee: Hindutva True and False

by

Subroto Roy

 

 

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Nov 13 2005 and The Statesman, Nov 14 2005, Editorial Page Special Article

 

 

 

Atal Behari Vajpayee, mentored by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee himself, became Prime Minister of India for less than a fortnight in 1996, then again in 1998 and again in 1999 and remained so until he was voted out in 2004.

 

 

He became PM holding the trust of India’s 120 million Muslims. He was supposed to be the genial, avuncular “good cop” who would keep at bay the harsh forces represented by the unpredictable “bad cop”, his Deputy PM and long-time colleague LK Advani. It was the first time RSS members had come to lead India’s government. How is the Vajpayee-Advani duumvirate to be candidly assessed? The question is important not only for the RSS and BJP engaged in their own introspection and petty politics but for the country as a whole. India needs both a competent Government and a competent Opposition in Parliament, and it is not clear we have ever had either.

 

 

Overall, Vajpayee-Advani, as the chief public symbols of the RSS-BJP, earned relatively high marks in office handling India’s strategic and security interests, including the nuclear issue and Pakistan. Equally, they failed badly in their treatment of India’s Muslims and religious minorities in general. This is a paradox that can be explained by the general failure of putative Hindutvadis to acquire an objective understanding of the processes that had led to Independence, Partition, and Pakistan’s creation.

 

 

Roughly, their comprehension of these processes has been one which sees all Muslims everywhere as cut from the same communal cloth, regardless of the beliefs or actions of individual Muslims. In such prejudiced eyes, there is no conceptual or ultimate difference between a Jinnah and an Azad, between a Salauddin who attacks India at Kargil and a Lt Hanifuddin who dies for India at Kargil. This is the product of a sloppy and erroneous philosophy of history, which in turn is an outcome of an attitude towards modern science and modes of rigorous reasoning that can only be called backward and retrograde.

 

 

It has been signalled most conspicuously by the extremely public adherence of many putative Hindutvadis (and millions of other Indians) to astrology — in apparent ignorance of the fact that all horoscopes assume the Sun rotates around Earth. Astrology, a European invention, came to decline in Europe after the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo became widely understood there.

 

 

Like Indian Communists, Hindutvadi ideologues with rare exceptions played no role in the movement that led to Indian independence in 1947 and creation of the modern Indian Republic in 1950. They remained to their credit constantly suspicious of and hostile towards the foreign phenomena that were Bolshevism, Stalinism and Maoism. They remained to their discredit constantly suspicious of and hostile towards Indian Muslims, even at one point seeing virtuous lessons in Hitler’s attitude towards the Jews. They have in their own way subscribed to Ein Reich, Ein Volk but fortunately have always failed to find Ein Fuhrer (on a pattern e.g. of a modern “Netaji”).

 

 

Where Nazis saw communists and Jews in conspiracies everywhere, Hindutvadi ideologues have tended to see communists and Muslims, and also Christians and “Macaulayite” Hindus, in conspiracies everywhere. (An equal methodological admiration for Nazism occurred on the part of Muslims in the 1930s led by Rahmat Ali, the Pakistani ideologue — who saw “caste Hindus” as the root of all evil and in conspiracies everywhere.) The paradox of the RSS-BJP success in handling nuclear and security issues quite well and domestic issues of secular governance badly, is explained by this ideology of double hostility towards communism and Muslims.

 

 

On the positive side, Vajpayee-Advani advocated a tough clear-headed realpolitik on the issue of Indian’s security. “We should go nuclear and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a nuclear weapons’ state. The whole world will recognise us by our power. We don’t want to be blackmailed and treated as oriental blackies. Nuclear weapons will give us prestige, power, standing. An Indian will talk straight and walk straight when we have the bomb”. That is what the BJP told the New York Times in 1993.

 

 

Three years later, the moment Vajpayee first entered office as PM in May 1996, the government’s scientists who had already secretly assembled the bomb for testing, were instructed to stand by for orders to go ahead. Vajpayee did not know if his Government would survive the vote of confidence required of them. When it was pointed out that if he tested the bomb and lost the vote, a successor Government would have to cope with the consequences, Vajpayee, to his credit and reflecting his political experience and maturity, cancelled the test. When he lost the vote, the public demonstration of Indian nuclear weapons capability was also postponed until May 1998, after he had returned as PM a second time. The bomb was a celebration of Hindu, or more generally, Indian independence in the world. India had nominally freed herself from the British but not from Western culture, according to the RSS. Where the Congress had been in the grip of world communism, the RSS-BJP led India to nuclear freedom – such was their propaganda.

 

 

In reality, a long line of prime ministers including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and IK Gujral had authorised India’s bomb, and a long line of scientists starting with Homi Bhabha had developed it over several decades.

 

 

Vajpayee’s decision finally flushed out Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons developed with North Korea and China. Pakistan is an overtly Islamist state where liberal democracy shows no signs of starting even 65 years after the Lahore Resolution. Its nuclear bombs remain a far greater threat to the world than anyone else’s. Moreover, while India has renounced first use of such weapons, Pakistan has not only not done so, its Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan boasted in 1998-1999 that the next war would be over in two hours with an Indian surrender.

 

 

Such glib talk about nuclear war is beyond contempt in its irresponsibility. A study by medical doctors estimated that a Hiroshima-sized bombing of Mumbai would cause 9 million deaths from blast, firestorms, radiation and fallout. An Indian retaliation would end Pakistan’s existence (though the Pakistani super-elite has long ago fled with its assets to Britain and America). An India-Pakistan nuclear exchange would leave a vast wasteland, finally ending all intellectual controversies about Partition and Jinnah’s theory. In reality, each is hardly able to cope with natural calamities like earthquakes, cyclones and floods, and also has very grave macroeconomic crises brewing because of unending deficit-finance and unlimited printing of paper money. For either to imagine itself a major power is a vain boast regardless of the polite flattery from visiting foreign businessmen. Of course, while each remains the principal enemy of the other, neither is a serious military force in the world.

 

 

After the exchange of nuclear tests in 1998, Vajpayee took the bus across the Wagah border to meet Nawaz Sharif in February 1999. He claimed it was a diplomatic and psychological breakthrough as indeed it was for a moment. But it had not been his original idea. AM Khusro, who accompanied him on the bus, had worked with Rajiv Gandhi in 1990-1991 when Rajiv was advised to make such a Sadat-like move. Furthermore, Vajpayee failed to see the significance of the Pakistani military chiefs led by Pervez Musharraf refusing to meet him formally, which would have entailed saluting him when he was their enemy.

 

 

Vajpayee also may not have known the Pakistani monument he visited was later “purified” with rose water by orthodox Muslim believers. So much for Indian diplomatic triumphs or Pakistan’s diplomatic niceties towards their kaffir guest. BJP foreign ministers later ingratiated themselves with Ariel Sharon because he was an enemy of Muslims — though again the BJP seemed unaware that “a single hair” shorn from idol-worshipping Hindu women at Tirupathi was enough for orthodox rabbis to declare as “impure” the wigs worn by Jewish women made from such hair. The evil of “untouchability” has not been a “caste Hindu” monopoly.

 

 

Kargil war

According to the Sharif-Musharraf plan secretly brewing during Vajpayee’s Pakistan visit, the Kargil infiltration followed. India’s Army and Air Force gamely fought back in the initial weeks suffering relatively severe losses, but the country seemed mesmerised by World Cup cricket and there was no significant political leadership from Vajpayee’s Government until the second week of June 1999. It was only after Brajesh Mishra was provoked by an analysis of how Pakistan might actually succeed (with the possibility of hidden Pakistani plans of a blitzkrieg and missile attacks), that Vajpayee’s Government seemed to wake up from its stupor, mobilised forces rapidly and threatened Pakistan with direst consequences, a threat made credible because it was conveyed by Mishra via the Americans. The Pakistanis backed down, which led soon to Musharraf’s coup détat against Sharif, and the world has had to deal with a Pakistani state synonymous with Musharraf ever since. The Vajpayee-Advani military triumph at Kargil was short-lived, as it was followed within months by an abject surrender to the Taliban’s terrorists at Kandahar airport.

 

 

In the meantime, on 23 January 1999, the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were murdered by a savage anti-Christian mob as they slept in their car in rural Orissa. Vajpayee, the agreeable face of the RSS-BJP with allegedly impeccable secular credentials, responded without the moral strength that was necessary from a leader of all of India’s people. It was a model of weakness of political will and comprehension that would be followed in the larger catastrophe to occur in Gujarat.

 

 

On 27 February 2002, a train approaching Godhra station had a bunch of travelling rowdies bullying ticketed passengers, ticket-collectors and local tea-vendors. The vendors belonged to a lowly Muslim caste whose members were entrenched around Godhra and the nearby Signal Falia. During an extended stop at Godhra station, the altercations grew fiercer — the rowdies forcing people to shout slogans and roughing them up when they did not. False rumours flew that the rowdies had molested a Muslim woman and her two daughters who had been waiting on the platform. As the train left Godhra, a gang of rioters led by one tea-shop owner and other tea-vendors gathered before Signal Falia, stopped the train and assaulted it with stones and petrol-bombs.

 

 

One whole compartment was completely burnt, scores of passengers, including 26 women and 12 children, were incinerated, many of whom remain unidentified. (Some of those supposed to be in the compartment according to Railway lists were later found alive and well, as they had moved due to the rowdyism.) Throughout the day, Godhra District Collector Jayanthi Ravi stated on television and radio that a riot had occurred and appealed for calm. But after 7 pm, the State’s political executive called it a “pre-planned violent act of terrorism”, and an organised pogrom began against Muslims across the State. Over several weeks, thousands were killed and raped and turned into refugees inside their own country.

 

 

Political patronage

Gujarat’s chief political executive, a Vajpayee-Advani protégé, should have been immediately held accountable; instead he continued to receive their political patronage. Vajpayee, en route to a planned business trip abroad, made a perfunctory visit to the scene of the civil horror, then proceeded to Singapore, where he was shown moving around on a golf-cart wearing designer goggles. He had clearly failed to grasp the dimensions or the gravity of the nature of the office he held. Vajpayee thus came to lose the trust of India’s Muslims and minorities in general which he had earned by his moderation and maturity over many decades in the Opposition. The RSS-BJP had lost, perhaps permanently, the last opportunity to make their actions tally with their sweet words about a united Indian people living in bliss in a common sacred Motherland.

 

Vajpayee’s finance and economic planning ministers were as ignorant of the reality of India’s macroeconomics as the Stalinist New Delhi bureaucrats pampered by Congress and its Communist friends. These bureaucrats continued in power under Vajpayee. Plus the RSS’s pseudo-economists were enough to scare away all except a minor econometrician and a shallow economic historian. The latter led the BJP up the garden path in 2003-2004 with talk about India’s economy being on the point of “take off” (based on defunct American theory from the 1960s), which misled them into the “India Shining” campaign and electoral defeat. The BJP finance minister, thus misled, revealed his own ignorance of his job-requirements when he happily spoke on TV of how much he sympathised with businessmen who had told him CBI, CVC and CAG were the initials holding India back from this (bogus) “take off”. Equally innocent of economics, the BJP’s planning chief went about promising vast government subsidies to already-rich Indians abroad to become “venture capitalists” in India! Instead of reversing the woeful Stalinism of the Congress decades overall, Vajpayee’s Government super-imposed a crony capitalism upon it. Budgetary discipline was not even begun to be sought — another BJP finance minister revelling publicly in his ignorance of Maynard Keynes.

 

The signal of monetary crisis that was the UTI fiasco was papered over with more paper money printing. Privatisation was briefly made a fetish — despite there being sound conservative reasons not to privatise in India until the fiscal and monetary haemorrhaging is stopped. Liquidating real assets prior to a likely massive inflation of paper assets caused by deficit-financing, is not a public good.

 

RSS members and protégés appointed to government posts and placed in charge of government moneys revealed themselves as corrupt and nepotistic as anyone else. The overall failure of the management of India’s public institutions and organs of State continued under Vajpayee-Advani just as it had done for decades earlier. Vajpayee-Advani evinced no vision of a modern political economy as reformers of other major countries have done, such as Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev-Yeltsin, Adenauer-Erhardt, De Gaulle, even Deng Tsiaoping.

 

Irrational obsession

The overall explanation of the ideological and practical failure of the putative Hindutvadis must have to do with their irrational obsession over two decades with the masjid-mandir issue. Ramayana and Mahabharata are magnificent mythological epics yet they are incidental aspects of the faith and culture deriving from the Vedas and Upanishads. The motive force of a true Hindutva is already contained in the simple Upanishadic motto of the Indian Republic, Satyameva jayathe (let truth prevail) which is almost all the religion that anyone may need. The search for all truth necessarily requires individual freedom, and taking its first steps would require the RSS-BJP denouncing all their backward pseudo-science and anti-science. Who among them will liberate them from the clutches of astrology, and bring instead the fresh air and light of modern science since Copernicus and Galileo? Without rigorous modern reasoning, the RSS and BJP are condemned to their misunderstanding of themselves and of India, just as surely as their supposed enemies — literalist Muslim believers — are committed to a flat earth and an implacably stern heaven placed above it. Pakistan’s finest academic has reported how his colleagues pass off as physics the measurement of earth receding from heaven if Einstein and The Qúran could be amalgamated. The RSS and BJP need to free themselves from similar irrational backwardness in all fields, including politics and economics. It is plain Vajpayee, Advani or any of their existing political progeny cannot lead themselves, or Indians in general, to that promised land.

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On Hindus and Muslims

On Hindus and Muslims

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Perspective Page, Nov 6 2005

The one practical contribution made to India’s polity by the Hindu Mahasabha was to thwart the Sarat Bose/Suhrawardy idea in 1946-1947 of a “United Bengal”, which inevitably would have led to Kolkata andWest Bengal becoming part of Pakistan. The one practical contribution made to India’s polity by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was to help defend against the Pakistani attack upon Jammu & Kashmir which commenced on 22 October 1947 and included the Rape of Baramulla a few days later. The RSS contribution may have been more than what Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference or Jawaharlal Nehru and the Government of India cared to admit because it had had an offensive aspect as well; RSS attacks on Muslim civilians in the Mirpur-Pooncharea later formed the basis of Pakistan’s justification for the October 1947 attack and the origins of the “Azad Kashmir” idea. Practical contributions were also made by individuals like Shyama Prosad Mookerjee, who, for example, as a member of Nehru’s Cabinet, responded immediately to information received from a young Government of India officer in Karachi in September 1947, sending ships and Navy frigates from Bombay to retrieve thousands of Hindu refugees in danger of being massacred. The one theoretical contribution made by the Hindutvadi organisations in India has been to establish that it is not a matter of shame and can be a matter of pride to be a Hindu, or, more generally, to be an Indian in the modern world. This is important, even though most RSS and BJP members today may have altogether failed themselves to understand its nature and significance. Indeed, the small handful of Muslims who have been part of their organisations may have understood it rather better.

To be Muslim, a person has only to believe that God is One and Muhammad is the last of the prophets, i.e. to pronounce the Kalma. Nothing else is either necessary or sufficient. Praying daily, facing Mecca (or Jerusalem before it), going on pilgrimage, fasting during Ramzan, giving to the poor, circumcising boys, polygamy, inducing the modesty of women though seclusion or the veil, have all been part of Muslim practice for ever because they were aspects of the Prophet’s life. But if a Muslim did not pronounce the Kalma, everything else he/she might do is rendered meaningless. The Kalma is necessary and sufficient for Islamic belief. All else is incidental and logically superfluous.

The first half of the Kalma is a commitment to an austere monotheistic ontology; the second half is an oath of fidelity to the Prophet because he was the original exponent of this ontology (in Arabic). Muhammad (572-632 AD) was without a doubt among the greatest of men, as may be measured by his vast impact on human history. His total self-effacement and abhorrence of adulation was signified when at his death it was famously said “If you are worshippers of Muhammad, know that he is dead. If you are worshippers of God, know that God is living and does not die”.

Abul Kalam Azad understood well that there was no contradiction between being Muslim by faith and Indian by nationality. “My ancestors came to India from Herat in Babar’s time…” is how he began his autobiography. No one could think Azad anything but a proud Indian nationalist. No one ~ certainly not MA Jinnah ~ could think of Azad as anything but a Muslim and a scholar of Islam. Yet Azad’s respect and admiration (like that of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan) knew no bounds for the only reformer since Vivekananda that Hinduism has seen in the 20th century: a Congress politician by the name of MK Gandhi,who came to be murdered by Hindu fanatics. By contrast, Jinnah, the political founder of Pakistan, could see Congress only as a Hindu party and Gandhi the Hindu leader using Hindu symbols against whom he was juxtaposed in a struggle for power after the British left: “Congress leaders may shout as much as they like that the Congress is a national body. But …(the) Congress is nothing but a Hindu body,” he declared in 1938. Jinnah’s ambition, and that of the separatist Muslim elite, demanded that they rule themselves in isolation in corners of India.

Throughout the period of Hindu Westernisation in response to the opening to the world presented by the British Raj, the Muslim elite were instead chafing under the idea that an India free of British rule could possibly have Muslims living under governments composed of people who were not “People of the Book” mentioned in the Muslim scriptures. Even if British rule had been almost intolerable in Muslim eyes ~ rendering India’s territory dar-ul-harb at worst or dar-ul-aman at best ~ the British were at least “People of the Book”. After a British departure, rule over Muslims by a Hindu majority, supported by the much-feared Sikhs (“kaffirs with beards” in Muslim popular perception), was felt to be psychologically intolerable. Not only were Hindus, in Muslim eyes, polytheistic believers in idol-worship and practitioners of a caste-system, but everyone knew that the vast majority of India’s Muslims had been themselves converts from the same Hindu social and cultural origins, and there would be constant danger of relapse of Muslims into Hindu beliefs and practices if the country was governed by a Hindu majority. The slogan “Islam in danger” has always had substance in the sense that the faithful have constantly had to mind the dangers of yielding to temptations around them, including scepticism, syncretism and pantheism. Hence, insularity and communalism ~ a psychological circling of the wagons in terms of the American Wild West ~ was a natural political response of Muslims to the Hindu (and Parsee and Christian) modernisation of India in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Such were the implicit unspoken premises driving the Pakistan Movement which Iqbal and Jinnah came to lead in the 20th century. The origins lay in the thoughts and deeds of Shah Wali Allah (1703-1762) and his Arab contemporary in Nejd, Mohammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabism. It continued with men like Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi(1786-1831), and Titu Mir (1782-1831), until we reach the Islamic “moderniser” Sayyid Ahmed Khan who, while being the founder of Muslim higher education at Aligarh, was also the fountainhead of the separatism that led to the Muslim League’s creation in 1906. “We are an Arab people whose fathers have fallen in exile in the country of Hindustan, and Arabic genealogy and Arabic language are our pride,” Wali Allah had said. Barelvi after him declared: “We must repudiate all those Indian, Persian and Roman customs which are contrary to the Prophet’s teaching.” “In the later 1820s, (Barelvi’s) movement became militant, regarding jihad as one of the basic tenets of faith. Possibly encouraged by the British, with whom the movement did not feel powerful enough to come to grips at the outset, it chose as the venue of jihad the NW frontier of the subcontinent, where it was directed against the Sikhs. Barelvi temporarily succeeded in carving out a small theocratic principality which collapsed owing to the friction between his Pathan and North Indian followers; and he was finally defeated and slain by the Sikhs (at the battle of Balakot) in 1831,” points out Aziz Ahmed, in AL Basham’s A Cultural History of India. Barelvi’s jihadi proto-Pakistan state near Peshawar was named Tariqa-yi Muhammadiya; it may have survived at Sittana until the First World War. Leaving to one side Rahmat Ali’s lonely scheming from England and invention on the top floor of a London bus of the name “PAKSTAN”, such was the genesis of Iqbal and Jinnah’s Muslim state.

Azad, on behalf of scores of millions of Muslim Indians including Sheikh Abdullah and Zakir Hussain and Ghaffar Khan among the most prominent, candidly raised objections to this entire exercise: “I must confess that the very term Pakistan goes against my grain. It suggests that some portions of the world are pure while others are impure. Such a division of territories into pure and impure is un-Islamic and is more in keeping with orthodox Brahmanism which divides men and countries into holy and unholy – a division which is a repudiation of the very spirit of Islam. Islam recognises no such division and the Prophet says `God made the whole world a mosque for me’.”

Azad had seen that India is or can be dar-ul-Islam or at least dar-ul-aman and not dar-ul-harb, because the Muslim in this land of ours –bounded by the mountains and the seas, with the rivers in between them, all of which the Hindu finds sacred and imagines to be the home of the Hindu pantheon – is in fact able to practise his/her faith freely despite the majority culture superficially being or seeming to be one which is polytheistic and pantheistic. The majority culture in India has had no theoretical or practical difficulty with the recitation of the Kalma anywhere or anytime in the country. The handful of Muslims in the RSS and BJP today may have understood something of the same. Visiting Pakistanis today are amazed by two things in India: the presence of women in public life and the fact that Muslims are free to practise Islam. Muslims may privately believe their Hindu compatriots or cousins to be hopelessly ignorant of the truth, and vice-versa, but nothing in public life needs to hinge on such mutual beliefs people have about one another. That is what was meant when the present author said in the Introduction to Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy that Jinnah’s address to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly was as secular as any that may be found.