It is hard to deny a peculiar rise in at least the volubility, if not actual emboldening, of the Hindu right since the emergence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Assertions by the Hindu right about what India in their imagination should be are diverse and emphatic. They have the potential of ultimately proving self-defeating for the prime minister who would rather that the extreme affiliates of his party simply disappeared for the next four and half years of his term.
From light saffron to deep ochre, one is beginning to see a spectrum emerge from inside India’s ruling and avowedly right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There are early signs of relatively moderate supporters of the prime minister’s economic growth and development-centric agenda beginning to feel antsy about the increasing visibility of this spectrum. It surprises me that that they are surprised at the turn of events.
From making the Bhagwad Gita as a national book, as suggested by the reputedly moderate External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, to calling all those who do not follow Ram “bastards” as described by Niranjan Jyoti, the spectrum covers quite a range. In between you have Sakshi Maharaj saying Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse was a “patriot” and Adityanath and others aggressively pushing a campaign of reconverting Muslims and Christians back to the Hindu faith quite craftily christened “ghar vapsi” or homecoming.Closer to the lighter hue or saffron there is also a nascent campaign to restore primacy to the Sanskrit language.
Incidentally, former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who turns 90 on December 25 and who has been the torchbearer of moderation and enlightened pluralism within the BJP, has been on record being against the idea of a national book or any of the other crazy demands within his party and outside.
What Prime Minister Modi’s impressive electoral victory in May has done is to create an ecology that is highly conducive to zealotry in varying degrees. It may not have been his intention but it does appear to be its unintended consequence. In some sense diverse expressions of this zealotry as illustrated by the examples above are nothing but stakeholders in Modi’s victory subtly and not so subtly demanding their pound of flesh. It is being reported that the prime minister is rather unhappy at the way his party’s lawmakers are pushing their own often lunatic ideas to the forefront now that the BJP is in power and in the process overwhelming his development agenda. He has been quoted as admonishing BJP Members of Parliament (MPs) not to cross the “Lakshman Rekha”, an expression which is ironically loaded with a deeply Hindu reference.
I was struck by how the prime minister explained away party MP Niranjan Jyoti now retracted assertion that there were two kinds of Indians “Ramzada” (as in children of Ram) and “haraamzada” (as in bastards or illegitimate). He said perhaps part of the reason behind her utterance was her rural/rustic background. The implication was that such salty language was nothing out of the ordinary in a rural setting. It was a labored spin because journalists like me remember how “Bachcha bachcha Ram ka, Baki sab haram ka” (All children are Ram’s children, the rest are bastards) was the defining slogan of the Hindu right during the 1990s.
It is possible that the prime minister is beginning appreciate the terrible dilemmas that his party predecessor Vajpayee faced in trying to balance the competing ideological demands from within the party and outside. Unlike Modi’s, Vajpayee’s was a coalition government and he was buffeted from several sides as he tried to keep up his natural, almost Nehruvian moderation. For Modi, his victory could become an albatross around his neck if he does not rein in the rising frequency with which the extended Hindu family is becoming voluble about putting into practice its core beliefs.
Speaking of core beliefs, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the Hindu political philosophy fountainhead Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has begun to insist with a greater urgency of India being a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation). At the operational level of that core belief is the question of conversion of people from one religion into another. Traditionally, religious conversion has worked for Indians languishing on the oppressive margins of Hindu society accepting either Christianity or Islam. Although those numbers are nowhere close to being so high as to even remotely threaten to upend the Hindu majority, the Hindu right has always found in religious conversion an attractive cause.
As part of the apparent emboldening, there have been cases of Hindu groups “reconverting” Christians and Muslims back to the Hindu faith in recent weeks. Much zealotry and fanfare attend such reconversions and in the process create optics which the prime minister may not particularly like at a time when he wants to concentrate of economic development. The BJP’s original argument against forcible religious conversion has always been specious because although religious conversion does happen it does not happen in an ominously coerced manner that the party insists they do and nowhere close to numbers which it claims.
In a move that is brilliantly crafty for its political consequence, the RSS and other Hindu organizations are now demanding a law against forcible religious conversions. They make it a point to make a distinction between forcible conversion and voluntary acceptance of another religion, the latter being guaranteed as freedom of religion by the Indian constitution. While this is not a clear case of being a distinction without a difference, it has some element of it because conversion to Christianity or Islam is not necessarily achieved by coercion but often through deception and by subtly brainwashing those who have been at the rough edges of the Hindu society. What is brilliantly crafty about the Hindu right’s move calling for an anti-conversion law is that they know that on balance such a law would help achieve their original intention of instilling the fear of law among Christian and Islamic groups looking to convert rather than Hindu groups reconverting.
In this context,as is his wont at a rally in Kolkata, Bhagwat cast the debate within the much trumpeted liberalism of Hinduism. “Hum ko kisiko badalna nahi hai. Hindu kisi ki badlne par aisa vishwas nahi karta. Hindu kehta hai parivartan andar se hota hai. Lekin Hindu ko parivartan nahi karna hai to Hindu ka bhi parivartan nahi karna chahiye, (We do not want to convert anyone. Hindus do not believe in converting anyone. Hindus say change should come from within. However, if Hindus are not supposed to convert anyone, Hindus should also not be converted.)” he said. This is an argument which is hard to fault or counter at the popular level even though, as I said, the numbers about religious conversion are not such that they actually threaten the religious demography in any way.
It has been my experience that extremely few religious conversions, especially from Hindu to Christian or Islam, happen out of any serious religious conviction. For the Christian missionaries and Islamic cleric conversions are about expanding their respective flocks while for Hindu fundamentalists it is about “purification” of those who in their judgment got tainted by another faith. It is a weird dynamic which to me is nothing more than just another example of how insidious religion can generally be. What Bhagwat is saying about Hindus not wanting convert anyone is philosophically true but I doubt if the Hindu right would be particularly disinclined if helped grow their numbers.
I am not entirely sure if Prime Minister Modi necessarily sees these trends as a problem or an opportunity or merely an acceptable consequences of the kind of politics he and his party have practiced for decades.