Callistine Lewis raises some pertinent questions about our convoluted formulations of national identity and stresses the need for a pluralistic reimagination of India.
We inhabit a nation where it is normal to open your morning newspaper and see scores of headlines of religious minorities being lynched, harassed, prosecuted, repressed and killed. We inhabit a nation where the slaughter of cows brings forth a harsher punishment, which justifies violence towards Dalits and Muslims. We inhabit a world of fake news and misinformation that seeps through our digital landscapes, threatening to overwhelm our sense of normalcy and usher in chaos that translates into real-life scenarios of lives being lost, communities being torn apart and history itself being distorted. This nation was borne of violence and it continues to echo those very screams.
Hinduism is not Hindutva. To be a Hindu and practice Hindu traditions is different from being a proponent of Hindutva, of the politicization of Hindu supremacy and hegemony. Despite historically being instituted as a secular country, the very religious nature of partition and out post-independence trajectory has led to the creation of a space where discourse has been overtaken by calls for religious hegemony to protect one from ‘them’, the ‘outsiders’, the ‘enemies’, the ‘strangers across the border and perhaps across the street’. The Hindutva Project has seen a resurgence in recent years and threatens to destabilize the very foundations of this nation, built on the walls of equality, secularism and rule of law. It, however, is not a new modern phenomenon. As Pritam Singh writes, in his paper titled “Hindu Bias in India's ‘Secular’ Constitution: probing flaws in the instruments of governance”, we see how there exists a symptomatic depth of institutionalised Hindu communalism in India and the shallowness of the secular foundations of the Indian republic. Besides legal precedence, the presence of Hindu Right Wing organisations that have openly campaigned for lynchings, communal violence, genocide, and violence have also demonstrated the volatility of Indian society when it comes to preserving religious harmony. The Babri Masjid demolition and its subsequent long delay in the investigative process of the violence as well as it’s disappointing verdict that acquitted all those responsible further deepens the narrative of religious hegemony that is systemic within the nation. Ruling regimes have consistently gone ahead and pandered to Hindu vote bank politics, thrusting upon itself issues of immigration, cultural insecurity and the glorification of an “ancient golden age” all to justify their hold over the majority community. The Citizen Amendment Act which systematically distinguishes between citizens based on their faith is an extension of this project, formalised in nature to stigmatize, vilify and alienate the largest religious minority community.
To hold a nation together, not only is the presence of the Institutions of a nation-state that are important but also the collective reimagination of what it means to be in a community, to be a part of a country, to owe allegiance to the motherland/fatherland. In a post-colonial society, often at times it is the invocation of the freedom struggle for independence, of the leaders who led the country, of the shared ideology and communities that are needed to aid in this very narrative. The narrative of the nation, therefore, is often likely to get homogenized in the pursuit of the larger imagination of nationhood. Other identity markers of caste, class, ethnicity, language, culture, gender, sexuality, creed and religion take a backseat as people make their focal identity that of one aligned with being part of a Nation-State; a ‘Citizen’. This citizen gives in to the social contract, bestows legitimacy on the State and if it is a democracy, votes and elects for representatives to run the nation. The State in return is bound to protect the citizen and ensure harmony, protection, and growth. When this social contract is broken, it is upto the state to own up to its institutional failings and we see that happening in the present day. The Northeast Delhi riots a few months back has been one of the deadliest acts of communal violence in modern India. The scores of lynchings, targeted political rhetoric demonizing communities as well as the systematic exclusion of marginalised communities are all byproducts of this larger religious hegemony that has come to take place. In the larger scheme of homogenizing the national identity, there seems to be a narrative that seeks to tie the Hindu identity with the Indian identity. This paradoxical amalgamation invalidates the lived experience of a number of marginalised communities and yet we see campaigns of “ghar wapsi” and tribal assimilation coming into play.
There is no question that Hindu chauvinism threatens the secular united idea of India that stands cautiously to this day and it is the duty of each one of us to be aware of the challenges that await us. It is therefore imperative that the Project of Hindutva that seems to be propounded by extremist organisations as well as State Machinery is held accountable for its potentially disastrous effects. The pandemic has only worsened the situation as lockdown norms have been weaponized to shut down dissent and have fractured social movements, especially with the deteriorating condition of the average Indian. We saw how Muslim communities were targeted and vilified for allegedly spreading the virus. Islamophobia and fake news proliferate through WhatsApp and churches in north eastern states as well as Chhattisgarh have been targeted by Hindu vigilante groups. There is no end to the number of examples of this form of religious hegemony being imposed on a religiously diverse country like India. It is also the institutionalising of this very narrative that legitimizes its violence. Now mainstream parties that don't usually align itself to the Hindutva narrative have gone ahead in the pursuit of ‘Soft Hindutva’ to capitalise on vote bank politics; organizing free trips to Hindu pilgrimage sites, visiting only temples during election seasons and invoking Hindu religious iconography in publicity outreach campaigns. Hindu Supremacy and Communal Harmony are mutually exclusive; you cannot have religious hegemony to coexist with democratic fundamental rights to be equally enjoyed by all and the ones who are most vulnerable are religious minorities, women, queer individuals and those socio-economically marginalised even within Hinduism. The narrative of homogenization of the Indian Identity based on the pretext of a sole religion is an invitation to a dystopia and it’s better we keep those visions to Netflix alone and not see it materialise in the real world.