Hindu Nationalism, Democracy and Demographics

Image Source: Indian Folk

Hindu nationalism is 100 years old. It is said that it was born out of upper caste demographic anxiety in the context of British offer of one man-one-vote to Indians. The colonial act of 1919 gave Indians for the first time (although in a limited way) electoral power to choose their own leaders. Never before did Indians have an opportunity to choose their leaders. A caste hierarchical society did not require to choose leaders. Leaders sprung from caste locations that wielded power. But now that British offered the power of Ballot to choose the leaders, the upper caste panicked and we find the seeds of what we know today as Hindu nationalism already germinating in that period.

Although Hindu Nationalism appears to place its roots in a golden past and extend its reach into a sacred geography of akhand Bharat, it has to be understood that it simply has a beginning 100 years ago. One can also find how the 19th century renaissance question ‘what is Hinduism?’ then changed and in the face of the right to choose one’s leader through the ballot become ‘Who is a Hindu?’ in the hands of V D Savarkar. This shift from understanding the phenomenon of Hinduism to the demographics of Hinduism is clearly triggered by the new offer of the ballot box. India being a caste society, the primacy of group behaviour surmounts and hence, the challenge was to engineer a way to get the obvious Hindu majority vote as Hindus. It took hundred years of patient hard work on the part of the RSS and its affiliates to get the majority of India to vote as a majority. Dr Vinay Sitapathi of Ashoka University makes this point crystal clear when he says, ‘more than any single event, it is this introduction of one person-one-vote in India through the general elections of 1920, 1923 and 1926-that created Hindu Nationalism’.

The logic of democracy came to be seen through the prism of demographics as for the first time sheer numbers made it possible to gain state power. The ideology of Hindutva emerges out of this demographic anxiety and is a struggle to avoid the possible loss of power and privilege of the upper caste. Although there are other factors that are also responsible for the rise of Hindu nationalism, Sitapathi states that without the background of one-person-one-vote one cannot understand its emergence. It is through the ladder of election as a way to gain power that Hindu nationalism tried to mobilise the masses.

The fact that we see today BJP as an election machine was always the DNA of Hindu nationalism. It has successfully used the principle of democracy to subvert the principle of secularism often viewed as the Nehruvian consensus. The principle of secularism is Indian at heart and is embedded in the ethos of our civilization which always welcomes the other. Today what one can see is that the other is constructed from within India on the basis of religion to gain demographic advantage during elections. This fact also shows how unIndian and even how far the present Hindu nationalism is from traditional Hinduism. Sitapathi indicates this when he says that a senior BJP told him: ‘our aim is to worship God through winning elections’. This hunger to win elections is indeed visible today in the way BJP gives importance to every big or small election. Pratap Bhanu Mehta of Asoka University also underlines the fact that traditional Hinduism does not offer a clear articulation of a Hindu state. Hence, most Hindus welcomed Democracy and began to swim into it as ducks in water. This might also explain why Indian democracy succeeded and that of Pakistan failed. Mehta further emphasizes that Ram Raj is more a slogan well thought out counter to electoral democracy.

We can also trace how Muslim nationalism that culminates in the formation of Pakistan is also born out of one-person-one vote. Muslim nationalism rejected the one-person-one vote because it carried the possibilities that could effectively reduce the Muslims to minority. Unfortunately, one-person-one vote democratic principle continues to minoritize the Muslims and others in India even after the partition of India. Given the diversity in our country, we have to accept that the principle of one-person-one-vote becomes responsible for the creation of vote bank politics that haunts our Indian Democracy. Indians do not think as individuals. Being a society defined by caste, it is famously said that we do not cast our vote but vote our caste. Sitapathi therefore, states that Hindu Rashtra is nothing but a Hindu-vote bank. He further says that ‘This creation of the Hindu vote back has been a hundred-year project. In order to achieve this, it has been necessary to play up ( in many cases invent) what Hindus have in common . This ranges from common cultural grammar (a taboo against beef, uniform worship of Lord Ram … as well as common loathing of Mulsims as the “other”’.

This does not mean that Hindu nationalism is democratic or liberal or even constitutional. It only means that Hindu nationalists have learnt to use democracy to achieve their goals. Thus, we have to pay heed to Salvoj Zizek who teaches that democracy is nothing more than an ideology. Democracy is an ideology for the liberals to deliver good governance and uphold the moral principle of protection of the weak and the minority. To the Hindu nationalists, democracy is also an ideology that can be milked to deliver their goals of majoritarian rule. This is why Sitapathi says that BJP will not abolish constitutional democracy in India. He says there is no Hindu Rashtra to come. It is arriving on the back of elections. The principle of one-person-one-vote is already putting it in front of us. We seem to be heading into what has been called tyranny of the majority. It will be of great academic interest to study how Hindu nationalism riding on the Hindu vote bank avoids or falls into tyranny of the majority.

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