If the metamorphosis of Mohandas Gandhi’s Gujarat into a Hindutva laboratory was baffling to social scientists, Orissa’s recent emergence as another communal hotspot has been no less surprising. If the metamorphosis of Mohandas Gandhi’s Gujarat into a Hindutva laboratory was baffling to social scientists, Orissa’s recent emergence as another communal hotspot has been no less surprising. Over the course of August and September 2008, following the murder by Maoists of Laxmananda Saraswati, a sadhu closely associated with the Hindutva brigade, the state witnessed large-scale communal violence against the Christian community in and around Kandhamal District. This onslaught was actually a continuation of disturbances that took place in Kandhamal in December 2007, when Christians were likewise subjected to indiscriminate violence – churches burned, houses destroyed, women brutalised and innocent people killed – even as the administration turned a blind eye.
The ‘transformation’ of Orissa into another Hindutva lab is the central focus of Angana Chatterji’s book, Violent Gods: Hindu nationalism in India’s present. An assistant professor of cultural anthropology in California, Chatterji says her work was prompted by the Gujarat genocide of 2002, with her first visit to Orissa being a sequel to her Gujarat trip. There, she learned how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had galvanised its forces to replicate the “successful Gujarat experiment”. This initial exposure to the unfolding situation led the author to enter into a different kind of engagement in Orissa. She returned numerous times, meeting people from across the ideological spectrum, visiting victims of sectarian and communal violence, interacting with NGOs and social-action groups, and even involving herself in convening the Orissa People’s Tribunal on Communalism.
Of particular importance in Chatterji’s work is the impressive number of interviews she conducted during the course of her fieldwork, allowing her to get to know a broad spectrum of voices, including revisiting victims of violence. For example, the author made several visits to the village of Kilipal, where in February 2004 seven Dalit Christian women and a male pastor were tonsured (had their hair stripped from their scalps) by upper-caste and Hindu-identified Dalit neighbours. Chatterji’s first visit was in August, six months after the incident, and she returned four times over the following three years. By allowing the victims to speak over the course of these recurring visits, Chatterji hopes to break “the silence imposed by social disgrace, and enables action, legal and political”.
Violent Gods is thus an outcome of a process of interaction and reflection by a researcher who willingly slips into the role of an activist. Through her research, which is extensively reliant on oral historiography, Chatterji discusses the period between 1999 and October 2008. She begins with the horrific incident of Graham Staines, an Australian missionary working with the leprosy-afflicted in Orissa, who was burned alive with his two children by a mob led by Dara Singh, a Bajrang Dal activist. Plotting the trajectory of the state’s Hindutva forces (which are generally seen to have entered Orissa with the launching of a branch of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1940), Chatterji emphasises that the key to Hindu cultural dominance is the ascendance of an aggressive Brahminism, which legitimises certain forms of violence against the Shudras and Ati-Shudras. In this vein, the author describes the two aspects of the Hindu-majoritarian strategy to produce cohesion in Oriya society: ethnic cleansing and Hindutva education.
The book also provides details of the plethora of organisations built by the Sangh Parivar to reach a broad cross-section of people and to facilitate greater acceptance of its ideology. For instance, in the aftermath of the devastating 1999 cyclone in Orissa, which left some 10,000 dead, the Sangh organisations used relief work to spread its network. According the Sangh’s own records, its members could access more than 10,000 villages, thus allowing the vastly increased penetration of Hindutva ideology.
Without accomplishing anything
Of course, the insidious spread of violent Hinduism has also been witnessed in Gujarat, where Adivasis and Dalits, for the first time, aligned with the Hindutva brigade in its anti-Muslim carnage of 2002. While bias and prejudice has been a constant leitmotif of the mainstream Indian polity, institutionalised in rigid caste and religious strictures, understanding the appeal of violent nationalism has been a preoccupation of scholars and activists since the days of the assassination of Gandhi himself – an event detailed in a new book by senior political commentator A G Noorani. In particular, Savarkar and Hindutva throws fascinating new light on V D Savarkar, the main ideologue of the idea of Hindutva – his worldview and the love-hate relationships he shared with the RSS in general and specifically with M S Golwalkar, the second sarsangchalak, or supreme chief, of the RSS. Revered as a fighter for Indian independence by the right, and reviled as a fascist ideologue by the left and secular forces, Savarkar has long been a controversial figure.
Noorani succeeds in bringing to the fore the tremendous gap between the precepts and practice of the Hindutva icon. On the one hand, Savarkar ‘mourned’ the lack of unity and bravery shown by Hindus in history; yet on the other, he had no qualms in exhibiting cowardice in times of adversity. For instance, Noorani writes, in November 1913 Savarkar swore that he was ready to “serve the government in any capacity they like” in return for the colonial regime commuting his life sentence. Likewise, several decades later, he was ready to eschew politics completely when he was arrested for his alleged role in Gandhi’s assassination.
As for that allegation of involvement, Noorani discusses the J L Kapur Commission, set up in 1966 to revisit Savarkar’s role in the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi. That Savarkar had died a few years before the Commission finalised its report demonstrates the weakness of the prosecution that, in 1948, had allowed Savarkar to go free despite his clear role in Gandhi’s murder. Meanwhile, the RSS has always tried to distance itself from Gandhi’s convicted assassin, Nathuram Godse, emphasising that despite his long association with the organisation he had not been a member when he killed Gandhi. Yet Noorani quotes excerpts of a 1994 interview with Gopal Godse, Nathuram Godse’s younger brother, in which he clearly debunks such claims. “[A]ll the brothers were in the RSS,” Gopal states. “Nathuram had become baudhik karyavah [intellectual worker] in the RSS.” Nathuram and the RSS may have been “in a lot of trouble after the murder of Gandhi,” Gopal recalls, “but he did not leave the RSS.”
Although Noorani discusses the tensions between Savarkar and the RSS, the point seems to warrant a far more detailed analysis. Few people know that Savarkar castigated the RSS in no uncertain terms on multiple occasions, and that the RSS responded in kind. On one such occasion, Savarkar said, “The epitaph for the RSS volunteer will be that he was born, he joined the RSS and died without accomplishing anything.” Of course, that did not stop Savarkar and the RSS from joining hands to pay obeisance to the British in 1942 during the ‘Quit India’ movement, even as thousands of government employees resigned en masse. During this time, while the RSS preferred not to join the overwhelming anti-British campaign, instead concentrating on its ‘cultural’ agenda, Savarkar went one step further: undertaking a tour of India, he exhorted Hindu youth to join the British military, with the call Militarise the Hindus, Hindu-ise the nation!
During the early years of this decade, the Sangh Parivar suddenly ‘re-discovered’ Savarkar after a tactical silence around this controversial figure. In fact, in 2002, L K Advani, then the BJP’s foremost exponent of Hindutva, mustered enough courage to laud Savarkar as a national hero. Noorani suggests this was another attempt on the part of the Sangh “to displace Gandhi from his position as a symbol of Indian nationalism”. The chasm between these two figures is indeed yawning, yet both have had huge impacts on the fabric of modern India. While building a case for the unifying potential of Hindutva, Savarkar never questioned the caste system and its attendant violence, nor the manner in which Hinduism, in Noorani’s words, “fashions and romanticises caste unity through regulating caste hierarchy to bolster power, even as class, culture and gender interrupt the verticality of caste.” Yet the ascendance of Hindu hegemony has trivialised the idea of secular reform within the Indian polity, and ensured that Hindutva-isation is not noted as a threat to mainland national security – the ban on the RSS on a few occasions notwithstanding.
Both Violent Gods and Savarkar and Hindutva make for critical reading for anyone concerned with secularism and democracy in contemporary India. But a few questions do remain unanswered. What continues to make the idea of Hindutva acceptable to a large section of people? Does it have to do with the project’s ‘visionary’ leaders, or perhaps the strategies adopted by those leaders to deepen and consolidate their influence? Or, rather, does it have something to do with the very nature of Indian society and its inclination to violence against its own people?
~Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer, and editor of the Hindi journal Sandhan.