Patel statue and pillage of history
Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was a leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), to which the BJP is keenly opposed. When Narendra Modi of the BJP unveiled the world’s tallest statue, of Sardar Patel of the INC, it should have been regarded as a political puzzle more intriguing than the awe inspired by the colossus. It is not often that a ruling party proudly unveils the statue of a leader who belonged to the opposition party, a keen and absolute political rival; nor have the two parties shared a common political formation in the past. The BJP has a lineage stretching back to the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which were minuscule groups proposing a Hindu political identity and a Hindu nation in marked contradistinction and opposition to the Congress during the freedom struggle; there has never been a commonly shared political lineage between the two parties.
The 182-metre, Rs.3,000-crore statue, christened the “Statue of Unity”, may remain the world’s tallest until another leader chooses to pour in tonnes of concrete and iron for another giant statue. And it will remain as a symbol of stealth authored by the BJP from the storehouse of history.
However, it does not appear that many people are surprised or troubled by the erection of the statue through political trespass. Since the time it was announced several years ago, when Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, the ambitious project of the State of Gujarat appeared as a desire to celebrate a great son of the soil. This might be an appropriate atonement for the patricide committed by killing the other great son of the Gujarati soil, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, commonly held as the father of the Indian nation. The act of patricide was ideologically inspired by the genealogical ancestors of the BJP, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. In appropriating the figure of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, an ardent disciple of Gandhi, and erecting his statue, the BJP appears to have counteracted the dastardly deed inspired by the founders of Hindutva.
It is obvious that the BJP seeks to find an ancestor from within the ranks of the INC, the party that led the historic struggle against the colonial power. This can, neutrally speaking, signal two kinds of possibilities. On the one hand, one can argue that it is after all good that the BJP is affirming that it is joining the historical mainstream of nation building, giving up the inherited animus borne towards leaders of the INC, since even in the recent past an RSS publication denounced Patel for his part in conceding Pakistan (Ashish Vashi, The Times of India, August 27, 2009).
On the other hand, this may speak to a more sinister design of locating the desire for the so-called Hindu nation in the heart of the INC. If one pays attention to the brazen acts of the public lynching of Muslims and assassinations of intellectuals by the elements of Hindu political theology in the last four and a half years of the Modi regime, one can hardly adopt the benign interpretation.
Obviously, it is the more sinister design of stealing a Congress leader to retroactively make him part of the Sangh Parivar so that Hindutva could be shown to have existed within the INC. The crucial question is whether there will be resistance to such an attempt from the purveyors of national history.
Ideological spectrums and borderlines
Ideological formations are not monolithic. They can never achieve coherence except through discursive abstraction and reduction. It is common to combine the binary of the “right” and the “left” with the striation of the conservative, the liberal and the radical to mark certain dispensations and individuals. Neerja Singh, for example, has persuasively argued that the Congress triumvirate, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and C. Rajagopalachari, usually labelled as “Right”, need to be understood in the Indian context and not to be consigned to the valences produced by Western political history (Neerja Singh, Patel, Prasad and Rajaji: Myth of the Indian Right, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2015).
If historiography with such meticulous documentation cannot do much to arrest the semantic drift of these epithets, it is hard to expect journalists and television anchors to produce much clarity. Hence, ideological labels are often an approximation helping to differentiate between groups and individuals in a given context. If Gandhi, the most enigmatic founder of the Indian political, was conservative in some respects, he can be identified as liberal in some tendencies and radical in many contexts. For instance, who else would valorise the peasant in the triumphal moment of industrial “civilisation”, as Gandhi did? He could keep the flock of “right-leaning” and “left-leaning” thinkers of various persuasions together, except for prodigals such as Subhas Chandra Bose.
Irrespective of their mutual disagreements and differences at various moments in the last three decades of the struggle for Independence leading up to the formation of India and Pakistan, which are documented in many volumes of correspondence, what united Congress leaders were perhaps two key elements of consensus inspired by Gandhi.
The first is that violence can never be the means of settling any social antagonism, including class antagonism; the second is that the political identity of the people and the nation cannot be the religious identity. India will never be a Hindu nation, no matter how neighbouring countries identify themselves. The INC holds on to this principle to this day. It now has to face the rival position that took the life of Mohandas Gandhi, represented by minuscule groups in those days which have become a formidable political force today, inching towards achieving the goal of the Hindu nation, where religious minorities will acquiesce to majoritarian wishes and outmoded and obscurantist values such as caste supremacy and patriarchy will flourish under state patronage.
The stark political dividing line between the Congress and the BJP, marked by the assassination of Gandhi at the founding moment of the nation, is sought to be blurred by extrapolating and exaggerating the differences between the leaders of the INC. If the Gandhi-Nehru differences charge our imagination for the battles on modernisation, the Nehru-Patel differences charge the confrontations on communalism-secularism miasma.
While there were many issues to be contended with, all those contentions calling for constant historical scrutiny and critical evaluation, the larger consensus that bound the leaders of the INC cannot be ignored. The religious identity was never sought to be conflated with the national identity, no matter how sympathetic one was to the Hindu cause and grievances in the period of political turmoil and the birth of the two nations, one Muslim and the other resolutely non-Hindu but Indian. Patel, going by extensive documentation produced by scholars like Neerja Singh, never wavered from the secular principle when it came to the identity of the nation and its citizens. He might have had a different approach to emergent events and problems from that of Nehru, which does not immediately align him with the Hindutva ideologists.
The two empty signifiers: Hindu and Indian
What is significant for analytical purposes is to realise is that “Hindu” is not as substantial an identity as “Muslim” is, while the national identity “Indian” is an unmarked category. The Hindu identity was as much a historical product of the colonial interregnum as the idea of the Indian nation or Hindustan. As one that marks a religious belonging, the term “Hindu” could have been in circulation before widespread European presence and incursion, but its use as a classificatory category obviously became necessary only with the advent of colonial modernity. In the everyday life of the people, the term Hindu would scarcely describe a person who would mostly be identified only by her caste and/or linguistic belonging. It has been repeated ad nauseum that the legal definition of Hindu reads as someone who is “not x” or “not y” since there could be no single universal and positive description that could define the term. It is not hard to see that both the terms, “Hindu” and “Indian”, were simultaneous historical constructs in a political sense.
Hence, borrowing from Ernesto Laclau, the political theorist, it would not be wrong to characterise the terms “Hindu” and “Indian” as competing empty signifiers that could seek to produce nationalist ideology and the attendant populism. In the late 19th century, it should have been possible for many entrants to politics to use the terms synonymously and un-self-reflexively to denote opposition to foreign rule. It is only through political praxis and mobilisation that the distinction between the religious and political identities could have taken shape to mark out the spheres of the religious and the secular.
We can understand the parting of ways of the synonymous empty signifiers over time if we understand the crucial operation that Laclau has delineated for such signifiers, which is the forging of “internal frontier” among the people. “Indian” as the lead signifier could erect the necessary internal frontier with videshi culture and its adherents, a la khadi, etc., while “Hindu” could lead to the forging of an internal frontier with Muslims and Christians as adherents of videshi religions.
Further, the early option for “Indian” must have not only been made to accommodate the Parsi, Muslim and Christian elite, who were part of the formation of the INC, but also for the convenience of not having to worry what exactly constituted the Hindu identity in a cultural and religious sense, since it was an umbrella term for demographic classification.
The plethora of devotional and cultural practices that came under the umbrella term have many affinities and connections but hardly make a composite whole either in terms of philosophy and institutions or structural functions. In fact, many of them have had long-time adversarial relationships with each other. Unlike similar adversarial branches of a common faith like Christianity or Islam, the so-called Hindu religious sects and branches cannot even strictly be ascribed to a common origin or lineage but only to random acts of amalgamations, appropriations and differentiations. Hence, “Hindu” is more of a demographic locative appellate than a substantial attribute to a person, in which quality it is akin to the national identity “Indian”, which is a citizenship, public sphere category.
Bane of caste hierarchy
What adds to the complication of the Hindu identity is the bane of caste hierarchy. The caste identity sets serious limits on sociality, as Dr B.R. Ambedkar emphatically pointed out, making Hindu hardly a token of national unification. In regions such as Tamil Nadu, where politics was defined by non-Brahmin political articulation which sought to dismantle Brahmin hegemony early on, the idea of Hindu as a common signifier could hardly make a case politically. The use of Tamil identity as an additional empty signifier to Indian citizenship has allowed Tamil Nadu to largely eschew the Hindu political identity while allowing popular devotional practices to flourish unabated (for a similar formulation, see M.S.S. Pandian, “Being ‘Hindu’ and Being ‘Secular’”, Economic & Political Weekly, Volume 47, Issue No. 31, August 4, 2012). Generally speaking, the term Indian stood a better chance as the common identity of citizenship, which was what was badly needed to conduct politics.
These conditions made it necessary that the Hindu political identity could only be fashioned through a radical othering of the Muslim and the Christian, which immediately leads to a politics of hate. While attempts have been made in terms of the political articulations of the Sangh Parivar to soften the edges of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian rhetoric, at the ground level the political energy rests totally on pogroms and hate speech against other religions.
For example, Walter K. Andersen, in the book he co-authored with Shridhar D. Damle, The RSS: A View to the Inside (Penguin, 2018), has documented the formation of the Muslim Rashtriya Manch as an affiliate of the RSS. It is not possible to connect such an effort to the frenzy of mob lynching of Muslims largely instigated by the hate politics of the Sangh Parivar. One can reasonably say that the Hindu political identity will necessarily have to develop hatred of other minority religions if it is to sustain itself.
However, the “strong state” enthusiasts may say that the Indian identity does not seem to have done well either. The state is seen as weakened by the political class acting out of electoral compulsions. The competitive claims of caste groups, which provide energy to political formations, the claims of linguistic regions for autonomy or secession, the protests of marginalised groups, armed insurrections of tribal or agrarian sections—all appear to point to the power elite the need for a strong state that can deal with all the “fissiparous” tendencies with a strong arm.
The emergence of the Hindu political identity promises to infuse such a beleaguered Indian identity with necessary firmness and resolve.
While any reasonably minded liberal would see in this slippage from Indian to Hindu political identity the proverbial frying pan to the fire situation, there is a certain statist allure to Hindu consolidation that mobilises fascist tendencies of popular nationalism. If the Hindu identity forces are to capitalise on such a vague fascination for a strong state, they need an icon from the cauldron of history that cast India as a nation. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who has been presented in textbooks for decades as the Iron Man of India who led the unification of the country by the absorption of the princely states, and who is popularly likened to Bismarck of Germany, is the ideal candidate. His differences with Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad on many issues arising out of the formation of the two nations, the violence that ensued, and refugee issues, appear to constitute him as “communalist” in the eyes of some analysts.
For the modern secular outlook, there are many things to worry about with regard to Hindu customs and culture, such as patriarchy-inscribed rituals and caste hierarchy. It often becomes necessary to develop a critical stance through which we can discuss the errors of judgment in various leaders about their allegiance to Hinduism even purely as religion or civilisation, their incapacity to really see the import of their actions of adhering to ritual practices and the differences they had with their modernising contemporaries.
In fact, such a critical evaluation is mandatory for guarding us against errors of judgment in future. Such a critical stance, however, is accompanied by a problem. From a certain vantage point, even parallel lines may seem to originate at a common point or appear to converge at a point.
Identities, political and cultural
The secular modern outlook that seeks to preserve the political identity of the nation and the citizen as Indian will have to distinguish between its opposition to the Hindu political identity and its disquiet with the Hindu religious and cultural identity. In holding both as belonging to the same set of political tendencies that it seeks to exclude itself from, the secular-modernising view allows political Hindutva to speak for the whole range of pluralising practices that go by the Hindu label.
Because the “transcendent identity of citizenship”—to borrow a phrase from Talal Asad, the cultural anthropologist—as Indian has been subscribed to, the other identities, including competing signifiers such as Hindu and Muslim, do not disappear. At a given moment it is absolutely possible to argue in favour of one or the other identity or allegedly oppose the claims of an identity without having to renounce the citizenship ideal based on secularism. The tension between the transcendent national identity and every other social identity will have to be taken as the very turf of politics on which power has to be negotiated.
Secularism cannot work as a universal bleaching powder where all identities are erased in favour of one transcendent identity. As William Connolly warns: “The logic of secular nationality is vulnerable to attack from one side as ‘abstract’ and ‘empty’; it is susceptible to criticism from another as ‘hypocritical’. Abstract because the pale, secular image of the nation is drained of dense, palpable, living examples that give it vitality; hypocritical because it secretly draws cultural sustenance from the ‘private faith’ of constituencies….” (William Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999). The nation cannot exist without its religions and pluralising cultures. There is a need to distinguish between the day-to-day dispensations towards one community or the other from partiality to converting a religious identity into political identity. The differences leaders may have had in their positions with regard to Hindu interests and culture cannot be amplified to such an extent that some are taken to be communal enough to be grouped with Hindutva forces.
The analytical difficulty perhaps lies in the unsuccessful use of the liberal tenet of private-public divide, through which religion and caste are sought to be accommodated in the private domain, and “deracinated citizenship” is taken to be the only coin in the public domain. The difficulty in such an approach is that the line dividing public and private is easily blurred. Whether it is the use of public space, claims of cultural rights, identity of office holders or areas such as education and personal laws, there is many a quandary as to what constitutes the right secular approach.
While the Hindu identity politics decries “minority appeasement”, the secularists would detect “communalism” in any sympathy for Hindu dispensations. It is one thing to contend with such sympathies and another to brand them as communalist.
There was a widespread celebration of the so-called Hindu civilisational accomplishments and temperament during the freedom struggle. A whole range of leaders held the Bhagavad Gita as the fountainhead of ethics and principles. Hindu philosophical schools and systems such as Advaita fascinated many leaders.
In a certain sense, all this appears inevitable in hindsight. Anti-colonial nationalism could not but reclaim a certain cultural or civilisational glory, with substantial help from orientalist scholarship, of course. The unease with which a liberal young mind today may encounter Hindu identity, post-Babri Masjid demolition and post-Gujarat riots of 2002, would not have been an issue for Congress leaders in the early 20th century. Even when most political actors wanted a common national political identity that was not Hindu, it would have been impossible to not draw from the discourse of Hindu dharma. Gandhi himself was known for his idolisation of “Ram Rajya”. That Patel, when lifting the ban on the RSS, imposed the stricture that they never become a political organisation, speaks volumes for the imaginary boundary line between culture and politics, private and public.
As Partha Chatterjee famously showed, the drawing board of nationalist imagination consisted in posing the difference of the cultural private sphere for claims of political sovereignty in the public sphere. In such a dynamic, it is ungainly to anticipate everyone to develop the critical lens of modernity when it came to questions of faith and cultural practices.
Hence, the primary political opposition should not be located between Hindu identity as such and a secular identity; the actual political opposition is between Hindu cultural-religious identity, in all its conflicting and pluralising dynamic, and the homogenising Hindu political identity.
It is only by conceding that Hindu religious identity is important for national life that the secular Indian identity as the primary political identity of the nation can be maintained. As much as such entities are imaginary, more than ever, it has now become extremely important to maintain and then segregate one imagination of Hindu as a religious-cultural identity from the other imagination of Indian national political identity.
Further, the criticism internal to religious cultural affairs need not be framed in terms of the conflict between secular and religious values if we are to learn from Gandhi. The criticism can always be made from within the folds of piety and devotion. It should also be noted that several constituencies that are aware of the oppressive features of Brahminical Hinduism are wary, more than ever, of the umbrella category of Hinduism, even if they practise some of the rituals that the religion may claim as its mark. They are certainly opposed to the Hindu political identity as they think that the political interests of backward/Dalit castes are opposed to Brahmin/savarna interests.
In such a context, the forging of the Hindu political identity is striving hard to sustain itself by hyper-masculine patriotism and the language of fear and hate. This is also seen to be in direct conflict with practices of popular devotion and piety that do not yield to political mobilisation and manage to resonate across religious identities. As many scholars, including the sterling example of Ashish Nandy, have remarked, there is no greater antidote to political Hinduism or Hindutva then the ever-pluralising popular energy of devotional practices.
If such a distinction between religious cultural Hinduism and political Hinduism is to be made the political tool, it is necessary for secular moderns to own a leader like Patel and not allow him to be appropriated by political Hinduism, to which he was opposed. The pillage of history should be exposed to repatriate such a historical figure to his rightful place as a quintessential Congress leader.
Rajan Kurai Krishnan teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi. He writes on film and politics in Tamil and English.