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Published in the 16-31 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

By Yoginder Sikand

Name of the Book: The Path of the Parivar: Articles on Gujarat and Hindutva
Author: Mukul Dube
Publisher: Three Essays, New Delhi
Year: 2003. Price: Rs. 140
Name of the Book: Women and Communalism
Author & Publisher: Mahila Jagruthi, Bangalore
Pages: 60. Price: Rs. 50

As the next general elections draw closer, the Hindutva juggernaut rolls on, threatening to throw India into chaos and civil strife. With the economic crisis deepening, social inequalities mounting and India’s ruling classes selling out the country to rapacious multinational corporations, there are every signs of a fascist take-over. Hindutva, India’s unique brand of fascism, serves that agenda perfectly. In the name of an imagined unified Hindu community, it conveniently glosses over internal contradictions of caste, gender and class. By targetting marginalised groups like Muslims and Christians as the source of all of India’s ills, it conveniently deflects attention from the root cause of the plight of the poor — ruling ‘upper’ caste/class hegemony in league with imperialism.

These two books serve as timely reminders of the growing threat of fascism looming above the horizon in India today. As both books make clear, in the name of ‘Hindu’ unity Hindutva poses the gravest threat to the vast majority of the ‘Hindus’ themselves—Dalits, Backward Castes, tribals, workers, peasants and women — marginalised groups that together form the overwhelming majority of the ‘Hindu’ population. In other words, they very pointedly suggest, Hindutva must be countered not simply by pointing out the very real dangers that it poses to its favourite scapegoats—Muslims and Christians—but, perhaps more importantly, by highlighting what a Hindu Rashtra would mean for the majority of the Hindus themselves.

Dube’s book consists of a series of essays on Hindutva, focussing particularly on the recent state-sponsored genocide of Muslims in Gujarat. Dube argues that Hindutva, as the Gujarat experience so strikingly shows, is inherently fascist, stridently opposed to secularism and democracy. The brutal slaughter of thousands of Muslims in the state exposes much-touted Hindutva claims of tolerance and acceptance to be a complete farce. Dube argues that Hindutva is the modern, contemporary form of Brahminism. If Muslims are its most direct victims today, tomorrow the ‘lower’ castes and tribals, who form the majority of the ‘Hindu’ population can probably expect to be subjected to somewhat the same treatment at the hands of the ‘upper’ castes/class minority who form the backbone of the Hindutva movement.

The Mahila Jagruthi’s book contains five provocative articles on various dimensions of Hindutva, again arguing that Hindutva is clearly a fascist ideology and must be countered both at the level of ideology as well as politically. In his piece, Bhanu Pratap Das, senior professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, makes a historical and political analysis of communalism in India. He traces the genesis of Hindutva in pre-Partition times, showing how the leading Hindutva ideologues such as Savarkar, founder of the Hindu Mahasabha, and Golwalkar, supremo of the RSS echoed the Muslim League’s insistence that Hindus and Muslims were two separate, irreconcilable ‘nations’. They believed that Muslims could be allowed to stay in India was either by agreeing to become virtual Hindus or else accepting a status of second-class, legally discriminated against, citizens. Naturally, this further alienated the Muslims, thus leading finally to the Partition of India in 1947. Hence, despite its shrill rhetoric of ‘Indian unity’, the Hindutva brigade proved to be a major cause of the division of the country. In addition, Das writes of the many open sympathisers of the Hindutva cause within the Congress Party, who likewise played a major role in the events that led to the Partition. Das rounds up his argument by insisting that today, too, Hindutva carries on with its destructive, divisive agenda, threatening to lead India down the fascist path. In a fascist India, he says, not just Muslims and Christians, but the vast majority of the Hindus themselves would find their rights sharply curtailed. 

Ram Puniyani’s brilliant essay focuses particularly on the issue of Hindutva and women. He shows how Hindutva is an extremely patriarchal ideology, no different from the brand of Islam that was sought to be forcibly imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Hindutvawadis, inspired by the vision of the Brahminical lawgiver Manu, regard the role of the ideal Hindu woman as simply to serve her husband and family. This explains why the Hindu Right was vehemently opposed to the Hindu Code Bill proposed by Dr. Ambedkar which sought to provide Hindu women with basic rights that classical Brahminical law had denied to them. This opposition was so stiff that Ambedkar (whom, incidentally, the RSS is today desperately seeking to co-opt as one of its icons in order to win over the Dalits) was forced to resign from his cabinet post. Decades later, the Hindu Right does not appear to have changed its position on women in any significant manner. Puniyani tells us that the VHP and other RSS-allied outfits generally insist that women should not go out of their homes to work, unless there is a dire need to do so. He quotes Mridula Sinha, president of the BJP’s women’s wing, the Mahila Morcha, as admitting that she received dowry for her son and paid dowry for her daughter (a flagrant violation of the law!), and as also condoning wife beating. He refers to the strident support lent by leading Hindutva activists and ideologues to the barbaric practice of sati (including Vijay Raje Sindhia, former vice-president of the BJP, a widow herself!) in the name of protecting Hindu ‘tradition’. He quotes the supposedly ‘liberal’ Atal Behari Vajpayee as saying that women who want to become equal to men are wrong! In other words, Puniyani insists, Hindutva, carrying on in the classical Brahminical tradition, poses an immense danger to women (including Hindu women), and that, therefore, the women’s movement ought to be in the forefront of vocal opposition to it.

Irfan Engineer’s piece reflects on the myths about Muslims that are so central to Hindutva discourse. One such myth is that Muslims as a community were responsible for the Partition of India. This thesis completely ignores the role of many Muslims who stridently opposed the Partition and the Muslim League. It also ignores the role of ‘upper’ caste Hindu communalists in promoting a tremendous sense of insecurity among Muslims, which then caused the Muslim League to demand Partition. It also conveniently glosses over the fact that the League represented only a small, yet vocal and influential, minority among the Muslims, mainly feudal lords and middle class professionals, who feared ‘upper’ caste Hindu domination in an independent India. Another canard about Muslims is that they are ISI agents. Engineer remarks, in rebuttal, that most men caught for spying for America or Pakistan have actually been non-Muslims. Likewise, the argument that Muslims are an ‘appeased’ minority is also false. Muslims are in fact one of the poorest and least educated communities in the country. Equally wrong is the thesis that Muslims are polygamous and that this leads to a higher rate of population growth. Engineer quotes a survey that suggests that the incidence of polygamous marriages among Muslims is lower than among tribals, Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.

The book closes with a Mahila Jagruthi statement titled ‘Communal Violence on Women and the Responsibility of Women’s Movement’. It talks of how rape and murder of Muslim women as well as several Christian nuns have been resorted to by Hindutva goons as a means to generate what they call ‘Hindu pride’. In this project, the Hindu Right has also succeeded in winning the active support of many middle-class Hindu women. In this way it provides these women with the illusion of ‘empowerment’ outside the home, while actually promoting a fiercely patriarchal agenda. At the same time as Muslim women are a principal target of Hindutva attack, ‘low’ caste women are not spared. Thus, the statement refers to the Shankaracharya of Puri ‘upholding and reviving oppressive customs of traditional religious prostitution’, referring to the practice of getting mainly ‘low’ caste women ‘married’ to a ‘god’, but simply ‘to serve as pleasure tools’ for Hindu men. Two other such instances again strikingly suggest Hindutva hostility to Dalit women: the VHP’s honouring of the rapists of Banwari Devi, a ‘low’ caste woman activist in Rajasthan, and the stripping naked and torturing of tribal women in Gujarat under the patronage of armed VHP men in the guise of driving away ‘evil spirits’. Citing these and several other instances, the statement insists that the women’s movement must urgently recognise the grave dangers that Hindutva poses to women of all communities, Muslim as well as Hindu, ‘upper’ caste as well as ‘low’ caste. It appeals to women’s groups to take the challenge to Hindutva seriously and to mobilise women’s voices against it. At the same time, it also recognises that conservative and extremely patriarchal ‘ulama among the Muslims are, like their Hindutva counterparts, also opposed to women’s equality. Hence, it insists, the struggle against patriarchy must take an even-handed approach, critiquing anti-women religious authorities in all communities at the same time.  ¤

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