The developments in Rajasthan with the Congress government filing a chargesheet against Pehlu Khan, victim of a mob lynching, is a serious and an ominous development in the recent past. It discloses the helplessness of the Congress, and concedes that it has no real strategy to counter the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Part of this crisis and anxiety of the Congress is real. It is true that any action against the cow vigilantes might make the majority Hindus feel victimised and they might express their collective anger against the Congress. It has almost become a ‘new normal’ that violence against religious minorities is condoned routinely. Except for small time protests by secular organisations, there is not much of collective outrage. The impasse can only be overcome if one finds a way of convincing, not a minute liberal/secular citizenry but the majority of Hindus who have so far felt aggrieved of the ‘appeasement’ that Muslims “enjoyed” and feel that “they now need to pay up for it”.
Can the majority of Hindus reject the kind of lawless violence that is being unleashed by vigilante groups, silently being organised by powers that be? Interests of the Hindus and violence against Muslims have almost become synonymous, though it is routinely denied by even the most ‘fundamentalist’ of Hindus. If the secular narrative can break this impasse then it is possible to reverse the process of majoritarian consolidation. Alternative narrative will have to stitch the loose ends in what looks like a tightly bound human story of Hindutva. Secular narrative has to demonstrate how what is projected as protection of Hindu interests is actually detrimental to the well-being of Hindus.
To begin with, the secular narrative has to get clarity over where does the growing sense of the Hindu identity fit into its narrative. There is little point in re-emphasising that secularism is about separation of religion and politics. It has never been the case. Some acknowledgement and legitimacy of what it is to be Hindu today has to be built along with taking on the narrative of ‘Hindu under threat’ by its horns. We need to raise a public debate as to are Hindus really under threat? Is the current government by raising the bogey of threat; is it making Hindus feel safer or is it pushing them into a perpetual syndrome of living under fear and anxiety? Hindus lived prior to the rise of Hindutva brand of politics and there is a history of India prior to 2014. Given the rise of Hindutva brand of politics of keeping Hindus under threat, will we ever come to a point where we accept that Hindus are safe in India? Will this ever be possible given the compulsive dependence of Hindutva in keeping Hindus in fear?
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It needs to be opened up for public reasoning as to how it is that the BJP claims to be protecting Hindus when most attacks continue to happen in its rule? It claims that there are fewer incidents of violence when it is in power and it also claims that attacks will be responded to in a more brazen manner to counter attacks on Hindus. Why is it that the current dispensation cannot promise with clarity and conviction that no attack will take place when it is in power? Should internal security be an agenda for elections? Should it not be tackled through state policies and sound strategy?
Cow vigilantes are creating lawlessness, and this will not stop with Muslims. Once Mafioso kind of politics grows, they can run amuck. Most vigilante groups then degenerate into private militias collecting haftas, and can threaten anyone, including Hindus, that we witnessed in Madhya Pradesh with a municipal body official being thrashed by an MLA of the BJP, in Gujarat a woman protester being kicked – again by an MLA of the BJP, and many more will follow.
There is a need to progressively resignify what being a Hindu means. Unless the progressive-secular forces do not reoccupy these sites, they will be left open for the Right to claim its monopoly. It is not about using the Hindu identity, but looking at what kind of a social content is being fed into these spaces, which is extremely crucial.
This populist strategy of depicting Hindutva as anti-Hindu will remain significant also because Hindu today does not merely refer to a religious identity. It signifies multiple things, including an anti-elite politics, appropriation of memory and sense of belonging, idea of faith and community bonds as against the neo-liberal processes of individuation. It has come to signify aspirational mobility, sovereign self-rule in a growing global divide, and of course a religious selfhood. While the secular brand of politics has reduced it only to a religious identity, the Right is able to expand its meaning to have appeal at various levels. There is a need to build a narrative of both appropriating these multiple meanings and also projecting why Hindutva brand is expressively anti-Hindu. Unless majority of people who see themselves as Hindus do not see the futility of Hindutva politics, appeal of the secularism will remain on the margins. In a context where the Hindu identity has appeal because it speaks many languages, articulates many aspirations, secular politics needs to resignify it internally to demonstrate the limits of such an identity.
Author is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. His forthcoming edited volume is titled as Secular Sectarianism: Limits of Subaltern Politics.