India is changing in significant ways. Marginalisation of Muslims, the largest minority in the country, has often been discussed in this context. This marginalisation is getting more and more pronounced with successive elections.
The resounding victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation committed to turning India into a Hindu nation, in the recently concluded assembly election of Uttar Pradesh is only the latest evidence of the ascendance of this politics.
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Now it has taken the form of more vicious, open attacks on Muslims with rising frequency by marauding mobs formed in the name of cow protection in different parts of northern India. It has resulted in deaths of Muslims, but failed to arouse disgust in the larger political class, while the general Hindu population remains in callous apathy.
Indignation over the eating of beef is cited as a rationale to understand the Hindu insensitivity in such cases. But attacks on mosques, or the killing of an imam while he was sleeping, also fail to move the police or the political class. Attacks on Christians in the name of opposing conversion has also now stopped to make news. It is a tiny minority and shrinking into its shell.
Smothering cultural diversity
The politics of Hindu domination over the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities is being achieved by hegemonising all Hindu spaces – cutting across languages and cultures – and smothering hitherto strong regional and cultural variances.
Bengalis, Malayalis, Assamese and others have their own New Years with distinct names such as Vishu, Bihu, Bangla Nobovarsha. But for the past three years, attempts have been made to gradually erase these names. Instead of mentioning these different names, people are being congratulated on the advent of the new Hindu year. Also, the traditional festivals are now being given nationalist slogans. This year Gudi Padva, the Maharashtrian New Year festival, was turned into a militantly Hindu celebration, which was accompanied by slogans to make India a Hindu nation.
Each cultural region also has its own supreme god or goddess. In Kerala, it is Bali, a mythical figure who is venerated by Malayalis. But last year, the BJP tried to replace him by another mythical figure Vamana, an incarnation of Vishnu who is said to have, as legend has it, cunningly dethroned Bali. It asked the Malayalis to celebrate the birth day of Vamana. This audacious move by the BJP drew an angry response from the people, but the BJP remained unfazed.
Similarly, this year, it was observed that Ram Navami, a festival to celebrate the birth of the Hindu god, Ram, another revered deity among Hindus, was celebrated aggressively even in regions where Ram is not counted as a major figure.
For example, in West Bengal state, it is Durga the goddess who dominates all other gods and goddesses. Ram Navami has never been a major festival in Bengal. But this year, the BJP organised aggressive processions in more than 20 Bengal towns. In the state capital Kolkata alone, 22 Ram Navami processions were organised. For the first time, the Bengalis saw boys and girls brandishing swords and other traditional weapons in these processions. In Kerala too, Ram Navami celebrations were organised with a zeal and fervour never seen before.
The colour of the flag of Hanuman, another popular mythical figure, himself a devotee of Ram, is red. But this year it was seen in Patna that the red of Hanuman’s flag morphed silently into saffron. Saffron as a colour is seen as representing the pan-Hindu identity.
Appropriating national symbols and infusing in them a Hindu content has long been a strategy of the BJP and the RSS.
Infusing national symbols in Hinduism
The BJP is attempting to fuse Hinduism with nationalism in very creative ways. In the rainy season, devotees of the Hindu god Shiva carry holy waters of the Ganga as an offering to Shiva, one of most powerful Hindu gods. They cover the distance on foot.
Last year, it was seen that most of them were also carrying the Indian national flag with them. The trucks accompanying them were draped in the tricolour. It was a clever ploy to merge nationalism with Hinduism. People did note it, but there was no adverse reaction among the Hindus. Why was this worldly notion of nationalism being foisted on a religious pilgrimage aimed to attain spiritual peace?
Appropriating national symbols and infusing in them a Hindu content has long been a strategy of the BJP and the RSS. For the past 10 years or so, these groups have been using the national flag of India as a symbol of their brand of Hindu nationalism. They organised tricolour marches, known as Tiranga yatras, several times. These gatherings give the impression of an army marching to capture an area for the nation. They also introduce an element of aggression in the nationalist discourse.
The BJP has been harping on relentlessly about nationalism for quite some time. It has shifted from its platform of “Hindu religion in peril” to “nation in peril”. It has succeeded, with the help of Hindi-language media, to portray universities as places where leftists are creating and spreading anti-national ideas and conspiring to break India into pieces. At the moment, showing sympathy for the struggle of the Kashmiri people for autonomy is being dubbed an anti-national act. The presence of Kashmiri students on the Indian campuses is used to spread the notion that they are using Indian taxpayers’ money to act against the nation.
The BJP and the RSS are trying to hegemonise diverse, regional and cultural spaces and paint them with a broad Hindu brush. Slowly and gradually, they are trying to gain control over institutions – religious and cultural – by putting their people there.
They are trying to create a Hindu umbrella, which will shelter all these diverse traditions and give people a feeling of being part of a unified whole called Hinduism. They are also eyeing the tribal traditions. This entry into their holy and cultural spaces is now conspicuous.
A double seamlessness, between different cultural traditions and Hinduism and simultaneously between Hinduism and nationalism, has given birth to nationalist Hinduism or Hindu nationalism. That this is being done at the cost of Muslims and Christians seems, at least at this point of time, of little concern to the large Hindu population of India.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at the University of Delhi. Writes literary and cultural criticism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.