Sometime in the middle of 2007 (I forget the occasion), five years after the infamous Gujarat riots, the then Gujarat government, still under the helmsman-ship of Narendra Modi gave full-page advertisements in all the prominent national English and Hindi dailies. The advertisement was nothing but the full reprint of the national song Vande Mataram, written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, including those stanzas which are not part of the official state sanctioned version and which portray India as the land of glorious Hindus. That national vision, articulated by a state chief minister, for the entire country has come full circle today.
The same man, who was articulating a national vision for this country in 2007, has managed to convert it into a political reality in 2019. Of course, the inspiration for the same isn’t just the song but its articulation owes it to a long institutionalised history of organisational work led by Hindu Mahasabha (ironically founded by Madan Mohan Malviya, a prominent Congressman) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) founded in 1925.
The formal victory of this ideological vision was pronounced in two clear ways. One, where the election speeches by Modi and his party men continued their tirade against Nehru and later Rajiv Gandhi, and rarely ever mentioned the incumbent government’s work through its flagship schemes like Swachh Bharat Mission or Ujjwala Yojana or its major policy initiatives like demonetisation or controversial roll out of Goods & Services taxes, etc. But the more pernicious and formal pronouncement of this divisive Hindu ideal came in the form of first, nomination and then thumping victory of a woman called Pragya Singh Thakur (a self styled Sadhvi, meaning ‘pious’) on behalf of the ruling BJP, who is a terror accused in Malegaon blast case where at least six people (targeted at Muslims) had died.
The same woman, during her campaign called Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi, a deshbhakt, ‘a patriot,’ leading to Modi criticising her in a televised interview in a very half-hearted manner. It led to no disciplinary action from her party, no expulsion, but a mere distancing from her statement given in a ‘personal capacity.’
Soon after, when the Twitter war ensued, a participant, prominently displaying his Air Force background and his Param Vishisht Seva Medal (PVSM) medal, pronounced it was time to ‘rediscover’ the alternate history which Godse represented as to why he was the real deshbhakt and not Gandhi. Herein lies the crux of this entire political campaign. At stake in elections was not just the Nehruvian Vision of a secular, liberal, socialist India but also the Gandhian vision of inclusive, spiritual, non-violent India, a vision completely running counter to that of RSS and BJP.
Many years ago, scholar Ashis Nandy had pointed out that till the time Indian thinkers remained trapped in the discourse of a masculine, religious articulation of anti-colonial resistance (including Bankim Chandra of Vande Mataram), they were unable to break the walls of a more powerful masculine colonial power. It was Gandhi, who by invoking softer values of femininity, love and spirituality made it possible to breach the unbreakable ramparts of the colonial power.
During all these years of post-Independence India, Congress struggled to retain both the visions together, through a somewhat healthy tension between them. It is not without logic that Rahul Gandhi and his party began to talk about countering hate with love during the last year or so. It’s a different matter though that his gesture of hugging Modi inside the Parliament and subsequent wink (caught on camera) became a sad example of insincerity, especially during the times when softer ideas of love and softness have lost their currency. For Modi and his men (used in a pejorative sense), the task was cut out. They represent a militant, masculine, and exclusivist vision of a Hindu India, which has no place for minorities, particularly Muslims.
Each of these visions had a foundation of ‘history’ or an idea of what got termed as history of the Indian nation. The pre-dominant one owed its legacy to Nehru’s vision of a national history, which underpinned the ideas of rationality, diversity and a national composite culture based on the same. Pre-dominant academic narrative of Indian history writing in subsequent years owes its legacy to that vision. The Gandhian idea, too, talked of an inclusive vision but that was more rooted in a worldview encompassing truth, non-violence, spirituality, selfless service, Swadeshi and Satyagrah. It looked at communitarian history rather than a roadmap based on individualistic worldview.
But there was a third, persistent and ever-present version of a subterranean history whose discourse was written in streets, through whispers and conspiracy theories. Even as it didn’t have a currency inside official class-rooms or academic seminars, its presence was comprehensive. This version of history talked of injustice to Sardar Patel who was denied Prime Ministership in favour of Nehru, or why Nathuram Godse’s court speech and his cousin, Gopal Godse’s book in defense of killing of Gandhi needed to be read; why Subhash Bose had to go in hiding and fake his death and how he was living as a wandering sanyasi and how all of this was done at the behest of Nehru and Indira Gandhi and how there was a conspiracy behind the sudden death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent, presumably, again at the behest of Indira Gandhi whose husband was a Muslim. The list goes on.
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I was personally introduced to this version of Indian history in my childhood itself, through elders and peers talking about all of these ‘facts’ with great passion.
It sounds strange today how we managed to retain both these versions of history, one official, another popular but never written about unofficial history of India, cheek by jowl. Going back in time, this latter version of history talked about superiority of Vedic Science, its Brahmastra being more powerful than atom bomb; it talked about the immeasurable notion of time in India before which the linear ‘Christian’ notion of time was a mere speck of dust and so on.
And when the time came for it, there will be repeated initiatives to institutionalise this notion of history through official channels. This happened under the auspices of the previous National Democratic Alliance NDA 1 regime as well. By the time NDA 2 regime came, this version of a Hindu national history had many more diversified channels through which a massive blitzkrieg was unleashed. Analysts have already pointed out how this election was won by BJP by means of media, money and technology. A big part of this was driven to institutionalise and formalise this erstwhile subterranean history of Hindu India.
It was a large-scale control over mainstream media, which allowed BJP to not just peddle its politics but its version of history as well. It was the massive pumping of money funneled through innovative and opaque electoral bonds (over 3600 crore rupees during just the two months of March and April 2019 as per an RTI application finding), which also allowed this party to use technology, social media to peddle this version of Indian history on an unprecedented scale.
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There was a parallel exercise, which discredited the official version of history by constantly targeting the historians for their supposed foreign influence. Besides, all the major institutions were brazenly taken over or subverted. No wonder then that BJP’s election plank hardly talked about its economic achievements or even its manifesto. It primarily relied on a vision of history through which the erstwhile under world of Hindu national history could at once become official. Its contemporary resonances rooted in a militaristic vision of warfare directed against Muslim Pakistan. And, hence, time for Godse to be officially-anointed at the expense of Gandhi.
The author has been in the development sector for more than a decade and currently works with an International non-governmental organisation based in Delhi. He may be reached at [email protected]