Events in the country over the last month have really put to test the idea of India — from the violence erupting on the occasion of Ram Navami, to the hijab ban in certain schools and colleges, to the meat ban during Navaratri and the violence accompanying it. Even as activists and scholars ring alarm bells over the despairing condition of minorities in the country, the silence of the ruling party is deafening. While the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu ideology has never been a secret, there is something to be said about the scope and implications of this particular brand of communal violence. The ban on meat and meat shops, the roisterous ‘Jai Shree Ram’ chants, and the timing of these ‘clashes’ during certain Hindu festivals is telling of a very narrow conception of Hindu majoritarianism — Brahminical Hinduism, to be precise.
This assessment, however, is directly in contradiction with a long list of political analysts whose line of argument in defense of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology is that it has managed to ‘unite’ Hindus across caste lines. The very definition of Hindutva is as an amorphous Hindu ‘culture’ and a way of life, as opposed to as a religion, according to one of its progenitors V.D. Savarkar – himself a Marathi Brahmin. The primary evidence for this argument of Hindutva unity comes from the BJP’s seemingly caste-blind electoral mobilization, propelled by support from its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Caste in Indian politics often crops up only as an electoral issue, and even then it is criticized for being used as a ‘vote-bank’ by political parties. The sweeping majorities garnered by the BJP and its vehemently Hindu majoritarian doctrine have led many scholars, such as Vinay Sitapati, to comment on the ‘new’ idea of Hinduism fostered by the party. According to Sitapati, the RSS was ‘radical’ in its construction of a ‘unified’ Hindu identity that rested on electoral politics – he calls it the ‘Hindu fevicol’ phenomenon.
More colloquial arguments for Hindutva’s unifying factor are made by BJP leaders themselves during electoral rallies, who pat themselves on the back for moving India towards ‘casteless’ elections. Regardless of these spurious assertions and the tokenistic meals at Dalit households before elections that all politicians (including BJP) partake in, the truth of the matter is that the essence of Hindutva is Brahminical. It was conceptualized and pursued by a party whose leaders were predominantly Brahmins, such as Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, and Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Moreover, the Hindu ‘culture’ that the RSS and BJP emphasize is but a slightly masked version of Brahminical culture.
The argument about BJP’s attempted unity across Hindus might hold true in terms of electoral mobilization — the BJP has made inroads into caste vote-banks and managed electoral wins but they are just that. They’re not indicative of a shift in Hindutva’s caste inclusivity, but a facade of nationalistic unity propped up by the BJP in the name of uniting against an ‘other’, in this case, a communal other i.e. Muslims. This farcical unity though has not brought about any changes within Hinduism’s own hierarchical structures, and the BJP should not be credited for that. The present spate of violence has shown what has always lied at the core of the Hindutva narrative, which is an exclusionary upper-caste notion of Hinduism and its principles of purity and pollution.
Renowned academic Kancha Ilaiah’s book Why I Am Not A Hindu succinctly explains how the popularised ideas of Hinduism are largely upper-caste, and how Dalit conceptualizations of Hindu culture and practices are much more diverse and inclusive. He mentions (and statistics supplement) how vegetarianism is a restrictive practice only followed by a minority in the country, and especially only upper-castes in Hinduism. Even the worship of Lord Ram is not unanimously prevalent across the country’s social communities, and Ilaiah talks about his Dalit-Bahujan community and the various other gods they worship like Virappa and Pochamma. Even their rituals involved pouring alcohol and sacrificing animals, which aren’t seen as conventional Hindu practices according to Brahmins.
The BJP and the RSS may try to peddle the idea of Hindutva as a ‘way of life’ to its voters, but the actions perpetrated by and in the name of Hindutva reinforce the upper-caste origins of the ideology. Even if we were to accept the RSS’s argument about Hindutva’s focus on Hindu culture rather than Hindu religion, logic would force us to reckon with the fact that the RSS’s idea of Hindu culture is limited, and derived from the religion itself. As for Hindu religion, historical experience and facts cannot deny that it is a deeply undemocratic religion. How then can we ever hope to run a democratic country on its basis?
Akanksha Mishra is a third-year undergraduate student of political science and media studies at Ashoka University.
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