The Saffron Wave
Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India

Thomas Blom Hansen
Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1991; pp 293, Rs 495.

EPW Reviews February 12-18, 2000

BJP and the Ethnic Constitution of Nation

Ashok Chousalkar

Thomas Blom Hansen?s book, The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Hindu nationalism in India. The main story of the book is about the growth of Hindu nationalism in the last decade of 20th century as a result of complex interplay of the social and political processes that have been generated by the expansion of democracy. Hansen has succeeded in a large measure in presenting his narrative in a coherent manner.

One of the important methodological achievements of Hansen is his ability to deftly incorporate and integrate his local experiences from field work in Maharashtra in his main narrative. He has succeeded in weaving together and relating to each other, both the themes in a satisfactory manner. Hansen?s theoretical perspective is postmodern and he has devoted a lot of space to discuss main features of post-modern perspective of politics. He could have shortened this discussion. One of the limitations of this approach is that you successfully grasp ideological and cultural aspects of the story but neglect some important aspects of political economy. Hence, Hansen is not in a position to analyse class basis of the saffron wave and the opportunistic role played by the middle classes as well as capitalist class in India. Hansen has not touched this aspect.

According to Hansen, the book is about processes that moved Hindu nationalism from the margins of Indian society to the centre stage. He also explores the changing political strategies and forms of agitations of the Hindu nationalists over the period of time. His main argument is that Hindu nationalism has emerged and taken shape neither in the political system as such nor in the religious field but in the broader realm of public space in which a lot of political activity takes place. It represents broader democratic transformation of both political field and the public culture in post-independent India. It is a product of an era that witnessed intensification of political mobilisation among the lower castes and minorities. The consumerist middle class had a desire for recognition within an increasingly global horizon and simultaneous anxieties of lower caste encroachment. According to Hansen, one of the most remarkable features of Hindu nationalism is the relative ease with which it has fitted into the authorised discourse on India and grew in the context of parliamentary democracy that modifies social practices, institutions and social imaginaries. Hindu nationalism is not anti-western religious fundamentalism as it wants recognition from the western powers. Hindu nationalism emerged due to massive and protracted labour of organisation and ideological promulgation, the existence of certain receptivity and disgruntlement of broad social milieu and the presence of certain strategic conditions of possibilities in the political field.

In the first chapter Hansen elaborately deals with the problem of modernity, nation and democracy through a largely post-modernist perspective. He holds that democracy in India produced unprecedented social upheaval, political re-ordering, social chaos and anarchy and various classes and castes have been making attempts to control it. However, his description of Nehruvian democracy as a middle class ?minority affair? is questionable. ?Imagining the Hindu Nation? is an important chapter in which Hansen examines the basic ideas of Hindu nationalism which were shaped by orientalist mode of production of the people. He thinks that there was governmental objectification of cultural categories of caste and religion. Secondly, there was inversion of oriental epistemology which reversed the valuation to seek cultural and moral superiority. Also, there was ?semitisation? of Hinduism as some Hindu nationalists sought to emulate the organisation and practices of semitic religions. He is of the opinion that Hindu nationalism owes its rise to romanticist branch of orientalism made popular by German orientalists. Hansen thinks that Dayanand tried to semitise Hinduism by promulgating the revivalist doctrines. His assessment of Arya Samaj is incomplete because he has not taken into consideration the rise of lower castes in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh under the influence of Arya Samaj. Therefore, throughout 20th century a section of the Arya Samaj did not support the RSS project of Hindu nationalism.

While discussing Hindu nationalism of Savarkar and Golwalkar, he points out that Hindu nationalism of Savarkar was communal, masculine and aggressively anti-Muslim. It was rationalist and in favour of modernisation. Hansen?s discussion of Hindu nationalism of Savarkar is adequate but he could have gone deeper into it. Then he discusses Hindu nationalism of M S Golwalkar who is involved in construction of a cultural holism and national strength to negotiate and control fragmenting impulse of modernism.

It is a common knowledge that Golwalkar developed his theory on the basis of a book written by elder brother of Savarkar, G D Savarkar, hence it is not correct to say that Golwalkar?s sources of inspiration are not discernible. He was also influenced by political ideas of Annasaheb Patwardhan. He was not operating within the same connotative domain created by cultural nationalism of early 19th and 20th century because there is a clear departure in his writings from the tradition of Roy, Ranade and Gandhi as he laid stress on ?exclusiveness? of the Hindus and social conservatism. Golwalkar?s ?orientalism? was different from the orientalists in the sense that he wanted to subvert its theory of Aryan race. Again it is not factually correct to say that after 1950 Golwalkar abandoned hard-nosed nationalist position in favour of spirituality and culture. During the 1960s, he launched vitriolic attacks on the communists and Muslims for their extra-territorial loyalties. His so-called spiritualism was a garb and he wanted to establish strong, modern and militarised state in India. Political power was always crucial to Golwalkar. Hence, it would be wrong to compare Golwalkar?s spirituality with that of Vivekanand, Aurobindo and Gandhi, because Golwalkar was a supporter of strong and modern state.

Hansen?s reading of political ideas of M K Gandhi is not correct because when Gandhi says that he is a ?sanatani? Hindu, he does not want to be a traditional, conservative Hindu. He claims right to interpret the tradition and the scriptures as he wishes. Gandhi need not be interpreted with the help of Hind Swaraj alone as his critique of modern west is much more complex. Hence, it is difficult to accept the author?s view that Deen Dayal Upadhyay?s philosophy of integral humanism is Hindu nationalism under Gandhian garb. There is nothing Gandhian in terms like ?swadeshi? and ?Antodaya?. The RSS did not feel necessary to appropriate Gandhi in 1965-66. But it did so during the Janata phase.

Hansen discusses in detail the efforts of different front organisations of the RSS to spread the message of Hindu nationalism. Hedgewar was of the view that the RSS should not take part in day-to-day politics but strengthen Hindu society. One of the major causes of tension between the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha was unwillingness of the former to join politics and support the sabha with the volunteers because the sabha was a party of leaders. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was formed to lead anti-cow slaughter agitation which peaked in November 1966 just before the general elections of 1967. The Jan Sangh reaped fabulous electoral benefits in the elections. The Ram Janmabhumi agitation of 1989-90 was a repeat performance. But Hansen has not discussed this former important agitation which brought Hindus, Jains and Sikhs together. Hansen should have studied two front organisations - Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Bharatiya Muzdoor Sangh as both organisations played a key role in growth of Hindu nationalism.

The Patit Pavan Sanghatana was not the front organisation of the RSS as it had a Savarkarite orientation and it did not approve of Gandhian socialism of the BJP. Incidentally, Gopinath Munde did not cut much ice with the Patit Pavan as he came under the RSS influence when he was an active worker of the ABVP in late 1960s. L K Advani became prominent national leader of the BJP after 1970. Before that, Vajpayee, S S Bhandari and Jagannathrao Joshi were the main leaders of the party.

Hansen narrates the story of the growth of the Jan Sangh in the 1960s and the early 1970s. But he does not discuss in detail the challenge posed by backward caste politics when the Jan Sangh suffered losses in the mid-term elections of 1969, as the middle caste peasant parties - the VHP of Rao Birendra Singh and the Bharatiya Kranti Dal of Chaudhari Charan Singh - displaced the Jan Sangh from the position of the main opposition party. The Janata experiment failed when the ?Jan Sangh? terminated its strategic alliance with the ?BLD? in the north Indian states. Even today the BJP has not been in a position to accommodate these social groups in its political framework. In 1980 the BJP was formed with A B Vajpayee as its leader. The party wanted to claim political legacy of the Janata Party. Therefore, it did not change Janata Party?s philosophy of Gandhian socialism.

While discussing the problem of democracy, populism and governance in India, Hansen points out that in the complex interplay of social forces, there emerged Hindu majoritarian and the Muslim minoritarian politics as the Congress lost its hegemony, paving the way for the Hindu middle class support to hindutva forces.

Hansen graphically describes the rise of the saffron wave in Indian politics with reference to Ram Janmabhumi agitation. The agitation found support among peasant castes and masses of young educated or semi-educated men in cities, small towns and villages in northern and western India. (Exact spelling of Sadhvi ?Ritambra? is ?Ritambhara?, sustainer of truth.) This chapter is well written. He also discusses in detail the destruction of Babri masjid and the Congress response to it. The Congress government banned the RSS and the VHP after 1992, but the ban was largely symbolic. According to Hansen, the saffron wave was the result of democratic ?revolution?; that intensified social displacement and upward social mobility for large social and cultural groups and opened up possibilities for the BJP to make its communal populism electorally viable. For that purpose, the BJP deftly used its organisational network to exploit strategic possibilities that are available in everyday practices of community and politics. The BJP occupied the political space vacated by the Janata Dal in western India. In 1989-90 there was a close alliance between the Janata Dal and the BJP and the two parties formed coalition governments in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The BJP did not enter the alliance hesitantly.

There is no doubt that the BJP has registered handsome electoral victories but I have reservations about using the word ?wave? as the ?saffron wave? cannot be compared with the Indira wave of 1971 and the Janata wave of 1977 when more than 44 per cent voters voted for the Congress and the Janata Party. The BJP could not secure more than 25 per cent votes and even simple majority in the Lok Sabha on its own. Thus, it has a limited success.

Hansen?s discussion on communal identities at the heart of nation is interesting, as he considers colonial, economic and ?secular? interpretations of rise of communal consciousness as inadequate. He thinks that communal violence is integral to the specific struggle for constitution of national and ethnic communities within the historically produced political field. He has highlighted the role of communal riots in hardening communal identities. He writes, ?the communitarian identities remain crucial and constitutive substrata of the national identity. Communalism and violence it engenders is thus neither a ?pathology? nor the anti-thesis of nationalism but merely its dark underside that refuses to go away.? In this chapter Hansen puts forward interesting propositions but it will require further discussion and research, perhaps through comparative perspective to examine his interpretation.

In the last chapter, Hansen discusses the problem of Hindu nationalism, democracy and globalisation in the context of Hindu nationalism, and the structures and practices of Indian state, the gradual transformation of the movement from disciplined cadre movement to amorphous mass movement and a desire of the Hindu nationalists to make India a powerful nation in the world. He points out that imperatives of large-scale agitational politics and the BJP?s entrenchment into institutionalised politics of patronage seem to have weakened the hold of the RSS on the Sangh parivar. The RSS has to play the role of arbiter of an expanding array of interests and compulsions thereof. The BJP has to function within the framework of parliamentary democracy in which a party has to forge alliances, cope with regional parties and to face anti-incumbency factor if it is in power. The BJP leadership has succeeded in forging right type of alliances in the parliamentary elections of 1998 and 1999 by exploiting anti-Congress feelings of the regional parties.

One of the major drawbacks of this otherwise well researched study is Hansen?s inability to use correct meanings of Hindi words. Hence, instead of ?Ekatmata? (integration) he uses with ?Ekamata? (one mother) to designate national integration campaign of the VHP. Also, he should check his glossary of Hindi words. For example ?swaraj? does not mean independence, it means self-government. ?Pitrubhumi? does not mean holy land, it means father land. ?Kirtan? is not only chanted prayer but also consists of religious discourse. Indira Gandhi?s slogan was ?garibi hatao? and not ?garib hatao?! ?Tabligh? does not mean propaganda for conversion to Islam. In fact, it is an inward looking revivalist movement. He has also given wrong title to Yashwant Sumant?s PhD thesis - it is not ?Savarkar - a Maharashtrian revolutionary?. The title of the thesis is ?Political thought of armed revolutionaries in Maharashtra?.

But despite these lapses, Hansen has displayed remarkable acumen in understanding complex nature of BJP manoeuvring in the electoral politics and activating widespread network of its front organisations to further its political goals. Some of his conclusions are shrewd as he points out that despite moderating influence of compulsions of parliamentary democracy, communal populism of the BJP is sinister because it oscillates between electoral pragmatism and anti-Muslim agitations. On the whole it is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Hindu nationalism and its reading is indispensable for understanding social and cultural causes of growth of Hindu nationalism in India.

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