India: A nation bound by its constitution or a selective interpretation of civilization?

Those who were not part of the anti-British struggle had roots in the ideologies of landlord-clergy combine. They articulated nationalism in the name of religion, called it cultural nationalism, writes Dr Ram Puniyani for South Asia Monitor 

Dr Ram Puniyani Jun 23, 2022
Indian Constitution

After Article 370 of the Indian Constitution applicable to Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated, the Supreme Court is yet to give its verdict whether this move conforms to our constitution. The recent incidents of hate speech of the likes of Nupur Sharma were not taken action against till the Islamic countries reacted very strongly to the insult to Prophet Mohammad. Bulldozers are ruling the roost, selectively demolishing the houses of Muslims. 

Does all this conform to the values of our constitution?

The putting of the values of the constitution in deep freeze and deliberate acts of omission and commission cannot be understood without going to the depth of the political ideology ruling India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 declared that he is a Hindu nationalist. The parent organization of the ruling party, RSS, has the agenda of establishing a Hindu Rashtra, or nation.

How do we understand the current phenomenon in this light? 

Now ideologues of this politics are telling us the deeper explanation of the present incidents. The talk of ‘Civilization Nation’, a nation guided by civilization and not by law, is in the air. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice Chancellor Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit on May 21 stated that India was a “civilization state” and should not be reduced to a civic nation bound by the constitution. 

According to her, “Reducing India to a civic nation bound by a constitution disregards its history, ancient heritage, culture and civilization. I would place India as a civilization state.”

Civilization state?

How do we define civilization? The clear-cut articulation of these worthies is that Hinduism is the core civilization of India. They are blaming Left historians for distorting the interpretation of history by giving importance to Islam, and particularly Muslims, more particularly Mughals. They are very pained that Hindu kings like those of Chola dynasty are underrepresented in our national discourse while alien Mughals are given larger space in our historical accounts. 

Also, the nature of Hindu kings, their winning over other territories through trade, commerce and culture are not highlighted enough.

The narrative of Hindu kings versus Muslims kings forgets the basic issue that kings were autocratic rulers, and kings’ (kings of all religions) armies resorted to loot and plunder. In case of Cholas, they plundered and brought thousands of slaves from Sri Lanka. Could it have been through peaceful means or appealing to the locals to become slaves? Well, that’s what these ideologues want us to believe. There was a Buddhist king, Ashoka, who did maximum welfare work, there was Akbar who believed in Suhle-kul (harmony between different religions) and there was Pushyamitra Shung who destroyed many Buddha Vihars. 

Can we pick only the Hindu kings as representatives of Indian civilisa?

India has been a land of great interaction between different cultures and religions. Just to give one central example, the Sufis from Islam and Bhakti Saints from Hinduism, both emphasized love as the core part of the religion and had following among people of different religions.

Composite history

In contrast to the ‘Civilization Nation’ theorists, the leaders of the freedom movement saw the Indian history as inclusive and adopting to each other. Mahatma Gandhi emphasized: “Hindus flourished under Moslem sovereigns and Moslems under the Hindu… With the English advent quarrels recommenced… Should we not remember that many Hindus and Mohammedans own the same ancestors and the same blood runs through their veins?"

His disciple Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book ‘Discovery of India’, tells us that these diverse cultures and religions interacted and celebrated the diversity. About India, he writes: “She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously…” 

He also said: “Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune befell us. The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual conception for me: it was an emotional experience that overpowered me.”

Modern India

These were the ideological foundations of India as a nation in the making. These were the values of groups which represented the emerging modern India. Those who kept aloof from the process of the freedom movement talked of ancient Hindu glories and presented Muslims and Christians as outsiders. 

‘India as a nation in the making’ was the theme of emerging modern India and this was well presented in Surendranath Bannerjee’s book “India Nation in the making".

In contrast, those who were not part of the anti-British struggle had roots in the ideologies of landlord-clergy combine. They articulated nationalism in the name of religion, called it cultural nationalism, and based it on Brahmanical Hinduism. Its ideologue M.S. Golwalkar says: “Instead, we must acknowledge that a nation is 'not a mere bundle of political and economic rights' -- it entails culture as well. And in India, this culture is 'ancient and sublime' Hinduism, full of love and 'free from any spirit of reaction'." 

B R Ambedkar correctly points out that Brahmanism is the dominant stream, which passes off as Hinduism.

Damodar Veer Savarkar had laid the foundation of Hindutva defining it as not just a religion but total Hindu-ness. This totality, according to him, is based on Aryan race, the land from Sindhu river to seas and culture. By culture what is meant is Brahminical culture, though most the time word Hindu is used instead of the more apt Brahmanical Hinduism.

So, while culture-civilization has many aspects, from Charvak to Buddha to Kabir to Sufis to Rahim and Raskhan, for those who articulated ‘Cultural Nationalism’ and are now using ‘Civilization Nation’ not bound by the constitution, the practical reality is close to what had been envisaged. 

So, we see the present apathy by the ruling dispensation and its votaries in following the norms of the Indian Constitution. 

(The writer, a former IIT Bombay professor, is Chairman, Center for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. Views are personal.) 

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