During my visits to a close relative in the 1950s, a Hindu Mahashabha (turned Jana Sangh and then BJP) leader of a provincial town with few followers, I only heard about the plight of Hindus in post-colonial India. The anger for this status of Hindus as ‘second class citizens’ in their ‘own’ country was directed squarely at Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. They were blamed for shattering the dream of an Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) and for continuing to side with the Muslims still remaining in India, despite the fact that Muslims betrayed Bharat by splitting her up with the creation of Pakistan. I heard jokes and innuendos on Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, which were salacious and highly mischievous. These jokes were told in Hindi, a strange phenomenon in Bengali gatherings, which made me realise that they were directly imported from Nagpur via the yearly Hindu Mahashabha (later Jana Sangh) conclaves.
Returning to Calcutta, one heard stories of Nehru’s modernisation with the setting up of the Durgapur Steel Plant, Chittaranjan Steam Engine Factory, IIT Kharagpur and similar public capital-intensive undertakings and government sponsored academic/ research institutes all over India. It seemed that Nehru was directly challenging Max Weber, the German pioneer sociologist, who thought that India did not possess the “world-ordering rationality” that is associated with Protestant Christianity, capitalism and the legal-bureaucratic framework. For Weber, India was synonymous with Hinduism and it has always denigrated the empirical world. Max Weber based his analysis on the writings of the Orientalists. It still remains the preconception about India of most ordinary people in the West.
Meanwhile, we read about the great contributions of the Orientalists, like William Jones, William Carey and Max Muller, for their efforts in codifying our ancient wisdom. We were proud of our past when we were told that the Aryan invaders brought with them the Vedas and transformed the country into a place of philosophic speculation and monotheistic religion until it started decaying into superstition and irrationality. Nehru transformed the findings of the Orientalists on our great past into a new national identity by borrowing exclusively western terms like ‘adult franchise’, ‘secularism’ and ‘scientific temper.’ His decision on adult franchise for all Indians not only empowered backward castes, but more importantly, Muslims, Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) as well. His insistence on secularism, in the sense of peaceful coexistence of all religions, gave Muslims a sense of security in the country that was convalescing after catastrophic riots following Independence. Finally, introduction of the term “scientific temper” in the Discovery of India and promoting it after Independence were Nehru’s sincere attempt to bring up a new generation of youth imbibed with rationality of the West to propel India into a modern scientific civilisation.
These foreign terms were made palatable to the masses by the use of another western term, ‘socialism’, that gave hope of economic growth, social change and poverty alleviation under the supervision of the newly independent nation state. Let us call this the Nehruvian Consensus. My late BJP relative and his ilk thought that India did not really win freedom and the same colonial rule continued under the guise of rulers with different skin colour.
Just as the Nehruvian Consensus broke down around 1980 due to colonial style bureaucracy, crony capitalism and insufficient economic growth, a book written by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said, The Orientalists, caused a storm among the classical scholars and historians of the East. Said argued that Orientalism was a significant part of the “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Although Said’s main thrust was on the role of Orientalists in propping up colonial rule in the Muslim world, his thesis could be easily applied to the Indian situation. The Orientalists found it only natural that the Aryan people, having common ancestry with the Europeans, brought the profound knowledge of the Vedas to India. This wisdom then degenerated with time as they interacted with the local ‘uncivilised’ people. But the real tragedy was that we could not turn things around because of our misfortune that Christianity did not arrive in India with full vigour to lead us to the path of progressive civilisation. That was the hidden agenda of the Orientalists. Said also mentioned a parallel strand that he called the Romanic Orientalists. According to him, these romantics wanted to have spiritual rebirth and redemption of the materialist Europe by using Indian spirituality and culture.
Many scholars on Indian history, anthropology and religion got on to the Said bandwagon. They reminded us that there was no concept of a Hindu religion in our ancient past and it was invented by the nineteenth century Orientalists. They told us that the religious practices of various castes of Hindus, and that of various regions, were vastly different. The programme was to deconstruct the idea of a monolithic Hindu identity. They brought to the fore the religious practices of the Dalits and the Adivasis, showing that our subaltern compatriots sometimes worshipped the ashuras of our traditional Puranic tales as gods. Some anti-Orientalists made profound contributions to Indian history and sociology, a few among them even before the Saidian era. But many others were overzealous and went overboard. They claimed that our late nineteenth century spiritual nationalists, like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda, were just by-products of the Romantic Orientalist discourse. These anti-Orientalists asserted that Swami Vivekananda merely put the ideas of those romantics upside down by claiming that Vedanta was the ultimate universal religion, and thereby instilled a sense of religious nationalism among our forefathers that never existed before. One ‘eminent’ historian did not even include Swami Vivekananda in his book Makers of Modern India.
The veteran Indologist, Wendy Doringer, put this one-sided historical and sociological analysis of these anti-Orientalists in perspective, even though she agreed with the basic Saidian criticism of the Orientalists. She asserted that India “was quite capable of inventing itself and went right on inventing itself for centuries before, during, and after British presence.” She admitted that Indians did not imagine themselves as citizens of a nation, but they clearly had the idea that the territory they thought to be their own was different from others. That conception came not only from our epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, but also from literature like Meghdoot of Kalidas and mythology like Sati Peethas, where parts of Goddess Sati’s remains fell throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Our anti-Orientalists could not explain their findings in understandable terms to the common people. They destroyed the already crumbling Nehruvian Consensus, but failed to create an alternative one. From the rubbles of the Nehruvian Consensus arose the dormant idea of the Hindu Rashtra propagated by what might be best described as the super-Orientalists. Their contention is that the Orientalists, with their hidden agenda, did not go far enough. Thus they claim that the Indus Valley Civilisation of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa prove that the Aryans were actually native Indians, some among them later moving West and North to Persia and Greece. They are trying to prove that the Saraswati river really existed, without which Tribeni would lose its meaning. They are deciphering profound mathematical discoveries of the Vedic ages. These are commendable intellectual efforts, no doubt, but there are many others who are creating fantasies about our past that was supposedly as scientific as the western civilisation of today, betraying our acute inferiority complex.
Still they have been able to cleverly associate all research of the anti-Orientalists with the theoretical underpinnings of the opposition forces to their idea of the Hindu religion. This is the Hindu Majoritarian Consensus that is replacing the Nehruvian Consensus of the early years of our Independence. The story that ‘decent’ people voted for Narendra Modi because of his promise of development is a figment of our imagination. People voted for him because they could believe at least part of the message of the super-Orientalists and none of the anti-Orientalists. This threat of Hindu Majoritarian Consensus cannot be countered by well-worn arguments of bygone days. The new consensus, with appeal to the common man, must be constructed without delay so that it would unify people behind an ideal, rather than confuse them. Otherwise the sacrifice of Rohit Vemula and the struggle of Kanhaiya Kumar would get lost in useless debates. With Narendra Modi in power, Hindu nationalists have won freedom from colonial rule. Now is the time to struggle for all Indians to win their freedom.
The writer is former Dean and Emeritus Professor of Applied Mathematics, University of Twente, The Netherlands.