Sunday, June 23, 2024

A very different conception of ‘Ram Rajya’

It was the longest-serving Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sarsangchalak, M.S. Golwalkar, who famously spurned Gandhian ahimsa by observing tartly, “all Hindu gods are depicted carrying weapons”. Some of his acolytes this year have decided to emulate their gods on Ram Navami, as Hindu marchers, in what were ostensibly religious processions, turned up brandishing swords, maces, even knives and revolvers to advertise their strength. This weaponisation of faith was a reminder of the derisive rejection of Gandhian ‘universalism’ and ‘non-violence’ by Hindutva’s original proponent, V.D. Savarkar, who considered them delusionary opiates. Instead of Mahatma Gandhi’s moral lessons in favour of peace, Savarkar advocated the “political virility” of Hindutva, an idea which seems to have found full flower in today’s foot-soldiers of that doctrine.

Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of Ram Rajya — the very idea of Gandhi, one might say — is in danger of being swept aside by prevailing ideological currents, ironically in favour of a very different conception of Rama. These days, when the standing of his historic detractors is at an all-time high, Gandhiji has been criticised for weakness, for having bent over too far to accommodate Muslim interests, and for his pacifism, which is seen by the jingoistic Hindutva movement as unmanly. The Mahatma was killed, with the name of Rama on his lips, for being too pro-Muslim. Indeed, he had just come out of a fast he had conducted to coerce his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian government, to transfer a larger share than they had intended of the assets of undivided India to the new state of Pakistan. Gandhiji’s idea of Ram Rajya was arguably utopian — a vision of perfect social harmony, economic justice and political freedom. The Hindutva idea is one of unbridled Hindutva dominance, in which those who do not conform are firmly put in their place.

Truth and the Mahatma

The Mahatma was more than just the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful non-violent movement for independence from colonial rule. He was also a philosopher who was constantly seeking to live out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change: his autobiography was typically subtitled The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

No dictionary imbues ‘truth’ with the depth of meaning Gandhiji gave it. His truth emerged from his convictions: it meant not only what was accurate, but what was just and, therefore, right. Truth could not be obtained by ‘untruthful’ or unjust means, which included inflicting violence upon one’s opponent. To describe his method, Gandhiji coined the expression satyagraha — literally, ‘holding on to truth’ or, as he variously described it, truth-force, love-force or soul-force. He disliked the English term ‘passive resistance, because satyagraha required activism, not passivity. If you believed in the truth and cared enough to obtain it, Gandhiji felt, you could not afford to be passive: you had to be prepared actively to suffer for the truth.

So non-violence, like many later concepts labelled with a negation, from non-cooperation to non-alignment, meant much more than the denial of an opposite; it did not merely imply the absence of violence. Non-violence was the way to vindicate the truth not by the infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself. It was essential to willingly accept punishment in order to demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions.

An ambivalence

The attitude of the Hindutva-inspired government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi towards Gandhiji is deeply ambivalent. Many RSS pracharaks and other members of the Sangh Parivar were schooled in an intense dislike of the Mahatma, whose message of tolerance and pluralism was emphatically rejected as minority appeasement by the Sangh Parivar, and whose credo of non-violence, or ahimsa, was seen as an admission of weakness unworthy of manly Hindus. Hindutva ideologue Savarkar, whom Mr. Modi has described as one of his heroes, had expressed contempt for Gandhiji’s ‘perverse doctrine of non-violence and truth’ and claimed it ‘was bound to destroy the power of the country’. But the Prime Minister, for all his Hindutva mindset, his admiration of Savarkar and his lifetime affiliation to the Sangh Parivar, has embraced Gandhiji, hailing the Mahatma and even using his glasses as a symbol of the Swachh Bharat campaign, linking it to a call to revive Gandhiji’s idea of seva through the ‘Swachchta Hi Seva’ Campaign.

The ambivalence speaks volumes: when many members of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) call for replacing Gandhiji’s statues across the country with those of his assassin, Nathuram Godse, the Prime Minister seeks to lay claim to the mantle of his fellow Gujarati for his own political benefit. At the same time, there is also a dissonance between the official governmental embrace of Gandhiji and the unofficial ideological distaste for him privately expressed by members and supporters of the ruling party, some of whom have not hidden their view that his assassination was, in their eyes, a patriotic act. Even the Mahatma’s declared intention, shortly before his assassination, to spend his remaining days in Pakistan, sits uncomfortably with a party whose leaders’ favourite imprecation for its critics is ‘Go to Pakistan!’

The difference

It is well understood that the vision of Gandhiji, an openly practising Hindu, differed greatly from that of his fellow Hindus Savarkar and Golwalkar, the principal ideologues of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS respectively (the forerunners of the BJP). His Hinduism, open, eclectic and accepting of difference, could have lent itself to a different form of ‘Hindu nationalism’, a liberal nationalism imbued with his Hindu values, and so well suited to managing the diversity of India. But Gandhiji was far too inclusive to have qualified his nationalism with a communal adjective. Savarkar, who had little use for Hindu religious beliefs and practices except as a label for identity formation, never thought much of Gandhi’s faith or the principle of non-violence that emerged from it. To the Hindutvavadi, nationalism cannot be non-violent because in order to succeed, it needs to be coercive and destructive of enemies, and when it succeeds it is expressed through the apparatus of the state, which has a monopoly over violence. Despite being a far more deeply rooted Hindu than Savarkar, Mahatma Gandhi has little place in the Hindutva imagination.

Opinion | How Ram Rajya has degenerated into Troll Rajya

Hinduism and Hindutva, as I have argued in my books, Why I Am a Hindu and The Battle of Belonging, represent two very distinct and contrasting ideas, with vitally different implications for nationalism and the role of the Hindu faith. The principles Gandhiji stood for and the way in which he asserted them are easier to admire than to follow. But their conception of Ram Rajya represented an ideal that is betrayed every day by those who distort Hinduism to promote a narrow, exclusionary bigotry.

Shashi Tharoor is Member of Parliament (Congress), Lok Sabha, for Thiruvananthapuram, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, and Chairman, All-India Professionals’ Congress

#conception #Ram #Rajya

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