Appendix: A Reply to Kanchan Gupta

 

         On 14 and 15 January 1997, the Observer of Business and Politics published a reply by Kanchan Gupta to my own two-part article, "BJP retreat on Ayodhya", on which the present booklet is based.  I do not know what Kanchan Gupta's exact relation with the BJP is; I have met him several times at the BJP office and assume that he is a BJP supporter though not from an RSS background.  It deserves mention and praise that the article is polite and to the point, two qualities which are the exception rather than the rule in communalism-related debates in India.

 

         After summarizing my critique, he starts by telling the readers that "Mr. Elst's critique stems from a certain sympathy, if not concern, for the BJP".  This is and remains true: I still believe that a BJP Government would be a relatively good thing for India, and it makes me sad to see that a lot of potential in the broader Hindu revivalist movement is wasted because of the ideological confusion in the party which was meant to be its political spearhead.

 

         Coming to my view on the BJP's hesitant and shifting stand on the Ayodhya issue, Mr. Gupta suggests that it is "simplistic" and "based on rather superficial knowledge of actual events and facts".  So, for my benefit as well as that of the reader, he recapitulates the history of the Ayodhya affair.  He argues that from 1528 (construction of Babri Masjid) until after the opening of the building for general worship of the idols in 1986, "the movement to regain Ram Janmabhoomi from illegal Muslim occupation was nothing more than articulation of Hindu religious aspiration and assertion of pious faith over blind zealotry".  It became politicized after the 1986 court verdict due to Muslim and secularist agitations against the full restoration of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple: "It was then that the BJP stepped in and strengthened the movement by converting it into a mass agitation aimed at reasserting the very ethos of Indian nationalism -- hence the appeal to Indians to choose between Babar the invader and Ram the national hero, to choose between a monument to India's subjugation and a temple in honour of Indian nationhood."

 

         I understand from this that Kanchan Gupta fully supports the rhetorical shift from a religious Hindu-Muslim conflict to a conflict between nationalism and anti-national forces.  Let me point out that many Christian monuments, some of which have become "national" monuments as well, stand on the destroyed pre-Christian places of worship of the nations concerned.  Had Islam prevailed in India, the Babri Masjid would stand as a national monument celebrating the Indian nation's liberation from idolatry.  Whether the Babri Masjid was national or anti-national entirely depends on fate's choice between two religions: it is only as long as Hinduism prevails that the Babri Masjid counts as an anti-national monument.  Whichever way you turn it, the basic conflict remains one between Hinduism and Islam, and twisting it to make it look like something else serves no good purpose.

 

         Kanchan Gupta has a valid point when he describes how the Muslim leadership had been emboldened by its victory in the Shah Bano dispute, where it had made the Government change the law to overrule a Supreme Court verdict disagreeable to the Islamic orthodoxy.  It tried to repeat this feat in the Ayodhya affair: force the Government to overrule the 1986 Court verdict opening the disputed building for Hindu worship.  "Perhaps they would have succeeded had not the BJP stepped in and put Ayodhya first on its own and the nation's agenda.  Suffice it to say, contrary to what Mr. Elst claims, this was no reluctant decision, but a choice exercised voluntarily because the party was (and remains) alert to Hindu concerns."

 

         A somewhat academic point is whether it is indeed best to have one party as champion of a given cause, rather than to stay aloof from all parties while pressurizing all of them and forcing them to compete for your constituency's support.  In this case, it seems to me that at least the Congress Party would have been much more sympathetic to the Hindu position on Ayodhya, and much less tied to the Communist-dominated anti-Hindu front, if the Ayodhya demand had not gotten so identified with the BJP.  The then Congress leader, Rajiv Gandhi (unlike the "secular fundamentalists" who claim his legacy, like M.J. Akbar and Mani Shankar Aiyar), was a modern and practical man, and he was definitely ready to allow the construction of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in return for some sop to the Muslim leadership, just to get it over with and move on to more tangible issues.  I don't know if the identification of the Ayodhya demand with the BJP could have been avoided (through the RSS, the VHP and its Ayodhya campaign were already linked with the BJP anyway), but serious strategists should analyze all the factors of success and failure including the alternatives which we can discern with the benefit of hindsight.

 

         Now the main point: the BJP was "alert to Hindu concerns" and hence not reluctant to embrace the Ayodhya demand.  To corroborate this, Kanchan Gupta quotes from two BJP statements made in 1989, which are in themselves quite unobjectionable (though they contain the term "Hindu sentiments" too many times).  He summarizes them as focussing on "cultural nationalism, or Hindutva" and on the fact that "India may be more than Hinduism but it cannot be less".  And to top it all, L.K. Advani's excellent statement is quoted: "We represent the commitment that this is our ancient nation, not a nation born in 1947, but a nation which has a hoary past and whose culture is essentially Hindu."  Yes, the BJP of 1989 was a great party.  There is no doubt that its activists wholeheartedly supported the Ayodhya demand, but it remains uncertain whether the leadership's temporary enthusiasm sprang from something better than opportunism.  Of course, the leadership is a fairly large group with different tendencies with different degrees of commitment on Ayodhya and other Hindu issues.

 

         Kanchan Gupta maintains that the BJP is still committed to the construction of the temple.  About the demolition, it was "regrettable that the famed discipline of the Sangh Parivar failed to withstand the furor of Hindu disquiet", but there was no regret over "the collapse of the domes".  I have no quarrel with that.  I can also understand that the BJP has tried to re-widen its focus and profile after the Ayodhya drama, and it is even possible that the issue will be solved in a just way without further political interference.  Indeed, after half a century of deliberations, and in spite of perennial political pressures on the judges, the Allahabad High Court might still do justice to the Hindus.  After all, the Hindus have a cast-iron case, and the judges do seem sensitive to the historical and juridical facts of the matter (as I was told by Dr. B.R. Grover and Dr. S.P. Gupta, whose expert testimonies on the old revenue records and on the archaeological evidence have been heard by the said Court).

 

         As a matter of principle, one should not make too much of the Ayodhya controversy.  The Hindu position is the right one and the issue is important as a symbol,-- but not more than that.  If the party feels it can achieve more important things for Hindu society by keeping Ayodhya in the background for a while, that could be the right decision.  But what is the BJP's record in the post-Demolition years?

 

         Mr. Gupta moves on to the evaluation of the 13-day (14-day in his count) BJP Government, the hottest fortnight of 1996.  He argues that at least at the level of rhetoric, this was undeniably the most nationalistic and the most unapologetically Hindu Government since 1947: announcing a ban on cow-slaughter, the "liberal" Vajpayee declaring that India is secular not in spite of but because of its Hindu majority, and... well, that's it, these two points.  Gupta claims that this bold articulation of cultural nationalism "made the opponents of this philosophy look silly", and that it was the very opposite of "crawling in the dust", which was my description of the BJP leadership's typical attitude vis-à-vis the secularists.

 

         I am not aware of any occasion during that fortnight when the secularists looked silly to an objective observer.  They looked mean and wrong-headed, because that is what they are, but their success in closing ranks againt the BJP Government and in dictating the terms of public discourse including Vajpayee's speech (which extolled "secularism", very much their term) can hardly be described as silly.           The expression "looking silly" reminds me rather of that occasion a few years ago when a member of the national BJP leadership proposed the "Mahatma Gandhi formula" for a compromise on Ayodhya, compromise which amounted to a return of the Muslim-occupied Hindu sites to the Hindus.  The reference he made to a particular issue of one of Gandhi's weeklies had not been verified, the said issue turned out not to exist (publication of the paper had been stopped years before the date given), and Gandhi had never proposed such a formula.  The BJP had made Ayodhya its number one campaign issue, yet it had not bothered to verify a wild claim which any secularist journalist could debunk at short notice.  On a silver platter, the party handed its enemies the chance to dispense with their usual lies and to speak the truth while exposing a Hindutva leader's attempted deceit.  Of course, their claim that this incident showed the unscrupled Goebbelsian mentality of the BJP was self-serving hyperbole; what it did show instead was the silly thoughtlessness of the Hindutva leaders, innocents abroad in the real world of politics.

 

         Kanchan Gupta then explains that the BJP Government had not really retreated from its commitment to abrogate Article 370 concerning Kashmir: since it did not have the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution, it was simply unable to fulfil this promise, and admitting this was but a matter of honesty and realism.  Of course, I am aware that a BJP majority Government would be unable to realize the distinctive points of its programme (except by persuading others to join it on specific points), and it would already have been a great success if the party had merely stayed in power, just to break the taboo on the very idea of a BJP Government.  But Panun Kashmir, the Kashmiri refugee organization, well-placed to evaluate the exact impact of Vajpayee's statements on the Kashmir situation, thought it necessary to rebuke the BJP for its "betrayal" of the cause of Kashmir's full integration in India.  It announced that apparently no political party except the Shiv Sena could be trusted to uphold the rights of the Kashmiri Hindus.  I confess that my information on Vajpayee's plans for Kashmir was incomplete; but Gupta need not bother about convincing an outsider like myself, I will automatically believe him when he has convinced the Kashmiri refugees. 

 

         Gupta admits that "it remains a fact that the BJP cannot look forward to majority Muslim support", that "it cannot but depend on the Hindu vote for electoral success", and that "to disown this fact would amount to disowning the party's raison d'être", but defends Advani's vote of thanks to the Muslim voters, made during the party's national executive meeting in Goa.  I had quoted the grumbling of some BJP workers against Advani's thanking the Muslim voters but never the Hindu voters as such, though he owes his political career to the latter.  Gupta replies: "The very fact that Mr. Advani 'thanked' Muslims for voting BJP -- never mind that probably one in a thousand Muslim voters stamped the party symbol on the ballot paper -- was indicative of the paradigm shift in Moslim opinion post December 6, 1992.  The belligerence that marked the boycott of Republic Day celebrations in 1988 had first given way to disbelief as the disputed structure came crashing down and then to acceptance of majoritarian sentiments at the time of polls.  That a Muslim delegation called on the BJP-Shiv Sena Government and sought to work in tandem with the Hindu right signifies a political victory unparalleled in India's post-Mughal history." 

 

         Really, I don't object to Advani thanking the Muslim voters, for his making this communal distinction in the electorate merely reflects reality.  If Muslims vote for the BJP rather than for anti-national parties, it does amount to a substantial step in the right direction, away from Islamic separatism.  But to say that the visit of a Muslim lobby group to the BJP/SS government in Mumbai is a "political victory unparalleled in India's post-Mughal history" is a wild exaggeration.  I am sure that the Muslim delegation to the BJP/SS government was quite explicit about its intention to safeguard Muslim interests, not national let alone Hindu interests.  Rather than being a spectacular innovation, Muslim kowtows before the existing powers for the sake of safeguarding the Muslim interests is an old tradition; it was tried out with roaring success by the Muslim League for 41 years from the time of its foundation down to the time of Partition.

 

         Gupta's reference to the apparent loss of belligerence among the Muslims since 1993, when the post-Demolition riots died down, calls for an explanation.  About the facts themselves there can be no doubt, or in Asghar Ali Engineer's words: "Before the Babri demolition it was said a riot a day takes place in India.  But since 1993 this position has drastically changed. (...) Organising riots does not seem to be a paying proposition at least for the present."[1]  Gupta seems to be claiming the credit on behalf of his party, but most Hindutva activists I know are united in giving the credit to the Kar Sevaks: it was their simplistic and illiterate action which made clear to the Muslim riot-mongers that there is a limit to Hindu patience.  

 

         Let us finally address the truly worrying part of Kanchan Gupta's article, about "this last thing of recommending that the BJP should adopt a new two-point agenda of freeing Hindu temples from Government control and amending Article 30 in order to allow Hindu institutions the same benefits as those controlled by minorities".  I am indeed in favour of a refocussing of the communal dispute to points of legal and constitutional discrimination against the Hindus, such as the Minorities' Commission and the special status of Kashmir, Mizoram and Nagaland.  A top priority should be the abolition of the discrimination sanctioned by Article 30, which allows "minorities" to set up and administer their own educational institutions, in their own communal interest but with Government subsidies.

 

         Gupta duly notes that the BJP "has articulated its views on Article 30 in its Manifesto: 'Ensure equality for all and discrimination against none on grounds of religion in matters of education by amending Article 30.'"  This could be done by adjusting the Hindu rights upwards or the minorities' rights downwards.  My impression so far was that the BJP had in mind the extension to the Hindus of the privileges conceded to the minorities; that is at least what BJP experts like Justice Rama Jois had told me.  It is remarkable that the BJP Manifesto is ambiguous about this; this may well be due to the influence of people like Kanchan Gupta.  For indeed, and to my surprise, Mr. Gupta's position is this: "The solution, from a particular perspective, lies in adopting a radical approach to the problem, scrapping Article 30 in its entirety, not merely amending it to include in its scope Hindu institutions, for the latter approach could only enlarge the realm of malpractices as are evident in minority-managed institutions."

 

         I had already noted in my own article that a downward equalization, stripping the minorities of their privileges, would cause a revolt among the minorities with international support, a crisis which the present BJP is incapable of handling.  It seems that my warning has not impressed him; I must have underestimated the BJP's mettle.  Well, I wish the BJP a whole lot of good luck if it wants to cut into the Christian and Muslim positions; it will have to face the pandemonium of their muscle-money-media power.

 

         But the breath-taking surprise in Gupta's position lies elsewhere.  Here is a BJP spokesman who considers Hindus incapable of honestly administering their own colleges: if Hindus are given the same rights as Muslims and Christians, this will only lead to more "malpractices".  For similar reasons, my own "suggestion that the BJP should campaign for the state's retreat from the management of Hindu temples" is rejected as being "not an acceptable proposition".  On the contrary, "the BJP should be in the forefront of the demand for state intervention to facilitate social and religious reform".

 

         Follows a list of laws exclusively affecting the Hindus, which are described as beneficial, to the extent that today, "Hindu women are far better off than Muslim or Christian women" and "Hindu society [is] able to compete successfully in a modern world": Sati Regulation of 1829, Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, Age of Consent Bill, Travancore Royal Declaration on all-caste temple entry (in this list the only law imposed by a Hindu state), and the four Acts of Parliament of 1955-56 constituting the Hindu Code.  With reference to a court case in which Brahmins had unsuccessfully challenged the appointment of an Ezhava as temple priest, Gupta notes: "Had there not been a Travancore Devaswom Board, an Ezhava would never have made it to Priesthood and the Travancore Royal Declaration of the 1930s on temple entry would have remained a forgotten edict."  Therefore, the BJP should continue the line taken by the Hindu Religious Endowments Commission (1960, led by Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyer), which opted for "the speedy enactment of legislation for Government supervision of temples in States where there was no such law"; minor improvements may be made on the model of the law governing the Vaishnodevi shrine in Jammu. 

 

         For Gupta, if anything, the BJP should work for the implementation of the second, never-implemented recommendation of the same commission: to extend this form of state control to the places of worship of the minorities.  Once more, Kanchan Gupta wants to solve the existing inequality by stripping the minorities of their privileges rather than by extending these to the Hindu majority.  I repeat my warning that this would probably cause a communal upheaval which a BJP Government could not handle.[2]  But the most remarkable point about Gupta's plea for more state intervention in education and temple management is not its recklessness, but its stark disavowal of everything the RSS Parivar stands for. 

 

         One of the beautiful things about the Sangh Parivar is its active belief in civil self-organization rather than state intervention.  The BJS opposed the Hindu Code Bill, not because it opposed reform (as Swami Karpatri's Ram Rajya Parishad did), but because it rejected interference by a secular state in internal Hindu affairs.  The 1951 BJS Manifesto was unambiguous: "Hindu Code Bill.  The party holds that social reform should not come as imposition from above.  It should work from within the society.  Any far-reaching changes as envisaged in the Hindu Code Bill, therefore, should not be made unless there is a strong popular demand for them and a clear verdict is obtained from the electorate."[3]  And now Gupta tells us that Hindu society by itself is incapable of reform, that the RSS project has failed, that it could never have succeeded anyway, and that only coercion by the Nehruvian state could implement the reforms which the RSS pretends to work for.  Maybe Gupta is right, but in that case the Sangh Parivar ought to organize a large-scale internal debate about the principles involved.

 

         Finally, Gupta restates the BJP's general commitments: "The party cannot afford to lose its cutting edge, its ideological commitment to uncompromising nationalism, be it cultural or economic -- Hindutva and Swadeshi have to remain the BJP's twin oars with the helmsman (at present Mr. Advani) setting the course towards the re-emergence of India as a modern, re-invigorated nation that can claim justifiable pride in its self-identity and self-reliance.  This would mean a continuing campaign on issues like Article 370, Ayodhya, uniform civil code, illegal immigration, social harmony, national security, self-reliance, social reform and cultural re-awakening. (...) Above all, the BJP must prepare for power so that it is able to ensure India's transition from suppressed nationhood to a proud nation aware of its true identity with absolute ease; so that it is able to deliver on its promise of 'good governance', which is not a 'colourless slogan', as Mr. Elst argues, but as the party manifesto says, the sum total of 'the four concepts of Suraksha, Shuchita, Swadeshi and Samrasata'."[4]

 

         In most democratic countries, "good governance" would certainly be a colourless slogan, but Mr. Gupta has a point: in India most parties do not dare to make this totally empty promise because their actual record would make it sound laughable.  It reflects well on the BJP that it still dares to mention the very term "good governance", eventhough its record is not spotless either.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the BJP has eagerly adopted these innocuous secular slogans because the label of "Hindu fundamentalists" etc. became too heavy to bear.  While good governance is certainly a commendable campaign promise, its eloquence lies not only in its own contents but also in what it wants to deflect attention away from.

 

         And that brings us to a final point in Kanchan Gupta's reply: "These are not issues that ensure good 'public relations', something which seems to figure high on Mr. Elst's list of priorities, but these are issues which set apart the BJP from other political parties, giving it an identity which others secretly aspire for but are scared to admit in public."  Reference is to my own criticism of the BJP's awfully poor public relations during its Ayodhya campaign.  My point was and is precisely that, contrary to Kanchan Gupta's bold claims, the BJP is not bravely insensitive to the abuse it receives from opinion-makers including the secularist etsablishment and its parrots, the international media.  On the contrary, the BJP's political line is determined to a considerable extent by what its enemies say about it.      When it comes to those points which give the BJP its distinct identity in India's party landscape, the BJP is not a proud and defiant champion of a radical alternative to the rotten establishment, but a sycophantic beggar trying to curry favour with the same establishment.  When articulating its "cultural nationalism", the BJP systematically tries to define this as essentially the same thing as the prevalent secularism minus a few excesses.  Even when pretending to formulate an alternative, the BJP is still paying implicit tribute to the Nehruvian system.  Even when pretending to undo some of the damage to Hindu temples wrought by Islam, the BJP whitewashes and praises Islam.[5]  That the BJP stoops to this "crawling in the dust before its enemies" (I stand by that description, Mr. Gupta) is largely the effect of its fright before a bullying crowd of opinion-makers.  The BJP consists of very ordinary people (which is alright, certainly preferable to the spoilt children who make up the secularist establishment) and they don't like being in the dock for decades on end.  It for this reason, the BJP's demonstrable concern about public opinion, that the BJP in its turn has no serious option but to influence public opinion in its own favour.

 

         Public opinion consists of two sections.  On the one hand you have the Marxist and "secular fundamentalist" shepherd-dogs whose bullying rhetoric frightens many people into compliance with their anti-Hindu line.  On the other, you have the docile herd of fearful conformists and ignorant outsiders.  The weight which the former section carries largely depends on the extent to which the latter follows its dictates.  In this situation, any serious movement would work overtime to detach the herd from the bullies, the camp-followers from the hard core, for this would substantially alter the ideological power equation determining the political possibilities before the BJP.  Call it "public relations" or anything you want, but it is imperative that Hindu activists effectively counter the disinformation which cuts them off from a part of their natural Hindu constituency and of their natural allies in the outside world.  

 

         To sum up, I still think that a BJP Government at the centre may be a healthy development for India, and I still believe that the RSS can be an important instrument for the self-renewal of Hindu society.  However, they need first of all to think of themselves as just that -- instruments in the service of Hindu civilization.  They need to evaluate seriously what ends their policies have actually been serving, and to improve their performance.  The next word should come from them, and it should not be just a defensive brief like Kanchan Gupta's newspaper article, but a comprehensive evaluation of their achievements in terms of their goals.  

           [1]  A.A. Engineer: "Communalism and Communal Violence, 1996", Economic and Political Weekly, 15 Feb. 1997, p.323-326.  Of course, Engineer forgets to note the murders of Hindutva activists in his rather reassuring survey of communal violence in 1996.

           [2]  On the other hand, I am aware that history provides many examples of people who surprised everyone with their unexpected courage and skill when provoked by a crisis.  Quite possibly, some individuals in a future BJP Government would do likewise and thereby shake the Hindutva movement out of its slumber and confusion. 

           [3]  BJS Party Documents 1951-1972, vol.1, p.57-58.

           [4]  Suraksha = security, Shuchita = impeccability, Swadeshi = economic self-reliance, Samrasata = solidarity.

           [5]  E.g., in his post-Demolition speech in the Lok Sabha, A.B. Vajpayee declared that he did "not recognize Aurangzeb as a representative of Islam", meaning that Islam is alright but extraneous forces put Aurangzeb on an un-Islamic course of persecution and temple destruction.  The RSS publishing-house Suruchi Prakashan has published his speech in a booklet titled, with unintended irony, Hindus Betrayed.

 

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