There is no reason to believe that Hindutva cannot be defeated, or dismantled, as a group of intellectuals and academics have come together to attempt. Hundreds of intellectuals from around the world with the support of scores of American universities and faculties are hoping that a three-day online huddle from Friday could set off the dismantling of right-wing Hindu groups, primarily their organisational sinews flourishing abroad.
The intellectuals hope to canvass support in the US to help tame the insidious network of expatriate Indian groups which are linked to the ruling party in New Delhi. Can the intellectuals do the job? And, more crucially, is the American system interested in heeding them?
It took a world war involving a grudging alliance of the world’s leading capitalist and communist countries to perform the feat in Europe. Millions died in the endeavour. Even so the cancer has not been completely weeded out. In India, it would seem theoretically possible to defeat Hindutva through the electoral route that was not available to Europe.
In spite of the heavy weather made by opposition parties to come together in the fight, Indian states have shown a canny ability to successfully challenge Hindutva’s fitful march. West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala among other regions did show not for the first time that it wasn’t terribly difficult to stall the BJP’s well-oiled election machinery. The results left Hindutva’s enormous money power and formidable street power looking not equal to the task, electorally.
Another round of crucial elections are round the corner in February next year, the main contest to watch being in the BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh. Here a possible but never easy opposition victory could unsettle Prime Minister Modi’s game plan for a third term. A clutch of 16 other states would be holding assembly polls in the months to May 2024 when the general elections are due. Every state result counts. It’s natural to expect a tough contest from both sides, but if the opposition parties manage to strike an accord on a common strategy to shackle Modi there is no reason to believe they can’t succeed.
An electoral victory alone, however, cannot upend the deep roots struck by Hindutva over the decades. The fascists have usurped crucial spaces in the academic and cultural spheres, and have successfully impaired the bureaucracy and other state institutions with their brazen resolve. That would not be easy to fix.
Already, even the secular rulers in Kerala have begun to coat-tail Hindutva on the religious turf. Cadres could be seen carrying idols of Hindu deities on vehicles with Che Guevara’s picture placed prominently at the back of the carrier. The intellectuals are opposing the beef ban initiated by the BJP in several states where it has its governments. There is however little appetite in the populous northern states to touch the issue where the leading opposition parties would find the prospect of tinkering with cow worship a challenge if not suicidal.
Prospects of electoral defeat will always spur Hindutva groups to take evasive action. Their most effective tool in this area is to raise the decibels in the streets and flex raw muscle power on contrived issues. For example, the Hindutva groups have seldom been riled at being compared with European fascists. But try to say that they have similarities with the Afghan Taliban, as Javed Akhtar, the film lyricist apparently did. He has been pilloried by raw Hindutva power. And the only party that could come to his aid was the Shiv Sena. The Mumbai-based Hindu militant group flaunts at least as much raw street power as the BJP. The Shiv Sena did not agree with Akhtar’s description of the Taliban imagery to describe Hindutva, but said the Muslim writer had always stood for secularism and therefore did not deserve to be trolled.
The Hindutva fold is desperately looking for issues that could polarise the vote in Uttar Pradesh and other poll-bound states along Hindu-Muslim lines. However, a powerful farmers movement that began in the Punjab has spread to western UP. Crucially, Hindu and Muslim farmers whose mutual hostilities had helped catapult the Modi campaign to victory in 2014 have poured cold water on the prospect this time. The question is, where do the well-meaning public intellectuals and liberal academics place themselves in the skein of India’s realpolitik?
There is already a virulent backlash against their plan for a three-day conference aimed at dismantling Hindutva. A message from about 900 academics put the showdown in its context.
“As scholars and members of academic communities around the world, we strongly condemn the campaign of harassment and intimidation against the Dismantling Global Hindutva conference, and stand in solidarity with the 49+ universities and 60+ departments and centres sponsoring the event,” a statement said.
Co-sponsoring institutions were being besieged by “political extremists” who have “disingenuously” sought to smear the conference as “Hinduphobic” or “anti-Hindu”.
The statement rejected what it said were misleading attempts to conflate Hindutva and Hinduism. Hindutva, it said, was an authoritarian political ideology that historically drew inspiration from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. “Its guiding principle is to transform India from a secular democracy to a religious state where Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities are relegated to second class citizenship.”
If the schedule is observed the conference is coming just ahead of a proposed visit to the US by Prime Minister Modi. Will President Biden be moved? Modi was once denied a visa to the US for the mass killing of Muslims under his watch in Gujarat in 2002. But now he is the leader of a country that’s crucial to the US strategy to encircle China. Perhaps it would have helped impair Hindutva better had the intellectuals used their persuasive skills to influence India’s opposition parties. They are primarily the ones that could really stop the world’s largest democracy from going to pieces.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org