|MARGINAL NO MORE?
Will India's Hindu nationalist government walk a moderate line?
March 20, 1998
in this forum:
Other political parties claim to have religious roots, but are not called fundamentalists. Why the double standard? Why is the BJP support of a uniform civil law considered an anti-minority position? What is the significance of small, independent parties in this election? Will the BJP embrace multinational organizations? Is a there any reason for minorities to worry about a moderate BJP government? Question:
It has been reported that the BJP government is controlled by party moderates. Do Muslims have any reason to worry about BJP policies under a leader like Vajpayee? Aren't there interpretations of Hindutva that are benign and non exclusive?
Professor Varshney responds:
The moderates are indeed calling the tune right now - to the extent that the BJP has dropped its insistence on four major themes of Hindu nationalism: building a temple in Ayodhya, constructing a common civil code, attacking the special status of Kashmir as a state, and scrapping the Minorities Commission. This is, of course, partly driven by necessity. The BJP could not have formed a coalition government if it had insisted on any of the four themes above. Most other alliance partners are opposed to them.
So long as the moderates are in control, the Muslims have little to fear. However, the more the BJP moves towards moderation, the more disaffected will be the right-wing of Hindu nationalism, especially the RSS and VHP. After the initial euphoria of a BJP-led government fades, it is to be seen how the right-wing reacts to a government which has little to do with Hindu nationalism, even though it is being led by the BJP.
Professor Brass responds:
This idea that there is a distinction between moderates and militants in the BJP is faulty. Vajpayee is a likable person who talks like a moderate and who has been constrained from operating as anything else but a moderate by the political limitations that have existed in India on the BJP's ability to implement its policies. However, he is an old-line man of the RSS, the militant Hindu organization that stands behind and controls the BJP. The BJP leadership at the top is highly cohesive, whatever the differences among them. They are all now presenting a moderate face in order to gain power in New Delhi. They have no choice.
However, even if the senior leaders wanted to change their Hindutva ideology--WHICH THEY MOST CERTAINLY DO NOT--they would face great pressure from the rank and file base of RSS cadres who want to see progress in the implementation of the specific Hindutva policies that are anathema to most Muslims. These include the building of a grand new temple to the God Ram on the spot where the Babari Masjid (Mosque) was destroyed at Ayodhya while all these leaders watched. It includes the adoption of a uniform civil code. It includes the complete abrogation of the special status that the state of Jammu and Kashmir was supposed to have after its accession to India at Independence and which has been already vastly limited by previous Congress governments. All these measures would affect Muslims and Muslim sentiments in India. However, there is no chance that the BJP government will be able to do anything about these matters in the current political context.
There are certainly interpretations of Hindutva that are benign and non-exclusive. However, they tend to be sophistical, as in the case I mentioned above in which Muslims need only recognize that they are political Hindus to be accepted as equal citizens in India free to practice their religion. Moreover, and a point hardly ever made with all the attention on so-called moderate leaders and on the goings on in New Delhi, the political beliefs and practices of very many of the local BJP-RSS activists in north India is decidedly anti-Muslim. These people I have in mind, of whom I have interviewed many dozens over the years, speak in crudely anti-Muslim ways, precipitate and promote communal antagonisms of all sorts, and, when it is politically advantageous, encourage and participate in violent attacks upon Muslims.
Professor Embree responds:
The election of a BJP government undoubtedly will cause fear on the part of many Muslims, but this is partly because, as I noted above, Sonia Gandhi and some other Congress leaders have so unremittingly argued that Muslims will suffer under a Hindu government. There is not the slightest indication that the BJP would try to give Hinduism the kind of privileged legal place that Islam has in Pakistan, Judaism has in Israel, or Buddhism has in Sri Lanka, or Christianity once had in dozens of countries if for no other reason that Hinduism is a very different kind of religion. What Muslims rightly fear is discrimination on the local level, away from the oversight of and the press, as well as a shift in the present official public neutrality. There will undoubtedly much more attention paid to a glorifying of the Hindu past - and a demonizing of the role of role of Muslims as invaders and destroyers of Indian culture. This has been already apparent in school texts prescribed in states governed by the BJP in the past. There is no question that Muslims, especially many intellectuals, feel psychological unease at the criticism of Muslim role in India's history, and that they are not "real Indians." Over all, however, providing the Congress does not continue to stress the dangers to Muslims, one can expect no very radical change in the position of Indian Muslims, who, while constituting a vast population, are among the poorest and most economically backward groups in the country. Too much stress on the dangers to the Muslims might very well lead to serious unrest among the Muslim Population. What one is unlikely to see, unfortunately, is any attempt to ameliorate their social deprivations.
The BJP leaders have made clear on many occasions that they regard one of the great errors of Nehru was what they call the "pampering" of the minorities, although they are never very precise on how this was carried out.