August 25, 2005
Riding the Saffron Wave
-- Peter Gottschalk
From the recent role of conservative Christians in U.S. elections to the place of Islam in Iraq's emerging constitution, the relationship between religion and politics has become a key issue in many democracies. This is no less the case in the world's largest democracy, India.
Having watched militant Hindu nationalism crest as a political force with the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or the Indian People's Party) to finally control India's central government in 1998, many observers feared that the communally divisive politics that propelled the party's rise would also characterize its rule. With the surprise defeat of the BJP in 2004 and the return of the secular Congress Party, it appears that others do not believe that the BJP did enough to promote political Hindutva, or "Hindu-ness."
Most such critics stand in the vanguard of Hindu militancy, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteers Society), and its cultural organization, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council). The efforts of L. K. Advani, the BJP president, to cope with public criticism of BJP leadership reflects his struggle to continue riding the Hindutva wave while making the necessary concessions in building a ruling coalition.
In April 2005, within a year following the BJP's fall from national rule, K. S. Sudarshan, chief of the RSS, launched a high-profile criticism of both Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee, former BJP prime minister. He suggested that the two step aside, voicing the disappointment of many Hindutva activists in the BJP's inadequate promotion of Hindu nationalist goals. Among these is the creation of a temple atop the ruins of the Babri Mosque. Certainly Sudarshan's criticism of Advani is ironic, as it was Advani's tours through north India that not only promoted the destruction of the 500-year-old mosque in the city of Ayodhya, but also provoked violence against Muslims. Although this tour abruptly ended with Advani's arrest, it was instrumental in developing the fervor that led militant Hindus to finally destroy the mosque in 1992.
It appeared to bode poorly for India's religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, that the violence promoted by Advani's campaign succeeded in engendering an electoral victory. It seemed inevitable that, aggressively pursuing Hindutva goals, he would oversee the construction of the new temple, thus ensuring the resentment of Muslims.
However, the dynamics of multi-party parliamentary politics ultimately left few completely satisfied with BJP rule. The cadres of the RSS and other Hindutva organizations would not see all their projects realized. Without a clear majority, the BJP had to create a coalition of parties to secure rule under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Furthermore, the anti-minority campaigns characteristic of the 1980s threatened to alienate important components of the broader base needed to secure electoral success nationally. This situation thus required the BJP to mitigate their earlier agenda.
Nevertheless, communal politics continued to take its toll, primarily on those with the least power. Most egregiously, riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 killed at least a thousand people -- mostly Muslims -- and left tens of thousands homeless. Media and other reports demonstrated that the BJP-led state and national governments failed to take appropriate measures to protect its Muslims citizens. Moreover, substantial charges of police and political support for the rioters have made the event appear more a pogrom than a riot (as political scientist Paul Brass has suggested).
Advani's most recent reversals in course demonstrate just how difficult it is to determine which winds blow best for his ends. In May 2005 he visited India's nemesis Pakistan, and shocked many Indians when he saluted that nation's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Most Indians revile this Muslim nationalist for rending the newly independent subcontinent into two nations following British withdrawal in 1947.
Advani further confounded Hindutva activists by declaring that the Babri Mosque's destruction marked the "saddest day" in his life. Yet, just two months later, following the failed armed assault on a temple in Ayodhya, Advani sought to reinsert himself into the Hindutva mainstream by declaring that "the people of Hindustan would not be satisfied if a grand Ram temple is not built" -- a proposition meeting with uncertain popular response.
Also uncertain is where Advani's travails will lead him next. His unpredictable course mirrors the vicissitudes confronting Hindutva strategists working to promote political agendas in the context of multi-party democracy.
The saga of political Hindutva thus reflects the perpetually fluctuating definitions of both nation and religious community inherent to most democratic imaginations. Despite the certainty with which political leaders and many citizens speak of the character of their nations and religions, these never exist outside a realm of perpetual social negotiation.
Peter Gottschalk is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion at Wesleyan University.