Federalism and its Hindutva Detractors

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate the revocation of Article 370 at the party's headquarters in Mumbai, Maharashtra, on August 6, 2019. Photo: Vivek Bendre

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), focussed as it is on putting into practice long-held positions of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), started its second innings with legislation to extinguish the State of Jammu and Kashmir, make it one of two Union Territories, and withdraw the special provisions given to it as part of its accession to the Union of India. Amitabha Pande, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer, who served as Secretary of the Inter State Council, Government of India, points out how this stroke of the pen is also an assault "on the fundamental principles of federalism that are embedded in the Constitution in several ways".
In this Essay, Pande points out that the ruling party's homogenisation-of-India project runs counter to the plural character of Hinduism. He brings out the differences between Hinduism and Hindutva and sounds a much-required note of caution. The ruling party and an ecosystem built around it aims to deliberately "confuse and conflate Hindutva and Hinduism" to serve "several devious purposes". Federalism, Pande emphasises, is the only check against the Hindutva juggernaut, "and if that check goes, as seems likely, the idea of India as a pluralistic heaven also goes".

The Supreme Court of India comes off as a rather timorous guardian of constitutional morality, reluctant to take a stand even where prima facie there is colourable exercise of legislative power. This reluctance is even more pronounced when it comes to actions backed by a heavy parliamentary majority. Judicial independence was once a matter of pride, and a decision like the revocation of Article 370 through an executive order and without any consultation with the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) would have merited an immediate stay order. But these are times when Constitutional misconduct no longer raises judicial eyebrows if majority opinion supports it.

Institutional checks and balances are increasingly seen to be subordinate to politics. Perhaps, they have always been so but, earlier, there was a pretence of political neutrality. Today, even that has been abandoned. The bureaucracy and the police no longer just passively conform to the arbitrary diktats of the political party in power, they go out of their way to become its cheerleaders. Internal debate and dissent which once characterised policy-making processes has been replaced by uncritical acceptance and endorsement of decisions taken by small, secretive coteries that are not accountable either for the decisions they take, or for the arbitrary processes they follow.

In the history of decision-making, the one to render Article 370 inoperable will surely rank as among the most sinister and deleterious. It was intended to humiliate a people, tell them that a Muslim-majority State that enjoyed a special status was an aberration in a Hindu-majority nation state; that this was a Government capable of using coercive measures to demonstrate that the Constitution can be bent to subserve an ideological purpose by using a legal confidence trick. The malevolent ideology that informs it is what makes this coup de (dis)grace more dangerous than anything the Sangh Parivar has so far attempted on so large a scale.

The legal implications of the abrogation and the way it was done will, of course, be tested in the Supreme Court and one must avoid speculating on the possible outcome of the petitions filed before it.

The legal implications of the abrogation and the way it was done will, of course, be tested in the Supreme Court and one must avoid speculating on the possible outcome of the petitions filed before it. However, two things are very clear. Article 370 was the outcome of a political settlement with Sheikh Abdullah and the National Conference (NC) in which the specific conditions under which he, as the elected head of the J&K Government, chose to integrate with the Indian Constitution were made binding on the Union of India1 . This was a promise made to the people of J&K, covenanted into the body of the Constitution not as a concession granted by the Union but as a recognition of the people’s will and as a mark of respect for their willingness to let their struggle for autonomy and self-determination be contained and bounded within the framework of the Constitution. Breaking a promise simply because one has the power to do so is ethically reprehensible.

Secondly, this is an assault on the fundamental principles of federalism that are embedded in the Constitution in several ways, and not just by way of the division of legislative and administrative powers between the Union and the States. India is a 'Union of States'2 in which the States have agreed to become part of a Union, to be able to live together and work together for the betterment of the people of that State. A State is not just a territory, it is a community of people with a distinctive cultural and sociological identity, a shared history, shared language or languages, cuisines, customs, myths and legends, and a very strong identification with the land and the habitat they live in.

The act of joining a Union does not mean that this distinctive identity is surrendered and made subservient to some homogenised 'national' identity. As in the case of a union of consenting adults who decide to live in cohabitation or get married, the union of States is not a fusion into a singular identity but a partnership in which each partner maintains and develops its own distinctive identity in its own distinctive fashion. That identity cannot be extinguished by a unilateral executive fiat unless the 'Union' itself is dissolved.

The Constitution of India's phraseology 'Union of States' - is an explicit recognition that each State has its own unique characteristics. It, therefore, must be provided the space and the institutional framework to grow in its own fashion in a mutually reinforcing and networking relationship with the Centre as well as with other States. It is this complex web of relationships which creates the 'Union'. The Union acts as a hub for this network and neither the hub nor its networking nodes — the States — can exist without the other. This relationship is inviolate and any disruption can irreparably damage not just one State but the entire web of relationships that constitute the Union. The abrogation of Article 370 marks a complete breakdown in relationships that has consequences not merely for J&K but for the entire federal network that constitutes the Indian republic. To understand the extent and depth of damage that the mutilation of Article 370 has done to the federal fabric of India, one has to go beyond the legal and juridical idea of federalism, and dig into its civilisational roots.

Federal India's civilisational roots

On account of the unfortunate conflation of the Indian civilisation with the Indian 'nation' and the 'nation' with the 'nation state', it has been widely believed that until colonial rule consolidated the empire and created the basic structure of the Indian state, there was no real entity called India. To the colonial eye, India was seen simply as a stretch of land comprising thousands of fragmented principalities, feudal fiefdoms, and fractious village communes which did not have a coherent identity as a nation. This was a belief actively perpetuated by colonial rulers and uncritically accepted and internalised by most of us as a 'fact'. In her seminal treatise on sacred geography, Diana Eck3 cites [the Victorian civil servant] Sir John Strachey:

"This is the first and most essential thing to learn about India, that there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to European ideas, any root of unity, physical, political, social and religion, no Indian nation, no people of India of which we hear so much."

To the imperial mind, the extraordinary diversity of a civilisation – that refused to fit into any of their classificatory boxes – represented utter chaos that could only be brought to order and unity within the unity of the imperial state. In fact, it was probably not until the British and the Europeans introduced the idea of a 'nation', that we began to be troubled at the lack of an essentialised core in the complex network of relationships that defined us as a civilisation. 'There is, therefore, no central something to which the peripheral people were peripheral. One person’s centre is another’s periphery'4. Before the idea of the nation as a unified community took root, this absence of a centre, therefore, was never a cause for anxiety and could explain why neither a unified religion nor a unified state was found necessary for forging a shared common identity.

Before the idea of the nation as a unified community took root, the absence of a centre was never a cause for anxiety and could explain why neither a unified religion nor a unified state was necessary for forging a shared identity.

One of the consequences of the colonisation of our minds was that we began to see the absence of a nationalist sentiment as a weakness in society. Ashis Nandy, in his preface to The Illegitimacy of Nationalism, refers to one Bhudev Mukhopadhyaya (1827-1894) as the first to formally identify this as a fatal flaw, and one who hoped to take advantage of English education and colonial rule to knit India into a cohesive, political and cultural community5. This strand of colonised thinking, inspired by the growth of 'nationalism' as an ideology and the emergence of deified 'nation states' in Europe, grew rapidly in public consciousness and seems to have been a strong influence on the thought processes of the author of Hindutva, V.D. Savarkar, and his concept of a Hindu Rashtra.

Tracing the growth of the ideology of the nation state and the vice-like grip it now has over the Indian middle class mind has to be the subject of another essay. The point of referring to it here is to distinguish between the civilisational idea of India that was anchored in its extraordinary diversity and was, therefore, inherently federal in character and the 'nationalist' idea which was constructed around the idea of a strong, militarised, unitary nation state at war not only with other nation states identified as enemies, but with its own federal diversity.

It is important to highlight how ancient and deep-rooted the pluralistic and federal idea of India is. In her book, (cited earlier) Eck6 cites the Greek scholar Eratosthenes giving an account of certain informants who, in the fourth century, described India to Alexander and to Megasthenes as a land

"which was a quadrilateral shape, with the Indus River forming the western boundary, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush stretching along the north, and the seas skirting the other two sides".

She further quotes Alexander Cunningham, who was a Major General of the Royal Engineers in 1871, writing:

"The close agreement of these dimensions given by Alexander's informants with the actual size of the country is very remarkable and shows that the Indians, even at that early date in their history, had a very accurate knowledge of the form and extent of their native land."

Eck goes on to say,

"It is remarkable that long before there was any semblance of Indian political unity, those who described India to Alexander's commanders apparently thought of it and described it as a single land."
The shared celebration of our pluralistic culture is an integrative phenomenon, not a divisive one. We are united as Indians because of our diversity, not in spite of it.

The one 'essential', defining feature in this idea of India as distinct from the idea of the Indian state, was India's plurality and diversity. Diversity was not merely something that we were surrounded by; it was, and is, a part of our consciousness, our self-awareness of being Indian. "Identities are complex and overlapping—regional, religious, linguistic, philosophical. It is this very complexity and diversity of cultures that shapes the distinctive civilisation that is India".7 This sense of diverse landscapes, diverse people, diverse languages, diverse faiths being connected to one another through myths and legends and folklore (the 300 versions of the Ramayana for example), cuisines, cooking methods and ingredients, music and million pluralistic rituals of everyday life is what makes for the unique Indian identity, not the fact of our belonging to a political entity called India. The shared celebration of our pluralistic culture is an integrative phenomenon, not a divisive one. We are united as Indians because of our diversity, not in spite of it. We are one only because we are many.  It is "We, the people of India", not 'I' the head of Government of India.

The importance of federalism

In this context, it is worth understanding why diversity and, hence, federalism is so important to us. Looking at the world of nature, we know that the interdependence of species requires biodiversity and it is through biodiversity that Nature remains sustainable. It is thus that species cross-pollinate and enrich one another. Similarly, diversity in human societies strengthens the mutual interdependence of individuals and groups. It ensures social and cultural enrichment through a cross pollination of communities – languages, customs and cuisine. It maintains balance, in society as well as in individuals, by ensuring that multiple identities remain dynamic.8

It is through pluralism and federalism that India nurtures its diversity and, thereby, retains its integrity as a Union.

The culture of diversity as much as the diversity of culture broadens the mind, breeds a cosmopolitan outlook and inculcates the values of tolerance and mutual respect. Federalism and pluralism are a creative and positive engagement with diversity, an active seeking of understanding across lines of difference and therefore, have a social and cultural value far beyond the needs of governance. It is through pluralism and federalism that India nurtures its diversity and, thereby, retains its integrity as a Union.

Throughout history, this shared celebration of an intricately networked and sophisticated plurality has been the defining characteristic of the country's 'national' heritage and explains why, despite attempts to impose a monocultural homogeneity through the idea of a strong unitary nation state, India has retained its federal character. It is the recognition of this uniquely Indian—in fact, uniquely Hindu—legacy of federalism that underlined Tagore’s distrust of western nationalism (a 'great menace' as he called it) and had him go back to what he saw as India’s distinctive contribution to the world. Ashis Nandy’s seminal tract on The Illegitimacy of Nationalism has this to say on the shaping of Tagore’s views on 'nationalism'

"...he looks back to what he sees as the real tradition of India, which is to work for 'an adjustment of races, to acknowledge the real differences between them and yet to seek some basis of unity'. The basis for this tradition has been built in India at the social, not the political, level through saints like Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya and others. It is this solution -- unity through acknowledgement of differences – that India has to offer to the world. Tagore believed that India never had a real sense of nationalism and it would do India no good to compete with western civilisation in its own field."9

The refusal to treat the 'nation state' as an organising principle of Indian civilisation was also an important part of Mahatma Gandhi's ethical political vision. In fact, his anti-statist vision for an independent India went beyond that of Tagore. As late as 1946 he saw India not as a centralised nation state but as a vast multi-level federal network of independent village republics. 

'Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic or a Panchayat having full powers. It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.' He then goes on to say: 'In this structure of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles – the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.'10

The point of this long narration is to highlight the fact that pluralism and federalism have very deep civilisational roots in India and are not simply a mechanical carry-over of the Government of India Act of 1935.  Both Tagore and Gandhi were intensely aware of this legacy. They saw in it the liberating potential which would take the freedom movement out of a narrow 'nationalist' prism and make it a unique expression not of  'nationalist consolidation' but a 'symbol of the universal struggle for political justice and cultural dignity'.11 It is this emancipatory spirit which filtered through the freedom movement to find its way to the Constitution, and while neither Tagore nor Gandhi might have played any role in its drafting, it is that spirit which defines its essential character and makes it into what Gautam Bhatia has rightly called a 'transformative constitution'12.  Diversity, democracy, federalism are a part of the DNA of the Constitution, its genetic software. Infecting it with the virus of a viciously sectarian form of 'nationalism' is to corrupt it fundamentally.

India’s pluralist legacy: a threat to the RSS

Though it never tires of harking back to an imagined ancient past, it is paradoxically the Sangh Parivar which is most threatened by India’s civilisational legacy of pluralism. Having internalised a colonial mind-set, it views diversity not as an asset but as a weakness, an impediment to making the 'nation' unified and powerful. Unity here is the political, administrative, and territorial unity of a monolithic state whose supremacy must remain unquestioned. To establish this supremacy it is necessary to first gain total control of the state machinery by whatever means possible and then use its coercive power to  homogenise  all possible diversities — of languages, cultures, religions, ethnicities — and subjugate them to a central authority. The keyword is "one" — one Constitution, one party, one government, one language, one nation, one election, one leader. Unity is not unity in diversity, it is unity through homogeneity. The perpetuation and reproduction of a deified state is its central purpose whatever be the cost in human terms. And Hindutva is the ideological means for achieving this central purpose.

Hindutva has very little to do with the extraordinarily diverse and eclectic traditions of philosophical and spiritual inquiry, that come under the rubric of what we know as Hinduism.

Hindutva operates as a kind of religion of nationalism which must necessarily achieve (a) the omnipotence of a unitary state to which all sub-national units must remain subordinate (b) high levels of militarisation so that it can suppress any resistance to its supremacy (c) the subjugation of all identities related to ethnicity or culture or language or region to a standardised and homogenised 'national' identity.

Hindutva has very little to do with the extraordinarily diverse and eclectic traditions of philosophical and spiritual inquiry, devotion, ethics, worship, etc., that come under the rubric of what we know as Hinduism. Defining what is Hindu and what is not has always been difficult, almost impossible, and it is best understood as a vast federal network of very diverse traditions of both faith and doubt. While some of these traditions may share similarities with other religions there are as many or more which have nothing to do with religion or faith or divinity, and are instead very squarely traditions of doubt and agnosticism as well as atheism. Diversity is as central to Hinduism as it is to the idea of India and it is for this reason that the success of a narrow, dogmatic, unitary construct like Hindutva spells the death of Hinduism13 as much as it spells the death of the idea of a federalist India.

The devious conflation of Hindutva and Hinduism

The attempt to confuse and conflate Hindutva and Hinduism is deliberate and serves several devious purposes. Primarily, this fallacy enables Hindutva forces to appropriate symbols, slogans and imagery from the commercialised, mass consumption-oriented forms of Hindu culture and use these to mobilise support from the Hindu lower middle classes and present themselves as protectors of Hinduism. At the same time, it enables them to use the more sophisticated elements of Hindu thought and philosophy to package Hindutva as being broad minded and tolerant. Furthermore, Hindutva because of its claims of being universal and inclusive as 'cultural nationalism' can easily wear a nationalist garb, adopt a nationalist vocabulary and project Hindutva forces as the only ones capable of  making India into a bold and decisive global power, unafraid to take difficult political decisions in the 'national interest'.

This fallacy enables Hindutva forces to appropriate symbols, slogans, and imagery from the commercialised, mass consumption-oriented forms of Hindu culture and use these to present themselves as protectors of Hinduism.

'National Security' then becomes the overriding concern and justifies militarisation of the state and the use of brutal force to eliminate any threats to it. It is a clever strategy because public opinion, backed by an increasingly xenophobic media, readily accepts the suppression of human rights and democratic processes as a necessary price to pay for the higher national cause of making India a world power.  Any resistance or dissidence can then be dubbed as anti-national and the use of violence to quell it be legitimised and made socially acceptable.

The abrogation of Article 370 was, therefore, an ideological imperative for the Hindutva forces, something that had to be done because its very existence, even in a hollowed-out form, was an admission, a reminder of the failure to unify India into a homogenous nation state. While the existence of chaotic diversity elsewhere could be brought into order, Article 370 placed a constitutional limitation on the homogenisation process. Therefore, it had to go for several reasons:

  • First, J&K was a State which had successfully resisted accepting a status subordinate and inferior to the Union. Its claims to parity, especially because it had insisted on having its own Constitution, had become intolerable under present conditions.
     
  • Second, it was a State which boasted of a distinctive regional, social, and cultural identity which evolved out of its own regional heritage of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity and was shaped by its unique history that was largely independent of the history of other regions in India. This identity — Kashmiriyat — was secular and despite every attempt to make it into a Hindu/Muslim binary, retained its secular core. Though the polity has become increasingly polarised along communal lines, aided and abetted by the Sangh Parivar on the one side, and the Sunni Wahabi elements with pan-Islamic connections on the other; the demand for self-determination, for Azadi, is still substantially a demand for giving political expression to the secular ideal of Kashmiriyat. Kashmiriyat also provides the moral force for secular resistance to a brutally repressive Indian state and thereby poses a direct threat to xenophobic Hindutva.
     
  • Third, J&K was a Muslim-majority State and accepting its quasi-independent status is to concede that in their State, Muslims—despite their separatist/ secessionist proclivities—have a status equal to that of the majority at the national level guaranteed by the Constitution.  A BJP Government elected with such an overwhelmingly popular mandate can no longer accept this situation. The best way of teaching the recalcitrant Muslim population in the Kashmir Valley a lesson is to have them accept majoritarian supremacy by taking away their special status and humiliate them by making their territory into a subordinate territory of the Union.

Art 370 as a marker of Constitutional commitment to federalism

Article 370 was not just a special dispensation for the State of J&K, it was a marker of the Constitutional commitment to federalism and its willingness to adjust itself to any special conditions—historical, socio-cultural, regional—prevailing in any region that required special treatment. It was neither an exception (similar special provisions exist for other parts of India, especially in the North East, including Nagaland, where many Indian laws do not automatically apply) nor inconsistent with the federal character of the Constitution. In fact, it offered the potential for (a) containing secessionist trends by offering greater federal autonomy and satisfying legitimate aspirations for self-governance; (b) setting an example for greater federal autonomy and devolution of powers elsewhere in the country and (c) correcting the unitary bias that was initially introduced in the Constitution to deal with exceptional circumstances 14 and extending and deepening the federal idea to move towards genuine multilevel federalism based on the principles of subsidiarity. Abrogating Article 370 extinguished these possibilities and has thereby done irreparable damage not only to the federal scheme of the Constitution but to its liberating and transformative character.

What this exercise has bared is that the BJP no longer has any qualms about violating Constitutional principles or ruthlessly trampling over human rights to be able to relentlessly pursue its ideological agenda.

What this vicious exercise has bared is that the BJP no longer has any qualms about violating Constitutional principles or ruthlessly trampling over human rights to be able to relentlessly pursue its ideological agenda. Winning a sweeping electoral mandate is justification enough for the Hindutva juggernaut to make its triumphal march across India, clearing the path of any hurdles that may come its way, crossing international borders, if necessary, and being cheered on by populist throngs through its journey. Federalism was the only way to check the juggernaut and if that check goes, as seems likely, the idea of India as a pluralistic heaven also goes.

[Amitabha Pande, a former member of the Indian Administrative Service, retired in 2008 as the Secretary of the Inter State Council of the Government of India, a constitutional machinery for policy co-ordination, federal diversity management and consensus building between the Union of India (i.e. the Central Government) and the States, and among States. Before his tenure in the Inter State Council, Pande spent 35 years in various capacities in the Government of India and the Government of Punjab. In the Government of India he had long tenures at policy levels in the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Science & Technology and the Ministry of Defence.

In the Government of Punjab he worked at the senior most levels in the Departments of Planning, Science and Technology, Environment and Information and Public Relations. In the mid-nineties he was the Chief Executive Officer of the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH).  In the eighties, he was the Managing Director of the Punjab Agro Industries Corporation - a Government owned company which spearheaded the process of transforming agriculture industry linkages in the country and was credited as being the architect of the entry of some of the biggest multi-national enterprises in India's agribusiness sector including Pepsico. He has also been involved with the commercialisation of technology through Public Private Partnerships in such diverse spheres as biotechnology, engineering industry, agro-processing and aviation.

Pande has a Master's Degree in English Literature from St. Stephens College, Delhi University, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Studies in Development from the University of Manchester. He can be contacted at [email protected]]

Citations:

[All URLs were last accessed on October 4, 2019]

1. “The Constitution does not mean that it [Article 370] is capable of being abrogated, modified or replaced unilaterally. In actual effect, the temporary nature of this Article arises merely from the fact that the power to finalize the constitutional relationship between the State and the Union of India has been specifically vested in the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly. It follows that whatever modifications, amendments or exceptions that may become necessary either to Article 370 or any other Article in the Constitution of India in their application to Jammu and Kashmir are subject to decisions of this sovereign body.”

       [Sheikh Mohd. Abdullah. 1952. Jammu & Kashmir Constituent Assembly Debates, Vol. I, August 11]. Return To text.

2. Article 1, Constitution of India. Return to Text.

3. Eck, D.L. 2012. “India a Sacred Geography”, Harmony Books New York, pp. 47. Return to Text.

4. Doniger, W. 2009. The Hindus- An Alternative History, The Penguin Press, pp. 29. Return to Text.

5. Nandy, A. 1994. The Illegitimacy of Nationalism- Rabindranath Tagore and the Politics of Self, Preface, Oxford University Press. Return to Text.

6. Eck, D.L ibid – pp. 68. Return to Text.

7. Eck, D.Libid – pp. 44. Return to Text.

8. Pande, A. A Tangled Web: Jammu & Kashmir, Vol. 37, No. 3/4, WINTER 2010 - SPRING 2011 - India International Centre Quarterly, India International Centre, pp. 106-117. Return to Text.

9. Nandy, A. - ibid- pp. 6. Return to Text.

10. Gandhi, M.K. 1946. Harijan, July 28, pp. 236. Return to Text.

11. Nandy, A. 1994. The Illegitimacy of Nationalism -Rabindra Nath Tagore and the Politics of Self, Oxford University Press,  pp. 3. Return to Text.

12. Bhatia, G. 2019. “The Transformative Constitution- A Radical Biography in Nine Acts”, Harper Collins India. Return to Text.

13. Nandy, A. 1991. Hinduism versus Hindutva- The inevitability of a confrontation, The Times of India, February 18.  [http://southasia.ucla.edu/social-life/various-articles/hinduism-versus-hindutva/]. Return to Text.

14. "The first is that these overriding powers do not form the normal feature of the constitution. Their use and operation are expressly confined to emergencies only." Dr. Ambedkar's Last Speech in the Constituent Assembly on Adoption of the Constitution (November 25, 1949). Return to Text.

 

References:

[All URLs were last accessed on October 4, 2019]

1. Press Information Bureau. 2019. Government brings Resolution to Repeal Article 370 of the Constitution, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, August 5. [https://pib.gov.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=192487].

2. Press Information Bureau. 2019. Parliament approves Resolution to repeal Article 370; paves way to truly integrate J&K with Indian Union, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, August 6. [https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1581391].

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