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Ambivalence of Social Consciousness

In the latter half of the 19th century, a social consciousness increasingly characterised by ambivalence began to emerge in the wake of the colonial encounter. The dominant response to the British presence came to be one that felt the pain of subjection, understood the fundamentally baneful character of the alien dispensation and paradoxically, hailed that dispensation as the harbinger of national regeneration. It produced a consciousness that recognised no incongruence between loyalism and nationalism. A similar ambivalence also manifested itself in issues like tradition, which came to be seen as â??rottenâ? but also formed a "spring of renewal". This divided view of tradition was articulated in various forms that derived from and in turn hardened prevailing community identities.


Ambivalence of Social Consciousness

Inter-Community Relations in Modern India

In the latter half of the 19th century, a social consciousness increasingly characterised by ambivalence began to emerge in the wake of the colonial encounter. The dominant response to the British presence came to be one that felt the pain of subjection, understood the fundamentally baneful character of the alien dispensation and paradoxically, hailed that dispensation as the harbinger of national regeneration. It produced a consciousness that recognised no incongruence between loyalism and nationalism. A similar ambivalence also manifested itself in issues like tradition, which came to be seen as “rotten” but also formed a “spring of renewal”. This divided view of tradition was articulated in various forms that derived from and in turn hardened prevailing community identities.



his article will deal, within the context of a changing social consciousness, with the two Indias that I have inhabited simultaneously: independent India and colonial India. Born barely seven years after me, independent India is practically my coeval. Colonial India inveigled me, when I was a callow researcher, into what has turned out to be captivity for life. However, inhabiting one is different from inhabiting the other. Whatever the level of my immersion in colonial India, a distance fortunately always intervenes – a sense that it is past – lending a certain detachment to the immersion. But being in contemporary India involves coping with the frustrating intransigence of everyday life. Its inevitable traumas and tribulations, ever so transiently attenuated, make detachment a luxury that saints and morons alone can enjoy.

Colonial India is past. But it also persists. And, if I may so put it, independent India as well persists back in colonial India. The two interpenetrate more deeply than has been understood. To seek to understand these interpenetrating Indias, while inhabiting both, raises the issue of the place of experiential understanding in historical analysis; an issue around which has developed the fascinating niche of histoire d’ego. In bringing that niche to mind, I am offering, also an apology, perhaps a justification, for the personal inflection in this narrative.

One final apology. This is a subject I have been grappling with for a while. If some of you get a feeling of deja vu as you read, please forgive my inability to forget my own earlier writings. I do hope, though, that I am not going to just parrot myself.

Titles usually promise more than is in the event provided. I must, therefore, clarify that the ambivalence of social consciousness in modern India, even when discussed in terms of inter-community relations alone, is more than can be covered in the few pages of this article. So, barring a brief mention of the Sikhs, I shall restrict myself to the Hindus’ ambivalence towards the Muslims.

I should like to begin with the latter half of the 19th century, when a social consciousness, increasingly characterised by ambivalence, began to emerge in the wake of the colonial encounter. The experience of that encounter itself was saturated with ambivalence. Once the last organised effort to forcibly expel the British had failed in 1857-58, the dominant response to the British presence came to be one that felt the pain of subjection, understood the fundamentally baneful character of the alien dispensation and, paradoxically, also hailed that dispensation as the harbinger of national regeneration. It produced a consciousness that recognised no incongruence between loyalism and nationalism. The power of this paradox never waned. The closer Indians moved to political freedom, the more irresistibly they felt drawn to the British as exemplars of western superiority. A telling illustration of this, on the eve of the supposed liquidation of empire, is Gandhi’s tragic finale as he suffered, among other agonies, the peremptory rejection of his dream of a free India and an alternative world. Quietly nurtured by him for close to 40 years since he first expressed it in his seminal Hind Swaraj, the dream was spurned by Gandhi’s own trusted lieutenants as they got ready to take charge of the country.

The ambivalence vis-a-vis the colonial connection was at the root of much of the ambivalence that manifested itself in relation to other issues. Take tradition, for example. It was used as a justification for the acceptance of foreign rule. India, it was argued, had for centuries been in a state of all-round degeneration, and god had sent the British to regenerate her. At the same time, it was tradition that helped alleviate the humiliation of subjection, provided a sense of pride, and countered the cultural aggression of the colonisers. Tradition was rotten; it was also the spring of renewal.

This divided view of tradition was articulated in various forms. These forms derived from, and in turn hardened, the prevailing community identities. Speaking of the Hindus, I shall briefly describe a most popular articulation of tradition among them. This was woven into a view of Indian history that rested on two interdependent myths, the myths of a golden age and of a dark millennium. The golden age postulated a period of perfection when Indians had occupied the pinnacle of

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006 civilisation. The pride the belief produced was for everyone to feel.

Greater consensus obtained about the dark millennium. This was the period of what was depicted as Muslim rule. With great passion, and corresponding exaggeration, were chronicled the tyranny, horror, oppression, cruelty, debauchery – the list is endless – of the Muslim rulers. Newspapers chronicled this, history books chronicled this, literature in every genre chronicled this. A veritable folklore stalked across the length and breadth of the country, credulously repeating and embellishing sanguinary tales of children butchered, women abducted, idols defiled, temples destroyed, and Hindus forced into Islam. Castrated in their own land, the Hindus had lost their wealth, their women and their religion during the thousand years of Muslim misrule.1

Their own land as against the Muslims! A mentality was forming among the Hindus that India belonged to them. It assumed, in effect, the equivalence of Hindu and Indian. I am not talking of Hindus whose ken in any case was limited to their own community. I am talking of those who, sharing the emerging national consciousness, aspired to a unity that would override divisions of caste, class, language, region and religion. Thus Pratapnarayan Misra (1856-94), a prominent writer and sympathiser of the newly founded Indian National Congress, believed that the country belonged to the Hindus. ‘Nay, they are the country,’ he pronounced. His reasoning was:

Hindustan is ours because we are Hindus… Our progress or decline was, is and shall be the progress or decline of Bharat...Hindustan can be made or marred depending upon whether Hindus are made or marred.

Ambiguous Bonds

As for the non-Hindus, he remarked: “Although Mussalmans, Christians and Parsis, all live here, they are called Hindustanis, and that is an appellation which is derived from our name…. We are Hindus and the country is our land. All the others are called Bharatiya in a secondary sense” [Malla 1958: 387-91].

The same Pratapnarayan also believed that Hindus and Muslims were united in an indissoluble bond. In a stirring plea he advised the two communities:

Hindus and Mussalmans are the two arms of Mother India. Neither of them can exist without the other. They should, therefore, help each other as a matter of social duty. In this lies the welfare of both. No person can be happy by chopping off the left arm with the right or the right arm with the left (ibid, p 181).

The emerging Hindu attitude towards the Muslims, like the rest of social consciousness, was, thus, shot through with ambivalence. Even the remembrance of Muslim rule was not exclusively one of a dark millennium. The same period was also remembered, and by the same people, as one of creative harmony between Hindus and Muslims. Take, for example, Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-85), a pre-Congress nationalist and foremost among the makers of modern Hindi literature. Even as he agonised over the Hindus’ purported loss of wealth, women and religion during Muslim rule, he recalled with reverence Muslim personages like Kabir, Rasakhan and Tansen, and said in a line that has become classic: “May crores of Hindus be offered up to these Mussalman men of god”.2 These were Muslims whose predilection for bhakti had enshrined them in Hindu hearts. But Bharatendu’s appreciation extended to secular rulers as well. An article he carried in his eponymous Haris Chandra’s Magazine commended the great Mughals in the following glowing terms:

History tells us they had done all that could have been expected from the civilisation and the form of government of that period, much better than the rulers of Europe of those days. They proclaimed toleration in matters of religion when it was unknown in civilised Europe.

Coming to present times, the article exhorted:

It is time we should be cooperating with each other and making common cause, as natives of the same country, to make advances in civilisation, to try to ameliorate our conditions, and to cultivate the useful arts of peace...3

Let me show more of the complexity of that ambivalent consciousness. Of the great Mughals praised above, none received the kind of paeans which were reserved for Akbar. He was almost deified, and Bharatendu Harishchandra elevated him among mythical greats like Yudhishthira and Vikramaditya, personages with whom had departed the glory of India [Das 1953: 699]. But Bharatendu also insisted that Akbar belonged among “those mad elephants” – Muslim rulers like Mahmud, Alauddin and Aurangzeb – who had “trampled to destruction the flourishing lotus-garden of India”. Knowing that his indictment of Akbar would leave his “dear simple Hindu brethren” bewildered, Bharatendu explained:

He [Akbar] was such an intelligent enemy that, as a result of his cunning, you regard him to this day as a friend. But this is not so. His policy was deep like that of the English. Aurangzeb was a fool not to have understood him. Else the whole of Hindustan would today have been Muslim [Ibid, III: 315-16].

A consciousness so conflicted in its attitude towards the Muslims, could not have viewed them only as aliens or secondary Indians. Apart from being restrained by compulsions of a pan-Indian unity, the anti-Muslim segment of that consciousness had to contend with that part of itself which valued the heritage the two communities had built together. It would deny, in its more self-aware moments, the exclusionary character of its own equivalence of Hindu and Indian.

The denial, typically, took the form of a semantic enlargement of the term Hindu to mean Indian, thereby cleansing it of exclusivism. This was done pithily, like a mantra. The mantra was: “He who inhabits Hindustan is a Hindu”. Its effect on the believers was hypnotic. It dispelled their discomfort about the divisive potential of the Hindu-Indian equation without in any way changing it. For, no semantic manoeuvre could possess the power to have the non-Hindu inhabitants of Hindustan accepted as Hindus, while the Hindus needed no reassuring that they were Indians.

This is not to suggest duplicity. There was, in fact, a naturalness in the assumption of the identification of Hindu and Indian. Having brought in Bharatendu Harishchandra to illustrate the Hindu ambivalence towards the Muslims, I may stay with him a minute longer. In Bharat Durdasha (1884), his most explicit political play, which deals with the pain of subjection and the yearn for liberation, a character is introduced to symbolise the country’s ‘durdasha’, or fallen state. A cruel, sword-wielding antagonist, he is pictured as “half-Christian and half-Muslim”. His representation as half-Christian made sense within a colonial context in which Christianity was popularly associated with the foreign rulers. He could well have been shown as wholly Christian. But his representation as half-Muslim was at the very least gratuitous. It reflected a certain

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uncontrollability of the anti-Muslim streak in the author’s Hindu consciousness. That portrayal, it is significant, did not seem to Bharatendu to imperil national unity.

At work in the unselfconscious exclusion of Muslims was an instinctive Hinduising of Indians. Caught offguard, even the best nationalists could betray a conditioning that responded to the stimulus of “Indian” with the gestalt of “Hindu”. Rarely straightforward, evidence to document this is hard to come by. But when it does emerge, it lights up those dark recesses of consciousness which historians, unlike psychoanalysts, may not place under systematic scrutiny because of the circumstances of their discipline. Of the few examples that have come my way, I shall offer you one. It relates to Gopal Krishna Gokhale (1866-1915).

According to received historiographic wisdom, which divides people and movements into binary categories, Gokhale was a secular nationalist par excellence. A dyedin-the-wool liberal, he had nothing narrow or sectarian about him. Yet, even he betrayed traces of the kind of consciousness I am trying to bring into focus. Opposing a repressive bill the British Indian government had introduced with a view to wiping out terrorism which had erupted following the Partition of Bengal (1905), Gokhale said:

I know the question is now complicated by the fact that the Mahomedan population of East Bengal expects certain educational and other advantages to accrue to them from Partition. No real well-wisher of India can desire that any of these advantages should be withdrawn from them, for the more the Mahomedan community progresses, the better for the whole country. But surely it cannot be beyond the resources of statesmanship to devise a scheme whereby, while the expected advantages are fully secured to the Mahomedans, the people of Bengal may also have their great grievance removed.

Mark the distinction Gokhale made between the Mahomedans and the people of Bengal. He was not even vaguely troubled about having done something invidious. He had, in good faith, described a tricky political situation in which, as he saw it, the Muslims as a community needed to be mentioned separately from the people. Who were the people, if not the Hindus, against whom the Muslims were pitted in the context of the Partition of Bengal? The easy acceptance, then and now, of Gokhale’s remarks would suggest that the people were, and still are, indeed, the Hindus.

‘Economic-Cultural’ Binary

I may also in passing mention R C Dutt (1848-1909). He is remembered, again following the conventional binary classification, as a pioneer of what is designated as “economic”, and therefore secular, in contradistinction to “cultural” nationalism. That image is achieved by canonising his classic expose of the economic consequences of British rule, to the neglect of the rest of his large and varied literary corpus. Comprising fiction, translations of the Rig Veda, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, and his History of Civilisation in Ancient India, that corpus was designed, in Dutt’s own words, to place “before my own countrymen … the noblest heritage of the Hindu nation”. Especially in his first four novels, all historical, he pictured the Hindus as “us” and the Muslims as the “other”, although he never lapsed into the excesses of the dark millennium syndrome. Later, even as those novels were being translated into several Indian languages and setting afire the young educated Hindu imagination, Dutt realised the deleterious fallout of their anti-Muslim stance. He turned his back on historical fiction. Yet, the inseparability of the Hindus and the nation permeates even his social novel, The Lake of Palms.

What I described as the instinctive Hinduising of Indians actually calls for modification. For, that description can convey the same meaning as the misleading mantra, “He who inhabits Hindustan is a Hindu”. A more accurate description would be the Hinduising of India. India was/is Hindu. Put plainly, Hindu India!

At this point, I must introduce a figure whom I would scarce have suspected of entertaining the India-Hindu identification. I do so with some hesitation. For, I have to talk about Gandhi, who strove against all narrow divisions. True, he was a Hindu. But he was a Hindu who needed also to be a good Muslim, a good Christian, a good believer of every religion, in order to be a Hindu. I cannot suspect Gandhi of a narrow impulse without recalling Lacan’s teaser: What is the analyst’s desire? Am I overinterpreting, seduced by the possibility of backing my proposition with overwhelming evidence? I hope not. And you will judge.

In the very first year of his entry into Indian politics, in a speech he had carefully written beforehand, Gandhi explicated his ideas about swadeshi. It was to all intents a statement of his agenda for the freedom struggle, of which he wished swadeshi to be both the means and the end. Apart from economics and politics, Gandhi addressed the problem of religion so as to make his statement comprehensive. He defined swadeshi as “that spirit in us which restricts us to the use of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote”. Applied to the religious realm, it meant that people should stick to their “ancestral religion”. Having prescribed that for the followers, Gandhi examined religions as well in the light of swadeshi. Of the three great religions obtaining in India, he focused on Hinduism, and pronounced swadeshi to be its “underlying” spirit. That spirit, he said, was what had made Hinduism a vibrant, mighty force. Further, that spirit had made Hinduism nonproselytising, and therefore “the most tolerant” [GoI 1964:219-20].

Gandhi’s basic premise was swadeshi, with small scale, or immediate surroundings, as its defining characteristic. But the reason for finding Hinduism imbued with the swadeshi spirit was its putative nonproselytising character. Logically there is no essential correlation between nonproselytisation and small scale. And, empirically, the spread of the pan-Indian homogenised Hinduism of Gandhi’s day far exceeded the small swadeshi scale.

Non-proselytisation and proselytisation can only be judged with reference to their ends and methods. But Gandhi privileged non-proselytisation intrinsically. As he valorised Hinduism’s non-proselytising character, he took for real an ahistoricised and idealised Hinduism. The ahistoricisation blotted out the not always savoury history of conversion, but for which Hinduism could not have counted its adherents in millions. The idealisation projected the supposed non-proselytisation of Hinduism as inspired by pure tolerance. It missed the parochial intolerance and imagined superiority that hid behind apparent tolerance. Gandhi even missed, in this particular context, Hinduism’s special brand of proselytisation – “shuddhi” – to which he was otherwise uncompromisingly opposed. The only instance that he thought might mar his valorisation was the disappearance of Buddhism from India. He brushed that aside with the assertion that Hinduism had “succeeded not in

Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006 driving out, as…has been erroneously held, but in absorbing Buddhism”.

Gandhi also missed the fallacy in his application of swadeshi to religion. Unlike the relationship between the centre of production and the spread within which material goods are consumed, the idea of immediate surroundings in religious or spiritual matters need not correspond to physical proximity. The objectively remote can be spiritually proximate, and vice versa. No one could have known this better than Gandhi himself, the Hindu who needed to be a Muslim and Christian as well.

Nothing, then, would have been more natural than his positing a multireligious swadeshi for his large and multireligious country. But, violating his own tenets, and oblivious to the violation, he did something else. What he did was not unnatural either. It harmonised with another, a culturally impregnated, popular view of swadeshi, one that evoked something belonging to the land, something indigenous, autochthonous. There was a sad irony in this. Gandhi had set out to apply his own distinctive idea of swadeshi to the religious realm. But what he discovered in Hinduism was consonant not with his idea, but with the popular view of swadeshi. In that view, Hinduism belonged to the land – while Islam and Christianity did not.

Gandhi’s belief that Hinduism was a non-proselytising religion rested on an imagined convergence of faith and territory. Hinduism and India – the faith and the territory – were inextricably fused in a sacred geography, so that remaining by and large confined within the land of its birth ipso facto bestowed upon the faith the cumulative merits of being non-proselytising, tolerant and swadeshi.

Am I suggesting that Hinduism in India is not swadeshi? This question may not arise, in a west European country unused to linking indigenousness or swadeshi with the physical location of a religion’s origins. But I would not escape it back home; so pervasive is the HinduIndia(n) equation there. There the question would be hurled rhetorically, as an assertion of the self-evident absurdity of my argument. For the same reason, any suggestion that Islam and Christianity are swadeshi will appear as self-evidently absurd.

In the Hindu perceptual mode I am talking about, Islam and Christianity are naturally not swadeshi. A special effort, a different mental-moral sensibility, is required to think of Islam and Christianity

– and their Indian adherents – as not alien.

This may seem an exaggeration. It does, in any case, go against the wisdom that neatly separates “secularists” from “communalists”. Secularists, in that wisdom, are true nationalists, untouched by sectarian considerations. So, by virtue of their historiographic placement, it would be inconceivable to fault a Dutt or a Gokhale. Opinion can be divided with regard to Gandhi, though, in that he categorically declared himself to be a Hindu. What we have, instead, seen is that at some level of their consciousness, not excluding the unconscious, even the exemplars ofthe imagined secular nationalism carried that deeper identification of Hindu and Indian.

I am, you will recognise, not suggesting that those exemplary nationalists were communal, in the pejorative sense that the term “communal” has acquired in south Asia. I am, rather, showing how the secular-communal divide, like other similar binary divides, hinders the comprehension of that complexity of human existence in which what we perceive as opposites remain fluidly enmeshed. You will also recognise that to move beyond binary categories is not to lapse into a single undifferentiated category of ambivalence. The ambivalence of a Gokhale or Gandhi is not the same as the ambivalence of a Bharatendu Harishchandra or Pratapnarayan Misra. Ambivalence is always, and never, the same. It is inherently fluid.

Given the mercurial constituents of consciousness, and different levels of selfawareness, varying degrees of effort were made towards reinforcing an inclusive conception of India and Indian as against the exclusive “Hindu” view thereof. And varying degrees of success ensued. While the conscious transcendence of the narrow conception was near complete and durable in the likes of Gokhale and Gandhi, most others oscillated, depending upon their circumstances at particular points in time.

But an effort was almost always made to rein in the exclusivist impulse. That the effort itself could result in the rationalisation of exclusivism indicates how deeply entrenched exclusivism was. But it also underscores an unease with exclusivism, even shame, and an urge to be cleansed of it. In sum, then, the exclusivist Hindu-Indian identification operated during much of the formal colonial phase more as an implicit assumption than as an explicit ideology.


That implicit assumption has today morphed into the oxymoron of Hindu nationalism – Hindutva – with its bigoted ideology and perilous politics. But I shall not dwell on it, just as I did not dwell on its ancestry in colonial India. My intention here is to glimpse the more pervasive and unified consciousness that lies beneath, and often belies, the surface of almost always magnified political-ideological differences.

I am viscerally hostile to Hindu nationalism. Yet, experience suggests that selfassured secularists should also look closer to home. The progressively dehumanising aspect of Hindu consciousness that sustains Hindu nationalism is not restricted to its unrepentant followers. It reaches far and deep. And also near. It is a melancholy experience, causing one to alternate between self-righteous rage and self-flagellating guilt. I shall place that experience by describing three cataclysmic events that rocked India within a mere 16 years.

The first relates to 1984. The resonance, if you are reminded of Orwell, is uncanny. It was the first forenoon of November in Delhi. A friend, now my spouse, and I had barely stepped out when we spied a distant billow of smoke. Before we could speculate on what it was, we saw several similar billows. Evidently, Indira Gandhi’s assassination the previous day had caused this. The two of us moved about in south Delhi, the more affluent part of India’s capital. What we saw was sickening, although we were lucky to have escaped witnessing the worst of what was happening.

This, my first direct brush with communal violence, was a revelation. With the sudden lucidity that comes from existential shattering, perhaps never from reading, I saw the unpredictable volatility of collective consciousness. The worst of Sikh militancy had not sundered the Hindus and the Sikhs apart in any noticeable way. What subterranean layers of enmity had caused this abrupt detonation? Or was it purely contingent, an instant production.

Whatever it was, the Hindus, as the people, had demonised the Sikhs as a marked community which could be decimated with just a whisper of guilt. For, the pat response of even decent Hindus at that time was: “What happened is bad. But the

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Sikhs needed to be taught a lesson”. Nothing dramatises the severing of the Sikhs like a graffito that chillingly appeared on the walls of Delhi. It called for Hindu-Muslim unity and the liquidation of the Sikhs: ‘Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai, Sikhon ki ab karo safai.’

The demonisation of the Sikhs touched even some of those who felt scandalised by it. I vividly recall a veteran socialist who could not forgive herself for feeling afraid as she stepped into a taxi which had a Sikh driver.

Hers was a momentary lapse, one she recognised even as it happened. More typical is an observation made by Justice Ranganath Misra 21years after the cataclysm. Besides having presided over the first official commission that enquired into the violence of which I speak, Justice Misra has headed the highest court of justice in India and also the country’s National Human Rights Commission. In the course of his enquiry into the 1984 violence, a massive body of evidence would have passed under his eyes. But all he can say about that violence is that Indira Gandhi’s assassination was a major action, and it produced a major reaction. Such unconcern for justice, human rights and decency comes from the collective Hindu belief that upon them rests the nation’s destiny.

Nineteen-eightyfour demonstrated the bewitching power of the ugly dimension of Hindu consciousness. It could do anything if it could overnight cast out the very Sikhs whom, like the Jains and the Buddhists, it had accepted as its own into a larger constellation of Hindus. What that “anything” could be, I could not have imagined then. The cataclysms of 1992 and 2002 have since shown me that nothing is beyond the fury of that consciousness.

First, then, 1992. It was the early afternoon of December 6, the day the Babari mosque was demolished. I was in Surat at a research centre. The centre’s small faculty, most of them specialists of Gujarat, was together for tea. There was worry about what might happen if the mosque was demolished, everyone was confident that Surat would remain peaceful. From the city’s history of communal harmony and the happy-go-lucky temperament of its inhabitants, to its communally mixed business connections, they had excellent reason for their confidence.

In less than 24 hours, Surat, that oasis of peace, had broken into unprecedented violence against its Muslims. The explaining would now have to be its vulnerability, not immunity, to communal violence.

As if to compensate for its previous peaceableness, the city registered a number of new depths in practising communal frenzy. For one, it turned communal violence into a sinister spectacle that afforded the perpetrators the exhilaration of a carnival. Further, it broke the psychological barrier that had kept middle-class Hindus back from actual deeds of violence, which were until then left to the under-classes and the so-called anti-social elements. Precipitating a novel trend, some Hindu middle-class men and women joined in the looting of Muslim shops. In another dubious departure from pattern, victims were in some cases betrayed by their neighbours.

This ideologically bolstered criminality was a far cry from the 19th century identification of Hindu with Indian. Reflecting a sea change in the consciousness of vast sections of Hindus, across caste and class, triumphal Hindutva was ready to dare anything.

Ten years later it unleashed state terror. That was Gujarat 2002. Never before was such barbarity released with so much flourish on behalf of Hindus. I am not forgetting, or minimising, the Partition holocaust. But that was not a one-sided visitation. In 2002 all the putative excesses of tyrannical Muslim rulers in centuries gone by were actualised upon the bodies, souls, and properties of innocent Muslims, regardless of age and sex.

State terror does not normally represent popular sentiment. Gujarat 2002 did. Going to the polls for the provincial elections, civil society in Gujarat – that is, the majority there of Hindus – rewarded the murderous chief minister, Narendra Modi of BJP, with a majority of more than twothirds. In another significant pointer to the prevailing sentiment, even the Congress, as the chief opposition party, opted for what can be called soft Hindutva in its bid to win that critical election. Besides, it chose to be led by a prominent former BJP leader.

Judging by the behaviour of the political class, similar sentiments prevailed outside Gujarat as well. Not one of the 20- odd constituents of the BJP-led coalition government in Delhi considered it pragmatic, let alone moral, to demand an end to the butchery in Gujarat. Even the opposition parties, ready to create impasses over lesser issues, displayed little urgency. Given their penchant for survival and their finger on the people’s pulse, political parties across the board were reluctant to frontally oppose the Hindutva terror. This was in sharp contrast to their behaviour barely half a decade earlier. Not one of them had then come out to bail out the 13-day old minority government of the same BJP when it had needed to win a vote of confidence to stay in power. The fear of flirting with the BJP had in five years given way to supineness in opposing even its criminality.

The changing fortunes of the BJP may be seen as reflecting the metamorphosis of exclusivist Hindu consciousness. From being on the fringe of Indian politics, in its original avatar as the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the BJP has come to constitute, and redefine, the country’s political centre. More than changing itself, it has, in the process, changed the character of the Indian political centre. It has spread its mantle on to the Congress, which has had its own reservoir of that consciousness. Indeed, if Hinduisation of Indian politics is taken as a critical variable, very little separates most political parties from the BJP, their formal secular protestations notwithstanding.


The sentiment that sustains Hindutva has advanced ominously near. Has it left the analyst unscarred? Having judged my forebears and contemporaries, exempting not even Gandhi I must turn inward.

I have admitted to being viscerally hostile to Hindutva. That hostility I feel as a Hindu, an identity which I had in my youth found constricting and dropped. Then, ironically, my Hindu self returned to me in reaction to the ugliness of Hindutva. Hindutva, it seemed imperative to assert, is not Hindu. Gandhi was. The likes of me are.

Moral-intellectual reasons apart, my hostility to Hindutva has a solid existential base. Going back to misty childhood memories, I can recall having had regular, at times intimate, Muslim contacts. As a young man, I spent a year with a Muslim couple, being treated like their son. For 20 years I taught at two historic Muslim universities. That helped me understand something of what it feels to belong to a minority community in India. Besides, my doctoral research familiarised me with the sordidness of nationalism. In every which way, I had got over my inherited parochial identities.

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So I presumed. Then, during the Surat violence, something occurred that for the next 10 years I could not even talk about. I was with a friend when a neighbour, a middle-aged Gujarati woman, rushed in to announce that a train had been stopped outside the city, and some women passengers raped. As she went out, and the friend said it must be one of those rumours, I caught myself wondering if those violated were Hindu women. Before the thought could fully materialise – or so I wish to believe – I was seized with shame.

What depths of my being had darkly harboured this vile distinction between Hindus and Muslims? Where, in that onesided devastation, was a chance for the Muslims to harm the Hindus? Howsoever inexplicable, the shameful thought had been thought. Am I purged of it now? Or is it back in hiding? Waiting to leap out again.

The only consolation is that the lapse did not compromise my resistance to Hindutva. Which is not to say that the resistance stayed uncompromised. A couple of contrasting experiences would illustrate this.

The first was during the rash of Hindutva aggression in 1990. I was returning from Aligarh. Within minutes of leaving the station, the train came to a stop. Immediately a Pavlovian reflex reminded me that during the recent violence in that city, a train had been forcibly stopped, and its Muslim passengers attacked. In a split second, the worst-case scenario flashed across my mind. Given my Muslim appearance, they would demand to know my name and, unsatisfied, subject me to the “ultimate” test, whereupon my being circumcised would put me in danger. What would I do then? That long moment of debate between life and death ended decisively. Whatever might happen, I would not volunteer my “Hindu” identity.

The other experience came two years later during the violence in Surat. I was to catch a train later in the day, when I was told that there had been a bomb blast in the city and trouble was apprehended. If I had to go, I should leave for the railway station forthwith. The station was far and I could run into trouble on the way. Once again the same life-and-death debate was played out. Fear prevailed this time. In case of danger, I would show them my passport.

It is distressing to be witness to one’s own moral softening. Still, I should like to believe that this was weakness in the face of evil, without being infected by that evil. It was no simple moral erosion. Rather, it represented a more alarming, perhaps realistic, appraisal of the unrestrained fury of the evil. It was no surrender, just surviving, to fight another day, maybe in another way. For, if I am not rationalising personal timidity, martyrdom has in our day ceased to be viable. Social sensitivity and political culture have so hardened as to minimise the potential efficacy of selfsacrifice.

Though my own confession illustrates the continuation of ambivalence into our difficult climateric times I would have preferred to show its working in popular reactions during extreme situations like Surat 1992 and Gujarat 2002. Similarly, in the context of my discussion of the reflection of social consciousness in the options exercised by the political class, I would have liked to discuss the implications of the political realignment that brought into existence the reigning UPA. But time would permit only so much. That, though, should not matter for kind of constantly renewed self-reflexive understanding I have essayed here. Ambivalence, If I may repeat, is always and never the same.




[This article forms the text of the 2005 Daniel Thorner Memorial Lecture, Paris.]

1 A powerful and pithy expression of this sentiment is the following hemistich from Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-85), a man of broadly liberal nationalist views and one of the architects of modern Hindi literature: ‘Jin Javanan tuv dharma nari dhan teenahun leeno’. Braj Ratna Das, (eds), Bharatendu Granthavali, Kashi, Samvat 2010, Vol II, p 764. Hijada – eunuch – was a common appellation used by the Hindu writers to describe what the Muslim rulers had done to the Hindus.

2 The famous line is: “In Mussalman harijanan pai kotin Hindu variye”, Bharatendu Granthavali, II, 263.

3 Haris Chandra’s Magazine, February 15, 1874.


Das, Braj Ratna (1953): Bharatendu Granthavali, Vol II, Nagari Pranini Sabha, Kashi, UP. Government of India (1964): Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol XIII, Ahmedabad. Malla, Vijay Shankar (1958) (edited):

Pratapnarayan Granthavali, Kashi, UP.



  • 1. Hum Ek Hain; Rekha Dwivedi, Gopal Chaturvedi (ed); 2002 (Hindi) 70.00
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    Economic and Political Weekly February 4, 2006

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