The communal angle looms largest because it threatens life and stability
Recent events confirm that Indians suffer acutely from what Jawaharlal Nehru saw as the majority’s minority complex. As his biographer put it, “Like Sartre, to whom the Jewish question was a Gentile one, to Nehru the Muslim question was a Hindu one.” In other ways too, decisions at the highest official level intended to project firmness in fact betray weakness and a sense of insecurity about India’s unity and the loyalty of Indians who don’t all sing the same tune.
The communal angle looms largest because it threatens life and stability.
The warning by Mohan Bhagwat, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, that Hindus are “at war” in order to protect their religion and culture because Muslims harbour a “sense of supremacy” is one reminder of the dangers that lie ahead. Another is the Supreme Court’s reprimand to the Delhi police for delaying action against the Dharam Sansad on December 19, 2021 when men and women in saffron vowed to transform India into “Hindu Rashtra” with the pledge: “We shall fight; we shall die and, if necessary, we shall kill.” The injunction by Pramod Muthalik, national president of Karnataka’s Shree Ram Sene, to display and worship swords as a defence against “love jihad” is a third example. The Sene acquired notoriety some years ago for attacking couples who were celebrating Valentine’s Day and women who frequented pubs.
Is the timeless Sanatan Dharma so feeble then that it needs the protection of these sword-wielding toughs?
The sense of inferiority isn’t always expressed so violently. The decision by the National Council for Indian Systems of Medicine to include astrology in the bachelor of ayurvedic medicine and surgery course does not indicate much faith in genuine ayurveda. As G.L. Krishna, an ayurveda physician and Homi Bhabha fellow at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, pointed out, it “is a regressive move as it pushes ayurveda towards faith-based practices, away from evidence-based reasoning”.
The refusal of Tamil Nadu’s governor, R.N. Ravi, to recognise the state’s official name which, he says, reveals separatist intent, is another sign of weakness. The ancient “Tamizhagam” — his preference — may have “contributed to the spread of Sanatan Dharma to the whole of Bharat”, as Mr Ravi claims, but has no constitutional sanction today. It’s another piece of pleasant fiction like “Ram Rajya” or “Ram Setu”. Even a skyscraping Ram temple at Ayodhya cannot turn myth into reality.
Tamil Nadu is listed in the First Schedule of the Constitution. It is a hallowed name for many Tamils who associate it with the legendary C.N. Annadurai. Like Poti Sriramulu, the Telugu nationalist who fasted to death in 1952 to demand a separate Andhra Pradesh, a well-known Tamil nationalist, Sankarilinga Nadar, fasted to death in 1956 to change the old Madras to Tamil Nadu.
Given the history of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the party to which the chief minister M.K. Stalin, belongs, eyebrows might have been raised at the time at the choice of a name that stressed the state’s Tamil identity. But that is no reason for the BJP to reduce a serious constitutional issue to the level of party politics and keep riling the DMK about it. No wonder the governor is suspected of being in cahoots with the state BJP chief, K. Annamalai, a former Indian Police Service officer.
The touchiness isn’t new. Even Nehru’s Centre wasn’t too pleased when the Naga tribes chose “Nagaland” as the new name for the old Naga Hills district. Given the many years of Naga guerrilla resistance to absorption in India, New Delhi thought that some apolitical equivalent of the lyrical Arunachal Pradesh or Meghalaya would be preferable to a name which included the word “land”, with its connotations of independence.
There was a flash of hope of a more realistic approach at the third India-Asean business summit in New Delhi in 2004 when Dr Manmohan Singh quoted Sinnappa Arasaratnam, author of Maritime India in the Seventeenth Century, to recall that India profited from the autonomy enjoyed by littoral states “with little interference from groups that would not have understood the needs and demands of the predominant activity of commerce”. He argued that “mutually beneficial business links” between India’s coastal states and Southeast Asia would lend meaning to the Look East policy and “eventually give shape to the idea of an Asian century.”
The suggestion of a break with the rigidity that had 11 years earlier killed an initiative by Kerala’s industries minister, P.K. Kunhalikutty, was however belied. It needn’t have been. Kerala is a state with hoary maritime traditions. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told an American congressional committee that it supplied teak for King Solomon’s palace. Legend has it that when Thomas the Apostle landed at the Roman staging post of Muziris in Kerala in AD 52, a Jewish girl played the flute to welcome him. Kochi’s Jews claim descent from refugees who had fled Nebuchadnezzar’s sacking of Jerusalem and founded the world’s first independent Jewish state centuries before Israel was a gleam in Chaim Weizmann’s eye.
China’s 14th century admiral, Zheng He, made several voyages to the Malabar coast, leaving behind the giant cantilevered fishing nets that Malayali fishermen call “cheena vale”.
All that encouraged Mr Kunhalikutty to announce after talks with Singapore officials that Kerala would be the first Indian state to station someone in Singapore “to woo investors throughout the Asean region”. New Delhi scotched the plan, recalling Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer and feeling that Trivandrum was again getting above itself. Commercial representation abroad could nurture political ambitions!
Yet, international interaction is not always a prerogative of sovereignty. Several Australian and Canadian states pursue their individual commercial stars in foreign capitals. Western Australia has an office in Mumbai. Governor Qin Guangrong of China’s Yunnan province visited Kolkata in 2008 on a trade and tourism mission but — expectedly — the proposed Kunming-Calcutta link didn’t develop.
No point is served by denying that today’s geopolitical India is an imperial creation. British rule brought together peoples, kingdoms, regions and tribes with very different pasts. They agreed in 1947, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to commit their future to a common destiny. It’s that future that must be strengthened; demonising or deifying selected people and events through tailored accounts and tame teachers doesn’t change the past. It only betrays a weak authority’s lack of confidence. That poses the greatest threat to India’s unity and survival.