In his book ‘Why I am Hindu’, Shashi Tharoor asks, ‘Can Hindutva wholeheartedly accept the Constitution?’

Under PM Modi will Hindutva transform the workings of the Constitution Tharoor writes PTI
Features Book Excerpt Friday, January 26, 2018 - 15:07

Under Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has a sizeable parliamentary majority on its own that it had never enjoyed before; it is, therefore, not obliged to dilute its agenda to accommodate less Hindutva-minded coalition partners, since it does not need any of them to make up its majority. The BJP became the first governing party in the history of independent India to come to power without a single elected Muslim member of the Lok Sabha; the three Muslims who have served in its council of ministers are all appointees to the Rajya Sabha. Also, for the first time, Indian democracy finds itself facing the reality of its top three constitutional positions—president, vice president and prime minister—all being held by RSS members of the same ideological disposition.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this marks a significant step towards the Hindutva project of transforming India into a Hindu state, or at least a state with a distinctively Hindu identity. Many Hindutva ideologues have long deplored the fact that love for Hinduism had been, in India, a love that could not be acknowledged; officially promoted secularism, they argued, had made India a country where a Muslim could be proud to be Muslim, a Christian proud to be Christian, a Sikh proud to Sikh, while a Hindu was proud to be…secular.

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Nor can it be denied that the ascent of Hindutvavadis to the pinnacle of political power in India has occurred, significantly, under India’s secular constitution, and through entirely democratic and legal means. The great question before us today is, therefore: Will constitutionalism tame Hindutva, or will Hindutva transform the workings of the constitution?

On 11 December 1995, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, headed by a famously liberal Chief Justice, J. S. Verma, declared that Hindutva was a ‘way of life and not a religion’. The court explained: ‘Ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and is not to be equated with or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism...it is a fallacy and an error of law to proceed on the assumption...that the use of words “Hindutva” or “Hinduism” per se depicts an attitude hostile to all persons practising any religion other than the Hindu religion... It may well be that these words are used in a speech to promote secularism or to emphasise the way of life of the Indian people and the Indian culture or ethos, or to criticise the policy of any political party as discriminatory or intolerant.’

Unsurprisingly, this Supreme Court judgment found its way into the campaign manifesto of the BJP in the general elections of the following year, 1996. The party claimed the Supreme Court had ‘endorsed the true meaning and content of Hindutva as being consistent with the true meaning and definition of secularism’. This could be said to mark the beginning of the constitutional acceptability of the concept of Hindutva—something that arguably is no longer in question, since on 2 January 2017, the Supreme Court of India declined to reconsider its 1995 judgment.

So the Constitution and its custodians have made their peace with Hindutva. But can Hindutva wholeheartedly accept the Constitution?

The more conformist of the two BJP prime ministers India has had, Atal Behari Vajpayee (in office from 1998 to 2004), took a moderate approach to constitutional change, arguing that ‘even in the mightiest fort one has to repair the parapet from time to time’ (while V. P. Singh cautioned that the ‘tenants’ should not go for ‘rebuilding in the name of repairs’). His rule saw no dramatic change in India’s constitutional arrangements, though his government did conduct a constitutional review that produced a 1,979-page report, universally unread. There has so far been no dramatic challenge to the Constitution under the second BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi, either, but here it is far less certain that the present approach will endure.

Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who rejected the Constitution of India in conception, form and substance, would be astonished to find his supposed acolytes extolling its every line and holding special commemorations in Parliament with grandiloquent speeches to mark the anniversary not just of its adoption—which, after all, is Republic Day—but even of its passage by the Constituent Assembly in a newly anointed ‘Constitution Day’. What would Deen Dayal Upadhyaya have made, I wonder, of a prime minister, who swears by him, saying that this Constitution—the very document that Upadhyaya found fallacious, Westernized and devoid of chiti and vir shakti—is his ‘holy book’?

It is, of course, difficult to know whether we should take the Hindutvavadis’ claims to be admirers of the present secular, liberal, Western-influenced Constitution of India to be as sincere as their professions of devotion to Upadhyaya. Will Modi and his tribe, after consolidating their hold on both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and after taking over most of the state governments, feel emboldened to tear up the very Constitution to which they have so far so enthusiastically pledged allegiance?

There are already hints that the Constitution in its present form cannot long survive unscathed. Hindutva ideologue K. N. Govindacharya has declared that the Constitution must be transformed: ‘Amendment is a short-term goal while rewriting is a long-term objective,’ he stated. His fundamental critique, expressed in interviews to leading Indian newspapers in 2017, is not far from Upadhyaya’s of half a century earlier: ‘Our Constitution is based upon the idea of individualism. It promotes individualism, which is against the Indian value system…while Indian civilization is based upon family system, collectiveness. Other important components of our society such as caste system, panchayat system are not mirrored in the Constitution. Individualism is a western idea. It cannot be the basis of the Indian Constitution. A new Constitution should be written which would talk in favour of Sarva (all), not an individual.’ Aside from giving caste an honoured place in the Hindutva political system, ‘We believe that Indian society and its cultural reality should be included in the Constitution.’ For instance, ‘in ‘Bharatiya’ society, family is the basic brick of society, and as in the Cuban Constitution, it is not the individual but family values that are crucial.’

Cuba as a model for India is a nice touch from a supposedly right-wing movement. But as in many communist systems, Parliament as we know it would cease to exist. ‘The new Constitution would be based on the principles of collectiveness. In political terminology, you can call it a Guild System. Representatives of the different castes, professions, communities would be included in National Guild. Instead of Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, there would be only one National Guild in which 1,000 representatives from all over the country will discuss the problems of India. In the National Guild, 500 representatives would come through territorial representation, while 500 would come through functional representation.’

Human rights are another example of the Westernization of the Indian constitutional system, according to Govindacharya: ‘There cannot be any rights without checks and balances. If the Constitution gives us fundamental rights, it mentions fundamental duties too. But no one cares about that. Rights and duties should be seen in relation to each other. To exercise your rights, you should follow your duties. No one can exercise absolute freedom.’ As Deen Dayal Upadhyaya had argued, ‘fundamental duties, not just rights, must also be incorporated.’ Secularism, like human rights, will have to go: it ‘implies opposition of Hindus and appeasement of Muslims or other minorities. We should get rid of this word as soon as possible. It is completely irrelevant in the Indian context.’

Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s inspiration crops up again in the Hindutva rejection of the Western word ‘socialism’ in the Preamble of the Constitution. ‘We have a better word—of Indian tradition—to express the spirit of socialism. It is [Upadhyaya’s coinage] antodaya. Antodaya means antim aadmi (the last man).’ Similarly democracy is a troubling term because it implies political contention. ‘Instead of competitiveness, consensus and collectiveness should be the spirit of the democracy’, says Govindacharya. Shades of Cuba again!

The process of incorporating such Hindu concepts seems to have begun: ‘We are doing it very silently. Discussions and debates have been taking place for some time. What I told you above are the initial outcomes of the debate’, Govindacharya confirms. ‘There may be many gaps which need deliberations, and a cool, calm, dispassionate discussion needs the right atmosphere and a mechanism. However, this is just not possible in the media glare.’

Would a Hindutva-inspired revision of the Constitution, for example, move the issue of cow slaughter from the Directive Principles of the Constitution, where it is linked specifically to the preservation of milch-cattle and scientific principles of animal husbandry, to somewhere more binding, and anchored more explicitly to religious sanction? Govindacharya is clear: a Hindutva-drafted Constitution would provide for ‘eco-centric not anthropocentric development. I mean not just rights of the cow, but a holistic view of zamin, jal, janwar, jungle; for only in this protection lies the well-being of man. All the five must have sacred rights, and this should not just be rights-based but duty-based, and not just be components of state power. The cow is part of our civilizational past and it reflects those values, it should be a civilizational continuity in the preamble. The cow, environment protection, all this requires constitutional protection. It is part of Hindu ethos, culture—like Bishnois who embrace death by hugging those trees, this is all ‘Bharatiya’ culture. Instead of assuming man is conqueror of nature, it is the duty of humans to protect nature, and all this must be incorporated in the Constitution.’

Environmentalists may well approve, but the key questions remains whether a Hindutva-modified Constitution, assuming that it ever comes about, will retain the core principle of independent India, that all adult Indians are deemed equal, irrespective of religion. Or would it consciously embrace the central theme of Hindutva, which would discriminate against non-Hindus? If it did so, it would be true to Hindutva as expounded by Savarkar, Golwalkar and Upadhyaya, but not to the Hinduism of Swami Vivekananda or Mahatma Gandhi, who did not define citizenship or Indianness in terms of the gods one worshipped, what one ate, the way one dressed or where one went for pilgrimage. But if it did not do so, it would betray a century’s worth of political philosophizing in the name of Hindutva, surrendering its tenets to the dominant nationalist stream it had long derided as ‘pseudo-secular’.

This will be a crucial dilemma for the Hindutva ideologues.

Do they take the opportunity given to them by their crushing political majority—which might not endure if they wait too long—to remake the Constitution as their principal thinkers had advocated? Or do they accept that the reality of ruling a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious polity makes the goal of ‘Hindu, Hindi, Hindutva’ unattainable?

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book “Why I am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor.

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