Date: December 30, 2014
Full Steam Ahead
The threat isn't only to freedom of faith. India’s Constitution and democracy are the targets of Hindu religious nationalism
By John Dayal
Dec. 29, 2014
By John Dayal
There is an element of irony, which has not gone entirely unnoticed, in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that what the world knows as Christmas will henceforth be celebrated in India as "Good Governance Day." A slew of activities in honour of the first Bharatiya Janata Party Prime Minister, who was in office between 1998 and 2004, are planned. After a 10-year interlude of rule by the Congress Party under Sonia Gandhi, Mr. Modi won a mandate for the second BJP government in New Delhi.
His agenda was development, which requires not just economic growth but a ruthlessness in ensuring that there is no resistance to it: Nothing in the social and political structures in tribal villages, among the small peasantry and the working class that would thwart the engines of such development, big national capital and multinational corporations. It also needs that ephemeral thing called Foreign Direct Investment – an omnibus term that includes traders who make a profit on borrowing money from the US at a 2 per cent interest and putting it in India at a 12 per cent rate; others who have laundered Indian money on which they avoided taxes and routed it back through havens such as Mauritius; and Indian businesses who settled the blue line in their units abroad by investing their dollars and Euros in their Indian companies for the same reason. The trouble with such Foreign Direct Investment, of course, is that, when the investor panics, it goes back to foreign lands at the press of a computer key with the same speed with which it came in.
Many of the "reforms" to make this dream possible are on their way. Tribals are all but losing their lands to mining giants because villages could lose their veto. Trade unions, all but defunct in the liberalisation programmes of the Congress regime of 2004-2014, now face annihilation. Land-acquisition rules will make it convenient to force projects wherever it is profitable for the cronies.
But the development dream may be running into problems not considered amid the rhetoric of general elections. There is opposition to the BJP’s campaign to end what it has called, with great derision, "entitlements" for the common people. They may change the name of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme, and may merge schemes named after Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi into umbrellas named after Bharatiya Janata party and other Sangh stalwarts, but subsidies to farmers, rural landless, and urban poor are needed if the 50 per cent, in real time, in abject poverty are not to rise in bloody revolution.
And this forces Mr. Modi to look for other agendas. He does not have to look far. Mr. Vajpayee’s legacy, and the Sangh Parivar’s dreams, provides handy tracks on which the prime minister can tread.
The most dangerous of these involves removing roadblocks in the Indian Constitution, or at least those that are seen as a hindrance in the construction or reconstruction of the India that was in the scriptures and stories of old. This is something the Sangh, and even the BJP, has always spoken about, rejecting the document signed by the Constituent Assembly and brought into force in 1950. They call this document a relic of a colonial, Christian, and alien thesis that has no roots or place in Indian culture.
The Constitution has sustained itself for six and a half decades, but it remains a fragile document. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed its basic features cannot be altered. But it permits amendments to bring it in tune with the times, and to cater to new situations. All statutes must be relevant to the age. Constitutional provisions for sort of suspending fundamental rights by declaring a state of National Emergency have been used in times of the wars with China and Pakistan, especially in 1971.
But Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975 showed the Constitution could be suspended, so to say, even for political, partisan and personal reasons. After her election was overturned by the Allahabad high court for using government machinery in her campaign, she declared a state of emergency in June that year, saying there was national anarchy and that people’s groups were trying to overthrow the government. Until she revoked it and called for general elections in 1977, the country was ruled by emergency extra-constitutional centres of authority.
The BJP and the [education] Minister contend that Hindu sacred texts are the 5,000-year-old source of knowledge on such diverse subjects as plastic surgery, aviation, nuclear weaponry and genetic engineering.
Mr. Vajpayee, too, saw much in the Constitution that he wanted changed. His government never did have the majority in Parliament, especially the Lok Sabha lower house, to implement his dream project, though he did start the process. The Commission to review the Constitution was set up by his government, chaired by former Chief Justice and former Chairman of the National Human Rights commission, Justice M N Venkatachelliah. Among the proposals before it was one from BJP leader and India Vice President Bhairon Singh Sekhawat, who wanted parliament and state legislatures to have fixed five-year terms; to hold all elections on the same date; to require each no-confidence motion to be accompanied by an alternative "confidence motion;" and to give the two Houses of Parliament authority to directly elect the prime minister in case a party did not have a clear majority.
Mr. Venkatachelliah did not suggest anything so drastic, but he did call for electoral reforms as a matter of urgency.
Constitutional experts and the then-opposition Congress Party, as well as the Left group, saw a greater conspiracy. They said a fixed term for elected representatives was an attempt to introduce a presidential form of government, which has been BJP's pet prescription for India's ills. As India Today noted, "The proposal to bring in an alternative formation along with a no-confidence motion had no takers in the 1998 debate, which Vajpayee lost by a vote."
Mr. Modi has made it amply clear, if not in so many words then by other means, that he is fond of a presidential system. Among his first few actions was to choose a cabinet whose members had little political strength of their own, to keep all major decision-making powers to himself, to order all secretaries heading various central ministers to report to him directly and approach him when they wanted to him to bypassing their Ministers, and to get an act of Parliament changed to install a man of his choice as the head of the Prime Minister’s Office. For all practical purposes, the concept of a Government run by a Council of Ministers with Cabinet responsibility is no longer operative. Mr. Modi is the Government of India.
He will, of course, not have his way right away, but he sure can try to bulldoze some important laws. The BJP has a clear, but bare, majority in the Lok Sabha and unless such groups as the All India Anna DMK of Tamil Nadu and the Biju Janata Dal of Orissa back him up together with the current partners in the NDA, even moving a major Constitutional amendment in the Lok Sabha will be impossible. He does not have the numbers.
In the Rajya Sabha, the upper house, the combined opposition is twice as numerous as his BJP and allies. But the situation will change drastically in the next biennial elections, and in less than four years, the BJP may well be in an absolute majority.
What happens when Mr. Modi prepares for the 2019 general elections is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, despite his rather curious call for a "10-year moratorium" on caste and communal violence – not an end to such mayhem, just a postponement – he has maintained a resounding silence in the face of voices from his huge army of supporters and ideological colleagues that, in effect, call for throwing away of the Constitution and all its basic values, especially those concerning freedom of religion and belief, and of citizenship. The Constitution’s first few sentences group the freedoms of expression and religion in one phrase.
There are now open calls for religious cleansing of Bharatavarsha, and their shouts find an echo in the pronouncements of Mr. Modi’s ministers. As Dr. Faisal Devji, Director of the Asian Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, says, "More interesting than the shifting balance of power between the BJP and its ‘family’ of non-state Hindu organisations, however, might be the fact that Hindu nationalism has never possessed a theory of state. Unlike the vision of an Islamic state, for instance, with its distinctive if non-egalitarian constitutional structure, Hindu nationalism has no alternative political model, apart from an insistence on the dominance of majoritarian culture and concerns. And this is its triumph as much as tragedy, since the absence of a distinctive theory of state repeatedly casts Hindu nationalism back into a social movement, one that can only make claims on cultural and demographic rather than constitutional grounds."
On Dec. 18, 2014 — National Minorities Day — Mr. Rajeshwar Singh, the head of the Dharm Jagran Manch [Faith awakening forum] declared on national television that the Manch had set a 2021 deadline to cleanse India of the "alien Islam and Christianity." Another group said Christians would not be allowed in the Himalayan regions, sacred to the Hindus. The hate speeches went viral on social media, and then in the major newspapers across the country.
The Indian government has so far not indicated if Mr. Rajeshwar Singh is being prosecuted under India’s strict laws against religious discord, used so far largely to target Christian pastors, and in recent months, Muslim youth active on Facebook who vent their anger against the State.
But members of the Union Council of Ministers, as well as official spokesmen of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which controls much of the Indian provincial governments, have been voluble in support of the Sangh Parivar. The Parivar is a very large, almost omnipresent family of Hindu militant organisations created by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in the past two decades, of which the Dharma Jagran Manch, the Bajrang Dal and the powerful Vishwa Hindu Parishad are among the more prominent, aggressive groups.
Political analysts have said it would be erroneous to assume that under the government of Mr. Modi, the RSS has reoriented its goals. Each time the BJP assumes power, its ideologues get emboldened. Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee was in power in New Delhi when major attacks took place on Christians. More than 30 village churches were destroyed in Dangs in Gujarat on Christmas Eve in 1998. Australian leprosy worker Graham Staines and his sons were burnt alive in January 1999, as was Catholic priest George Kuzhikandam in Mathura, not too far from New Delhi, as he lay asleep in his church in June 2000. Christmas Eve violence in 2007 in Kandhamal, Orissa, was a precursor of the 2008 pogrom, when the BJP was in power in a coalition government. Mr. Modi has made no bones of the fact that he was a leader of the RSS, and continues to profess its ideology.
RSS-affiliated groups have launched a campaign to convert the poorer Christians and Muslims to Hinduism, a process they call Ghar Wapsi, or homecoming. Their argument is that every Indian is actually Hindu, and Christians and Muslims are those who have strayed, or have been bought over by missionaries. In turn, the Sangh groups have called for a war chest for the Ghar Wapsi, earmarking 500,000 rupees – about US $8,000 — for every Muslim they convert, and 200,000 rupees for every Christian. The different rates are presumably because Muslims are felt to be more difficult to "persuade’ to change their faith.
In the central state of Chhattisgarh, where some months ago radical groups enacted village ordinances banning the entry of essentially Christian pastors, and of religious services other than those of the Hindus, the focus is now on Catholic Schools. In its Bastar Tribal region, Christian schools, which are otherwise in great demand, are required to install statues of the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati. Priests running these institutions no longer can be called "father," but instead must be addressed as "Pracharya," or teacher. Protestant pastors are beaten up, home churches raided almost as a matter of routine, with the police looking on or as an active participant. Santa Claus, of course, has been proscribed. Not coincidentally, Chhattisgarh has been governed by the BJP for the past 12 years.
The fact that the Sangh Parivar runs more than 57,000 ideology-based schools for children in villages across several states, and especially in areas populated by Tribals and the Dalits — groups once called untouchable — makes available a cadre of youth and their parents ready to do their bidding.
The BJP’s response has been to suggest that the religious-cleansing deadline needs to be seen in the context of fiery speeches by Muslim TV evangelists and western campaigns to spread Christianity. The government’s senior minister, Mr. Venkiah Naidu, a former president of the BJP, has called for a national law against religious conversions. These laws exist in six states, and have been passed by two more states but have not yet gained the necessary assent of the governors. It is a matter of a few months before they, too, are brought into force. These laws have also led to some considerable violence against religious groups in the years they have been in place.
United Nations Human Rights Special Rapporteurs for Religious Freedom have slammed these laws as infringing the basic rights of freedom of faith and belief, which are spelled out in the UN bill of Rights, and are an important part of the Indian Constitution.
Other ministers have suggested an immediate enactment of a Common Civil Code, seemingly a good thing, but rooted in the unsubstantiated premise that Muslims can marry four wives at a time, are breeding too fast, and soon will outnumber Hindus. The law also will impact Christian personal laws and customs, particularly in rural populations where tradition and custom are the glue that holds society together.
Mr. Modi’s minister for education, the former TV actor Mrs. Smriti Boman Irani, has ordered a revision of textbooks, particularly of history, to incorporate more ancient Indian traditions, including references to Hindu sacred texts. Various important councils in the ministry are now chaired by luminaries wedded to the thesis that India is the fountainhead of all knowledge in the world. The BJP and the Minister contend that Hindu sacred texts are the 5,000-year-old source of knowledge on such diverse subjects as plastic surgery, aviation, nuclear weaponry and genetic engineering.
Her officials passed orders earlier this month that Christmas Day will now be called "Good Governance Day" in honour of the birthday, not of Jesus, but of Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the first BJP Prime Minister, who ruled from 1998 to 2004, and who is now critically ill and has not been seen in public for several years. Academic institutions from junior schools to universities were to keep their doors open and organise social programmes for the students, supervised by the teachers. Christmas was not to be a holiday any more.
An outcry by Church and civil society, and an acrimonious clash in Parliament, forced the government to dilute its order. Christmas remains a holiday, but the "educational" programmes of declamations and other activities will also be held. Principals and officials must report to the government that they have complied with the order.
Muslims and Christians feel they are being encircled in a tightening noose — in the villages and small towns by Sangh cadres who have the police on their side, and nationally by the federal and state governments that seem to endorse the hate campaigns and the violence.
For the broader Indian civil society, the threat is to the Constitution, which has evolved as a great international democratic document that protects the subcontinent-sized country’s hundreds of cultures, languages, races and faith. All too many people in office and heading Sangh groups have said the Constitution is a British inheritance that has no place in Hindu Rashtra, the Land of the Hindus. Without a State of Emergency having been declared, the extra-constitutional centres of authority — the Hindu extremist non-state actors — seem to be active, indeed.
John Dayal is co-founder and Secretary General of the All India Christian Council, and former president of the All India catholic Union. His is a member of India’s National Integration Council, among other governmental bodies. Visit his website here.