Indian liberals have no strategy to counter RSS’ own brand of ‘Hindutva constitutionalism’

Hilal Ahmed | 18 November 2020
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Indian liberals haven’t yet realised the political effectiveness of Hindutva constitutionalism. They treat the Constitution as the final, self-evident political text.

To counter the rising Hindutva politics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, Indian liberals and progressive activists frequently like to quote B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘constitutional morality’. They treat the Constitution as the final, self-evident document. But they have failed to make room for what I call the new ‘Hindutva constitutionalism’. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh also hails the Constitution when it comes to contentious policies such as abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Article 370, Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Triple Talaq and ban on cow slaughter.

Hence, the RSS’ new Hindutva must be understood in relation to the idea of Hindutva constitutionalism.

Devotion to Indian Constitution has been one of the most considerable aspects of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent speeches and discourses. In fact, he links the Constitution to the cultural-political ethos of the RSS.

The RSS, he asserts, strives to achieve the constitutional idea of India.

This enthusiastic acceptance of the Indian Constitution as the ultimate source of the RSS’ ideology and action goes against the standard liberal critique of Hindutva. The argument that Hindutva politics defies secular principles of the Constitution, and therefore it is legitimate to call it anti-constitutional, does not fit well with Hindutva’s present-day political imaginations.

The contemporary Hindutva, we must note, is not interested in the old Hindu nationalist rhetorical ideals such as Dharam Rajya, Hindu Rashtra or even Akhand Bharat. On the contrary, it has evolved a new form of politics, which appropriates the existing legal-constitutional framework for creating favourable political common-sense.

What is Hindutva constitutionalism?

In a rather technical sense, constitutionalism refers to the norms and principles that not only create State institutions (legislative, executive and judicial powers) but also impose certain limits and curbs on them.

The moral principles outlined in the Preamble and the directives given to the State in Part IV of our Constitution (Directive Principles of the State Policy) may be taken as examples of these legal limits.

There is also a political meaning of constitutionalism that has evolved over the years. The ideologically divided political class of the 1950s accepted the Constitution as the fundamental reference point to participate in formal electoral politics. But even people like Jayaprakash Narayan articulated a political anxiety about the success of the Constitution in the Indian context (A Plea for the Reconstruction of the Indian Polity, 1959).

Even as the political parties relied heavily on the language of constitutionalism in the realm of electoral politics, they continued to evolve different ideologically suitable interpretations of the Indian Constitution. This paved the way for differing forms of ideologically oriented and politically feasible constitutionalism. The Hindutva constitutionalism is one such political form.

Three features of Hindutva constitutionalism

Unlike other political forces, Hindutva groups never envisaged the Constitution as a self-explanatory text. In the post-1990 period, when every political party, including the Left groups, started celebrating the Indian Constitution as the ultimate document of democracy, the RSS and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continued to have a critical engagement with it. Even the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government constituted a committee to review the working of the Constitution.

It was Narendra Modi who not only described it as a “holy book” but also gave an outline to Hindutva constitutionalism in later years. In October 2015, the government declared that 26 November, the day when the Constituent Assembly adopted the final draft of the Constitution in 1949, would be celebrated as the Samvidhan Divas every year. In a speech dedicated to the greatness of the Constitution, Modi went on to say that “if there is any creation made by man, which is immortal, it is India’s Constitution”.

1. Emphasis on technicalities   

Reliability on legal technicalities to articulate a persuasive political position is the first feature of contemporary Hindutva. It is important to remember that the Hindu nationalists of the 1950s—the Jana Sangh or Hindu Mahasabha—found it difficult to give up the colonial categories (such as Hindus and Muslims) for asserting their majoritarianism. They realised that the Constitution, in a way, does not allow the political parties to evoke religion directly. They employ a more sophisticated legal language that enables them to claim an inclusive character. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, for example, is not exclusively about the migrating Hindus. It covers the non-Muslim religious minorities of the neighbouring Muslim states, including Hindus.

2. One Nation, One Constitution

The Hindutva constitutionalism recognises the ‘one nation, one Constitution’ as the foundational principle of its politics. Instead of relying entirely on the old Hindu nationalist claims that Kashmir—a Muslim-majority state—should not have any special status, the Hindutva groups propose a refined legal explanation. It asserted that while the other provisions of the Constitution are fixed, permanent and consistent, Article 370 is an unwanted and useless addition to it that has been kept for obvious political reasons by the Congress.

The political determination of the BJP and the strong will of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, according to this line of reasoning, have been instrumental in achieving the ‘one nation, one Constitution’ framework. It is worth noting that the Presidential order that revoked the special status of Kashmir is called the Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Order, 2019.

3. Minority—not majority

Emphasis on a refined and more profound idea of minority—not majority—is the third and final feature of Hindutva constitutionalism. In the last six years, the BJP government has tried to appropriate the idea of minority to legitimise its Hindu victimhood argument. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court in 2017 by a BJP leader demanded that Hindus must be declared a minority in eight states (Lakshadweep, Mizoram, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Punjab). It was argued that the minority rights of Hindus are “being siphoned off illegally and arbitrarily to the majority population because neither Central nor the State Governments have notified them (sic) Hindus as a ‘minority’ in these states”.

The CAA also extends the scope of this legal claim. By highlighting the persecution of Hindu minorities in Muslim-majority countries, this law seems to underline the old RSS argument: Hindu majority in India is insignificant because India is surrounded by Muslim-majority states.

The liberal opponents of Hindutva have not yet realised the political effectiveness of Hindutva constitutionalism. They still treat the Indian Constitution as a self-explanatory political text. This over-reliance on the Constitution as the ultimate source to discredit Hindutva is increasingly becoming counter-productive.

Hilal Ahmed is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. 

This article was originally published on The Print.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.