We have the Christian Right and the Christian Left, the Muslim Right and the Muslim Left. But in the case of Hinduism, we only ever speak of the Hindu Right, never a Hindu Left. How come? Indian academic Ruth Vanita posed the same question in an essay in Seminar magazine (2002), titled Whatever happened to the Hindu Left?
Vanita’s answer can be summarized as follows: In the 19th century, the Hindu religion, under attack from the British rulers and their missionaries, responded with what Ashis Nandy has called a process of Christianization. This meant, among other things, a turn to monotheism, and a single text. Reformist Hindu organizations such as the Arya Samaj and Ramakrishna Mission, which were left of centre in their social agendas and fought for causes such as women’s education and against untouchability, “felt compelled to also renounce polytheism and idol-worship” because they were regarded by their colonial rulers as primitive and backward.
So the modern Hindu Left intellectual would not want to be seen embracing or endorsing such “backward” Hindu practices as idol worship even though, notes Vanita, they could be seen migrating “en masse to Durga Puja celebrations”. Once the Hindu religion as such came to be associated with regressive practices, public ownership of it became an embarrassment – a marker of pre-modern irrationality. As a consequence, all criticism of Hinduism from a standpoint of critical modernity began to shift to the discursive space of secularism, and became conflated with criticism of religion as such. The one big exception to this rule was Mahatma Gandhi.
It was Gandhi’s left-wing Hinduism, characterized by his crusade against untouchability and political stand in favour of equal rights for minorities that pitted him against the right-wing Hinduism of the Hindu Mahasabha. One might say that, with his assassination by the Hindu Right, the Hindu Left more or less disappeared from the national scene. But actually, things are a little more complicated than that.
By 1937, 10 years before the Partition, the Congress had essentially become a Hindu party – 97% of its members were Hindu. Indeed, had it been a truly secular party, there would have been no need for Partition. After independence, the Congress, thanks primarily to Jawaharlal Nehru, felt compelled to don two left-of-centre masks -- the mask of secularism in the political domain, and the mask of socialism in the economic domain.
But obviously, notwithstanding its secular phenotype, the Congress, in its genotype, was a party of Hindus, which was why the Hindu Right had to wait for four decades to gain electoral traction. Plus it was also a party of the trading castes and the landed aristocracy.
Once the lower castes began to make their presence felt in the political arena, the Hindu upper castes needed a political formation that would represent their interests and keep the former in check. This is where the Bharatiya Janata Party stepped in. But this also meant that the Congress had to make a choice: should it remain tied to its masks, or throw them off and shine in its true colours?
For all practical purposes, the political position represented by an “unmasked Congress” has been usurped by the BJP, which is not averse, as pointed out by Vanita, to dislocating the caste tensions within Hinduism onto other religious minorities. But what is significant is that even a self-proclaimed right-wing Hindu party like the BJP feels compelled to wear a Leftist mask when it comes to the economic agenda: the party will not dare to speak to its voters with the same tongue as it does with its upper caste, business class backers. Two examples from the BJP’s 2009 manifesto will suffice (its 2014 manifesto is not yet ready).
Here is something for all those who had a field day bashing the UPA for passing the food security bill: “The BJP believes people have the right to food. To ensure food security for all and eliminate hunger, we will: 1. Provide 35 kg of rice or wheat every month to BPL families at Rs2 per kg…; 2. Allocate more funds for expanding, universalizing and improving the functioning of the Public Distribution System.”
And this is the BJP’s official line on FDI in retail: “The BJP understands the critical importance of retail trade in the context of employment and services provided by them (sic), and thus favours a dominant role for the unincorporated sector in retail trade. Towards this end, it will not (italics mine) allow foreign investment in the retail sector.”
As for the Congress, though it is nominally left of centre on the economic agenda, its substantive policies – a seeming sop like the watered down food security bill notwithstanding – are right of centre, as its legacy of economic reforms attest. But there has never been – and never will be -- a democratic mandate for the right-wing economic agenda in India, which is why the UPA has had to resort to “reforms by stealth” . So no matter how rightwing you are in your political agenda, on the economic front, you have to be seen to be on the left unless you want to commit electoral hara-kiri. The Congress knows this, which is why it pushed through the food security bill.
What all this means is that there is still a huge political vacuum – a need gap, in free market terms – for the Hindu Left. A political formation that combines a genuinely Hindu religiosity – marked by pluralism and a respect for minorities – with an economic agenda oriented towards employment-generation rather than creating “an ideal investment climate”, is bound to resonate with an electorate tired of having to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee at the national level.
But unfortunately, the secular Left has been fanatical in branding any political configuration with a Hindu touch as “communalist”. Even Hindu intellectuals who are vociferous critics of Hindutva politics are careful to launch their attacks from a platform of secular liberalism. They rarely, if ever, criticize Hindutva from a space within Hinduism even though they might be practicing Hindus. This cedes the entire political and social space of Hinduism – from the extreme left to the extreme right – to the Hindutva brigade, which is happy to claim it all as its own.
So, we are in a curious situation today where, even as the secular Left is still bogged down by its differences with Gandhi, the Hindu Right has become brazen enough to claim Gandhi as its spokesperson . Ramachandra Guha has spoken about how “the Left and the liberals have allowed the Hindu Right to hijack patriotism” . But what dyed-in-the-wool liberals and upper caste Hindu intellectuals do not talk about is how the Left and the liberals have allowed the Hindu Right to hijack the Hindu Left.
And the Hindu Left has a long and worthy tradition – going back to the Bhakti movement, with a continuous lineage all the way from the Nayanmars and Alwars to Kabir, Meera Bai, Surdas, Tulsidas, Namdev, Tukaram, Tyagaraja, and many others right till the arrival of Ramakrishna Paramahansa in the 19th century. All of them preached the equivalence of all faiths and were critics of the caste system, untouchability, and brahminical rituals. Hindu reformist movements like the Arya Samaj drew inspiration from this tradition. And in the 20th century, the Hindu Left found its most potent visionary in Mahatma Gandhi, who left his mark as a social reformer, as a politician, and as a sant.
A decade has passed since the publication of Vanita’s essay. India finds itself at the crossroads in terms of its political future. There is a concerted effort on the part of the Hindu Right in alliance with the secular Right to hard sell a mutilated, diseased version of the idea of India, whose most remarkable feature is a seamless integration of Hindu supremacy and corporate supremacy. And Narendra Modi is the emblem of this vision of India. That is why any attack on Modi is intolerable for his backers – for it is also an attack on the idea of India propagated by the socio-political alliance of the Hindu Indian Right and the Secular Indian Right.
Interestingly, some rightwing commentators have branded Modi as “the anti-Nehru”. From a Hindu Left standpoint, Modi is actually the anti-Hindu. But the fact that this perspective on Modi is rarely to be heard underlines how completely the Hindu Left has withdrawn from public discourse.
In this context, it is significant that Vanita concludes her essay by calling upon liberal and leftist Hindus to “acknowledge their Hindu identity and speak in defense of Hindu heritage”, which belongs not only to all Hindus, but to all Indians, and to the world as a whole. She writes, “...liberal and leftist Hindus have an equal right and perhaps an obligation now to claim that heritage before it gets further eroded and destroyed by its self-styled champions.”
Indeed, India’s Hindus as well as its multitudinous minorities are still waiting for a credible Hindu Left formation that will not only reclaim Hinduism from its self-styled champions, but also reclaim secularism from its cynical flag-bearers. But for that to happen, the secular Left must distinguish the Hindu Left from the Hindu Right, and while continuing to oppose to the latter, ally itself with the former.