Saturday, July 10, 2004

Some background info. on Indian communalism: RSS, VHP, BJP, etc.

I've been looking at some reference books to try and improve my factual understanding of the history of communal politics between 1880 and 1919. One helpful book is India: Government and Politics in a Developing Nation, by Robert L. Hargrave, Jr. and Stanley A. Kochanek (HBJ, 2000).

Creation of the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS:

The emergence of Hindu consciousness and identity is rooted in the late 19th century. Its origins can be traced to the Hindu revivalism of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement founded in 1875, and the 'extremism' of the Congress leader Bal Gangadhar Tilak. The growth of Hindu nationalism, in contrast, is a product of the early 20th century. Politically, the concept of Hindu nationalism (or communalism as it was then called) was first articulated by the Hindu Mahasabha, a movement that was founded in 1914 at Hardwar by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya in reaction to the creation of the Muslim League in 1906. In its early years the organization was obscured by the Congress party with which most of its members were associated. The Lucknow Pact of 1916 and the ascendency of the Moderates within the Congress alienated many of the Hindu extremists, however, and under the leadership of V.D. Savarkar, an admirer of Tilak and, like him, a Chitpavan Brahmin from Maharashtra, the Mahasabha parted with the Congress in a call to 'Hinduize all politics and militarize Hinduism.' (source: Hargrove and Kochanek)

I didn't know that the members of the Mahasabha were in the Congress early on. It's also interesting to hear that they came into existence initially as a reaction to the forming of the Muslim League.

The RSS was briefly banned after the assasination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948 (Godse was associated with the RSS). It was also banned during 1975-1977, when Indira Gandhi had assumed dictatorial powers. It was banned yet again for a short while after the razing of the Babri Masjid in December 1992.

Organizations like the BJP and the VHP were actually formed rather recently:

Over the past 50 years, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has emerged as an increasingly powerful force in India and has become the head of what is now known as the Sangh Parivar, or family of Hindu nationalist organizations, with a spread across all sectors of Hindu society. These organizations include the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, founded in 1948 and now the largest student organization in India; the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), founded in 1955 and today the largest trade union in the country; the Jana Sangh (1951) and its successor, the BJP, representing the political arm of the RSS; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), founded in 1964, and its thuggish offshoot the Bajrang Dal (1984), which represent the more explicitly religious wing; and the newly formed Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, founded in 1991 to protect Indian economic self-reliance from the threat of foreign capital.

The last is interesting -- I hadn't heard of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (they have a website -- note the iconic use of Gandhi's image!). It seems confusing, since the BJP government was pro-foreign investment and privatization. On the other hand, the nativist slant communalism makes "self-reliance" an obvious ideological endpoint. I'm curious to find out more about how the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch is thought of by the mainstream Hindu nationalist groups.

Finally, the RSS today. It is important to note that they are not just thugs. Indeed, I suspect that much of their mass-support comes from their social programs, which build credibility in local communities:

From 1977, the RSS undertook a major effort to expand membership, and it met with resounding success. It is estimated that there are today more than 2.5 million members who attend meetings of the shakha, or unit, every day of the year. Here, for about one hour at either dawn or dusk, RSS volunteers uniformed in khaki shorts engage in an intensive program of ideological discussion, physical exercise, and military discipline. There are some 40,000 shakhas throughout India, each having 50-100 active members with a neighborhood base. RSS support is predominantly urban and lower middle class. From its traditional geographic core in North India, the movement has spread into the Northeast and into South India. It has also begun to make inroads into the countryside and has won support among Dalits (untouchables) and tribals. The RSS places increasing emphasis on social work and has been active in flood relief and in literacy campaigns.

I don't know if the number given (2.5 million) is still accurate. Does anyone know if that has changed in recent years? Has the support for the RSS changed following the BJP defeat? (Probably not, I'm guessing)

Also, does anyone disagree with Hargrave and Kochanek's factual data or interpretations? They give extensive footnotes, but I'm curious to know if people have other interpretations of the history.


Rob Breymaier said...

It might be useful for newcomers to know that BJP stands for Bharatiya Janata Party and roughly translates to the Indian People's Party. Although, it is not at all communist. It certainly is communal. It was previously the People's Party or Janata Party. The addition of Bharathiya was of (sign)ificance. Bharat is the Hindi word for India. Adding the word Bharatiya is meant to symbolize an exclusion of non-Hindus - Muslims and Sikhs primarily but also Christians, Jews, etc.

5:43 PM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Oh yeah, and it would be unfortunate to ignore the Shiv Sena - Shiva's Army. They were responsible for the rioting in Bombay before and after the Babri Masjid incident. Since they gained powerful status, they have been fundamental to Mumbai's organized crime. They campaign on an ideology of Marathi chauvinism that goe beyond the BJP and RSS to include southern Indians (especially Tamils) as unwelcome.

5:48 PM  
chatra said...

I think you are wrong about a few things. Firtsly, the BJP was not previously the Janata Party. It is the modern avatar of the Jana Sangh of old. Jana Sangh has the same meaning as Janata Party, but is quite a distinct political entity. The Janata Party was the party founded by Jayprakash Narayan and breakaway elements of the Congress party's syndicate after it lost the power struggle with Indira Gandhi in the late 1960's. The Janata Party was the main party (with Morarji Desai as head) which formed a goverment for 3 years beginning in 1977. Also, it is the
party from which the Janata Dal and other more left wing parties emerged and formed the government of V.P Singh in 1989-90.

It is also disingenuous to call the "Bharatiya" in Bharatiya Janata Party as a label which implies the exclusion of all non-hindus. As far as I know the label was to distinguish it from the other Janata Party type names. There is no suggestion of exclusion in this name. Furthermore, to say that the word "Bharatiya" is an implied exclusion of non-hindus is a deeply offensive statement to most Indians.

The BJP is a communal party, however these statements do not helps one's arguments against it.

4:23 AM  
chatra said...

Additionally, as a curiosity, the BJP and others don't have a problem with Jews, they have also been actively lobbying for better relations with Israel beyond the usual foreign policy reasons.

I don't know what exactly is meant by "hindu consciousness" and
identity here, but I think that there was a considerable hindu identity well before the late 1800's. This awareness was one of the main reasons behind the revolt of 1857, and it was an important driver behind the establishment of the Maratha kingdom and later empire of Shivaji. It was also a driver behind the breakdown of the Mughal Empire under Aurangzeb, because he chose to break with the policy of Akbar by discriminating between muslims and non-muslims (hindus and sikhs) in his administration of empire. I think this hindu identity is quite old and been there very long.

The difference is that the failure of the revolt of 1857 dealt a major blow to the more conservative and traditional sections of hindu society which had consistently been facing challenges from within traditional hinduism itself for a long time through the bhakti movements and such like. It also forced many hindus to reevaluate their modes of response to society in a very fundamental fashion by bringing home the truth that the ascendancy of the British could not be dealt with without adopting significantly new ideas. In this way, the more reformist elements in hinduism gained ground. However, there were others who represented a more conservative response to these changes, as well as to the reform influences in hinduism, and while they were also willing to adopt certain ideas, they largely responded by attempting a revival of tradition at the same time. This dichotomy is very well represented in the approaches of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and GopalKrishna Gokhale. Gokhale was the moderate, reformist influence who was the intellectual forerunner of Gandhi and his followers, while Tilak represented a more conservative, and at the same time more militant, stream of thought.

The Jan Sangh was a blending of this conservatism with a more hardline approach to the communal question after independence. I think of it as a more political and somewhat milder successor to the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. These two organizations represented a hardline stance on the communal question before independence. Interestingly they were strongly opposed to the Partition of 1947, and after it happened, they wished that India declare itself as a hindu state in response to the formation of the Islamic state of Pakistan. In some sense, Partition has essentially shaped their approach to the communal question, where they regard the presence of muslims in India as part of an unfinished agenda of Partition.

4:51 AM  
Amardeep said...

Brey and Chatra,
You're both correct. Chatra is correct that the major predecessor for the BJP is the Jana Sangh party. The Janata Party in the early and mid-1970s was actually oriented to fighting the Congress' authoritarian tendencies (under Indira Gandhi) with a neo-Gandhian ethic.

HOWEVER, Hargrave and Kochanek state that the Jana Sangh was incorporated into the Janata Party between 1977 and 1979 (after the ringing defeat of the Congress in the 1977 elections). The BJP was formed after the dissolution of that 'incarnation' of the Janata Party just two years later.

(In Indian politics, things change fast!)

I have a different version of the rise of the Reformist movements in the mid-nineteenth century. The accounts that I've seen suggest that the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj movements (the A.S. was originally progressive) came into being because many elites were being exposed to British education and especially British missionaries. The 'revised' and more unified approach to various Hindu beliefs and rituals the reformists came up with shows that influence.

Another thought: The reason historians pin the rise of Hindu consciousness to the 19th century (I myself might attach it to the 1820s-30s and Raja Rammohun Roy) is that it is really only then that the (English) word "Hinduism" comes into being (invented by Rammohun Roy). Vaishnava, Shaivite, and other sects are for the first time all brought under a single banner.

There is obviously a complex history for Hindu culture earlier in the British Raj and also under the Mughals, and I don't mean to suggest religion wasn't a factor earlier. I'm just explaining why the 19th century is so important for historians.

Finally, the reform movements became more influential because their members often worked for the Raj, and therefore had a great deal of influence on things. I think you might be overstating the importance of the Mutiny on the development of religious nationalism in India.

10:29 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

The Jana Singh is another of the ancestral parties that formed the BJP. But the Janata Party is another.

As for the use of Bharatiya, I think it is an attempt to show Hindu-centrism at the very least. I don't think the term is in any other party name. And, it is directly contrasted with the secular Indian National Congress which is a much less loaded title.

But, I'm willing to admit Hindi ignorance on this if you can show me that people truly interchange Bharat and India in Islamic, Parsi, and Sikh communities.

10:32 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

Amardeep, the Sepoy Revolt was instrumental to the communal movements. I'm a broken record on this, I know. It's at this point that the British actively foster divisions of religion and region to maintain control of South Asia.

10:39 AM  
Rob Breymaier said...

BTW: Our "friend" has popped up over at BreyLog. He's changed none.

2:15 PM  

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