Over the last two years, a noticeable feature of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/Bhartiya Janata Party’s political strategy has been a growing attempt to appropriate political figures from the freedom struggle, even those whose views are incompatible with the Sangh’s own. Earlier its forays in history were concentrated on ancient and medieval India. This time the focus of the “history wars” has shifted to the recent past, especially the nationalist inheritance, the freedom struggle and the making of the Constitution. This is part of the decisive shift being attempted in the nature of India’s polity since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, to reinterpret and change the national script on several issues, starting with the freedom struggle itself. It is also a direct attempt to seek a place in the freedom movement and in the construction of the idea of India. After winning the Lok 2014 election, the Sangh is unmistakably leveraging its power at the Centre for a calculated reinvention of modern Indian history.
Two critical moves are central to this ambitious project of appropriation and representation. Led by the Indian National Congress, the freedom struggle had many strands, which included the Communists, Socialists, and conservatives, but the RSS was not one of them. The fact is that they played little or no role in the freedom struggle. According to the historian Tanika Sarkar, “The RSS never collectively joined a single anti-British movement. On the other hand, its shakhas systematically preached hatred against Muslims, and its members engaged in anti-Muslim riots. The British used to systematically crush all physical training centres that were remotely suspected of revolutionary conspiracies. The fact that it never bore down on combat training in shakhas proves that no suspicion of anti-colonial activities fell on the RSS.”
A glaring absence
Their absence from the freedom struggle was driven home during the parliamentary debate, as a tribute to B.R. Ambedkar in his 125th birth anniversary year, in November 2015. Various leaders sneered at the BJP’s lack of freedom fighters whose achievements they could count as their own. Given their glaring absence from the struggle for Independence, they are busy appropriating modern nationalist leaders, trying to borrow and adopt political icons who do not have any historical connection with their politics or ideology. Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Ambedkar and Subhas Chandra Bose are some of the leaders they have sought to appropriate and present as their own. The most recent example is the manufactured anger over a major history of the national movement authored by Bipan Chandra along with his colleagues. Their ostensible objection is that Bhagat Singh and his comrades who laid down their lives for India’s freedom have been described as “revolutionary terrorists”. These latter-day nationalists find fault with the term “terrorist” which must not be used to describe the deeds of heroic nationalist leaders. According to Chandra’s co-authors, the stand-alone word “terrorist” has not been used; the words used are “revolutionary terrorists” which the revolutionaries used themselves to discuss their ideas, methods and strategy. Moreover, concepts and words and their meanings and connotations change over time.
There were serious differences between all the aforementioned leaders, but perhaps the one thing that distinguished them was their sharp opposition to exclusionary nationalism being passed off as nationalist. As mentioned, the well-stated positions of these political icons on a range of issues, from caste, gender, community to ideas of freedom, equality and justice, are rather contradictory to the Sangh’s — in fact, diametrically opposite to the new and conservative orientation of the present ruling dispensation. So, what we are seeing today is the selective highlighting of some aspects of the legacy of the freedom movement to try to establish a relationship between the BJP and the freedom movement. This is essential for the ruling party to lay claim to the mantle of nationalism and wheedle its way into the freedom movement.
The second equally significant move is the aggressive bid to appropriate Ambedkar which seems to go beyond the desire to mobilise Dalit votes. Various RSS ideologues and leaders played no role in the making of the Constitution or the articulation of the idea of India after Independence. Bereft of any role in shaping the Constitution, the BJP is trying to co-opt Ambedkar in a bid to draw a connection between itself and the pivotal figure in the drafting of the Constitution.
But this is not just about establishing Ambedkar’s pre-eminent role in drafting the Constitution, or his importance to us as a nation, or to the philosophy and politics of social justice embedded in the Constitution. It is about the discursive and political shifts entailed in rewriting the national script to reinterpret events in consonance with the needs of contemporary Hindu nationalist politics. Apart from an eagerness to claim him and recruit him into their political camp, the idea is also to use him to downsize the role of other leaders which is, however, obvious from the fascinating debates in the Constituent Assembly and its various sub-committees which discussed and finalised the most important provisions for inclusion in the Constitution.
The uses of reinvention
Why and to what uses and ends have such reinventing been done? One of the most obvious answers lies in the fact that the right wing lacks a nationalist narrative which can define the foundations of political power. Mass politics, especially of the nationalist variety, is difficult to sustain without reference to national figures who have mass appeal and have left a deep-seated imprint on the nation’s political landscape. Hence, the compulsion to try to co-opt mass leaders who are still widely revered figures nationally or in their regions, partly because the right wing’s own ideological stock is limited as regards mass politics, with the possible exception of the Ayodhya movement of the early nineties.
The importance of the past for modern movements of political emancipation is well known and need not be belaboured here. The question here is not how the past is represented; rather what is at stake here is a distinct invention of a nationalist past which didn’t exist as far as the Sangh is concerned. This is primarily an exercise in dominance linked to the question of power, not emancipation.
Besides the fight for independence against colonial rule was a long-drawn struggle and involved tremendous sacrifices, with leaders spending long years in prison. To give just one example: Jawaharlal Nehru spent over nine years in prison. The nearly 200 years of colonial rule in India met with stiff resistance at different levels led by different forces and organisations. Major struggles in the twentieth century included the Non-Cooperation movement, the Civil Disobedience movement, Quit India movement and a surge of mass struggles and radical uprisings in the late 1940s. Even a cursory look at the history of these struggles would suggest that Indian nationalism was variegated and cannot be assumed to be homogeneous; nonetheless, the birth of freedom and the framework of the post-colonial state structure lies in the progressive movements of this period (from which the Sangh was absent) and in the debates that took place in the Constituent Assembly (from which too it was mostly absent). Indeed, the debates were a distillation of ideas and ideologies thrown up in the course of these struggles.
It is noteworthy that the right wing has zeroed in on certain individual leaders as though the movement and struggles that they led and organised did not matter. In consequence, the focus is on individual leaders and their heroism rather than the ideas and ideology they fought for. This is not surprising as conservative forces, and the present regime in particular, have a zealous faith in the cult of the individual. Such a framework is marked by an abandonment of historicism and its substitution with individuals. Owing to an inflated assessment of the role of iconic individuals, leaders replace the freedom movement and the people who were active participants in this movement.
Arguably, the invention of a historical narrative is no easy task and it is not clear how far this project will succeed. After all, the heterogeneity of India’s freedom struggle and its myriad campaigns and agitations are an incredibly powerful legacy which cannot go well with attempts to commandeer it to any singular strand of thinking, and doubly so by a narrow-minded political formation. It is unlikely that would succeed in their attempt to substitute the notion of Hindu nationalism for anti-colonial nationalism which had captured the popular imagination. So far, they have been successful only in a largely negative sense, a propensity captured appositely by a colleague who observed: “They don’t write books, they stop their sale and distribution; they don’t produce films/documentaries, they censor them; they don’t create institutions (like JNU), they destroy them; they don’t offer a new notion of nationalism, they use the same word but give it a very different meaning.”
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.