People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 04

January 25, 2004

Politics of Rightwing Sectarianism


Nalini Taneja


THE Shivaji book by James W Laine, an American scholar, and the attacks by the Sambhaji Brigade (essentially Shiv Sainiks) have been much in the news lately. According to the worthies of this brigade, Laine’s book has disrespectful references to Shivaji, and therefore all people associated with the book, including local scholars who have ever been friendly with him, provided him references or hospitality, and the very library in which he conducted his research must bear the brunt of punishment for this act against a ‘nationalist’ icon. Those who routinely speak out against the sectarian politics of the Shiv Sainiks must not be spared either. The Shiv Sainiks have therefore been terrorising historians, artists and other intellectuals who have not fallen in line, and have actually destroyed thousands of very valuable manuscripts and other historical material housed in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI) located in Pune, simply because Laine used that library and has acknowledged the help of librarians there --- something every scholar routinely does when he works in a library.




But that is not the whole matter. What one needs to look at is also the larger picture. In what has been happening today by way of policing and censorship of culture, and to history teaching and research, by way of verbal and physical attacks on democratic expression, our state and media have a very definite role to play. It also needs to be understood that the entire histrionics and strong arm tactics of the right wing communalists in this country are directed not merely at the middle class secular intelligentsia --- which of course they are --- but also, more essentially, at the expression of democracy in the political sphere by the working people of this country.

The books, plays or films that the Sangh Parivar, or for that matter the Muslim fundamentalists, have sought to get banned, or prevented from finding a public audience, are related to issues of nation and identity and, sometimes straight-forwardly, to issues of class and caste struggle. Safdar’s killing while performing a play is well known as well. More recently, since the BJP came to power, secular history texts and secular historians have been attacked and vilified. M F Hussain, Habib Tanvir, Mallika Sarabhai, the film Fire, a host of documentaries on Gujarat, and D N Jha’s book on the dietary practices in ancient India, a book on Ganesh published by Motilal Banarsidas have been the subjects of the Hindu communalist ire. We also have the example of the vicious campaigns against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen, What has happened to Laine’s book is therefore in tune with what is generally happening to cultural and academic expression that transgresses a line drawn by the right wing, sectarian custodians and interpreters of national and religious identities.

This line, as the BJP assumes greater strength, can only encompass much more than it does today. The area of what is politically permissible can only shrink much more. It is important to note that while the Shiv Sainiks, Bajrang Dal and sectarian Muslim groups have had to justify their actions by resorting to emotional appeals and to make a show that their religions have been vilified or their religious sentiments hurt, or that national symbols have been abused and defamed, the BJP has been able to effect a wholesale transformation of the school syllabus, and history texts in particular, though a cool assertion that its government is bringing them in line with the ‘Indian’ perspective.




The government has certainly been a bigger player than is recognised or realised. It role has been crucial in determining the equations between the secular and sectarian contestations of identities, in the contestations over the control of statutory bodies and institutions that matter, and certainly exclusive in so far as attacks on the democratic expressions of the working people are concerned. It is the governments in power that have achieved for those on the right wing fringe what they want, or what the numerically small, but very powerful, ruling class wants.

Let us look back on events of the last decade. Did the people of Ayodhya protest the SAHMAT exhibition depicting the different versions of Ramayana? Were these representations made for the first time? Did the people of India express themselves on the side of the Hindutva gangs once they ‘protested’ on the matter? They did not, yet the ruling dispensation ensured that the exhibition does not get shown. The outcome is similar in the case of Fire, or Hussain’s paintings in question, or the performances of Habib Tanvir or the Maharashtrian playwrights pushed to the wall time and again, or Salman Rushdie’s book, and most certainly so in the case of historical research. In the case of historical research, books have been banned and withdrawn even before they have been read by the people who have demanded their ban or the government officialdom that has banned them!

In fact one can extend this argument over larger questions such as the Shah Bano case, the Deorala sati, caste killings, the local panchayat’s ‘justice’ for those who infringe caste ‘barriers’ in marriage, women’s reservation in parliament, the Mandal reservation issue, not to mention the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the rebuilding of the temple (to which the BJP government is committed), etc. The list, if seriously compiled, could grow quite long.

The right wing brigades have just to hint at their demand and make a corresponding show of flexing their muscles in the media gaze, for the benefit of providing ‘rationale’ and ‘justification’ for governments, and the governments and the cultural barons are willing to oblige on the ground that ‘sentiments’ have been hurt. Muslim groups want to blacken the face of Salman Rushdie but not Ashok Singhal or Advani, who represent far more powerful forces and cannot be taken on; the Hindutva brigades want the heads of the secular historians and cultural personalities but are ready to deal with the Saudi government if the Americans see it as an ally against ‘terrorism.’ The governments are happy to oblige. While Salman Rushdie is banned for hurting the sentiments of the Muslims in this country, the VHP and RSS leaflets, which do this regularly and routinely, are allowed complete freedom to do so. Uma Bharti has even been rewarded for it by chief ministership, and, Vajpayee and Advani, doing the same everyday, are happy to reward their own selves in every way.

That the problem is not one of fundamentalists, but one suited to the ruling class strategy as a whole, is obvious. The government that has banned the Shivaji book is the Congress party’s, which also initiated and orchestrated the Muslim fundamentalists’ response to the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case, opened the keys of the Babri Masjid to hand them over to the Hindutva forces and actually presided over its destruction. Its record has been far more brutal in dealing with students’ and workers’ protests, not to speak of the emergency. Mulayam Singh and Laloo Yadav are bitter opponents of women’s reservation, Chandrababu Naidu a champion of liberalisation.




The media have criticised the Shiv Sainiks’ pranks but not the hastiness of the Oxford University Press in withdrawing the book even before the matter became public or the government for banning the book even before the matter was discussed in public fora.

The ruling classes are not only happy to divide people along lines of religion, caste and region, they have a fundamental stake in the shrinkage of democratic space. The fringe sectarian groups have assumed dominant space largely as largesse from the ruling classes, and the linkages from the Sambhaji type of brigades to the bigger Bajrang Dal types, the international VHP, and the mainstream governing parties like the BJP, and even the Congress and other regional political parties are very real and tangible. These linkages are significant for the growth of a rightward, sectarian trajectory in the sphere of cultural expression, a de-politicisation expressed through slogans of unity along non-party lines proposed by the proliferating NGOs, and the advocacy of separation of culture and politics that they want to bring about. The Left, on its part, today needs precisely to assert the link between secular culture, democracy, and class struggle.