What is wrong with being a Gujarati, Marathi, Manipuri, Kashmiri, Telugu, Tamilian, Bengali, or for that matter a Malayali? Does an inhabitant’s cultural roots and identity in any way diminish his or her ‘Indianness’? Certainly not; then why is it that the BJP-RSS fear regional cultures and make covert attempts to undermine them? Last week, ostensibly to promote Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat (One India, Great India), senior RSS leaders Dattatreya Hosabale and Krishna Gopal held a meeting with culture ministers of BJP-ruled states helmed by Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma. The meeting reviewed strategies to promote ‘cultural nationalism’ and counter sub-nationalistic tendencies.
An Indian Express report on the meet quoting an insider, inter alia, said: “We have become more Marathi, more Gujarati, more Bengali and so on. And we are losing Indianness. We forgot we are Indians first and got divided into our own states….” A debateable premise, for, according to a school of thought the name ‘India’, was ‘merely a label of convenience’ before the erstwhile princely states merged into one geographical entity and coalesced into a great nation. In the last 70 years of independence, India has emerged a robust secular, democratic, socialist Republic. The new rulers and the people did not let the country degenerate into a banana republic. Attempts to balkanise India – be it the Khalistan movement in Punjab, or separatists in Kashmir and north-east and Maoists in the east and south – did not succeed even as they tried to instigate sections of their compatriots on the ground of perceived discrimination by the State. And yet, ‘Indianness’ triumphed without the help of cultural policing.
Late Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s decision to implement Mandal Commission recommendations to fix OBC quota for jobs in 1990 had pitted the upper castes against the OBCs triggering large scale violence across the country. The RSS saw it as a wily move by a crafty Singh to divide the Hindu society. The Mandalisation deepened societal chasm and decimated both the Congress and the BJP in several key states. The Congress never recovered from the blow, while it took the BJP a quarter century to defuse the Mandal bomb and sweep the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. Caste polarisation may have hit electoral politics but it never jeopardised ‘Indianess’.
Why then this worry over regional identity now? India has been a melting pot of cultures, a mosaic of diversity – linguistic, religious and racial, with people of Dravidian, Aryan and Mongoloid origin peacefully coexisting for centuries. In fact, the tendency to subdue or slight local cultures to make it look lesser to the overarching ‘Indian culture’ can prove to be counter-productive. So, a word of caution; respect the people, their cultural values and ethnicity. People from the north-east are still victims of a so called culturally superior mindset of dominant India. The dark south Indians too are considered a notch down in the pecking order. The Dravidian resistance to Hindi imposition stems from the fear of cultural domination by the North. Now, eating habits are under threat.
The agenda of culture ministers’ two-day meeting with the RSS leaders has let the cat out of the bag. That the burgeoning controversies the last three years, be it cow or beef politics, anti-Romeo squads, bid to impose Hindi and the nationalism test, appear to be part of a ploy to promote ‘cultural nationalism’ – an euphemism for one-culture, one-language, one-religion nation. And there is a sub-text – obliterate regional parties for BJP’s electoral benefit by neutralising identity politics. Regional parties pander to the sons and daughters of the soil espousing local ethos and cultures and thus they become electorally strong in their respective states making it difficult for BJP to sneak (West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Telangana are examples). After a Congress and Communist mukht India, BJP’s focus now is on Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, BJD in Odisha, RJD in Bihar and the ADMK in Tamil Nadu.
The exclusivity of Dravidian politics had made it difficult for BJP to penetrate Tamil Nadu so far. A mix of Communism, Dalits, minority politics and dominance of secular Hindus insulated Kerala from BJP influence thus far. Same is the case, more or less, with West Bengal while tribal culture and Christianity slowed down party’s electoral forays into the north-eastern states. Friendly parties such as the TDP in Andhra and TRS in Telangana may be targets post 2019.
Outcome of the recent assembly and civic elections have been encouraging for the BJP. The party has been able to penetrate deeper into Maharashtra (the recent municipal corporation election results) usurping the Right wing space of the Sena and posing a threat to it. Ditto in Odisha and in Bengal, it replaced CPM as the runner up in the recent by-polls. In UP, the BJP has been able to divide the Yadavs (hitherto mainstay of Samajwadi Party).
The BJP-RSS strategists have been able to somewhat dilute identity politics by co-opting Dalit leaders like Udit Raj, Ramdas Athawale and Ramvilas Paswan and several tribal and Yadav leaders into the saffron camp. In Kerala, it was able to align with backward Hindu party Ezhavas and a tribal outfit led by Adivasi leader Ajitha, a former Naxalite. The BJP is now courting Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura, a warning signal to CPM.
However, sub-nationalism, regional and racial identities and assertion of Dalits, minorities, Jats and Gujjars continue to impede BJP’s bid to fast track cultural nationalism. No wonder, the culture ministers’ meeting expressed concern over nationalism becoming subservient to Maratha, Bengali and Gujarati (to name a few) cultures. Submerging regional identities into one single ‘Indianness’ paradigm has the twin advantages of facilitating BJP’s stay in power for years and enable the Sangh to realise its dream of one-culture, one-religion, one-language nation. But at what cost? Trampling upon local and ethnic cultures?
The author is an independent journalist.