In his latest book titled “Our Hindu Rashtra,” Aakar Patel argues that India’s descent into “majoritarianism” begins when “Vande Mataram, the Hindu nationalism trope, became popular as the anthem of Indian nationalism”. This is around 1905, at the time of the partition of Bengal. He points out that the Muslims then began formally demanding representation as a political community and the Muslim League was formed in 1906.
Obviously, that narrative is absurd. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had championed the infamous two nation theory at least three decades before that.
But this is not about some specific author. There is wider question here. What is driving this change of worldview in the ranks of the Indian left?
Let me explain. The secular, sarkari consensus around Indian history has roughly been something like this. With a handful of exceptions, Muslim emperors generally treated their Hindu subjects well. As such, Hindus and Muslims used to live in mutual harmony and something called composite culture emerged. Then, the British came along and used the policy of divide and rule to cement their position in India. This ultimately led to a breakdown of society along religious lines and partition followed. From history textbooks to movies, this was the standard script.
That vision of the past, however contrived, is changing now. And among the intelligentsia at least, a far more sinister consensus is emerging. In this view, the British are no longer the villains and certainly not the Muslim emperors of the past. In this new vision, the Hindu is the enemy and has always been. The Hindu nationalists forced the land of the Muslims to break from India. They bear the entire guilt for partition of India. The British are benign overseers who couldn’t have cared either way.
Remember how Harsh Mander said that only Indian Muslims are citizens by choice and those of all other religions are citizens by chance? This argument, that Muslims have a higher moral standing than Hindus as citizens of modern India, was one of the core talking points of the anti-CAA protests.
How did this happen? Wasn’t the rise of the BJP supposed to demolish contrived myths about India’s past? The myth of composite culture is breaking, yes. But not in the way one would have anticipated. At least among the self appointed intelligentsia who, for better and for worse, still hold commanding positions in deciding how the world sees India. And how Indians are taught to see themselves.
To understand, we have to look at what holds the left ecosystem together. As long as the Congress was on top, the discourse was mostly shaped by the Congress worldview. The Congress fights all its elections in India. For the Congress, blatant Hinduphobia was not an option. Would the Congress be able to win an election in Rajasthan or Maharashtra in the name of Aurangzeb? Would the Congress be able to survive in say Madhya Pradesh by blaming Indian Hindus for partition?
But now, as the Nehru-Gandhis lose their grip on power, the approach of the Indian left is beginning to change. The Amar-Akbar-Anthony narrative on history now has few takers in India. The leftist elite can only look abroad for inspiration. They are under pressure to construct a narrative on Indian history that the west, especially American liberals, can easily pick up and understand.
This pressure is visible nowadays in odd, rather hilarious ways. Every time a political slogan takes off in America, have you noticed how Indian liberals coin a slogan for us that rhymes with theirs? The easiest and most intellectually lazy way is to take “white” and replace it with “Hindu.” That’s how “Hindu supremacists” came to be blamed for the recent attack on Capitol Hill.
This kind of intellectual output is perhaps best described as “Ctrl+R liberalism.” Americans are used to referring to people of color as “minorities.” In India, Hindus are the majority community and Muslims are the largest minority community. And everyone on the American left already believes that “Islamophobia” is a real thing. So, in theory, you could take any commentary from the New York Times, replace “white” with “Hindu” and you would have something that passes off as “liberalism” in India.
At one point, they used to replace “white” with “Brahmin” instead of attacking Hindus as a whole. Some still do, but their number is gradually diminishing. The power of any narrative lives in its simplicity. Explaining the caste system to an American would take too long. It would require Indian liberals to teach the Americans at least four or five new words, the names of the various castes, which the latter would find difficult to pronounce. Also, there is no way for an American to decide quickly which caste a particular Hindu belongs to.
Americans already know about Muslims and Hindus. The binary is simple to explain. That’s what Indian liberals are doing. Indian Hindus are the privileged majority. Indian Muslims are the underprivileged minority who have faced discrimination and injustice for over one thousand years. So, if you want to be a good person, you must abhor “Hindu supremacists.”
And there you go. In just three sentences, you have taught an American everything you want them to know about Indian history. And how to think about modern Indian politics, which is the part you are really interested in!
That is why all the mental gymnastics to make a hero out of even Aurangzeb. The historian who specializes in this also wrote recently that the Bhagavad Gita rationalizes mass slaughter. Of course, to maintain some facade of academic integrity, you qualify the claim with some context. But everyone knows the power of one liners. You declare one thing a religion of peace and the other as rationalizing mass slaughter. Which side are well meaning people going to take?
And once you have prepared their minds well, they will take just about anything. That’s why the same historian saw the riot at Capitol Hill, saw an Indian flag and jumped to conclusions. She promptly announced that her conclusion would now be part of the official syllabus at Rutgers University. All this based on a social media rumor, which turned out to be false. The narrative is appealing precisely because it requires so little intellectual input.
To enforce this binary, all Hindus, any Hindus, are to be demonized now. Where Gandhi was once universally accepted as Mahatma, people like Divya Dwivedi have come to dominate. In this new vision, Gandhi is a super villain who invents “Hinduism” in the late 19th century as a vehicle for perpetuating systems of social oppression in India. In any case, Audrey Truschke has referred to Gandhi’s love for the Bhagavad Gita. You know, the book that rationalizes mass slaughter. In Truschke’s world, Gandhi comes across as a simpleton at best and propagandist at worst, who puts a happy spin on the Gita. So Gandhi is somewhere between a simpleton and a villain. Meanwhile, Aurangzeb becomes a hero.
Why? Because Gandhi is one of the handful of Hindus that every American has heard about. They’ve always heard that Gandhi was a good person. The new binary of Hindu = bad and Muslim = good requires that Gandhi’s image should be sullied too!
In this new narrative, Gandhi, Ambedkar and even Nehru are increasingly pushed to the margins. While Dr. Ambedkar was severe on Hindus and the caste system, he didn’t mince his words about problems within Muslim society. That means the new binary has no use for him. Even Nehru. A recent article in a liberal outlet accused Nehru of presiding over a massacre of Muslims when Hyderabad was brought into the Indian union. Now that the Nehru-Gandhi family no longer wins elections, why would they spare him?
Indians have stopped listening to their liberals. For Indian liberals, it is now all about what America thinks. So Nehru is just another Hindu now. He is on the wrong side of the binary.
Have you noticed that one of India’s most well known historians, known for his loyalty to Nehru’s ghost, has recently begun ranting against his dynasty on every possible forum? How do you think that happened?
History is constantly changing, based on who gets to write it and what they are trying to say. As with trade, India’s domestic politics and its history are also becoming part of the global supply chain. Our history is rather unique, which will lead to some unique challenges here. As Hindus look to assert themselves after one thousand years, the challenge becomes acute. On the one hand, Indian Hindus want to tell the world about their real story. On the other, Hindus don’t want to be perceived as “weak,” craving sympathy from others.
But the lingua franca of history itself has changed. It’s not English nor French, but wokeness. What is wokeness? It is the language in which the strong pretend to be the weak. They have been using it to demonize us. We Hindus better learn how to express ourselves in it or our narrative, stories and historical suffering shall forever remain buried.