Patriarchy and bigotry have been the twin pillars of religious majoritarianism everywhere, and at all times. India is no exception.
I have been reading Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, a novel set in the year 2022, when (in the novelist’s fancy) an Islamist party takes power in France. A character in the novel describes this party’s agenda as follows:
‘The Muslim Brotherhood is an unusual party, you know. Many of the usual political issues simply don’t matter to them. To start with, the economy is not their main concern. What they care about is birth rate and education. To them it’s simple — whichever segment of the population has the highest birth rate, and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins. If you control the children, you control the future. So the one area in which they absolutely insist on having their way is the education of children.’ Houllebecq is writing here about Muslim radicals in France. But much the same can be said about Hindutva radicals in India. Education and population have long been central to the programme of the most influential Hindu organisation in the country, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The RSS has started thousands of schools, whose curricula emphasise the greatness of Hindu civilisation. When their political arm, once the Jana Sangh, now the Bharatiya Janata Party, enjoys a slice of state power, the RSS pitches hard for schools to adopt curricula promoting the glorification of Hindu gods and warriors. The Jana Sangh was started in 1951. Sixteen years later, it formed part of a coalition government in Madhya Pradesh, the first time it had been in such a position. A senior civil servant later recalled that the ministry the Jana Sangh wanted above all was education, so that ‘they could build up a permanent following through the primary schools’. They eventually got home, where (as the civil servant noted) they took great care ‘to see that no key post in any department went to a Muslim’. The pattern has continued; for the next 50 years, whenever it is in power, the RSS wants direct control of schools and education. Meanwhile, population is another major concern. The fear of the Muslim share of the national population growing too fast is shared widely among Hindutva activists, and even among senior BJP leaders. In an election campaign in Gujarat, Narendra Modi himself spoke darkly of Muslims practising a policy of ‘hum panch, humare pachees’ (we five, our 25). Polygamy is a repugnant practice, antithetical to the rights of women. No democrat can justify it. Yet the RSS’s paranoia about it is, to say the least, illogical. If one Muslim man has four wives, surely three other Muslim men are then denied wives? It is true that the Muslim birth rate is higher than the Hindu birth rate, but this is a function of the fact that on average Muslims are poorer than Hindus. The Muslim birth rate is steadily coming down. Yet the threat of a Muslim demographic invasion looms large in the Hindutva consciousness. The RSS regularly speaks about it, while BJP MPs urge Hindu women to each have five or six children to keep the competition going. It was the historian Dharma Kumar who first identified the curious parallels between Hindutva and Islamism. This was in the early 1990s, at the time of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, which led to attacks on minorities across the country. Dharma Kumar had then argued that the RSS wanted ‘to build an Islamic State — for Hindus’. In medieval Islamic polities, Jews and Christians were accorded second-class status. They were not allowed to hold state office, but could practise their professions peacefully so long as they recognised their political subordination. This was precisely how the RSS expected Christians and Muslims to behave in India. More recently, another historian, Irfan Habib, has compared the RSS to the Islamic State. This is a considerable (if not wild) exaggeration. The IS wants to dominate the entire world, not just one country. The jihadis in Syria and Iraq are barbarians, capable of mass murder and of the savage obliteration of history. The IS seeks to commit genocide against Christians, Yazdis, and even Shias. To me, Dharma Kumar’s nuanced comparison makes more sense. The RSS wishes to subjugate Muslims and Christians, not to exterminate them completely. That said, in the context of the open, plural, democratic society that the Indian Constitution envisaged, the RSS does come across as bigoted and majoritarian. Like the RSS, the Islamists in Michel Houllebecq’s Submission work in a far more incremental way than the bloody fanatics now wrecking Iraq and Syria. They make shrewd alliances with other parties, while steadily increasing their numbers and their influence. In Houllebecq’s novel, the main theatre of contestation is an elite university, once controlled by republicans and atheists, but now increasingly under the influence of Islamic academics and activists. The ‘submission’ of Houllebecq’s title has a double meaning; the submission of individual free will to the conformist (and oppressive) dictates of religious orthodoxy, and the submission of women to men. In the novel’s imagined future, French women do not, cannot, wear skirts any more. Muslim women are put behind the veil; they exist only to cook delicious food for their husbands and to fulfil their husbands’ sexual fantasies. Once again, the parallels with radical Hindutva are striking. In India, Muslims and Christians (and Dalits and Adivasis too) are under pressure to change their dietary habits to conform to the upper-caste Hindu pattern. Hindu extremists attack women in towns who wear jeans, and demand that women in villages not be allowed to choose their life partners. Patriarchy and bigotry; these have been the twin pillars of religious majoritarianism everywhere, and at all times. India is no exception.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India.