The Rise of Hindutva

Published: November 23, 2017 - 18:29 Updated: November 29, 2017 - 16:02

The most interesting part of Achin Vanaik’s book is his discussion of religion within the Marxian context, and which is not confined to Marx

Achin Vanaik is a Marxist: “My own spectacles remain that of a Marxist….” But he does not believe that Marxism explains everything: “…the necessity of thinking through across, beside and beyond the Marxist tradition as well, for Marxism is not and does not claim to be a theory of everything.” His new book is an updating, revising of his 1997 work, The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity and Secularisation. The new title indicates a shift in focus and acknowledges in a subtle way that at present the issue needs to be formulated in a different way. And that Indian secularism is more a claim while communalism is a reality. However, his critique of secularism and communalism is not fuzzy. He makes enough distinctions and grapples with the complexity of issues. Though he considers communalism to be negative and dangerous, he is not going to merely vilify it. And he is also unwilling to accept the easy distinction between communalism as a distortion of a benign religious worldview and how true religion speaks of tolerance. He takes upon himself the difficult task of analysing the role of religion, and points out how its role has diminished as capitalism progressed. He rejects the argument that religion is an innate and essential characteristic of a society as proposed by some sociologists.

In an interesting footnote, he acknowledges issues that go beyond secular rationality: “Will religion always be essential for most or many people, no matter how much success is achieved in the construction of the desired socialist future? This question is not broached in the chapter, but, given the now increasingly widespread view that religion will easily outlive Marxism and even socialism, some observations may not be amiss. Even if the relationship of religion to culture and society in the course of modernity is accepted as historical and contingent, what about the spiritual dimension of human existence and religion’s relationship to it?”  

The Marxist offers a launching pad for a serious investigation of the connection between social position and religious beliefs and experiences, and of the relationship between religious discourses and the preservation of social and political power

He goes on to make a case in the same footnote for spirituality as against religion, but spirituality in the widest sense of the term, which includes “…the sense of awe a scientist may have in the course of his explorations; the impact of a piece of music; the intensity of an emotion experienced in a relationship of friendship or love; the sense of wonder at nature’s beauty…” And he challenges the “privileged relationship of the religious to the spiritual.” 

The most interesting part of Vanaik’s book for this reviewer is his discussion of religion within the Marxian context, which is not confined to Marx. He points to the negative view that Marx and Engels held, though their views of religion differed, Marx was Hegelian and Engels an anthropological positivist: “The notion of religion as a form of ideology, then, is a reasonably productive and defensible one, provided a positive or neutral conception of ideology is employed. Later Marxist understandings are to be preferred to earlier ones. The Marxist offers a launching pad for a serious investigation of the connection between social position and religious beliefs and experiences, and of the relationship between religious discourses and the preservation of social and political power. But since religion is also more than this, there are important aspects of its role and impact that tend not to be treated with sufficient sensitivity. In developing a better understanding of religion in modernity, of religion in culture and society, one has to think through and beyond the Marxist tradition.” 

Vanaik mounts a sharp critique of Hinduism as being the sole soul-force of Indian civilisation, and he sees it as a Western Orientalist construct, especially that of the German Romantics. He argues: “Contrary to the conventional view, Christianity has more to do with preserving that nebulous entity, western civilisation, than Hinduism did with preserving the even more nebulous entity of Indian civilisation.” He is also not satisfied with caste being the essential feature of Hinduism: “ ...the view that caste is the precipitate of Hinduism’s ideology, an all-encompassing Brahman-dominated system of hierarchy, has immense problems. Even in our times, M.N. Srinivas reminded us, caste is local in character, and its system of hierarchies is not only qualified by segmentation sideways but exists as a regional cluster.” And he delivers a death-blow to caste being the glue of Hinduism: “Diverse patterns of caste hierarchies are accompanied by diverse caste ideologies. There is no overarching Brahmanical ideology defining either Hinduism or caste.”

The book is more than incisive disquisition. In true Marxist fashion, Vanaik combines theory with praxis. He is addressing the political situation in the India of today dominated by Hindutva communalism, and he is concerned that it should be resisted and defeated and how it should be done. Much of the book is devoted to the analysis of political developments relating to the rise of the BJP to political power, including the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the emergence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He sees the political challenge at a deeper level: “But merely replacing the Modi government at the centre or the BJP provincial governments, welcome though all this would be, is not enough. Hindu communal prejudices and practices are too deep and widespread, and have themselves reinforced Muslim communal behaviour and mobilisation, creating a certain action-reaction cycle.” 

In many ways, Vanaik remains an outsider to the Indian intellectual milieu because he refuses to indigenise his approach. He does not accept Indian exceptionalism and he relentlessly uses concepts and methods of Marxist criticism that is itself rooted in European Enlightenment and the emergence of universal rationality that underpins democracy in the West. He is a strange species of Marxist, classical but not Stalinist or Maoist, non-conformist without being too unorthodox. So he is not overawed by Marxist demigods like Antonio Gramsci. He sees virtues in Gramsci’s positive analysis of Christianity, including Catholicism, in facilitating the emergence of “organic intellectuals” through the clergy and the virtues of missionary activity in spreading the religious message which could serve as a model for communist propaganda. But he is quick enough to see the limitations of such parallels. He recognises the traces of Christian thought in Marxian thinkers of the Frankfurt School like Theodor Adorno and Mark Horkheimer. He consistently maintains an anti-capitalist stance while recognising the force of capitalism in “homogenising cultural heterogeneities”. He also concedes the power of nationalism, and he acknowledges the fact that global capitalism has not swept away nationalisms. 

He is also clear-eyed in his view of modernity, and he is quite aware of the mushiness of what passes for post-modernism and post-colonialism. He firmly states his view: “India has its special heritage and its distinctive strengths. It would be foolish indeed not to use those resources. But it will not do to take refuge in extravagant claims about the unique power of the Indian genius, its culture and tradition. The struggle to cope with the problems of modernity will have to be fought on the terrain of modernity itself, and for the most part with the weapons forged in modernity.” That is a brave stance. 

This story is from print issue of HardNews