Foreign Affairs Focus on Books: Ananya Vajpeyi on Hindu Nationalism

Ananya Vajpeyi sits down with Justin Vogt, deputy managing editor of Foreign Affairs. They discuss the rise of India's religious right, the campaign to suppress the work of Hinduism scholar Wendy Doniger, and what the election of Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, will mean for Indian politics moving forward.

For more, read Vajpeyi's review essay, "The Triumph of the Hindu Right," in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs. And to keep up with our books coverage, follow @FA_books on Twitter.

VOGT: Hi, welcome to "Foreign Affairs Focus on Books." I'm Justin Vogt, books editor here at Foreign Affairs. We're joined today by Ananya Vajpeyi, who is a intellectual historian based at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. And Ananya is also the author of a review essay in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, the September/October edition. Ananya, thanks so much for joining us.

Your article is titled, "The Triumph of the Hindu Right," and this term "Hindu right" or "Hindu nationalist" has come up a lot in coverage of India, especially in the past year with the election of a new government led by Narendra Modi, who's often referred to as a Hindu nationalist.

Can you explain, what is Hindu nationalism?

VAJPEYI: Hindu nationalism is a political ideology that sort of dates back to the early mid-20th century, that basically believes that or proposes that the nationhood of India be strictly tied to its Hindu identity. So it basically posits the national community as being the same as the religious community of Hindus.

VOGT: And, of course, India is made up of more than just Hindus. I mean, it's actually a fairly diverse society.

VAJPEYI: In fact, you know, I mean, India is a democratic nation-state. It's the world's largest democracy. It has 1.2 billion people. And of those, 80 percent are in some sense Hindus, but, you know, 20 percent are not. And in absolute numbers, that's a humongous number of people who are Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, tribals, and a variety of other faiths as well, Farsis and so on.

VOGT: The Hindu nationalists sort of view these groups as somehow less Indian, or, what's the view of the minority groups there?

VAJPEYI: Well, I mean, the Indian constitution and the principle of Indian nationhood, you know, which came into existence after independence, between 1947 and 1950, you know, makes citizenship the basis of your nationality. So regardless of your religion or your caste or your gender or your ethnicity or any other kind of description of your identity, you know, you're an Indian citizen. And that, that is the primary definition of being Indian.

So minorities, religious minorities, are not in any way at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their Indianness, relative to the majority community, which happens to be Hindus.

But, according to Hindu nationalism, you know, technically we are all Indian citizens, but really, somehow, Hindus are more Indian and everybody else is kind of there on sufferance and has to constantly establish that, you know, their political allegiance, their emotional and cultural and historical allegiance, is to India. But that's not obvious. Or, rather, that's actually probably not true because they happen to belong to a religious community other than Hindu.

And that directly, you know, kind of contradicts the principle of citizenship which is enshrined in the constitution.

VOGT: Groups like this, groups that espouse the Hindu nationalist line were behind a campaign that you write about in your piece to essentially ban or to prevent the sale and the publication of a recent book by an American scholar of Hinduism, Wendy Doniger.

VAJPEYI: Correct.

VOGT: What is it about Doniger's work that so angers the Hindu nationalists?

VAJPEYI: Well, you know, Wendy Doniger is a very senior scholar. She's been at the University of Chicago, and she's been writing about India and various aspects of Indian culture and Hindu religion for decades. So her latest sort of two books, one is called "On Hindus" and the other is called -- oh, one is called Hindus -- "The Hindus," the other is called "On Hinduism."

And, you know, they're a kind of culmination of a lifetime of her scholarship, so it's not that, you know, she's suddenly come out of nowhere. She's very well-known. And she takes a very broad view, so she really writes about the entire history of the existence of this religious civilizational, cultural community, or a whole series of communities that can be described under this umbrella.

And she likes to emphasize the less orthodox and the less puritanical aspects of the faith, of which there are many. And she likes to talk about what happens in the faiths to women, to, you know, marginal groups, to lower castes, to excluded communities which, nonetheless, sort of belong in the family of Hinduism.

And she, you know, she often writes about playful and earthy and erotic and aesthetic aspects of the -- of the sort of cultural fabric of Hinduism. And she likes to emphasize those because she, you know, like many of us, understands that Hinduism is actually very capacious and complex. And it's hard to, you know, really narrow it down in the way that Hindu nationalists like to do.

VOGT: So were they successful in this effort to kind of shut out these more unorthodox views of hers? What happened?

VAJPEYI: Well, you know, lived Hinduism is really very, very diverse and pretty unorthodox, I would say, for the most part. You know, like most lived religions I would say. And, you know,  when Wendy Doniger's books are not sort of -- they're not trying to tell Hindus what to do. They're actually describing over the course of a long history and through many hundreds and thousands of texts, you know, what has gone one in India by way of its you know, the history of its religious life.

So they're not prescriptive in that sense. But Hindu nationalist groups, some of which are in politics, and some of which are sort of cultural organizations took objection to her, sort of, wide-ranging survey of the religion and basically just before this new government came to power in the early part of this year in February.

What happened was that, you know, one of her books came out in 2009-10. And already at the time that it came out, this particular small group went to the publisher, to Penguin India, and said, "We object to this book because it's too sexy, basically. And we think it insults and offends our religious sentiments. It it doesn't take Hinduism seriously." And India has certain laws in the penal code that allow the curtailing of the freedom of expression, should that particular form of expression offend somebody's religious sensibilities or incite communal passions. So you know, in theory there's freedom of speech, but it can be curtailed in this way. Right, that there's kind of limits to it because of these particular laws.

VOGT: And so, the publishers sort of preemptively...

VAJPEYI: So using these laws as a threat, that we'll sue you under these laws because these laws would potentially allow us to make our case, this group went to Penguin.

Penguin tried to, like, fight that off as best they could. They tried to settle. They tried to negotiate. They let things lie. But you know, four years passed, five years passed, and finally before actually going into court and fighting it in the court, Penguin decided that they would simply make a settlement, say, "OK, fine. Whatever. You're right. We withdraw this book. We'll stop selling it. And we'll pulp all existing copies."

VOGT: Now, you wrote in the piece that this sort of victory for the Hindu nationalists…

VAJPEYI: Well, they went to town. I mean, as soon as Penguin made this, you know, capitulation in a sense, and we don't really know why they did it, because they they had the option to actually fight it through the courts. And many legal experts say that potentially, actually, freedom of speech would have won out over this business of hurting Hindu sentiments, which this group was claiming.

But we don't know because they never tried it. And then, of course, this group went to town and said, "Oh look, not only has Penguin backed down, but we actually have a long list of things that we object to and that we think are not properly, you know, representing the Hindu faith and that are potentially inciting to our sentiments and are offensive to our feelings, et cetera.

"And we want to go after all these books and all these authors. And we're gonna do it, you know, to not only teach them a lesson, but also to make up for the fact that all this while, you know, the left and the liberal and the secular intelligentsia have basically, you know, continually humiliated Hindus through producing a certain kind of scholarship and a certain kind of opinion."

VOGT: Modi is now in office. He's a figure that is related to these groups in some sense.

VAJPEYI: Right. A month or two later, we went into elections, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, which is the Hindu nationalist party, actually won, you know, a clear majority and was able to form a government without coalition partners. Because they had enough seats in the parliament.

And now, you know, it's a kind of carte blanche for these groups, which, you know, all this time have existed having kind of marginal -- you know, have never enjoyed any kind of political limelight because the consensus was always that, you know, freedom of speech is important. And, you know, scholarship should be about facts, not about, you know, political ideology. That actually excludes and tries to marginalize minorities.

But now these people feel that the political regime actually stands behind them solidly. And now they can really proceed with their plan that they've been threatening to proceed with to, you know, examine and possibly fix all kinds of problematic art, scholarship, intellectual production, speech...

VOGT: More broadly, now that we're in the very early stages of the Modi era, there's been this question as to whether Modi would govern sort of as a technocrat, a pro-market reformer, or whether his background as a Hindu nationalist ideologue and activist would be more prominent or more prominently on display.

VAJPEYI: Right.

VOGT: So far, we're in very early innings; it's been maybe only four or five months.

VAJPEYI: Not even.

VOGT: But what's the sense on the ground of Modi, the direction he's taking right now?

VAJPEYI: Well, you know, Modi is the face of the Hindu right and now the prime minister. But he bundles together like a sort of spectrum of, you know, what it means to be right-wing. So that includes certain kinds of economic policies, certain kinds of political beliefs, and certain broadly cultural ideological, you know, ideas and includes some ideas about religion and religious politics, right?

So what everyone was very uncertain about is which part of this spectrum is going to be politically salient and prominent once he comes to power. And you know, it's still out. The jury's still out. We don't really know because it's been it's been a very short time.

He hasn't made any strong policy pronouncements of economic nature or any other nature, for that matter. But what we do see is that, you know, there does seem to be space for more than the rhetoric of development growth and economic reform. And that these so-called cultural organizations and leaders and ideologues do feel empowered to come out into a public space that had, so far, sort of stigmatized them or ignored them or made fun of them, and say more and more -- it's almost like they're daring the liberals on the left and a variety of other people, who might be agnostic, to, you know, they're trying to sense how much, you know, how much can we say that will be tolerated or accepted.

And they are making these pronouncements. And they're actually also -- the government in quiet ways is appointing people like this to head up institutions, archives, national libraries, you know, social science and humanities institutions of various kinds. And, you know, they're just testing the waters, I think. I think they're -- you know, they know that it's an uphill battle in the cultural wars, because, you know, they've never had this kind of a political opportunity before.

VOGT: It will be interesting to see how they push forward.

VAJPEYI: But it was actually. You know, we started -- it all started off in this very unfortunate way that, you know, had Penguin kind of fought the good fight and if they had a legal precedent, actually -- and chances are that the courts would have actually upheld the right to publish this book -- then, you know, it would have felt less like an emergency.

Because now, it seems like we have nothing much to go on by way of a legal precedent and if they want to start attacking other books -- and they have shown signs of doing that -- then, you know, other publishers might also want to back down or just say, OK, this is not -- this is not -- this is not a fight we can win, and it's better to just accept the changed political scenario, you know.

VOGT: The battle of political wills in India will continue. Ananya, thank you very much for your insight and for coming here today to join us.

VAJPEYI: Thank you for having me.

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