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Reformists versus Hindu Nationalists in India Is an Old Story

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Message Arshad M Khan

Historical Pakistan
Historical Pakistan
(Image by (From Wikimedia) Green Giant at English Wikipedia, Author: Green Giant at English Wikipedia)
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On the evening of January 30, 1948, as he walked to his regular interfaith prayer meeting, Mahatma Gandhi was shot and killed. The assassin, Nathuram Godse, was a Hindu nationalist who opposed Gandhi's inclusiveness towards those of other faiths, particularly Muslims.

Manifested in its worst form in the assassination of a revered figure, this conflict between liberal and nationalist Hindus continues to this day. The chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, is the current target of the Hindu nationalist BJP's scorn.

In India's recent general election, the BJP and Narendra Modi, the prime minister, were returned to power with an increased majority in the lower house of India's parliament. Their usual poor showing in West Bengal, significantly improved from 2 to 18 seats in this election, has led to comments designed to arouse public ire -- like the state has been turned into a mini-Pakistan. It is worth noting that Gandhi's killer was a former member of the RSS, leaving it to form an armed group. Also the RSS is considered the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, and Mr. Modi continues to be a member.

Not long ago, Gauri Lankesh, a journalist-turned activist who was critical of Hindu extremism, was murdered outside her home for expressing liberal views. This time in the Kolkata disturbances against Banerjee, it was a bust of a secular reformist liberal that was decapitated: the venerated Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was a lawyer, philosopher and reformist who contributed to rationalizing the Bengali alphabet and prose, and fought for Hindu widows' right to remarry.

But the differences between Hindu nationalists and liberals are of earlier origin. In the 19th century, social reformers like Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade were opposed by others like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. If Ranade supported the Age of Consent Bill raising the age when girls could be married from 10 to 12, then Tilak thought it to be an interference by foreigners in Indian customs and traditions. Tilak had also formed cow protection societies raising communal tensions in his Bombay base -- sounds familiar to the present situation where meat eaters and leather tanners are often targeted? Ranade sought to keep religion private and foresaw the potential conflict.

The practice of celebrating the birthday of the god Ganesh was old and the 'puja' or worship usually performed in the home. Tilak advocated a public 'puja', encouraging people to bring the Ganesh idols out of their homes and celebrate openly. The festival of loud music and idols in procession continues to this day and is now spread out over ten days.

The consequences had been predicted by Tilak's reformist adversaries, notably Justice Ranade and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, the latter a friend 0f Tilak who had become a critic. In September 1893, Bombay suffered its first communal riot leaving nearly 100 dead and 500 injured. Minor clashes had already occurred over the incessantly loud music and general disruption of daily activity.

The religious flavor so imparted to the independence movement gave pause to Muslims; the glue binding secular society was being dissolved. Feeling marginalized, they soon formed the Muslim League to protect their rights, and not long thereafter began to desire a separate homeland ... Pakistan.

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Arshad M Khan is a former Professor. Educated at King's College London, Oklahoma State University and the University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. He was elected a Fellow of the (more...)
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