A nation forgets and remembers

Tensions between Hindus and Muslims are once again growing. This time, the contention is around the origins of the Gyanvapi Masjid, a mosque constructed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after the demolition of a Hindu temple in the 17th century. But why are historical wrongs and rights of the past invoked and decontextualised by the current political dispensation in a Subcontinent that has deep imprints of an Islamic past and Muslim present? The intentions, clearly, are not benign. There is a conscious politics of communal polarisation, unabashedly pursued by the Hindu right in India today. And here, a natural question arises: To what end can history be reversed?

The end is neither far nor unattainable, given the series of events that speak of the cultivation and entrenchment of longstanding grievances between the two communities that have colonial roots and are often inflamed by Hindu nationalists for political ends. While the ends are political — to establish a Hindu nation — the impulse is social and cultural. It underscores a sense of primacy and superiority in the “Hindu past” characterized by three important institutions — temple, education, and family — that function as the ideological arms of the state, subscribing to the ideology of the ruling class.

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In constructing an artificial homogeneity of a Hindu national identity, an old blueprint is re-upped where religion is co-opted in everyday national rhetoric and political mobilisation. The bolstering of Hindu pride is done in the interest of consolidating power and establishing hegemony over a constructed homogenised national culture, which swiftly erases the past. The deliberate act of political forgetting is juxtaposed to the act of political remembering, largely centered on the politics of temple desecration and attacks on Hindu women by Muslim rulers, thus linking the decline of “Hindu civilisation” with the Muslim past. It is here that the temple becomes the site of the ancient Hindu glory and the medieval Muslim violence, aiding Hindutva’s endeavour of political suturing — across class, caste, and regional differences — and selectively expunging the history of multiple and layered realities, thereby giving precedence to religious motivations over political impulses and statecraft.

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The new nation-state is being reimagined and constructed over the ashes of (an erased) shared history. As Ernest Renan remarked in 1882, “forgetting is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation”. This suppression of past knowledge is tied to remembering, through educational “reforms” and revision of the school curriculum, where forgetting and remembering take place simultaneously. Through the revision of textbooks that aligns with the communal and divisive agenda of the BJP, they want the new nation to remember the sufferings inflicted by the Muslim rulers and find grounds to advocate and promote ideas of India being a Hindu nation. Since 2014, several controversies have erupted over the arbitrary revision of school textbooks for political purposes of conformity to Hindutva leanings. Since textbooks operate as primary mediums of disseminating national hegemonic narratives, masculinised memories are invoked in both public and private spheres, where boundaries between the two blur with increasing urgency to remake the nation.

The gradual infusion of Hindutva’s ideology in the educational apparatus is done to resurrect the (Hindu) “nation”, first by social fragmentation and then by political unification of disparate groups, where the family or the domestic space becomes increasingly important. In pursuit of a Hindu nation and weaving of a “single genesis historical narrative” (McClintock, 1993), the family trope is employed to normalize social hierarchies, and distinctions of gender, caste, and community — with gender binaries, caste rigidities and community differences reinforced and rearticulated in the political blueprint. As repositories of Hindu values ​​and transmitters of national culture, the domesticated female body transforms into public performers participating in the Hindu nationalist mobilization where women play dual and often contradictory roles in the making of a Hindu nation and in forging an ideal Hindu woman — one who exhorts violence in the public, galvanising fellow men and women, while at the same time, adheres to heteronormative feminity within the patriarchal domesticated space that instils Brahmanical morality and control. As argued that Brahminism parades in the garb of Hindutva (Kancha Ilaiah), there is the emergence of the family as the first and the foremost site of “collective regeneration” of the Hindu nation that is premised on a perceived notion of cultural superiority to be preserved and guarded by the middle-class, upper-caste custodians of the nation.

In promulgating these characteristics of the new nation, the place and position occupied by alternative publics/citizenry — the “unruly” queer bodies, the “impure” caste groups, and the Muslim “invader” — are restricted, confined and surveilled to sustain power , as the existence of these groups punctures the myth of a single narrative of the nation. This point underscores the link between myth-making and majoritarian nationalism that is socially exclusionary, politically violent, and economically debauched. It is for the feeling public — the unwavering supporters of Hindutva — to think, why are myths created, and who stands to gain?

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 1, 2022 under the title ‘A nation forgets and remembers’. The writer is associate professor of politics at Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University

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