(The article was originally published by Indian Express on May 20, 2023 as a part of Dr Madhav’s bi-weekly column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
A young priest from Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh has emerged as the new Hindutva icon in the country. He claims that his mission is to build a Hindu Rashtra. When the priest, in his mid-20s, went to Bihar recently, tens of thousands – some even claimed millions – turned up to greet and listen to him. The RJD, a constituent in the ruling coalition, opposed his entry into Bihar. Yet, people from the party also lined up for the priest’s darshan.
While this new Hindutva mascot in north India is trying to infuse vigour into the Hindutva campaign, in another part of the country, some staunch Hindutva protagonists are disheartened by the election results and defeat of the BJP at the hustings in Karnataka. A senior Hindutva leader, who has been a legislator in Telangana, released a video message after the results were out, cursing Hindus of Karnataka for their “suicidal” decision. “How can we build the Hindu Rashtra with such Hindus around?,” he bemoaned.
Meanwhile, the international religious freedom lobby and several church groups unleashed a vicious campaign against the Indian government over the violence in Manipur earlier this month. Portraying the ethnic violence between Kukis and Meiteis as a Hindutva project against the Christian minority of the state, these groups attacked the Modi government, accusing it of pro-Hindutva bias.
Firstly, it is a grave misunderstanding to conclude that governments determine Hindutva’s future. The Karnataka election results are undoubtedly a wake-up call for the BJP in particular and pro-Hindutva groups in general. But Hindutva’s future will be determined by creating a strong and awakened society, not by winning or losing elections. Hindutva never loses. It wins or learns.
Karnataka teaches some lessons. Some presume that Hindutva and development are two different things. Hindutva is a misnomer devoid of inclusivity, development and good governance.
Good governance includes tackling anti-national forces firmly. Karnataka has its share of such elements. But exclusivism and hatred do not define Hindutva. Hindutva is, and should be, about inclusive governance where the last person is also cared for.
Hence, the defeat of the BJP in Karnataka should lead the Hindutva protagonists not to curse the electorate but to ensure that the Hindutva campaign becomes more inclusive, clean and development centric. For, that is what Hindutva is all about.
Attempts at linking the violence in Manipur with Hindutva are mischievous. The Hindutva groups in Manipur and other Northeastern states focus their efforts on preserving the ethnic diversity and indigenous religious and cultural identities of the multitude of tribes and towards their educational and economic development. Over the last several decades, the cadre of Hindu organisations like the RSS, Vivekananda Kendra and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram strove relentlessly in that direction through schools, hospitals and other social development activities.
The violence in Manipur is an antithesis of those efforts. It is condemnable and the loss of life is to be mourned. Attacks on religious places are reprehensible. There is a need for all political and non-political bodies alike to come out against the violence and strive for a return of peace in the troubled region.
I have worked in the Northeast for many years and am familiar with the fault lines there. There have always been tensions among the three dominant groups in Manipur – the Nagas, Kukis and Meiteis. In fact, around the time that we were establishing the first-ever BJP government in the state in 2017, there was an active blockade of the only operational national highway, that connected Imphal and Manipur Valley with the rest of the country, by the hills-based insurgent groups.
We worked hard through sustained negotiations with the agitating groups to ensure that the blockade was lifted soon. Chief Minister Biren Singh was hailed as a great unifier of the people in the hills and the valley then. There is no reason to believe otherwise about him or his government today.
The current unfortunate sequence of events is, if anything, indicative of the fact that the fault lines are not fully mitigated. Contrary to the propaganda that it was Hindu-Christian violence and the Christians are victims of a Hindutva project, it is only a resurfacing of the Kuki-Meitei rivalry that dates back to the time of independence and continues to haunt the state despite the best efforts of the government of the day.
The Christian groups and religious freedom bodies that are projecting the Manipur violence as anti-Christian must know that there exist even worse tensions between the Nagas and Kukis, both Christians. In fact, major violence erupted between the two tribes in 1993 leading to the deaths of hundreds and a large-scale migration of villages from each other’s territory. Simmering tensions have persisted ever since. One of the initial challenges for the Biren Singh government was to effectively put a lid on that conflict and it did a commendable job in the last six years.
Not just churches, but temples too were targeted in this round of violence. But that is essentially because temples are identified with Meiteis and churches with Kukis.
At the root of the Naga-Kuki and Kuki-Meitei conflict in Manipur is land, both in the hills and the valley. Meiteis demand Scheduled Tribe status because while the hill areas in the state are protected by Hill Council Acts and inaccessible for outsiders, the Valley, home to the Meiteis, is open to all. Meiteis perceive it as a threat to their survival as both Nagas and Kukis move into the Valley in increasing numbers leading to pressure on the meagre land resources.
There is a need to address the concerns of all sections with sympathy and openness. One solution could be through greater political stakeholdership. For example, the Hill Districts have been without elected bodies for a long time leaving all powers in the hands of the state government.
Unity, peace, identity, security and prosperity – India’s Constitution guarantees them to all citizens of the country.
Hindutva or Hindu Rashtra is about achieving that, not about building something afresh.