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Of Lankesh, Ambedkar and Hinduism

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi
Published : Sep 13, 2017, 1:58 am IST
Updated : Sep 13, 2017, 1:59 am IST

Lankesh saw Hinduism not as a religion open to change but as a hidebound hierarchy ranged against women and the lower tiers of society.

Gauri Lankesh
 Gauri Lankesh

It is an easy explanation for her death at the hands of suspected Hindu extremists that Gauri Lankesh stood for secularism, gender equality and a host of human rights, which offended her foes. These are all laudable causes associated with Indian liberals who oppose Hindutva.

However, few from this club have truly targeted the right-wing quarry’s beating heart as Lankesh and her ideological soulmates did. And they did it by rejecting their Hindu identity. That is by far the bigger challenge for Hindutva — people disowning their Hindu identity. Muslim- and Christian-baiting is a means to dealing with this potentially insurmountable challenge. Lankesh and her fellow apostates, if that is the word, include, but are not confined to, social reformers in the Lingayat community of rationalists and Shiva mystics that are common in southern India.

Unlike many of her grieving supporters, Lankesh’s sympathy for causes she embraced was firmly aligned with her aloofness from Hinduism, which goes beyond the fact that she was buried and not cremated. Let us stay with the crucial point. Lalu Yadav, Sitaram Yechury, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi are perceived as ideologically disparate politicians fighting Hindutva in their different ways. In their opposition to the extremists, they indeed reject Hindu majoritarianism as well. But they do not disown the popular perception (or reality) that they belong to the religious or cultural majority, which their Hindu identity constitutes.

They may see themselves as good, kindly, or even atheist and non-practising Hindus, followers of Nehru, perhaps, or Bertrand Russell or even Karl Marx. Yet, for better or worse they would perhaps struggle to denounce their Hindu identity, as Lankesh did, be it for political expediency or by cultural reasoning.

Communist cadres carrying Ganpati idols in Kerala in recent years offer as good an evidence as any that being overtly Hindu may have become a political requirement in this era of religious surge that shapes the new identity politics. Hindutva seems to have sent devout Marxists cartwheeling, grudgingly, hopefully, towards religion, a paradox of sorts. Right-wing groupies may deride admirers of Lankesh as anti-Hindu but her liberal supporters do not, in their own reasoning, see the Hindu identity as problematic, which Ambedkar and Gauri Lankesh, among others, did.

Lankesh saw Hinduism not as a religion open to change but as a hidebound hierarchy ranged against women and the lower tiers of society. Which is more or less how her liberal admirers may also see it. The difference is that she underscored her non-Hindu minority identity in the battle with Hindutva. And, for rejecting that identity, from the perspective of her right-wing foes, she became an apostate worthy of matching retribution.

Consider this: The clarion call of Hindutva is: “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.” And what was Lankesh saying? “I am not a Hindu.”

To be sure, apostates have been a feature almost exclusively within Semitic religions in which there is one God, one Satan and one Book. I once unburdened on Shimon Peres my knowledge of Judaism, which I had picked up from The Ten Commandments, the movie about Moses. I asked him why Israel, which should follow the tenet “Though shalt not kill”, does just the opposite with the Palestinians. Peres, who was visiting Delhi as deputy prime minister of Israel, cleverly dodged the question, and said a brilliant mind like Einstein’s could be snuffed out with a bullet. And a brilliant mind needed to be protected, with force if necessary.

The secular-communal binary, shared enthusiastically by Lankesh’s liberal admirers, was not her winning card, however. If recent history is anything to go by, we can see that the more vociferous the call for secularism the greater the victory graph of the communalists becomes. Ambedkar had warned against the trick. But he also gave the antidote, emphasising that Hinduism is constructed around self-absorbed castes that have little in common with each other except when there is anti-Muslim violence. Muslims provide traction to Hindutva and vanquishing an entire community may not necessarily be the chief aim of the extremists. The real objective, in Gauri Lankesh’s view, as I understood her, was her fear of the subjugation of the vast and potentially intractable majority of Hindus by the elite, splintered as they are into mutually exclusive castes.

The impact of Lankesh’s ideas could go beyond the fact that she challenged Hinduism. A less consolidated Hindu identity was possible had Ambedkar won his battle with Gandhi’s notion of a benign Hindu-Muslim binary. It would then perhaps be a struggle to forge a hastily assembled counter identity of Indian Muslims. Had Lankesh been around to assist Ambedkar before Partition she would have challenged Jinnah and Gandhi alike.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: gauri lankesh, hindutva