Hindus need an institutional — yet non-governmental and not necessarily monetised — approach towards building the right discourse. Until every child, student, and narrative worker in India can find himself or herself rewarded professionally for pursuing and expressing the truth about Hinduism in his or her career, all we have done so far will remain only a shadow narrative, not where it has to be at all.
There are pros and cons of the proposition by lawyer and vice-president of Karnataka BJP youth wing Tejaswi Surya, which he presented in a recent article, suggesting that the RSS float a “venture capital” fund to change the narrative.
Surya wrote, “Now is the time for the RSS .. as the most influential mass-based Hindu cultural organisation, to take a more proactive role in creating and nurturing a vibrant Dharmic intellectual ecosystem that will help shape the grand global Dharmic narrative…. The RSS however should refrain from going about this in its archetypal fashion (and) instead .. outsource the creation of serious academic and intellectual work to private individuals and organisations.”
What is to be happy about is the fact that a BJP member is taking this issue seriously enough, and also that he recognises that “changing the narrative” is not the same thing as buying political campaigners for a party or individual and is something that should be left to professional academics and independent scholars.
Respect for professional independence is something that is not always evident when much and long-battered social movements and their leading organisations face up to the need for a new front in their long struggles, many of which have been existential and political rather than merely academic. It’s praiseworthy that Tejaswi Surya has recognised the importance of intellectual independence in his essay, too.
The movement and the establishment
What is of concern though is, first of all, whether all of us who have been talking about narratives, ecosystems, decolonising education, and the like have reached a point of sufficient clarity on where exactly it is that the “narrative” is to be “changed”. We need to understand the field of action before us not in terms of “Dharmics/RW/Indics” versus “Leftists” and the like, but more accurately, as an engagement between a professional narrative “establishment” and a popular, and growing, Hindu “movement” which seeks to secure a voice for Hindus everywhere, including, presumably, the “establishment” too.
And “establishment” does not imply some vague Congress or any other political party network in a Lutyenite sense, but simply and directly the institutions that produce the powerful, influential, and consequential narratives and discourses of our time: gigantic multinational media corporations and their Indian partners or equivalents in Bollywood, TV, news and advertising; private and public universities, schools, school boards, and so on. It is in this space, which is largely Hinduphobic, to put it mildly, that the narrative as it exists has to be confronted, contested, and transformed. All else is Trishanku limbo. We can have our weekend talks and workshops, social media groups, and lots of other activities, but until every child, student, and narrative worker in India can find himself or herself rewarded professionally for pursuing and expressing the truth about Hinduism in his or her career, all we have done so far will remain only a shadow narrative, not where it has to be at all.
People are getting better informed, thanks to the social media and its many earnest voices, But “the narrative” will have to change where it’s being made. By way of example, let us think about the consumer activist Ralph Nader who made his name, by actually getting the automotive industry to put in seat belts, not by merely criticising that industry and then calling on people to build their own cars!
Changing the narrative, simply put, means we have to transform the very fundamentals of belief, in the institutions which are routinely producing mass Hinduphobia today, and not simply daydream about some thousands of crores of rupees which are going to appear in order to create, presumably, an alternative narrative professional establishment altogether. It’s a daydream because I have seen these past four years to know that is what it is.
What can actually “change the narrative”? Let us examine the possible role of the actor and the method being suggested here, that is, the RSS, and a “venture capital fund”. About the first, I have an open mind, but about the second, I am a lot more cautious.
The Sangh and the establishment
Let me begin with the RSS. It goes without saying that an organisation as unique, ubiquitous, and increasingly important to Indian democracy as the RSS should not shirk from engaging with the world of professional scholars, writers, artists, journalists and others — the “narrative professions,” as it were. For too long, the absence of an effective communication policy, combined with a historically hostile and intellectually lazy (if not dishonest) attitude in academia towards the Hindu movement broadly has led to extremes of misrepresentation of both Hindus in general and the RSS in particular. This should be rethought, on both sides.
By way of an example of a professional academician’s view of both the Hindu movement and the RSS which has evolved through time and reflection, I would like to share my own trajectory of thinking here. Throughout the 1990s, when I was in graduate school, virtually everything I read in my books and journals or heard about in classes and conferences seemed to hold one basic presumption: that the “Sangh Parivar” was to India was what the Nazis were to Germany.
I did not know anyone from a Sangh background to help me contradict such a view, perhaps because typically most people in the humanities tended to be from different dispositions, nor of course, was sympathetic writing about the Sangh or the Hindu movement generally easily available to anyone in academia (nor is it the case today perhaps).
Although I was somewhat sceptical about what I could see as the South Asianist Left’s hostile attitude towards Hinduism and my own family’s Guru in particular, I did not in those days specifically find reason to doubt the characterisation of the Sangh by the dominant experts in academia such as Christophe Jaffrelot, Achin Vanaik or many others (and anecdotally, I might also add that most of the Hindus who seemed to agree with Sangh concerns often spoke intemperately about Muslims as if to confirm what the Left experts were saying about them).
It took a long time before I began to rethink some of these assumptions. This is pretty much the same narrative that most people in the professional establishment have grown up with. Almost every student in the humanities and social sciences who is going to work in academia, media, NGOs and even the corporate sector, has grown up with these assumptions. Worse, if, in the 1990s, the establishment mostly demonised the Sangh and specific efforts such as the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement rather than Hinduism in general, now, post 2014, the demonisation campaign has spread to viciously target almost anything Hindu; temples, comics, animal concerns, vegetarianism, festivals, swastikas, agarbattis, and even saris. The criticism of Sangh also continues, of course, on and off in the establishment media, with bizarre articles trying to accuse them of Nazi genetic engineering experiments and the like!
Although I began writing about the Hindu representation since the early 2000s, I must admit that for a long time I saw my work only as a dissent within my own profession rather than having common cause with Hindu organisations or political parties and kept my distance. This somewhat changed for me only around 2015 when I actually began to engage with people in the Hindu movement, particularly in relation to the textbooks issue in California. It wasn’t just Hindus, but the Hindu movement broadly, including the Sangh, that academia had been very, very inaccurate about.
The paradigm we had all grown up with in academia was totally busted: Modi had become Prime Minister, but he hadn’t declared a Hindu fascist state or anything even close as all the big experts had been predicting for two decades. Moreoever, Modi’s speeches seemed to be more Gandhian to me than anything else (and I had studied and taught Gandhian thought in some depth to be able to say that). I discovered, more through Koenraad Elst’s writing than anyone else’s perhaps, that Sangh was really more about Deen Dayal Upadhyaya rather than any Hitler or Mussolini.
Far from being the assassins of Gandhi as the propaganda machine had claimed for decades, volunteers of the Sangh were really his spiritual, political, and intellectual inheritors, and mostly for the good, I thought.
I do have a distinction I now make in my thinking between what I call a “Gandhian detour” which is good and a “Gandhian dead-end” which isn’t, but will save it for another occasion.
The arena of Hindu struggle can be seen in three broad areas: three groups of people with certain sensibilities, priorities, or narrative genealogies (how they think about things, simply put). There are a very large number of Hindus who are concerned about Hindu survival — the largest subset the “Hindu movement” broadly. As a subset of this, there are people from or who have been touched by Sangh. And there is the third subset, which is actually a very small category of people, consisting of narrative professionals, people who happen to be working in academia, media, and other professions which actually produce narratives, and in a position, with sufficient support, to actually change it where it matters. This group possibly also intersects, at least in India, with Sangh to some extent, but in the US, it is perhaps mostly outside it.
The key issue that Tejaswi Surya’s article brings us back to now is what happens when (and if) a vanguard organisation in the Hindu movement makes a huge effort in trying to influence the narrative? Will it galvanise and aid the professionals in the narrative establishment sympathetic to the Hindu movement and grow their numbers and influence, or will it have a backlash within those establishments, forever saddling voices in academia and media with accusations of bias, and worse, mercenary reasons for supporting Hindu concerns?
Money and narrative
The answers to these questions are discouraging; a serious course correction is necessary in how Hindu organisations approach and engage with the domain of narrative — particularly when they walk in thinking, talking and posturing money. One broad point: Is money (a venture capital fund, or even supposed philanthropy) really the correct way to get into this field? What has the track record of monetary engagement with academic and media institutions been until now? Has it actually “changed the narrative” or merely produced an illusion of it by propping up a simulation of it outside the narrative establishment (schools, universities, TV networks, newspapers, magazines, corporate policies etc)? Is the narrative changing within these institutions, or is all this only a case of preaching to the converted?
Most importantly, is the narrative changing in the minds of what I call the “Middle Hindus,” the majority of undecided, silent, Hindus who swayed towards Modi in 2014, and have now been drenched with lies about lynchistan, Diwali pollution, and the like. Do they share your concern about Hindu survival, or do they believe the mainstream media? These are some of the questions we should all be thinking about.
There is a real risk that the “venture capital” fund Tejaswi Surya proposes, however, well intended it may be, ends up being counterproductive. Here is just one hypothetical scenario: let’s say someone claiming to be close to Sangh creates such a fund and then decides that some Hindu scholar or writer has not paid sufficient homage to him by dedicating his next book to him or praising him as a benevolent saint or the like; and let’s say that this fund owner decides to shut out this author or speaker… Does the “narrative” really “change” when you wield your money as a form of censorship and control over what you claim is your own side? There is a real danger this might happen, and if it does, will the Sangh not lose its credibility among even sympathetic scholars and writers who are just about beginning to challenge the way it has been depicted in academia all these years? This is not to suggest this will happen, but without a course correction, the volunteerism that fuelled the Hindu movement for decades runs the risk of being replaced by mere commercialism.
For the moment, even as Tejaswi Surya's suggestion is appreciated, it is best for all scholars and writers who can afford to be independent to remain so. The movement is poised between many difficult choices for the future, not least of which is the attempt to force-fit a nascent and hard-fought intellectual revival into the narrow logics of a venture capitalist mindset. Hindu revival survived decades of secular-socialist antipathy. The next few years will see whether its survives the sheer amoral drool of capitalism carrying a few Sanskrit labels as cover.
Last Updated 9:56 AM IST