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A collection of articles from all around (no copyright infringement intended) for educational purposes to strengthen the values enshrined in the Indian constitution.

Lion in sheep’s clothing: Hindu Right poses as ‘Progressive’ in America

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Vinay Bhat

“As long as caste in India does exist…and if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem.” ~ Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development

As part of the periodic textbook review process (which occurs every six years), the California State Board of Education has been the subject of lobbying by Conservative Hindu-American groups, primarily the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies (UF) and the Dharma Civilization Foundation (DCF). This lobbying seeks to present a Hindu nationalist lens on the origins of subcontinent history, erase the violent history Hinduism as a religion has perpetrated in the name of caste based apartheid, and erase the gender inequality inherent in Hindu scripture.

Several progressive Indian diasporic organizations around the US have opposed these designs and on March 28th won a decisive victory when 62 of 74 suggested recommendations were accepted by the History Social Science Committee who were tasked to review, compile and endorse all edits before submitting them to the Board of Education.

Groups such as HAF/UF/DCF, which try to paint themselves as progressive organizations in the US through their claims of Hinduphobia or anti-Indian racism, now lay exposed for their own bigotry by being apologists for a system that has denied dignity to millions of Indians from marginalized communities who are victims of caste apartheid. I, as an ally to the struggle to end caste apartheid, vehemently call them out.

My Background and the Context Of Conservative Hindu Culture

In the interest of transparency, I must declare that I am a proud Ambedkarite and a member of the #Don’tEraseOurHistory coalition that is leading the opposition to the blatant “savarna-washing” of California textbooks. This coalition is an inter-faith, inter-caste, multi-racial coalition that has been organizing to counter groups like the Hindu American Foundation, Uberoi Foundation, and Dharma Civilization Foundation.

dont erase our history

I would also like to state at this time that I myself was born to a Hindu family, more so in a Brahmin family. While I firmly reject caste as an inhuman construct now, I am also a first-hand witness of what caste supremacy looks like, I can attest to how casteism is ingrained from a very early age. Rituals of purity, maintaining safe distances without touch, ascription to texts such as the Manusmriti which openly espouses casteism, and strongly believing in one’s own superior qualities, are what I without dispute, grew up with. My experience was not the exception, but the rule and anyone who is honest about the lived reality of caste apartheid in India and in the diaspora today would agree.

This attitude is translated into upper-caste networks that one maintains through immediate family and friends while growing up. These incestuous cycles of hatred towards “the other” manifests in various forms — in our contempt for reservations (affirmative action for the marginalized), in our continued dominance of knowledge production, and in the daily atrocities faced by several Dalit and other marginalized communities in India.

These upper caste networks that dominate Indian society, then get faithfully replicated in the diasporas of the developed world. It is this upper-caste diaspora that forms the bulk of organizations such as the HAF. In a Coalition Against Genocide Report, the story of organizations like the HAF are laid bare:

HAF is a classic American Sangh story. It was conceptualized and developed within the belly of the American Sangh: the Hindu Students Council and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-America‘s Governing Council and a team of Sangh loyalists with clearly marked histories in various Sangh organizations were brought together as the leadership to execute the HAF plan. Thus any claims that the HAF makes to being unaffiliated and independent is unfounded. The HAF is independent and unaffiliated only in one sense of the word — legally. It is its own 501c3 and it files its own 990s. But in institutional and personnel terms — it is not just like the Sangh, but is an organization born and bred within and of the Sangh.

Organizations like these invite and support extremely hateful figures, such as Baba Ramdev and Sadhvi Rithambara, who continue to make derogatory remarks about LGBTs, women, lower castes, and incite violence against marginalized minorities across India. How then can HAF make a claim to being a progressive organization when it endorses such characters?

om america

There is no denying that Desis in general are subjects of white supremacist racism in the US, but while standing against this racism, it is equally, if not more important, to acknowledge our own complicity in upholding caste based apartheid and the denial of basic human rights to other religious and cultural minorities in India who represent vast populations — larger even than the total population of the United States!

These are not realities that Hindu organizations can deny. It is an act of sheer duplicity to, on one hand appropriate the language of oppressed communities, and then to claim Hindus are a religious minority under siege in the US, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, while remaining perfectly silent about Hindu fundamentalist policies in India. There is no debate about the fact that Indian elite society is dominated by upper-caste Hindus. It is under the watch of this ruling class, that we have seen BJP, RSS, and VHP figures espouse the raping of Muslim women in their graves, dismiss the murderers of Dalit children as the death of dogs, and much worse. Why then the silence on these issues? Why then the claim to progressiveness?

On the Battle for Textbooks

The battle for curriculum frameworks abroad is rooted to ideological battles at home. When you look at the requested changes by Hindu American Foundation, Uberoi Foundation, and Dharma Civilization Foundation it is clear that this is not about history. It is instead related to prestige, power, and policy.

One shocking thing that becomes clear right away is that the themes of the edits are almost identical to the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) changes mandated by the BJP in their last round of power. The edits fall into the following categories:

• Change the Indus Valley Civilization to Sindh-Sarasvati Civilization

• Assert that Indus Valley Civilization was Hindu civilization thus claiming “nativity” to the subcontinent.

• Diminish the conversation of caste and obscure its origins in Hindu religious belief.

• Specifically raise the profile of Hindu characters throughout the lineage of Indian history

• Highlight only instances of violence by Muslim rulers against Hindus as genocide.

The goal for these edits in a US context is part of a strategy to create a unified story of a glorious Hindu Shastra nation and an attempt to counter the narrative in which Dalits, Muslims, and other cultural minorities have begun to break through the culture of impunity in India, to speak about the atrocities of caste apartheid and religious intolerance. Desperate to counter the stories of violence that these marginalized communities have fled from, and to make sure questions on caste-apartheid and religious freedom are not raised on international platforms, they are preemptively wanting to present a defanged Hinduism that erases atrocity and is digestible for commercial adoption.

Further, the battle on textbooks helps lay the ground for their other policy endeavors, which include funding American political candidates sympathetic to their specific foreign policy efforts. This includes blocking bills in the US on the genocide in Gujarat, and informing the US Department for Homeland Security on the issues of “Hinduphobia”.

Finally, their attempt to change California textbooks is part of a larger project to establish their own pipelines of knowledge production as the norm. In the first 2006 California Textbook battle, they were criticized heavily for not having experts who challenged the expertise of established departments for South Asian studies in the US and in India. Their response was then to raise massive multi-million dollar endowments and attempt to create their own centers for Dharmic studies, to create centers of knowledge production in American institutions that could counter consensus in this field. To date they have only won at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and were defeated at University of California Irvine. This disturbing trend of attempts to muscle and fund Hindutva knowledge production is exactly why we must defeat them in every platform possible.

Conclusion

The danger of accepting the false progressiveness of conservative Hindu groups is the danger of inviting a lion in sheep’s clothing. These groups are dangerous and are not separate from the Sangh but are part and party to the strategy of violence and denial of caste apartheid and religious intolerance. Anyone who would aspire to anti-caste politics and a progressive South Asian identity, must unite in calling these groups and exposing them in any space they attempt to impose these strategies. For in this case, silence is part of the long culture of impunity that allows the violence of Hindutva to flourish and we cannot and will not allow it.

~~~

 

Vinay Bhat works as a management consultant and lives in the Bay Area of the US.

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Shamsul Islam’s open letter to “Head chopping Billionaire Baba”

Baba,

At the outset I must congratulate you for making big strides so far as your personality is concerned. You have really become a MARD; MAN in capital, now. On June 6, 2011 afraid of Delhi police you ran away in female attire from Ram Lila ground, leaving hundreds of your followers at the mercy of Delhi Police. But now as press reports from Rohtak, Haryana disclose you are courageous enough to chop heads of millions for not chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. (1) It really shows the farsightedness of your wisdom that in a meeting which was held to create ‘sadbhav’ or fraternity among different Castes/sections of Hindus which was shattered in last February you did not budge from the main agenda of Hindutva; teaching Indian Muslims a lesson. As a master performer of the Hindutva bandwagon you focussed on Muslims despite the fact that latter had no hand in the February blood bath in Haryana. Baba! you and your friends were perfectly right in asking Anuradha Beniwal, the UK based chess trainer-cum-writer originally from Haryana to stop when she said, “We [Hindus] have burnt the establishments of our neighbours, our friends, our brothers. To get the bottom of the matter, and to resolve it, we have to ask certain questions to ourselves, to our society and our government”, as she was deviating from your anti-Muslim agenda. (2) Baba! You are a true Hindutva rising star!

Baba!Allow me to touch few petty issues. Just enlighten ignorant persons like me on these few minor things which I will summarize in the following:

(1) Where were you and your RSS bandwagon when Haryana burnt for more than 10 days in February 2016 in which countless women were violated, more than 30 killed and property worth, 30 thousand crores was looted/burnt? I hope you remember that Haryana during this critical period was abandoned by the BJP/RSS political leadership and Indian Army whose job is to secure Indian territory against enemies was called to control this civil anarchy. Indian Army had to shoot Indians killing more than 20. You and RSS were seen nowhere chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’.

(2) Moreover, since you declared your intention of chopping heads (to quote your words’behead lakhs of those’), who refuse to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, in a RSS organized meeting, it can be assumed that RSS is too committed to this chant. It is a blatantly lie baba! Forget about this chant, RSS never participated in the Indian Freedom Struggle. Let me quote directly from the contemporary RSS documents to prove this fact. Guru Golwalkar, the most prominent ideologue of the RSS and Supremo of the RSS 1940 onward admitted the fact that RSS kept aloof from the Freedom Struggle in the following words: “There is another reason for the need of always remaining involved in routine work. There is some unrest in the mind due to the situation developing in the country from time to time. There was such unrest in 1942 [Quit India Movement]. Before that there was the movement in 1930-31 [Salt Satyagrah]. At that time many other people had gone to Doctorji (By Doctorji is meant Dr. Hedgewar, the founder of the RSS). This delegation requested Doctorji that this movement will give independence and Sangh should not lag behind. At that time, when a gentleman told Doctorji that he was ready to go to jail, Doctorji said: ‘Definitely go. But who will take care of your family then? That gentleman replied, ‘I have sufficiently arranged resources not only to run the family expenses for two years but also to pay fines according to the requirements’, then Doctorji told him: ‘If you have fully arranged for the resources then come out to work for the Sangh for two years’. After returning home that gentleman neither went to jail nor came out to work for the Sangh. (3)

Non-cooperation and Quit India Movements were two great milestones in the history of the Indian Freedom Movement and here was the great thesis of great Golwalkar on these two great happenings of the Freedom Movement. According to him: “Definitely there are bound to be bad results of struggle. The boys became unruly after the 1920-21 [Non-cooperation Movement] movement. It is not an attempt to throw mud at the leaders. But these are inevitable products after the struggle. The matter is that we could not properly control these results. After 1942, people often started thinking that there was no need to think of the law. (4)

Thus Golwalkar wanted the Indians to respect the draconian and repressive laws of the inhuman British rulers! While narrating the RSS attitude towards Quit India Movement (1942) he admitted:”In 1942 also there was a strong sentiment in the hearts of many. At that time too the routine work of Sangh continued. Sangh vowed not to do anything directly. However, upheaval (uthal-puthal) in the minds of Sangh volunteers continued. Sangh is an organization of inactive persons, their talks are useless, not only outsiders but also many of our volunteers did talk like this. They were greatly disgusted too. (5)

Baba, please secure a single publication or document of the RSS which, could throw some light on the great work the RSS did ‘indirectly’ for the Quit India movement.In all fairness to Guru Golwalkar, he did not claim that the RSS had been opposed to the British. He admitted it long after Independence also while delivering a speech before leading cadres of the RSS at Indore in 1960. Referring to the British rule he admitted: “We should remember that in our pledge we have talked of the freedom of the country through defending religion and culture. There is no mention of departure of the British in that. (6)

Golwalkar was not alone in denigrating the Freedom Struggle and glorifying the British rulers. His Guru and founder of the RSS, Hedgewar, had similar views. The official biography of Hedgewar has the following self-explanatory statement: “After establishing Sangh Doctor Saheb in his speeches used to talk only of Hindu organization. Direct comment on Government used to be nil.” (7)

Billionaire Baba! You are very fond of referring to the great martyr of the anti-British Freedom Struggle, Bhagat Singh. But your Hindutva co-traveller, RSS decried the whole tradition of martyrdom followed by these martyrs. Here is a passage from the chapter, ‘Martyr, Great But Not Ideal’ of Bunch Of Thoughts, the collectionof writings of MS Golwalkar decrying the whole tradition of martyrs. After declaring that his objects of worship have always been successful lives and that ‘Bhartiya culture’ [which surely means RSS culture] does not adore and idealize martyrdom and do not treat ‘such martyrs as their heroes’, he went on to philosophize that: “There is no doubt that such man who embrace martyrdom are great heroes and their philosophy too is pre-eminently manly. They are far above the average men who meekly submit to fate and remain in fear and inaction. All the same, such persons are not held up as ideals in our society. We have not looked upon their martyrdom as the highest point of greatness to which men should aspire. For, after all, they failed in achieving their ideal, and failure implies some fatal flaw in them.” (8)

Baba! Could there be a statement more insulting and denigrating to the martyrs than this?

(3) Ramdev baba! India is lucky that you were not there when Gandhiji, Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sardar Patel were alive. They never chanted ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. On the contrary, they used the term ‘Jai Hind’ (victory to India) in official correspondence and communications. With ‘Jai Hind’ they ended their public addresses. If you were their contemporary they too should have been at risk of losing their heads for not chanting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. Since Independence all presidents and prime ministers (including PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee) of the Indian Republic chanted ‘Jai Hind’and not ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, they were lucky not have their heads chopped off as you were not around baba!

I know you are very busy in marketing Hindutva and Patanjali products; I will not take more of your time. Just last query, please share with the nation where and when during the Freedom Struggle the Hindutva bandwagon which included your RSS, Hindu Mahasabha, chanted ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ against the British. And how many times Hedgewar and Golwalkar, the two Supremo of the RSS during the British rule, or any other leader/cadre of the RSS, were jailed for freedom of India, chanting this or any other slogan against the British.

Eagerly looking forward for your kind response,

Shamsul Islam
5-4-2016

Shamsul Islam is a retired Professor of University of Delhi.Email: notoinjustice@gmail.com

How changes in the reservation system in 2006 sowed the seeds for today’s campus tumult

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Central universities have become vibrant sites of protest largely because they mirror the social conflict of larger Indian society. It is precisely why student outbursts are likely to punctuate the peace that authorities seek to impose on university campuses.

To begin with, the social conflict involves the relatively disempowered groups challenging the hegemony of upper castes. It has the peasants, regardless of their caste, and Adivasis rising against the state’s attempts to dispossess them of their resources. It has the religious minorities simmering at the immunity their tormentors seem to enjoy, and women seeking to establish gender equality.

This has goaded the state into suppressing expressions of discontent, either by frightening agitators through threats of booking them for sedition or tagging them as anti-national. Thus, universities are bristling because sections of society are too.

Institutes of higher education have been rarely insulated from social turmoil. Students protested against the Emergency that Indira Gandhi imposed in 1975. Before it, students went underground in the hope of ushering in a Red revolution. Then, in 1990, students spearheaded the agitation against the Central government’s decision to introduce reservations for Other Backward Classes in jobs.

What we are witnessing today in Central universities is, in some senses, the reverse of what happened during the anti-reservation stir. Through it upper caste-upper class students sought to preserve their interests. Today, it is students from relatively marginalised groups – in terms of caste or class – asserting their rights and challenging the hegemony of upper castes.

Campus composition

Caste has always lurked on India’s campuses. In 2016, the issue of caste discrimination and conflict occupies centre stage.

This couldn’t have happened if the social composition of our central universities had not undergone a dramatic change over the last 10 years. In 2006, the Union government extended reservations for Other Backward Classes in institutes of higher education it substantially funded. The Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, extended 27% reservations for OBCs. Added to the existing 22.5% quota for SCs and STs, this brought up education reservations in such institutions to 49.5%.

This decision reduced the overwhelming majority upper caste students once enjoyed here.

At best, upper caste students now constitute 50% of a central university’s total student strength, unless quota rules are clandestinely subverted, as is alleged to be done on some campuses. In reality, however, upper caste students are in minority on some campuses. This is largely because students from Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes also get admission through the general category.

The change in the social composition of central universities has created a space in student politics for Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Classes students. These students have either experienced caste discrimination and economic deprivations directly, or indirectly through the narratives of their parents. A section of them fit the descriptor of first-generation learner.

It is because of them that campuses today resonate with the vocabulary of equality, opposition to social discrimination, and empathy for the victims of the State. These were ideas universities embraced since Independence. From 2006, however, the students have demanded that universities act upon, or execute, the very ideas they trumpet.

This can be illustrated through the example of Hyderabad Central University. Its Dalit students were disparaged and discriminated against even before 2006. This was brought out evocatively in a chapter in University of Hyderabad alumnus, N Sukumar’s book – Beyond Inclusion: The Practice of Equal Access in Indian Higher Education where Sukumar’s details his personal experience. There were protests then too, suicides as well.

But the number of non-upper castes students was just not enough to give their protests critical mass. This started to change a year or two after 2006. In 2008-2009, SC, ST and OBC students numbered 1,418, or 41.4%, of HCU’s total student strength of 3,426. Four years later, in 2013-2014, 3,038 out of HCU’s 5,159 students, or 58.9%, belonged to the reserved category. Reservations, and opposition to it, have led to solidarity among students belonging to the three disparate categories.

This is why Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula and his friends could confront the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which objected to their protests against the hanging of Yakub Memon, whom the Supreme Court convicted for his role in the 1993 bombing of Bombay. This is also why Vemula’s suicide prompted HCU students to rally against the authorities. Earlier, as Sukumar shows, the suicide of Dalit students barely registered on the university’s radar, let alone the country’s.

Diverse backgrounds

The change in the social composition of Jawaharlal Nehru University is also an important factor why it has become a simmering cauldron. In 2013-2014, SC, ST and OBC students comprised 47.4% of JNU’s total student strength of 7,677. The next year, they comprised 51.4% of JNU’s students. In reality, their presence was greater than the percentages reflect. For instance, in 2013-2014, 249 SC, ST and OBC students were also selected on merit through the general category.

In addition, the Jawaharlal Nehru University admission policy gives preferential points to applicants who belong to economically backward districts, and to women. Thus, it is more likely for an OBC female student from a backward district to enter JNU than an OBC male student from a metro. Likewise, an upper caste student from a backward district gets preferential treatment over his or her counterpart from a metro. This is why you are more likely to meet a Kanhaiya Kumar in JNU and not in, say, St Stephen’s College.

It also explains the felicity with which the JNU student union president can stitch Marx with Ambedkar, Phule with Lenin. Acute experience of impoverishment does make an upper caste sensitive to the deprivations arising because of the caste system, though, obviously, ideological indoctrination also plays a role. Similarly, the travails of lower castes do make their students sensitive to human rights violations in, say, Kashmir or Chhattisgarh or in places to which they do not belong.

Students from a socially diverse background bring their consciousness and experiences to the campus. Thus, for instance, HCU students have hosted beef-pork festivals, as have JNU’s. The diverse social composition of JNU is the factor Pramod Ranjan, consulting editor of the Forward Press, cites to explain the celebration of Mahishashur – the buffalo demon Durga slayed – in JNU.

In a piece Bahujan Discourse Puts JNU In the Crosshairs, which was published in countercurrents.org, Ranjan wrote:

“From within the Hindu religion – which was the mainstay of the Sangh’s politics – rose dissenting voices that proclaimed that they would not worship the goddess who massacred tribals, backwards and Dalits.”

To bolster his argument, Ranjan quoted the proponents of the Mahishashur movement in JNU:

“You may have presented our heroes as villains in your scriptures but we will dig them out from non-brahmanical texts and re-anoint them.”

Such cultural contestations predate the advent of the Modi government. However, the earlier United Progressive Alliance regime looked upon it benignly, perhaps believing in the dictum that “students can only be students” – contrarian and deviant.

For the Sangh Parivar, traditionally upper caste in ethos and orientation, such discourses represent a subliminal challenge to its worldview – and, therefore, need to be countered robustly. This is why the Sangh Parivar’s organ, Panchjanya, featured a cover story – JNU: Darar ka gadh (JNU, the den of divisiveness) – lashing out against the prestigious educational institute.

We have had the Union government justifying the suspension of Vemula and his friends, and supporting HCU authorities even though, if for nothing else, they should have been penalised for letting the campus slip into disarray. We have had bigwigs from the Bharatiya Janata Party decry JNU students as anti-national and the Delhi Police dutifully file cases of sedition against some of them.

Indeed, the conflict on India’s campuses has been tackled ideologically as also in a brazenly partisan manner. Take Richa Singh, who heads the student union of Allahabad University, which, as a central institution, also introduced OBC reservations. In 2013-2014, SC, ST and OBC students constituted 54.2% of Allahabad University. Female students accounted for 31.6% of the student population.

But Allahabad is neither Hyderabad nor Delhi in its political culture. Here OBCs gravitate to Samajwadi Chatra Sabha, a student wing of the Samajwadi Party, and upper castes tend to rally behind the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Singh secured the support of the Samajwadi Chatra Sabha whose candidate was disqualified, and won the election.

Singh symbolises the rise of independent women’s voices. She objected to BJP MP Mahant Adityanath visiting the campus on the grounds that he was communal and anti-women. In turn, when Singh invited journalist Siddharth Varadarajan for a talk, the protests by the ABVP led to the event being hosted outside the campus.

In an interview to the Hindustan Times, Singh described her politics thus:

“I raised issues of students who are not affiliated to parties and interested in academic work, of women who face a range of issues here, and Dalits whose voice is barely audible in the Brahman-Thakur-OBC dominant politics of universities.”

Her assertions and activism have provoked Allahabad University to examine the validity of her admission – an attempt by the university to please the bosses in Delhi, besides frightening her into submission.

The Modi government’s use of state power to ideologically intervene in the social ferment on campuses, which mirror the conflict in society, is precisely why the contagion of protest will afflict other central universities. As Singh, in an interview to Outlook magazine, warned, “Allahabad is the next Hyderabad.”

Social churn

This isn’t because of the action-reaction dynamics that drive university campuses around the world. It is rather on account of the unrest in universities being inextricably linked to the churning in society.

Obviously, this churning doesn’t seem to have impacted higher education institutes in the private sector, which could well become the bulwark against the protest acquiring greater depth. Between 2001 and 2010, higher education may have more than doubled its institutions, from 254 to 544, but, as sociologist Satish Deshpande has shown, this growth has been largely in the private sector, which accounted for 63.2% of this surge.

Upper caste-middle class students who, before 2006, dominated central universities have fuelled this phenomenal growth. Today, they need an excellent academic record to make the cut there so they make a beeline for private institutes, which charge exorbitant fees, instead.

It is perhaps unlikely that these students will have empathy for the protesting students of central universities. After all, students forced to go to private institutes blame the reservation policy for their failure to enter state-subsidised institutions. This is also why television anchorpersons, mostly upper caste-middle class, make vacuous arguments in which they question the right to protest of students who partake of subsidised education.

The other feature of unrest on university campuses is the absence of Mahatma Gandhi in the speeches of students. They have invoked Ambedkar and Marx, not him. Perhaps Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship – of upper castes willingly reforming themselves to liberate those lower to them in the Hindu hierarchy – sounds hollow and patronising to lower caste students who are opposed to the very idea of Brahminical Hinduism.

The absence of Gandhi in campus politics is arguably the most eloquent testament to the link between 2006 – when reservations in central institutes of higher education were extended to Other Backward Classes – and the ongoing unrest on central universities campuses.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.

 

Far from being eternal, Bharat Mata is only a little more than 100 years old

It’s only from the late 19th century that Bharatvarsha to refer to the subcontinent and Bharat as mother found their way into the popular vocabulary.

At a time when India is being projected as eternal, when the chanting of Bharat Mata ki jai has become a testimony to patriotism and refusal to do so invites the wrath of Hindutva outfits and political parties, it is pertinent to look at the history of the country known as Bharat whose antiquity cannot be pushed too far back in time.

The earliest references

The geographical horizon of the Aryans was limited to the north western part of the Indian subcontinent known as Saptasindhava. The Vedic texts do not mention the word Bharata in the sense of a country though they refer to the tribe of Bharatas at several places in different contexts. In Panini’s Ashtadhyayi (500 BC) we find a reference to Prachya Bharata in the sense of a territory (janapada) which lay between udichya (north) and prachya (east). It must have been a small region occupied by the Bharata tribe and cannot be equated with the Akhanda ­Bharata or Bharata of the Hindutva brigade.

The earliest reference to Bharatavarsha (Prakrit Bharadhavasa) is found in the inscription of the Orissan king Kharavela (first century BC), who lists it among the territories he invaded: but it did not include Magadha, which is mentioned sepa­rately in the record. The word here may therefore refer in a general way to northern India, its precise territorial connotation remaining vague. A much larger geographical region is visualised by the use of the word in the Mahabharata (200 BC to AD 300), which provides a good deal of geographical information about the subcontinent, but a large part of the Deccan and the far south does not find any place in it. Banabhatta’s Kadambari (seventh century), at one place describes Bharatavarsha as being ruled by Tarapida, who “set his seal on the four oceans”. But since it is referred to as excluding Ujjaini from it, the location and boundaries of Bharat are far from clear.

Bharatavarsha figures prominently in the Puranas, but they describe its shape variously. In some passages it is likened to a half-moon, in others it is said to resemble a triangle; in yet others it appears as a rhomboid or an unequal quadrilateral or a drawn bow. The Markandeya Purana compares the shape of the country with that of a tortoise floating on water and facing east. Most of the Puranas describe Bharatavarsha as being divided into nine dvipas or khandas, separated by seas and mutually inac­cessible.

The Puranic conception of Bharatavarsha has similarity with the ideas of ancient Indian astronomers like Varahamihira (sixth century AD) and Bhaskaracharya (11th century), though in their perception it does not seem to have included southern India. Although a 14th-century record mentions Bharata as extending from the Himalayas to the southern sea, by and large, the available textual and epigraphic references to it do not indicate that the term stood for India as we know it today.

A part of Jambudvipa

In many texts Bharata is said to have been a part of Jambudvipa, which itself had an uncertain geographical connotation. The Vedic texts do not mention it; nor does Panini, though he refers to the jambu (rose apple) tree. The early Buddhist canonical works provide the earliest reference to the continent called Jambudvipa (Pali, Jambudipa), its name being derived from the jambu tree which grew there. Juxtaposed with Sihaladipa (Sans. Simhaladvipa=Sri Lanka), of the inscriptions of Ashoka, Jambudipa stands for the whole of his empire, which covered nearly the entire Indian subcontinent excluding its far southern part. He unified the major part of the Indian subcontinent and called it Jambudipa. But he did not use the word Bharat to denote this vast land mass.

Despite the use of the word Jambudipa for the whole of his empire, the ambiguity about its territorial connotation is borne out by both epigraphic and literary sources during the subsequent centuries. In a sixth-century inscription of Toramana, for instance, Jambudvipa occurs without any precise territorial connotation, and in the Puranic cosmological schema, it appears more as a mythical region than as a geographical entity. According to the Puranas the world consists of “seven concentric dvipas or islands, each of which is encircled by a sea, the central island called Jambu­dvipa…”. This is similar to the cosmological imaginings of the Jains who, however, placed Jambudvipa at the centre of the central land (madhyaloka) of the three-tiered structure of the universe. According to another Puranic conception, which has much in common with the Buddhist cosmological ideas, the earth is divided into four mahadvipas, Jambudvipa being larger than the others. In both these conceptions of the world, Bharatavarsha is at some places said to be a part of Jambudvipa but at others the two are treated as identical. The geographical conception of both Bharat and Jambudvipa are thus factitious and of questionable value.

Abanindranath Tagore/ ‘Banga Mata’ water colour that he later decided to title 'Bharat Mata'.  1905.
Abanindranath Tagore/ ‘Banga Mata’ water colour that he later decided to title ‘Bharat Mata’. 1905.

Bharat as Mother

It was only from the late 19th century that Bharatvarsha in the sense of the whole subcontinent, and Bharat as Mother found their way into the popular vocabulary. The anonymous work Unabimsapurana (1866), KC Bandyopadhyaya’s play called Bharat Mata (1873) and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Anandmath (1880) were among the earliest works to popularise the notion of Bharatmata. Its visual evocation came perhaps not earlier than 1905 in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore, who conceived of the image as one of Bangamata but later, “almost as an act of generosity towards the larger cause of Indian nationalism, decided to title it ‘Bharatmata’”.

Far from being eternal, Bharat mata is thus little more than a 100 years old. Insistence on her inhabitants forming a nation in ancient times is sophistry. It legitimatises the Hindutva perception of Indian national identity as located in remote antiquity, accords centrality to the supposed primordiality of Hinduism and spawns Hindu cultu­ral nationalism which prompts the saffron brigade to bully the Indian people into chanting of Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

DN Jha is former Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Delhi

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