Earlier this year, I was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, where I had been asked to given an after-dinner talk to the students. I reached ten minutes before schedule, so my hosts took me for a coffee while the audience was being rustled up. While we drank the coffee, at a modest open-air outlet run by Nescafe, they explained that their forum was wholly ‘non-political’, unlike the other, party-affiliated groups that dotted the campus. To get a sense of their activities I asked how often they held these meetings. Once a month, they answered. I then asked who the previous speaker was. They named a Marxist economist. And what did she speak on, I enquired? On how multinational outfits such as this one should not be allowed to contaminate the purity of the JNU campus.
I reeled back in shock. The surprise was occasioned in part by the triviality of the topic chosen by my predecessor. I was speaking on ‘The Contribution of the Congress Party to the Nurturing and Degrading of India’s Democracy’, and I had thought that those who had come before me had spoken on similarly grave—not to say boring—subjects. But the surprise was also caused by the topic being so much at odds with the speaker’s own biography. Why does your professor oppose this Nescafe outlet, I asked. Because she feels we should encourage indigenous initiatives, they answered. Do you know where her own doctoral degree is from, I asked. They didn’t know, so I supplied the answer—the University of Cambridge. When you next meet your professor, I said sarcastically, ask her one question on my behalf—when she travels by plane to international meetings, does she carry a South Indian filter and Coorg coffee power with her, or does she quietly drink the beverage offered her on the flight?
I returned to Bangalore, to find my home town overtaken by a much larger epidemic of xenophobia, orchestrated this time from the Right. An American preacher named Benny Hinn was due to come to deliver a series of open-air sermons. The Sangh Parivar had come out in force to oppose him. The agitation was being led by the state unit President of the BJP, Ananth Kumar. Mr Kumar described Benny Hinn’s visit as ‘an organized conspiracy to defame and destroy Hinduism’. The ring-leader of the conspiracy, he added, was the Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Unlike the JNU Professor, however, the right-wing loonies were not content with making speeches. They tore down the posters advertising Hinn’s sermons, attacked Government offices, held up traffic, and generally harassed the residents of the city.
Indian politics is rich in ironies strange and bizarre, but this must indeed be one of the oddest. Bitter enemies though they might be, the Marxist Left and the Saffron Right are united by what can only be described as an irrational fear of the foreigner. Hinduism must be a very weak religion if it can be destroyed by a few talks delivered by an itinerant American preacher. And the intellectual core of Marxism must be very shallow if it can be undermined by a single coffee shop on the JNU campus.
On this matter, the parallels between the rhetoric of Left and Right are striking indeed. When the NDA Government was in power, S. Gurumurthy of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and K. S. Sudarshan of the RSS were periodically issuing threats against a Government they otherwise claimed to support. These threats always revolved around foreigners and foreign investment—allow too much of either, said Gurumurthy and Sudarshan, and we shall begin an agitation in the streets. Now, with the UPA Government in power, the likes of Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat likewise warn a Government they claim they support that unless they heed their advice on economic affairs they shall be in trouble. The personnel may have changed, and the ideological cloaking may now come from the Left rather than the Right. But the rhetoric remains more or less the same, to be summed up in three words, ‘Keep Out Foreigners!’.
What explains this shared xenophobia of Left and Right? I can think of two reasons. One has already been alluded to, namely, that the shrillness of rhetoric masks a fundamental insecurity of ideas. There is a deep fear of open debate, of allowing influences and opinions to come from spheres that one cannot control. Besides, it would confuse the cadres.
The second, and to my mind more important reason, stems from the history of Indian nationalism. The Indian freedom movement was a genuinely mass movement—its participants included, at various times and in different proportions, men and women, high castes and low castes, socialists and liberals, Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, Bengalis, Maharashtrians, Tamils, Punjabis, Hindi speakers, Oriyas… People from all parts of India, and from every linguistic group, participated with enthusiasm in the struggle.
Two ideological formations however had a relationship with the national movement that was problematic and ambivalent at best, and hostile and adversarial at worst. These were the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the forbear of today’s BJP; and the original, undivided Communist Party of India, the forbear of today’s CPM. For long stretches the RSS and CPI stayed aloof from the national movement, choosing instead to build their support base outside its ambit. Occasionally, some RSS members and some Communists would join nationalist demonstrations and campaigns, usually with a view to shaping (or perhaps manipulating) it. And sometimes, the RSS and the CPI found themselves opposing the freedom movement, to this end even making common cause with British imperialism against the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Let me now offer this thesis—that because they played such an insignificant part in the social movement which brought India political freedom, the Saffron Right and the Communist Left feel obliged to wear their ‘nationalism’ on their sleeves—to express, with such force and vehemence, their opposition to what they regard as alien and contaminating influences. The RSS shall demonstrate their Indianness by demanding that the preacher Benny Hinn has to ‘Quit India’; the Marxist Professors will demonstrate it by demanding that a small, shabby coffee outlet owned by Nestle must ‘Quit JNU’.
It is, I suggest, their guilt at staying apart from the national movement in the past that motivates the RSS and the CPM to take such hyper-nationalist positions in the present. That history makes their hyper-nationalism somewhat fraudulent. But in the context of the world we live in today, it also makes it hypocritical. Mr Ananth Kumar wants to ban Christian priests from coming to India, but he is quite happy to encourage Hindu priests to preach in the West—and collect money for his cause. And while Nestle might be asked to leave JNU, the Left Front government in West Bengal actively woos foreign direct investment. Indeed, Park Street and Chowringhee are already aglow with their success in this regard—for of the signs on display, those of foreign firms equal or perhaps even outnumber those of Indian companies. Is there now a possibility that the JNU Professors will march down Park Street at the head of a CPM procession, demanding that the citizens of Kolkata emulate their students by boycotting foreign goods? Somehow, I think not.