Plurinationalism, Pancasila –  and the pettiness of Hindu Nationalism


The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, seems to be in some sort of a pickle, at the time of writing, in the process of seeking a fourth term of presidency. Earlier, in 2016, he had not exactly endeared himself to the citizens of Bolivia when he decided to run for a fourth term as president, in defiance of existing laws for term limits; he lost a referendum but managed to run despite that loss, with the top court’s help. Even when he was first elected, many among Bolivia’s elite were not happy with his election. He was too “uncool” for them.

In 2006, Evo Morales, then the leader of the Coca Leaf Producers’ Union in Bolivia and co-founder of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party, became the first indigenous president in Bolivian history. In addition to various economic steps he put into motion thereafter, which included nationalization of natural gas production, he also oversaw the drafting a new constitution in 2009. This constitution “defines Bolivia as a plurinational state…which is founded on the idea that socio-cultural, linguistic, political and economic pluralism must be recognized in order to transform and democratize the political system,” as explained by  a research paper titled “Indigenous Struggles for a Plurinational State: An Analysis of Indigenous Rights and Competences in Bolivia” [1].

Below are some quotes from the Preamble and the body of the new constitution [2], which illuminate the attempt at forging true unity in diversity based on mutual respect [all emphasis mine]:

We, the Bolivian people, of plural composition, from the depths of history, inspired by the struggles of the past, by the anti-colonial indigenous uprising, and in independence, by the popular struggles of liberation, by the indigenous, social and labor marches, by the water and October wars, by the struggles for land and territory, construct a new State in memory of our martyrs.

A State based on respect and equality for all, on principles of sovereignty, dignity, interdependence, solidarity, harmony, and equity in the distribution and redistribution of the social wealth, where the search for a good life predominates; based on respect for the economic, social, juridical, political and cultural pluralism of the inhabitants of this land ; and on collective coexistence with access to water, work, education, health and housing for all.

We have left the colonial, republican and neo-liberal State in the past. We take on the historic challenge of collectively constructing a Unified Social State of Pluri-National Communitarian law, which includes and articulates the goal of advancing toward a democratic, productive, peace-loving and peaceful Bolivia, committed to the full development and free determination of the peoples.

The plurality and diversity of the nation is stressed throughout the constitution, as in Article 9:

The following are essential purposes and functions of the State, in addition to those established in the Constitution and the law:

  1. To construct a just and harmonious society, built on decolonization, without discrimination or exploitation, with full social justice, in order to strengthen the Pluri-National identities.
  2. To guarantee the welfare, development, security and protection, and equal dignity of individuals, nations, peoples, and communities, and to promote mutual respect and intra-cultural, inter-cultural and plural language dialogue.
  3. To reaffirm and strengthen the unity of the country, and to preserve the Pluri-National diversity as historic and human patrimony.

Article 98 once again reiterates the state’s commitment towards cultural diversity:

  1. Cultural diversity constitutes the essential basis of the Pluri-National Communitarian State (Estado Unitario Social de Derecho Plurinacional Comunitario). The inter-cultural character is the means for cohesion and for harmonic and balanced existence among all the peoples and nations. The intercultural character shall exist with respect for differences and in conditions of equality.

One can, of course, argue that constitutions are always idealistic, aspirational documents which have judiciable and non-judiciable portions. They often express hope and desires of citizens and the framers of the constitution. The Indian constitution also, under the stewardship of Babasaheb Ambedkar, declared that India was being constituted as a “secular democratic republic,” securing for all citizens, “JUSTICE: social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity,” and promising to “promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation.”

While the Indian constitution includes succinct expressions of a nation’s aspirations to respecting all faith persuasions and manners of belief, the Bolivian constitution is more explicit and detailed in the recognition of the plurality of nationalities that exist under the nation-state of Bolivia – and their flourishing.

Another nation that has dealt with issues of multiple voices and sub-nationalities within its boundaries is Indonesia. In April 2019, it was another large democracy besides India that went to the polls. An article in BBC News [3], titled “Indonesia election: Why one vote could put a thousand Indonesias at stake,” summarised the crucial aspect of this election for a country as diverse as Indonesia:

A rising tide of intolerance could put the hard-won unity of the country with more Muslims than anywhere else on Earth – unique for being so geographically far-flung and culturally diverse – at real risk.

With more Muslims here than anywhere else, Indonesia could have – after independence – chosen the path of an Islamic nation, and there was pressure for this.

In the end, the country opted for what is called Pancasila – the five principles – and the philosophy of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – unity in diversity.

These have promoted and protected tolerance in Indonesia – where the right to practice five other faiths besides Islam is enshrined in the constitution.

The election was won by incumbent, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who has stood by the principles of Pancasila. In 2016 he even declared a National Pancasila Day. “I’m president of all of Indonesia, and democracy protects pluralism,” Mr. Joko told The New York Times in an interview. “My government is about harmony and opposing extremism.”

While the path to maintaining harmony for Indonesia, even after adopting principles like pancasila, have not been smooth and easy, the political will and inclination to respect the spirit of the principles has gone a long way in giving it some stability and protection from rank majoritarianism.

So, while, conscious attempts to maintain and promote diversity are evident in nations like Bolivia and Indonesia, India, another nation that boasts ethnic, religious, language and cultural diversity, has seen its minimum constitutional guarantees for maintaining a spirit of tolerance and co-existence eroded and violated progressively since the drafting of its constitution. That process has been significantly exacerbated since the 2014 victory of the BJP which has steadily been promoting its version of militant nationalism, termed Hindutva (Hinduness), which is another name for Hindu nationalism.

As an analytical piece [4] in the Foreign Affairs journal titled, Why Religious Tolerance Won in Indonesia but Lost in India, put it regarding the 2019 election results in India and Indonesia, “Modi…won in large measure by invoking his party’s vision of an India of and for the Hindus.” Tracing the similar trajectories post-Independence of the two nations, large democracies both, the article states: “Indonesia’s national identity accommodates but does not prioritize Islam, politics is not fundamentally divided between Muslims and non-Muslim minorities…But the BJP managed to popularize the idea that the Indian state should actively prioritize Hindu culture and that secularism was effectively a policy of minority appeasement.”

Hindu nationalism has always been a project to reclaim Hindu majoritarianism and primacy. It springs from a place of hurt, perceived humiliation and inferiority. It is reactionary in nature, given that its roots go back to the colonial period in India, when many Indians desperately tried to salvage their Hindu roots and project the faith and civilization of their ancestors as glorious, unitary and universally worthy of admiration. Dayanand tried a “Back to the Vedas” approach; Vivekananda sought to rouse Hindus to Raja Yoga, among other things, Aurobindo attempted to revive India’s spiritual heritage and Tilak exerted himself to locate the home of India’s “original inhabitants,” the Aryans, in the Arctic.

It was left to Savarakar to distill many of the prevailing ideas regarding Hindu nationalism and his own thoughts when he formulated the idea of Hindutva. Even though in his contorted way Savarkar tried to define a Hindu – and the essence of being such a Hindu – tied to a nation and not a faith, yet, in his seminal text about Hindutva he often slips in his definitions and analytic boundaries. The subtitle of his book which is in question form – Who is a Hindu? – betrays at the outset the exclusionary nature of the endeavour. He has clear ideas of a “Fatherland (land of patrimony and male ancestors),” and a “Holyland”  and those who automatically belong to it because their Fatherland is the same as their Holyland – and those do not qualify on such grounds:

The ideal conditions, therefore, under which a nation can attain perfect solidarity and cohesionwould, other things being equal, be found in the case of those people who inhabit the land they adore, the land of whose forefathers is also the land of their Gods and Angels, of Seers and Prophets ; the scenes of whose history are also the scenes of their mythology.

Look at the Mohammedans. Mecca to them is a sterner reality than Delhi or Agra. Some ofthem do not make any secret of being bound to sacrifice all India if that be to the glory of Islam or could save the city of their prophet.

That is why Christian and Mohammedan communities, who, were but very recentlyHindus and in a majority of cases had been at least in their first generation most unwilling denizens of their new fold, claim though they might have a common Fatherland, and an almost pure Hindu blood and parentage with us, cannot be recognized as Hindus; as since their adoption of the new cult they had ceased to own Hindu civilization (Sanskriti) as a whole.

It is no wonder then that Hindu nationalism at the outset has been a project of classification, of “us” and “them,”  of inclusions and exclusions. It is not an unconditional charter which attempts to embrace all nations and peoples. All subsequent formulations, pronouncements and attempts by the successors of the ideas of Hindu nationalism, the RSS and its political formation the BJP, have been basically toeing the original line of what constitutes a Hindu – and how there is only one way to define a Hindu – and how India is non-negotiable manner a Hindu nation. Such finality, inflexibility and arrogant conviction can hardly serve as a message that is aiming at unconditional pluralism and diversity. It is no different from declaring “You are either with us or against us,” to revive a much-detested statement made a few years ago in another part of the world.

There are other worlds possible, as demonstrated by nations like Bolivia and Indonesia. Their experiments and endeavours might not have yielded perfect results, but a determination to work towards principles of inclusion, mutual respect, tolerance goes a long way in promoting harmony among the people and a stronger nation which can aim to realize the potential of all its citizens. Instead, with Hindu nationalism being promoted and pushed as the basis of India’s functioning and its creed, a disproportionate share of governing energies are being put into matters of division and hate. This shifts focus away from the core issues of the well-being of the people, which involve well thought-out investment in economic and social policies. The results, as reflected in continuing nutritional deficits in the country, a worsening rural (and urban) economy and an atmosphere of intimidation for the minorities and social-justice defenders, are evidence that a divisive and retrograde agenda is eating into whatever strengths the nation had.



Ananda Maitreya is a Delhi-based writer and a student of social movements. He has been involved in various struggles of the marginalized people, including Dalit and Adivasi movements and the Palestinian struggle.




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