Indian iconophilia: Why icons matter in Indian politics

For The Express Tribune, 4 October 2013

Foreigners are often flummoxed to see Hitler’s Mein Kampf sell so widely in India — sometimes even on red lights. Foreign journalists have written the usual stories about this: find and interview a Hitler fan, talk about the RSS and how its founders were influenced by early twentieth century European fascism, get a quote about the growing Hindu right in India.

Sexy copy as it makes, I always thought this was an incomplete story. For one, the Hindu right wants to cause no world war and it doesn’t want to exterminate Muslims from Indian soil. Its idea of those following religions that did not originate in India is to make them second class citizens. Abominable as it may be, it can’t be compared with what Hitler tried with Jews.

“Iconophilia”, an art historian friend explained. The love of images and icons. Most books bought don’t get read and that’s true of Mein Kampf too. It’s for the bookshelves, for its iconophilic value. Its owner is fascinated by Hitler as a human figure.

This is what explains Mr Che Kabir. A businessman in Delhi — a capitalist! — named his son Che, after Che Guevara. Then he thought the name carried too much of a history of violence; he was only interested in revolution, not violence. So, he gave his son the middle name Kabir, the saint who was half Hindu and half Muslim.

In other words, great historical figures can become just their images. What they wrote, thought, stood for, can become immaterial. Or, at best, their ideas can be taken in part, the inconvenient parts discarded. So it is that the RSS and the Hindu right in general have made Bhagat Singh their own — Bhagat Singh who was a communist, Bhagat Singh who wrote a pamphlet called “Why I am an atheist”, Bhagat Singh who was reading Lenin before he was hanged.

The BJP has similarly accepted Ambedkar, whose image it uses to mobilise Dalits. Ambedkar who renounced Hinduism, Ambedkar who led a mass conversion to Buddhism, Ambedkar who thought that the caste system and its brutal impact on Dalits will not end till Hinduism exists. That Ambedkar is found in a giant portrait outside the BJP office on his birth and death anniversaries!

It is in the same vein that LK Advani went to Pakistan and praised Jinnah. The Congress’ enemy could only be my friend, Advani’s logic. Praising the founder of an Islamic Republic in contrast to Nehruvian Congress could only bolster the justification for the Hindu right’s idea of creating a Hindu Republic. But the RSS didn’t get the nuance and rapped Advani in the knuckles.

Yet, top RSS leaders were in attendance at a grand launch for a book on Gandhi at Gandhi Smriti in Delhi last year. Trying to reinvent Gandhi for the‘internet age’, the book was authored by Advani’s aide, Sudheendra Kulkarni. Gandhi, who the average right-wing Hindu hates for trying to save Muslim lives during Partition and other reasons. Now an RSS icon! After all, Gandhi was a Hindu who took Ram’s name (so what if he also read the Holy Quran and the Bible?). At least he wasn’t an atheist like Nehru!

I was thus not surprised to see Narendra Modi appropriate Gandhi. I am forged from the soil that produced Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi, he said recently in Mumbai (forgetting that Jinnah was also a Gujarati). And Sardar Patel, that Congressman who banned the RSS after Gandhi’s assassination, will soon get a gift from Modi: a statue taller than the Statue of Liberty.

This smart behaviour of the Hindu right, using all kinds if icons to broaden their base, is seen in use by few others. The Indian left will try to find problems with an icon’s ideas, rather than points of convergence. But it still does manage to find icons acceptable to it, such as Kabir. The Dalit movement, at large, has revived icons from the anti-caste and anti-Brahminism movements and histories to further Ambedkarite mobilisation.

You won’t see the use of icons for mobilisation by the Congress party. Any icon there will clash with the centrality of the Nehru dynasty.

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