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Who was and is Hindu Left

Updated on: 06 May,2024 06:48 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

We speak of the Hindu Right, but not its opposite, which flourishes even though the mainstream discourse dismisses them as casteist or simply ignores them

Who was and is Hindu Left

Jyotiba Phule, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj, Ram Manohar Lohia, C N Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, Kanshi Ram, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and M K Stalin

Ajaz AshrafEvery other article on politics or religion in India is invariably peppered with the term Hindu Right. By contrast, seldom do we hear of the Hindu Left, as if the opposite of the Hindu Right simply does not exist. The Left and the Right emerged as political categories when the French National Assembly, in 1789, met to define the powers of King Louis XVI. Those who sat to the left of the presiding officer favoured attenuating the king’s power and articulated egalitarian ideas. The King’s supporters occupied seats to the right of the presiding officer and were, in due course, labelled as conservatives.

Since then, the Right and the Left have become markers for ideologically distinguishing positions people take on myriad issues. The apparent absence of the Right-Left binary in the mainstream discourse on political Hinduism inspired academic Ruth Vanita, in 2002, to write, ‘Whatever Happened to the Hindu Left?’ She counted as Hindu Left those organisations which were, in the 19th and 20th centuries, opposed to child marriage and sati, and supported widow marriage and abolition of untouchability.

Vanita described Gandhi as the stalwart of Left-wing Hinduism. His assassination, she argued, killed the Hindu Left, most of all because the dominant secular Left shied away from engaging with Hinduism, leaving the Hindu Right to appropriate the religion of India’s majority population for its political projects. Surprisingly, Vanita left out social reformers like Jyotiba Phule and Shahu Maharaj, who were, more than Gandhi, fierce opponents of the caste system and Brahminical hegemony. 

A person’s position on caste has now become the principal signifier for identifying who is Hindu Right or Hindu Left. By this yardstick, Gandhi cannot be considered Hindu Left. Although he himself did not practise varnashram dharma and valiantly fought untouchability, he did not, at least until the 1940s, oppose the four-fold division of the Hindu society, claiming the “discipline of caste” did “no harm to the country.” Paradoxically, he tried to reimagine the vertical arrangement of the four varnas horizontally. It had few takers. Untouchability, for Gandhi, was an abnormality, an excrescence, and not inherent to Hinduism. Gandhi was Hindu centrist.

For Ambedkar, in sharp contrast to Gandhi, untouchability was a natural outcome of the caste system, which, therefore, needed to be annihilated. His conversion to Buddhism was a rejection of the possibility of reforming Hinduism from within. Ambedkar, because of his conversion, cannot be considered Hindu Left, for his critique is now viewed as emanating from outside of Hinduism. This is as true of Periyar EV Ramasamy, an unabashed atheist who publicly disparaged Hindu deities and believed Hinduism was incapable of self-reform. Only its removal could eradicate casteism, Periyar argued. 

Thus, for a person to be considered Hindu Left, he or she must be a believer and engage with Hinduism. Communists, by this definition, are Left without the prefix of Hindu. Swami Sahajanand was an ascetic and social reformer before he emerged as Bihar’s foremost peasant leader. By the 1930s, he adopted the militant language of political Left, but employed classical Hinduism to portray his idea of social revolution in India. Ram Manohar Lohia was atheist, but did not, as Periyar did, mock Hinduism. Lohia wanted Hindu myths to be creatively interpreted for dissuading the lower castes from accepting their low status. Lohia was Hindu Left, but had no qualms about aligning with the Hindu Right. 

Given this past of political Hinduism, it is easy to distinguish who or which parties today constitute the Hindu Left. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, although born from Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam, insisted it was a party of believers. Its founder C Annadurai, in 1967, said, “I am a rationalist who wants to end unreason… But genuine belief and true faith in God should be there among the people…” Annadurai’s quest was to redefine Hinduism. 

Mayawati’s nephew and successor Akash Anand was married last year according to Buddhist custom, but her Bahujan Samaj Party is publicly antagonistic to caste, not Hinduism. The Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party speak of empowering the backward castes but remain parties of believers.

The Hindu Left occupies a substantial space in the political sphere. Yet the mainstream discourse dismisses them as merely caste parties or regional entities. These semantic choices of opinion-makers implicitly depict the Hindu Right as the sole custodian of Hinduism. A decade ago, when Mayawati as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister installed statues of Dalit icons, she was roundly criticised for wasting government money and practising casteism. The media refused to see her endeavour as an example of the Hindu Left assertion.

The entities broadly representing the Hindu Left, unlike the Hindu Right, suffer from the drawback of being confined to select pockets of India, although they did invent powerful symbols of their own that the media ignored or derided. Their regional rootedness, perhaps, impeded them from cogently shaping the Hindu Left philosophy with a national echo. This lacuna could well be filled with the Congress displaying an inclination to abandon its Hindu centrist position and swinging to the Hindu Left. Indeed, the Hindu Left desperately needs to create its equivalent of the Ram Temple to become a compelling national force.

The writer is a senior journalist.
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