The Gita enables Modi to legitimise his violent erosion of India’s constitutional fabric

“The Bhagwad Gita has been the sole source of India’s tradition of vaicharik swatantrata and sahishnuta”—freedom of expression and tolerance—Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a packed room of senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, at his residence, on 9 March this year. “It has guided our nation since the time of Mahabharata,” he continued, referring to Hindu mythological epic about a war. During this widely televised address, Modi released a collection of 21 new commentaries, published by Dharmarth Trust—a Jammu and Kasmir-based organisation that backs Hindu religious efforts.

Modi took long pauses among his enunciations, and ensured that his language was pock-marked with archaic Sanskrit terms and verbose Hindi. By mid-March, the prime minister was also sporting a flowing white beard, and the entire performance seemed to pull heavily from the depiction of sages that had become a hallmark of Hindi mythological television soap operas. The goal was self-evident. Modi’s image was undergoing a make-over, a volte-face from Modi the economic reformer, and Modi the firebrand nationalist, to one that defined him as a Brahminical philosopher.

A careful viewing of the remainder of the 9 March address, however, shows that this was not simply a philosophical or academic exercise. Modi’s speech often veered sharply into validations of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, or the “self-reliant” India mission. These were couched in references to the Gita and justified on its basis. In a previous essay for The Caravan, I argued that at the core of this policy is an attempt to privatise public resources such as coal and agriculture, and to deregulate banking through changes in the law.

My previous essay also explores how Modi’s economic plan, and that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has a forbearing influence on his policies, seek to consolidate an economic system based on caste and will mold the social order into the chaturvarna system—a pyramidal division of humans based on their birth. This is the end goal of Brahminism: a social order that gives special privileges and immunities to Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas; that degrades women and Shudras; that links one’s merit with one’s birth; that perpetuates an anti-social feeling among different castes; and that forges a system of graded inequality.

The 9 March speech was also replete with justifications of Modi’s other political projects, including the Indian government’s crackdown on democracy in Kashmir, and the discrediting of dissenters to Modi’s Hindu nationalist vision. “Speaking on the occasion, the Prime Minister lauded the work done by Dr. Karan Singh”—the chairman trustee of the Dharmarth Trust—“on Indian philosophy,” a news update of the event on Modi’s personal website notes. “He added that his effort has revived the identity of Jammu and Kashmir, which has led the thought tradition of the entire India for centuries.” This must be seen against the backdrop of widespread fear among Kashmiris of demographic and cultural destruction following the Modi government’s reading down of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution—which gave Jammu and Kashmir limited autonomy.

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