There are many “what ifs” in the history of most countries. Almost all of them are questions no one can answer. We can’t really tell how an event that never happened would have influenced the course of history.
And yet, most of the world is obsessed with such scenarios. On British TV, the show SS-GB which postulates that the Nazi won the Second World War (it is based on a book by Len Deighton) has been a big hit. In the US, the Man In The High Castle, based on a similar idea has been a big streaming success. More recently, a brilliant adaptation of Philip Roth’s book, The Plot Against America, which imagines that the crypto-Nazi pilot Charles Lindbergh beat FDR and sided with Hitler during the War has received rave reviews. A book called Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld which wonders what would have happened if Hilary Rodham had not married Bill Clinton has been a bestseller.
There are many such “what ifs” in Indian history too. But few people seem interested in exploring them for literary purposes. One that I think should be delved into is the big question of our times: what if India had become a Hindu Rashtra in 1947?
It is not an unreasonable premise. There were many strands within the freedom struggle. Whatever you may think of Veer Savarkar, there is no doubt that he fought for India’s Independence and paid a heavy price for it. Yet Savarkar operated outside of the nationalist mainstream and was not a Gandhian. He had his own view of India and so great was the divergence from Gandhiji’s view that Savarkar was charged in the assassination of Gandhiji. The courts acquitted Savarkar on that charge (and we must respect their judgment) but it is clear that he wanted a very different India from the one that Gandhiji envisaged.
Gandhiji believed that India should be a secular country with no one religion being given preference. Even on such matters as cow slaughter (which he personally was deeply opposed to), he took the line that it could not be banned by law because India was not a Hindu country that could impose Hindu religious beliefs by law. Other Indians, belonging to different religions, ate beef and they had a right to do so.
Gandhiji’s view of India was of a country where people of all religions lived together in peace. MA Jinnah, on the other hand, wanted Pakistan to be a homeland for the sub-continent’s Muslims. He was not a particularly religious man himself and as a Gujarati Muslim, he had never really suffered from any discrimination on account of his religion. His motives were probably political: he believed that as Hindus were an overwhelming majority in undivided India, Muslims (like himself) would never get real political power.
For whatever reason, the demand for Pakistan was framed in religious terms. Jinnah wanted all the Muslim majority areas in undivided India to become a new country. It did not matter if these areas were not contiguous. East Bengal was thousands of miles away from West Punjab but Jinnah wanted it to be part of Pakistan.
He got his way. Not fully --- he said that they had ended up with a moth-eaten Pakistan. But when India was partitioned by the British, it was on religious grounds. The Muslims got their own country and so did the Hindus.
Except that the Hindus did not. Rather than create a Hindu mirror-image of Muslim Pakistan, Gandhiji held out for a secular country where Hindus and Muslims (and other religious minorities) had the same rights. Though many Muslims left for Pakistan (leading to terrible riots and massacres on both sides), many millions of Muslims chose to stay in India. Some were too poor to move. But many made a conscious decision to stay on in a secular India, believing Gandhiji’s assurances that they would not be second class citizens in a Hindu-majority country.
But just suppose that Gandhiji had lost the argument and the views of Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS had prevailed. Suppose India had become a Hindu rashtra. What would history have been like?
I don’t know of anyone who has explored this theme in literature so it is largely a virgin territory but it would lend itself magnificently to fiction.
Here are some of the things any author would have to consider:
·✅ What would Partition have been like? We know how horrific the situation was in 1947. But suppose we had declared that we were a Hindu homeland. Wouldn’t millions more Muslims from all over India have joined the exodus? Wouldn’t hundreds of thousands more have been killed in that already bloody migration?
✅Would we ever have had a claim to Kashmir? The British said that Partition was based on religion. Muslim majority areas would go to Pakistan. We hung on to Kashmir because we argued that ours was a secular country. What did it matter which religion was in a majority?
If we were a Hindu rashtra, we could never have made that argument. Kashmir (the valley, at least) would have gone automatically to Pakistan.
✅What kind of government would we have had? Many people have forgotten this but pre-1947 India was not the monolith it is today. The British empire ruled it but large swathes were run by maharajas (under the suzerainty of the Crown). In 1947, Sardar Patel and VP Menon persuaded these maharajas to hand over their powers to create the India we know today.
Would a RSS-Mahasabha-type regime have insisted on that? At least some of these maharajas were sympathetic to the Hindutva cause. Would they have been allowed to keep some measure of authority?
✅ Would we have followed a radically different ideology? It is no secret that some important leaders of the RSS admired what Hitler and the Nazis were doing in Germany. There is no shortage of admiring quotes about Nazi Germany from such RSS leaders as Golwalkar.
Would their Hindu Rashtra have been anything like Germany with its totalitarian policies and its refusal to recognize the rights of the individual rather than the liberal American-British ethos that the framers of our Constitution instinctively chose?
✅Would minorities have been second class citizens in a Hindu Rashtra? There are always minorities, even in one-religion states. There are still Hindus and Christians in Pakistan. In 1971, many of the refugees who flowed into India from East Pakistan were Hindus who had suffered terribly at the hands of the Pakistan army.
What would have happened to those Muslims who had stayed behind? And what about India’s other minorities?
✅ What about the North East? We forget now that in the 1950s, the Nagas staged an armed insurrection against India. They said they were a distinct people with nothing (race, language or religion) in common with India. Our government blamed the rebellion on Christian missionaries (the majority of the Nagas had been converted by the Baptist church) and said that India was a nation composed of many ethnicities and religions so the fact that they were Christians was irrelevant. (We also sent the army in.)
✅In the 1960s, the Mizos (also Christians), declared their independence from India. This led the government to order the Indian Air Force to attack Aizawl, the religion’s most important city, perhaps the only time the IAF has been used against an Indian city.
The world sided with India (with some exceptions) and eventually the Nagas and the Mizos renounced their claims to sovereignty and accepted that they were Indians.
Would they have been so willing to do that or to accept the government’s guarantees of religious freedom if they were dealing with a Hindu Rashtra?
✅ What about the Sikhs? Till the early 1980s, most Hindus regarded the Sikhs rather as Hindus still regard Jains, as part of a religion closely aligned to Hinduism.
The troubles of the 1980s changed that. That was when many Sikhs began claiming no connection with Hinduism. They were monotheistic, some said, and therefore had much more in common with Islam. There was horrific violence against Hindus. In at least one incident, a bus was stopped, the Sikh and the Hindu passengers separated and the Hindus shot.
Despite many missteps by the Indira Gandhi regime, the problem eventually died down and though Pakistan keeps trying to revive it, Sikhs living in India treat that phase as a nightmare. (Some NRI Sikhs—in Canada, especially — still hark back to those days.)
Would the Sikh troubles have been resolved if the Sikhs were dealing with a Hindu Rashtra and not a secular country?
✅ What would happen to caste? Gandhiji was resolutely opposed to caste and made a special effort to draw attention to those he called ‘Harijans ’ (today’s dalits). There was no similar strand in the pre-1947 Hindu nationalist movements.
Most notable Hindutva-type leaders were Brahmins (BP Hegdewar, Veer Savarkar, MS Golwalkar, etc.) and the RSS was dominated by Maharashtrian Brahmins. (To be fair, there were plenty of Brahmins in the Congress too, though of the three great leaders, neither Gandhiji and Sardar Patel were Brahmins; only Jawaharlal Nehru was one.)
It does not automatically follow that the RSS leaders were all casteist but it is easy to see why they could easily have been portrayed that way. Caste still plagues India but would it have been a source of greater conflict in a Hindu rashtra?
✅Where’s the book? The more I think about it, the more questions there are about the kind of India a Hindu Rashtra would have been. And whether a Hindu Rashtra would have been able to hold India together in the crucial decades after Partition.
It is impossible to say whether it would have been better or worse than what really happened.
But it would make for a fascinating book (or a series of books). If only somebody in India had the imagination to write “what if?” fiction as they do in America and Europe!
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