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KEYWORDS FOR INDIA: A Conceptual Lexicon for the 21st Century edited by Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Peter Ronald deSouza. Bloomsbury, UK, 2020.

THE title of the book of course might raise a few eyebrows. ‘For India’? Or ‘Of India’? But this is more than adequately addressed in the Introduction. These are a selection of key words used in India by Indians (even non-Indians?) and carry within them diverse connotations and associations, social, cultural, political, philosophical, and ideological. These could well be called key words ‘from’ India or ‘of’ India, though one is not sure the editors would make such a claim. They are after all a selection, subjective as is inevitable and limited given the humongous task the book sets out to achieve. Key words far from being merely descriptive, can be and should be studied as conceptual categories. What is particularly interesting to note is that commonly used words that exist outside the academic domain are embedded within contextual, conceptual frames that are somewhat different. Indeed one of the intentions of the book is ‘discourse mapping’, and creating space for a critical self-reflective engagement with the conceptual terrain of these key words.

The 21st century is in some senses a break with the past. The internet revolution, the accelerated speed of information flow, and the levelling of the hierarchies and distinctions between the academic, scholarly, specialist, highbrow communities and the non-academic, lowbrow non-specialist ones has led to a democratization of culture. E-interactions through blogs and social media platforms have taken debates and discussions outside the privileged space of seminar halls and classrooms into the public marketplace of exchanges that can be extremely vituperative at times but also calm, reflective, and productive in other moments. It is this space that has thrown up a host of new terms that have gained currency rapidly in the new world even as older terms have acquired new and innovative meanings. Older certainties and stabilities are dissolving at breathtaking pace and words are acquiring a life of their own. A key word as the introduction to the book says, is a ‘cross-cultural viral meme’, a transitive moment in which the internet savvy, selfie generation comes face to face with their predecessors stretching back to the 20th century and beyond, when ‘pre-history confronts post-truth.’

Neither a dictionary, nor an encyclopedia, Keywords, like Raymond Williams’ early work (Keywords) is ‘an enquiry into vocabulary’. A significant aspect of this book is what the editors have called its ‘hybrid approach’. Combining two sets of approaches, one of lexicons like Hobson Jobson and Hanklyn Janklyn, the ‘rumble tumble’ guides and two of the sedate, erudite tomes like Future of Knowledge and Culture: Dictionary for 21st Century (edited by Vinay Lal and Ashis Nandy) and Key Concepts in Modern Indian Studies (edited by Gita Dharampal-Frick et al), the book includes both quotidian terms as well as abstract philosophical ones. The more than 200 contributors come from diverse professional backgrounds like journalism, medicine, politics, academic, and arts. The ‘little narratives’ of lived experience jostle for space with more respectable academic narratives and both local and cosmopolitan contexts are brought in, in the short essays that accompany each entry.

Through these key terms that represent the vast linguistic, philosophical, cultural, social and ideological diversity of India, the book challenges the knowledge asymmetries between the North and South. Privileging a word, elaborating its conceptual foundation, particularly Indian words from the bhasas, initiates a decentring effect Eurocentric epistemology can be nudged if not pushed from its self-assumed pedestal. Of particular significance here are the numerous terms from western Englishes that have been appropriated for common usage in India. Equally important are the numerous terms from Indian languages that have acquired currency in global exchanges in English.

The book is divided into seven sections – ‘Classical heritages: Databases of memory’, ‘Contemporary aesthetic modes: Reimaginings’, ‘Economic mantras, media and technological change’, ‘Intimacies: Culture and material culture’, ‘Emancipatory imaginaries’, ‘Language and self-reflection’, and ‘Politics and the political’. These are loose thematic categories that permit an easy crossing over between disciplinary boundaries and are in keeping with the contemporary thrust towards interdisciplinarity. There are terms for instance, Hinduism and Hindu rashtra, that are included in different sections and it would have been useful to keep them together to give a better perspective. Shashi Tharoor’s entry on Hinduism describes it as ‘an eclectic range of doctrines and practices’ without any compulsory dogmas even though Hindu society has not always lived up ‘to the freedom enshrined in the faith’. Pralay Kanungo’s entry on Hindu rashtra, in contrast, delves into the construction of a political Hindu identity from the 19th century onwards. However, Tharoor’s elaboration of the term is equally significant in contemporary ideological debates on the issue of Indian identity and the Indian nation. However, there are multiple ways of organizing terms under different headings and perhaps the reader can pick up keywords from the Contents and follow them across different sections. After all there is no particular order in which the book can be read, or ‘dipped into’, an approach suggested by the editors themselves. With its more than 200 key words, it’s a book that you can savour intermittently, skip pages, whole sections, read what attracts one, spend time on a term, even converse with it if one likes before moving on. It’s a veritable garden of colours and odours from across India with its tremendous diversity.

Going through the book I was drawn to the entry on ‘Mussalman’ by Taslima Nasreen and ‘Parsi’ by Keki Daruwala, two rather dissimilar ones as it turned out. My initial expectation that it would be about Islam and its cultural and religious dimensions particularly because it was included in the first section titled ‘Classical heritages: Databases of memory’, was soon belied by the author whose piece is all about the fundamentalism and the history of conflict between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent in the 20th century. Daruwala’s piece was more about the history of the Parsis in India and their idiosyncrasies. But this is what is unique about the book. Each contributor brings in her own perspective on the term, locates it within her own context and, as the editor says, owns it. Paula Richman’s entry on the Ramayana is both comprehensive and a comprehension of diverse perspectives on the subject. It makes the critical distinction between the Valmiki text and several other renderings of the basic story notably the Kamban Ramayana and the Ramcharitmanas, but also the Jain and Buddhist renderings, all of which constitute the Ramayan tradition. Richman also brings in the diverse range of ideological readings of the characters and events, as well as the politically charged reading or misreading of the derivative term Ram Rajya. Thomas Abraham’s entry on Cyberbhakt was informative. Not many would know that the term did not have a political connotation in the1990s. This was the decade in which gods entered cyberspace, temples came up with online websites and rituals. In its current usage the term refers to the ardent supporters of the BJP, the RSS and other Hindu political organizations particularly after the elections of 2014. Cyberbhakts consistently attack liberal, secular and progressive formations and individuals with abusive terms like ‘presstitutes’ (for the journalists, particularly female journalists), Khangress (the Khan suggesting the pro-Muslim orientation of the INC), and sickular (for secular parties and individuals).

Among other key words I found interesting was ‘kolaveri’ a Tamil term literally translated as ‘murderous rage’ that became extremely popular not just among Tamilians both in India and the diaspora but also among non-Tamil speakers, on account of the Tanglish song ‘Why this kolaveri di?’ written for the film Movie 3. As a code-mixed song, it appealed to the younger generation and in time the term ‘kolaveri’ lost its original Tamil connotation and the expression in the song became a kind of rhetorical flourish, a catchphrase. One can disagree or agree with the perspectives of the individual authors, but the intention is not to provide the definitive comprehensive guide (though some give that impression, particularly the ones on atman, asmita, dharma, caste etc.) but a perspective that can open a conversation at the very least.

Finally, a word about the book’s afterlife. Key-words, as Rukmini Bhaya Nair writes, will keep changing. New ones will emerge, old ones will be dropped or modified. Hopefully we will see revisions in this book or even a new one in the not so distant future. The speed at which things are changing this may be very soon. I also feel that a book like this in Indian languages would be immensely beneficial for non-English language speakers, particularly students and scholars working in other Indian languages. Elaborations of key terms by non-English speaking contributors would also add another dimension that can perhaps be lost in a work in English.

Bodh Prakash

Professor, School of Letters, Ambedkar University Delhi


REPUBLIC OF HINDUTVA: How the Sangh is Reshaping Indian Democracy by Badri Narayan. Penguin Random House India, Gurgaon, 2021.

Badri Narayan is a cultural anthropologist, a social historian and a creative writer in Hindi. He has been consistently engaged in writing on politics of identity involving caste and religion-based identities as they have evolved in the northern states of India such as Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar.

The book under review is an unusual as well as insightful attempt to explain the growing role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)in reshaping the contours of Indian democracy. Its compelling narrative unravels the role of the RSS in carving out two emphatic victories for the BJP in consecutive general elections held in 2014 and 2019, respectively. The author acknowledges that owing to the expansive and persuasive efforts of the countless volunteers at the grassroot level, the RSS has gained a wider and deeper base in society.

Strangely, the author himself was a prisoner of the stereotype images of the RSS during his three-decade long association with the left groupings in India. As such, the RSS was just an upper caste and middle and upper class grouping. However, his field studies have shown him new realities. Hence, without being a partisan, he has dared to politely invite critics of the RSS to go through his laborious exercise regarding the nitty-gritty functioning of the RSS to understand the depth and magnitude of its penetration in different parts of northern India.

The central arguments in the book could be stated thus. One of the distinguishing features of the RSS has been the capacity of its volunteers to work tirelessly in the remotest of areas, like missionaries, almost selflessly. As an organization, the RSS has evolved according to the changing social and cultural circumstances by creating, destroying and recreating itself. While most of its critics have battled with the erstwhile image of the RSS of the 1970s and ’80s, the organization has changed beyond recognition since those days. This is evident from the fact that RSS volunteers today are techno-savvy and over the years they have made efforts to widen their base to accommodate Scheduled Castes (SCs) or Dalits and Maha Dalits, Other Backword Classes (OBCs), Tribal and even Muslim communities within their fold.

The RSS is well connected to different NGO networks of formal and informal organizations that operate within the Sangh Parivar. Its sole aim is to construct an overarching Hindu identity. The RSS has come to terms with the fact that different community gods matter for the identity of marginalized communities that are looking for religious empowerment. The master strategy of the RSS of appropriating spiritual, religious as well as political leaders from different parts of the marginalized communities has paid rich dividends. Considering the numerical strength of the overall marginalized communities, the RSS has built Ambedkar memorials in Mhow, Mumbai, Delhi, Nagpur and London which have become pilgrimage sites. In a word, from Kabir, Ravidas and Gorakhnath to Dr Amebedkar, the RSS has appropriated everyone. Its constant appreciation of Ambedkar, at times, blunts Ambedkar’s scathing criticism of the Hindu religion that has rested on a hierarchical, unequal and deathless caste system. It has also blurred the fact that even though Ambedkar was born a Hindu, he died a Buddhist.

Keeping in view the sheer numerical strength of the Bahujan Samaj, the RSS has moved further to counter caste-based parties such as the Socialist Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in UP. If Yadav and Jatav communities form the social base of the SP and the BSP, respectively, the RSS has tried to expand its base among the non-Yadav and non-Jatav lower social castes among the OBCs and the SCs. Moreover, the RSShas been relentless in its mission of confronting the proselytizing activities of Islam and Christianity in different parts of India. While mobilizing the electorate during the general elections, the RSS volunteers in countless numbers have helped the BJP launch door to door campaigns and building myths around the BJP leadership. There have been moments when the top leadership has relied on polarizing strategies such as Shamshan versus Kabaristan or Ali versus Bajarang Bali. Evidently, the RSS has shouldered the responsibility of transmitting an intrinsically polarizing essence of such messages to the grassroots.

While reflecting on this empirical travail, let me raise a few pertinent issues. Although the term Hindutva has been in vogue for decades, owing to the ambiguity that surrounds it, I have been unable to grasp its precise meaning. The RSS ideologues have an aversion to using the term Hinduism because it perhaps reminds them of other isms such as socialism or communism. However, what are the salient features of Hindutva? In the ultimate analysis, does it signify people who treat the territorial space of India as a fatherland as well as sacred land? How is Hindutva different from being a Hindu? Admittedly, there is no dogma that guides the Hindus. If Hinduism is a way of life, it has flourished in circumstances where there is a strong society and a weak central authority or the state. The RSS has chosen to exploit the prevailing social and cultural circumstances to its full advantage by playing on the emotive sensibilities of people. It has certainly reshaped the contours of India’s electoral democracy. Generally, the term Republic is deployed to denote the rule of the people. What kind of Republic is implicit in the way the RSS functions? Do RSS foot soldiers aspire to promote militant Hindu consciousness as a base towards majoritarian politics? Will this form of ethnic nationalism leave any space for civic nationalism and consequently other religious groups?

It also needs to be underscored that India has roughly 204 million Muslims that constitute the largest single minority. Also, the third largest population of Muslims worldwide is in India. Since 2014, the alienation as well as insecurity of Muslims has become palpable. Besides, there are also citizens belonging to Sikh, Parsi, Christian, Buddhist and Jewish faiths, bound by a thread of unity, that collectively function based on a modern, egalitarian constitution in India. Unfortunately, polarization on religious or caste lines by political parties of different hues, has adversely affected social harmony in India’s plural society.

In conclusion, it can be said that the Congress and the other opposition parties can learn from the RSS insofar as dedicated work at the grassroots is concerned. Without working with the people from the grassroots, they cannot evolve strategies to revive a progressive agenda to counter the RSS and the BJP more effectively. Now, thanks to the behemoth of the RSS/BJP and the lack of effective opposition, most of the institutions that sustain a worthy democratic set-up have been undermined. Are the people really sovereign today? In this context, Badri Narayan’s work is an eye-opener for those who dream of protecting democracy in India with the fundamental right of the citizens to question their rulers, without any fear, and make them more accountable. It is also a welcome addition to the existing literature on the role of the RSS.

Rajen Harshé

Founder and former Vice Chancellor, Central University of Allahabad