January 6, 2012

The case against Hindutva

Hindutva harms both India and Hinduism by conflating them in a semantic ego-trip

K S Sudarshan, the former chief of the Hindu nationalist organisation —Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh— believes that all Indians are Hindus. Mohan Bhagwat, the current chief, said that if one is not a Hindu, one cannot be an Indian because “for us the word Hindu did not mean any religion but a way of life”. The Sangh website says that only Hindu males can become members. But, if all Hindus are Indians then the Sangh is at least being consistent—although this consistency gets somewhat muddled when one comes across Sangh-affiliated denominational organisations such as the Muslim Rashtriya Manch. Either way, this stand remains condescending to all Indians who do not consider themselves Hindus. Like all collectivist philosophies, Hindutva too has its own version of Marxist false consciousness: “We know your true identity and interests better than you do!”

Photo: Al Jazeera English

But the early Hindutva proponents were far more honest. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar,the freedom fighter and originator of the term “Hindutva” said only those for whom India is both Fatherland and Holy land could be Hindus—implying that Muslims and Christians (unlike Buddhists, Sikhs or Jains) could not be considered Indians. Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, another pioneering Hindutva intellectual, quoted almost exclusively western authors like Holcombe, Burgess, Bluntschli, Gettell and Gumplovic to “scientifically” define Indian nationhood in terms such as country, race, religion, language and culture. No wonder he came up with a very European conception of nationality for a vast, diverse country such as India—his conception of nationhood was based on contrived commonalities. He suggested that Tamil was a “mere offshoot” of Sanskrit and asserted that even the great opponent of partition as well as a follower of Gandhi— Maulana Azad, an Indian Muslim leader—was not “nationalist” enough. Azad, of course was a religious scholar, who—unlike the atheist Savarkar or the non-religious Jinnah—did not want to cynically use religion to polarise India.

Unfortunately, an institution no lesser than the Supreme Court of India itself seems to have agreed with the Sangh at times by commenting that “no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms ‘Hindu’, ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage….A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu”. But this pronouncement, which has been hailed by saffronites right and left as a legal, nay constitutional, vindication of their core political philosophy is actually, if they ever stopped to think, a negation of Hinduism itself. As it so happens, one of the best thinkers affiliated with the modern Hindu nationalist moment, Arun Shourie,did note that “in the Court’s view what we practice and have faith in is not a religion at all. It is so diverse. It does not have one book, it does not have one prophet, nor one over- arching Church as a religion has. Therefore it is not a religion.” He continued, “The RSS, BJP etc of course have reason to feel gratified that their description of Hindu, Hindutva etc has been accepted. But that way of describing our religion and traditions—even by them— has itself been a reaction… It can be small satisfaction that a formulation which came to be put out as a defensive reaction is now to be the official definition of the faith—a definition of the faith, that is, by which it is not a faith at all.”

That is, make Hinduism itself a territorial concept instead of a theological one, and actively roll back its philosophical collection of beliefs and ideas, and perhaps then the legal imprimatur of “all Indians are Hindus” could be granted. But Hinduism would then, at best, be a benign nothingness somehow connected to this vast sub-continent. Because to find the lowest common multiple of cultural congruity through every single community from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean cannot but be a hopeless race to the bottom. Of course, some argue that a common denominator can indeed be found because Hindu ideas encompass every possible belief system because of its tolerance and dexterity though many of the same apologists then go out to describe Abrahamic ideologies as too rigid, exclusivist and hence incompatible with “Dharmic” belief systems (whether this critique of monotheism is correct or not is irrelevant here; the point is to show that there is no common culture or belief system, strictly speaking, applicable to all Indians).

But if one does make the Faustian bargain of accepting the territorial conception of Hinduism, what about the future of Hinduism outside India? Aggressively yoking Hinduism to India (over and above the geographic genesis of Hinduism, which no one disputes) is allowing this self-appointed vanguard of Hinduism to make their religion even more defensive, inward-looking and non-universal. What about the non-Indian Hindus of Bali and Vietnam? What about the European- origin Hare Krishna devotees of the West?As the writer Razib Khan very perceptively notes: “One of the peculiar aspects of modern South Asian identity, in particular, that of Hindus, is a sense of civilisational involution. By this, I mean that Islam and Christendom have an expansive self-conception, which at some point in the future is presumed to reach an equilibrium whereby the whole world is dominated by its particular form of life, while Indians perceive a particular rootedness of their forms in the Indian subcontinent. But this was not always so.”

Indeed, the British philosopher Alan Watts wrote that Buddhism which remains a major religion in East Asia and is finding many adherents in the West is nothing but Hinduism “stripped for export”; presumably stripped, inter alia, of its overt Indianness. Again, the point is not to be ashamed of the Indian origin and indeed essence of Hinduism, but to not tie down and hence harm a religion that one ostensibly wants to defend. Now, indulging in semantic acrobatics about what is religion, whether Hinduism is one, and so on is perhaps important. But it does not obfuscate the fact that despite the flexibility inherent within Hinduism (ranging from atheist and hedonist schools to more orthodox ones) there remain a set of beliefs and customs that can today be considered distinctly Hindu, even if parts of modern Hinduism overlap with other theological and philosophical systems.

But Hindutva does not just short-sell Hinduism, it also severely damages the Indian Republic. Many Hindu nationalists profess that what really agitates them is the double standards and minorityism of Indian vote-bank politics and not a hatred of any community per se. Even if we take them at their face value, their political reaction to such communalism is often majoritarian communalism, and not a demand for the strict separation of Religion and State, whereby any such favouritism becomes difficult in the first place. A ban on Salman Rushdie’s books is not countered by a demand for free speech, but by attacks on artists like the late Maqbool Fida Husain. The proposed madrassa exemption in the Right to Education Act and the subsidy for Muslim weavers in Uttar Pradesh are opposed pro forma, whereas the real rhetoric is saved for making the Bhagwad Gita the national book of India. Divide-and-rule suits both the Hindu nationalist and the pseudo-secularist; else a new politics of ideas would have to be created to replace the resentment of identity, and that is too much risk for the status quoist political elite.

Hindutva did not become a success in a vacuum, and indeed it had an attractive historical narrative along with a suitable socio-political context in which it achieved its success in the 1980s and 1990s. The historic wrongs against Hindu society over the last millennium were whitewashed by Marxist historians and this created resentment (as well as a historiography in which a sense of balance was often equally at a premium).

The very liberal demands of Uniform Civil Code (UCC) and the removal of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir were painted as communal, whereas the indubitably sectarian issue of the Babri Masjid was met by an awkward mix of soft Hindutva and compensating minorityism, instead of getting the courts to quickly solve a pre-Independence property dispute between two trusts/entities. But with liberalisation creating a more affluent and globalised generation, these issues are losing their salience. It is critical for those who want a genuinely secular polity with a level playing field to walk their talk, withdraw all sectarian demands, and peacefully reconcile to future Supreme Court decisions. Hindutva at a concrete level though is much more than the above trio of UCC, Article370 and Ram Mandir. Communal laws like bans on conversions and consumption of beef still exist in various states which must be overturned. What animal someone wants to buy, kill and eat and what religion one wants to follow (even if only for financial benefits) should not be the business of the state. A more consistent stand would be, for example, advocating for the full liberalisation of conversions combined with a ban on any state-funding of any religious institute as well as a scrapping of religion-based quotas. That would be liberal, and still ameliorate the fear amongst Hindutvawaadis that the modern state is levying a de facto jaziya (although it is convenient for them to forget that there are tax benefits for Hindu Undivided Families which exclude Christians and Muslims— such tax benefits must also be scrapped, else universalised). Those who fear conversions or non- vegetarianism or a certain “deracination” of their society should work hard to make their community spiritually and financially stronger, instead of relying on the state.

Unfortunately, very few Hindutva intellectuals (Deendayal Upadhyaya and Arun Shourie are exceptional in this respect) have articulated the need to separate state and society, or Hindu Rashtra and Hindu Raj. Upadhyaya wrote that there is no need to tie up state and religion, and that if even by a majority the Constitution is amended (for religious and other such purposes) it would be against Dharma. The Hindu Right needs more of Upadhyaya than Savarkar, and certainly no Golwalkar. At the state level, we need more indifference to all religions, rather than equal respect to all religions because the latter invariably causes heart-burn about what constitutes “equal respect” (at the social or voluntary level, we could follow the opposite).

Of course, even the worst fanatics of Hindutva usually do not say (at least openly) that they want to impose any kind of theocratic dictatorship—they say that they just want to promote the culture intrinsic to all of India’s residents (or at least their ancestors). But why promote such a culture through the state and moreover what is this common culture? There has been no common culture, though there is definitely a dominant one. And the dominant culture (Hindu) is indeed one of the major reasons why, say, Tamil Nadu and Punjab are united in the same federation, and why India’s present boundaries are what they are. Recognising this may not be politically correct, but this observation does not imply an endorsement to the two-nation theorists on our side of the Wagah either. India’s unity could be at least partially because it is primarily Hindu, but it simply does not follow that all nationals thereby are Hindu. Similarly, it could well be true that “India is secular not because Muslims need it, but because Hindus want it” as MJ Akbar notes, but that does not at all vindicate Hindu nationalists—if anything, it makes conspicuous their rejection by the broader Hindu community itself.

At a policy level, unless majoritarian demands of the state are not removed, the removal of minority appeasement becomes less defensible and more infeasible. For example, most Indian Muslim feminists are so afraid to be on the same page as the Hindu right on the civil code issue, that they rather not talk about this very important issue. More broadly, the constant fear of persecution and discrimination amongst minorities understandably push them towards the Congress, the Left and various assorted regional groups who are ready to further sow victimhood.

This sense of being discriminated against is often exaggerated—a study by Vani Borooah found that “it is the lack of attributes necessary for, rather than lack of access to, regular employment that holds back India’s deprived groups”. Jeemol Unni finds that “It is difficult to attribute lower returns (of education for Muslims) entirely to discrimination” and that “participation of Muslim women in the workforce was significantly lower than other religious groups”. Sumon Bhaumik and Manisha Chakravorty also find that “there is no evidence in favour of caste- or religion-based discrimination… we recommend a policy that reduces supply-side bottlenecks”. That is, we need better and universal educational opportunities rather than identity-specific crutches that politically motivated documents like the Sachar Commission recommend.

But there is no political voice that cares to use such data to design more optimal yet secular policy. Hindutva remains obsessed with the conflation of India and Hinduism. As Ashish Nandy noted two decades ago, Hindutvawaadis do not really care about their religion and see “Hinduism as inferior to the Semitic creeds, in turn seen as well- bounded, monolithic, well-organised, masculine, and capable of sustaining the ideology of an imperial state”. In their urge to fight the Mullah and the Missionary, the Hindutvawaadi, and by extension the Indian Right, has given the Marxist (now occupying the highest echelons of state power through the National Advisory Council) a free pass to curtail progress for an aspiring India by selling hopes of an illusory equality. Only if the Third Eye of the Shiva could concentrate on diluting the Red, that would be Saffron enough.

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