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.

16 Replies to “The case against Hindutva”

  1. K P Ganesh

    “but by attacks on artists like the late Maqbool Fida Husain”.

    Well pervert Husain would surely be happy for finding lot of Hindu supporters who don’t protest against nude portrayals of Goddess Laksmi and Bharatmata giving the excuse that Kamasutra and Khajuraho too are from Bharata Varsha. Doesn’t Hindu religious sentiment come into picture here, or is it just freedom of expression that is paramount (la page 3 folks & libtards).

    “Communal laws like bans on conversions and consumption of beef still exist in various states which must be overturned”.

    The author is clearly unaware of the sinister motive of Christianity (Roman Catholic Church) in trying to conquer India as part of Constantine’s New Testament agenda (To Plant the cross in every inhabited land). Please read Sri Rajiv Malhotra’s well researched book “Breaking India- Western intervention in Dravidian and Dalit faultlines”

  2. dhruvan

    Well written article.lets not give State a chance to interfere in religious practise and give them a free diversion on governance.Governments always use Religion to escape from scrutinisation of governance.Lets not give them a reason to underperform.

  3. smgarge

    The Sangh website says that only Hindu malescan become members.

    I did not see this on Sangh website. I searched using google also. Since your basic assumptions are false, why should we take your article seriously? Perhaps you can give me a link where this line is quoted.

  4. sunbyanyname

    A very well written article. Arguably, at not many other times in history, the Hindu religion became so weak as when the senas and dals were needed to protect it and the state was required to support the revanchist urge of the proponents of Hindutava.

    Let alone the state providing guarantees to Hindu religion or for that matter any religion, a time would come (at least should come) when religion would become an individual affair and not something that requires even communities to protect or promote.

    Historically, if Hindus have suffered, does it mean that we must make other religions to suffer too to drive home the point of our suffering? In that case, how would we differentiate one from the other? It may sound cruel but do we want Jehad to be equated with Hindutava?

  5. subhash

    Even if I see several points of disagreement with the author, I agree that religion should be kept separate from the Government. Having said this, I want to point out that the very term “Religion” is a Western concept, requiring a single book, a single prophet etc. India is older than any of the so-called religions. The terms Hindu and Hinduism came about as a result of some outsiders wanting to identify Indians somehow. That they used the river Sindhu to identify Indians is not disputed anymore. Shourie may, in fact, be right in saying that it is not a religion for the exact same reason. Yet, this does not mean that nothing other than the defined “Religions” in the Western sense exists. The author is on slippery grounds when he denies the geographic and cultural identity of Hindus, separate from any religion. He would have do deny a national identity to the Germans, the French and the well. Let us also not forget that Mohammad Iqbal, the real “Father” of the idea of Pakistan, in one of his most famous songs (Saare jahan se accha) refers to this land as Hindustan. Did he really mean Land of the Hindus in religious sense? Let us also not forget that until challenged by Buddhism, Islam and Christianity there was no such self-identification Hindus because Hindus never looked at their scriptures as a religion but as wisdom to shape your life by. Last but not the least, for all the criticism of the leaders named in the article, the author ignores the fact that they too were a response to two phenomena: The British effort to Christianize India and the refusal of Muslim leaders to join the Indian National Congress in any significant numbers. Take away the cause and there will be no effects. Perhaps the author will write about it some day?

  6. sanjay

    Hindutva IMO is “inclusive”, and it’s definition is not cast in stone, it means different things to different people. Selectively quoting and then refuting what some people may have expressed their opinion on Hindutva is firstly a strawman’s argument and secondly does no justice to what it may mean to others. The author then proceeds with his brush to paint Hindutva as something that excludes people belonging to Christian and Muslim faith as Not Indian and that anyone who believes in Hindutva also believes in the purity of race and ethnicity in his idea of nationhood.

    The fact that the inclusiveness and the hard to define concept of Hindutva has even been accepted by the Courts baffles the author no end and he ends up casting Hindutva as “not a faith at all”. According to the author there is no common cultural thread that runs from Himalayas to Indian Ocean & any such attempt is a race to the bottom, then he proceeds to find fault in Hinduism that it’s “Not Expansive” like Islam and Christendom and does not strive like them to have a similar goal of a future whereby the whole world is dominated by it’s particular form of life. IMO, Not having an Expantionist agenda is a strength not weekness. The world has enough civilisational clashes to deal with, it can do minus one.

    The position a person takes on issues like free speech is not based on where he stands on the Hindutva debate, a person who supports absolute free speech will do so regardless of whichever faith it hurts, and those who agree with the constitution that free speech that hurts religious sentiments are best censored, would accept the purpose for which the book Satanic Verses and the Paintings of MF Hussain were banned/contested in courts.

    Babri Masjid issue reached a flash point due to two reasons, 1. delay by the courts 2. Competitive Vote bank politics. That there was a historical dispute at the site of Babri Masjid can not be just wished away. The affected people took the wise decision and went to the courts for dispute resolution and the case was pending in court till politicians got the bright idea to stoke passions and polarize by opening the locked gates and carry out foundation stone laying for a Temple even as the case was sub-judice.

    The laws related to cow slaughter are in existence since pre independence era, states of J&K and Manipur had such laws prior to 1947, the first post independence law banning cow slaughter came into existence in Bombay in 1948 and was soon adopted by all other states. It’s important to see the law in it’s historical context and not in isolation. Indian Constitution since it’s first draft till date has been sensitive towards religious sentiments, Article 19 restricts Freedom of Expression from hurting religious sentiments, We have personal laws, The state is directly involved in managing religious affairs, we have govt managers in various temple trusts and a large share of temple earnings through offerings goes to govt exchequer, we facilitate pilgrimages outside the country and promote religious tourism that benefits the local economy. That has been India’s consistent position since it became a republic, and it’s perfectly in harmony with the constitution. India had never been truly Secular country as the europeans define it, we never had absolute freedom of expression, a uniform civil code or a state that is completely detatched with religious affairs. For that matter India has even acknowledged historical wrongs done to a group of people and need for affirmative action through quotas that undermines equality and competition. In an ideal world, we should have none of it, we should be strictly secular where religion & state are separate, there should be absolute free speech irrespective of whichever faith it hurts, there should be UCC, there shouldn’t be any quotas of any type. Thare is no harm in Idealism! But we don’t live in an Ideal world.

    The issue of religious conversion has to be seen in the same context. On the one hand, here we have a culture that is inclusive and have embraced every migrant to it’s fold since tens of thousands of years even if some of them came here as invaders and adopted India as their home and considers everyone as one of their own. On the other hand, we have religious missionaries with a proclaimed expansionist agenda, which is Exclusivist and doesn’t considers those who do not undergo faith conversion as one of their own, perhaps uncivilized or even inhuman. Competetive religious debate is fine, and since we are at it, I suggest the author and Pragati to do a cover story on which religion among Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism is better than the other because ultimately that is at the root of conversion, let’s settle the debate nationally rather than living in denial that such a debate even exists at the ground level and is being resolved by who can bring more money to the table, because debates should be won on strength of arguments not money.

    Hope you will respond.

  7. ashok_tce

    @Sanjay There is no selective quoting of “some” people. Its the definition of Indians or India by RSS chiefs and that of Hindutva by the originator of the term itself. They are not some people. They are the people.

  8. sanjay

    @ashok_tce So what/who exactly is the target of the critique? Hinduism, Nationhood or RSS Chiefs? Or All three?

  9. R.Venkatanarayanan

    Look at Hindutva as a value system relating to life and its philosophy, life as one wishes for oneself and in the context of the environment including the human society. Is a Hindu not entitled to uphold Hindutva? In what way is it inimical to Indian State or society ? Will the author of this long and learned essay on the harm that Hindutva does to India, say that Christian and Islamic values also are harmful? It is the author who conflates–Hindutva and the Indian State and its political and social values, Hindutva can not be denied to Hindus even as Christianity to Christians and Islam to Muslims. Talking of ‘Right’ and ‘left’ or ‘communal’ and ‘secular’ is nonsense in this context.

  10. IndianLiberals

    Thanks for such a well-informed argument, Harsh.

    Having been exposed to the RSS as a teenager, I have seen first-hand the extent of hypocrisy in that organisation. Not to mention the total lack of awareness about the ancient Indian civilisation.

    Funny thing is that there was no such thing as a ‘Hindu’ in ancient India. None of our ancient texts mention ‘Hindu’ even once. ‘Hindu’ came into being with the invasion of Abrahamic faiths in India – they just couldn’t comprehend existence of societies without a common faith. So everyone who worshipped strange gods in this strange land became ‘Hindu’!

    And now the most vocal opponents of these Abrahamic faiths – the Hindutvawadis – enthusiastically dish out ‘Hinduism’ – the very construct of those faiths!

    What a sorry bunch of people!

  11. Pingback: SWARAJ is SURAJ
  12. AnitaRoy

    Ho hum…Yawn.

    1) There are 2 organisations called RSS. The Rashtriya Sewika Samiti is an all-women’s Hindu organisation focusing on Hindu Renaissance from the women’s perspective. It is the sister organisation to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

    2) Other Sangh Parivar organisations have both male and female activists in the same organisation, the VHP, BJP and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram being prime examples.

    3) I don’t see Harsh Gupta having issues with Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) being separate organisations for 45 million Christian men and 25 million women (in 125 countries around the world, including India).

    4) It is surprising to see the Harsh Gupta quoting Ashis Nandy, a Christian and an arguably anti-Hindu polemicist, who superimposes his own biases in his rants against Hindu Revivalists by making this rather vacuous and untenable statement – “Hindutvawaadis do not really care about their religion and see Hinduism as inferior to the Semitic creeds”. It is like the blind leading the blind. Go figure !!

Comments are closed.