Fundamentalism in India

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Ramachandra Guha

The religious bigots work within the democratic process, seeking to divert and distort it. The word ‘Hindutva’ was coined by the revolutionary-turned-reactionary Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The most effective work in pursuing the political philosophy that bears this name was undertaken by his younger colleague Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. Golwalkar was head of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in the first, formative decades of Indian independence. He was preceptor and mentor to, among other men, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, as well as countless other political activists who have occupied positions of influence and importance in different states of India.

Golwalkar’s core philosophy is contained in a book entitled A Bunch of Thoughts. Published in 1966, this is a collection of addresses delivered in RSS shakhas across the land. The book consistently elevates Hindus to a superior place in the history of humankind. Hindus had once ruled the world; and they would do so again in the future. Their science was once superior to Western science (Golwalkar sneered that the Europeans were eating raw, uncooked meat while we Hindus were composing the Vedas); and so it would be again.

In sum, the Hindus were a Chosen People, favoured by destiny and the Divine Spirit to rule over other lands and other religions.

If Hindutva merely promoted a nostalgia for the alleged achievements of the Hindus in the past, one need not have worried very much. But it also assures them victory in the present; and insists that this victory can come about only by trampling upon the rights of Indians who have the misfortune to be born in homes owing allegiance to faiths other than theirs. Golwalkar once went so far as to say that “in this land Hindus have been the owners, Parsis and Jews the guests, and Muslims and Christians the dacoits. Then do all these have the same right over the country?”

Golwalkar disliked Indian Christians, and positively detested Indian Muslims. He saw them as a fifth column always and invariably working against the interests of the Motherland. Towards the end of Bunch of Thoughts occurs this very chilling passage: “Whatever we believed in, the Muslim was wholly hostile to it. If we worship in the temple, he would desecrate it…. If we worship cow, he would like to eat it. If we glorify woman as a symbol of sacred motherhood, he would like to molest her. He was tooth and nail opposed to our way of life in all aspects—religious, cultural, social etc. He had imbibed that hostility to the very core.”

This demonising of the Muslims had a political purpose. In the 1950s, and again in the 1960s, Golwalkar promoted a campaign to protect the cow, which he hoped would create a unified Hindu vote bank; this naturally opposed to those Muslims who “like to eat cow while we worship it”. Then, a decade after his death, the same themes and oppositions were resurrected via the dispute over the Babri Masjid. This dispute allowed Golwalkar’s followers to succeed where he himself had failed. The campaign to construct a Ram temple brought together a large number of believers and bigots spread across the country, these by no means representing the majority of the Hindu public opinion, but still large enough to provoke a series of communal riots (in which, inevitably, the main victims were Muslims), and to bring the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in many states and, eventually, at the Centre.

One reason that Hindutva has been so successful is that it speaks in different voices. Mr Vajpayee can be trotted out to calm the liberals; Mr Advani to appeal to the hardliners.. The BJP can distance itself from the RSS when it suits them, but at other times can claim to be tied by an umbilical cord to it. The RSS in turn can opportunistically own or disown the trishul-waving goondas of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.

Back in 1968, the scholar-statesman C. Rajagopalachari observed that the Jana Sangh (the predecessor of today’s BJP) was a party which “has quite a few good leaders”. Then he added: “What is needed however is a broadmindedness that not just practices toleration but looks upon Mussalmans, Christians, Parsis and others as politically and culturally as good as Hindus.” Forty years later, Indians still wait for that broadening of Hindutva minds. Perhaps the wait has been in vain. For, in its origins and core beliefs, the Sangh parivar is motivated by values and ideals that are antithetical to those of modern, secular, liberal democracy.

I forget who it was who called Atal Behari Vajpayee a mukhauta, a mere mask. Some younger leaders of the BJP have followed him in concealing a chauvinistic hard-core underneath an apparently modernist, cosmopolitan exterior. The most ardent defender of Narendra Modi’s indefensible conduct during the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat was the urbane, cricket-loving lawyer, Arun Jaitley. To cultivate the urban voter during the recent assembly elections in Karnataka, the BJP omitted any mention in their manifesto of their long-standing desire to convert a multi-faith shrine in the hills of Chikmagalur into an exclusively Hindu temple. That was merely a mask, however; their real sentiments and prejudices were revealed by the fact that not one of the 224 BJP candidates was a Muslim.

Some commentators use the term ‘Hindu nationalists’ to characterise the members and leaders of the Sangh parivar. It is a label that we must reject. How can they be called ‘nationalists’ when they would withhold full citizenship from those Indians who are Muslims or Christians or Parsis or atheists? One major Hindutva ideologue, Ashok Singhal, has long argued that India should emulate Pakistan by denying the top jobs to the minorities and by making them vote in separate electorates. The Hinduvta cadres take this kind of thinking to the streets, as in their notorious slogan, shouted during communal riots, of Pakistan ya Kabristan (Pakistan or the graveyard).

In fact, the Hindutvawadis treat as enemies even those Hindus, such as myself, who do not subscribe to their vision of what makes a true or faithful Indian. (My Inbox is filled with the most vicious abuse from RSS types. A sample: “Cowards like you should get lost from India too. And take your crappy book with you- to wipe your dirty ass.” And another: “You are busy reading literature glorifying Mr. Nehru and engaged with thoughts how to please and serve the shameless Muslims of India whose forefathers have had brutalized the natives of India the Hindus for about eight hundred years or how to please the British so that you can retain your job or migrate either England or America and work there as a coolie.”)

For all their talk of the past and future greatness of India, the philosophy of Hindutva is, in fact, a form of petty and at times vindictive chauvinism.

The Kannada writer, U.R. Anantha Murthy, adds an interesting caveat to this argument. He says that we should not call the Sangh Parivar the ‘saffron brigade’ either. For, saffron is a beautiful colour, the colour of wisdom and renunciation, with so many rich resonances in our myths and our history. Why should we then cede it to the hard, humourless men on the right? Let them not usurp the lovely colour ‘saffron’, nor indeed, the inclusive term ‘nationalist’. The correct characterisation of the ideology of the Sangh Parivar, therefore, is ‘Hindu chauvinist’.

That the politics of the Sangh Parivar is exclusive and divisive has been demonstrated in the hundreds of reports published by civil liberties groups, extending over four decades and covering at least a dozen states, that document their hand in communal riots, big and small. Although they work within the Indian Constitution, they are, in effect, as opposed to its underlying ideals as are the Naxalites.

The real hate figure for the Sangh Parivar is the Muslim. But, as my late teacher, the historian Dharma Kumar, once pointed out, they actually secretly admire and even wish to emulate their historic enemies. What the BJP wanted for India, she said, was to construct “an Islamic State—for Hindus”. In medieval Muslim states, there was a category known as dhimmi, consisting of Jews and Christians who, as people of the book, were treated somewhat more leniently than the kaffirs, the unbelievers. The dhimmi were barred from the top positions in the state and in the army. However, so long as they paid their taxes and did not challenge the ruler, they could live in peace and security.

The kaffirs, on the other hand, were seen always and invariably as adversaries. In the same manner, if the RSS were to get its way, the Muslims and Christians in modern India would live undisturbed, so long as they acknowledged their theological and political inferiority to the dominant Hindus. But if they sought equal rights of citizenship, they would be punished as the kaffirs had once been.

To be fair, there are also other kinds of religious fundamentalisms lurking around in India. Some Christian and Muslim groups in India are as convinced of their theological superiority, as sure of their victory at the altar of history as any bigot of the Sangh Parivar. The hold of the Muslim orthodoxy over the community is so strong that even liberal Muslim intellectuals are cowed down by them. As a Hindu, I do not need to refer to any religious text to attack Untouchability—I can merely point out that it is an inhuman practice impermissible in a civilised society. Regardless of what the Shastras might or might not say on the subject, the fact that the Indian Constitution abolishes Untouchability is good enough for me. But a Muslim asking for equal rights for women finds it far more difficult to argue from first principles. He takes refuge instead in one or the other verse from the Quran, read or interpreted in a way most congenial to his argument. He tends to suppress or ignore the contrary evidence in other verses or sections.

There is, indeed, a reassertion of religious orthodoxy in all faiths in modern India—among Muslims and Christians as well as Sikhs and Hindus (and even, as it happens, among Jains). It is the illiberal tendencies in all these religions that, at the present juncture, are in the ascendant. The mullahs who abuse Sania Mirza or Taslima Nasreen, and the Sikh hardliners who terrorise the Dera Sacha Sauda, are also wholly opposed to the spirit of the Indian Constitution. But simply by virtue of numbers—Hindus are, after all, more than 80 per cent of India’s population—and their much wider political influence, Hindu bigotry is indisputably the most dangerous of them all.


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