Hindutva-the Tolerable, the Bad and the Ugly
Posted on 1-November-2014
In the nineteenth century, many Hindus, exposed to new learning from the west and reacting to expressed or assumed racial superiority of British colonial rulers started looking back to the ancient pre-Islamic Indian religious and philosophical texts of India, nurtured pride in them and promoted reform of Hindu social and cultural traditions and reject practices such as sati, untouchability etc. as later accretions and aberrations. A whole series of people starting from Ram Mohun Roy down to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi belonged to this tradition. In many ways, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who has now become a reviled figure in the eyes mainly of English knowing, modernising, a-religious ( genuinely or pretending), left leaning (genuinely or pretending) sections of Indian society, was also part of that tradition. He had been an active participant in India's freedom struggle and had been jailed for ten years by the British. He coined the expression Hindutva to denote India's social and cultural traditions, emphasised the integrity of those traditions and suggested that within those traditions all the inhabitants of India were one. Except if one were to reflexively turn down off hand any thought emanating from Savarkar or the Hindu Mahasabha or the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh just because of their provenance, it is difficult not to allow, at one level of thought, a certain validity to Savarkar's concept of Hindutva. The body of ideas and practices generally called Hindu have been around in India for approximately two thousand two hundred years and have shaped customs, languages, folklore, social structures and general outlook on life of practically all inhabitants of the plains of India. Even Islam and Christianity--which in India's long history are later arrivals--have not escaped the impress of Hindu culture. India's cultural and civilisational ethos is Hindu in the same way as the cultural and civilisational ethos of Europe and America even now, after four centuries of advance of secularism, is Christian, that of the Arab world, Turkey and Central Asia Muslim and that of China, in spite of sixty five years of Marxism-Leninism, Confucian. It is not at a conceptual level that Savarkar's concept of Hindutva is problematic. It becomes problematic at other levels and the problems become even more complicated at other levels because at the conceptual level it is difficult to reject the proposal outright.
In time, Savarkar's acolytes in the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh and its affiliates fleshed out his concept of Hindutva with airbrushed history, an invented Hindu religious orthodoxy and idolisation of a few historical figures as icons of Hindu resistance to Muslim rule. A past Hindu golden age, Rama Rajya, was the rule of Rama at Ayodhya. In the telling of history by the votaries of Hidutva, Hindu India before the establishment of Muslim rule first of all in Delhi in the twelfth century and later in other places in India had attained heights of intellectual achievement--even in the natural sciences according to some who even seek to promote something called vedic science--surpassing the achievement of all other civilisations. Establishment of alien Muslim rule in India was an unmitigated disaster for Hindu culture because the Muslim rulers tyrannised Hindus, forcibly converted many to Islam, exploited them and destroyed their temples. India came so easily under foreign rule--first Muslim and then British--because Hindus had lost the martial spirit. In some accounts, modern educated Indians have learnt the history of India from books written by the British who systematically downplayed the achievements of Hindu culture, even, according to one writer who suggested that every date in Indian history mentioned by British historians should be pushed back by six thousand years, denying the true antiquity of Hindu civilisation. There are others who maintain, a little like Christian fundamentalists of the USA, that the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Puranas are literally true accounts of what happened. Proponents of such views rarely flinch from presenting supposedly scientific evidence in support. When for example a few years ago the Tamilnadu government proposed to revive an old proposal to dredge the shallow waters between India and Srilanka to create a shipping channel, supporters of Hindutva protested saying that it would destroy the bridge built by Rama's monkeys to transport his army, people circulated satellite pictures of the shallow waters almost to suggest that the old bridge had actually been there and is now submerged--not for such people the knowledge that across many narrow channels on the planet there had existed land bridges many thousands of years ago and that one of these made possible the first members of our species to cross over from Africa to Eurasia and another made it possible for human kind to cross over from Eurasia to the Americas. For Hindutva minded historians and educators, rewriting of history after correcting for what they suggest are foreign biases is an important project.
Three figures in history, more than any other, are glorified as those who fought against Muslim domination. The first of these is Prithviraj Chauhan who as ruler of Delhi fought against the armies of Muhammad of Ghor towards the end of the 12th century. The version of his career embraced by the Hindutva group is the one contained in the thirteenth century bardic poem Prithvi Raj Raso by Chand Bardai. The second one is Rana Pratap of Chittor who for years fought a guerrilla like war against the armies of Akbar and the version dear to Hindutva is the one contained in Rajput annals. The third is Shivaji who like Rana Pratap undertook guerrilla action against the forces of the Adilshahi sultans of the Deccan and later of Aurangzeb and managed to establish a Hindu chiefdom in Maharashtra. Again the version acceptable to Hindutva is the version contained in Maratha annals. A recent entrant into this pantheon is Hemu who is now called Samrat Hemchandra Vikramaditya, using the name he gave himself during the very short period in 1556 between a battle in Delhi when his forces defeated a Mughal army and the battle of Panipat where the Mughal army defeated his forces and reestablished Mughal rule in Delhi. For Hindutva, the fights of these were fights of Hindu resistance to Muslim rule and not secular wars like any other for acquiring or maintainig control over territory. Needless to say, the Hindutva portraits of these four are highly idealised and any account of their careers based on actual records presenting a less idealised picture is promptly denounced as anti-Hindu as happened in the case of the book on Shivaji published in 2003 by the American academic James Laine.
If serious historiography is about telling the story of the past as it was, on the basis of a dispassionate examination of records, and after separating fact from fiction always on empirical grounds, then the the imagined history promoted by Hindutva is not serious historiography. Besides the historiography promoted by Hindutva does not admit of any interpretation of facts which is in conflict with its own cherished vision. Such an attitude cannot promote a spirit of enquiry, so necessary for advance of knowledge in any field. It is against asking questions and therefore fosters ignorance. That such an attitude does incalculable damage to the intellectual life of the very people whose cause Hindutva champions is of no concern to its adherents nor is there any concern among them to wonder why in spite of its glorious past Hindu society fell into backwardness and how without promoting the spirit of enquiry they can pull this society out of the morass in which it continues, barring a few islands of modern intellectual excellence. Adherents of Hindutva are not even fired by the reformist zeal of a Ram Mohun Roy or a Gandhi or a Bhimrao Ambedkar. What is important for them is passion for a lost imagined glory.
Apart from constructing their version of a history of a glorious Hindu past, and a disastrous six hundred years of alien Muslim rule followed by two hundred years of exploitative colonial rule, adherents of Hindutva have also gone about creating their own version of a Hindu religious orthodoxy. It is only recently--about the end of the eighteenth century--that the word Hinduism started being used to indicate a religion and Hindu to designate an adherent of that religion. The trouble is that people following this religion called Hinduism have so many different beliefs and perform so many different rituals that it is difficult to bunch all of them together as one religion. Probably there are only two beliefs that are common to all the different religious traditions encompassed by that term Hinduism: belief in the rebirth of the soul and belief in the doctrine of karma. I say probably because there may be some anthropologist or ethnographer who may point out that in the diversity of India there is some nominally Hindu sect that does not believe in these two doctrines either. The Supreme Court of India once described Hinduism as not a religion but a way of life. It would have been more more accurate to call it many ways of life within one large stock of cultural traditions. Yet, in spite of that, the adherents of Hindutva have occupied themselves in creating a kind of unitary Hindu orthodoxy broadly based on upper caste beliefs and practices in north and central Indian plains, especially in their Vaishnavite variety. This version is tinged to a certain extent with Victorian puritanism in matters of women's dress as also in matters of sexuality. Those not accepting this orthodoxy are treated as much like deviants as in the monotheistic religions that arose in the Middle East people not accepting the orthodoxy are treated as apostates. Thus young women going out with male friends to pubs in Karnataka were subjected to physical assault and harassment in Karnataka a few years ago; the police in Meerut rounded up young men and women seen together in a public park; very recently a Hindu ideologue proposed appropriate dress for women in public; the entire Bhartiya Janata Party leadership of Uttar Pradesh staged a sit in in protest against a magistrate's perfectly legal order prohibiting the use of a loudspeaker at a temple and Wendy Doniger who has delved deeply into many Sankrit religious and secular texts has suggested that for Hindus and for their divinities through the ages ordinary bread and butter, common flesh and blood concerns have been as important as morality and spirituality has had her books excoriated, sometimes in crude language. A. K. Ramanujam became a villain for talking about a few hundred versions of the Ramayana story and several decades ago there were riots at Allahabad University when a Belgian Jesuit, Camille Bulcke published his doctoral thesis on the origin and development of the Rama story. Then there was news today that someone had written to India's minister of human resource development asking that in the Indian Institutes of Technology separate dining spaces be created for vegetarian students so that their food does not get contaminated by dark (the actual Sanskrit word used was tamasi) properties. What is of concern is that different kinds of intolerance continue to grow.
Hindutva does not stop at cultivating intolerance of difference from its view of history and its newly found Hindu orthodoxy; it has deliberately been cultivating anger and hatred and because of its view that Hindu India easily passed under Muslim rule because it had lost the martial spirit, it cultivates not only militancy in dealing with non-Hindus but also an aggressive kind of militarism. Because Muslim rule is seen as having been especially harmful to Hindus, Muslims whether in the world outside or in India are the chief targets of Hindutva anger. The anti-Muslim fire gets inflamed whenever there is violence anywhere in the world wrought by Muslim jehadists; anger against Indian Muslims gets an impetus when there is terrorist violence in India committed in the name of Islam. Because the Muslim rulers have been regarded as destroyers of temples threats of destruction especially of two mosques, one in Mathura and the other in Varanasi are revived from time to time. The Babri mosque in Ayodhya was destroyed in 1992 by the adherents of Hindutva as an act of restitution. The Indian National Congress is invariably, and occasionally with justification, presented as a party always willing to concede even the most unreasonable demands of India's Muslims; that the adherents of Hindutva by promising to correct the pro-Muslim bias of the Congress end up appearing as a threat to India's Muslims does not concern them. Compared to India's Muslims, India's Christians are minor objects of Hindu anger; occasionally Christian missionaries get targeted. There is at a subterranean level constant propaganda that India's Muslim population is increasing so fast that Muslims might very soon become the majority community--no one stops to calculate how long it would take the Muslims of India to grow from the present roughly 12.5% of the population to 51% at the present rate of growth. Similarly conversion of Hindus to Christianity by Christian missionaries is presented as a threat to Hindu society: those propagating this view would not be deterred by the statistical fact that the population of Christians as a proportion of India's population has actually declined over the years. There is more insidious anti Muslim propaganda. In the weeks preceding the parliamentary elections in May this year there was anti-Muslim violence in rural Uttar Pradesh around the town of Muzaffarnagar. By all accounts this violence was deliberately engineered with the forthcoming elections in view. After the elections it was quietly being suggested that the Muslims of the area were arming themselves with country made guns. More recently it was being said that Muslim youth were deliberately trapping young Hindu girls into marriage and converting them to Islam as condition of marriage: Muslims were waging love-jehad against Hindus, it was said. It almost seems that the aim is to terrorise India's Muslims into meek submission.
Aggressive militarism comes up most prominently in India's attitude towards Pakistan and occasionally, to a smaller extent, against China. Recently there was firing across the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir. It is an unfortunate reality about that line that such firings are not uncommon. But this time round the pronouncements by India's defence minister and India's external affairs minister were uncommonly aggressive, even threatening. A military doctrine called cold start, propounded during the tenure of the last government of India has once again been revived. Recently the Chinese government protested against road building proposals in India's Arunachal Pradesh, an area to which China lays theoretical claim. During a visit to the state India's home minister said that India is a big power and no one should be threatening it or some words to that effect. Empty braggadocio, or real aggressiveness, such language is at least calculated to arouse passions.
Since Savarkar's initial formulation, Hindutva has acquired many unattractive characteristics. India's last election has brought the prime ministership of India to a person who has been all his life a worker of the Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh or an active member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, both of them proponents of Hindutva. It is entirely possible that as prime minister he will detach himself from his original political and ideological moorings and be open minded in his attitude towards all of India's diverse peoples. He has till now not said or done anything to suggest that he intends as prime minister to be a slave to Hindutva. But the fact that he is prime minister has emboldened the adherents of Hindutva across the country and even in the non-resident Indian community at least in the USA as was evident during the prime minister's visit there in September this year. The single party majority of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the lower house of India's parliament and the recent electoral victories of the Party in Haryana and Maharshtra give the Hindutva groups great confidence. Political opposition to the Bahratiya Janata Party in parliament and outside is in disarray and at least in the short to medium term there does not seem to be any political force to stop the onward march of Hindutva. There is one hope, perhaps baseless, that the Prime Minister himself will have the wisdom to exercise effective check over the forces of Hindutva. If he does not do so, there is a real danger that the narrow-minded, ill-informed, backward looking, hate and anger filled attitudes that constitute Hindutva of today might do great harm not only to India's social fabric but also to India's intellectual life.