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Hindutva, Secularism and Dialogue
Fr. Felix Raj, SJ, St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta

(Published in The Statesman, June 24, 2000)

It is time now, writes FELIX RAJ, SJ, for all academicians, thinkers, philosophers, theologians and the like to come out openly and speak out against the dangers of fundamentalism and its offshoots of disorder, and undo, with the weapon of their wisdom, all that has gone wrong.

We are all painfully aware of what is going on in our country these days: Demolition of mosques, destruction of Churches, rape of Christian nuns, killing of priests, harassing and terrorising of minority communities, reconversion of dalit and tribal Christians, and so on. These are nothing but inhuman and barbaric manifestations of the fundamentalist forces, which point to an insecure and dangerous future. In all these, one sees a serious threat to secularism and consequently, a danger to democracy, and peaceful and harmonious co-existence of Indians belonging to diverse religious faiths and belief systems.

In Indian context today, more than ever, as Romila Thapar, one of India’s eminent historians, says, caste, regional and other identities are replaced by religious identity, which “is used as the basis for political and social ideology. Such identity irons out diversity and insists on conformity for it is only through a uniform acceptance of the religion that it can best be used for political ends. The attempt is always to draw in as many people as possible since numbers enhance the power of the communal group and are crucial in a mechanical view of democracy. The political effort requires domination over other groups and where the number is larger becomes superior and majority group. The major one is said to be Hinduism today”.

Let us take the break-up of the Indian population on the basis of religious community: SCs: 15 per cent; STs: 7.5 per cent; Non-Hindu community: (Muslims, Christians & others): 16.2 per cent; Forward Caste Hindu community: 17.6 per cent; and Backward Caste Hindu Community: 43.7 per cent.

The Scheduled Tribe and the Scheduled Caste people of India together form 22.5 per cent of the total Indian population. They are two distinct communities by themselves. Each has its own independent cultural and religious identity. How can they be called Hindus? The Other Backward Class Indians who form nearly 44 per cent of the population also have their own socio-cultural and religious identity. Can we easily ignore these identities and conveniently bury the rich diversity present in this country from time immemorial?

The attempt to establish a single Hindu community or Hindutva in India by violent, fanatical and fundamentalist groups is a development of recent times. It is an attempt to make Hinduism a Semitic religion like Christianity and Islam. It is a departure from the past when Indian society was constituted of a variety of communities based on location, occupation, caste, sect and so on, but not bound together by one religious identity. Romila Thapar, puts this in correct perspective in her book, History and Beyond, Oxford, 2000:

Early history suggests the existence of multiple communities based on various identities. The need to create the idea of a single, Hindu community appears to have been a concern of more recent times which was sought to be justified by recourse to a particular construction of history. The new Hinduism, which is now sought to be projected as the religion of this community, is in many ways a departure from the earlier religious sects. It seeks historicity for the incarnations of its deities, encourages the idea of a centrally sacred book, claims monotheism as significant to the worship of deity acknowledges the authority of the ecclesiastical organisation of certain sects as prevailing over all and has supported large-scale missionary work and conversion. These changes allow it to transcend caste identities and reach out to larger numbers. Religions indigenous to India, which questioned brahmanical belief and practice such as Buddhism and Jainism, have been inducted into Hinduism and their separateness is either denied or ignored (pp.84-85).

But what is alarmingly surprising is to bring all diverse caste and religious communities under the one umbrella of Hinduism! ‘The inclusion of the “lower caste” people as Hindus was contrary to the precepts of Brahmanism. This all-inclusive approach was a new and bewildering feature for the multiple sects and castes’ (Thapar). Thus the present attempt to force these communities to come under one Hindutva fold is both communally and politically motivated.

It is a type of syncretism. An unhealthy syncretism! Christopher Jaffrelot calls it a “Strategic Syncretism”. “Syncretism because the content of this ideology has been supplied to a large extent by material taken from the cultural and religious values of groups who were seen as antagonistic towards the Hindu community. Strategic because it underlies an ideology that aims to dominate the others, in terms of prestige as well as on a concrete socio-political plane” (“Hindu Nationalism: Strategic Syncretism in Ideology Building”, EPW, March 20-27,1993, p.517-523).

The strategic syncretism of Hindutva ideology is attempted at two ways: Firstly: Vedic religion succeeded in integrating within itself indigenous popular religions and sects. Deities were absorbed into the Vedic pantheon through a process of identification or subordination. Buddha, for example, was given the status of Vishuite incarnation. Even the Bhakti Movement with a large mass support could not maintain its thrust and was ultimately domesticated by the Hindu orthodoxy. As Dumont observes, “ A sect cannot survive on Indian soil if it denies caste”, which is a creation of Vedic ritualism.

Secondly: With the coming of Christianity and Islam to India, Hinduism came face to face with two Semitic religions from outside. This western challenge initiated a strong intention to reform Indian society. That is why, reformers like Ram Mohan Roy and Dayananda laboured hard to ‘discover’ in the Vedas what they needed to resist the Christian and Muslim influences. The socio-religious reform movements, as Thapar puts it, “ attempted to cleanse Indian religion of what they regarded as negative encrustations and tried to find parallels with the Semitic model”. The Hindu organisations like RSS and VHP aim at assimilating within modern Hinduism those cultural and religious features and practices of Christianity and Islam to resist them more effectively.

The RSS, VHP and similar organisations provide the required ecclesiastical structure, and the BJP, which has deep and enduring ties with the RSS and VHP, creates a conducive political climate for such strategies. As Amrita Basu says, “ Hindu nationalism undoubtedly represents one of the major challenges Indian democracy has faced in its fifty years of existence, and the BJP is its principal proponent” (Transforming India, Oxford, 2000, p.379).

Talking about syncretism, I am reminded of the beautiful approach of the Bauls and Sufi Fakirs of Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore observed in his introduction to Haramoni by Mohammad Mansurudin (1927), “ The real history of our country bears testimony to the devotion of synthesis which has been shared by the common people as the innermost truth in their emotional depths. This devotion can be located among the Bauls – their syncretic tradition emerging as a common heritage of both Hindus and the Muslims who came close without hurting each other”.

This is what all should encourage. Otherwise, the syncretic endeavour would sound more like the anecdote told of a group of students who wanted to fool Darwin. They assembled together the limbs, wings, feelers and tail of different insects and brought the odd creature to him and asked, “What bug is this?” With a quick eye, Darwin seemed to have replied, “A humbug”!

Hindutva organisations, argue that the state should favour the interests of the majority over those of minorities. They propose to do away with minority rights. This explains the BJP’s opposition to the National Minorities Commission, its desire to review the Constitution and to abrogate Article 370 and its attempt to introduce the Christian Marriage Act in parliament. The BJP seeks to redefine democracy.

Indian secularism is subverted by over zealous communalists. They dig the Scriptures and Holy Books and concoct falsity in order to attack the minorities. It is a dangerous move, a move that could take us to the darkest period of the middle Ages. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘I like Christ, but I do not like Christians’. I want to repeat it a bit differently: I like Hindus, I respect Hinduism, but I do not like the Hindutva strategy.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘I like Christ, but I do not like Christians’. I want to repeat it a bit differently: I like Hindus, I respect Hinduism, but I do not like the Hindutva strategy.

The development of Hindu nationalist ideology and consolidation strategy has forced the emergence of other nationalist consolidations and identities like: Dalit, Tribal, caste, regional, and so on. Let me explain briefly one such consolidation namely Dalit:

The last hundred years have seen the emergence of a new consciousness and identity among the 200 million people who have been considered ‘outcaste’ or ‘untouchable’. Today they call themselves as Dalits, and aggressively demand their share in the shaping of the destiny of the nation. This is one of the many protest and reform movements among the ‘untouchables’ against both the Vedic ritualism and the Brahminical caste rigidity.

The conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, besides being change of religion, was also search for equality. Dr. Ambedkar believed that neither bourgeois nationalism nor traditional Marxism provided any satisfactory solution to the problem of caste. Hence he turned to religion. He rejected Christianity and Islam, because though formally egalitarian in nature, they did not face in their origin the task of fighting the caste system. For him, the only Indian religion, which arose and grew out of the struggle against the caste system and never succumbed to it, was Buddhism.

Today we live in a global context of secularism and democracy. In the last hundred years, secularism has come to be accepted as an alternative to religious orthodoxy and fundamentalist ideology. Secularism, we know, is lived and practiced in diverse ways in different countries. There cannot be one, homogenous way of practicing it. A secular state is one that allows its citizens to profess and practice their respective faith freely and fearlessly. Secular state does not interfere with the religious and spiritual affairs of the people. It should respect all religions equally. It should not prefer one to the other.

Secularism in India is different from the western concept of the state in confrontation with the Church. Indian secularism was born out of an experience, a painful process of national liberation struggles. The Fathers of our Constitution had reasons to introduce secularism in our country: fear of disorder arising from dangerous forces of political movements associated with militant Hindu nationalism, Muslim separatism, Hindu-Muslim communalism and so on. Nehru condemned casteism and communalism. He observed that communalism was fascism in India and favoured secularism. For him, secularism was necessarily a civilized behaviour. This was to transcend religious, cultural, caste differences and combat militant communalist forces.

Human civilization has brought into focus the significance of secular ideals, and there is a growing consciousness to support and nurture this type of societies. Today almost all the countries in the world have come to accept that secularism is sine quo non-for democratic governance. To establish a peaceful and just society, secularist principles and democratic polity are indispensable.

All true religions have an immense potential for tolerance. Each religious community claims that theirs is the most tolerant religion of our time. Their claim is true so long as they recognize other religions as different ways leading to the same goal. Tolerance is a normative value, yes, but it is not an answer to the fundamentalist danger to unity and integrity of our country. In today’s context what we need is to affirm and perpetuate:

  1. Rootedness of every believer in his/her religion;

  2. Acceptance of the other and his/her religious belief and practice;

  3. On going dialogues between different religions.

These are the principles that will pave way for a healthy atmosphere of respect, tolerance and acceptance of each other, of each religious tradition and enable us to live together as Indians in peace and harmony.

It is not out of place to highlight what our educational institutions can contribute in this venture at this juncture: For example, study of all religions should be stressed besides other subjects, religious and spiritual leaders could be invited to address the students on different occasions, religious festivals and feasts need to be celebrated in schools, colleges etc. All these would go on to make a huge difference in inculcating and promoting in the minds and hearts of students a love for the people of other faiths and communities, besides enriching their own religious traditions and experiences. In this way schools, colleges and other educational institutes could, in an authentic sense, become temples of wholistic and integral learning.

It is time now for all academicians, thinkers, philosophers, theologians and the like to come out openly and speak out against the dangers of fundamentalism and its offshoots of disorder, and undo, with the weapon of their wisdom, all that has gone wrong. Politicians in my opinion are not capable of doing this job. All that they normally seek after is power and for power they justify any means. If the age of Enlightenment and of Science has brought changes in the west, our intervention at this juncture will definitely put the wheels of our country on the right track. What German Bishop Niemoler said about the situation under Hitler might teach us something:

When Nazis put communists in the concentration camp, I did not protest because I was not a communist; when they persecuted the social democrats, I did not protest because I was not a social democrat; When they massacred the Jews, I did not protest because I was not a Jew; When they banned all political parties and trade unions, I did not protest because I was not one of them; when they came for me, there was no one to speak for me.




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