I Cannot Accept Hindutva Because I Am a Hindu

Hindutva is a political invention that has re-defined Hinduism for its political purpose, which is to declare India a Hindu rashtra.

Credit: PTI

The other day, an acquaintance of mine asked me why I was opposing Hindutva. What did I have against it? I told her why. I said I opposed it for two reasons. One reason is personal and the other is political.

Let me begin with the personal. I cannot accept Hindutva because I am a Hindu. By this I don’t mean only that I was born a Hindu, but that I am a believer. My religion is important to me. I draw daily strength and sustenance from it. It is central to my life and thought, and to my behaviour toward believers of other faiths, for Sanatan Dharma teaches that the world is our family. To millions of Indians, of whatever faith, religion matters. And all truly religious people know that God has no chosen people. We are all equal in the eyes of the creator.

So it is unbearable to watch my religion being transformed into what it was never meant to be by people who call themselves Hindus but practise a brutal, militant creed of their own that drives them to lynch defenceless innocent Indians, pump bullets into those who question their creed, and enter a train armed with knives to stab to death a fifteen-year-old boy who is returning to his village after his Eid shopping in Delhi. Unbelievably, this vengeance pursues some of its victims beyond the grave. What else are we to make of the news that the grieving families of Mohammed Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan are now being made the guilty parties instead of the criminals who killed them, while the killers roam free to commit other hate crimes. Jesus Christ, in agony on the cross to which he was nailed, could pray: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” But the Hindus among us cannot utter a similar prayer because those who kill and maim and terrify in the name of Hinduism know exactly what they are doing and take pride in doing it. Such things have happened in all countries and centuries when religious fanaticism or racism has been allowed to go unchecked, and more especially when a ruling ideology gives free rein to fanaticism.

Then there is the political reason. Hindutva is a political invention that has re-defined Hinduism for its political purpose, which is to declare India a Hindu rashtra. It says this country is exclusively Hindu, all other Indians being invaders and outsiders. Historically, this is incorrect since, like every other land mass, and the civilisation that has grown out of it, the India we live in is the outcome of migrations millennia ago. There is no “pure” race on earth. We are all a mixture of all that has gone into the making of us. The invaders and outsiders from earliest times are as Indian as the first aborigine inhabitants of this land mass. Which came first, the chicken or the egg, doesn’t matter. Here we are today, people of every known religion, language, culture and lifestyle, and all rightful citizens of India.

As this is a reality that Hindutva finds hard to digest, those whom it claims as its supporters deal with it in two ways: One, the straightforward military solution of eliminating those whom you see as Other, or those who do not fall in line with your ideology. It began with Mahatma Gandhi being shot dead for committing the blasphemy of declaring that God is One whom we call by different names, and for giving us the mantra: ‘Ishvar Allah tere nam; sab ko sammati de Bhagvan’. We can now see his murder in 1948 as the forerunner of what is happening to diversity, debate and dissent in our own time.

The second solution is to do the same thing with the printed page, by wiping out all trace of the other from history books and inventing a Hindutva history in its place. We have been told that Akbar was not Great and that it was Maharana Pratap Singh who won the battle of Haldighati. But now, the texts in some Hindutva-ruled states have apparently gone further and decided to wipe out the Mughal empire altogether. Perhaps their textbooks will go much further back a thousand years and wipe out the Muslim invasions because Hindutva holds that these invasions and conquests were an interruption of Hindu history which is the rightful history of India, so all the rest is irrelevant. This campaign to wipe out memory itself is essential to the project of mind control which seeks to make us a uniform think-alike breed. It is part of this campaign to discredit Gandhi’s non-violence as a policy that emasculated Indians, and to reject compassion as a resort of weaklings. How could such a wrong interpretation be made when no greater courage has been shown than that of the unarmed Indians who faced the armed might of an empire, and when compassion is the most civilised achievement of the human mind? Bertrand Russell once called politics “the grinning devil” and this is what politics under the rule of Hindutva seems to have become. Vast slices of our multi-religious, multi-cultural heritage – which includes our literature,  architecture,  language,  food, music, dance, dress and manners – are being dishonoured and disowned, leaving us shrunk into a monoculture which is not only not Hinduism, but the antitheses of all that India has stood for, worked for, and safeguarded as a proud and cherished inheritance. Not least, it is what India has been acclaimed and admired for throughout the world, as a thriving example of unity in diversity.

In contrast, let us look at politics as it once was. It was Mahatma Gandhi, a deeply religious Hindu, who laid the foundation of modern India when he created a national movement that cut across all divisions of region, religion, caste, language and gender and, for the first time in any country’s history, brought class and mass together under the same banner to fight for freedom. It was a largely Hindu constituent assembly, consisting mostly of elderly conservative Hindus who rejected a religious identity at independence and declared India a secular democratic republic – for the very reason that it is a deeply religious country of many different religions – and made religion a private affair, converting this into a constitutional guarantee that gave every citizen the right to worship as he or she chose. It was this republic of millions of devout believers of different faiths that  repeatedly elected a prime minister who was a known agnostic, yet also known for his profound respect for the religious beliefs of his countrymen, and determined that every Indian should hold and practise his or her faith in freedom. This was India at its birth into nationhood seventy years ago and it has remained so – until now when the politics of Hindutva has partitioned our country a second time, dividing Indians into Hindus and others.

It is no comfort to know that there is a world trend toward a militant nationalism, toward tightening identity into cubbyholes, toward excluding those whom it considers their, toward an era of post-truth in which facts have no place and invention rules the day. As inheritors of a hard-built tradition of democracy and secularism, we must prove ourselves an exception to this trend.

Nayantara Sahgal is an eminent writer.

By arrangement with the Tribune.

  • Rohit Kumar

    Powerful article.

  • Bhakti

    Thank you so much for articulating this so well. As a believing Vaishnava I have also felt the same emotions and terrible conflict between what our faith and what is happening all around us. What is most troubling that even so-called holy persons tacitly condone the violence against other human beings. My biggest challenge is that Hindus should not adopt the very things that we condemn in others. How can we descend to terrorist levels and claim to be better? These political Hindutva goons are doing Sanatam Dharma a great disservice.

  • Anjan Basu

    I am a non-believer and religion has no place in my scheme of things, but I bear the highest respect for the way Nayantara Sahgal looks at the world. I firmly believe that every Indian has the right to practise any religion or any political faith she chooses, also the right to be an atheist – – as long as she harms or openly disrespects no one. The Hindu rashtra that the BJP/ RSS want to foist upon India is a monstrosity. We must fight these ignorant bigots with every resource at our command. Our India is and will remain a secular Republic.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    “And all truly religious people know that God has no chosen people. We are all equal in the eyes of the creator.”

    Not true. And not true particularly for Hinduism, Ms Sehgal, if you will forgive my respectful disagreement.
    I am a complete non believer, a hard core atheist. And nothing that I have observed of Hinduism and its practice by those around me, even people very close to me, has pushed me to reconsider my utter lack of religiosity. This religion has given the world the despicable and indestructible caste system – and you say it considers “all equal in the eyes of the creator”?
    If a religion can make “others” out of its own people, those who are of this very land, why are you surprised and outraged at it “other”ing those whom it considers invaders? Why is it “unbearable” for you to watch violent Hindutva go on the rampage now, when Hindu society has constructed and sustained many forms of violence – both overt and covert – within itself?
    Yes, be outraged, speak up. But do so out of compassion and humanism, and not because Hindutva goes against your religion – because it does not.

    • Anjan Basu

      Strong words, but of course they contain more than a grain of truth. Every organised religion has at its core a degree of violence that demands and extracts a certain homogeneity/ uniformity as well as irrationality. Hinduism is no exception, but, to my mind, it is not the only religion to be so. I am a non-believer myself, a complete and uncompromising non-believer, but yet I can see how some persons can be genuine believers without being parochial or the least bigoted. Indeed, some religiously-oriented men and women can, even today, lay claim to a humanist spirit. A paradox, maybe, but isn’t religious experience by its very nature paradoxical?

      • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

        “Indeed, some religiously-oriented men and women can, even today, lay claim to a humanist spirit.”
        Sure, I get that and I agree. Perhaps Ms Sahgal is one such, who genuinely believes that it is her faith that makes her compassionate enough and humanist enough to reject Hindutva. Perhaps at a personal level, my comments do her a disservice.
        But in a more general way, and certainly at a collective level, I dont see the practice of Hinduism necessarily leading to a more compassionate and humane view of the world and of those whom it considers as the “others”. To take a topical example, why is it that the plight of the Rohingyas – exemplified by that heartrending photograph of a young Rohingya mother weeping over the body of her dead infant – fails to move us, that we buy the government’s view that they are a “security risk” and hence should be deported? Or, why is it that the Farooq Ahmad Dars of Kashmir are not considered worthy of our empathy and compassion?

        (Anyway, on a cheerier note: thank you for introducing me to Hobsbawm!)

        • Anjan Basu

          I cannot agree with you more that, at a collective level, Hinduism — and, for that matter, every organised religion — does more harm than good today. In fact, my favourite reading is Richard Dawkins ( ‘The God Delusion’) and Christopher Hitchens ( who debunked, among other things, the Mother Theresa myth). India’s official antipathy against the Rohingya ( while, at the same time, unabashedly ‘championing’ the cause of Hindu refugees from several countries) is reprehensible, and India’s Kashmir policy is a moral outrage. I was only suggesting that, at an INDIViDUAL level, it may be still possible for some people to be deeply religious in the classical sense of the word ‘religious’, and yet remain a decent human being. The problem today, however, is that nearly everybody tends to become defensive when it comes to the question of religious piety or nationalism. So, even enlightened, intelligent persons also feels obliged to state their opposition to religious fundamentalism or cultural fanaticism in terms of ‘ I am a true Hindu, but …..’ or of ‘ I love my own country as much as anybody else, but …..’. Those prefatory remarks clearly establish the fact that India today has given up on the spirit of true rationalism and free intellectual enquiry. Perhaps those qualities were never at a premium in our ancient country, sadly, but now the race is completely in the other direction. Even a Jawaharlal Nehru — an atheist himself and a true liberal in most senses of the term — would probably have felt troubled to speak his mind today in the country he so loved.

          ( I am glad that you feel interested in Hobsbawm’s work. Let me quote the last few sentences from his autobiography: ” … Let us not disarm, even in unsatisfactory times.Social injustice still needs to be denounced and fought. The world will not get better on its own.”– I am sure here he speaks for you and me and for many others here in India today, who dream of an India where every citizen will be able to live the life worthy of a human being. )

          • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

            “So, even enlightened, intelligent persons also feels obliged to state their opposition to religious fundamentalism or cultural fanaticism in terms of ‘ I am a true Hindu, but …..’ ”

            That is exactly my sneaking (and perhaps unfair) suspicion – is Ms Sahgal trying to insure herself from attacks on her for penning this article by first making it clear that she is a staunch Hindu, thereby hoping that her self-professed depth of faith lends acceptability to her criticism of Hindutva? Or is she, as you say “deeply religious in the classical sense of the word ‘religious’, and yet remain a decent human being”? I would love to believe its the latter, though I guess I shall never really know, and that in a nutshell is my problem with her article.

  • Amitabha Basu

    The attempts by the Hindutva zealots to demonise and denigrate and even wipe out those whom they consider the ‘other’ are indeed reprehensible to our collective humanity and plurality and must be resisted at all costs. But, as other readers have pointed out, to try and reject Hindutva as a distortion of the Hindu religion, which is claimed to be benevolent, universal and humanist, is just not tenable, as Hinduism, like every other religion, upholds only the followers of that religion and, at best, says that non-believers should be ‘persuaded’ to ‘see the light’ of the ‘ultimate truth’ that that particular religion propagates. The less said about the ‘natural order of society’ that the caste system represents within the Hindu fold, the better. Religion is truly the ‘opium of the masses’ and more people have been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason.

  • alok asthana

    Well put. I too can’t accept hindutva purely it is an anti-hinduism movement. It is against everything that hinduism stands for.

    • Anjan Basu

      Indeed, it is against what being human really means, just as Muslim fundamentalism is against humanity, as is aggressive Christainaity/ Zionism/even Buddhism( look at Myanmar today).

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    I wrote: Not true. And not true particularly for Hinduism.
    By the first “Not true”, I meant its not true in general, applicable across all religious faiths. And by “not true particularly for Hinduism”, I meant its definitely not true for Hinduism – which in no way implies that such problems dont exist in other religions.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    “Hinduism talked about casteism. The same religion has also produced enough reformers to put that past aside.”

    Put it aside? You think caste is extinct?

  • Anjan Basu

    Difficult question. The answer has to be yes and no. True, it is ‘looser’ and less straitjacketed than Islam and Roman Catholicism, but in some other ways, it is even more regimented ( Think of casteism or Brahminism.) But yes, I agree that it is not an organised religion in quite the same way as some of the world’s other great religions are.

  • The Wire
    • Anjan Basu

      My humble submission to The Wire team: Please don’t expend your precious resources and energy on responding to wilful blindness. Your record is there in the open, for all to see – – provided they WANT to see it.

  • Anjan Basu

    You are absolutely right! An insider’s critique of a faith, or a set of beliefs — whether religious or political — is often more valuable than an outsider’s for a variety of reasons. But an outsider’s perspective is also important because his view is not circumscribed by any particular set of predilections. Having said that, you will please observe that, in my first comment here, I had clearly stated how highly, despite being an atheist, I respect Ms Sahgal’s views expressed here. On another level, I am an Indian, like others who are also part of the discussion but happen to be religious themselves. So, I think I am invested to quite the same degree in this debate as others, because, whether religious or irreligious, we are all keen to see that our personal faiths or beliefs ( or their absence) are not used as a stick to beat other Indians with.

  • Anjan Basu

    Sorry I lost you there. Are you saying that if Hobsbawm was a sincere humanist, he would have championed Stalinism rather than critiquing it? That Hobsbawm should have believed that suppressing the Hungarian uprising was right? Because that is what your comment seems to mean. — Incidentally, Hobsbawm did not apologise for Stalin’s actions — he did not need to, because he was not responsible for them — he denounced them as wrong. He believed, rightly, that one could be a Marxist without being a Stalinist, that, indeed, one could be a communist even while opposing Stalin’s tyranny and opportunism.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    No need to thank us, my friend. All of us collectively give each other hope and support!

    “So, I beg you to focus on her earnest message, and discuss larger issues at hand! Her religiosity shouldn’t be a cause of concern for your learned selves!”

    Point taken. I am perhaps being over-analytical and therefore over-critical. Though I still consider this statement: “And all truly religious people know that God has no chosen people. We are all equal in the eyes of the creator” to be just a tad disingenuous coming from such a learned person as her (because Hinduism does not consider everyone equal in the eyes of the creator, as she must surely be aware), I am willing to concede that at a personal level she truly believes this and it guides her rejection of Hindutva.
    So I shall applaud her message and leave it at that.


    The writer has put forth the ideology vividly. But the victims of this utopia are the people of India who until yesterday were living as one family. Today they are being divided in the name of religion and are educated with bygone history to taking up knives and guns to kill each other. Are we going forward to prosperity or going backwards to revenge full anarchy ?