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