Mohan Bhagwat ji, Who Is a Hindu and Who Is the ‘Other’?

Two books that posit the notion of the ‘Hindu’ at the opposite ends of the caste spectrum raise some uncomfortable questions for the RSS chief. 

The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, while speaking to members of the Rashtriya Muslim Manch (RMM) on July 4, offered some important clarifications as to who is a Hindu and what is Hindutva.

Acknowledging that “we are in a democracy”, he said that “there can’t be dominance of Hindus or Muslims”. This is statistically, false because Hindus constitute 80% of India’s population and hence, will always dominate. To soften the blow, he added that “there can only be dominance of Indians”. This is akin to saying the US will be dominated by Americans and Britain will be dominated by the British, which is a tautological statement. Of course, the sentiment behind this tautology is deceptively high-minded. Then Bhagwat added for good measure that “if a Hindu says that no Muslim should live here, then that person is not a Hindu”. This is like saying ‘only a mad man can say it, because it is impossible to throw out over 200 million Muslims (a 2019 estimate), and mad men are not Hindus’.

The second revelation that the Oracle of Nagpur made was that “those involved in lynchings were going against Hindutva”. That means the Book of Hindutva has no chapter on lynchings. Here he changed the category. He did not say that they were ‘not Hindus’, for that would have been a mistake of facts and not of category.

Also read: The Hypocrisy and Opportunism of the RSS’s ‘Outreach’ to Muslims

The final point he made was that “Hindu-Muslim unity is misleading as they are not different but one” and he reiterated the age-old conviction of the RSS leaders that “DNA of all Indians are same, irrespective of religion”. The problem, dear sir, is that DNA tells us about our physiological features such as height, shape of our forehead, eyes, and nose etc., and has nothing to do with religion, which is a sociological category. This is clearly a mistake of category, one often made by Subramanian Swamy, a Harvard-trained economist.

Swamy, being cleverer, employs a more convoluted logic: ‘DNA of all Indians is same (biological category), all Indians were Hindus (‘Hindu’ derived from Sindhu – a geographical category). Christians and Muslims (religious category) came from outside, so all Muslims and Christians in India were Hindus (overlapping religious with geographical category).’ In elementary logic this is called a fallacy of misplaced categories and a ‘fallacy of four terms’. What is worse, it is not even a syllogism. No wonder Prime Minister Narendra Modi detests Harvard professors.

The burden of this article, however, is not to focus on the utter lack of logic in RSS leaders’ thinking. It is something more fundamental. Does Bhagwat have a clear understanding as to who is a ‘Hindu’ and do most Indians share his notion of it? To answer this, it is useful to rely on two very well-articulated books that posit the notion of the ‘Hindu’ at the opposite ends of the caste spectrum.

One is Why I Am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor and the other Why I Am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. Tharoor may quickly take offence to the implication of any caste bias to his book, as most of us simply assume that there is no bias in talking about the majesty of our great civilisational heritage – the sanatana dharma. But only when we read Ilaiah’s book do we realise that we are not even aware of our bias in owning or taking pride in our great intellectual and spiritual heritage. Secondly, we are neither aware nor do we perceive that a vast majority of our population does not share either the knowledge of our heritage or feel any sense of pride in it. To amplify this notion, Ilaiah states in the sub-title that his book is a ‘Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy’.

Also read: Is a Confused Bhagwat Becoming ‘Pseudo-Secular’? Or Is There a Method Behind His Musings?

Both books are written in response to the challenge of Hindutva politics that took centre-stage after the 2014 elections. The fact that religion has once again become the crucial identity-marker in our national consciousness, 70 years after Partition, shows a divisive rupture in the national consensus. This consensus that was built around the vision document, the Constitution of India, in 1950 and was the dominant political discourse of the 45 years prior to 1992. Today, it has become necessary for every thinking Indian to state where he stands in relation to his ‘religion’ and towards ‘Hindutva’.

Birth and culture as the main determinants

Having placed the accidents of geography and history at the core of why anyone belongs to any religion, Tharoor emphasises the importance of family and culture in training him to adopt certain religious practices as followed by his father in shaping his religious/spiritual outlook. He says, “I was born and grew up in a Hindu household.” As elementary as that. And Kancha Ilaiah was born and grew up in a Kuruma household and adopted the surname Shepherd to show his caste occupation. Neither his father nor his cultural environment trained him to be a ‘Hindu’. They were identified as ‘Kurumas’ and so they remained Kurumas. Being ‘Hindu’ was a different world, one they did not aspire to belong to.

Also read: RSS Chief Bhagwat’s Talk of Uniformity is an Attack on India’s Unity in Diversity

What Tharoor calls ‘My Hinduism’ is the experience that most English-educated upper-caste men would have grown up with, and perhaps share similar attitudes to their religion. Tharoor adds, “I am proud of the history of my faith in my own land…and I am consciously laying claim to this geography, history, its literature and civilisation, identifying myself as an heir to a venerable tradition that stretches back to time immemorial.” Here is an educated and intellectual understanding of one’s religion. This is clearly a notion of Brahmanical or upper-caste Hinduism. And this is where Shepherd differs. His culture and socio-economic background is very different from that of Tharoor and neither his culture nor education helped him to adopt a ‘Hindu’ identity. In fact, he always identified the ‘Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Banias’ as the Hindus and himself a non-Hindu. He was the ‘Sudra’ but of course, higher than the Ati-Sudras (the Maadigas).

Is Shepherd right in terming only the three so-called ‘twice-born’ castes as Hindus? Wendy Doniger, in her magisterial work in The Hindus says that while the “Brahmins may have had a monopoly on liturgical Sanskrit for the performance of certain public rites… the sacrificer need not have been a Brahmin, ….the other two twice -born classes (castes) – the warriors/ rulers (Kshatriyas) and below them, merchants, farmers and herders (Vaishyas) were also initiated and therefore could be sacrificers. The lowest of the four classes (castes), the servants (Shudras) were excluded from these and many other aspects of religious life, but the exclusion of Shudras doesn’t automatically make something ‘Brahminical”.” Having said this, it must be noted that Hinduism is broad enough to accept the validity of Shepherd’s argument that if he doesn’t consider himself a Hindu, so be it. That, Tharoor will aver as the beauty and plurality of Hinduism, an argument that may sound strange to the Hindutva brigade. However, Shepherd’s argument that he and other Shudras are not Hindus has huge political import, particularly in today’s India.

The second important point Shepherd makes is on the perception of the ‘Other’. For him and the Shudras, it’s the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas that constitute the ‘Other’ and not the Muslims with whom they share their eating habits and social standing. This completely upends the narrative of the RSS-BJP combine that the Muslims and the Christians are the ‘Other’ for the Hindus. If such a substantial chunk of the ‘Hindu’ population – the Sudras and Ati-Sudras whom Shepherd calls the ‘Dalit-Bahujan’ – do not regard the Muslims as the ‘Other’ and instead regard the upper-caste ‘Dwijas’ as their oppressors, that challenges the foundational belief of the RSS and BJP.

Shepherd, in fact, argues that if the two upper-caste national parties (the Congress and the BJP) are seeking their votes, it makes little difference to him if one of them is secular and the other is not, because both perpetuate upper-caste hegemony on the Sudras. Shepherd’s arguments as to ‘why he is not a Hindu’ are a clear rejection of Hindutva politics and re-assertion of the primordial tribal or caste identity.

Coming back to the original question as to who is a Hindu, among these contrarian viewpoints, it’s clear that ‘caste identity’ trumps ‘religious identity’ in day-to-day life. Even if the BJP projects itself as an aggregator of a pan-caste Hindu community, can it escape the vice-like grip of ‘upper-caste dominance’ in the mother organisation, the RSS? And on what basis do the BJP leaders distribute tickets to their candidates to fight elections, but on caste lines? And what was the central message of the recent mega ministerial shake-up, but a clear acknowledgement of caste as the final determinant? Is Bhagwat finally accepting the failure of ‘project Hindutva’ and the limitation of the politics of hate and of polarisation, particularly after its resounding defeat in the Bengal elections?

Ravi Joshi was formerly in the Cabinet Secretariat.