‘This is a battle for India’s soul, and I refuse to surrender without a fight’

Ambika Shaligram
Sunday, 6 May 2018

Congress MP and author, Dr Shashi Tharoor says that the true nature of Hinduism is inclusive and we need to reclaim our religion from those who are committing acts of bigotry and violence in its name.

In his book, Why I am a Hindu, published by Aleph Book Company, Dr Shashi Tharoor examines his own beliefs and also puts forth important aspects of Hinduism, namely, Purusharthas and Bhakti, and also summarises lessons from Bhagwad Gita and Swami Vivekananda’s teachings. The Congress MP also explores the myriad manifestations of political Hinduism in modern era. 

Here, he talks about the concept of secularism, the Hinduism practised by BJP, RSS and his party’s functionaries. Excerpts from an interview...

Why has the inclusion of ‘secularism’ (42nd Constitutional amendment) in the preamble to the Constitution not gone down well with the political parties?

It is true that the inclusion of ‘secularism’ through the 42nd Constitutional amendment hasn’t gone down well with some political groups, mainly the Hindutva brigade who argue that the word ‘secularism’, after all, is explicitly Western in origin — emerging from the political changes in Europe that accompanied the ‘Protestant Reformation’ and the era called the ‘Enlightenment’. But many 20th-century leaders outside Western Europe were attracted to the concept, notably Kemal Ataturk in Muslim-majority Turkey and Jawaharlal Nehru in Hindu-majority India, both of whom saw a secular state as a crucial hallmark of modernity. In India’s case, secularism also seemed to Nehru the only way to avoid the religious and communal antagonisms that had partitioned the country when the British left.

In this, they are not far-removed from my argument — which I have made for several years before my entry into Indian politics — that ‘secularism’ is a misnomer in the Indian context of profuse religiosity, and what we should be talking about is ‘pluralism’. I believe the roots of India’s pluralism can be found in the Hindu philosophy of acceptance of difference: ekam sat vipraa bahudha vadanti (the truth is one but the learned call it by many names). But many Hindutva-minded critics of secularism are not terribly enamoured of pluralism either.

Under the Indian version of secularism, the government’s financial largesse is extended to the Muslim waqf boards, Buddhist monasteries, and certain Christian religious institutions; and under a 1951 religious and charitable endowment law, state governments are empowered to take over, own and operate Hindu temples, collect revenue from offerings, and redistribute that revenue towards such purposes as it deems fit, including any non-temple-related ones.

The Hindutva brigade does not like this, and it is determined to do away with it as a significant step towards its project of transforming India into a Hindu state, or at least a state with a distinctively Hindu identity. The result is a widespread denunciation of the ‘appeasement’ of Muslims, which seems bizarre when one looks at the statistical evidence of Muslim socio-economic backwardness and the prevalence of discrimination in such areas as housing and employment.

Muslims are under-represented in the nation’s police forces and over-represented in its prisons. Yet Hindutva leaders have successfully stoked a perception that government benefits are skewed towards minorities, and thus justified their campaign for Hindu self-assertiveness. 

It is for such reasons that Deen Dayal Upadhyaya had argued that secularism would have to go: in his words, it “implies opposition of Hindus and appeasement of Muslims or other minorities. We should get rid of this word as soon as possible. It is completely irrelevant in the Indian context”.

The RSS and BJP have tried to constitute Hinduism into a monolithic entity. What effect will it have on the issue of Lingayat who are demanding that the community be accorded a separate religious status?
The RSS and its allies from the Sangh Parivar openly propagate this misconception of Hinduism as not being accommodating of other faiths, which is a very different interpretation of Hinduism from that which I believe is sustained by our scriptures, by our great teachers and by the lived experience of most Indian Hindus. Most Indian Hindus have grown up with a Hinduism that is truly all-embracing, and functions in a society in which acceptance of difference is key.

What did Swami Vivekananda say in Chicago? He said Hinduism teaches not just tolerance, but acceptance. You know, tolerance, after all, is a virtue, but it is a slightly patronising virtue. It says, “I have the truth, I believe you are an error, but I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong.” Whereas acceptance says, “I believe I have the truth, you believe you have the truth. I will respect your truth, please respect my truth.” 

That is a great recipe for a plural society, and also for a multi-religious democracy.
Most Hindus have never been brought up to believe, as unfortunately members of the Sangh Parivar do, that Hinduism is the best faith and that everyone else should be hit on the head — that’s not our belief. On the contrary, Swami Vivekananda himself has explicitly pointed out that there are so many different aspects to the divine, so many different ways of seeking the truth. So, while I do not believe that the interpretation of Hinduism by the current regime is reflective of the true spirit of my faith, I do think that the faith in itself is open and accepting enough to embrace and accommodate those who practise different religions and faiths within the same society.

For that reason, my own personal view is that the Lingayat faith is a variant of Hinduism and entirely compatible with its acceptance of diverse belief systems within its folds. But if any group of people wishes to be considered separate, one must accord them the respect for their own convictions. After all, many Jains say they are not Hindus, but a Jain like Amit Shah speaks as a Hindu and for Hindus! That too is part of the rich diversity of India.
 
Do you think RSS’s attempts to ‘embrace’ every sect, community in the Hinduism fold, will cause any problems within society? Will that be its sin and also a reason for its fall (if it happens)?
According to the proponents of Hindutva, despite that common descent, several sects and religious communities had cut themselves off from Hindu culture in modern India. To take the example of Indian Muslims (as the RSS is famous for doing), they prayed in Arabic, rather than the Sanskrit, born on Indian soil they turned to a foreign city (Mecca) as their holiest of holies, and owed allegiance to a holy book, and beliefs spawned by it, that had no roots in the sacred land of India. (V S) Naipaul echoes this thought in his Among the Believers: ‘It turns out now that the Arabs were the most successful imperialists of all time; since to be conquered by them (and then to be like them) is still, in the minds of the faithful, to be saved.’

To the leadership of the RSS, notably its former head M S Golwalkar, the answer to this “problem” was to seek the assimilation of Muslims and other minorities into the Hindu nationalist mainstream by forcing them to abandon these external allegiances (rather as the Jews were forced to adopt outward signs of adherence to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition four and a half centuries earlier). The German notion of a volksgeist, a ‘race spirit’ to which everyone would have to conform, appealed strongly to Golwalkar. To remain in India, Muslims would have to submit themselves to Hindus.
But this goes against the very nature of Hinduism, which I have pointed out earlier, is a faith of acceptance. The approach of the RSS is in that sense very un-Hindu and would go against the fabric of the country itself.
 
Is Congress too going the soft-Hindutva way? What is its position on ‘secularism’?
I am aware that this is a criticism that has been raised by several commentators responding to Rahul Gandhi’s temple visits during the Gujarat election trail (and now in Karnataka) and even in the reaction to my own book. But I reject the notion that what the Congress has been doing is ‘soft Hindutva’. Rather it has been a strategic move to counter the argument put forward by the BJP that they alone represent the Hindus of the country.

The Congress party has always stood by its founding values and principles of secularism and pluralism. For one thing, as I and a number of my colleagues in the party have repeatedly explained, the vast majority of us within the Congress party have always been practising Hindus in private, but we were brought up to believe that flaunting it would be unseemly, and so we kept it out of our public life and our politics. To us, religion is your private business; it’s been you and your idea of the divine, and should not affect your political beliefs or conduct.

But the political consequence of that behaviour is that we have been portrayed as non-believers or non-followers of the faith, and have unintentionally ceded the ‘Hindu space’ completely to those who claim to be the only ‘true Hindus’, which in my view, they’re absolutely not. Indeed, as I discuss in great detail in my book, the kind of Hinduism practised and extolled by many in the Sangh Parivar is not in any way reflective of the tenets, teachings, precepts and values of Hinduism. And yet, they go around preaching, “We are the only Hindus, these guys are pseudo-secular” and all that sort of nonsense. So we, as Hindus, said, “Why should we appear to surrender our Hinduism to others? Let’s now just admit publicly what we have always been doing privately, and neutralise this constant us-versus-them scenario that they continue to employ to sow the seeds of religious bigotry”.
 
Despite having a majority at the Centre, the Modi government is not pushing the Ram Mandir cause. Is it to keep the issue combustible and fan it when the elections approach?
I’m afraid you’ll have to ask them! If I had to guess their intentions, they are hoping for, perhaps expecting, a favourable verdict from the Supreme Court on the Ayodhya case, so they can start construction of a temple just before the General Elections and hope to encash that for votes.
 
How do you see the ‘middle-of-the-road Hindus’ in society? Is it possible for us to take pride in our way of living without looking down on other religions or looking at them with suspicion? Do we need a counter-mobilisation of sorts?
The Hindu public in democratic India could start demanding their faith back from those who have hijacked it. The #NotInMyName protests were a good beginning. And I would hope that our more enlightened modern religious leaders could add their voice to this as we counter those who carry out acts of bigotry and communal violence on behalf, purportedly, of the Hindu faith. Hindus must take back Hinduism from those who do such things in its name.
 
Whatever we have studied so far says that there has always been a tussle between the orthodox section of society/religion and the reformists and that has led to various movements — Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, the writings of saints in Maharashtra. What changes do we need to bring about in Hinduism today?
Part of the problem with the Hindutva brigade, I am sorry to say, is that their notion of Hinduism is profoundly based on an inferiority complex. They see Hindus as having been invaded, oppressed, defeated and humiliated for a thousand years. So, from their point of view, this is now a chance to hit back and assert themselves. I believe that is a very un-Hindu way of looking at our history and the past. Moreover, as a Hindu, I don’t want to be some sort of oppressed, humiliated, inferior species. 
I consider myself as someone who belongs to a very self-confident faith; one that has been very resilient throughout history. So many different reform movements have come up over the course of our history, all of which Hinduism has openly embraced, transforming itself in the process. Buddhism started as a reform movement in Hinduism, Jainism came that way too. Many Hindus embraced Sikhism because they felt it was actually an improvement in some ways. The whole Bhakti cult, roughly from the 11th to the 16th centuries, completely transformed and revived the faith. Even in reaction to British colonialism, we found ways of reinventing Hinduism — the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj in particular.

I think Hinduism needs to be reclaimed for the Hindus who are not bigots, who are not the kind of people who destroyed the Babri Masjid. The fact is that Hinduism is indeed the faith of a majority of Indians, approximately 80 per cent. It is time the silent majority rose up and said, ‘we are Hindus and you do not speak for us’. Why should we play into the BJP’s hands by allowing them to portray the debate around the nature of this country — the debate over the idea of India — as a debate between Hindus and secularists?

For me, the debate is not actually between Hindus and secularists alone, but rather between two different kinds of Hindus in the first place — those Hindus who sincerely believe in an India that belongs to everybody and believe in Swami Vivekananda’s view of Hinduism, as opposed to those Hindus who have a much more narrow, petty, bigoted, sectarian view of the faith. I feel it is high time that the first kind of Hindus stood up against the second and reclaimed their faith for what it is. 
This is a battle for India’s soul, and I refuse to surrender without a fight.

Tolerance, after all, is a virtue, but it is a slightly patronising virtue. It says, “I have the truth, I believe you are an error, but I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong.

I reject the notion that what the Congress has been doing is ‘soft Hindutva’. Rather it has been a strategic move to counter the argument put forward by the BJP that they alone represent the Hindus of the country

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