Contradiction in terms?
We are now a very angry country. In fact, we’re so angry, so often, about so many different things that it can be hard to keep track. It is therefore no doubt my own fault that I am completely and utterly mystified by the fury being expressed at Shashi Tharoor’s warning that the Bharatiya Janata Party might, if allowed to, “turn India into a Hindu Pakistan”. Even by the standards of Indian news television, this seems to me to not be sufficiently astounding a statement to merit the usual line-up of boot-licking anchors, apoplectic spokesmen and ominous background music. And, oddly, most of the anger was not at Tharoor’s accusation against the BJP. It is now generally accepted, even celebrated that the BJP’s programme is hardcore Hindutva in a way that was alien to the BJP of Vajpayee’s time. No, the anger seemed directed at the phrase itself. Something about it was wrong — was a “contradiction in terms”, as one anchor complained.
What does the phrase “Hindu Pakistan” imply, anyway? It contains in it the following assumptions. First, that Pakistan was formed as a home for a particular religious community, in a way that India was not. Second, that something in the nature of Pakistan’s formation or history has caused it to lose its way — to flirt with failure as a state, to mistreat its minorities, to silence its liberals. And third, that such could happen in India if it forgets its founding principles and those things in its history that set it apart from its neighbour. So, I ask again, what on earth is there in these assumptions that is objectionable?
I have in fact heard objections to the phrase “Hindu Pakistan” before, but not from the Hindu right. Some argue that using the phrase as a warning minimises the degree to which the treatment of minorities, for example, in India now mirrors that in Pakistan. I myself do not hold this view, and believe there is ample evidence to justify my belief that we’re still doing better than Pakistan in this respect. Yet, I know several Indians who, in spite of being familiar with the situation of religious minorities in Pakistan, are convinced it is worse in India. However, this is not, I suspect, what animates the BJP’s anonymous internet trolls and its official spokespeople — two tribes that are rapidly becoming indistinguishable.
It seems what actually has caused this indignation is two-fold. First, that anyone could dare claim that Pakistan has struggled in so many ways because of the primacy it has given to religion. It is clear to them that Pakistan’s struggles are not because it has never given secular liberalism a real chance, but because it is a Muslim-majority country. Ergo, nothing can happen to India if it abandons the threadbare remnants of its commitment to secular liberalism, since it is a Hindu-majority country. It’s Islam that is the problem. This belief also causes the appalled fury that greets every mention of the phrase “saffron terror”. For them, terrorism is a phenomenon that is inherently Islamic. The mobs roaming our countryside stringing up Muslims in the name of cow protection are not, of course, indulging in terrorism. They are merely acting in anticipation of the law. So, yes, everyone who objects to Tharoor’s phrasing is, in essence, the worst kind of illiberal bigot. But then, you already knew that.
The second aspect of this anger is essentially at Tharoor for actually pointing out the plan to become a religious state, and comparing it dismissively with Pakistan. We should actually welcome the notion of becoming a religious state, in other words. We have progressed so far that a commitment to a Hindu Rashtra is taken for given, and must not be challenged or demeaned in these terms. The BJP is no longer apologetic or furtive about it; it has reached that phase of its dominance where it wishes to silence objectors.
Ah, if only Tharoor had said “we might become a Hindu Israel” instead, he would have run into no such trouble. Those who agree with him that liberalism and secularism are important would have nodded gravely at the warning about religion cannibalising the state, while the entire swathe of internet trolls who now apparently serve as the ideological brains-trust of the BJP would have looked at each other in puzzlement, thinking: What kind of warning is that? Locking up Muslims in small enclaves, ensuring that Muslim members of the polity are suspect and cannot rise beyond a certain level, giving control of the state to a unique national religious tradition — what’s wrong with that? Sounds like a plan.