Iam not a very religious person, though I was born a Hindu. I do celebrate the festivals and follow most of the rituals. My father was a follower of the Arya Samaj and we had havans on all auspicious occasions, a tradition I continue to this day. I was born in Pakistan and growing up in newly independent India, differences of religion, caste or ethnicity were not something I was aware of. We were taught to respect everyone, regardless of their roots. Some may call me deracinated, and I have to confess I still do not know my gotra, but I believe the greatest quality of Hinduism is its liberalism and its plurality. It is those qualities that are under threat today, as who we pray to and how we pray becomes politicised.
Where there is religion, can politics be far behind? This unholy alliance is ruining the world. Our democracy has been weakened by vote bank politics. The most obvious manifestation of this is the culture of appeasement of minorities practised by the Congress party in the 49 years it ruled the country since independence. The aggressive assertion of Hinduism, otherwise termed as Hindutva, that we are witnessing today is a backlash to this. As the BJP’s Vinay Sahasrabuddhe writing in this issue says, “it has spurred a mindless competition to get the tag of minorities”. This is not the way forward if we are to build an equitable society. The disadvantaged should be helped regardless of caste, creed or religion. It will happen only if we stop mixing politics with religion and prevent extremists from radicalising faith.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s new book, Why I am a Hindu, puts upfront a critical issue of our time—the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva. While Hinduism has a distinct cultural ethos with a common history, common literature and common civilisation, Hindutva believes Indian nationalism is the same as Hindu nationalism, and that non-Hindus must acknowledge their Hindu parentage or convert to Hinduism to return to their true cultural roots. Hindutva maintains that Hindus need to preserve and protect their religion and culture against the onslaught of a hostile, alien world. It is insecurity that drives this sentiment rather than strength, which is what Swami Vivekananda, who can only be described as the first rock star of Hinduism, believed in. I believe Hinduism teaches us to live amidst a variety of other identities, and to do anything differently would be, as Tharoor notes, a partition of the soul, after the partition of the soil.
In the best traditions of the religion, we have invited reputed scholars, ideologues and politicians to debate the issue. There is former BJP general secretary, K.N. Govindacharya, who believes Hindutva means Hinduness and not Hindu nationalism in the Western sense; former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi says the freedom of a Hindu to self-define his or her dharma is the greatest asset of Hinduism; novelist Kiran Nagarkar calls out the Sangh parivar for obliterating the inherent inclusive values of Hinduism; while the bestselling author Devdutt Pattanaik exposes the myth of the wounded Hindu, tormented by a thousand years of slavery at the hands of the invaders.
There is much more. Some of it is despondent, such as author and translator Arshia Sattar’s argument that the distinction between Hinduism as plural and Hindutva as singular is being lost at the hands of the newly empowered local gatekeepers of Hinduism and active proponents of a Hindu rashtra. For a multi-cultural country like India to be divided on the basis of religion is a recipe for disaster. But I remain hopeful. After all, which other religion in the world can say that it does not claim to be the only true one?
India Today cover, Feb 4, 2002