Captive to their own myths

Why are hotheads from India’s dominant Hindu majority so keen to rub out any distinction between religion and nation? Urvashi Butalia ponders what this portends for all Indians.
Youth against fundamentalism

Youth against fundamentalism: members of the All India Students’ Association rally against rightwing Hindu groups in Kolkata. ‘Love Azadi’ (freedom to love) counters a pronouncement by the Hindu Mahasabha organization that it would force couples to get married if they were seen together in the open – considered an indecent expression of love. © AP Photo/Bikas Das

‘Call me after 9,’ a professor friend at Jadavpur University in Kolkata texted me a few days ago. ‘Right now, we’re all going off to the beef fest.’ A sort of ‘eatathon’, a beef fest involves the public eating of beef in protest at its government-supported banning in some states. Maharashtra has already brought in this legislation, which takes away from Muslims, Dalits, Christians and, indeed, beef-eating Hindus, an important item of food (thus denying them a basic democratic right), and scores a nationalist Hindu point, because Hindus believe the cow is sacred and should not be eaten.

Other rightwing-ruled states in India are considering following suit. Haryana, in the north, has already done so. And in Delhi’s neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, the campaign is in full swing: slogans demanding gau mata ko rashtra pashu banao (‘make mother cow the national animal’) line the walls of buildings along the highway. It doesn’t matter that cows know little about religion or nation; they’ve become important in the battle for these inter-related turfs.

A longstanding demand of the Hindu right, the ban on cow slaughter has in the past been kept in abeyance by the government, and for good reason. India is a secular country, constitutionally committed to the democratic rights of its minority populations. Food is an important aspect of this: a sense of home and belonging comes as much from what you eat as from where you live and what you do. For the 150 million Muslims who live in India, beef is a staple food and one of their main sources of protein. Other groups also eat beef: the Dalits, for one. The beef trade gives employment to hundreds of thousands of people. How, then, can it be banned?

Yet in the battle for claiming a space for the Hindu nation, such considerations do not seem to be important. A Hindu point has been scored and has been given the green light by a Hindu government – and that’s enough.

The beleaguered majority

The renewed Hinduization of an already very Hindu India is a project that is rapidly gaining strength. Why this should be necessary in a country whose population is 80-per-cent Hindu anyway (even though being Hindu means different things to different people) is a question to which there are no easy answers. Why should they – or perhaps I should say we, for I am by birth a Hindu, although in the way that people’s lives are messy, I am also a Sikh, and sometimes the lines between these two are quite blurred – feel marginalized? And further, why should this sense of marginalization be laid at the door of other, much smaller and less powerful groups?

There is something deeply worrying when our Prime Minister maintains a studied silence on violent acts, forcing the conclusion that he is supportive of the project to create a new Hindu nation

In India, virtually all the important top jobs, industries, institutions, educational projects and more are headed by upper-caste Hindus, mostly men. Any number of reports have shown that, despite the unmistakable gains of positive discrimination, India has a lot of catching up to do in terms of the rights and status of its minorities. Of all the minorities in the country – and there are many – the largest, Muslims, are the ones that concern Hindus the most.

About 15 per cent of India’s population today is Muslim. Yet one of the most popular and enduring myths among those Hindus who see themselves as beleaguered in their own land is that because Muslims have many children, they will soon outstrip the Hindu population. A case of simple maths would prove otherwise, but this is never deployed.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when if someone spoke of Hindu fundamentalism, we would have laughed at them, perhaps shaken our heads, and most certainly have trotted out the most enduring (and true) cliché of all: that Hinduism is not a religion, it’s a philosophy; that it is full of nuance and contradiction; that there’s no one book on which it is based, so there’s no question of fundamentalism.

Not so now. In the past two decades so much has changed – there hasn’t really been a moment when one minority or other has not come under attack. And it doesn’t stop at religious minorities or even just people: it’s also books, films, discussions, plays and more. Ever since the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came into power, for example, heads of virtually all important institutions have been replaced with Hindu loyalists.

Consider this list of randomly chosen examples: in Mangalore, women are violently attacked for drinking in a pub because drinking is presumably against Hindu tradition; in West Bengal, Maharashtra and Delhi, churches are vandalized, perhaps because Christians need to be shown ‘their place’; in Madhya Pradesh, tribal people are forcibly converted to Hinduism; in Delhi, publishers are forced to withdraw books that are said to be anti-Hindu or critical of Hindus; in Muzaffarnagar, Muslims are attacked, many are killed, women are raped.

Tejomaya Bharat, a supplementary reading textbook, is distributed across 42,000 schools in Gujarat. It claims that stem-cell research, television and cars were all inspired by ancient Hindu texts. ‘It is better to die for one’s religion,’ states page 118. ‘An alien religion is a source of sorrow.’

Indeed, women are particularly targeted: fundamentalism and patriarchy make good bedfellows. So Hindu men feel righteously justified in stopping women from marrying men of their choice, or not ‘allowing’ them to indulge in ‘un-Hindu’ behaviour such as holding hands or kissing in public.

In a country the size of India, it would be easy to pass off these incidents as random – were it not for the fact that some fringe Hindu group or other then comes forward to claim responsibility. One might also say: ‘But this is the fringe; most Hindus are not violent or intolerant.’ And no doubt there’s truth in that, too. But there is something deeply worrying when our politicians, and in particular our Prime Minister, maintain a studied silence on such acts, forcing the conclusion that they are supportive of the project to create a new Hindu nation.

The renewed Hinduization of an already very Hindu India is a project that is rapidly gaining strength

How widespread is this sense of being beleaguered? It’s difficult to say, but it tends to draw in everything to prove its point. So, if Hindus are treated badly in Pakistan, that gives cause to demand similar reciprocal treatment for minorities in India. Added to that is a further completely irrational fear: that India is ‘sandwiched’ between two Muslim nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and needs to arm itself against incursions (read: Bangladeshi refugees) and terrorism.

‘More worrying than these random attacks,’ says a lawyer friend of mine, ‘is the insidious way in which a sort of Hinduness is creeping into our daily lives. Not being able to eat what you wish, having to look over your shoulder for everything you write or publish; that is what is so worrying.’

The aggressive diaspora

A fair amount of support for this assertive Hinduness, she points out, comes from the Hindu diaspora. Made up of doctors, academics, engineers, IT experts and students, this group of generally conservative people sees itself as a sort of ‘model minority’ and wonders why, in its chosen homeland (mostly the United States) it has been so ignored. ‘For nearly three generations, since the time of India’s nominal independence in 1947,’ says a recently published book called Rearming Hinduism, ‘… Hinduism has been a religion lived in silence.’

But how does the sense of being a beleaguered minority translate into a similar sense of disempowerment in a majoritarian environment? It’s here that the internet has become a powerful tool: it’s used to mobilize support for campaigns, recruit new members, troll and harass opponents, and reach out particularly to the middle classes, who may otherwise not be too proactive.

Indian Muslims shower members of militant Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with flower petals in Bhopal, February 2014. The RSS, which would like to turn India into a completely Hindu nation, is the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

AP Photo/Rajeev Gupta

One of Hinduism’s most vocal US-based advocates, Rajiv Malhotra, uses the internet to make some amazing claims: Christianity and Islam, he says, are less than 2,000 years old – so what was there in the world before them? Clearly it was Hinduism. Indeed, Hinduism once covered a vast geographical terrain: from Kabul to Indonesia, from Kazakhstan to Kanya Kumari; but look at it today – it can claim a mere 20 per cent of its original sweep. Furthermore, Hindus have lost their rivers – and therefore water, the lifeblood – to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh. You’re a shadow of your former self.

Recovering the former self is also what Hindu groups lobbied for in 2005, trying to get textbooks used in schools in California to make their content more Hindu ‘accurate’. This resurgent Hinduism in the diaspora has close associations with the ruling BJP and, indeed, much of Narendra Modi’s election campaign was orchestrated by non-resident Indians.

What does this mean for India, though? Where will the actions of a violent fringe – who because of the current political dispensation feel a sense of impunity – and a less violent diaspora, intent on capturing cultural and intellectual space, leave us in India? The dangers are clear: the Prime Minister recently made an indirect criticism of court judgments that have defended freedom of speech, saying the judiciary must be careful not to be taken in by ‘five-star activists’, thus targeting NGOs and others who have been fighting against the Hinduization of India.

As always with India, there are no easy answers. What’s clear, though, is that the danger is real and there is no room for complacency. We might sit back and say India’s diversity is not so easily destroyed. Or we might do what India’s civil society has always done: fight to protect everything that is good about this country – its diversity, its secularism, its plurality, its freedom and, indeed, its people.

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist publisher and writer based in India. She is the director of the publishing house Zubaan.