All the talking heads leapt into a new manufactured controversy when RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat said that all the people of Hindustan can be called Hindu. The controversy shows us how little the “secular intellectual class” of India understands India and its confusion about basic ideas like religion, dharma and culture on the one hand and the difference between the state and the nation on the other.
To start off with, let us hear what Mohan Bhagwat actually said. This is the official transcription from RSS.org. (It would be great if the RSS made original speeches available in Hindi transcription or on YouTube, not just in English translation, if they wish to transmit their message without distortion).
“All those who live here in Hindusthan are Hindus. Our style of worshipping may differ, some may not even worship at all, we may speak different languages, we may belong to various parts of this land, our eating habits may differ, yet we all are ONE.”
This is a fabulous statement of inclusion. RSS has been criticised for caring only about Hindus (assumed as a religious identity), but here the RSS chief is saying that they are considering every Indian a “Hindu” no matter what their religion or mode of worship.
First some context. The state of Pakistan officially declares Ahmadiyyas to be non-Muslim. They are barred by law from calling themselves Muslims or calling their religious places “masjid.” They have been subjected to unremitting violence from the “pure” Muslim groups in Pakistan. Similarly Hindus in Pakistan are severely persecuted. Thousands of Hindu girls are routinely kidnapped, raped and forcibly converted in what is euphemistically called “forced marriage.” The situation is so bad that even Pakistan’s Parliament is being egged to pass a law to specifically forbid it though it is not clear that Islamic parties will let their right to rape kaafirs be taken away that easily.
Let us engage in a thought experiment. Say a major Islamic leader had declared instead, all who live in Pakistan are Muslims, irrespective of their religion or style of worship, or even atheism. This statement would rightly be hailed as a statement of inclusion. Finally minority, groups, Ahmediyas, Hindus, Christians could feel safe without being forced to convert. Atheists could “out” themselves without fear of being tried for apostasy. This situation is, of course, a fantasy. Islam defines itself by exclusion, which is why there is a constant issue of who is a “true” Muslims; Shias, for instance, are the latest to suffer the violent exclusion by the Islamic State taking over Iraq since they have been declared not Muslims. Similarly the Mormon sect has faced ridicule in the United States for not being “truly” Christians.
In the face of all this, Bhagwat’s speech is an example of Hindu inclusion and acceptance. It is udaar, vast and inclusive. He is not asking Christians or Muslims to convert. He is saying all those who are in Hindustan are accepted as Hindus, whatever religion or mode of worship they follow, or even if they follow none. He is even accepting of atheists, something unimaginable in any religious definition, like with Christianity or Islam. He is following the vast inclusive Hindu idea of “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina.” And he is pointing out Hindu as a cultural and geographical idea that is owned by all Indians. Indeed when Indian Muslims go to Haj in Saudi Arabia, they may be surprised to be referred to as “Hindus” aka from Hind, the Arab word for India.
However, all the usual suspects are starting expressing “outrage”. Times Now questioned “Bhagwat’s Hindutva logic.” Firstpost’s Chandrakant Naidu turned into a psychological theorist opining that the remark “reflects RSS fear of irrelevance.” Savari Muthu, Catholic priest of the Delhi Archdiocese said the remarks concerned “the social fabric of our country.” Politicians like Congress leader Manish Tiwari, Sitharam Yechury and Mayawati jumped on the bandwagon asking Bhagwat to read the Constitution that mentions the word Bharat rather than Hindustan. Guess these politicians don’t understand the difference between a state and the nation. They should first understand “Why India is a Nation” and how we have had cultural continuity for thousands of years while many states have withered away. And this cultural continuity has both being defining and inclusive, a rare Indian feat.
Cultural inclusion has been part of the humanising Indian ethos, an idea that has resonated with Indians of all religions through the ages. Saeed Naqvi wrote about the dharmic pluralism of India:
“…In fact in this long poem, ‘Lamp in a Temple’, Ghalib describes Varanasi as the ‘Kaaba of Hindustan’, somewhat in the same vein as Iqbal’s description of Lord Rama as the ‘Imam of Hindustan’. …Krishn ka hun pujari/ Ali ka banda hoon/ Yagana shaan-e-khuda/ Dekh kar raha na Gaya (I am a pujari of Krishna and a devotee of Ali/ I cannot help myself when I see the wonders of God).”
The secular fundamentalism of the Indian ‘intelligentsia’, rather than celebrating this cultural syncretism, has forced hard-edged religious identities. Notice the brouhaha forcing Goa’s Deputy Chief Minister Francis D’Souza to apologise for calling himself a Christian Hindu, even when he reiterated “Hindu is my culture, Christianity is my religion. When I say Hindu, it means culture and not religion. Hinduism is 5,000 years old, while my religion is 2,000 years old,” Raimondu Pannicker, author of A Dwelling Place for Wisdom, had sensitively introspected on this dual identity:
“If we as Christians… could succeed in undergoing the Advaitic experience… then Christians, at least of Indian origin, would be automatically enabled to live an advaitic-Christian faith, which makes possible both a fully Hindu and a fully Christian life—without the pain of a split personality.”
It is truly unfortunate that those who call themselves secular in India are so disconnected from an Indian understanding of things. As a result, instead of allowing the harmonising genius of India to work towards reducing religious conflict they elicit the opposite reactions.
“’How can he claim himself as Hindu-Christian? He can call himself Indian-Christian,’ Fr Eremito Rebello, a leading priest, had said yesterday.
NCP’s state unit spokesman Trojano D’Mello had last week demanded that the Church should outcast D’Souza for his remarks.”
Saeed Naqvi, Francis D’Souza and Raimondu Pannicker represent exactly the kind of liberal voices that the Indian intelligentsia should encourage and help grow. Yet India’s secular fundamentalists drown out these voices and create increasing space for exclusive and separatist ones.
At this secular rate of growth, religious conflict in India can only increase. As I had written earlier, secularism is a form of primitive polytheism where each tribe has its own god, but these are inherently irreconcilable, so the warring factions are kept at bay by the rule of law and the power of the stick. This was true for the European experience with Christianity and Islam where religions were based on irreconcilable mutually exclusive truth claims. When Gandhi ji sings “Ishwar Allah Tere Nam” it is an attempt to harmonise and humanise these hard-edged exclusive claims with the genius of Hindu pluralism.
Action by the secular state is largely reactive, it cannot create conditions of mutual harmony that would prevent conflict. Indian pluralism evolved through continually knitting the discordant voices into one social fabric, ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti, where the reconciliation would happen at the social and cultural level, rather than relying on the state alone. In an alternative universe we would hail the Mohan Bhagwat’s, the Saeed Naqvi’s and the Francis D’Souaza’s; and have the Owaisi’s and Trojano D’ Mello’s apologising for their exclusive sectarian remarks. Unfortunately in 60-plus years of Indian secularism, our secular fundamentalists have gotten worse. They shout down pluralistic voices like Francis D’Souza’s and tacitly pander to and encourage hard-edged fundamentalists.
It is time for us to completely dump this ignorant secularism to move us forward again towards Indian pluralism, which celebrates multi-religious identities and softens exclusive ideologies. But who will save India from its secular fundamentalists?