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Shashi Tharoor: All the reasons I’m proud—and not—to be Hindu

Quartz india
Quartz india

In many ways, the fundamental conflict of our times is the clash between, no, not civilisation, but doctrines—religious and ethnic fundamentalism on the one hand, secular consumerist capitalism on the other. The clash is taking place amidst a paradox.

Thanks to globalisation, the world has been coming together into a single international market, just as it is simultaneously being torn apart by civil war, terrorism and the breakup of nations. Today there is a backlash, or more accurately two kinds of backlash: one a widely-seen current of economic anti-globalisation, as the “losers” rebel against the elites who have been exporting their jobs to faraway lands, and the other what one can call cultural anti-globalisation, whose proponents seek the comforts of traditional identity.

In many places in the West the two backlashes overlap, but in a country like India they do not; India’s government seeks to be part of globalisation while rejecting the cultural diversity it implies. The Hindutva (“Hinduness”) movement in India is part of this latter backlash against cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism, and secularism in the name of cultural rootedness, religious or ethnic identity and nationalist authenticity. In India this claim to authenticity and rootedness has taken on a majoritarian Hindu colouring under the BJP. It has sought to reduce Indians to a singular identity framed around their religious affiliation. Every one of us, as I have pointed out in my 1997 book, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, has many identities.

Sometimes religion obliges us to deny the truth about our own complexity by obliterating the multiplicity inherent in our identities. Religious fundamentalism, in particular, does so because it embodies a passion for pure belonging, a yearning intensified by the threatening tidal wave of globalisation as well as by the specificities of the devotees’ politics. And it feeds on the inevitable sense among its adherents of being wounded, whether real or imagined.

In this way, Hindutva reassertion draws from the same wellsprings as Islamist fanaticism and white-nationalist Christian fundamentalism.

What is to be done? We cannot delegitimise religion, and indeed there is something precious and valuable in a faith that allows a human being to see himself at one with others stretching their hands out towards God around the world. But can we separate religion from identity? Can we dream of a world in which religion has an honoured place but where the need for spirituality will no longer be associated with the need to belong?

If we want religion to stop feeding fanaticism, terror and ethnic wars, we must find other ways of satisfying the need for identity. If identity can relate principally to citizenship rather than faith, to a land rather than a doctrine, and if that identity is one that can live in harmony with other identities, then we might still escape the worst horrors that the doomsayers (like Samuel Huntington, who two decades ago foretold a “clash of civilisations”) can conceive. A domestic “clash of civilisations” would destroy India. 

A domestic “clash of civilisations” would destroy India, which has survived and thrived as a civilisational medley. Thanks in many ways to the eclectic inclusiveness of Hinduism, everything in India exists in countless variants. There was no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way.”

This pluralism emerged from the very nature of the country; it was made inevitable by India’s geography and reaffirmed by its history. There was simply too much of both to permit a single, exclusionist nationalism. When the Hindutvavadis demanded that all Indians declare “Bharat Mata ki Jai” as a litmus test of their nationalism, many of us insisted that no Indian should be obliged to mouth a slogan he did not believe in his heart. If some Muslims, for instance, felt that their religion did not allow them to hail their motherland as a goddess, the constitution of India gave them the right not to. Hindutva wrongly seeks to deny them this right.

Hinduism is not a monolith

The rage of the Hindu mobs is the rage of those who feel themselves supplanted in this competition of identities, who think that they are taking their country back from usurpers of long ago. They want revenge against history, but they do not realise that history is its own revenge. The Hindutva project seeks to reinvent Hindu identity with a new belief structure and a new vocabulary. They seek to make Hinduism more like the Semitic religions they resent but wish to emulate: to pick fewer sacred books, notably the Gita, and exalt them would produce a less “baggy,” tighter version of the faith; to focus on fewer gods, notably Shiva, Rama and Krishna, with Ganesh and various forms of Devi thrown in, would provide a sharper sense of Hindu divinity; to standardise religious practices around specific familiar festivals, rituals and gatherings, would provide a greater sense of community.

I am indeed proud that I am a Hindu. But of what is it that I am, and am not, proud?

I am not proud of my co-religionists attacking and destroying Muslim homes and shops.

I am not proud of Hindus raping Muslim girls, or slitting the wombs of Muslim mothers.

I am not proud of Hindu vegetarians who have roasted human beings alive and rejoiced over the corpses.

I am not proud of those who reduce the lofty metaphysical speculations of the Upanishads to the petty bigotry of their own sense of identity, which they assert in order to exclude, not embrace, others.

I am proud that India’s pluralism is paradoxically sustained by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus, because Hinduism has taught them to live amidst a variety of other identities.

I am proud of those Hindus, like the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, who say that Hindus and Muslims must live like Ram and Lakshman in India.

I am not proud of those Hindus, like “Sadhvi” Rithambhara, who say that Muslims are like sour lemons curdling the milk of Hindu India.

I am not proud of those who suggest that only a Hindu, and only a certain kind of Hindu, can be an authentic Indian.

I am not proud of those Hindus who say that people of other religions live in India only on their sufferance, and not because they belong on our soil.

I am proud of those Hindus who realise that an India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us.

I am proud of those Hindus who utterly reject Hindu communalism, conscious that the communalism of the majority is especially dangerous because it can present itself as nationalist.

I am proud of those Hindus who respect the distinction between Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism. Obviously, majorities are never seen as “separatist,” since separatism is by definition pursued by a minority. But majority communalism is in fact an extreme form of separatism, because it seeks to separate other Indians, integral parts of our country, from India itself.

I am proud of those Hindus who recognise that the saffron and the green both belong equally on the Indian flag. The reduction of non-Hindus to second-class status in their own homeland is unthinkable. As I have pointed out here, and in my other writings, it would be a second partition: and a partition in the Indian soul would be as bad as a partition in the Indian soil.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from Why I Am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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