Hindutva's fallacies and fantasies

Print edition : November 21, 1998

The attempt by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Bharatiya Janata Party to impose a Hindu imprint upon other religions and suppress minority rights is misguided and dangerous.

LESS than two months after Vishwa Hindu Parishad secretary B. L. Sharma 'Prem' launched his infamous tirade against Christians, rationalising the rape of four nuns in Madhya Pradesh as the expression of the "anger of patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces", and barely two weeks after Murli Manohar Joshi tried to impose a blatantly communal agenda upon school education in the name of "Indianisation", comes Union Home Minister L. K. Advani's attempt to "Hinduise" Buddhism by denying that it has an independent identity of its own. The three discrete interventions are closely inter-related and form the Sangh Parivar's three-pronged strategy: to assimilate forcibly non-Hindu religions into a Hindutva mould, deny and suppress minority rights guaranteed by the Constitution, and launch a virulent attack on religious minorities in order to create new insecurities.

Advani delivered himself of some newfangled wisdom on November 6 at Sarnath, while addressing an "international" seminar on "World Unity in the Buddha's Trinity" as part of the Buddha Mahotsav organised by Union Tourism Minister Madan Lal Khurana, and much publicised in the media in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Buddha, he declared, "did not announce any new religion. He was only restating with a new emphasis the ancient ideals of the Indo-Aryan civilisation." According to The Telegraph (November 7), "Advani said (the) Buddha derived his teachings from the Bhagvad Gita and was an avatar of Vishnu."

This, predictably, drew a volley of protests from the handful of Buddhist scholars from outside India present at this supposedly "international seminar" largely conducted in Hindi. Said Rewata Dhamma, a Burmese Buddhist scholar from England: "Buddhism may have started in India, but it is a completely different religion from Hinduism. We are not happy that the entire seminar is more on how Buddhism is a part of Hinduism." Other monks from Tibet and South-East Asia too expressed their anger at this blatant attempt to trivialise and subordinate Buddhism into a minor variant and derivation of Sanatanist Hinduism.

Advani's assertion is based at best on ignorance and at worst on pure fantasy. As the work of any worthy historian of ancient India, from D.D. Kosambi to Romila Thapar to Suvira Jaiswal, testifies, Buddhism arose as a distinct faith, in revolt against hierarchical Hinduism, and it drew adherents from those very layers of Indian society which lay at the oppressed and underprivileged bottom of the hierarchy. Despotic state power persecuted Buddhists for centuries as brahmanical Hinduism held sway in large parts of India. Buddhism was all but banished from this land and found refuge in Sri Lanka, Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand and eastwards. It is only in the 20th century, with Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's deeksha, that it returned in a significant way to India.

The fact that the Buddha was sought to be assimilated into the Hindu pantheon for largely ideological, power-related reasons does not alter this history and must not be allowed to obliterate the truth that Buddhists and Jains, as well as "low-caste" Hindus, Dalits and our indigenous people were systematically persecuted and discriminated against by hierarchical Hinduism. Indeed, it is impossible to comprehend the birth of the Bhakti movement without acknowledging the profoundly intolerant character of caste-ridden, bigoted Hinduism in the medieval period.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Madan Lal Khurana at the Maha Bodhi temple at Bodh Gaya, which he visited during the Buddha Mahotsav on November 8.-ALOK JAIN

So much for Advani's wisdom. But Advani is not alone in holding such views. These are part of the core ideas of the RSS and its affiliates, traceable all the way to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (in a 1923 tract on Hindutva), to Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar and to such varied contemporary representatives of the Parivar as Sarsanghchalak Rajendra Singh, RSS Number Two K.C. Sudarshan, Murli Manohar Joshi, BJP vice-president J.P. Mathur and VHP general secretary Giriraj Kishore.

It is an article of faith with the RSS-BJP that India's religious minorities do not have a legitimate, independent identity. The BJP's election manifesto (1998) is unambiguous: "The BJP is committed to the concept of One Nation, One People and One Culture... Our nationalist vision is not merely bound by the geographical or political identity of Bharat but it is referred by our timeless cultural heritage. This cultural heritage which is central to all regions, religions and languages, is a civilisational identity and constitutes the cultural nationalism of India which is the core of Hindutva." For the BJP, "Shri Ram lies at the core of Indian consciousness."

For the Sangh Parivar, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs have an identity only as some kind of sub-set of Hindus. As Joshi put it: "Hindu Rashtra" is "the basic culture of this country. I say that all Indian Muslims are Mohammadiya Hindus; all Indian Christians are Christi Hindus. They are Hindus who have adopted Christianity and Islam as their religion." According to Sudarshan: "If Muslims have to stay in India, they will have to submit to the Indianisation of their religion. It is time they thought of preserving only the essential 10 per cent and did away with the other 90 per cent of their religion incorporating in its stead elements of Indian culture."

Such assimilationist arrogance does not signify tolerance. It is fully compatible with violent attacks on religious minorities, so much in evidence today, especially in BJP-ruled Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. In Gujarat alone, there have been 35 well-recorded incidents of harassment, ranging from vandalisation of church-run schools to exhumation of bodies from cemeteries, from stoning of mission-owned vehicles to attacks on chapels, from burning of the Bible to the razing of a church under construction.

A September report of the National Commission on Minorities confirms this. It says that these attacks violate fundamental rights as well as Sections 295 and 298 of the Indian Penal Code. In Rajasthan, the People's Union for Civil Liberties has reported several incidents to the National Human Rights Commission. Hindutva activists are now targeting Christians in Karnataka too. They recently intruded into schools and forcibly put vermilion on the foreheads of girls. Common to all such incidents is the complicity of the police and other authorities, and malicious prejudice and ignorance: imagine the Gujarat Chief Minister rationalising that what was burnt was not the Bible, but only the New Testament!

The deepest prejudice perhaps lies in some commonly held assumptions about Christianity and Islam. Three of these are important. Christianity and Islam are "imports", basically "alien" to India; the principal activity of some of their adherents in India, especially Christian missionaries, has been to convert people; and such conversion is illegal, at least not quite constitutional. It is precisely because most BJP leaders believe this that they moved an anti-conversion Bill 20 years ago during the rule of the Janata Party Government. (They ultimately had to withdraw it in the face of massive protests.)

All three assumptions are wrong. Christianity is older in India than in Europe. It was adapted, modified and refined from the 1st century onwards by Indians, especially in Kerala. Indian Christianity predates today's Hinduism - that is, caste-bound brahmanical Hinduism - by 700 to 900 years. It would be as absurd to consider Christianity unIndian as to dub Japanese Buddhism "alien" to Japan because it originated in India. Indians continued to adapt Christianity even in its later, colonial, Protestant, form. For instance, the Khasis of Meghalaya are all Christians, but they have reconciled the all-male Holy Trinity with their own matriarchal social structure.

Similarly, Islam in India is much older than Islam in such "Muslim" societies as Indonesia and Malaysia, and perhaps parts of western Africa and Central Asia. To make another comparison, Indian Islam is far older than Protestantism in Europe, which no one in their senses would dare say is "alien" to Europe. Islam too has been adapted, changed and transformed in this country. Sufism is only one of the many versions of Islam in the northern and northwestern parts of India. There are many other variants, from Kerala to West Bengal, and from Maharashtra to Kashmir.

Secondly, the Church in India has been active in areas such as education, health and the rights of the tribal people. Religious instruction, leave alone conversion, has only been a minor part of its activity. There is little point in belittling the Church's contribution. It runs schools and colleges which provide good-quality, near-free education to millions and operates numerous non-commercial hospitals and health institutions.

Again, it would be churlish to underrate the ferment and the growing craving for social reform within the Muslim community in India. It has been going through a process of secularisation and deep introspection in recent years. There is a major change in the relationship between Muslim voters and religious and political leaders. Today's Muslim typically votes in a solidly secular way. The spontaneous agitation against "triple talaq", initiatives for education for Muslim girls, campaigns to improve dietary habits, and the rejection of reservation for Muslims qua Muslims, are so many signs of this positive change.

Thirdly, it is simply wrong to argue that conversion is illegal or unconstitutional. Article 25 of the Constitution guarantees "the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion." The Supreme Court has repeatedly clarified that the freedom to "propagate" means the right to communicate religious beliefs, expound the tenets of one's religion, and hence to convert. It is hard to argue that missionaries today use coercive methods, as they did in, say, Goa under early Portuguese rule. Forced conversion is by and large a rarity.

Everyone has a right to hold religious beliefs and seek to convert others to their own beliefs. The Constitution also guarantees special rights to religious minorities under Articles 26 to 30. These are not favours or acts of appeasement. They are essential to ensure that a numerical majority does not ride roughshod over other groups and that minorities can preserve their beliefs, institutions and practices without feeling threatened.

The Sangh Parivar is trying to terrorise the religious minorities. Its threat is directed at the minorities within the majority too, at those who do not practise the sanatana dharma that Hindutva advocates. This is a menace to India's pluralism, surely one of its greatest assets. All this is being done while the Sangh Parivar sings the praise of Hindu "tolerance". It has been clear how false such claims are and how nasty and brutish the claimants can be - as in riot after communal riot, and against Sahmat's exhibition and M.F. Husain's paintings. The truth is that Hinduism in its hierarchical avatar has never been tolerant. How could it be when it sought to segregate society along caste lines by specifying barbaric punishments (pouring lead into the ears of shudras who dare to hear the Vedas being recited)? Polytheism may have helped Hindus accommodate to other faiths, but it did not make them tolerant.

The Sangh Parivar must not be allowed to spread its communal poison. What it is doing is unconstitutional, illegal, socially disruptive and politically dangerous. The time has come to restrain the VHP and the Bajrang Dal - if necessary by banning certain of their activities. We cannot allow people to be brutalised at the altar of communal prejudice.

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