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Religion & politics

The changing contours of Hinduism

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
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A Ram Navami procession in Nadia, West Bengal, on April 10.

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Members of Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad brandish swords and guns after performing ‘shastra puja’, or worship of weapons, on the occasion of Dussehra, in Jammu, a 2017 picture.

As the Hindutva project continues to import ideas of homogeneity from the Abrahamic faiths to strengthen the idea of a single identity for all Hindus, it has transformed once minor and peaceful festivals like Ram Navami into rallying marches that easily descend into triumphalism and violence.

In its zeal to homogenise Hinduism and make it bear electoral dividends, the Sangh Parivar has sown the seeds of a neo-Hinduism wherein Hindus are called upon to worship a single deity and practise the same rituals across the nation. To worship Ram as the main god and, by extension, Hanuman as the secondary deity is a political enterprise that has been afoot for more than eight years. Flags with the image of Ram outside homes and caricature stickers of Hanuman on cars and two-wheelers have now become a common sight.

Even as the Hindutva project attacks the Abrahamic faiths, it compulsively imports ideas of homogeneity and scriptural dominance from them. The elaborate Ram Navami rallies are a part of this phenomenon. For many Hindus born in the 1980s or earlier, there was no such thing as a Ram Navami procession. But for the generation born in the 1990s, particularly after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Ram Navami has morphed into a huge festival.

Similarly, while there are two navratris in the annual Hindu calendar, regional differences abound in the ways they are celebrated. Gujaratis, for example, observe the spring Navratri with a quiet fast at home and a visit to the temple at the most. But over the past few years, this Navratri has acquired new proportions. Similarly, Parshuram Jayanti, Akshay Tritiya, Jai Santoshi Ma, and Vinayak Chaturthi are all appropriations of local and regional festivals by the Sangh Parivar to concretise the idea of a singular Hindu identity across the country.

Journalists such as Akshaya Mukul have shown how such a political Hindu consciousness has been shaped over several decades. In his book, Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India , Mukul points to how polarisation on issues such as Hindi as the national language, ban on cow slaughter, the Hindu Code Bill, the creation of Pakistan, and the Indian Constitution was achieved through Kalyan and Kalyan-Kalpataru magazines that catered to 200,000 subscribers and their families.

The Bhagwad Gita is not the main scripture of the Hindus. But pushed by Gita Press, it commanded a readership of 72 million copies by 2014. Mukul explains how, in April 2014, as the 16th Lok Sabha election was under way, Kalyan editor Radheshyam Khemka wrote a piece titled ‘ Vote kisko dein ’ (Whom to vote for).

Worship of weapons

More disturbingly, Subhash Gatade has shown how ‘shastra puja’, or the worship of weapons, has grown in schools affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). In Godse’s Children: Hindutva Terror in India , he writes how weapon worship became a national phenomenon on Vijaya Dashami celebrations. It served two purposes: consolidating a core constituency by using religion as the legitimising force; and taking out ‘religious processions’ brandishing weapons. “Earlier only non-fire arms were brought for the ritual. For the past few years, even firearms are included in the worship. Disturbingly, the police, which has enough sprinkling of majoritarian elements in it, and even the mediaturns a blind eye,” he wrote in 2011.

A decade later, the harmless events have turned violent. From Khambhat and Himmatnagar in Gujarat to Jahangirpuri in Delhi, Ram Navami rallies erupted in communal violence this year. A curfew was imposed in Khargone city of Madhya Pradesh after stone-throwing, arson and torching of weapons. Stone-throwing was also reported from Lohardaga district of Jharkhand.

At Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Left-affiliated students’ unions and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the student arm of the RSS) accused each other of violence. In Muzaffarpur in Bihar and in Hyderabad, attempts were made to vitiate the atmosphere. While each side blamed the other, swords and knives were prominently visible in all these processions even as the police watched in silence.

Religion as an identity marker

For most Hindus, religion is less of a defining identity marker than regional and caste affiliation. For instance, Bengali Vaishnavites may pay obeisance to the goddess Kali and celebrate Durga Puja, but they worship Vishnu or Krishna as their primary god. By imposing the image of Ram over all other gods, the Sangh Parivar is defying this tradition. The truism that Hinduism is arguably the most diverse among all world religions is repeated often to uphold its inherent plurality. Its many creative dichotomies and the ideal of tolerance are points of pride for its adherents and non-adherents alike. More than any religious dogma, Hindus are united in their belief in the caste system, and this remains true even when someone converts to a different religion.

As for the religion itself, several systems of Hinduism have coexisted, albeit with some tensions. For instance, the Bhakti movement incorporated aspects of Hinduism while rejecting others, making it more inclusive for Dalits and women. It was soon absorbed into the mainstream. Today, it is this ability to adapt that is being exploited. The religion is allowing itself to become a tool for a particular political agenda.

USCIRF report

Disturbingly, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended in its latest report that India be designated a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ “for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”. It has recommended targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ or entities’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States.

It has also suggested using bilateral and multilateral forums and agreements, such as the ministerial of the Quadrilateral, to advance the human rights of all religious communities in India and promote religious freedom, dignity and interfaith dialogue. According to the USCIRF, the U.S. Congress should raise religious freedom issues and highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters and congressional delegations.

The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, separate from the U.S. Department of State, which monitors and reports on religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress. Its mandate and annual reports are different from, and complementary to, those of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.

The USCIRF has held the Indian government responsible for the continued enforcement of anti-conversion laws against non-Hindus, and for creating a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups.

Anti-conversion laws have increasingly focussed on interfaith relationships. One-third of India’s 28 States have laws limiting or prohibiting religious conversion. However, since 2018, multiple States have introduced and enacted laws or revised existing ones to target and/or criminalise interfaith marriages. Public notice requirements for interfaith marriages have at times resulted in violent reprisals against couples. In a bid to prevent interfaith marriages, the authorities have also assisted, if not encouraged, the targeting by non-state actors of interfaith couples, converts, their families, and their religious communities.

The conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam has been demonised. In October 2021, the Karnataka government ordered a survey of churches and priests in the State and authorised the police to conduct a door-to-door inspection to find Hindus who had converted to Christianity. In June 2021, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath warned that he would invoke the National Security Act against those engaged in conversion activities and that he would deploy a team of over 500 officials to counter such efforts.

The USCIRF report notes that in 2021, religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened. The report says: “During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies—including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda—that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities. The government continued to systemise its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and State levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities. In 2021, the Indian government repressed critical voices—especially religious minorities and those reporting on and advocating for them—through harassment, investigation, detention, and prosecution under laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Sedition Law. The UAPA and Sedition Law have been invoked to create an increasing climate of intimidation and fear in an effort to silence anyone speaking out against the government.”

The USCIRF also takes note of the government’s clampdown on international funding for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Oxfam and Missionaries of Charity through the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), significantly impacting religious communities. Numerous groups that document religious freedom violations or aid marginalised religious communities were forced to shut down operations following the restrictions.

The recommendations of the USCIRF should be of concern to the Indian government.

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