Saffron terror, error and Shinde's use of loaded terminology

Sushil Kumar Shinde may or may not be right when he accused the RSS/BJP parivar of running terror camps, but he surely is wrong about Saffron terror. Since Saffron terror was a term used earlier by P Chidambaram when he was Home Minister, it is worth examining the use or abuse of the phrase.

But it’s not as if the BJP is using better terminology either. It is using self-serving terminology either. It is now beginning to be offended by the term because it is clear that we now have terrorists both among Muslims and Hindus in India.

Shinde would be right to call the perpetrators of the Malegaon and other blasts, assuming they were people with some links to the Sangh parivar. AFP

Shinde would be right to call the perpetrators of the Malegaon and other blasts, assuming they were people with some links to the Sangh parivar. AFP

Terms like Hindu/Islamist terror, Saffron terror, secularism, fundamentalism, and genocide are loaded with meaning. They are also prone to misuse and abuse. In the Indian context, they may not only be divorced from their dictionary meanings, but from common sense as well. It is thus worth critiquing the use of various loaded terms in the Indian context without abandoning dictionary meanings altogether.

So let's begin with Saffron terror. Saffron is a revered colour in all Indic religions, including Sikhism. So it is inappropriate to call the terrorism unleashed by Hindu groups Saffron terrorism.

Would Hindu terrorism be a better term? I think so. The BJP can work itself into a frenzy to say that you cannot conjugate a religion with terror, but they would be in error. Hindu terrorism does not mean Hinduism is about terror or supports terrorism. The term Hindu terror refers to terrorists who use Hindu causes to justify their acts.

By this logic, it would be fine to label Muslim militants using Islam as their justification as Islamic or jehadi terrorists. Ditto for Sikh terrorism, since the Khalistanis claim to be motivated by Sikh nationalism. The phrase linking the religious term to terror is to indicate the cause the protagonists are driven by. It's not about the religion. By itself religion does not promote (or not promote) terror; people do. And it is they who make a cause Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Sikh.

Incidentally, the term Hindu terrorism was used first around the mid-2000s when Islamic terrorism was being used by the Sangh Parivar to put all Muslims in the dock. Irritated Muslim organisations then sought to term the LTTE’s terrorism in Sri Lanka as Hindu terror. But they were wrong. For the LTTE’s cause is about ethnicity. V Prabhakaran was, in fact, influenced by anti-Brahmin and possibly anti-Hindu Dravidian ideology, and was himself supposedly a lapsed Methodist. His son was Charles Antony. His closest supporter in Tamil Nadu, Vaiko, was Christian. The LTTE’s terror was not Hindu, but Tamil terror.

Conclusion: Shinde would be right to call the perpetrators of the Malegaon and other blasts, assuming they were people with some links to the Sangh parivar, as Hindu terrorists when convicted. Saffron terror would be a misnomer.

Next, let’s look at the term Hindu fundamentalism. Once again, this term is wrongly used. You can be fundamentalist only if the religion you espouse has some fundaments — a Holy Book which you think is the only word of truth, a prophet/messiah/saviour who stands alone and above all. To be fundamentalist, you need something you regard as fundamental to your practice of faith. An extremist in the same faith may want to go by the literal meanings or practices of his fundamental holy book, and hence he would be a true fundamentalist.

So, you can have Christian fundamentalists, and you can have Islamic fundamentalists, or even Sikh fundamentalists. But you cannot have a Hindu fundamentalist, for Hinduism is diverse and plural and has no real fundaments.

Of course, you can have political Hindutva — a vague ideology that seeks to assert the supremacy of Hinduism in the territory/civilisation called India. But even they are not fundamentalists — for Hinduism, by definition, allows a variety of beliefs, the right to choose (or even invent) your own god and still call yourself a Hindu, and even the right to reject the idea of god. You can be a nastik and call yourself a Hindu. There can be no Hindu fundamentalism till Hindus, at some point, say one book, and one god is the core of Hinduism and anyone who does not accept this is not Hindu. Even the hardcore Sanghi does not say this.

Despite efforts to elevate the Gita to the holiest of holy Hindu books, the fact is Hinduism traces its origins to the Shrutis (holy ideas you heard directly from the gods, and not written down) – the four Vedas, for example. The Gita and Upanishads are all smritis – saintly human works attributed to learnings from god and often written down. They have more historical contexts.

A Hindu can be a terrorist but not a fundamentalist.

Next, secularism. In the western definition, it is intended to separate church from state, the spiritual from the temporal. It includes all activities that exclude the religious. It is not about communal amity, or state neutrality between religions. The two are assigned separate spheres.

However, even in the west, the distinction has been blurred, with Kings taking on leadership both in the spiritual and temporal spheres. The British monarch is head of both the church and the state. The Vatican is also in the same boat – the Pope is both head of the Vatican city-state and the worldwide Catholic church.

By the western definition, Narendra Modi is secular: he may have used a religious polarisation to win elections, but he is after temporal power, not spiritual power. He has no plan to anoint himself head of any religious organisations, though he may appropriate Hindu icons like Swami Vivekananda for electoral purposes. Most Hindu organisations are, in fact, wary of his power. Modi would be no different from a George Bush who harnessed the Christian Right to win elections in the US.

In India, the meaning of secularism has been twisted out of shape. As far as the Indian state is concerned, secularism has come to mean equal respect for all religions (which is fine), but in political parlance it has come to mean “not the Hindu Sangh Parivar”. It does not usually mean anything positive – like working for communal amity.

At the individual level, secularism should mean “not bigoted” or “not narrow-minded” in a religious sense, but this is not what it really means. You can be as bigoted as you want to be about caste or religious attitudes, as long as you are not a member of the Sangh parivar. Minority religions get a free ticket to the secular club, even though their internal attitudes may be no different from the Sangh parivar’s.

Another grossly misused term is “genocide” – now widely used to describe the Gujarat communal riots of 2002, the 1984 anti-Sikh attacks, and the Kandhamal murders, among other such events.

In 1948, the UN adopted a Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, which describes genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnical, racial, religious or national group.”

But is this what happened in Gujarat in 2002, or Delhi in 1984, or Kandhamal in 2008? Most of them were the result of pre-existing communal tensions on which fuses were lit by a high-profile event: the burning of the Sabarmati Express in 2002; the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh guards in 1984, and the murder of Swami Laxmanananda in Orissa’s Kandhamal.

What followed was huge religious and ethnic violence in which the state failed to act decisively or in time, resulting in more violence that what could have been expected in the circumstances.

None of these qualify as genocide by the UN definition. We should call them horrific communal violence, perhaps aided or ignored by the state. But the aim of the rioters was not to physically eliminate any group, but to extract vengeance or retribution. The intensity of the violence obviously was the result of pent-up communal tensions of the past, with the proximate cause only providing the flame for setting off the conflagration.

In the sub-continental context, only the 1947-48 partition riots qualify at genocide, and perhaps the anti-Hindu pogroms of the Pakistanis during the Bangladeshi war of independence.

It’s time we chose our words most carefully, especially when they can do so much damage to commonsense and harmony.