Hindutva is the assertion of Hinduism’s political identity, and its rise is an inevitable force of history

The Congress's motivation to separate the two concepts lies in the political ascendancy of the BJP that has, by Rahul Gandhi’s own admission, overshadowed India's Grand Old Party

Sreemoy Talukdar December 09, 2021 11:12:17 IST
Hindutva is the assertion of Hinduism’s political identity, and its rise is an inevitable force of history

Representational image. AFP

The Congress, of late, has been trying to rekindle a debate on Hinduism and Hindutva.

We had senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid comparing Hindutva with terrorist Islamist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram in his new book, striving to differentiate between Hinduism and Hindutva. We had Congress MP Shashi Tharoor compare Hindutva with a “British football hooligan”. Then we have Rahul Gandhi, the Congress MP from Wayanad in Kerala, claiming that Hinduism is not about killing, but Hindutva is. Gandhi urged his party to “discuss these types of things more” while admitting that Congress’s ideology has been “overshadowed.”

It may not be a coincidence that the Congress party’s push for a debate on Hinduism and Hindutva comes close on the heels of an online conference held in September called ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’, where American and Indian academics and activists, backed by top US universities, conducted three days of Hindutva bashing that frequently degenerated into BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-bashing and Hinduphobia.

In fact, the very term ‘Hinduphobia’, too, was contested as fantastic, to deprive Hindus even the agency to protest the debasing and misrepresentation of their religion by a clique of Leftist academics, ideologues and activists in a one-sided discourse.

Comparing Hindutva (the tattva, or the essence of Hinduism) with terrorist outfits, killers and hooligans are low-brow rhetorical exercises best ignored. But it is interesting to note the willingness of the Congress and its sympathetic forces to raise this debate.

Why is Congress striving to differentiate between Hinduism and Hindutva? The motivation, as always lies in the political ascendancy of BJP that has, by Rahul Gandhi’s own admission, overshadowed the Congress.

Two simultaneous churns have occurred in India’s political space that has asphyxiated the Congress. India’s grand old party, that once represented the larger Hindu nationalism during Independence, in the subsequent decades remade itself several times — starting with the Nehruvian ‘progressive’ politics to eventually relinquishing its Centrist space and occupying under the current set of leaders a far-Left corner populated by activists and NGOs.

Alongside, the Overton Window of Indian politics has shifted irrevocably to the right. BJP’s rivals are falling over each other to align themselves with the larger Hindu awakening. We find Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party attending grand Diwali celebrations with his cabinet ministers or Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee contributing handsomely to organisation of festivities associated with the Hindu calendar — indicating that a Hindu resurgence, at least, in the political sphere has been normalised.

This presents an existential crisis for the Congress. From the corner where it has painted itself, this iteration of the Congress party cannot lend itself to overtly aligning with the Hindu religious identity. Its acts of even symbolic genuflection before Hindu gods and goddesses — aimed at nullifying BJP’s accusation that it is an ‘anti-Hindu’ party — earn ridicule as “soft Hindutva” without any political dividends. Congress, therefore, can neither invoke the Hindu gods like an AAP does, nor can it single-mindedly pursue its brand of ‘secularist politics’ that has been rendered too toxic and politically unviable.

Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Congress is now throwing an ideological challenge at the BJP with an aim to creating some sort of political space for itself to operate. It hopes to turn the equation on its head by taking away BJP’s credentials as a party that represents the Hindu mainstream space and relegate it, at least ideologically, to the fringes.

But in order to do that, the Congress must prove that Hinduism and Hindutva are different, and even competing ideologies. If this is the focal point of the debate, let us start with the Supreme Court’s oft-cited judgment in 1995 where the top court made no distinction between the two and in the ‘Dr Ramesh Yeshwant Prabhoo vs Shri Prabhakar Kashinath Kunte & Ors on 11 December, 1995’, adjudged that “the term ‘Hindutva’ is related more to the way of life of the people in the sub-continent. It is difficult to appreciate how in the face of these decisions the term ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hinduism’ per se, in the abstract, can be assumed to mean and be equated with narrow fundamentalist Hindu religious bigotry.”

It has been argued that the apex court erred in not referring to the essay in 1923 by V D Savarkar where he expressly makes a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva.

However, these criticisms — seemingly seeking to paint Hindutva as a toxic tributary — overlook the fact that the it is the same Savarkar, credited with birthing the Hindutva ideology, wrote in 1937: “The conception of this Hindu Nation is in no way inconsistent with the development of a common Indian Nation… in which all sects and sections, races and religions, castes and creeds, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Anglo-Indians could be harmoniously welded together into a political state on terms of perfect equality. We want to relieve our non-Hindu countrymen of even a ghost of suspicion that legitimate rights of minorities with regard to their culture, religion and language will be expressly guaranteed.”

In any case, the term Hindutva was coined not by Savarkar, but by a Bengali scholar named Chandranath Basu (1844-1910), whose original treatise, as professor Makarand Paranjpe tells us, is difficult to trace. He cites a reference to Chandra Nath’s article in the Calcutta Review of July 1894 where it says, “The Hindus are notorious for the diversity of their transcendental doctrines, every individual school having a complete set of doctrines of its own. Babu Chandra Nath has selected the noblest doctrines of Hinduism, but he has not followed any one of the ancient schools. Yet he does not aim at establishing a school of doctrine himself. His sole object is to compare, so far as lies in his power, the leading doctrines of Hindu faith with those of other of other religions.”

Moreover, as RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy points out, in arriving at the verdict on Hindutva in 1995, the Supreme Court “rested on a series of past Constitutional bench decisions of the Court on what Hinduism meant, including a remarkable judgment by the famous Justice Gajendragadkar in 1966 and the landmark decision in 1976 by a Constitution bench consisting of Chief Justice A N Ray, Jaswant Singh, M H Beg, P N Shinghal, R S Sarkaria.”

Away from the legal definitions, the problem with this debate is that the terms and connotations of Hinduism and Hindutva are ill-defined. And this twilight zone between the two is the breeding ground of mostly ill-informed commentaries that lack serious intellectual quest.

It would seem that the current debate from the Congress-Leftist corner seeks to keep Hindus transfixed in a time capsule, depriving Hindus the ability to frame their discourse or place it in a current context. This is unfortunate, because the term ‘Hinduism’ is an all-encompassing concept as vast as the Universe. As a civilisational idea, Hinduism — to quote from philosopher S Radhakrishnan — has territorial but no credal significance, “and implied residence in a well-defined geographical area”.

But the multifarious, diverse pagan traditions that loosely follow the framework of Sanatan Dharma to identify themselves as Hindus, also have a politico-religious expression. And faced with centuries of western colonialism and Islamic imperialism, this expression has manifested itself as Hindutva.

In this reading, as professor Abhinav Prakash Singh points out in Hindustan Times, Hindutva “seeks to forge Hindus into a modern nation and create a powerful industrial State that can put an end to centuries of persecution that accelerated sharply over the past 100 years.” Therefore, Hindutva and Hinduism are not the same, but one is a political expression of the other. As Abhinav further writes, “the coming together of various pagan traditions under the umbrella of Hinduism is a centuries-old process. But Hindutva consolidated it by welding Hindus into a political community and as a nation by emphasising the commonalities of a highly diverse Hindu society.”

If Hindutva is the essence of Hinduism and seeks to give Hindus a collective and political identity, can it be a competing ideology? The Congress’s aim to drive a wedge between the two is akin to disenfranchising the Hindus and denying them their political agency, the manifestation of which we see in current politics.

The Congress leadership of today would also do well to read its own history. If Hindutva is the collective identity of various Pagan traditions that we call Hinduism, and if Hinduism is in equal parts a territorial signifier, then it was also the driving force behind Indian nationalism that was essentially Hindu in nature.

Rahul Gandhi may be surprised to know that this idea was expressed none other than his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.

Gurumurthy quotes Nehru’s Glimpses of World History (1935) where the author writes, “It (is) not easy... to draw a line between Hindu nationalism and true nationalism. The two overlap as India is the only home of Hindus and they form a majority there.’ (p 720).” Gurumurthy also goes on to quote Nehru in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in January 1937 where Nehru writes, “Indian background and unity is essentially cultural; not religious in the narrow sense of the word”.

Nehru had tipped his hat towards the existence of a Hindu identity coterminous with India’s nationalism. That would indicate two things — one, that Hindutva is not a concept alien to, or militating against Hinduism, and two, India’s civilizational past and cultural continuum are both rooted in Hindutva that predates the existence of Indian Republic and the Westphalian notion of sovereignty.

The problem arose when Congress stripped itself of its identity as a Hindu party and became what Swapan Dasgupta calls a ‘Nehruvian project’.

For Nehru, India’s cultural continuum and its civilisational past — that he had acknowledged earlier in his life — post Independence became a retrograde force that was arresting India’s development towards his ideal of a ‘rational state, founded on European secular traditions.’ His impatience, inspired by Western ideals and fuelled by colonial evaluation of India’s past, compelled him to try and shake India off its “baggage” of tradition, thereby creating a wedge between an elitist ideal of state and sensibilities on the ground where people remained rooted to their cultural and civilisational moorings.

“India must break with much of her past and not allow it to dominate the present. Our lives are encumbered with the dead wood of this past; all that is dead and has served its purpose has to go. But that does not mean a break with, or a forgetting of, the vital and life-giving in that past,” wrote Nehru in Discovery of India. He implored Indians that “we have to get out of traditional ways of thought and living which, for all the good they may have done in a past age, and there was much good in them, have ceased to have significance today.”

In his book, The Great Hindu Civilisation, former diplomat and Rajya Sabha MP Pavan Varma writes, “The reclamation of the wisdoms and refinements of India’s ancient past and Hindu civilisation became a victim of this mindset of the most important person who was at the helm during the formative years of independent India. He had his allies in the anglicised class, most notably in the bureaucracy.”

The political class in the few decades post India’s Independence operated on an elite stratosphere, and though universal adult franchise was a reality, there was little meaningful participation of the hoi polloi in the political process — exemplified by the fact that power remained centralised among the family members of a few and its ecosystem of bureaucrats and members of civil society.

The colonised textbooks severed generations from India’s civilisational past and centuries of progress in areas of literature, art, science and pretty much every sphere of knowledge (and even the language itself) remained alien to citizens born after Independence. Generations became unmoored from India’s collective wisdom, and, as Varma writes, “subjects such as an investigation into the antiquity of ancient India were considered undesirable, as they may lead to Hindu ‘glorification’.”

This paranoia is the crux behind Congress’s increasing disjointedness from India’s political sphere. And the backlash against Hindutva, consequently, is being driven by the feeling of an existential crisis among the party and the followers of Nehru’s progressive politics for whom any assertion of Hindu cultural rootedness is a deviation of Hindus from — as Dasgupta puts it — their “state of permanent magnanimity” and chronic apologia for being a Hindu.

To the Congress, therefore, a Hindu is one who would never assert her political-religious identity, and the moment she does so, and the moment she moves to the “centre stage of public life”, she must be dismantled and disenfranchised by rendering pejorative her political identity — Hindutva.

The Congress is fighting a losing battle, because the political consciousness of Hindu, as defined by Hindutva, is a historic inevitability. This is not driven by BJP’s rise — though the party has benefitted from it — but the slow transition of India from a feudal-agrarian society to an urbanised one.

This takes us to another reading of Hindutva, which is not a monolithic, linear movement. It has multiple strands. Professor Abhinav Prakash points out in another column that the Hindutva movement as we know it now is the amalgamation of the “Ratnagiri line of radical Hindutva of VD Savarkar, which envisions a modern industrial Hindu nation and advocates end of the caste-system, apart from rapid social transformation,” the more conservative approach of the RSS that envisages the same changes but “but believes that society must chart its way instead of forcing it” and the old “jati-varna system and romanticises the old feudal-agrarian village life as the essence of India.”

These strands are forever in contest and in argument with each other, but with the advent of economic liberalisation and emergence of a new middle class, the social hierarchies are breaking down and getting subsumed within the larger identity of progressive Hindutva that seeks a modern state but blends its national pride with a cultural rootedness. This, then, forms the core of Hindutva that is inseparable from Hinduism. The effort to drive a wedge between the two concepts, therefore, is unlikely to succeed.

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