Kashmir through the prism of Hinduphobia: West is incapable of understanding the secular ethos of Indian society

We only have to look at Pakistan where the percentage of minorities (that includes not just Hindus but other faiths as well) from 23 percent in 1947 has fallen to 3 percent today. To argue, therefore, that BJP's political salience and the popular backing that powers its rise takes away from India's commitment towards secularism is wrong at best and mischievous at worst.

Sreemoy Talukdar September 30, 2019 19:37:26 IST
Kashmir through the prism of Hinduphobia: West is incapable of understanding the secular ethos of Indian society

Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, when not busy with his full-time job of bashing India at various global forums, is a self-proclaimed 'fighter' for Islam. On the sidelines of recent United Nations General Assembly, Khan met with Turkey president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysia prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and all three leaders decided to set up (ostensibly) an Islamic TV channel to "fight Islamophobia". The leaders, according to Khan, were in agreement that Islam is a misunderstood religion and the (alleged) bias against it must be countered.

Without going into the merit of Khan's project — whether he is right or wrong in his assessment about how the world perceives Islam and Muslims — it is worth noting how the word 'Islamophobia' has already been institutionalised.

Oxford dictionary defines the term 'Islamophobia' as: "Dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force." According to Cambridge dictionary, it refers to "unreasonable dislike or fear of, and prejudice against, Muslims or Islam." Merriam-Webster says that it denotes "irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against Islam or people who practice Islam."

Interestingly, all these sources have no definition to offer about Hinduphobia. The word doesn't simply exist, and therefore, it is also a negation of the concept itself. So, while Islamophobia, it would seem, is a very real 'thing' — that is Muslims are unjustly portrayed and projected — the absence of a similar term to denote the bias, prejudice and unreasonable dislike against Hindus implies that Hinduphobia is a fictitious concept — or that's what the prevalent socio-political discourse would have us believe.

Kashmir through the prism of Hinduphobia West is incapable of understanding the secular ethos of Indian society

File photo of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Reuters

Is Hinduphobia really a fabricated concept? During a recent program in New York where S Jaishankar, minister for external affairs, appeared at a talk show hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Jaishankar, while holding forth on a number of questions on India's foreign policy, strategic choices, relationship with Pakistan and rationale behind abrogation of Article 370, was faced with an audience query on India's secular fabric. It is worth quoting the question in full.

A member from the audience, who identified himself only by name, asked Jaishankar: "You described many positive changes in India. One change we feel, many feel is more worrisome, and that is the erosion of the constitutional commitment to a secular state and the rise of a very politicised Hindu nationalism. Can you comment on this please?"

It won't be criminal to assume that members of the august audience in that particular setting — a talk show organised by a US-based influential think tank on the sidelines of UNGA — would be knowledgeable about the situation in Kashmir. And not just this particular instance, this has been the dominant narrative in western media ever since Narendra Modi-led BJP rose to power in 2014. The BJP is regularly referred to by the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, the BBC or The Economist as a 'Hindu nationalist party' and nearly every report on BJP's political rise in India is contextualised in the West with a simultaneous oppression of India's Muslim minority. This contextualisation is relentless, and almost always based on ubiquitous "opinion", not facts. A random sample of a few recent articles carried by, for example, The New York Times may elucidate the point better.

An article carried in April 2019, just before the Lok Sabha elections that propelled Modi to power for the second time with an unprecedented mandate, carried the headline: "Under Modi, a Hindu Nationalist Surge Has Further Divided India" and called the BJP "communal fascists".

The day of the result, New York Times carried an article that read: "How Narendra Modi Seduced India With Envy and Hate: The prime minister has won re-election on a tide of violence, fake news and resentment." 

On National Register of Citizens, one of the biggest exercises mandated by the Supreme Court to identify illegal immigrants into Assam, the fruit of an indigenous movement that rose from the ground over fears of change in Assam's demography due to large-scale influx of Muslims from neighboring Bangladesh, The New York Times, again, carried an article that claimed that "India Making Its Own People Stateless", and posited that "The Modi government will stop at nothing, it seems, to repress the country's Muslims." Never mind the fact that lakhs of Hindus, too, have been identified as "illegal immigrants" by the judiciary-monitored exercise.

Finally, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation presented Modi with the prestigious Global Goal Awards in New York for his work to improve the sanitation conditions in India, The New York Times carried a piece by Sabah Hamid, who had worked previously with the Foundation on why she resigned from it.

These reports are too many in number and too deeply entrenched in a singular narrative to be taken as a fair assessment. And by no means is New York Times the only western newspaper to spread this narrative. This points towards a collective bias, prejudice and unreasonable loathing towards India and especially Hindus, who are seen as inherently communal in repeatedly voting in favour of a "fascist", "Islamophobic" party and its leader — the very terms Pakistan prime minister has used against India repeatedly.

If this isn't Hinduphobia, what is?

The question that was asked of Jaishankar, caused the minister to point out certain anomalies in this dominant western narrative that exposes adequately the lack of understanding and prejudice against Indians, their voting patterns, the socio-political churning under way in India and the rationale behind the Kashmir move.

Jaishankar, at the very outset, while answering the question, pointed out that he disagrees with the "analysis" and the question that "flows from it", because the narrative that sets the framework of the question doesn't take into account that after 70-odd years of Independence, democracy is seeping finally into the roots of India, away from the drawing rooms of English-speaking elite.

By this form of "democratisation", Jaishankar clarified that he means "today political power, social power, to some degree economic power, has shifted out of the big cities, the more cosmopolitan cities, where people speak English… and moved to a different set of people, people who are much more comfortable speaking in their own languages, who have a sort of a cultural, I would say, milieu in which would be far more rooted on the ground in many ways."

The underlying point therefore is that the west has been fundamentally wrong and sometime even clueless about the changes that this "democratisation" has triggered. It has seen this democratisation as a manifestation of the "other", where militant Hindus have taken over the genteel structures of Hinduism, as it were, but then again this view is totally out of sync with reality.

It is worth noting here that Hindus — a term somewhat loosely employed to denote people who practice a lived religion of varied customs and traditions (not a theocratic concept or an Abrahamic, monolithic faith that has no singular holy book or a papal authoritative figurehead) and yet subscribe to larger Hindu identity — form around 80 percent of the population. If Hindus were not inherently secular and pluralistic, India's multi-faith mosaic would have been impossible where Muslims form the "largest minority" section of the population anywhere in the world.

This might be a counter-intuitive argument but we only have to look at Pakistan where the percentage of minorities (that includes not just Hindus but other faiths as well) from 23 percent in 1947 has fallen to 3 percent today (as per MEA records). To argue, therefore, that BJP's political salience and the popular backing that powers its rise takes away from India's commitment towards secularism is wrong at best and mischievous at worst.

As Jaishankar pointed out in his speech, "at the end of the day, (India) secularism was not promoted by a law or by a constitutional belief. It was promoted by the ethos of the society. So, you know, the ethos of the society was not secular. No law, no constitutional provision, would have ensured it. And I don't think the ethos of the society has changed. I think the ethos of India and the Hindu ethos of India is actually very secular. It's very pluralistic."

This is also the reason why the Western media and a section of politicians have been suspicious of India's move on Kashmir. It has bought into Pakistan's propaganda that abrogation of Article 370 was a flexing of India's majoritarian muscle to disenfranchise the Muslims in a Muslim-dominated state. This false interpretation has its roots in the inability of the west (as expressed through the dominant narrative) to understand the true, pluralistic, secular ethos of Indian society that preempts any such motive behind the decision.

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