Attention Bhagwat and Swaraj: Here's a guide to your favourite word 'Hindu'

The facetious nature of the debate whether or not it is appropriate, and justified, to call the Indian citizen Hindu was vividly illustrated through Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj's intervention in it.

Addressing the Arab States Media Symposium in New Delhi, Swaraj said "many illustrious families" in the Arab world have "surnames like 'al-Hindi'," implying, therefore, the word doesn't have a specific religious and cultural resonance. For a good measure, she added, "'Hind' is still a popular name being used by many Arab women."

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

Etymology is a banana skin on which even the most knowledgeable can slip. When I requested the well-known UAE Arab poet Dr Shihab Ghanem, who was bestowed the Tagore Peace Prize in 2012, to elucidate upon Swaraj's claims, he said, "Probably Al-Hindi or Bin Hindi has some connection with India. Either their ancestors had Indian blood or lived in India or were connected with India. But each individual case has to be checked carefully."

In other words, Al-Hindi has an undeniable Indian linkage.

Ghanem cited other usages of the word Hind in the Arab land. "High-quality swords in Arabia, before Islam, often were called Saif al-hend (or Saif al-hind) or Hindwani or Muhannad, that is, made in India, since quenched steel swords were imported from India in those early times."

But there are other meanings Hind or Hend possesses. Ghanem, for instance, said, "Hend or Hind is a common female name in the Arab world. It means 'one hundred camels.'" You just wonder whether Swaraj is aware of the lexical nuances of the word Hind as used in the Arab land.

Perhaps the Indian foreign minister was calming those who feel perturbed at the irrepressible RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s assertion: "Hindustan is a Hindu nation... The cultural identity of all Indians is Hindutva and the present inhabitants of the country are descendants of this great culture." And then the punch-line: "All those who live here in Hindustan are Hindus."

To those puzzled or outraged at such statements, harped upon from the time the BJP swept into power, Union Minister M Venkaiah Naidu decided to provide an education in semantics. "Hindu is a not a religious concept. Hindu is a cultural identity," he declared. In support of his statement, Naidu asked a few rhetorical questions: "If Hindu is a religion, then why this Hindu newspaper? If Hindu is a religion, then why Hindustan Times newspaper and why Hindi 'akhbar' Hindustan? And why Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT)?" Ahem!

Perhaps there was no one around to toss at Naidu rhetorical counters: Why is it that Art 1 of the Indian Constitution says, "India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States"? Why doesn’t the word Hindustan find a mention in the Indian Constitution? Isn't it intellectually vacuous to consider religion and culture as two mutually exclusive realms?

Words, like human beings, take birth, acquire new and shed old meanings and, occasionally, even wither away and die. This has been the fate of the word Hindu too. It isn't mentioned in the ancient Indian texts. Hindu first came into currency around the eight century CE (or AD) courtesy the Arabs, who spoke of al-Hind, or the people who lived beyond the Indus. The word, therefore, was a signifier of geographical identity.

So how did the people living beyond the Indus identify themselves? They did by caste, occupation, language, region and religious sect. As Romila Thapar writes in Early India, "The term 'Hindu' was not in use in the early first millennium AD, and those who were supporters of what today we call 'Hindu' sects used their sectarian labels to identify their religion. Therefore they identified themselves by the broader labels of Vaishnava and Shaiva... The consciousness of a religious identity was that of the sect and not of an all-inclusive religion incorporating every sect."

Obviously, you will argue that Thapar is a Marxist historian, deracinated and inclined to viewing Indian history through a 'non-Indian lens.' But the universe then largely consisted of castes, not religion, as we understand it today. This is the reason why the word mlechchha included, apart from untouchables, a large group of people who were culturally alien and outside the pale of caste system. Nor mlechchha always stigmatised people — a Sanskrit inscription refers to a Sultan as mlechchha and yet speaks of him with utmost admiration.

Historians believe people began to use the term Hindu to describe themselves sometime in the 14th century, that is, at least more than a century after the Muslims swept into India. But even then such self-definition was rare and sparingly used. Nevertheless, a gradual transmutation of the meaning of Hindu had begun: from signifying a geographical identity it became a word that clubbed together the varying religious beliefs of those whose creed was different from the followers of Islam.

Even the all-encompassing term of Muslim was not invoked to describe the followers of Islam. Identity, as we all know, is how people define themselves as also how others do them. It is interesting to note that Sanskrit inscriptions from the period of what is called Muslim rule refer to Arabs as Tajiks and Turks as Turushkas, the former constituting the aristocratic class.

It was because of the writings of colonial historians that religion was accorded greater primacy over caste and other identities. These historians viewed India as comprising two monolith communities — Hindus and Muslims — locked in perpetual conflict. Castes or internal differences were erroneously assumed to have been dissolved. Social and political interactions were said to be mediated through the consciousness of religion. Even the unfolding of history was seen as arising from the clash of religions. More significantly, religion was perceived to be the basic unit of political and social participation.

Thus, colonial historiography tended to make Hindus, as also Muslims, self-conscious of their religious identity, particularly from the eighteenth century onwards. Countering the incipient homogenisation were other tendencies. For instance, regional and linguistic histories were being discovered, on the basis of which communities were imagined and created.

Linked to this was also the impact of the theory of a catastrophic Aryan invasion that was said to have led to the subjugation of indigenous people, introduction of the Indio-Aryan language, and emergence of the Vedic culture. This theory has been discredited now. Most believe the Aryans, identified now on linguistic, not racial, basis, came into India through the gradual process of osmosis.

Nevertheless, to the self-conscious Hindus, the theory of Aryan posited a challenge. It tacitly portrayed the Sanskrit-speaking Brahmins and other upper castes as outsiders who conquered the indigenous population and imposed on them the status of lower castes. This dichotomy social reformer Jyotiba Phule, among others, wrote on and popularised. In fact, the discovery of the cities of the Indus Valley civilisation in the 1920s prompted attempts to push back the coming in of Aryans into India to even a later date. Thus the Aryan ‘invasion’ theory was rejected to ensure the upper castes were not labelled as outsiders, their Sanskrit language not considered an import.

As a corollary, it was also asserted that those Indians were indigenous whose fatherland and holyland were the same. Thus, the determinant of who is an alien and who isn't became religion, not caste. Muslims and Christians were, therefore, deemed the outsider.

This was the overarching idea under which the RSS was established in 1925. Its mission was to consolidate the Hindus, sink the internal differences, and paper over competition and conflict among groups comprising the Hindu religious category. But wishing a monolith community doesn't necessarily make it into one. It has to be imagined theoretically and lived experiences are then distilled through this ideological sieve.

The Hindu community is hellishly disparate and hierarchical, as all religious communities inevitably become. It is, therefore, so much easier to attain unity by inventing the other, the enemy. For instance, Islamic fundamentalists and blood-thirsty militants perceive the West as a monolith, homogenised entity for uniting different, opposing segments of the Muslim Arab community.

This is what the Hindu Right too is attempting. So Bhagwat won't talk of Indian culture; he will instead talk of Hindu culture. He will not call citizens of this country Indian; he will instead call them Hindu. The RSS supremo knows this won’t be acceptable to minority religious communities.

Undoubtedly, Islam in India has many indigenous, non-Islamic elements. But identity also entails a self-definition. To ask them to call themselves Hindu, to impose a definition on them, is nothing other than cultural, lexical subjugation.

Their inevitable rejection of Bhagwat’s proposition will serve the RSS cause. It will have his ilk accuse the Muslims, as also Christians, of not accepting the common heritage of this country, of not being true to their culture and, impliedly, their country.

This is also precisely why Swaraj’s and Naidu’s formulations are bereft of innocence. If the word Hindu, in their opinion, has only a cultural, not religious resonance, then why go around articulating it publicly? If all Indians, regardless of their religions, are influenced by Hindu culture, then why go around screaming it?

They know it’d only inspire the Muslim and Christian fundamentalists to stamp out the charming subcontinental traits Islam and Christianity have acquired in India. But this is what the RSS wants – a monolith Muslim community will only make its goal of creating a homogeneous Hindu entity so much easier. The Indian society will split into neat binaries: the Hindus and the rest.


Updated Date: Aug 27, 2014 07:28 AM

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