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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 30-31, July 22 & July 29 2023

Debating Hindutva | Subhash Gatade

Saturday 22 July 2023, by Subhash Gatade



Thanks for introducing me to Sai Deepak’s talks / interventions etc and also asking me to give my take on the debate and also understand it in light of how ’Hindutva is understood or what ’Hindutva is all about’.

Listened to Shashi Tharoor and J Sai Deepak.

Before coming to the crux of the issue would love to share my impressions about debate itself, about the speakers, their styles, persuasiveness etc. and share stray comments on some of the issues which were raised by them. I am sure some of the points which I would like to raise would definitely come up during it only.

Style of Speakers

To be very frank since one has been familiar with Tharoor - on TV shows etc - one felt that he was his usual self - much at ease with his subject and the points he wanted to convey and never for a moment looking combative even when a significant part of the audience seemed to resonate with what the discussant - J Sai Deepak was saying, which did not exactly gel with what Shashi wanted convey.

As far as Sai Deepak is concerned personally I had not heard him before - means his interviews or talks etc - but was aware of his name through his columns / writings as well as books.

He definitely seems very articulate in his views and his style his quite persuasive. If one can have a cursory glance at some relatively young speakers who are in a position to present what one can call the Hindutva worldview in modern lingo and idiom, he definitely holds lot of promise.

Need to Wear One’s Religion on ones sleeves ?

First about Shashi Tharoor writing the book ’Why I am an Hindu’?

You can say that being an atheist myself since last more than four n half decades, one remains bit unconvinced when a highly educated, erudite person talks about her / his faith in public or makes a public espousal of it!

For me personally it should remain a matter of my private beliefs or disbeliefs (whatever way you want to characterise it) and one - especially those who are in a position to influence people - be wary of making a public espousal of it.

There are many reasons behind it -not that one does not understand the ’spiritual sort of need to do so’ - but one has always been sceptical about such attempts and wishes to ask all such people why this public display when s/he is aware how so much blood has been split in its name and is still being split in 21 st century itself or how a dangerous combination of religion and politics is playing havoc with lives of the people world over.

Forget my personal take on religion, ( knowing very well that people like me are in a minority - may be a significant minority in many a state - the world over, but not a grim situation for them either like it was only yesterday that I read a news item in ’The Guardian’ how few lakhs Catholics ’said goodbye to the Church’ here in Germany [1] but in present day situation one knows that one cannot force anyone not to express one’s faith and so would not object to it.

What explains one’s Espousal of Religion

Perhaps we can look at the whole issue in two ways:


Tharoor wants to present his love for Hinduism before the public because he feels that people understand the language of religion more


He genuinely feels how the idea of Hinduism is being hollowed out by people - who speak in its name but engage in anti -Hindu acts like lynching etc (which he mentions in this brief introduction to the book in his speech) - and he feels it important to convey that they do not represent true Hinduism but people like him who are all inclusive are representatives of Hinduism
Mahatma Gandhi seems to be an ideal exponent of this understanding who during struggle for independence used the idiom of religion to arouse the masses but his espousal of Hinduism was not against particular religion, which was evident in his holding prayers of all religions in his ashram - or in his last days during Delhi - when it was engulfed in communal fires.
Despite all these aspects one would still be wary of such an espousal.

Question of Public Policy

It is true that question of public policy cannot be privy to an individual’s whims and fancies but thanks to various social political movements - down the centuries - today there is a broader consensus that when we think of public policy perhaps we should strive that one’s faith remains a matter of one’s personal domain and a citizen’s or a large majority of citizens’s faith should not be the factor while one decides how we want to govern ourselves (state) as well as society.

This conscious attempt to exclude religious considerations from civil-political affairs is what needs to be welcomed and enhanced, a difficult attempt which was taken up after independence here - despite the fact that the religious frenzy had not died down - and another nation had emerged (or partitioned) from us which had adopted religion as a basis of nationhood.
A sobering fact at this juncture is to remember that leading lights of the movement for political and social emancipation—which unfolded itself under British rule—had a premonition of things to come and had rightly cautioned / underlined / warned the people of the bleak future which awaits them if they do not remain vigilant.

An inkling of the collective thinking among them is evident if one looks at the Objectives Resolution moved in the Constituent Assembly by Pandit Nehru on 13 December 1946 and adopted unanimously by the Constituent Assembly on 22 January 1947. It declared its firm resolve not only to make India an independent sovereign republic but also to guarantee and secure for all the people of India

social, economic and political justice; equality of status and opportunities and equality before law; and fundamental freedoms—of speech, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action—subject to law and public morality; and

also ensure that

adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes.

The key importance of the Objectives Resolution (which was then called / moved as ‘Resolution on the Aims and Objects of the Constitution’) can be gauged from the fact that according to the Drafting Committee of the Constitution, it was the basis of the ‘Preamble of the Constitution’. The Chairman of the Drafting Committee was Dr B.R. Ambedkar, who was appointed to this post at the suggestion of Mahatma Gandhi possibly due to his scholarship in legal and constitutional matters.

It is a different matter that if one looks to the world today with this idea of clear separation between state and religion - one witnesses a spectrum of the same - right from religion being prime mover to ( largely) a state devoid of any religion baggage - at least officially).

What one appreciates is that despite these variations states / societies which have no qualms in wearing their religion on their sleeves are not much appreciated. The idea of secularims looks ’rationally more attractive and also a better strategy to for attaining social peace in a pluralistic setting.’ [2]

Someone peddling the idea of Islamic state or states which ban abortion as their version of Christianity looks at it as anti-thetical or a countries like Mynamar or for that matter Sri Lanka where Buddhist fanatics are ready to wreak havoc on other religious minorities (Muslims, Christians n Hindus) with connivance of the state look more uncivil, unbalanced and even dangerous to some extent.

You can recall when an Indian origin woman died in Ireland few years back as her country’s laws ( then) did not permit abortion, the pain was experienced across the globe, or when some independent minded youth is charged with blasphemy in an Islamic country and punished with death penalty there is uproar in rest of the world.

One sincerely feels that J Sai Deepak misses this point, or forgets the changing world scenario, when he tries to situate these modern day ideas within what he calls as ’Dharmic Civilisation’.

Conflating Nation and Religion

One finds it bit anachronous that even in 21 st century there are forces, formations which want to conflate religion - an idea whose genesis could be traced to early humanity or its later gradual coming into its own - and nation which is a modern phenomenon. [3]

One need not go into the detail of the emergence of nations/nationalisms - personally I do not find myself even capable to do that in the form of a summary - but the whole concept is a modern concept which came into existence through struggles, experiments. If five hundred years before Monarchies, Kings, Emperors - with their small coterie - with no public participation in the running of state ’ruled the world’, today, such entities have effectively lost their luster and governments formed with various degrees of public participation are running the show - arrangements which have to get validation from rest of the public periodically.

Since the idea itself is say two-three hundred years old, I can understand attempts to ’define’ nation in ’ethnic’ terms or ’racial’ or even in ’religious’ terms to come to grips with it but all such attempts do not look satisfactory because they seem to conflate a modern concept of a nation with a ancient or medieval concept ( like religion or ethnicity or race etc) and perhaps the best way forward is to strive towards ’civic nationalism’ - moving beyond ’ethnic nationalism’ and ’cultural nationalism’ where the political identity could be built around ’shared citizenship within the state’. As anybody can see a ’civic nation’ gets defined not by your culture but the political institutions you build the liberal principles which the citizens abide by etc.

Therefore while beginning to countering Tharoor - of course as a discussant to the book - when Sai Deepak starts talking about what he calls ’awakening of Hindus to their civilisation access Bharat’s past etc’ one feels that he is talking in a language or idiom whose expiry date is already over.

Dharmik Civilisation

Listening to Sai Deepak one gets a feeling that there have been occasions when the words he uses / the terms he mentions look attractive but if one tries to unpack them, they either appear hollow or lacking any vision or which convey a very idealised / glorified version of India’s past

Like his term ’Hindu Dharmik Civilisation’ or his idea - while talking of ’awakening of Hindus to their civilisation ’ which according to him is ’an attempt to reaccess Bharat’s past as well as reinscribe certain values of the past in the present institutions and thereby create a more indigenous future. He states that the idea is to create a future where the quotient of indigenity is higher than that of coloniality.’

Since the term itself remained unexplained (during his intervention and he must have explained it in his books/ writings earlier ) I want to unpack this term.

What can be considered as Hindu Dharmik Civilisation

Can we separate this Hindu Dharmik Civilisation from what existed earlier here and which still retains its stronghold on the minds of the people. Say,

  • - caste system ?
  • - existence of the ritualised hierachy where even touching someone or even letting someone touch your pot could be considered an ’offence’
  • - a system that denied basic human rights to a large majority of dalits, Bahujans, women since centuries and still retains that understanding in very many ways.
  • - Manusmriti
  • which ordained a Brahmin or the highest caste lesser punishment for the same crime and a more severe punishment to the shudras - atishudras ( the modern day backward - scheduled castes) for the same or set a code of conduct for the ’other varnas’
  • The same code of conduct against which Dr Ambedkar led the historic Mahad Satyagrah ( 1927) which ultimately led to his public burning of the book ( 25 th Dec 1927)

- You very well know about the great tradition of radical social revolutionaries/ reformers which emerged in British India - which for the first time in modern history (definitely not for any philanthropic reasons but to strengthen their base and reach among Indians ) granted right of education to these oppressed people. We could not have seen the emergence of the likes of Jyotiba and Savitri Phule, her colleague Fatima Sheikh or the likes of Periyar, Ambedkar etc if the doors of education had not been opened to these people which were denied to them in pre-British period.

- An idea which has not been taken very kindly by the so called Upper Castes in India still so like the White Americans in US who had been hell bent on denying any affirmative action to the blacks etc ( now they have achieved a ’victory’ ( pyrrhic of course - thanks to the recent decision of the Supreme Court of USA) they have all been keen to find out ways and means to deny it to them.

The Quotient of ’indigenity’?

I am not talking about the ancient period but what is the quotient of indigenity in a society which for hundreds of years has kept a large population out of the population - devoid of any human rights!

Does one want to ’bring back all these fetters’ on people which existed earlier.

Hindu Rashtra and Constitution

The claim by J Sai Deepak that the idea of Hindu Rashtra is not anti thetical to the constitution by citing the constitution of Hindu Mahasabha, perhaps little far-fetched, because facts speak otherwise

A cursory glance at what was the attitude of the two stalwarts of the Hindu Rashtra - namely Golwalkar as well as Savarkar - and their organisations namely RSS and Hindu Mahasabha would make it clear how they thought about it and what they did during that period. There is enough documentary evidence to show what they did but since one does not want to burden you with quotes and facts and here are a few samples and you can browse the internet to see for yourself [4]

Here is Savarkar (during the writing of the Constitution - making it absolutely clear - where his sympathies lie

Savarkar wrote, “Manusmriti is that scripture which is most worshippable [sic] after Vedas for our Hindu Nation and which from ancient times has become the basis of our culture-customs, thought and practice. This book for centuries has codified the spiritual and divine march of our nation. Even today the rules which are followed by crores of Hindus in their lives and practice are based on Manusmriti. Today Manusmriti is Hindu Law. That is fundamental”.

As the Constitution came out it faced severe criticism from Madhav’s RSS whose mouthpiece Organizer was scathingly against it. “...RSS’ English organ, Organizer on November 30, 1949, in an editorial, rejected it and demanded the archaic, Manusmriti, as The Constitution. It read:

“But in our Constitution, there is no mention of the unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat. Manu’s Laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day, his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing”. [5]

In fact I have myself written about it and if time permits you can as well look at my last book ’Modinama’ ( Leftword Books, 2019) where in the chapter ’Fascinated by Manu’ I have thrown light on the theme.

Secularism as an Excuse?

J Sai Deepak’s claim how ’secularism is being used as an excuse to prevent the Hindu majority of Bharat to access its past’ raises entirely different type of concerns.

It not only presents Hindus as a monolith - as if they had no internal fissures - and secondly, it also invisibilises existence of other religious communities here - Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, animists, Sikhs etc in India

Probably you know that Islam arrived here in India first through Arab traders in 7 th century and at present there population is around 13.4 per cent of India’s population and as Swami Vivekanand has himself noted a large part of people converted to Islam because of the atrocious caste system itself ( and not because of the ’sword’ as it is made out to be) , whereas Christianity arrived in AD 52 first in Kerala and as of now their population is 2.6 crores ( 2.3 % of India’s population)

On what basis one can just invisibilise their existence.

Secondly, the moment one wants to access one’s past - say Hindus want to access their past - would they be equally ready to access what they themselves did to the Buddhists - how early Buddhism was just wiped out from the Indian subcontinent ( thanks that our neighbouring regions then - Sri Lanka, Mynamar or China or other South East countries had already embraced its teachings that it still survives today in the world) or what they have been doing - which still continues with the dalits, tribals and other oppressed communities.

Or would it then be easy for us to gloss over the partition killings - one of the most brutal killings in our recent past, where ’all of us - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs - who largely constitute this part of South Asia ’ wantonly killed each other, remember the state itself was crumbling during those tumultous times ( Britishers were leaving and the new rulers in both parts of the partitioned India were getting to grips with the challenges of governance then)

The conservative estimates of these killings range from one million plus, the tragedy is that we still even do not know how many people were killed and the biggest transfer of population took place.

Any such attempt to which in the words of Sai Deepak wants to unpack - what he calls as the ’inconvenient truths of Hindu persecution, such as Kashmiri Hindu persecution, Hindu genocide in post-poll West Bengal,’ is going to open up new pandora’s box before us, can it stop at that.
And are we ready for it ?

In fact, if Sai Deepak wants to really comprehend how to look at past Swami Vivekanand himself would be a great ideal for him who has said :

“The days of exclusive privileges and exclusive claims are gone, gone forever from the soil of India...and it is one of the blessings of the British Rule in India. Even to the Mohammedan Rule we owe that great blessing, the destruction of exclusive privilege...The Mohammedan conquest of India came as a salvation, to the downtrodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifths of our people have become Mohammedans. It was not the sword that did it all. It would be the height of madness to think it was all the work of sword and fire.”

Or relook at his Chicago address (World Parliament of Religions in Chicago):

“I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”

Hindus under Scrutiny ! Really !!

J Sai Deepak’s lament about ’Hindus being constantly under scrutiny’ etc reminds me of the overarching feeling in this part of South Asia where the majority community ’suffers from what can be called as ’minority complex’

Interestingly India or its Hindus are not alone in having this feeling. [6] we find ourselves in ’good company’

Prof Stanley Tambiah ( a Sri Lankan Sociologist) is remembered for his analysis of the Sri Lankan Situation where the Sinhalese - largely Buddhist which dominate polity and society at various levels - still feel that they are under a siege about which the late scholar has written in detail. ( Majority with a Minority Complex)

Definitely much more can be said about all the debate which went on between Mr Tharoor and J Sai Deepak and one can continue the conversation further if one hears from you about it.

Why I say No To Hindutva

Lastly since you have asked for my take on Hindutva, here are a few more paragraphs :

Perhaps the best way to initiate is what the master ideologue of Hindutva - namely Savarkar himself who clearly differentiates between Hinduism and Hindutva, in his well known monograph ’Hindutva’ :

Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva. Unless it is made clear what is meant by the latter, the first remains unintelligible and vague.Failure to distinguish between these two terms has given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of Hindu civilisation.[..] Here it is enough to point out that Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism. By an ’ism’ it is generally meant a theory or a code more or less based on spiritual or religious dogma or system. But when we attempt to investigate into the essential significance of Hindutva, we do not primarily and certainly not mainly concern ourselves with any particular theocratic or religious dogma or creed. Had not linguistic usage stood in our way, then ’Hinduness’ would have certainly been a better word than Hinduism as a near parallel to Hindutva. Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole being our our Hindu race[..] It is imperative to point out that we are by no means attempting a definition or even a description of the more limited, less satisfactory and essentially sectarian term Hinduism.

One should read it carefully because Savarkar emphasises that we should ’distinguish between these two terms’ namely ’Hinduism and Hindutva’
Secondly, he underlines that Hindutva is not identical with Hinduism and
thirdly ’Hindutva embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the Hindu Race’.

One can refer also to an article by well known Political Scientist Aditya Nigam which throws more light on the theme. [8]

What does it mean?

It means that this easy conflation between Hinduism and Hindutva which is practised advertently or inadvetently by practioners, should not be there.
Perhaps it is like Judaism and Zionism - which are definitely not the same. Judaism is the belief of a large section of people, whereas Zionism is an ideology which claims its allegiance to Judaism but it is mainly a claim, essentialy a political project

Or we can even say that it is similar to Islam as a religion and Islamism as an ideology - projected / peddled by the likes of Maulana Maududi and several others - to attain political power.

Despite being an atheist I am all for your rights as a Hindu, Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist, in fact personally I have wholeheartedly participated in movements / campaigns and also mobilised people for them when people were denied their right as a religious person.

This is no self praise but it was early eighties when I was literally crushed by a rampaging mob near Pune - where I along with my brothers and several others - had gone to protest the issue of caste discrimination which had come up in the pilgrimage which takes place from Alandi ( near Pune) to Pandharpur every year. Thanks to an unknown youth - who had similarly joined the Satyagrah - who literally became a ’wall’ who saved me from the mob which would have crushed me there itself. It was a Satyagrah that was held under the leadership of noted social reformer and activist from Maharashtra, whose name is Baba Adhav. [9]

One had similarly faced blows at the hands of Muslim fanatics, when activists in Pune had organized a public meeting in Gokhale Hall, to protest the authoritarian attitude of a chief of a sect towards his followers.

Let me conclude

The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.
— Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru (1936), pp. 240—241.

For me yes to Hinduism, Islam, Jew, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism as your faith ( my struggle to convince them that they should move beyond religion will go on with them ) but no to Hindutva, Islamism, Zionism, Khalistani nationalism etc.

But if you want to use religion as a political agenda, political project I am fully against it.

For me yes to Constitution of India, and no to a country where religion is the basis of nationhood.

One should never forget how Ambedkar had cautioned us about this danger.
If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.

— Ambedkar, ‘Pakistan or Partition of India’, p. 358.

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