Secularism and the Myth of ‘Hindu’ Tolerance

‘Secularism’ has now become a bad word and it is quite fashionable to attack, criticize and ridicule it. Just about anyone, regardless of whether s/he has spent even a minute thinking about it, can attack it. A television channel  recently even decided to have a vote on whether we should ‘have’ secularism or not, I understand, after an utterly ill-informed debate. It is almost as if the blame for everything that is wrong with Indian society can be laid at the door of this monster called ‘Secularism’. Modern Hindu ideologues have of course, mastered this art of blaming every evil practice of Hindu society on to some ‘Other’: From untouchability and sati to child marriage, purdah and the everyday violence of caste oppression –  everything apparently happened because of ‘Islam’ and Christianity’. Later, Marxism and secularism were added to the list. And while we are at it, let us remember that the great Bal Gangadhar Tilak led what was perhaps the first mass nationalist anticolonial mobilization, against raising the  Age of Consent of girls for sexual intercourse from 10 to 12 years! Much of that righteous indignation continues to be the hallmark of the new defensiveness that the 21st century ‘raging Hindu’  exhibits.

For everything wrong in the behaviour of these adult men with walrus moustaches, an explanation exists in some founding childhood trauma for which their adulthood can never be held responsible! ‘Secularism’ now is the name of the insistence that wants to hold the modern Hindu responsible for his acts today, rather than let it remain suspended in a permanent state of childhood. I suspect, the term ‘secularism’ today, in Hindu Right discourse, is no longer about the ‘separation of religion and politics’ or ‘sarva dharma samabhava‘ (equal respect for all religions) and ‘dharma-nirpekshata‘ (neutrality between religions) at all, but the ghost-house where all the pathologies of this traumatized child(hood) are played out.

Pseudo-secularism and ‘Secularism’

One does not hear the term ‘pseudo-secularism’ much these days, but there was a time when it was bandied about all the time, especially in the 1990s and a large part of the 2000s. That was a term that at least recognized the worth of secularism in some fashion, not as something  to be simply dismissed. By using that expression, the more sophisticated of the ideologues of the Hindu Right laid claim to something they called ‘positive secularism’ and managed to brand secularism’s proponents as ‘pseudo-secularists’  who, the accusation went, did not really care for real, ‘positive’ secularism.  What exactly did they mean? Were they simply being hypocritical as many secularists believed? It may be worthwhile to recall the speech made by LK Advani in 2005, then President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in Karachi where he had hailed Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s speech at the Pakistan Constituent Assembly as ‘a classic statement of a secular state’. Advani had been invited by the Pakistan government to inaugurate the renovated ancient Katas Raj temples and had in fact, recalled that it was Swami Ranganathananda, head of the Ramakrishna Math at Karachi who had first drawn his attention to Jinnah’s speech. It was Swami Ranganathnanda who had said that that speech ‘is a classic exposition of a Secular State, one which guarantees every citizen’s freedom to practice his or her religion but the State shall not discriminate between one citizen and another on the basis of religion.’ (emphasis added)

I have discussed that speech earlier at length in Kafila and had pointed to the deep investment in a certain modern, secular discourse that certain sections of the Hindu Right and even devout practising Hindus like Ranganathananda had in the idea of a secular state. To them, ‘secularism’ was not what it has come to mean today in Hindutva discourse. On the contrary, to a vast range of Hindutva ideologues as well as to many many practising modern Hindus, the secular state meant that it would erase markers of religious distinction that had become contentious. Family and Personal Law was one such domain of massive contention and it was believed that the enactment of a Uniform Civil Code would bring all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, under one single law. Many practices like polygamy and triple talaq had been major issues in the Hindu Right’s campaign of ‘discrimination’ against ‘Hindus’ (read Hindu men) and had acquired an emotive charge over the years. It is not altogether an accident that it was the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case and the subsequent surrender of the then Congress government (under Rajiv Gandhi) to the most reactionary sections among the Muslims that gave a fresh lease of life to the Hindutva campaign in the run up to the 1990s. Through the enactment of the Muslim Women’s Act, it maybe recalled, the government had basically nullified the court’s judgement.

It is necessary at this stage to emphasize what it was in the statement by Swami Ranganathananda on Jinnah’s speech that so attracted Advani: ‘a classic exposition of a Secular State, one which guarantees every citizen’s freedom to practice his or her religion but the State shall not discriminate between one citizen and another on the basis of religion.’ What was really seductive about the secular argument, for the Hindu Right, was that it simply did not recognize any mediation between the state and individual citizen – religious community, caste and so on. Effectively, this meant that ‘secularists’ who defended minority rights, including to retrograde personal laws and religious rights, were actually ‘pseudo-secular’: how can a secularist defend religious laws, especially  retrograde ones? There was a real aporia here which secularists largely dismissed but there is no denying that secularism is incompatible with defense of minority rights and as has been pointed out by some political theorists, the latter is really a multiculturalist imperative rather than a secular one.

This was why a section of the Hindutva ideologues were so invested in secularism. But in hindsight, it seems important to recognize that this was itself a contested domain within Hindutva discourse and that with the fading away of Advani, Vajpayee and their ilk and the establishment of Modi-Shah dominance over the BJP, what has come to the fore is a far cruder version of ‘anti-secularism’ which I indicated in the opening section of this piece. What this means in terms of trends and currents within the RSS is difficult to say but it is perhaps not entirely incorrect to suggest that even within the RSS, there cannot have been one and only one uncontested position, always. Perhaps all these positions also reflect positions within the parent organization, though the larger modern Hindu public may not always identify with the cruder versions of the argument that dominate today.

The Great Myth of Hindu Tolerance

What we find today, it seems to me, in the the invocation of secularism by the proponents of the Hindu Right, is something like a perpetual return of the ‘raging Hindu’ to the ghost-house of horrors, where he (I deliberately use the gendered term) repeatedly confronts his ‘childhood tormentor’ (Islam) and prepares to come out ready to kill. In an ironical way, the myth of Hindu tolerance helps to justify his violence.

This myth of ‘Hindu tolerance’ was produced retrospectively, in all likelihood, to explain why Hindus repeatedly became enslaved and why they could never ‘act together’ in  their own defense. The modern Hindu was confronted with two kinds of intellectual challenges in the 19th and 20th centuries. First, he had to explain to himself why a small trading company could end up enslaving a country with a ‘long and ancient civilization’. In the beginning the question was not about Muslim rule but about the British and the answer that the Hindu intelligentsia came  up with was breathtakingly simple – it was disunity among ‘us’ and the betrayal by sections of our own people. The ‘disunity’ was such – and no nationalist was/is forthright and honest enough to accept it – that Mahars in the Maratha Confederacy fought alongside the British East India Company to defeat the ruling Peshwa. Parenthetically, it was in the bicentenary commemoration of that victory in the battle of Bhima Koregaon of 1818, that the event in 2018 made the Hindu Right see red. Dalits celebrate the fall of the Peshwa as liberation. The ‘disunity’, in other words, was simply because of Hindu society’s continued oppression of the Dalits and its tendency to turn the blame on the Dalits for finding avenues for their own liberation. That its ideologues even today, refuse to see untouchability and violent caste oppression as a failing of Hindu society and continue the witch-hunt on Bhima Koregaon shows where this discourse of tolerance leads to. Second, in the same period, in the face of Christian proselytization (not Islam so much) during colonial rule, the modern Hindu faced a peculiar bind: he could not convert others to Hinduism because unlike Christianity or Islam, Hindu religion was not a community of equals before God. Which caste would the new entrant belong to? That was a question that Amebdkar later had the occasion to throw at some modern Hindu leaders.

That was where the modern Hindu began innovating. His religion, he emphasized, was a religion of tolerance which did not believe in converting others; it believed in ‘live and let live’ and  so on. It is in this contex that all kinds of now ‘common sense’ concepts like ‘Vasudhaiva Kutmbakam’ (the earth is a family’) were picked up randomly and knitted into a discourse of eternal tolerance of Hindu society. Many modern, 21st century ‘angry Hindus’ still continue to refer to it as an  “Upanishadic ideal’ – as in this piece first published in Swarajya, reproduced in The Print. While people have traced the origins of this concept in the Rig Veda and the Upanishads, there are independent scholars who have done some excavtion of the concept. Here is an extract from Sarvesh Tiwari, who traces it back to Hitopadesha – and with a very important change of perspective. It appears as part of a story of two friends, a deer and a crow. The deer happens to be befriended by a jackal who wants to eat the deer and when the crow sees the two together, he tries to warn the deer. It is the jackal who preaches Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in order to slyly win the deer over as a ‘friend’. Here is a quote from the story, cited by Tiwari:

The lust to devour him [the deer] immediately arose in the Jackal’s mind, but knowing Deer to be too swift in a chase, he decided to fall back on his cunning – to win first the confidence of the Deer. The VK [vasudhaiva kutumbakam] -preacher therefore approached the Deer, saluted him, and introduced himself as a lonely newcomer with friendly intentions, and proposed a friendship and brotherhood with the Deer. The naive Deer fell for the sweet words of kshudra-buddhi, and not knowing his true intentions, invited him to his own dwellings.

Tiwari then says:

The remainder of the story can be summed up in two sentences. The cunning VK-reciting Jackal started dwelling with the naive Deer, and as soon as the opportunity arose, pushed him into a deadly trap. However before he could kill the Deer, our wise hero subuddhi the Crow devised a clever trick by which not only the Deer was rescued but also the VK-reciting Jackal was slain.

Now, that is the context in which VK is recorded in the hitopadesha by the great paNDita of politics nArAyaNa, and he is unambiguously clear about its application when he assigns this shloka to come from a brotherhood-preaching shrewd subversionist. It gives a clear warning against blindly welcoming any idea, individual or group without due diligence of studying their history, nature and intent.

I am not sure Sarvesh Tiwari is concerned with the larger politics in the context of which this ‘loot and plunder’ of tradition is taking place in order to construct the myth of a tolerant Hinduism. If he is, I am not sure he will agree my argument here but this seems to me to be an inescapable fact that the reinterpretation of Hindu culture as ‘tolerant’ and ‘peace-loving’ is actually modern fictive enterprize.

Many modern Hindu thinkers and reformers who tried to portray this picture of tolerant Hinduism, indulged in endless myth-making. Vivekananda, for instance, in samanvaya mode, talks of the tolerance with which this traditon also treated even its dissidents like Charvaka – that they too were called rishis and given the same repsect. This is something that we see repeated ad nauseam, in the service of an aggressive Hinduism as well (Kapil Mishra of the North East Delhi violence fame for instance has repeated this a few years ago.) The fact that Charvaka’s writings are all but destroyed or that the Buddhists and Jains were persecuted for a very long time and the former continued to be demonized in the Puranas are aspects that need to be read and investigated with a fresh eye.

It is also important to ask how and when, in a tradition that has the amoral and violent prescriptive political text, the Arthashastra as its centre-piece, did ‘tolerance’ become such a central virtue. Indeed how did it become such a defining feature? So far I have deliberately not taken recourse to the writings of a Phule or an Ambedkar or a Periyar to make my point but that too is something that has to be done alongside a ruthless deconstruction of this myth-building. Writings of the anti-caste crusaders have much to tell us of the actual practices of Hindu society and help us demolish this myth but it is an examination of the Hindu texts themselves – and their modern reinterpretations – that are likely to be most important in this regard.

Needless to say, in making this argument, my interest in not at all in deriding practising Hindus, many of whom have tried to reimagine their own tradition and recast it in very novel and truly tolerant ways – that is to say, critically and not defensively. Figures like Tagore or Gandhi remain paradigmatic instances in this regard but there are literally hundreds of thousands of people who fall in this category. At one level, even the project of Dayanand Saraswati and the Arya Samaj, despite its anti-Muslim edge, was directed at a ruthless criticism of many of the practices of lived Hinduism.

The Question of Islam

One of the parallel projects of the myth-building about Hinduism is the myth-building regarding Islam and the Muslims in general. For one thing, the story of Islam’s relationship to the subcontinent, all so well-known to scholars, has been set aside in favour of a single narrative of the violent and warlike nature of Islam such. Unfortunately, scholars seem to always want to have something ‘fresh and original’ to say, whereas Hindutva thrives on repeating the same old lies day in and day out till they are accepted as ‘truths’. So while the fact that the northern military conquests are well known, it often seems that even among the more knowledgeable, other episodes of centuries of interaction in Kerala or the Western coast and the centuries of relationship between cultures remain practically unknown. Even the history of the North – from the Sultanate down to the Mughal, so well known thanks to decades of scholarship, is all but submerged under the high pitched monologue that relives the ‘childhood trauma’ of the North Indian upper caste Hindu. And of course, once history of Islam is reduced to a history of kings and conquests, of violence and bloodshed, there is little scope for understanding – rather remembering – the simple fact that except for the narrow stratum of the ruling elite, all Indian Muslims were Indians, had been Indians, for centuries before they became Muslims. I recently had the remarkable experience of a conversation, where an erudite Sanskrit scholar refuted a statement by Sudhish Pachauri by stating with complete confidence that ‘of course, Muslims came from outside.’ This gentleman wasn’t a right-winger but that is the extent of ignorance of even the basic facts of history, of even otherwise well meaning people.

Here, it is not a question of doing any fundamental research but of actually not being able to produce popular counter-narratives. Secularism’s defeat, from this point of view, is not simply of a concept that is ‘unworkable’ in the Indian context but also of its practice. Elsewhere, on many occasions, I have discussed the problems with ‘secularism’ and its implication in the larger world of the modern, its dismissiveness of ‘backward’, ‘irrational’ modes of being and so on. In this brief essay, I have tried to indicate some other directions that in my view, we need too push our thought into. Those questions about secularism still remain although much has changed since the mid-1980s when the first anti-secularist positions were articulated by Ashis Nandy and TN Madan. That debate too needs to be revisited and it is time perhaps now for a fresh debate in the  21st century.

One thought on “Secularism and the Myth of ‘Hindu’ Tolerance”

  1. Childhood trauma brought on by childhood conditioning of demonising the other, I suspect.
    As in all cultures.


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