The Danger of Hindutva to Secular India
Last year , in the village of Manoharpur, India, a mob of Hindu supremacists burned to death Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his two young sons. The mainstream U.S. media, which typically casts its jaded gaze on that part of the world only to report death tolls after typhoons, bus, or train disasters, responded predictably. But while the American public generally responds to news from this part of the world with a bewildered shrug, the response to this story was one of collective, visceral, revulsion. For many Americans, still reeling from another horrific event that recently occurred on their own soil the Texas dragging death of James Byrd Jr. the story put India squarely on the map, bringing a grotesque culmination to preceding weeks of church-burnings and rumors of anti-Christian hatred.
More than twenty months have now passed since the Staines murder, and South Asia has once again retreated to the periphery of American awareness. Yet the violence against the Christian minority in India continues unabated. And while the government of Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee responds ambivalently to this crisis, its cohorts in the religious right do not -- organizations such as the Shiv Sena (Army of God) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) continue to put forth divisive and inflammatory propaganda, with tangible and far-reaching results. Whether by parliamentary bill to restrict mixed faith marriages, state-sanctioned reconversion campaigns or the movement to rewrite the history of India as an unalloyed Hindu Zion, religious nationalism is reshaping the national agenda of the worlds largest democracy.
This brand of religious revivalism Hindutva as it is known has the dimensions of a sustained movement with ambitions of political and cultural reform. Its rhetoric of Hindu supremacy, virulent with the demonization of minorities and exaggerated threats to national identity, resonates among many members of the conservative upper and middle classes. This growing grassroots support has emboldened the movement and placed its ideologies into public office, from local government to Parliament. Even Rabindra Pal (Dara) Singh, the man accused of organizing the Staines murder, is now considering a bid for public office.
Representatives of the movement offer little regret for the Staines murders or the other acts of religious hatred that have plagued the country. Instead of unequivocally condemning the violence, mouthpieces for outfits like the VHP indignantly retort that Christian missionaries are waging a campaign to deculturalize Hindu India by perpetrating forced conversions of its poorest, and most vulnerable, communities. VHP Vice President Giriraj Kishore, for example, has publicly maligned men like Staines as traitors and desecrators of Hindu gods, implying in essence that violence against them is an act of cultural self defense. In other words, theyre getting what they deserve.
Meanwhile, the Vajpayee government publicly condemns the communal violence but is reticent when it comes to assigning responsibility. Vajpayee prefers to rationalize the killings, beatings, and church bombings as aberrations or isolated events, and fidgets away from any suggestion that blame should be laid at the feet of VHP or its militant affiliates, whose members have been clearly implicated in several cases. This is no surprise, as Vajpayees BJP (Indian Peoples Party) is considered the parliamentary arm of the Hindutva movement.
Evidence has supposedly been uncovered that links some recent incidents with operatives of Pakistans intelligence services, whose mission, presumably, is to embarrass India among its democratic peers. Such claims may take the heat off Vajpayee for the time being, but if true they should be more cause for alarm than vindication, because they suggest that the social unrest wrought by Hindutva extremism is so disruptive that it has invited exploitation by Indias military rival. The divisiveness of Hindu supremacy, then, may not only be dangerous to Indias democratic institutions, but to its national security as well. But such considerations may be lost on the radical right, for whom Pakistan is frequently invoked as a source of the nations ills. Now, with a convenient circle of logic, not only can the enemies of India be blamed for the campaign of forced conversions, but can be likewise accused of the ongoing campaign of vigilante justice.
Ultimately, it is in its definition of enemy versus Indian where Hindutva reveals its true colors, for at root is the assertion that the only true Indians are Hindus, while all others particularly Muslims and Christians are not. The latter religions, termed semitic according to the Hindutva theory of history, are alien faiths imposed from the outside on Hindu India by foreign aggressors. Such exclusionism makes Hindutva, at its philosophical core, not merely nationalistic but supremacist. And any ideology that defines nationhood with the concomitant rights and enfranchisement that this implies by membership in a privileged race, culture, or religion, is nothing less than fascist.
This label is not applied glibly. The philosophical parent of the Hindutva movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Union), is an ideological organization that has an influence upon domestic conservative politics comparable to that of the U.S.s Christian Coalition. The head of the RSS during the Gandhi era, Madhav Golwalkar, once famously praised Hitler for showing the world how well nigh impossible it is for different races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into a national whole. The purging by Germany of the semitic Races, Golwalkar goes on to say, is a good lesson for us in Hindusthan [India] to learn and profit by.
Such statements of course are not widely publicized, though Golwalkar is still highly respected in Hindutva circles. One need only read pro-Hindutva literature, however, to find that the spirit of his remarks is still alive and well. While downplaying the petty differences of creed and race on one hand, or claiming that only nationalism is the religion of Hindutva, the RSS for instance goes on to assert that in a free and prosperous India Muslims and Christians would naturally return to their ancient faith and traditions. The message is quite clear in an India free of constitutional appeasements of religious minorities and vigilant in cleansing the nation of the polluting influences of foreign missionaries, converts to alien faiths will naturally recognize the superiority of Hinduism, and re-embrace it. Those without the wisdom to do so would be suspect, and thus worthy of second-class citizenship or worse.
During the last century a diaspora of Indian 'migr's spread their culture to communities as far afield as Johannesburg and Jackson Heights; at the beginning of this century Indian cuisine, music, literature, and film enjoy an unprecedented popularity abroad. That Indian culture not only competes with but also penetrates the commercial monolith of Western culture testifies to its modern robustness and vitality. For its part, the religion called Hinduism the amorphous family of traditions and philosophies that comprise historical reality, and not the neo-orthodoxy of the Hindutva movement will continue to endure by virtue of its inherent inclusiveness, tolerance, and its unique recognition that no creed has a monopoly over truth.
No, the likes of Graham Staines or his converts do not pose a credible threat to India or her culture. The true danger thrives in the demagogues of the religious right, their proselytes, and the creed of bigotry they pander in the name of cultural revival.