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The Danger of Hindutva to Secular India

Last year [2000], 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
world’s 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,
they’re 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 Vajpayee’s BJP (“Indian People’s Party”) is considered
the parliamentary arm of the Hindutva movement.

Evidence has supposedly been uncovered that links some recent incidents with operatives
of Pakistan’s 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 India’s military rival. The divisiveness of Hindu supremacy, then,
may not only be dangerous to India’s 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 nation’s 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.