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Home > News > Columnists > Ashwin Mahesh

Indha hindutva inga sellaadhu

May 16, 2003

The conventional understanding of Hindutva has been that it seeks to merge the political aspirations of the majoritarian faith with nationalism. From the beginning, but more stridently since last year's events in Gujarat, the characterization of this phenomenon has grown steadily more polarized -- to the point that most people outside its fold view it as thinly veiled fascism, while most who embrace it insist that nothing could be closer to India's enlightened destiny. Neither side, usually, is much persuaded by arguments from the other.

Plenty has been written -- on these pages and elsewhere -- from either side of this divide, and as far as anyone can tell the conversation isn't arriving at a conclusion. In a political argument, perhaps that is to be expected. Moreover, although its broad contours -- and political domain -- are evident, Hindutva is not uniformly understood even by its supporters.

Some speak of 'restoring Hindu pride' and others speak of 'asserting' it; some insist it is cultural and religious, others see only a political vehicle. To repeat those distinctions usually does little more than excite an already segregated gallery.

Nonetheless, there is an element of Hindutva that is worth examining even when there is no agreement on its precise form, namely, its arithmetic of inclusion and exclusion. At its heart, any nationalist ideology turns upon a single question -- do you belong?

The notion of 'religious nationalism' or 'cultural nationalism' juxtaposes two completely opposite modes of belonging to identities. How often have you heard it said: "if you don't like India, get out" or "send the Muslims to Pakistan"? Now turn to the religious half of that phrase. How often do people say, "if you don't like Hinduism, join some other religion"? Almost never; in fact, most political proponents of all faiths work hard to prevent conversions! Nationalism professes a single identity for every citizen, but it draws its strength from forcefully excluding others as well. A religion cannot afford this stance. Christian Europe tried to cast out its heretics; over time they have become more numerous than the adherents and upstaged the faith.

Viewed this way, it is immediately apparent that the greatest opposition to nationalistic politics is to be found in that other widespread definition of belonging to India -- the federalism of her diverse regions. In this scheme of things, it is not necessary to belong culturally to the whole to be a full political part of it.

The identities included within the political definition of the nation-state may be vastly diverse, and yet each of them is as much Indian as any other. To the federalist understanding of our country, the oneness of any group with others in the nation matters very little. Separate in their subnational identities, and yet one with India, the component pieces offer a very different basis for political citizenship.

Parliament and the state legislatures clearly reflect this. Vast tracts of the nation relate to Hindutva not through the BJP but through the offices of various other parties aligned with it. In several cases -- most notably in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab -- the coalition partners are political parties with firm roots in distinct regional identities.

Often they are averse to submerging those identities into a larger national one; indeed, some of these, like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, were founded upon an insistence of their uniqueness within India. In Bengal, Kerala, Assam, and elsewhere too, such separate consciousness exists, although the coalition partners here are less significant to calculations of power at the Centre at present.

In this arena, the larger parties -- the Congress and the BJP -- are careful to avoid broad nationalist strokes. Both in tone and substance, the political conversation within these subnational communities cannot take place in the national language. Hindi doesn't sell well in some of these places, but the difficulty isn't limited to the medium of communication. Even the suggestion that the national conversation should lead to a uniform identity is anathema.

Whatever definition of the whole nation is offered, it cannot appear to undermine the local flavour. Within the subnational regions, there is a greater expectation than elsewhere that being Indian should not subsume the sub-identity. An Indian-ness that negates the Bengali, Malayali, Telugu, or other identity is simply not a political option.

Substitute religion for culture and language in that framework and it is plain that the contours of this tussle are appropriate to understanding Hindutva too. Indha maadhiri hindutva sila idatthile odaadhu. If you need that translated, I've made my point. If you don't, you should be asking yourself whether a future generation of 'your people' will also instinctively grasp this distinction.

That's not to say that subnational identities are diametrically opposed to nationalism. Hindutva finds nodding acceptance in every corner of the nation, but to varying degrees. Support is the mélange of many considerations, and religion and language are only two of them. But the broader strokes of inclusion remain even here. Within subnational communities, for example, caste is a much stronger marker of support for Hindutva than it is elsewhere. To say that Hindutva is the political philosophy of privileged Hindu castes in tradition-bound communities of the Indo-European linguistic group would not be wholly accurate, but the more distinct from that combination one gets, the lesser one feels its force.

Can Hindutva's proponents overcome this difficulty? I think not. Without a loosening of its moorings in specific communities of caste and language -- besides religion, that is -- Hindutva is unlikely to attract those who remain outside its zone of inclusion today.

It is possible that such a re-positioning of this political philosophy will be attempted to find greater acceptance, but in doing so Hindutva's supporters would be affirming the federalist nature of the nation's communities more, and arguing the uniformity of faith less.

One last word on this -- I find often that people who strongly oppose Hindutva's dominant leanings nonetheless find discussions of subnationalism disturbing. They warn that this will lead to separateness, and that the Indian political state will be splintered by such divisions. Spare me this argument, and pause to examine how similar that sounds to Hindutva itself. The insistence that the federated whole matters more than its constituent parts is a nationalist idea, not a patriotic one. Some choose religious lines to advance it, but it is equally fed by overdoses of make-believe secularism. I've been Tamil long enough to know the difference.

Ashwin Mahesh

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Number of User Comments: 41

Sub: Ashvin article

Dear Ashvin, Happy to the thought process is in right direction. As long long as such thinkers contribute their thought, word and DEED no force ...

Posted by Narayana Murty

Sub: hindutva

Dear Ashwin Hindutva is religious/cultural pluralism.It has a broad connotation.It stands for all Indians-cristians and muslims.the tragedy is that BJP has adopted it and narrowed ...

Posted by vpgautam

Sub: Hindu nationalists are liberal

Very interesting article by Ashwin Mahesh, as usual.Happily, he doesn't engage in mindless invective against the VHP and other organizations. One subject he should discuss ...

Posted by Varun Shekhar

Sub: Indha

Firstly, i have read some of the puranas & part of vedas & other books (indian & foreign authors) & anybody saying hinduism is about ...

Posted by Prakash

Sub: Indha Hindutva .....

Aswin's article makes many valid points and deserves recognition for its attempt at a deep understanding of the political process going on in the name ...

Posted by R.Gopalakrishnan



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