'No civilised nation can thrive if it is possessed with the spirit of Hindutva.'
Vaihayasi Pande Daniel reports from Day One of the Tata Literature Festival.
They were, all four of them, on the same page, but different parts of a large page.
Former Indian Foreign Service officer and author Pavan K Varma was in one corner, keeping the non-saffron flag of Hinduism flying high.
Tata Literature Festival Director Anil Dharker, as the moderator, occupied another corner, deliberately trying to get a rise out of the participants.
Former The Hindu editor and now its publisher Narasimhan Ram and television journalist and author Barkha Dutt dominated various parts at the centre of this page (and stage).
The discussion was a treat to witness.
Humour, optimism, erudition were there in equal measure, along with huge amounts of sanity, something missing these days in many a television debate.
And what a relief to not have an anchor shouting the panellists down.
The topic up for debate was Hindu, Hinduism, Hindutva and Dharker asked Varma, Dutt and Ram if reaching Hindutva from being a Hindu was a natural progression.
Dutt: "No, I don't think it is a natural progression... I was compelled to re-examine what language, what instruments we need to create an environment of pluralism."
"There is a relationship here between Hindutva and Hinduism. They may be at odds with each other... But I think this sort of shrill, right-wing Hindutva we are seeing many Hindus would not recognise. It is also a sort of moment of reckoning which reminds many secularists of the old kind -- and I would put myself in that -- that perhaps we were too dislocated, too unrooted, too deracinated to have a language to talk to many, many (people)."
Ram: "I think the so-called progression is a perversion. Hindutva is a political project. Hinduism as Barkha has said is very diverse and pluralistic, we know that, and there is an attempt, as Romila Thapar, the historian, calls to have a Syndicated Hinduism, where you get everything together and reconstruct in the image of the Semitic religions."
"Hindutva as (Vinayak Damodar) Savarkar famously said has nothing to do with Hinduism... The relationship between Hinduism and Hindutva is a highly perverted vision of what India is... Toxic ideology and, as it is practised, it divides people and its basis is to create hate against the other, particularly Muslims but also Christianity."
"No civilised nation can thrive if it is possessed with the spirit of Hindutva."
Varma: "One of the inalterable inferences is that Hinduism is essentially and fundamentally dialogic, it is eclectic, it is inclusive and it is based on something called shastra, where you can talk with somebody you disagree with respect..."
"I also realise Hinduism is in many ways remarkably revolutionary -- of the six systems of philosophy, five are technically atheist. So their search traditionally, at least in Hindu thought, was not for god, not for ritual, but for what could be the ultimate truth that underlines our lives and this (universe) around us. That is the Hinduism that exists."
"Hindutva which is a derivative, artificially implanted on the great tradition of Hinduism, largely for political reasons, is by contrast quite the opposite in terms of being aggressive, in being inflexible, in being prescriptive, in being superficial and in being intolerant..."
Dharker: "Pavan, whatever you said reinforces in me this belief that we are sitting around here as liberals... Religion has nothing to do with the intellect."
Varma: "I can violently disagree."
Huge laughter from the audience.
Dharker: "Before you can violently or even peacefully disagree (let me say) the problem with Hinduism is that it is a very amorphous kind of religion. It has no Bible, it has no Quran, it has no Ten Commandments. It is an idea...this is not (easy) to grasp. People need stories, people need something, people need to worship something, people need a form."
Dutt does not entirely agree believing, she said, that what binds India together here is a lot of diversity within Hinduism. "It is." she stated, "a cultural identification as opposed to a very organised religious affinity."
She spoke about a culture of Diwali as opposed to Diwali being a "dogma of my faith."
Dutt prefaced further remarks with "Pavan I agree with you, that should please you" adding that other more secular followers of Hinduism have not been able to counter Hindutva, because she discovered people didn't relate to talk about "my secularism and my pluralism".
She felt many modern Hindus were severely dislocated from the larger reality within the country because "we haven't developed a language of liberalism that incorporates the romance of religion."
Varma took another tack and said that since Hinduism by default has no one god, no one temple, no one text, no prophet, no congregation and was a way of life, which he called a strength, its followers often ended up clueless of the tenets of their own faith.
Varma, who published a philosophical biography of Adi Shankaracharya this year, put it: "That is the reason why many people who are Hindus, practising or not, are adrift from an even basic knowledge of their own religion. You cannot argue with the lowest common denominator unless you yourself have some knowledge."
Varma added that the secular lobby was confined to reiterating truths of liberalism, pluralism, and respect for all people etc.
"But if you ask them what are the three foundations of Hinduism, which have nothing to do with religion per se -- the Upanishads, the Bhagvad Gita, Brahma Sutras..." they wouldn't know.
They would know of the Adi Shankarcharya but nothing beyond that or who he actually was, when he lived and what he said.
The average educated Hindu does not even know which were the systems of Hindu philosophy, said Varma.
In conversation with Hindutva radicals or while taking them on, Varma felt, one had to be equipped with knowledge of one's faith.
Hindu radicals often backed off when taken on legitimately, as he did and offered him "Pavanji aap ka bahut saman karte hai, chodh dijiye, because you have to have the wherewithal to counter it!"
"The Charvaka School," Varma continued, "says religion is a means to exploit the masses... Tantra-ism is also Hinduism. There are many shades and aspects of Hinduism that can be used to counter Hindutva. In the absence of informed riposte, we are allowing Hinduism to be reduced to its lowest common denominator!"
Dharker interjected looking puzzled: "Who is the 'We'. Who is the 'We' who is allowing it?"
Varma: "The bulk of the Hindus."
Dutt offered a tentative: "I agree partially with you."
Varma: "When will you agree fully with me!"
The room was shaken up with laughter. But she felt his usage of the "secularist lobby" term was a "regurgitation of the Times Now-Republic kind of school!" Applause from the audience.
Ram joined in offering another take. "There are no Hindu fundamentalists."
Harking back to Savarkar, he said the pre-Independence Hindu activist in his book attributed three conditions to being truly aligned with Hinduness or Hindutva -- "It has to be your motherland, fatherland and holyland and he didn't talk about territorial nationalism but he talked about cultural nationalism."
In a firm tone, Ram added: "It is abundantly clear that Hindutva can't be blamed on Hinduism. Everyone knows it is an attempt to reconstruct it, refashion it, in the image of Semitic religions."
He questioned how and when the Ram Janambhoomi became sacred to Hindus.
"What is sacred about that? Not a fundamental tenet of Hinduism even if we worship Lord Rama. Purely a political project, cynically used."
Dharker remained in his pessimistic frame of mind remarking how all political parties have used religion, but the BJP and the RSS have done so "in a very organised almost violent manner."
He felt there was not much hope given that Hinduism had obnoxiously supported caste and other practices. And he declared secularism could not be attributed to Hinduism and was a concept from the West.
Varma would not concur.
"The Upanishads say there is one truth, wise people call it by different names... These are texts revered by many Hindus."
The Upanishads also proclaimed, in a revolutionary manner, centuries before, according to Varma, the first kernel of secular belief: Let good thoughts come from everywhere.
Dharker remarked ruefully, "Every time Pavan Varma speaks," he got a better understanding of the problems that Hinduism faced.
"Hinduism as espoused by us is so intellectual it is beyond the grasp of most people."
Dutt countered that. She felt there was a space between "Pavan's esoteric embrace" and another area from where India derived its templated idea of what was secular.
She said she now embraced the concept of pluralism because the word secularism has been "corroded" by politics. She went back to underlining her belief that pluralists/secularists needed a new language.
"For example this word tolerance I loathe. What does it mean to tolerate?! There is a reductionism in our conversation..."Dutt added. "We need a language to question orthodoxy and we don't have that language."
Ram said he was not apologetic about the use of the word secularism since it was enshrined in the Constitution and totally upheld by the Supreme Court. The Constitution also demanded no mixing of politics and religion that was today seriously ignored.
Quoting the interview with K N Govindacharya in Congress leader Shashi Tharoor's latest book on Hinduism, Ram expressed horror that the RSS pracharak has spoken about not even amending the Constitution, but rewriting it. "This is rubbish!"
Dharker added more heat to the discussion with: "Perhaps one can argue that the framers of the Constitution were... they should have declared India a Hindu State."
That was greeted with shocked exclamations that India would then be no different from Pakistan.
Varma: "The right to practice your faith and propagate it is a fundamental right... Laid down in stone."
Dharker wryly: "It is actually on paper and that is my point."
But Varma could not be shaken from his train of thought: "One can't predict who can amend the Constitution in what manner. But the handful of people (who) have appropriated the right to themselves speak for all Hindus are the real minority!"
That statement was greeted with thunderous applause and approval by the audience.
Added Varma: "Most Indians want to get away from islands of religious exclusivity... Mullahs, mahants... and they want to get on with their lives."
Dharker shot at him: "What makes you say that?"
Varma: "Otherwise India would have succumbed in '49. Why have we survived as a nation? Because the Hindus themselves understand that given the geography and demography of this country and traditions of the past... In this country people are more concerned in having their feet on the ground and their eyes on the balance sheet and getting on with their lives... Because there is an inherent stratum of sanity in this country and that stratum of sanity needs to have more articulate spokesman."
Dharker: "I wish I could believe you."
Varma: "I can't convince everybody."
Dharker: "I am going to hate myself for saying this, but I am going to say it any way. Human beings by nature are intolerant of the other. Education political correctness etc etc make us suppress this emotion. It is a myth that Hindus and Muslims can live together as a family and they have ignored the fact they dislike each other. It needs a little spark from some political party to ignite us."
Ram quietly and resolutely shut Dharker's gloom down. "If you look at Indian history over the centuries, it refutes this. If majority Hindus really felt that way, that they hated or deeply disliked the other, there is no way you could have had any kind of political stability (in India) whether it is was (under) Akbar, Ashoka or even Aurangzeb..."
"I think I fully agree with Pavan on this, the majority, the overwhelming majority of Hindus do not want it (the consequences of Hindutva) and that is the long-term trend. In the short term, many discussions could occur and we could have a demagogic leader, who comes in and misleads a whole country..."
Vigorous applause from the audience.
Dharker mischievously: "You are talking hypothetically..."
Ram added that the majority of Indians were concerned with doing well, and wanting stability and did not want Hindutva. "I would not draw this conclusion at all."
To Dharker: "I think you are doing it deliberately."
Varma: "Everybody likes each other. I like Barkha. Amit Shah and Modi like each other. So many examples..."
"Nowadays," he added, "it does not matter if the PM is with you. It matters if the Supreme Court is with you."