As the Supreme Court considers aspects of the debate between religion and politics and what constitutes a violation of the founding principles of the Representation of the People Act, attention has been drawn to a 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court, which 21 years ago (December 11, 1995) famously spoke of Hinduism or Hindutva as a “way of life”. The BJP manifesto of the following year quoted this judgment to claim it had stamped the BJP as secular, as it “endorsed the true meaning and content of Hindutva as being consistent with the true meaning and definition of secularism”. 1996 was also the year that saw the BJP-led 13-day government at the Centre, followed by the first government by a coalition of non-BJP parties.
The 1995 judgment has been criticised and remarked upon for several things it did and did not do — but the main issue has been its conflation of Hinduism and Hindutva.
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‘Hindutva’ was coined by V D Savarkar of the Hindu Mahasabha, one of the most polarising figures of the early 20th century, and now regarded as one of the BJP’s central philosophers. While several government schemes have been given the name of Deendayal Upadhyaya, the former BJP president, L K Advani, swore by Savarkar far more frequently. Whether it was the plaque to honour him at the Andaman jail, or his portrait in Parliament’s Central Hall – significantly positioned to face Mahatma Gandhi — Savarkar was constantly used to push the BJP’s cause ideologically in the days of NDA 1.
Much before he was made an accused in Gandhi’s assassination trial, and even before the Muslim League pronounced its divisive two-nation theory, Savarkar, in his essay, Hindutva, published in 1923, put forth the idea of a citizenship of “Hindusthan” based on blood/‘race’ — which effectively ensures that Mohammedans and Christians would remain non-citizens, and would be seen as permanent outsiders.
A Hindu, he wrote, was “A person who regards this land of Bharatvarsha, from the Indus to the Seas as his Fatherland as well as his Holy-land, that is the cradle-land of his religion.”
The 1995 judgment chose to draw the parallel between Hindutva and Hinduism from an essay by Wahiduddin Khan, rather than the mother-book of Hindutva, Hindutva. The judgment reads: “Ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and it is not to be equated with, or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism. In Indian Muslims: The Need For A Positive Outlook by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (1994), it is said (on page 19): ‘The strategy worked out to solve the minorities problem was, although differently worded, that of Hindutva or Indianisation’.” But, as A G Noorani has pointed out, this was a misinterpretation — Wahiduddin Khan went on to reject the idea “of solving the minorities problem like this…”
The Constitution of independent India deemed all adult Indians as equal, and consciously rejected the central theme of Hindutva, which relied upon exceptionalism and the exclusion of non-Hindus. The Hinduism of Gandhi and others in the dominant nationalist stream did not tie the Gods one worshipped or where one went for pilgrimage, to the questions of citizenship or Indianness.
While there is a temptation to see the Right to Equality or Universal Adult Suffrage as ‘modern’ ideas drawn from west European philosophies, historians speak of centuries-old traditions that saw several “ways of life” co-existing, sometimes amicably and sometimes with arguments, fights for dominance, and sometimes with indifference. Leading exponents of ancient Indian traditions have written on almost a shade-card like set of beliefs, even before the advent of Christianity or Islam, where the numberline spanned between the Brahmanas and the Shramanas, with a thousand colours in between. Indeed, the folk Hinduism of multiple beliefs cannot be forced into the Abrahamic framework of One Book, One Deity and one way of doing things.
Hindutva was a clear political project in the way political Islam was or is. While the Muslim League pushed the two-nation theory and separatist Muslims got a Muslim Pakistan, those arguing for Hindutva (not Hinduism) did not get their wish. Underscoring the differences and separateness with those who were not Hindu, Savarkar derisively referred to ‘universalism’ and a belief in ‘non-violence’ as opiates. To counter Gandhi’s teachings of peace, and to keep alive the “political virility” of separateness was, and remains, the project of Hindutva.
The huge leap of faith that the Supreme Court made in bracketing Hinduism with Hindutva was noticed by the court itself just months after this judgment. On April 16, 1996, the court said: “It is not necessary to consider the philosophy of Hindu religion and its tenets of tolerance and respect for different religious faiths for the purpose of appreciating whether appeal was really made for Hindutva which is something different from outward practices and some of the following professed by followers of Hindu religion.” The Bench called for a relook at the judgment by a Bench of five judges expeditiously.