Will the ship of India be able to come out intact from the stormy waters it is caught in? This is a question all those who love India are asking and they are not all necessarily Indians. For them, India has been an experiment to find an idiom of sharing for a diverse people. The existence of numerous religions, sects, languages and customs was welcomed as a resource to build this commonality and never resented as a problem by the makers of the nation. They resisted the temptation of erasing differences to create oneness.
Indian secularism was not a mundane principle of statecraft. It was a bold attempt to negotiate the labyrinth of nationalism by rejecting the straight path of uniformity. The easiest thing for India’s founding fathers, all of whom were Hindus for Jinnah, would have been to say that Hindus were to be the benevolent patrons of Muslims and Christians. And Hindus they were, most of them at least — even Nehru called himself a Hindu.
Indian leaders saw the country as a message for the world. This is what Gandhi had in mind when he was invited by Sardar Patel to douse the fire of anger and hatred devouring Delhi, and told a friend that he could not give up on Delhi, for if Delhi goes, then India goes, and then there remains no hope for the world.
The idea was not to integrate the small into the big but to create equal relationships. The scope and sweep of the imagination of India was broad, not just geographically but psychologically too. It was to be an open space. In its beginning, it was inadequate. It had yet to develop the ability to hear the long-repressed voices of the Dalits and understand the Adivasis. There were also quarrels along the way but it started off as an interesting hypothesis.
The biggest achievement of the Indian nation was its promise to the identities, smaller in many ways to the Hindu identity: They are not expected to follow Hinduism or be its vassals. Hinduism, be it a religion or a way of life — was not to be the defining feature of India. It was this solemn promise which convinced millions of Muslims that despite Pakistan — created in their name — they could find peace in India.
Why did this promise convince the Muslims, under suspicion and attack in those days? Because they witnessed the sublime act of the leaders of the nation — followers of Gandhi — defending this promise, body and soul. It was this conviction which made Gandhi reject the proposal by Rajendra Prasad that cow slaughter should be prohibited in India. Gandhi was unambiguous in his resolve not to let such a law be passed as it would mean imposition of a particular way of life and privileging it over other lifestyles. Gandhi, a sanatani, a vegetarian devotee of the cow, warned Hindus against falling in this trap.
Today, when the chief minister of the state he was born in declares his intention to make Gujarat vegetarian, the promise that India was to those who live differently from vegetarian Hindus stands broken. When mutton shops are forcibly closed in Gurgaon under the watch of the police, the constitutional principle of freedom is violated.
We do not have a Gandhi or Nehru or Patel now to chide communal Hindus and make them see their folly. The state itself has turned into a bully. What, then, is to act as the safeguard? It was thought that the institutions created by the constitution’s mandate would act as bulwark against any attack on this fundamental idea of India. We see them sadly inadequate to the challenge facing them.
That Hindus take pleasure in the humiliation of Muslims and also relish the deception and duplicity with which all this is done — in the name of hygiene, legality,economy, etc. — reflects poorly on them. India is definitely in crisis, but Hinduism is facing a greater crisis.
Indian Muslims have often been lauded patronisingly for having rejected the call of the Islamic State. They have invested heavily in the idea of secular India and stood by it. Can the same be said about Hindus in 2017? By siding with a politics which marginalises minorities and seeks to subjugate them, they are losing their soul.
Gandhi had warned Hindus in his last days that if destroyed in India or Pakistan, Islam has other lands to realise its spiritual potential but if Hinduism is destroyed in India, it has no hope. By destroying others, it first destroys itself. It can grow, not by competing with others, but with itself. Gandhi was silenced not only because he favoured Pakistan or Muslims but also because he was constantly challenging Hindus. He considered it a weakness and sin for religion to align with the state — this was a lazy path, outwardly strong but hollow of spiritual content.
After Gandhi, this critical tradition in Hinduism stopped. Hinduism is not a source of creativity for literature and the arts in India any more. The references to religion we find in music and dance also demonstrate that there is no new imagination of Hinduism, it is largely nostalgia for an imagined past. We do see modern philosophers using Islamic or Christian resources to address the dilemmas of our times. Hinduism has only pop philosophers giving sermons and churning out popular literature who ultimately build large statues of gods or turn propagandists for political Hindutva. It is exclusionary, inward-looking and fears to engage with others.
The rise of the Hindu state of India is thus also the decline and impoverishment of the promise of Hinduism. The corrosion of the state’s institutional structure would affect our worldly life but this unchallenged take-over by Hindutva would turn Hinduism soulless. The task of recovering the Hindu self will not be easy then.
The writer teaches at Delhi University