An international conference, “Dismantling Global Hindutva”, scheduled to be held in the US in the second week of September, has triggered a storm of protest. The conference’s website shows that it is co-sponsored by departments in dozens of leading American universities with academics and activists, from India and elsewhere, scheduled as speakers.
The conference’s poster depicts the nail-removing side of a hammer plucking out saffron-coloured images of what are clearly meant to be representations of RSS workers. Predictably, social media is buzzing with the outrage of Hindutva advocates while opponents of Hindutva are issuing calls for solidarity with the event. In such a highly charged atmosphere, it is imperative to apply the golden rule of conflict resolution. Namely that both sides listen deeply to decipher the concern, the hurt, the anxiety behind the other’s complaint or agitation.
Can each side apply the principle of purva paksha — to understand and represent the opponent’s view with full integrity and authenticity? In attempting to do this I will depict not the extreme fringe of either side but what I understand to be its core elements.
Let us start with advocates of Hindutva for whom “Hinduism” and “Hindutva” are now inter-changeable terms. They see Hinduism, the third largest religion in the world in terms of population, as being under threat in a world of aggressive proselytisation by Christians and Muslims. There is discontent about Hindu-majority India not being a Hindu rashtra, when there are many officially Christian and Muslim nations. Additionally, both in theory and in practice, Indian secularism is perceived to have privileged minorities at the cost of Hindus.
Hindutva is therefore seen as a necessary political ideology in order to secure the future for Hindus — possibly by making India formally a Hindu nation. Some embrace the militant modes of Hindutva because there is a self-image of Hindus as having been passive for too long and not adequately addressing various kinds of insults and affronts, be it in the distant past or now. From this perspective the call for “Dismantling Global Hindutva” is seen as an open threat. The conference poster is thus experienced as an insult.
Now let us look at the concerns and anxieties of those who oppose Hindutva. In essence, this opposition is anchored in the experience of India as a multi-cultural, multi-faith nation with a syncretic culture to be proud of. Commitment to this rich cultural heritage of respect and space for all faiths, is enshrined in India’s Constitution.
Opposition to Hindutva has intensified because of the visible increase in social, verbal and physical violence against people who are either non-Hindu and/or oppose Hindutva. Apart from random attacks on individuals, four leading intellectuals — Narendra Dhabolkar, M M Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Gauri Lankesh — have been killed by some advocates of Hindutva. Though similar assassins could not reach him, the eminent author and actor, the late Girish Karnad was at the top of a death-list uncovered by police. Those who bear the brunt of vigilante violence in the name of Hindutva find no comfort in being told that other religions are or have been far more violent and oppressive. Or that these are fringe elements that do not represent Hindutva proper.
Opposition to Hindutva is also driven by anxieties over systemic shifts. New laws in several states make it difficult or impossible for inter-faith couples to marry. Destruction of places of worship to avenge historical offences is valourised. Physical attacks on people because of what they eat, or for any other reason that is deemed to be anti-Hindu or anti-national, are condoned.
Many who are deeply anxious about these trends are practising Hindus who see Hindutva as an ideology that is profoundly antithetical to the essence of Hinduism as a spiritual tradition. So they are opposed to polarisation, narrowing of identities and hatred on any grounds.
This is the set of people who have most to lose due to any effort which frames Hindutva in binary or mechanical terms — as that conference poster does. What is unfolding within Indian society now is a complex and multi-dimensional social-political and psychological process which has organic roots that Hindutva advocates fertilise diligently to intensify polarisation.
Therefore, any further narrowing and sharpening of identities, either on lines of religion or political ideology, helps the forces of Hindutva to undermine Hinduism as an open culture, a metaphysics, in order to promote a nationalism that is defined in competition with various “others”.
The conference, however inadvertently, could fan the fears of those Hindus who lean towards Hindutva largely due to unresolved insecurities. This is grievously unfortunate because the need of the hour is to open spaces where all of us can be more confidently self-critical and introspective. Those leaning towards Hindutva need to explore how their angst can be creatively and non-violently processed and sublimated. Conversely, those of us who oppose Hindutva need to find ways to reaffirm and restore the Indian ethos of “sarva dharma sambhav” by not treating advocates of Hindutva as our “other”, as an opponent to be eliminated.
We are indeed in the midst of a large and epochal struggle for the future of India and what it means to be a Hindu. But to see this challenge merely as a contest between ideologies is to fall for a decoy. Why not instead focus on what really is at stake — the dream of 21st century India as an open society in which unconditional and equal right to life, dignity and freedom of expression is so vibrantly lived that all authoritarian tendencies and hate-based agendas become powerless.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 3, 2021 under the title ‘The golden rule: Both sides listen’. Bakshi is an author and founder of the online platform, Ahimsa Conversations.