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The hijab controversy is not about ‘secular’ reform

Suhas Palshikar writes: It is necessary to understand it as part of a larger narrative or restructuring of India’s culture and society as envisioned by Hindutva votaries.

Written by Suhas Palshikar |
Updated: February 21, 2022 9:28:56 am
Students outside a college in Udupi, Karnataka amid the hijab controversy. (Express Photo: Jithendra M)

Some time back, when pictures of a burqa-clad woman taking her child attired as Lord Krishna to school on the occasion of Janmashtami were circulated approvingly, a vocal section of Hindutva made an interesting argument. It was said this was reducing Hindu tradition to a fancy dress event and that such (mis)appropriation of Hindu tradition should be called out. Clearly, it is not enough that non-Hindus should behave like Hindus or participate in Hindu cultural-religious festivities.

Now, in the case of Karnataka, the argument is that non-Hindus cannot have their own practices (whether these are good or bad practices is beside the point). In the case of beef eating, the argument rests on the point that since the cow is sacred for Hindus, non-Hindus should ensure that Hindu sentiment is not hurt by killing the cow and consuming its meat. In the present case, there is no such “hurt” caused to Hindus and yet, non-Hindus are not left alone to follow their (supposedly) religious practice.

Three dimensions of Hindutva emerge through the Karnataka complication. The first is a political dimension, not just in the limited sense of consolidating the Hindu vote, which surely is happening. But the more critical political dimension is about issues such as what constitutes the nation and who are entitled to be India’s citizens. At a fundamental level, the citizenship of those who do not follow authorised Hindu practices is being denied. Increasingly, governments are ensuring that deviations from such practices as approved by Hindutva are formally discouraged and disallowed. So, the concept of an Indian citizen is being equated with adopting the Hindutva way of life and thinking. The rest will be marginalised and criminalised.

Another dimension is cultural. It speaks to the ideologically fed century-old anxieties of some Hindus. These anxieties have produced a hankering for uniformity. The Karnataka developments give a wrong impression that it is only about Muslims. At a more immediate level, these are indeed aimed at Muslims: Muslims cannot have the freedom of being slow in modernisation because in this particular instance, a certain meaning of modernisation suits the Hindutva agenda. But let us not make a mistake of summarising this only as between Hindus and Muslims. More than that, this issue is literally and metaphorically, about the idea of “uniform”.

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A cursory glance at the history of Hindutva shows its understanding of an ideal society is premised on everyone being similar, differences being only nominal, bringing about homogeneity in every respect. While in politics, this is reflected in the emphasis on “common” or national language, in the religious sphere it is reflected in searching for a foundational scripture either in the Gita or in the Vedas. In the sphere of popularly practiced religion, this obsession has found two expressions. On the one hand, one deity is raised at the all-India level both as a symbol of religious pride and also as a basis of national identity; on the other hand, regionally celebrated deities are promoted elsewhere to ensure that they do not remain identities of regions but assume pan-Hindu status.

In every sphere, this homogenisation of the idea of being Hindu is at the core of Hindutva. That is why diversity of practices about food consumption is discouraged and delegitimised as being against the Hindu religion. Besides beef, debates around inclusion/exclusion of eggs from school mid-day meals is being characterised by this search for true and pure Hindu.

This takes us to the third dimension of Hindutva — the search for the pure as the original. Besides the obsession with uniformity, cultural practices of Hindutva are also based on another ambition. It is about formulating a “pure”, unadulterated Hindu religio-cultural existence at the mass level. While a bikini can be easily condemned as western debasement, we are not far from de-claiming Khajuraho; recently, a book shop was vandalised for selling Kamasutra. So, a masculine yet pure (preferably celibate) identity and a feminine but de-sexualised identity are upheld as role models. Through these exercises, a pure religiosity as true Hindu religion contests the rich diversity of religiosities among the so-called Hindus. In a sense, this search for purity dovetails with both uniformity and nationalism.

At the most superficial but very loud rhetorical level, hate and suspicion of Muslims (both from India and elsewhere generally) constitute the immediate driver of Hindutva. But Hindutva cannot be explained only in terms of Islamophobia. In many instances, Islamophobia is a convenient tool given the widespread misunderstanding about Muslims and the intransigence of Muslim clergy and elite to steer internal reform. Beyond that, in matters of religious books, the emphasis on celibacy and simplicity, institutionalisation of seva as a “missionary” activity demanding long years of sacrifice and a search for unified religious order, the Hindutva project resembles traits of Christianity.

Finally, caste-based ideas of purity combined with the European obsession with pure blood as represented in the Nazi idea of Aryan race has informed the Hindutva project. Critics of Hindutva often draw attention to its “Brahmanical” character in this regard. While that has a certain validity, it must be squarely accepted that most castes (and the idea of caste itself) draw sustenance from the idea of barricading one community from others by restricting marriage practices. The violent opposition to inter-caste marriages, particularly when the male partner is from a “lower” caste, is testimony to this caste-based search for purity.

In this sense, the drivers of Hindutva are beyond the pale of many ideas of the Hindu religion. They are also quite far from popular cultural practices and that is why it has taken so long and so much violence for Hindutva to gain traction. The drivers of Hindutva — the othering of Muslims, influence of Christianity and an elite idea of purity — are also away from the moral or spiritual ideas of religion. These factors constitute the ideological base and work as the political weapons of Hindutva. If this broader context of what is happening in Karnataka is missed, we are likely to be waylaid by the “secular” argument that the hijab controversy is more a matter of reform than being a part of a larger narrative or restructuring of India’s culture and society.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 21, 2022 under the title ‘Decoding Hindutva’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics

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