On January 30, 2019, it will be exactly 71 years since Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. Much is made of that moment. But consider this: The image of Gandhi, a man of God, at his daily prayer meeting in Birla House, being shot dead by a follower of an atheist, one who stood for a Hindu Rashtra. Succumbing after crying out “Hey Ram”, Gandhi died so the thirst of an anxious section — which believed he represented a despicable softening of the Hindu soul, unacceptable to independent India — could be satiated.
But the point here is that one can be personally religious and simultaneously accept the rights of others to be the same. There has been much debate about Rahul Gandhi, in recent months, of being engaged in several temple visits. His visit to temples — even his visits to holy places of other religions are ignored — have been labelled insincere by the BJP. Most recently, on November 15, a BJP spokesman said: “Temple hopping of Rahul Gandhi, the temporary janeu he adorns, the fancy dress Hindutva that he has taken to, are nothing but eyewash”. Ten temple visits in 68 constituencies have been noted and data assembled about them. The BJP going after Rahul for demonstrating his “Hinduness” is completely understandable. But what is puzzling is those critical of the BJP saying that Rahul is pursuing “soft-Hindutva”. It suggests a fundamentally flawed understanding of the sense of secularism that India promises and some serious political dark-spots too.
In principle, secularism in India (which predates the formal insertion of the word “secular” in the preamble), is about matters of the state or public affairs being indifferent to the faith of the Indian citizen. Who or what you worship, if you worship at all, is not of any consequence to the Indian state. Even before the word was inserted in the 42nd amendment to the Constitution in 1976, Article 14 which clearly enunciated equality of all citizens, Article 25, which holds the promise of the right to practice, profess and propagate any faith, and, Articles 29 and 30, for holding your right to preserve distinctive cultural, linguistic and religious characteristics, could not have been more unequivocal.
The French Laïcité, making it essential to hide overt symbols of religiosity (more controversially the turban or the burqa) is something the Indian state stayed away from. It stuck to the classic separation of the Church and State, where religious affairs remained in the private domains of citizens and representatives.
The characterisation of the Congress party as a “Muslim” party was brought into sharp focus in the 2014 election campaign. The flame of the “appeasement” idea grew stronger with the wearing of the skull cap by Hindu politicians being portrayed by the BJP as anti-Hindu. What was a way of generating empathy and goodwill and breaking the “us” and the “other” dichotomy, was eventually turned into an accusation of the skull cap being anti-Hindu. This was enhanced by PM Narendra Modi wearing all manner of headgear, but completely refusing to don the skull cap.
So, conversely, the business of going after a Hindu exhibiting a sense of Hindu-ness, or religious belief seen as translating into being unable to be fair to non-Hindus, mirrors the skull cap argument.
The fundamental characterisation of temple-hopping (even if it were to be that) as soft-Hindutva is wrong. Hindutva, in Savarkar’s landmark book by that name, defines itself clearly as being an idea that holds out India to those who have their punyabhumi in India, or those who are not “Muslims, Christians and Communists”. Violence is also seen implicitly as a rightful tool to deal with the “other”. So, pursuing Hindutva politics, which is essentially against Indians who follow Abrahamic faiths, is not the same as being a Hindu in personal practices. Those who criticise the act of individuals going to temples as soft-Hindutva betray an embrace of the misleading belief of Hindutva proponents: That the political ideology of Hindutva is the same as a Hindu practising religion.
The other, more important prejudice, betrayed by those criticising a temple run, is an assumption that a namaz-reading Muslim citizen cannot be led by a believing Hindu. Jawaharlal Nehru may have celebrated his atheism and worn it proudly, but that is an exceptional matter. The edifice of modern democratic India rests on the ability of a
V P Singh, a Mulayam Singh Yadav, a Lalu Prasad or a Jyoti Basu, who are seen as eminently having the trust of Muslims, far above that of someone like the Shahi Imam, or other leaders with Muslim names.
In the late ’90s, in a landmark photograph on the pages of this newspaper, Justice B N Srikrishna was seen, unwittingly, with a kamandal, Vibhuti smeared on his forehead and going for his prayers. In 1998, his report on the Bombay riots, a damning indictment of Hindutva-promoting parties, clearly made his actions stand apart from his personal version of Hinduism: “The Commission sincerely hopes that the calamitous events of December 1992, January 1993 and March 1993 would serve as eye-openers and lead to introspection and that all concerned attain the maturity to accept constructive criticism and mend their ways. For, in the immortal words of Ramayana, ‘Persons pleasing in speech are easy to find; it is difficult to find one who speaks or listens to the bitter, but wholesome, truth’.”
A Gandhi who died for Hindu-Muslim unity cannot be pilloried for being a practicing Hindu, organising prayer meetings and drawing his sense of secularism from his religious understanding. Mohammad Ali Jinnah was, like Savarkar, a non-practising and non-religious person, but espoused communal violence. It is essential to see clearly how we cannot confuse a relationship with God in one’s prayer room with ideological actions espoused by a political leader. That is the essence of the promise of the Indian Constitution.