- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

The defeat of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in the recent 2004 national elections, and the return to power of the Indian secularist Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, does not suggest a major reversal in religious ideology. Congress and BJP were never far apart, except to reflect the changing times after capitalism triumphed over socialism by the early 1990s. Hindu nationalism and Indian secularism overlap.

The three Indian secularisms:

Following independence in August 1947, Congress Party governments under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors declared India to be a secular democratic state, distinguishing itself from Pakistan, which was judged to be a theocratic authoritarian state. However, interpretations of secularism in India have not been consistent. Nehru’s interpretation was that of the West. The state will not engage in religious activities nor promote any religion. Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation suggested that all religions are equal, and that the state will encourage the practice of all religions equally. According to the Hindu nationalist perspective, Hinduism acknowledges different pathways to God and, therefore, all Indians are Hindus. This view threatened to overwhelm the identities of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs.

All three interpretations of secularism prevailed concurrently in independent India. But it was Nehru’s Western concept that was overriding on the grounds that the separation of state and religion was an essential prerequisite for the conduct of Western democracy. But the concurrent prevalence of the Gandhian interpretation implied that Western secularism could easily slide into the Hindu nationalist variant. It is not a big step from “all religions are equal,” to “all Indians are Hindus whatever their faith.” This interpretation began to be imposed by the Hindu nationalists in the 1990s.

Hindu nationalism

Hindu nationalism, represented by the BJP, failed to be an election winner despite the fact that 82 percent of Indians are Hindus. Instead, Indian secularism represented by the Congress Party won. However, apart from Sonia Gandhi being a Christian who has embraced the Hindu way of life, Congress Party leaders were equally Hindu as the BJP. The question was which party represented the real Hinduism. The problem was that the demands of some of the more radical Hindu nationalists, such as that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for a “Hindutva,” appeared not only “un-Indian” but also “un-Hindu.” They promoted the concept of Hindutva in two separate contexts. First, that all Indians must recognize “the essence of being Hindu” as a way of life, including followers of other religions in India. Second, they sought to establish a political state called Hindutva, the land of the Hindus, replacing the various earlier connotations represented by “India” (the British legacy), “Hindustan” (the Muslim legacy) and Bharat (the legacy of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka of the 4th century BCE).

The rise and fall of Hindutva

First, Hindutva, in the context of Hindu essence, made no sense since Hindus do not believe in organized religion or an organized religious lifestyle. Hinduism is a “come as you are” religion. The Hindu masses resisted being told how to live like a Hindu, especially efforts to promote a focus on the god Rama in a land of several reincarnations of god. There was a temple-building spree in India over the last decade, funded often by the wealthy Hindu diaspora in the United States, which was also the main supporter of the BJP. But these Hindu temples lay largely empty. Hindus in India preferred the old relaxed religious lifestyle.

Second, Hindutva as a Hindu state posed problems among those who could not identify with it: the sizeable religious minorities who constituted 18 percent of the population or 180 million; the uncertain religious-ethnic status of the former “untouchables” now known as Dalits, who are probably around 25 percent, or 250 million; and the potential transformation of the traditional practice of Hinduism from what was essentially a way of life into a more intense faith that required regular practice and commitment. There was a groundswell of opposition among the Hindu majority against this imposition by the Hindu nationalists, and no support for it from the Muslims, Christians and the Dalits.

The return to Indian secularism

Hinduism is a secular religion. Therefore, India remained a secular state, whether the government was headed by Congress or BJP, but often against the protests of the more radical Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who felt betrayed. While the Hindu secularists of the Congress Party never sought to discover their religious roots or to make demands on non-Hindus, radical Hindu nationalists of the VHP and RSS sought such a national religious identity and to change the practice of Hinduism itself. They were rejected but they will rebound sooner or later.

Raju G. C. Thomas is the Allis Chalmers Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at Marquette University.

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