OVER THE past month, the image of an impassive, shorthaired woman in saffron robes flanked by police has bleached itself from the headlines of newspapers and television channels into our sub-consciousness, with confused and complicated messages we cannot yet begin to fathom. Hot arguments have raged over the tag we must give this woman and the module of terror the police say is ranged around her. ‘Hindu terror’? ‘Hindutva terror’? Or should it be ‘ultra-right wing terror’? A sane new line suddenly began doing the rounds from people like LK Advani, who have joyously been shouting about ‘Muslim terror’ for years — “Terror has no religion; why link an entire community or faith to the actions of a few?” Of course, there have been other voices as well. Voices from the Sangh Parivar who have variously declared a Hindu — and particularly a sadhvi — cannot be a terrorist, or in a bizarre moral twist, if she indeed is a terrorist, it is only a defensive reaction and should be rewarded with an electoral ticket.

Hindu ‘sants’ have grouped together to create a ‘dharma raksha committee’ (not against those who might be straying, but against those who dare to accuse Hindus of such vile calumnies); the BJP has put out witty but disturbing posters that say ‘Narco-analyse the Congress’ conspiratorial brain’; RSS patriarch Sudarshan has said the organisation does not support any kind of terror, though his protégé Rajnath Singh obviously thinks otherwise; and in yet another belated twist, Advani, abandoning his statesmanly line, has selectively taken up the sadhvi’s allegation of torture with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister courteously sent National Security Adviser MK Narayanan to debrief him immediately. The same week, papers carried hair-raising stories about a group of young Muslim men in Hyderabad brutally tortured for months before they were set free as innocents. Another young Muslim wrote a plangent letter to the Prime Minister from jail, warning him about the malpractices of the security agencies. Nobody heard them.

All these contradictory reactions are a sign that sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur is a potent moment in the life of the country which it would be dangerous not to decode. Potent because she is a distillate of many of the most vexed questions we face as individuals and a nation. Potent because if she does turn out to be guilty, she is the most violent manifestation of the divisive religious brinksmanship our political parties have been playing. Potent because if she is not guilty, she is still the most violent face of that game. Potent too, because as the arguments around her rage and she continues to seep into our subconsciousness, different people in different corners are internalising complicated messages that will further feed that game.

Photo: AFP

Sadhvi Pragya is the face of something gone too far. Political opportunism at the top has an uncomfortable way of turning into fatal prejudice on the ground. At the most obvious level, if the sadhvi is guilty, she is, as erstwhile BJP ideologue Govindacharya says, “a warning bell of the psychological distortions that can arise out of those who overshoot the Hindutva project.”

Swordlines Sikhs protesting Dera Sacha Sauda chief impersonating Guru Gobind Singh
Swordlines Sikhs protesting Dera Sacha Sauda chief impersonating Guru Gobind Singh

More on that ‘overshoot’ later. The first of the many complex questions all of this raises is, who are we as a nation? Or rather, since that can never be a static or settled idea, in which direction are we moving as a nation? One of the biggest crises the sadhvi Pragya-Abhinav Bharat episode has precipitated is the fact that one just does not know what to believe. The police and anti-terror squads (ATS) have always had a dodgy track record. Human rights groups and sections of the media have gone blue exposing how innocent Muslims have been randomly arrested and brutalised. The police have leaked false leads to the media and paraded arrays of different people at different times as masterminds of the same crime. The national media, for the most part, has faithfully put all that out as gospel truth. Now, when that same police parades the sadhvi and her cohorts as the new face of terror, and blames them for the same crimes that a few days earlier they were torturing innocent Muslims for, what are we to believe? Have they suddenly become reliable because they are now arresting people we don’t like? Conversely, the BJP, Sangh Parivar and media have blithely been talking about ‘homegrown Muslim terror’ on the basis of ATS and police reports. Anyone who dared to question them was ‘anti-national’. Now that they have arrested Hindus, this same police and ATS is being reviled as ‘Congress puppets’ and instruments of ‘Muslim appeasement’. What is the ordinary Indian to make of this frightening muddle? This absence of ordinary certitudes. This loss of presumptive credibility in our institutions. And if no one is to be believed, then who really is blasting little children and anonymous men and women with such terrifying regularity?

Political properiety and public institutions — police, judiciary, investigative agencies — are the foundational stones on which a democracy is built. What this season of terror attacks and the state’s response has shown is that ordinary Indians no longer have access to these institutions, except on the basis of religious and social identity. Terror has a religion, torture has a religion, justice has a religion, jobs have a religion, education has a religion, relief has a religion, rehabilitation has a religion. Everything has a religion. Or caste. Everything is a competition.

Which brings one to the real crisis facing us today — the inordinate play religious identities have in our political life and the virulent way this is being articulated. This is by no means a new crisis. At the heart of it are old and warring ideas of India: the Secular project versus the Hindutva project; ‘India’ versus ‘Hindu rashtra’. What makes the crisis more urgent though, is that, as political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, the “instrumentality of communal violence” has changed. Terrorism — with its octopus reach and capacity for random hits — has introduced an unnamed and insidious fear in our bloodstream that is perhaps even more corrosive than riots. What is also new is that political parties and their divisive rhetoric is more debased than it has ever been. No leader or party has the stature or credibility to mediate and build bridges between communities. In the absence of that, this crisis of faith has the potential to spiral out of control and tear apart the nation as we know it. What is also new is that 25 years after the Hindu Right muscled its way into political relevance, many Indians have subconsciously been nudged further to the right; we have been pushed into thinking of ourselves — or at least questioning — the nature of ourselves as Hindus, Muslims, Christians, majority-minority, and how we fit in the life of a modern nation. In drawingroom conversations across India’s urban elite, for instance, deracinated Hindus with little stake or understanding about what it means to be Hindu, have started to say casually, “So what’s wrong with calling India a Hindu rashtra?”

Unusually, TEHELKA decided to tackle this question by putting a new book of photographs — India, a timeless celebration — at the heart of its cover story. Amit Mehra’s photographs of five major religions of India — Hindusim, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainsim and Sikhism — is a compelling (almost challenging) reminder of the magnificent diversity of Indian democracy. No other corner of the earth equals it. His photographs photographs of fakirs and monks, nuns and pirs, small pagan shrines and large imposing temples, his gallery of religious abandon and religious quietude, religion as public jamboree, religion as intensely personal search, religion as private faith and religion as culture, is visual proof that the tensions between religious groups in India is not a tension between warring faiths. Together, the photographs speak of a creative coexistence — not friction-free, but miraculous nonetheless — that are a powerful counter-narrative to the angry face of religious identities as they jostle for dominance and a share of the state’s resources in contemporary political life.

Injury and fury Muslims protesting a bomb blast outside a mosque
Injury and fury Muslims protesting a bomb blast outside a mosque Photo: AP

IN A MOVING preface to the book, former BBC journalist Mark Tully, an orthodox Anglican Christian, writes, “When I first came to India, I didn’t believe there were many ways to reach God. I thought there was only one way and that was Christianity. It’s India’s tolerance, India’s secularism that has changed my belief.” Sitting in the winter dusk of his drawing-room in Nizammuddin, Delhi, he goes further to say, “It is Hinduism that made me rethink things. I found it comforting to believe there could be many ways to God rather than the stranglehold of one way.” He goes on to quote Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, one of India’s leading Islamic scholars, who says, “I am Muslim, Islam is my religion, but I honour other religions. I also believe Muslims enjoy far better conditions in India than in any Islamic country. In Islamic countries, they either have peace or freedom, in India they have both.” Curiously, this sense of Hinduism — and by conflation, India — as being a tolerant and sprawling ‘culture’ or system of beliefs is echoed at different times by people as far apart on the ideological spectrum as Prakash Sharma, convenor of the Bajrang Dal, and Yasin Patel, former member of SIMI.

In a short-hand, simplistic way then, Mehra’s photographs serve to distinguish faith and mysticism from religion jostling for political space and representation in a modern democracy. Yet, they also serve up another thorny question. Is this capacity for tolerance and plurality an essential ‘Hindu’ trait? Is it a civilisational quality that will inevitably assert itself? Or is it a pragmatic myth on which a secular modern nation was forged, and which is starting to live out its time? The key to our health as a nation lies in the answer to some of these questions.

To take the idea of the nation first. As historian Mukul Kesavan says, “Is the idea of pluralism inherent in Indic civilisation? I don’t know. What is true, though, is that the modern Indian national project was born out of an opposition to colonial rule and, unlike European nationalism, unlike almost every other nationalist movement in the world, the Indian National Congress staked its credibility not on homogenity or majority dominance, but on diversity. This sort of ‘zoological nationalism’, which took all the census categories of the colonial state under its umbrella, and dared to create a modern democratic nation underwritten by diversity is extraordinary. Nothing like this exists in the world. It is sui generis. Sixty years in, one tends to forget what an audacious leap of imagination it was to do that.”

Many like Mark Tully and Maulana Wahiuddin would say that it was indeed, in part, the character of Hinduism that made this extraordinary feat possible. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “In Indian history, there is a striking absence of any articulated discourse of intolerance or the idea that the state can legitimately persecute someone for his beliefs. In a sense, this is because Hindusim has no single locus of authority, no single idea of the route to succour or salvation.”

Curiously though, both these ideas — the idea of a modern nation based on secular plurality rather than majoritanism and the idea of Hinduism as a self-confident tolerant system of beliefs — are increasingly under threat.

Saffron raiders Praveen Togadia (right) and sants protest the sadhvi’s arrest
Saffron raiders Praveen Togadia (right) and sants protest the sadhvi’s arrest

There are complex reasons for this. First, as Mehta points out, there is inherent tension between religious plurality and the equal citizenship that a modern nation promises. In a representational democracy, numbers count, and in the struggle for equal citizenship, minorities inevitably feel dwarfed, majorities feel thwarted.

There are other reasons why the ideas of diversity and pluralism have come to seem clichéd themes — a kind of sanctimonious Nehruvian lie that can no longer hold good. There are the opportunistic mistakes of the Congress, the contradictions of a cacophonous society, the heady onset of a global economy, the general debasement of politics, the fracturing of the polity into region, caste and languagebased concerns, and the attractions of the more homogenising, therefore less demanding, rhetoric of the Hindu Right, to name only a few. The impatience many Indians feel with the old idea of India was entrenched in the question Amit Mehra faced from a curator friend. “Why did you choose this hackneyed subject?” she asked. “India has moved on.”

Truth is, India has not moved on. Underlying almost all the big questions that face us today are the riddles thrown up by Mehra’s photographs. This country — as geographical, civilisational and political entity — is the most vividly plural corner of the globe. It is also a majoritarian Hindu region. How are these realities to remain reconciled within a modern Indian nation?

Curiously, the most interesting and complex answer to this lies in the contemporary battles over Hindutva and Hindusim, which version of Hindusim will dominate, and how our idea of nationalism will be affected by this.

TAKE FIRST the idea of Hindusim as a tolerant intersection of plural belief systems. Sociologists like Jyotirmaya Sharma vigorously and convincingly refute such essentialist descriptions, but set that aside for a moment. This commonly held view of Hindusim has itself triggered some very deep paradoxes. For one, it is this very notion of an essentially tolerant Hindusim that the Hindutva project has used to drive its argument about turning India into a Hindu rashtra. Their line of argument goes, “Every nation must have a unifying core. Since all the secular and plural values of the Indian constitution emanate from Hindusim, why can’t we acknowledge India as a Hindu rashtra?” At surface glance, for many, this is a convincing line. By this sleight of hand, they have successfully equated a philosophical faith with the idea of modern nationalism. Except, with the very next breath, they violate the spirit of this tolerant ‘ethos’ — the creative balance and coexistence it suggests — by saying Muslims, Christians, tribals and all other faiths must subordinate their cultures and selves to their pre-lapsarian Hindu past, so that India can forge itself as an emotionally unified resurgent Hindu nation. There is, of course, a very simple rider to all this: given Hindusim is such a vast and plural system, which strand of Hindusim does the Hindu Right suggest we all subordinate ourselves to? Inevitably then, the Hindu Right has wanted to change the very nature of Hindusim by homogenising it into a monolithic, muscular, political identity, capable of sustaining an imperial State.

IN A PRESCIENT essay written in 1991, the polymath Ashis Nandy wrote, “Hinduism and Hindutva now stand face to face, not yet ready to confront each other but aware confrontation will come.” Elsewhere, he wrote, “Predictably, Hindu nationalists have kept their most venomous attacks not for Muslims and Christians but for Hindus — denouncing them for being disorganised, effeminate, and fractious.” And indeed, enmeshed in the contradictions of its own logic, the Hindutva project has urged Hindus to give up their tolerant, accepting, plural ways and become more masculine, alert, and ready to battle. To do this, it has had to create enemies, primarily demonic Muslims and proselytising Christians. It has lashed out at Islam and Christianity for being militant, monolithic faiths; in the same breath it has set about trying to cast Hindus in that exact image. The crisis of Hindusim the Hindutva project has precipitated is to turn a largely self-confident culture into one predicated on a sense of fear, resentment, and chronic wound. As Tarun Vijay, director of the Shyama Prasad Mookherjee Institute, once put it, “India is the last place where Hindus exist. If you can have a ‘Save Panda’ campaign, why not a ‘Save Hindu’ campaign?” If guilty, sadhvi Pragya and Abhinav Bharat (along with their supposedly foiled attempt to kill some moderate RSS leaders) are the most neurotic face of this approach. They are the latest ‘overshoot’ of Hindutva and, interestingly, one that has triggered many contradicting impulses within the Parivar itself. More on that later.

Speak to any votary of Hindutva, and a stream of historic or unlocated grievances will come pouring out — imponderables ranging from Partition and the misdemeanours of Aurangzeb to a grouse about why Muslims wear Taliban pants. But while it is easy to dismiss the irrationally bigoted or prejudicial face of the Hindutva project, what is far more germane is to ask — and engage with — what aspects of it make it attractive to ordinary Hindus.

There are, first, some commonly held misgivings about the dominant Semitic faiths — Islam and Christianity. In its broadest outline, as Tully puts it, there is a discomfort with the exclusive nature of Christianity and Islam’s claims — the sense that theirs is the only way to God. A sub-plot of that problem, says he, is conversions. When you believe there is only one way, you are likely to try persuading everyone to join that way. There is something to be said for these faiths finding ways to accommodate ideas of religious pluralism without giving up the essentials of their faith. In his book, Changing Gods, Rethinking Conversions in India, for instance, the Baptist priest Rudolph Heredia argues for a “religious disarmament”, a constructive interaction between faiths rather than aggressive proselytisation. Others, like Kesavan, who also agree that conversion is an “unattractive business” stop short of supporting legislation against it because, as he puts it, “you can’t maintain law and order by taking away people’s volition on something like faith.”

Not all of the misgivings, however, are faith-based. There is a very real impatience about the fact that, with their fear of contamination by other cultures, Muslims have participated in their own ghettoisation and backwardness. And though there is no empirical evidence of how they have been ‘appeased’ — in fact, the Sachar Committee Report is a disturbing account of exactly the opposite — there is a prevalent sense that in a country constructed to make them feel equals, Muslims have vigorously allowed themselves to be turned “from citizens to election fodder”, as commentatorjournalist Swapan Dasgupta puts it. Much less tenable, but equally convincing for the average Hindu, are Hindutva’s accusations of Muslims’ supposed ‘emotional separatism’ and therefore disloyalty to the nationalist project.

Other factors that have made the Hindutva project attractive is the ‘hole in the heart’ created by the secularist national project. In the 19th century, there was an attempt to embrace modernity without being contemptuous of one’s traditions or religious and cultural moorings. But increasingly this strand faded; it became embarrassing to talk about religion or advait. To speak of mysticism was deemed non-modern. Religious and Indological studies were sidelined as inferior. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “Our secular cultural institutions — particularly universities — closed off the resources of tradition. One could not engage with tradition in a thoughtful, intellectual way.” All of this space was appropriated by the Hindu Right. As VS Naipaul put it succinctly, India has become divided into the temple-goers and aspirant green card holders, the latter holding the former in utter disdain.

Another important space ceded to the Hindutva project is an unembarrassed confrontation of history. As Mehta again puts it, “We failed to distinguish between the constitutional idea of a society and the cultural conversations healthy for a diverse society.” The most trivial but potent fallout of that, for instance, is the familiar Hindutva drumbeat about how temples were destroyed by Muslim invaders in the medieval centuries. A fact of history, driven by medieval logic, turned into a communal blot in the 21st century!

For all this, curiously, it is the bizarre logic of India democracy and Hinduism — with their strange and separate capacities to absorb and tame, mute and mutate; their refusal to be pinned down — that is beginning to trip, or rather diffuse, the Hindutva project. For one, many of its sympathisers are increasingly uncomfortable with Hindutva’s homgenising agenda. As Swapan Dasgupta says, “My Hindusim is entirely located in the paganism of Bengal. I feel absolutely no kinship with the North Indian arya samaji.” Others like LK Advani and Narendra Modi find they are being forced to tone down their virulent rhetoric as they seek greater political play among diverse Indians and diverse Hindus. The Ram temple issue lies low, terrorism has had barely a walk-on part in the state elections, communal riots are further in between, and Govindacharya — like many other Hindutva stalwarts — are starting to say, the need of the hour is an in camera national integration council, that can discuss issues far from the imperatives of votebanks and public posture. As Sudheendra Kulkarni, a close aide of LK Advani says, “I believe that India’s democracy is a great and compelling teacher. It teaches any party that aspires to govern the country to be inclusive.”

In 2001, at a time when he was being publicly touted as a Hindutva patriarch, VS Naipaul had said over dinner, “The Hindu Right is going to implode. There is no fresh thinking there. No intellectual core.” More recently, a close associate of the BJP who did not want to be named said, “There is a deep conflict brewing within the BJP which will erupt post- Advani. The modernist impulse will cohere around Narendra Modi, the crude, decrepit, stagnant cow-belt politics will cohere elsewhere.”

SO IS the majoritarian project — the religious nationalism — of the Hindu Right a doomed one, or is it the plural idea of modern India that has crossed its ‘sell by’ date? Is tolerance and plurality an essential Hindu trait that will inevitably assert itself? Are there new directions political and thought leaders should be taking India?

The plural underpinnings of the modern Indian nation, says Kesavan, is not a romantic notion; it is a survival strategy. Civil war-torn Sri Lanka is only one example of what happens when a perfectly literate, plural and civilised nation decides to enshrine itself as a majoritarian Sinhalese one. Have confidence in the tolerance of Hindu traditions, says Tully, but don’t assume it will kick in for itself, one has to work to activate it. Repair the credibility of institutions, emphasise the discourse of justice rather than toleration, in fact, disassociate the language of concern and justice from religious and social identity, says Mehta. The conception of citizenship must shift from the group to individuals: that is the only way identity politics will recede. Give up the notion that Hindutva is an aberration of a Hinduism that is pure, untainted, tolerant, says Jyotirmaya Sharma. It is this vanity that led to the Hindutva project in the first place. Citing the Lingapurana, a 14th century Shaivaite text, he says it urged Shaivaites to chop off the hands and eyes of those who followed Vishnu instead of Shiva. So drop the word unity, celebrate diversity, says he. Or risk sowing the rakt beej of more sadhvis.