3. What is Wrong with "Hindu"?
To an extent, the avoidance
of the term "Hindu" has characterized many earlier avatars of Hindu
nationalism. Sri Aurobindo titled his newspaper "Arya", and declared that
India would rise with "Sanatana Dharma", a more profound term than the
colloquial "Hinduism". The Arya Samaj preferred the term "Vedic", or the
Vedic term "Arya" (denoting adherence to Vedic civilizational standards), to
the originally purely geographical Persian term "Hindu". Moreover, "Hindu"
was a catch-all term which included traditions considered deviant or
non-Vedic by the Arya Samaj (esp. Puranic, Tantric); in the 1881 census, the
Arya Samaj even advised its members to register as non-Hindus. This policy
was reversed for the 1901 census, but in the 1980s, some Arya Samaj factions
again made attempts to be recognized as a non-Hindu minority. By then, the
term "Hindu" had not only become a distinctly dirty word, but also carried
constitutional disadvantages with it (cfr. infra). In the same period, and
for the same conformist and opportunist reasons, the Ramakrishna Mission
unsuccessfully tried to get registered as a new non-Hindu religion called
Even those who espouse
doctrines and practices which are described in handbooks on "Hinduism",
avoid the term "Hindu". In recent years, yoga teachers whether Indian or
Western have tended to avoid mentioning the purely "Hindu" character of what
they offer as the universal "science of yoga" (it is Christian
fundamentalists who warn people of the Satanic Hindu character of these
seemingly innocuous breathing and mental exercises). The Maharishi Mahesh
Yogi calls his sadhana "science of creative intelligence", the
political party which his followers in the West founded is called "Natural
Law Party", and its viewpoints are typically prefixed with "Vedic": Vedic
economics, Vedic health programme, etc. One of the reasons certainly is
that outside India, the term "Hindu" is exotic and therefore connotes
irrelevance to local situations. Another, more ominous one is that ever
since the arrival of Hare Krishna singers in our streets, "Hindu" at best
connotes mildly laughable eccentricity if not charlatanism.
For people who get their news and views through Christian missionary
information channels, "Hindu" connotes savage superstition,
otherworldliness, indolence, oppression and cruelty. But these reasons
cannot count as valid excuses for activists with pro-Hindu convictions
working within Hindu society.
The most decent reason for
avoiding the term "Hindu" might be that the corpus of Hindu literature
itself does not mention it anywhere. It is, after all, a Persian term
brought to India by the Muslim invaders. Moreover, it has a negative
definition: any Indian who does not subscribe to a prophetic-monotheist
creed. It is merely the "Other" of the Muslim invaders in India. But then,
it had the advantage of uniting all Indians of different traditions and
levels of culture in a single category clearly demarcated from the predator
religions Christianity and Islam. This gave the term also a positive
content, viz. their common civilizational virtues which set them apart from
Christianity and Islam: their pluralism, their freedom of thought, their
reliance on genuine experience rather than dogmatic belief. "Hindu" has
therefore become a meaningful, more than merely geographical term. Though
in certain contexts a puristic preference for more ancient and native terms
may be legitimate, the term "Hindu" should be good enough for household use
in the present era.
Therefore, when Hindu freedom
fighters created a common platform to counter the anti-national designs of
the Muslim League, they did not hesitate to call it Hindu Mahasabha (HMS).
The first session of the All Indian Hindu Mahasabha was held at Haridwar in
1915 and was attended, among others, by Gandhi who had not yet taken command
of the Indian National Congress or become known as Mahatma. This, then, is
the main exception to the rule that modern Hindu ideologues and
organizations shun the name "Hindu". Later on HMS ideologue V.D. Savarkar
gave currency to the neologism "Hindutva" (a somewhat uneasy combination of
a Persian loan-word with a high-brow Sanskritic suffix) through his
so‑titled book in 1923. He too tried to give a positive meaning to the term
"Hindu", and sought it in people's degree of rootedness in the Indian
territory: a Hindu is one for whom India is both "fatherland" and "holyland".
But barely two years later,
Dr. Hedgewar, though acknowledging Savarkar's influence, called his newly
created organization "Rashtriya" (national, not "Hindu")
Swayamsevak Sangh. By that time, Gandhi had made the word “Hindu” to
mean sokething less than “national”, and the nation had become something
more than Hindu.. The revolutionary movement in Bengal with which Hedgewar
had come in contact was also turning away from its Hindu inspiration and
fighting shy of the word “Hindu” in order to lull Muslim suspicions. The
name Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh has recently been adopted by the
Non-Resident Indian branches of the RSS (in whose case "national" would mean
"Trinidadian", "Canadian" etc.), but for the rest, the Vishva Hindu Parishad
(VHP, founded in 1964) is the only explicitly "Hindu" RSS affiliate, all
others being "Rashtriya" or "Bharatiya". These terms, in contrast to "Arya"
or "Vedic" or "Sanatana Dharma" (which are not used in the quoted BJS and
BJP programmes either), are not synonyms of "Hinduism", but purely
The explanation given by RSS
men is that in Hedgewar's view, the nation of India was essentially Hindu,
and that the self‑designation "Hindu" would merely corroborate the prevalent
British (and later, Nehruvian) demotion of the Hindus as merely one
"community" among others, rather than as the nation of India.
The version of the RSS's critics in the Hindu Mahasabha was and is that the
RSS was just not brave enough to affirm its natural Hindu identity against
the anti‑Hindu dictates of the opinion‑making establishment. It should be
admitted that the tendency to identify "Hindu" with "national" was already
present in Savarkar's own definition, but the component "India as holyland"
does at least discriminate between traditions originating in India and the
predatory religions Christianity and Islam.
Among the Sangh Parivar's
components, the BJP is the most emphatic in avoiding any association with
Hinduism. While other organizations somehow affiliated with the RSS may
sometimes describe their political ideal as "Hindu Rashtra", the BJP
studiously avoids such terms and prefers to swear by "genuine secularism".
When A.B. Vajpayee is asked about the notion of "Hindu Rashtra", he declares
he prefers "Bharatiya Rashtra", which, if words still have any meaning, can
only denote the already‑existing "Indian state", not an ideal requiring the
efforts of a "Bharatiya" political party. American NRIs told me that when
Vajpayee was invited to preside over the opening of a new Hindu temple in
the USA, he said that they should have called it a "Bharatiya temple"
L.K. Advani has correctly
pointed out that "the term Hindu Rashtra was never used during the
Jana Sangh days, neither had it ever been mentioned in any manifesto of the
BJP". At the same time, he reiterated the RSS theory that any Indian who
"identifies with India" is thereby a Hindu: a Muslim who satisfies this
condition (what Gandhians called a "nationalist Muslim") should call
himself a "Mohammedi Hindu", a Christian should likewise be described as a
"Christi Hindu". In Advani's view, "those residing in the country are
Hindus even if many of them believe in different religions.(...) those
following Islam are 'Mohammedi Hindus'. Likewise, Christians living in the
country are 'Christian Hindus', while Sikhs are termed 'Sikh Hindus'. The
respective identities are not undermined by such a formulation. Similarly,
someone is a 'Sanatani Hindu', while the other is an 'Arya Samaji Hindu'.
It would be better if such a formulation comes to be accepted. As part of
the same concept, I consider this country to be a Hindu 'rashtra'.
There is no need to convert it into a Hindu 'rashtra'; this needs to
be understood. But I certainly do not believe in forcing people to believe
In theory, and at first sight,
this construction could be intellectually defensible if we start from the
Hindu doctrine of the ishta devata, the "chosen deity": every Hindu
has a right to worship the deity or divine incarnation or guru whom he
chooses, and this may include exotic characters like Allah or Jesus Christ.
In practice, however, anyone can feel that something isn't right with this
semantic manipulation: Muslims and Christians abhor and mock the idea of
being defined as sects within Hinduism, and apart from a handful of
multiculturalist Christians who call themselves "both Hindu and Christian",
this cooptation of Muslims and Christians into the Hindu fold has no
takers. It is actually resented, rejected and ridiculed. After all, taken
to its logical extreme, it would imply that the state of Pakistan, founded
by and for Indian Muslims, i.e. "Mohammedi Hindus", is also a Hindu Rashtra.
More than the nationalist
definition of Hindu-ness developed by Savarkar (who admitted that including
Muslim in his definition of "Hindu" would stretch it too far), the clumsy
notion of "Mohammedi Hindus" brandished by the RSS-BJP is an element of an
attempt to delink the term Hinduism from its natural religious contents.
This broad concept of Hinduism implies the assumption that Indian Muslims
can still, in a way, be Hindus, as expressed by token BJP Muslims who say
things like: "When my ancestors accepted Islam, that didn't mean we changed
our culture." That remains to be seen: a practicing Muslim is expected to
condemn Hindu idolatry and polytheism, to have an Arabic name, to observe an
Arab-originated dress code, distinct marriage customs, food habits, and
rituals of which to Hindus some are absurd (circumcision) and others
repugnant (animal sacrifice, abolished in Vedic ritual millennia ago).
Adding separate traditions of Muslim architecture, Persian-Arabic
vocabulary, poetry, script and music, it is clear that in practice, Muslim
culture in India, though differing in certain externals from Muslim culture
elsewhere, is most certainly a different culture from that of the Hindus;
in making that very observation during his pro-Partition speeches, Jinnah
was simply right. In spite of this, Hindutva people insist that an "indianized"
Islam can be integrated into a Hindu nationhood.
Some go even further and
accept Indian Muslims within the ambit of Hindutva without any questions
asked. Thus, veteran journalist M.V. Kamath writes in the Organiser:
"Hindutva, then, is what is common to all of us, Hindus, Muslims,
Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists... whoever has Indian heritage.
Hindutva is the engine that pulls the nation and takes us into the future.
It is cultural nationalism that has the power to unite.(...) Hindutva is
not Hinduism, it does not ask anyone to follow a particular creed or
ritual. Indeed, it does not speak for Hinduism, it is not a religious
This way, the opposition between "Indian secular nationalism" and "Hindu
communalism" is declared non-existent, essentially by replacing the latter
position with the former: Kamath's conception of Hindutva is fully
coterminous with Nehru's purely territorial patriotism. But in that case,
what is all the fuss about? If the Hindutva activists are merely Indian
nationalists, why don't they applaud Nehru and join the secularists? This
is one more of those occasions where Hindutva spokesmen assert something
(i.e. the equivalence of Hindutva and secular nationalism) to their own
satisfaction, but fail to notice that they are convincing no one, that on
the contrary everybody derides the exercise as a cheap semantic trick, a
transparent attempt to sweep profound antagonisms between religions, or
between Nehruvian secularism and Hindutva, under the carpet.
While we could live with
redefinitions of the term Hindutva, which is still a neologism, there
is just no excuse when Hindutva ideologues go as far as to "secularize" the
meaning of the established term Hindu. Consider the following
dialogues, one true and one imaginary, cited by an RSS stalwart as evidence
that "Hindu" simply means "Indian":
1. "When the Shahi Imam of
Jama Masjid of Delhi went to Mecca on a pilgrimage, a local resident asked
him, 'Are you a Hindu?' The Imam was startled by this question and replied,
'No, I am a Muslim.' When Imam Saheb asked him the reason for calling him a
Hindu, he replied that all 'Hindustanis' were called Hindu there."
2. "A Frenchman asked an
Indian, 'What is your religion?' The reply was, 'Hindu.' The Frenchman
countered: 'That is your nationality; but what is your religion?'"
This exercise of sanitizing
the term "Hindu" from its religio-cultural contents is extremely silly.
What is the use of learning that some ignorant foreigners call the Shahi
Imam a Hindu, when you yourself know for fact that the man is an enemy of
Hinduism? And what word shall we invent to designate the phenomenon which
all encyclopedias commonly call "Hinduism", once we have imposed on the word
"Hindu" the geographical-political meaning which is already satisfactorily
expressed by the words "Indian" and "Hindustani"? What is gained if the
expression "Hindu-Muslim riot" becomes replaceable with "Indian-Muslim
riot"? Or if the phrase "Hindus dominate Nepal" turns out to mean "Indians
dominate Nepal"? The people of Nepal, the only Hindu Rashtra so far,
might not like it. Short, this semantic manipulation is as hopelessly
transparent as a child's very first lie. Moreover, it would imply that
"Hindu Rashtra", the professed goal of this Sangh leader, simply means
"Indian state"; and this in turn would imply that the Hindutva movement is a
bunch of buffoons working for the creation of a state which has already been
created long ago.
If the word "Hindu" can only be used after distorting its meaning, it is
perhaps just as well that the BJP avoids using it.
Most RSS affiliates pledge
allegiance to secularism, but they at least do so by emphasizing the
"secular" (meaning pluralistic) character of Hinduism, as in the VHP ad
campaign: "Hindu India, secular India". So, if Hinduism is secular, why not
openly acknowledge the Hindu inspiration of the BJP's "positive
secularism"? Well, a new argument against an explicitation of the BJP's
Hindu orientation was created by a 1992 court decision under the
Representation of the People Act, prohibiting the Hindu Mahasabha from
contesting elections. The reasons given by the judges were that the HMS
openly aims at founding a Hindu state and that being a Hindu (though defined
very inclusively) is a requirement for membership, as per Art.3 and Art.5.A
of the HMS constitution. In several cases, moreover, elected candidates for
the BJP or the Shiv Sena have been taken to court for "corrupt electoral
practices", meaning the "use" of religion in their campaigns; some of them
won their cases, some of them lost, but the danger inherent in openly
identifying with the Hindu cause was certainly driven home.
After the Ayodhya demolition,
the Congress government threatened to outlaw the BJP on similar grounds, but
several socialist and casteist parties, the BJP's erstwhile allies in the
struggle against the Emergency, refused to support the necessary legislative
reform because they remembered all too well how small the distance is
between such rhetoric of "protecting democracy against the communal forces"
and the imposition of dictatorship. The BJP calculates that it was lucky
this time around (and the next time, viz. the Supreme Court verdict that an
appeal to "Hindutva" is not a corrupt electoral practice), but that on a
future occasion, any sign of espousal of a "Hindu" agenda may be fatal.
Instead of questioning the tendency to outlaw religion as a legitimate
factor in political choices of Indian citizens, the BJP bends over backwards
to adapt to it.
In Europe, with its centuries
of struggle against Christian hegemony, nobody minds that the ruling party
in Germany is called Christlich-Demokratische Union,
Democracy allows the citizens to decide for themselves on what basis to form
political parties, so they exercise the right to found a party committed to
"Christian values", and to vote it to power. Most Christian-Democratic
parties nowadays hasten to add that these "Christian values" have become a
"common European heritage shared by non-Christians as well". But in India,
any hint of a "Hindu" party upholding "Hindu values" (even if explained as a
"common Indian heritage shared by the minorities as well") is declared
intolerable by judges and journalists,-- and by the leaders of the very
"Charlatanism" is the common allegation against traveling babas who
promise instant enlightenment by means of a simple technique; it
certainly applies when they offer another magic trick, viz. instant
harmony between Hindus and Muslims by means of the "equality of
religions" (or Ram Rahim ek hai, or Ishwar Allah tere naam,
Thus, M.S. Golwalkar: Bunch of Thoughts (Jagaran Prakashan,
Bangalore 1980 (1966)), p.177-178.
"Advani wants Muslims to identify with 'Hindutva'", Times of India,
To support this non-doctrinal, non-communal usage of the term Hindu, K.S.
Sudarshan relates some anecdotes where Arabs and Frenchmen refer to any
Indian (including the Imama of Delhi's Jama Masjid when he visited
Arabia) as a "Hindu". A linguist would say that in that case, the word
Hindu is a "false friend": though sounding the same, it has a
different meaning in Arabic on the one and English or Hindi on the other
hand. This is obviously no sound basis for denying the operative (and
historical, and legal) meaning of Hindu as "any Indian except
Muslims, Christians and Parsis".
M.V. Kamath: "The Essence of Hindutva", Organiser, 28 April
1996. If "Indian heritage" is the unifying element, the point is
precisely that Muslims and Christians reject this heritage.
Adapted from Saptahik Hindustan, 1 May 1977, in K.S. Sudarshan et
al.: Why Hindu Rashtra?
(Suruchi Prakashan, Delhi 1990), p.5.
Ibid.; the story is an anachronism, for by now the French
distinguish clearly between indien (pertaining to the Indian
territory or state) and hindou (pertaining to Hindu religion).
We forego the occasion to enter the discussion on the exact meaning of
the word Rashtra, simply because it is so obvious: the word can
be analyzed as "instrument (-tra) of rulership (raj)",
hence "the institution through which government is exercised", hence
"state"; and not "nation" (as some RSS stalwarts insist on asserting),
the subject for whose benefit this political instrument is created.
Even if the latter meaning is accepted, the "Hindu Rashtra" is an entity
which (especially according to Sangh ideologues) has been in existence
for ages, viz. the Hindu nation.
A Gandhian secularist remarked about this comparison that
"Christian-Democratic" refers to a well-defined "Christian" identity,
and that there is no Indian equivalent to this, since "Hinduism" is but
an undefined conglomerate. In fact, when the German
Christian-Democratic Union was founded, fifty years ago, Protestants and
Catholics were still mutually hostile religions, and it was something of
a revolution to create a joint political platform representing the
values they held in common. A fortiori, the different "Hindu"
traditions (which do not have a history of religious wars against one
another, as Catholicism and Protestantism do) can quite legitimately be
united for political purposes on a common platform.