Those who care for the future of the religion should valorise the work of reformers who rid an ancient, ossified faith of its divisions, prejudices, and closed-mindedness
A bhadralok friend of mine is of the view that the Government of India should celebrate every December 16 as Vijay Diwas, Victory Day, to mark the surrender in 1971 of the Pakistani forces in Dhaka to the advancing Indian Army. My friend argues that such a celebration would take Indians in general, and Hindus in particular, out of the pacifist, defeatist mindset that he claims has so crippled them. The triumph in Dhaka represents for him the finest moment in a millenia otherwise characterised by Indian (and more specifically Hindu) humiliation at the hands of foreigners.
I was reminded of my friend’s fond fantasy when reading about the posters in Mumbai recently put up by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party. These carry portraits of a prominent BJP leader, with two accompanying slogans: ‘I AM A HINDU NATIONALIST,’ in English, and ‘Garv sé Kaho Ham Hindu Hain’, in Hindi. The latter slogan needs perhaps to be translated for south Indian readers, and set in context for younger ones. ‘Proudly Proclaim Our Hindu-Ness’, would be a faithful rendition. The slogan originates in the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, when it was used by the VHP, RSS, BJP, and Bajrang Dal cadres to mobilise men and materials in the drive to demolish a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya believed by many to be sited on the birthplace of the (mythical) God Ram.
Victory in Dhaka
Should Hindus be proud of the Indian Army’s victory in Dhaka in 1971? Perhaps as Indians, but not specifically as Hindus. The war had its basis in the savage repression of Bengalis in East Pakistan by the West Pakistan Army. The refugees who came to India were both Hindus and Muslims. The help rendered to them by the Government of India did not discriminate according to their faith. As for the Indian military campaign, the chief commander in the field was a Jew, his immediate superior a Sikh. A Parsi served as Chief of Army Staff. His own superior, the Prime Minister of India, had notoriously been disallowed from entering the Jagannath temple in Puri because she had not married a Hindu.
To be sure, many soldiers and officers in the Indian Army were of Hindu origin. Yet they never saw themselves in narrowly communal terms. In our armed forces, then and now, Hindu and Muslim, Christian and Sikh, Parsi and Jew, lived, laboured and struggled together.
Hindu in intent and content
Unlike the military campaign in East Pakistan in 1971, the campaign to build a temple in Ayodha was unquestionably Hindu in intent and content. No Muslims or Sikhs or Parsis or Jews or Christians participated in it. But should Hindus have been proud of it? I rather think not. In a society where so many are without access to adequate education, health care and housing, where malnutrition is rife and where safety and environmental standards are violated every minute, to invest so much political energy and human capital in the demolition of a mosque and its replacement with a brand-new temple seemed wildly foolish, if not downright Machiavellian. As it turned out, the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign led to two decades of strife across northern and western India, with thousands of people losing their lives and hundreds of thousands their homes and livelihoods.
The war of 1971 was not a Hindu war, and the destruction of the Babri Masjid was not something that could fill Hindus with pride. What then, should Hindus be proud of? The answer is that rather than seek for one defining moment, one heroic triumph, Hindus who care for the fate and future of Hinduism should instead valorise the quiet, persistent work of reformers down the centuries to rid an ancient, ossified faith of its divisions, its prejudices, and its closed-mindedness.
The story of Hindu pride that I wish to tell also begins with Bengal, not with the surrender of the Pakistani Army in 1971, but with the work in the early 19th century of Rammohun Roy, who was unarguably the first great Indian modernist. Rammohun campaigned for the abolition of sati, for greater rights for women more generally, for the embrace of modern scientific education and for a liberal spirit of free enquiry and intellectual debate. His example was carried forward by other Bengali reformers, among them Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Swami Vivekananda, who focussed on, among other things, education for women and the abolition of caste distinctions.
Epicentre of radical thinking
The torch first lit in Bengal was taken over, and made even brighter, in Maharashtra, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the epicentre of reformist and radical thinking in India. The pernicious practice of ‘untouchability’ was attacked from below by Jotirau Phule and from above by Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Maharashtra also gave birth to India’s first home-grown feminists, such as Tarabai Shinde and Pandita Ramabai, who wrote searing tracts against patriarchal practices and motivated young girls to emancipate themselves through modern education.
In 1915, Mohandas K. Gandhi came back to India after two decades in the diaspora. Living in South Africa, he had been seized of the need to build harmonious, mutually beneficial, relations between Hindus and Muslims. This commitment to religious pluralism he now renewed and reaffirmed. Meanwhile, he progressively became more critical of caste discrimination. To begin with, he attacked ‘untouchability’ while upholding the ancient ideal of varnashramadharma. Then he began advocating inter-mixing and inter-dining, and eventually, inter-marriage itself.
Gandhi was pushed to take more radical positions by B.R. Ambedkar, the outstanding lawyer-scholar who was of ‘Untouchable’ origins himself. A modernist and rationalist, Dr. Ambedkar believed that for Dalits to escape from oppression, they had to not look for favours from guilt-ridden reformers but themselves ‘educate, agitate and organise’ their way to emancipation. He remains an inspirational figure, whose work and legacy remain relevant for Dalit and Suvarna alike.
When India became independent in 1947, a central question the new nation faced was the relation of faith to state. There was a strong movement to create India as a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, a mirror-image of the Islamic nation that was Pakistan. The person who stood most firmly against this idea was the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In a letter written to Chief Ministers on October 15, 1947, he reminded them that “we have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else. They have got to live in India. This is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilised manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.”
Gandhi was a heterodox Hindu, who was detested by the priestly orthodoxy; so much so that the Sankaracharyas once even organised a signature campaign that asked the British to declare Gandhi a non-Hindu. Nehru was a lapsed Hindu, who never entered a temple in adult life. He too was intensely disliked by the sants and shakha heads who arrogate to themselves the right to speak for Hindus. Ambedkar was a renegade Hindu, who was born into the faith yet decided in the end to leave it, through a dramatic conversion ceremony weeks before his death.
For all their lapses and departures from orthodoxy — or perhaps because of them — Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Nehru were the three 20th century figures who did most to rid Hinduism of its ills and excesses, who worked most heroically to nurture the spirit of equal citizenship that the Laws of Manu so explicitly deny. The work that they, and the equally remarkable reformers who preceded them, did, are what Hindus should be most proud of.
That said, Hindus still have much to be ashamed about. As the recent spate of attacks on Dalits and women shows, deep-rooted caste and patriarchal prejudices remain entrenched in many parts of India. Meanwhile, in countries that neighbour ours, Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, giving ammunition to parties in India who represent the most sectarian and exclusive aspects of Hinduism themselves. The battles inaugurated by the likes of Rammohun Roy and Jotirau Phule, and carried forward by Ambedkar and Nehru and company, have now to be fought afresh. The abolition of caste prejudices; the elimination of gender hierarchies; the promotion of religious pluralism — these remain the elusive ideals of those who wish (proudly or otherwise) to call themselves Hindu and Indian.
(Ramachandra Guha’s books include Makers of Modern India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)