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Why Do Indians Value Hindu Identity Over Multicultural Nationalism?

For years, linguistic passions sometimes transcended religion or caste as a priority for many. But linguistic identities struggled to win majorities at the Union level and eventually gave way to caste and religious politics. The focus must now be on clearly articulating what constitutes the Indian identity.

One of the most provocative questions that one can ask someone is: Who are you? What constitutes your identity? At one level, the answer can be about one’s strengths, weaknesses and abilities. But at another level, it is about one’s fundamental beliefs, assumptions and what matters to them.

It is the latter aspect that is fluid and lends itself to the political sphere of one’s activities. It makes and breaks personal ideologies and determines what one considers patriotic or who one considers a true political representative.

The recent cricketing debacle against Pakistan and the subsequent communal abuse directed towards a Muslim cricketer showed the ugly side of the beliefs of many Indians. Given recent trends, this isn’t surprising; a person’s identity is now reduced to only a few parameters — religion being perhaps the most comprehensible and emotive.

A recent paper by the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), titled India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a World Adrift, aptly says: “The electoral success of the BJP has not only meant a change in the party system and the nature of political power, but has also brought about a transformation in India’s constitutional order. There is concern that Indian democracy is moving steadily towards ethnic majoritarianism, polarization and divisiveness.” The reference here is to increasingly effervescent Hindu nationalist sentiment, which has been in the making for decades.

The Majoritarian Problem

The authors of the paper rightly assert that in a country like India, which has earned a kind of exceptionalism owing to its survival in a turbulent neighbourhood as a multi-cultural and multi-religious democracy, “political polarization and majoritarianism will lead to a more diminished India — one that may struggle to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie in the decade ahead… The combination of low growth, limited inclusion, ethnic majoritarianism and political centralisation will enmesh India in internal conflicts that would, at once sap its resources, and also undermine its international aspirations.”

This consideration becomes all the more concerning when one considers recent crimes against minorities in the neighbourhood. A tumultuous neighbourhood, particularly communally driven, isn’t an ideal base for growth and sustainable progress. Therefore, exploring the origins of this majoritarian sentiment is significant in order to identify a strategy that would mitigate its pervasive effects.

A very obvious factor is the prominent ideological Hindutva argument that India is a pre-eminently Hindu country and that since Hinduism is accommodative and pluralistic, people of all faiths will be welcomed — if they accept their Hindu heritage. This is a demographic premise disguised in a communal garb: The idea is that one’s religion (if other than Hinduism) becomes subordinate to one’s broader identity, creating an equivalence between “Hinduness” and “Indianness”.

In his critically acclaimed Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen also explores this issue of identity in the Indian context: “What is seen as a majority depends critically on what principle of classification is used… What counts as an ‘Indian majority’ depends therefore on the categories into which the nation is classified. There is no unique way of categorising people.”

By this elucidation, he argues that the use of the statistical or demographic argument for seeing India as a Hindu country is based on a conceptual confusion: “Our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance.”

Primacy of Religion as Identity

However, people appear to be giving preference to their religious identity above the others. So while Amartya Sen’s argument might be academically plausible, it is not the framework within which reality seems to be functioning. But why is the majority giving pre-eminence to a religious identity above the others?

To understand this too, one must consider a wider subtext. Right-wing populism is on the rise globally – from President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to persistent Trumpism in the United States and President Joko Widodo in Indonesia. Resentment against globalisation makes it possible to whip up anti-elitist fervour using a charismatic face to lead from the front.

This is where the cult of the leader comes into play. Jordan Klepper’s recent coverage on the Daily Show is clear proof of how Trump’s cult remains far from deracinated even though he is no longer president.

Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma has also built an ardent fan base that sees him as the Messiah of the forlorn and the suffering. The BJP has cleverly used this to politically capitalise on Hindu demographic anxieties.

The narrative was initially very simple: The BJP promised to bring development with a change and to make sure that the boons of that development are not monopolised by the elite (pejoratively termed the “Lutyens’ Delhi” crowd).

With a prime minister of humble origins, gone will be the days of corruption and ghotalas (scams), they said. The promise of acche din (good days) and of “na khaunga, na khaane dunga” (I won’t eat and I won’t let others eat) fizzled out and slowly gave way to cultural xenophobia and victimhood, echoed in “Hindu khatrey mein hain” (Hindus are in danger). It vindicated a phrase once used by SJ Tambiah for Sinhalas in Sri Lanka: creating a “majority with a minority complex”.

By appealing to religious fervour and using a face which was contrasted against the supposedly entitled, subordinate and corrupt alternative, the BJP had a compelling story to tell. Added to this was the muscular rhetoric over national security against the usual suspect: Pakistan.

Most Hindus seem to have bought the narrative. Even when they experience soaring inflation, unemployment, price rise and other challenges, they trust the innate fortitude of their strongman leader to guide them – a classic populist achievement.

For years, linguistic passions have also persisted in India, sometimes transcending religion or caste as a priority for many. But as Sunil Khilnani points out in The Idea of India, linguistic identities struggled to construct majorities that could rule at the Union level and eventually gave way to the pre-eminence of caste and religion. “[The] fact that such identities [caste and religion] were less significant for four decades after independence and then surged into national politics, only shows how they are creations of modern politics and not residues of the past,” he argued.

Voters now plead allegiance to their broader Hindu (i.e. religious) identity and seek to pursue linguistic and caste passions within the Hindu framework.

Hinduism’s Ambiguity

Democracy inexorably leads to a situation where the majority gets a better bargain and it is easy for the culture and aspirations of the majority to become the norm. Viewing the Hindu majoritarian phenomenon through the prism of identity, however, brings us to a very interesting consideration.

In World Order, Henry Kissinger perceptively writes: “Over time, Christendom became a philosophical and historical concept, not an operational principle of strategy or international order. That process was facilitated because the Christian world had originated a distinction between the things which are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s, permitting an eventual evolution toward pluralistic, secular-based foreign policies within a state-based international system.”

This operational distinction is very important in the Indian context with reference to Hinduism. As Vinay Sitapati points out in his book Jugalbandi, Hinduism did not have any semblance of a political structure; there was never any concept of a ‘Hindu State’, so a distinction between what was political domain and what was exclusively religious domain was never clearly circumscribed.

Hinduism’s plurality might have contributed to this ambiguity. Sitapati goes on to point out: “Even the concept of ‘Ramarajya’, as detailed by Valmiki in his Ramayana, conceives of a kingdom where, ‘Every creature was full of joy and happiness. Everyone was engaged in the pursuit of dharmic actions or virtue.’ This is hardly a religious vision, let alone a theocratic one.”

This ambiguity is now being exploited by the BJP, which is able to espouse the values of a theocratic state without explicitly building one. If Hinduism had evolved a clear politico-religious separation through the course of time, similar to the one Kissinger points out in the Christian context, it might have been harder to exploit demographic anxieties and justify them by using the Hindu faith.

A Multicultural Indian Identity

The focus must now be on clearly articulating what constitutes the Indian identity. It isn’t merely Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsee, Buddhist, Jain, Christian or Zoroastrian, but actually multicultural and very aspirational. A parochial version of this identity might be proficient in gaining votes domestically, but it will severely curtail India’s international image and progress. India must stay true to historical and cultural persuasions — plurality, harmony, democracy and characteristic Indian humanism co-existing complementarily with strategic autonomy on the global stage.

The onus isn’t merely on the government or the opposition (which certainly must provide a political voice to this identity when the government prevaricates) but also on citizens to realise the imperative of cultivating a holistic identity. A cosmopolitan identity has been codified in the Constitution. It must be safeguarded and understood. We must not, after 75 years of independence, forget what we were meant to be.

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Armaan Mathur is pursuing Political Science Honours at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University. He has previously written for the Student Edition of the Hindustan Times and is passionate about history, political science, literature and international relations.