Who is a Hindu?

Aditya Wig
Aditya WigApr 03, 2017 | 14:13

Who is a Hindu?

“The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but glorification of the Hindu race and culture... In a word they must cease to be foreigners.”

MS Golwalkar

RSS Sarsanghchalak, 1940-1973

We, or Our Nationhood Defined (1939)

“If you are invited to a country, you must respect that country. If you don't want to adopt the culture of that country, you can stay at home. For me, it's the last one to arrive who must adapt to those who are already there. If you don't want to adopt the way of life in France, you should go elsewhere.”


Nicolas Sarkozy

President of France, 2007-2012

India Today Conclave, March 2017


The book the first quote is from is something of an RSS bible. In a nutshell, it describes the khakhi stance on nationalism - "Hindustan for the Hindus" - and also serves as a point of fearful froth for Indian liberals. Some of that froth is certainly warranted: Golwalkar’s writings echo the sentiments of his times, and his times were not happy ones.

His tenure as RSS supremo began just months after World War II did. India was still under British rule, and had been rather summarily conscripted into the War as cannon fodder for the Allies. As the ancient saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend -but unfortunately for Golwalkar (and future generations of Indians) that "friend" was Adolf Hitler.

Nationalism is a tricky thing.

In some forms, it is quite terrifying. It can lead to murder, to burning and looting and rape and pogroms. It can leave scars that take centuries to heal. It has been used by murders and tyrants for centuries, if not millennia, and it survives into this day under various guises. This resilience is not an accident. It is based on a simple truth: nationalism is a very powerful social lever, and is easily employed by those it has been used to oppress.


Golwalkar was born in 1906.

In 1906, India was still a full 40 years away from Independence, and it is unlikely that anyone at the time believed even that was possible without all out war. The British Raj was enjoying the last glow of its "sun never sets" era, with the First World War a full eight years away and MK Gandhi not due in India for a year after even that event.

Nonetheless, a problem was brewing in the subcontinent. This was partly because of something the British had done themselves - or more precisely, something that George Nathaniel Curzon, the "35th governor general" of India, had done on their behalf, officially for the purposes of "efficient administration". (The other part of the problem, though unacknowledged at the time, was that imperialism is a rather foul foreign policy that is morally depraved.)

Today, the RSS’s nationalism is not synonymous with healthy demands for self-governance. Photo: Reuters

This particular problem had begun in 1905, when the British "partitioned Bengal". A new province had been created in the east, swiping together half of Bengal and all of British Assam to create East Bengal (which would, co-incidentally, be populated almost entirely by Muslims).

The remainder, clubbed together with British Bihar and Orissa, was to remain as the Hindu-dominated western counterpart. This decision enraged almost everyone it would affect, and was widely seen as a British attempt to splinter the unity of the blossoming independence movement along religious lines, by encouraging a "Muslim nationalism" distinct from all others. The founding of the Muslim League just a year later - in 1906, with the unofficial blessing of the British Raj - no doubt confirmed that suspicion.


The proliferation of nationalist groups in response to such psychological warfare by the British Raj was, in some ways, inevitable. It is precisely in the background of this - very justified - anger that MK Gandhi’s pacifism is measured as greatness. That is not to say that the RSS, or any other nationalist group, should be excused its fundamentalism.

It is to say that their use of nationalism as a tool of power was an honest reaction to what they rightly saw as a rather filthy trick by their oppressors. That they decided to fight as dirty as those they fought is not easily judged. From a very valid perspective – survival -they did what they saw as necessary.

But that was then, and this is now.

Today, the RSS’s nationalism is not synonymous with healthy demands for self-governance. The displays of violence it has encouraged and applauded and made use of -from its nebulous stance on the murder of MK Gandhi to the savagery of its karsevaks in the name of Ayodhya, and even to the tragedies of Godhra, Muzaffarnagar and scores of others - these alone prove how far Hindutva has drifted from its parent, Hinduism.

And part of the blame - far more than currently accepted - lies with India’s intelligentsia.

As it currently stands, there is no serious national debate on what makes a "Hindu". It has become fashionable instead to tar this as such a fundamentally communal exercise as to be one best left to fundamentalists. The few answers that do emerge from liberal camps are therefore often intentionally nebulous or pathologically incapable of taking a stance.

The only liberal certainty becomes a smug belief that no definitions of "Hindu" are possible, because since all definitions will leave out at least one perspective, all perspectives are equally meaningless. Worse, it surrenders the right to define "Hindu" to precisely those "lumpen elements" that liberals so rightly fear. And in the absence of a liberal definition, even those who merely wish to express pride in their own heritage are forced to march under the banner of Hindutva.

This is not a uniquely Indian problem. Appeals to nativism are being sounded across the world. Worse, they’re working. Brexit. Donald Trump. For our part, India is controlled by the RSS, Centre and state included.

From the point of view of this Indian citizen being frogmarched into the future to the beat of Hinduism (Hindutva Remix), cultural relativism feels like a privileged refusal on the part of liberals to engage with the realities of our times.

The RSS did not create communalism, for all its skill at using it. Communal identities do exist, and have existed throughout history. But if Indian liberals do not shoulder the burden of forging a gentle and practical philosophy from the wealth of our culture - one suited to the multiculturalism of our times, but aware of the distinctly communal roots they are anchored in – "Hindu" and "Hindutva" will remain synonymous.

Last updated: April 04, 2017 | 18:57
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