Shashi Tharoor-8

Suparna Sharma

The good, liberal Hindu, says Shashi Tharoor, the one who grew up believing in Gandhi-Nehru’s idea of India, has, since 2014, ceded space to the bad Hindu, or the “Hindutva types”, as he likes to refer to them.
His book, Why I Am A Hindu, says the MP, author and public intellectual, is an attempt not just to reclaim Hinduism from those who use it to alienate, malign, attack men and women of other faiths, but also to celebrate it as a “life-affirming religion of joy and play (leela)”.
He begins by telling the story of Hinduism — through the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, its rituals, practitioners, guiding lights. He writes of how it has evolved — at times in response to reform movements, at times by incorporating bits it liked from other religions. Despite the changes and challenges, Hinduism, he says, has remained a faith that reveres the divine, even if it’s another’s. 
An erudite, elegant writer, Tharoor’s telling is anecdotal. So when he takes up the concept of Hindu gods, he introduces them as legendary characters, as heroes set in fascinating stories. 
He writes of why Lord Jagannath has stumps and not full arms, and in a lovely, scholarly digression, of how, in the 14the century, Sir John Mandeville’s misreading of a road accident during the chariot procession of Lord Jagannath in Puri gave birth to the word juggernaut.
Having established his case — that Hinduism is a civilisation, not a dogma — he tackles “Political Hindutva”.
Chiding Hindutvawadis for not having understood Swami Vivekananda and giving Hinduism and Hindus a bad name, he writes of its ideologues — Savarkar, Golwalkar — who sneered at democracy, and about Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s contempt for the Constitution.
These men divided Indians, he writes, into three groups — Hindus, of course, to whom India belongs; guests in the country, i.e. Jews and Parsis; and the invaders, Muslims and Christians. The foreigners, these men believed, had two choices: They could either “merge in the national race and adopt its culture or live at its mercy”.
Their dream has come true, says Tharoor. Hinduism has become subordinate to the RSS-BJP’s Hindutva agenda. And the Hindutva project that has been unravelling in front of us every day — ghar wapsi, love jihad, lynchings in the name of cow protection, an overt, lusty Hindu nationalism — will lead to the Indian Constitution being rewritten if the BJP gets the majority it seeks. 
That Constitution, he warns, will be a manifesto for Hindu Rashtra. 
As a writer, says Tharoor, he has always been interested in the stories a society tells about itself. And having listened long enough to the stories some have been telling about Hindus and Hinduism, he now wants to butt in and change the narrative.
Edited excerpts from an interview: 

Congratulations on your 15th book.
17th. It says 15th because two are coffee table books. I’m always a litte embarrassed about counting them. But, ya.

So why a book titled, Why I Am A Hindu, and not, say, Why I am Secular, or well, Sickular?
Hahahahaha Well, you know, first of all, I am a Hindu. In fact I have said this quite openly in some of my earlier writings… The Great Indian Novel almost 30 years ago, with its great emphasis on dharma, my novel Riot… India: From Midnight To The Millennium… I have made it very clear what my beliefs and concerns are, so this is not totally new. But what has happened is that the BJP putting Hindutva front and centre and condoning rampant expressions of bigotry have made it impossible to avoid the issue. It has now become clear that we need to respond — if we are ever going to respond, the time is now.
That’s why I said, let me respond. But let me make it clear even from my title that this is not what they would prefer, which is a battle between good Hindus and bad secularists — it’s a battle between two kinds of Hindus, and they are actually the bad ones.

And you are the good one?
I think so, because I try and hue to the principles of Hinduism that I have read and been taught and understood, starting with Adi Shankra, Swami Vivekananda and of course my reading of established and ancient texts.

In the book you talk of being a vegetarian, of the puja ghar in your home, of worshiping Ganesha, about your parents who were devout Hindus. You also say in the book that religion is personal. Then why bring it out in public, why this need to talk of being a practising Hindu now?
I didn’t all these years… Many of us, of that certain era, if you like, would have thought it to be unseemly to advertise our faith… It seems, by so doing we have ceded the space to the BJP types. In other words, the only public articulation of Hinduism is by people who say Raamzade and Haramzade, by the people who clamour for ghar wapsi, by people who in the name of cow protection are sorting human beings. And those things are not, frankly, what my faith is all about… So if we don’t answer publicly, then we are essentially surrendering the argument to the bad guys and that’s what I wanted to resist.

Do you think that you started a bit too late?
Maybe. Maybe. But, you know, that’s never a good enough excuse. You have to do what you can, when you can do it…

I fear that if the BJP is actually able to persuade enough voters to give them the 2/3rd majority they seek, they will amend the Constitution and make it a Hindu Rashtra, and we will no longer be the India that we were all so proud of.

Rahul Gandhi is visiting temples in election states. You have written a book on Hinduism. Should secular Indians just burn their voter ID cards outside the Congress office in despair and protest?
No no no no no…
You know, our secular definition was never the literal dictionary definition of secularism — in the sense of distance from religion… The practice of secularism from Nehru’s time onwards was of committing a profusion of religions, but none to be privileged by the state… We were not a Hindu state. We were a secular state in the sense that there was no state religion. But we were not a secular state, say, in the French sense where any sign of religion is ruthlessly stamped out from any government institution…
So by using the word secular in your question, you are almost implying what I am suggesting is actually the opposite of established practice. Not true.
What I am suggesting is and what Rahul Gandhi is suggesting is, the same spirit of pluralism that our secularism was always about.
So in Trivandrum, where I have significant chunks of residents who are Christian and slightly less significant numbers who are Muslim, I can be seen regularly, frequently going to temples, churches and mosques… That’s a practice which was considered normal for a politician in a pluralist democracy.
So Rahul Gandhi going to temples in Gujarat…

And Karnataka
…to my mind is entirely normal.
In Karnataka he is going to temples, but he has also said very clearly, in Muslim areas he will go to mosques and in Christian areas he will go to churches… He’s showing respect for other people’s beliefs that characterises the pluralist politician… Mr Modi refuses a Muslim cap… For us, we would accept a Muslim cap, wear a Sikh turban… very happily participate in Christian observances.
But there is no denying that Congress leaders are wearing their Hinduism on their sleeve now, more than they ever did.
Well, we are not saying we are like the BJP. We are saying the BJP claims to be Hindu, we claim to be Hindu, we claim to be a different kind of Hindu from them. But now that the facts are established, that we are both sets of Hindus, can you please put them aside and talk about vikas.
It’s a way of neutralising their Hindutva argument… to focus on whether the government in the last four years made people’s lives better or not, and I think there we are on very solid ground, politically.

In the book you argue that Hinduism and, thus, Hindus are more secular, democratic, inclusive and accommodating that others in a tone that, at times, seems to claim superiority for Hinduism over other religions…
NOOOO… That’s not my nature, so I’m sorry if that happened.

Do you believe that?
No no no.
I say that I am very comfortable with the fact that Hinduism has these particular attributes that I have described, including particularly the attribute that it doesn’t claim to be the only true religion. So when I say I follow a faith that doesn’t claim to be the only true faith, that embraces others, I don’t see that “superiority” is a fair thing to accuse me of suggesting.
I’m just saying it’s inclusive, it’s accepting… Accepting is what matters, because many other faith, at best, can claim tolerance… But tolerance, though it is a virtue, is still a patronising attitude because it says I have the truth, you are an error, but I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong… Whereas acceptance is very different. It says, I believe I have the truth, you believe you have the truth. I will respect your truth, please respect my truth.
And that idea is the Hindu idea — Vivekanand taught it brilliantly and that’s the idea that I grew up with.

When I had the tragedy that one never expects — a young, a youngish but certainly full of life and energy, vibrant person to go unexpectedly and suddenly like that — one did have to turn a little bit to reflection, meditation and reading…

You don’t see Hinduism, and the Hindu, as being a little patronising in the way that it takes over, say Buddhism, Jaininsm… you know, this attitude ki aap sab Hindu hain, even Sikhis. Isn’t that a bit…
Well, I mean, certainly Buddhists and Jains don’t agree that they are Hindus. And Sikhs.
But many Hindus consider each of those to be reform movements within the faith.

Now they will probably argue that they may have started off as reform movements, but they have become separate religions.
So this is, to my mind, not worth arguing. If they consider themselves separate, let them be separate. Let them be respected as separate…

So your enquiry into Hinduism and Hindutva… who is it aimed at?
It’s aimed at Indians principally, and it’s aimed at Indians like myself, various people who have grown up with a certain cosmopolitan sensibility in a pluralist, or you can call it secular, India.

You write that Hindutva has nothing to do with Hinduism, that it’s a political agenda hooked on to the great wall of Hinduism. So how has the BJP been able to merge the two? Hindus are a majority, with 30 million or 300 million gods, and there 13 per cent Muslims in the country with one Prophet, one Allah. So how have they been able to do this?
It’s a very good question because, you know, the politics of resentment seems very odd when it comes from a majority… But this argument of minority appeasement etc. has gained a lot of ground and I often say to friends in the BJP, how can you go on about minority appeasement, look at the condition of the Muslims — it’s particularly the Muslims they are agitated about, though in some parts of the country they are also agitated about the Christians… As far as the Muslim community is concerned, it kind of had the middle of it knocked out by Partition… A whole lot of educated professionals migrated to Pakistan in search of opportunities. They were guaranteed the jobs that Hindus were leaving behind… And suddenly, therefore, you had either the elite, landowner, zamindar, nawab types or absolutely the dregs, the poorest people in society, disproportionately so… And that was a big challenge for the Muslim community to overcome. In fact it was necessary that the Indian state extend some help and a leg up to give them opportunities. You know, we are talking about legit appeasement — look at UP where they have 20 per cent of the population and have barely six or seven per cent of the positions in the police and the provincial armed constabulary. What does that mean? I mean, you know, they are not there when law and order and justice is being imposed or enforced, often they are at the receiving end of it. These are the kind of things that we really have to look at very honestly and say, we have, as a society, certain obligations to the weakest amongst us, and the minorities are almost by definition weak…

My question was, why are so many Hindus betraying this. Why has the BJP been successful in pushing its… making people believe that Hindutva is an extension of, an avatar of Hinduism? Why has it been so successful at this?
It’s a very difficult question to answer. I have tried to venture and answer it in the book and one thing I have probably haven’t made enough of is the trauma of Partition. Because it was the scars of Partition that created receptive ground… Before Partition, the argument of the Hindu Mahasabha and the likes of Savarkar, that Hindus were a different nation from the Muslims got no traction amongst Hindu voters. They could barely win a vote… But with Partition a lot of people nurtured, perhaps an understandable sense of bitterness, grievance, and the politics of resentment built on that… It provided the fertile ground for Hindutva to grow…
You know, these things are there, but again, that was 70 years ago. How long can we go on trying to put chilies in the wounds of Partition?

But it’s working. It has worked.
It has worked, and what is worrying is that it could be taken even further constitutionally. I mean, I have pointed out until I’m blue in the face but people simply aren’t focusing on this point — that the analysis of M.S. Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyay of the Constitution is actually all the more important now as the BJP has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, has 19 of the 29 states (with Tripura and Nagaland, they are now in power in 21 states), is heading towards a majority of the Rajya Sabha. They are the ones who have been saying that Upadhyay must be hailed as their ideologue, that his teachings, his ideas must be taught in all the ministries and so on.
But what did Deen Dayal Upadhyay say about the Constitution of India? He said very clearly that the Constitution was a flawed document and should be rejected — not just because of the obvious objection, that it was full of Westernised ideals written by Anglophile lawyers in the wrong language… but much more important, he said it rests on a fundamentally flawed premise — and that premise is about the question of what is a nation. He says, as I have explained in the book, that the idea is that the nation is a territory called India and everybody living in it, therefore… the Constitution is of everybody living on the territory of India. He says that’s wrong. A nation is not a territory. A nation is a people and the people, he says, are the Hindu people. This notion is fundamentally at odds with what is inshrined in our Constitution… You listen to some of the speeches on YouTube by BJP leaders and they say very clearly, Hindu Rashtra means only a Hindu will be a President or a Prime Minister or commander of the Army or whatever. That isn’t the India Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.
In fact, I take pride in the fact that back in 1971, when some foolish Pakistani generals declared a jihad against the Hindu infidel, they were resisted by an Army headed by a Parsi. The Chief of the Air force in the Northern sector was a Muslim, Air Marshal Latif, the GOC Eastern Command, commander of troops who marched into Bangladesh was a Sikh, Jagjit Singh Arora, and the general helicoptered into Dhaka to negotiate the surrender of the Pakistanis was Jewish, Maj Gen Jacob. That was the India that won the war in 1971… These idiots would destroy that with their Hindu Rashtra talk.

You said you fear. What do you fear?
I fear that if they are actually able to persuade enough voters to give them two-thirds majority they seek, that they will amend the Constitution and make it a Hindu Rashtra, and we will no longer be the India that we were all so proud of.

You think…
I think it’s very much on their minds. I think it’s something they don’t have the strength to do now, just as Mr Vajpayee did not have the strength to take this issue forward. He named the constitutional commission, headed by Justice Venkatachaliah, who didn’t oblige him by coming up with a Hindu Rashtra report and so it was buried. But today, these folks have learnt from that experience, and if they were to write a new Constitution it would be the one that they want. Not the one that some jurist wants.

Do you think that somewhere the Congress Party has failed the Hindu, the good, modern, secular, liberal Hindu?
No, I don’t think so at all. I think in many ways the Congress Party has been true to the Hinduism that most of us have grown up with. And specially as a child of parents from that generation, the ones who were coming of age at the time of Independence… They really believed in Hindusim that was neither majoritarian in its emphasis nor irreligious… My father was very devout in all sorts of ways… But he would never have dreamt of saying one unkind word about anybody because of his having a different faith… This was the kind of culture that our country frankly had. And it bothers me that it is being vitiated by the viciousness of the Hindutva brigade.

You talk about the inferiority complex of the Hindutvawadi, especially the hooligan element. What do you mean by that?
I mean, they see Hinduism as the faith that has been humiliated, conquered, subjugated, oppressed for centuries. They speak of 1,200 years of foreign domination, by which they mean from the first Muslim invasions to today — that is going back to Mehmood of Ghazni and Mohammed Gauri and all these characters.
I don’t. I see Hinduism as a self-confident faith that has been able to resist both, the reform movements within it… Buddhism and Jainism… and reform movements that broke away and formed syncretic faiths, like Sikhism, as well as those who attacked it… It has always emerged refreshed by the challenge and ready to go on.
Even British colonialism, with open contempt of many of the British administrators for the practices of Hinduism they saw as superstitions, actually regenerated the faith in many ways… Arya Samaj is a classic example, as was the Brahmo Samaj, reform movements sparked directly by the colonial experience. They were answering the colonial challenge to Hinduism… Gandhijis’ Hinduism was definitely strongly influenced by his reading of Christian texts and Christian ethics and values. So you’ve really got a tremendous amount of Hinduism that is shaped, formed, articulated in response to challenges. To me that is a great faith — a faith that is able to handle every challenge and still come out smiling, that’s my Hinduism. Not the Hinduism that says, “You know, those guys have hit us, they’ve beaten us, they’ve kicked us, now it’s time for us to hit them back.” That’s really petty. That’s not my Hinduism.

Last question. Apart from the political compulsion to study the Upanishads, the Gita at this time, how much of this study was driven by your own personal… the recent tragedies in your life?
Actually, you know, I have been reading these texts for… I have a pretty decent collection of books on Hinduism despite losing some of my books in divorces, but that’s another matter…
I’ve always been intellectually fascinated by Hinduism. And I’ve read about it since my student days. This is not a new interest… But certainly, when I had the tragedy that one never expects — a young, a youngish but certainly full of life and energy, vibrant person to go unexpectedly and suddenly like that — one did have to turn a little bit to reflection, meditation and reading… I’m not a great frequenter of temples… My late wife was. We built a mandir just outside in the garden having dismantled a mandir from Kerala and reassembled it here in Delhi because she was a very, very devout Shiv bhakt and she wanted a Shiv mandir in our house. And yet I go there relatively rarely, only for very special occasions because, in fact, Bhakti Yoga has been less important to me… But yes, reading some of these texts again gave me some, some… comfort is too strong a word, solace is probably the right word.