What exactly is Hindu rashtra? This is one of the phrases that worry those who are frightened of the tendencies of the Rashtriya Swayam-sevak Sangh. But are they right to be worried?
What is the RSS thinking of when its chief Mohan Bhagwat says, as he did a few days ago, that “Hindustan Hindu rashtra hai (India is a Hindu nation)”?
The question to be asked is: What does Mr Bhagwat mean by “Hindu” in this context?
And also a second one, what does he mean by “rashtra”? To answer the second one first, rashtra means nation, though loosely it could also mean state (ordinarily the word used in Hindi for the state is sarkar).
A Hindu state is a reasonably precise thing, because the religious texts tell us what its structure is.
Till 2008, Nepal was the only Hindu state on earth. The Chhetri (Kshatriya) dynasty ended with the republic of 2008. Why was Nepal a Hindu state? Because executive power flowed from a warrior king, as prescribed in the Hindu code, Manusmriti. But Nepal was a “Hindu state” only to that extent. Nothing else from Hindu texts could be applied because much of it is against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The RSS has not made the demand that the Indian state be organised by caste, so we will assume that the word rashtra was used in the sense of “nation”.
The dictionary defines nation as “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory”.
Let us look at the word Hindu then.
The conflation of India, Indus and Hindu is of course ancient and we know of the Indica of Arrian (which records the campaigns of Alexander the Great in Punjab) and the Indica of Megasthenes. Arrian refers to Punjabis east of the Indus as the Indoi.
However, this conflation makes no sense when used in the line “Hindustan Hindu rashtra hai” because it would then mean Hindustan is an Indian nation, which is a tautology. Clearly, Mr Bhagwat meant something a little different when he said Hindu. One interpretation is that he meant that Indians should all recognise that it is Hindu identity that is at the root of their cultural expression.
That Islam and Christianity in India were also in some way an aspect of Hindustani culture and should be different from Islam and Christianity as they are practised elsewhere in the world.
When Hindu is used in the geographic sense, the RSS has support from many people, including some minorities who agree with its definition. Goa’s Deputy Chief Minister, Francis D’Souza of the BJP, told in an interview: “India is a Hindu nation. There is no doubt about it. It is always a Hindu nation and it will always stay a Hindu nation. You don’t have to create a Hindu nation.”
Asked to explain, Mr D’Souza said, “India is a Hindu country — Hindu-stan. All Indians in Hindu-stan are Hindus, including me. I am a Christian Hindu, I am Hindustani.”
The BJP’s Minority Morcha president Abdul Rasheed Ansari also agre-ed. In an interview to PTI, Ansari pointed to Allama Iqbal’s poem Tarana-e-Hindi (commonly known as Saare jahan se achcha). In it, Iqbal refers to Indians as Hindi in the lines — “Hindi hain hum, watan hai Hindustan ha-mara” (We are Hindis and our land is Hindu-stan).
Mr Ansari said that “in my opinion, whatever Mr Bhagwat said was in a social context.
Another Muslim, Union minority affairs minister Najma Heptullah, also defended Mr Bhagwat in an interview. Asked if it was right to call India’s minorities “Hindu-Muslims” and “Hindu-Christians”, Ms Heptullah said, “It is not about right or wrong. It is about history.” If some people called Muslims Hindi or Hindu they should not be so sensitive because it didn’t affect their faith, she added.
It is good that the RSS chief has Christians and Muslims interpreting his words, but it would be much better if he himself gave a coherent explanation that would satisfy his critics.
Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist