Most Indians with the slightest knowledge of India’s nationalist struggle have at least a passing familiarity with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s “two-nation theory” Pared to the bone, Jinnah’s contention was that Hindus and Muslims constituted two distinct nations and in the immortal words of Wystan Hugh Auden, “implacably at odds”.
A host of Indian historians, most notably Mushirul Hasan, have exposed Jinnah’s premise. In a number of scholarly essays he demonstrated that far from constituting a monolithic community, Muslims in pre-Independence India paid much heed to questions of region, language, class and sect.
A landowning Muslim notable in the United Provinces (later Uttar Pradesh) had pitiably little in common, for example, with a poor Muslim peasant from Kerala.
Their class, regional, linguistic and very possibly sectarian differences contributed to vastly different identities. Jinnah, of course, quite deftly sought to minimise these differences and adroitly played on the fears of Muslims in areas where they were in a minority about their future in an Independent India.
Of course, the INC’s failure to fully reassure Muslims helped Jinnah’s cause. The rest is history.
Jinnah’s characterisation not withstanding, India’s Constitution drafters produced a secular, democratic document that reflected the country’s inherent diversity.
Obviously, despite this formal commitment to secularism, India’s 60 odd year record of adherence to those principles is far from unblemished.
There is little need to reproduce a litany of these failures. The vast majority of India’s public is more than familiar with the country’s failures.
These departures, for the most part, stemmed from the exigencies of politics in a country of extraordinary diversity and against a backdrop of political mobilisation.
Even the BJP-led NDA government while creating a more permissive atmosphere for Hindu zealots did not launch a frontal assault on Indian secularism.
The current regime now seems intent on granting free rein to its associates, most notably the RSS and the Bajrang Dal, to pursue an agenda of rampant Hindu nationalism.
These range from quixotic as well as outrageous claims of India’s supposed scientific achievements to egregious attempts to bring back converts to Islam and other faiths back into the Hindu fold.
Against this disturbing backdrop, despite pleas from members of various minority communities, members of civil society and a few in the Opposition in Parliament, the PM has maintained a deafening silence. He has even provided support for certain bizarre views such as the existence of plastic surgery in ancient India.
These developments are profoundly disturbing. At the outset, the Hindu zealots whose imaginations are running riot and whose actions now seem unbridled appear to be utterly ignorant of the very precepts of the faith.
Hinduism has never recognised conversion, it does not have a book of common prayer, and its “little traditions” based upon local practices and rituals, as the noted American anthropologist, Milton Singer, demonstrated decades ago, provide meaning to believers across India.
It is this very diversity of belief that makes Hinduism a vibrant faith. The BJP and its partners, however, seem to be utterly oblivious to these matters in their seemingly inexorable quest to fashion a Hindu nation.
Worse still, their quest to forge a uniform Hindu nation plays quite directly into the hands of Pakistani zealots. For years, if not decades, Pakistani apologists have argued that Indian secularism is a mere patina at best and a cruel pretence at worst.
As these Hindu evangelists seek to trouble and haunt members of other religious communities they are playing directly into the hands of their Pakistani critics.
During his lifetime and even beyond, Jinnah’s perverse theory was not realised despite the many warts on India’s commitment to a secular credo. Sadly, the country now faces the distinct prospect, at the hands of a democratically elected government, and some of its most ardent supporters, of overturning decades of constitutional precedents and evolution.
The possible success of those who would like to transform India’s social and political order to make it a Hindu nation will be viewed with unmitigated glee amongst those Pakistanis who have been ardent adherents of Jinnah’s dubious premise.
The writer, a professor of political science, holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at Indiana University, Bloomington