It started some years back when former Congress president Sonia Gandhi had rued the fact that the party had been portrayed as an anti-Hindu party, which it was not. Recently, Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Hindutva eagle Yogi Adityanath crowed that it was an ideological victory for the BJP when Congress president Rahul Gandhi declared his “gotra” in a private act of worship in Pushkar by declaring that he was a Kashmiri Kaul Brahmin and his “gotra” was Dattatreya. This was followed by the Congress president challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi about his knowledge of Hinduism. Somewhere in all this, the political debate — or discourse, if some prefer the pedantic word — has turned on the issue of the Hindu, and what is Hinduism. It is a perfectly legitimate public religious debate, though none of the people highlighting the issue have the core competency to raise it. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath are all politicians and they are talking about it in the political context. It is easy to castigate the Congress, as liberals have been quick to do, for peddling soft Hindutva.
The Congress is doing what it can to grapple with a situation where it has to justify its existence as a political party in a Hindu majority country. And the BJP has succeeded in its malevolent intent of reducing the politics of the country to that of religious marker. This debate may be seen as a natural one in any European and Islamic polity, where religion has a big role to play in public life. But it is an incongruous issue in the Indian context because throughout its history, it never had to ask these questions about faith. The reason was not that Indians believed that religion was a private affair in the true secular fashion, but because they took for granted their religious identity, and it was never defined in terms of majority and minority.
This was so in the period stretching from the times of the Buddha through the Mauryan, Sunga and Gupta periods in north India, and the Pallava, Chalukya and Chola periods in south India. The situation did not change when the Slave Dynasty came to rule Delhi and its environs in the 13th century, and it continued to be so when the succeeding dynasties of Khiljis, Tughlaqs, Lodis and Mughals ruled from Delhi/Agra, and the Rajput principalities existed in Rajasthan, followed by the Marathas and Sikhs, and the 200-year contest between the Vijayanagar and Bahmani empires in the Deccan. The rulers could be Jains, Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims, but it never became a defining feature of the country going by the accounts of the Indian chroniclers. The 19th century Bengal Renaissance, which was essentially a Hindu reformist movement, never assumed political overtones. The East India Company too did not see India through the Hindu/Muslim/Sikh lens. The political power struggles were played out without any reference to religion. It was the British government after the 1858 proclamation which had felt the need to look into the Muslim question through the Hunter Committee Report.
It was natural for the British to bring their own historical experience of the Reformation in the 16th century, which was religious as well as political, and in which Roman Catholicism was sought to be purged and expunged. It was only in the 19th century that restrictions were lifted against the Catholics. The British too did not look at Hindus and Muslims in terms of religiosity but as easily identifiable social groupings, who could be kept apart in the context of sharing political power. And they also created reservations for the backward classes among Hindus and a separate category for the oppressed “untouchables” in terms of political status. They did not concern themselves with the questions whether the backward classes should fight the dominance of the Brahmins or whether the “untouchables” should turn to some other religion.
But there were many in India, and most of them happened to be in the Indian National Congress set up in 1885 who aspired to nationhood, which transcended religious groups. The Muslim group represented by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan felt
apprehensive that in a democratic setup, where numbers counted, the Muslims would be at a permanent political disadvantage, a sentiment echoed by Mohammed Iqbal years later. It was natural that Hindu conservatives and liberals were comfortable with the idea of democracy because they were in a majority. The view of Sir Syed prevailed with the Muslim middle-class leadership in the then United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), though it had no takers among Muslims in south India, not even in the Nizam-ruled Hyderabad, and among Muslims in undivided Bengal and in undivided Punjab. The public agitation against the partition of Bengal in 1905 did show signs of middle-class Hindu apprehensions. And the representation made by the Muslim League to Lord Minto in 1906 for “special treatment” has its roots in the 1905 developments. But the contest still remained in the domain of power politics and it never became an issue of religion per se.
The right-wing Hindu politics of the late 20th century and the first two decades of this century is also about a power struggle. It is never going to become a religious one. The triumph of Hindu politics will not make India a stable country, just as Muslim politics did not make Pakistan into one. Language and region play their own parts, as do caste and class. The BJP and its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), know fully well that Hinduism is not a stabilising factor in India. It can only be used to wrest political dominance from the Congress. And if the Congress comes onto the Hindu bandwagon, then the BJP will have trouble guarding its turf. This Hindu thing in Indian politics is not going to reshape India in any significant way because the Indian chaos will swallow this Hindu stuff.