Citizen Writer(s)
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Citizen Writer(s)

India: We Must Dismantle The Flawed Notion of a Hindu Majority

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva rests on a series of historical fallacies that have been exploited for political gain and to fuel national division. From the New Yorker: Illustration by Tyler Comrie. Photographs by Chris Stein / Getty (wire) and Mohd Zakir / Hindustan Times / Getty (man)

Over the past decade, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi’s fascist right-wing government, there has been a sustained and orchestrated assault on the remaining vestiges of democratic culture and institutions. Time and again, the Indian state has exhibited a systematic approach to silencing any and all dissent: whether this is in the form of bringing back draconian colonial-era laws to jail journalists or political opposition, ramming farm bills without due consultation, and with a complete disregard to parliamentary traditions, revoking Article 370 in Kashmir after laying military siege on the state or completely eroding secular culture. All this has served the purpose of establishing a Hindu state and cementing a national Hindu identity.

At the core of the idea of a Hindu state, and Hindutva, is that there is something such as a distinct Hindu identity. In this essay, through a political and historical lens, we interrogate this notion and this identity tag that has been exploited — or perhaps even constructed; yes, that is a radical notion — for the sake of political gain.

Upon dissection, we find that the idea of a Hindu majority to be nothing more than a hoax. What does it mean to be Hindu? The definition of “Hindu” does not find itself grounded in scholarly literature or religious scripture — instead, we find that it is as politically motivated as any categorical definition could be. In fact, there is overwhelming academic consensus that Hinduism is a fairly new invention.

All this is bound to sound too radical. And perhaps it is. It raises the question: Invention of whom? For that, we’ll have to retrace our steps to the 19th century. In 1872, as the first Census of India was being conducted, the colonial British government was tasked with a project that was quite daunting. Conducting a census for 200 million people is no easy task: more so when it had never been done before and when the numerous methods of categorization did not exist.

The Census of 1872 was an important one: one that has continued to shape sociopolitical movements in India ever since, and still persistently haunts and frames modern-day Indian politics (read: fascism). For the first time in Indian history, the term Hindu was defined concretely — by the British government. Until then, British officials had used the term Hinduism as a matter of convenience; in fact, for the longest time, it was used as a negative concept by Christian missionaries to identify those masses of the populations that were not Christians, Muslims, or Jews.

Lewis McIver, a British civil servant, wrote in the 1881 Madras Census Report: “Regarded as a definition of religion, or even of race, it is more liberal than accurate. From the point of view of race, [the term Hinduism] groups together such widely distinct peoples as true Aryan Brahmins and the few Kshatriyas we possess, with the Vellalas and Kallars of the South, the Nairs of the West, and the aboriginal tribes of the Southern hill sides. As a religious classification it lumps the purest surviving forms of Vedic belief with the demon worshippers of Tinnevelly and South Canara.”

Until the 19th century, there were only some upper-caste Indians, educated in English, that were identifying as Hindu. And so it is only in the last century that the use of the term Hindu, in consistency with the disingenuously wide net that the first census cast, has seeped into common culture and sociopolitical understandings. Until then, it was common to identify oneself with caste, instead of religion. Today’s structural caste discrimination and oppression is a testament to the fact that this assimilation, through the coinage of this political term, was far from natural: it was political, and for some tribes and groups of people, this sustained process of establishing a Hindu hegemony can even be referred to as ethnocide driven by political and religious factors.

Even in the early 20th century, this blatantly flawed categorization was not questioned by prominent intellectuals and nationalist leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. While those more tangential to national movements, for instance, Ambedkar, focused on the intricacies of caste and sought to dismantle the system, Gandhi and Nehru readily adopted and appropriated the term Hindu as it was used in the 1872 census — it provided grounds for a national unification strategy that could oppose the British rule and also decreased possibilities of having to share political power with other lower caste leaders, such as Ambedkar.

Other nationalist leaders were less restrained than Gandhi or Nehru, and it was in the first quarter of 20th century that we saw the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS being founded: large-scale grassroots organizations that cemented the Hindu identity and conflated it with a national, patriotic, Indian identity. Both also birthed the BJP — the current right-wing Hindutva-preaching ruling party — and shaped much of the intellectual and political discourse surrounding matters of religion and caste in the decades that followed India’s independence.

And all this brings us to the present day. Religiously-motivated violence is at an all-time high. Minorities are being lynched. The secular nature of the nation’s most important institutions is compromised. And between the Supreme Court’s verdict on Babri Masjid and the revocation of Article 370 — a sacred element of the constitution which granted the State of Kashmir some semblance of sovereignty — the construction of the Hindu state has been an astounding political success. But it has also been a grave moral and democratic failure: of nationalist leaders of the 20th century, of the current opposition, of the hundreds of millions that voted for a fascist government, and of the hundreds of millions that have stayed silent as country has been thrown in such disarray.

And all for what? For the sociopolitical motivations of upper-caste Indians. The hoax of the Hindu identity — and consequentially the Hindu majority — needs to be rigorously studied and needs to occupy a central place in the public consciousness. It has been exploited for political gain, to keep structures of oppression like caste in place, to fuel religious division, and to detract from real issues and keep religious minorities and low-caste Indians out of the corridors of power.

Supplementary reading material:

The Hindu Hoax at The Caravan [Explores the historical and religious intricacies of the construction of the Hindu identity — a long read, but an incredibly insightful one.]

Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India at The New Yorker [An astoundingly detailed profile of Prime Minister Modi and his flirtations with fascism during his political career — a good guide to understanding India’s current political climate.]

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