Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I Am A Hindu’ Is Driven By A Degree Of Schizophrenia On Hinduism

  • If Tharoor is a true Hindu, he should engage with real Hindu issues and concerns. His real challenge is to understand Hindutva on its own terms.
  • His book suggests that he is not yet upto the challenge.
  • R JagannathanTuesday, February 20, 2018 5:35 pm IST
    Shashi Tharoor during an interview in New Delhi. (Pradeep Gar/Mint via Getty Images) 
    Shashi Tharoor during an interview in New Delhi. (Pradeep Gar/Mint via Getty Images) 

    Shashi Tharoor’s latest book, Why I Am A Hindu, is a schizophrenic one. The book can neatly be divided into two mutually exclusive parts: the first part is about Tharoor, the Hindu, and focuses on his interpretation of Hinduism’s eclectic pluralism and his own personal understanding of it; the second is Tharoor, the “secular” Congress politician, which brings forth the tired, old polemical view of Hindutva. So there are two Tharoors at work here.

    The link to the two parts is tenuous, and one suspects that the need for part one is purely driven by Tharoor, the secular politician’s need to rubbish Hindutva, which is nothing but political Hinduism, something he wants to delegitimise.

    But this is where the second bout of schizophrenia surfaces. To delegitimise one strand of Hinduism, you need to do more than just conflate the violent acts of some “gau rakshaks”, and the Lutyens media’s narration of events post-May 2014 (and some pre-2014), with those you deem to be “non-Hindu” by your definition. So, you get nowhere beyond mention of murders like Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid and Gauri Lankesh, with the blame for the last-named killing being tied directly to her “excoriating attacks on the Sangh parivar”, a charge that is far from proven.

    Tharoor’s demonisation of Hindutva focuses on weaving violent fringe groups, the loose cannons in the Sangh parivar, and communal incidents since Independence, and especially 2002, into one quilt of intolerance. Just as some Hindu partisans would like to reduce all of Islam to jihadi Islam, Tharoor does the same hit-job on political Hinduism. He traces all of it to an ideology which was first crafted by Veer Savarkar, expanded on by Guru M S Golwalkar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) second chief, and given political shape by one of the Jana Sangh’s founders, Deendayal Upadhyaya.

    The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of today is the inheritor of all three streams of thought, though one can hardly call today’s political Hindutva of the BJP as being anywhere close to the radical ideology envisioned by Savarkar. In his own time, Savarkar was disillusioned by the pusillanimity of the Sangh, and he would probably see today’s BJP as a namby-pamby outfit unfit to call itself a party espousing Hindutva. But to Tharoor it does not matter, since the idea is to smear political Hinduism with the blood-lust of those Muslim-hating vigilante groups that have crept out of the woodwork, possibly emboldened by the rise of the BJP to power in many states. So, to restate the obvious: Tharoor’s declaration of his Hindu-ness, or Hindutva, is largely polemical.

    A third bit of schizophrenia (or convenient amnesia) is visible when Tharoor thrashes the 2002 Gujarat riots, and the Kandhamal attacks on Christians in Odisha, without once mentioning what provoked them: the burning of a coach full of karsevaks on the Sabarmati Express and the murder of a revered Hindu leader, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, respectively.

    While no one – least of all this writer – can support any kind of violence in the name of cow protection or even a “legitimate” Hindu cause, it is a pity that a public intellectual like Tharoor falls into the same trap of using convenient rogue elements to rubbish the whole of political Hinduism. You can see this tactic in many mainstream TV studios, where some extreme and loud-mouthed elements from the Hindu fringe will be called to represent the Hindu side, while the other side will be represented by people with seemingly sane arguments. If you choose to define Hindutva forces through the activities and voices of the extreme elements, you are essentially refusing to engage with the real issues that bother Hindus today – illegal immigration and changing demography against Hindus in some states (including Tharoor’s Kerala), the ethnic cleansing of the Pandits in Kashmir, the imposition of the Right to Education Act only on the majority community, the takeover of Hindu temples and resources by state governments, et al.

    Above all, there is the unmistakable trend among secular parties in search of the minority bloc vote to delegitimise Hinduism itself, by conflating it with Brahminism and caste inequities alone. Hnduism is more than Brahminism and caste, just as Christianity is more than just papism or Islam jihadism. Moreover, Leftist histories have consistently ignored the impact of Islamic iconoclasm and bigotry that have left huge scars on the Hindu psyche. You cannot heal the wounds left behind by history by pretending they were never inflicted. They can heal only with the truth.

    Tharoor repeatedly talks of Hindu majoritarianism, but, equally schizophrenically, he believes that Hindus do not constitute one block, given their extreme diversity. Can you be majoritarian without actually being a majority in the political sense of the term? He says: “I have often argued that we are all minorities in India, given our divisions of language, religion, caste, and cultural practices; recognising and managing that diversity is a far better way of promoting unity than imposing one view on the rest a method that will lead not back to a golden age but to certain disaster.” Accepted, but he does not follow up the logic by asserting that even Hindus must benefit from articles 25-30, which seek to protect only minority institutions from state intervention. What stopped him or his party from taking up this Hindu cause of equal treatment with minorities for 70 years?

    Tharoor calls Narendra Modi’s 282-seat Lok Sabha seats as a “crushing majority” when crushing majorities were the kinds of mandate Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi once had, complete with even more “crushing majorities” in the Rajya Sabha. Modi’s “crushing majority” has not been adequate to get even sensible economic legislation through the upper house (like the Land Acquisition Act amendments), but Tharoor would like us to believe that this is indeed a crushing majority.

    The only issue of genuine Hindu concern he engages with are religious conversions, where he says he would support legislation to ban mass conversions, leaving the right to change one’s faith purely as an individual right. But so far neither he nor his party has done any such thing, and if the BJP were to bring such a legislation, one can be sure Tharoor’s party will denounce it as being unconstitutional since it would contradict the promise of freedom of conscience and religion, including the freedom to propagate. And Tharoor himself has another bout of schizophrenia over this. After making the brave statement (brave for a Congressman, that is) that he would support a constitutional amendment to bar mass conversions, he quotes the Hindu verse, Ekam Sat, Vipra Bahuda Vadanti (There is one truth, but the wise call it by different names) to espouse the opposite.

    He asks: “Why, then, are any of my co-religionists unhappy about some tribal Hindus becoming Christians? If a Hindu decides he wishes to be a Christian, how does it matter that he has found a different way of stretching his hands out towards god? Truth is one, the Hindu believes; but there are many ways of attaining it.”

    This is ingenuous. To live up to their ideals, Hindus must behave like doormats, allowing the others to stomp all over it. However, one can understand the need for this kind of contradiction in his views. If Tharoor has to seek re-election in Thiruvananthapuram, he cannot do so by espousing a ban on mass conversions that is so dear to proselytising Christianity and Islam.

    This schizophrenic attitude lies at the core of the Hindu dilemma today: a liberal religion (or way of life) has to prove itself liberal when rival faiths challenge it, but the rivals don’t have to prove they are equally liberal, since their religion sanctions a narrow view of god, and exclusion of those who don’t believe in him (and it is always a him, never a her, in the Semitic faiths).

    Tharoor indirectly brings out this dilemma that Hindus face, where any attempt to strengthen Hinduism or make it more assertive invariably involves using the same techniques that its rivals use to grow the numbers, but, in the process, there will be some loss of what we call Hinduism. This is not an easy dilemma to resolve, for if you choose not to fight your rivals, you can lose; if you choose to fight and seek to counter-proselytise (through the Ghar Wapsi campaign), you become more like them. Tharoor has no answers to resolving this dilemma, which is a genuine one. The Gita had a clear answer: you have to do your duty and fight, and, in some senses, this is what political Hinduism is trying to do.

    The cover of Shashi Tharoor’s new book, <i>Why I Am A Hindu</i>
    The cover of Shashi Tharoor’s new book, <i>Why I Am A Hindu</i>

    This underlying logic of Tharoor’s position is this: to junk political Hinduism, you now need to declare yourself a Hindu of sorts (Tharoor’s boss Rahul Gandhi becomes a Shiv-bhakt and he himself writes a book), and then diss the guys you disagree with politically. This book is one of a piece with a recent cover story in India Today, which pitted Hinduism against Hindutva, as if “Hindu-ness” (the underlying meaning of Hindutva) is alien to Hinduism. You can heartily disagree with political forms of Hinduism, but you can hardly claim it isn’t Hinduism, especially if you, like Tharoor, believe that Hinduism is a religion “without fundamentals”. If it has no fundamentals, what stops some Hindus from giving it some fundamentals in their version of Hinduism?

    To be sure, the claim that Hinduism lacks fundamentals is dubious. It may have a fuzzy core of principles or approaches to faith which are not cast in stone like the unalterable words of the Quran. But this is because Hinduism allows dissent and disbelief. The right to belief or disbelief is a Hindu fundamental, not about anything goes.

    This book had all the essentials of being truly insightful, if one takes Tharoor’s reasons for being a Hindu and not a Muslim or Christian into account. These two predatory faiths believe the whole world should follow their version of the ‘one true god’, and are willing to spend billions of dollars in promoting, through fair means or foul, what are essentially unfalsifiable propositions, if not outright lies.

    Thus, he can, on the one hand, proudly claim that “I belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion” – a
    “dogma that lies at the core of the Semitic faiths, Christianity, Islam and Judaism” – and yet he has no hesitation in claiming that his reading of Hinduism is the only true Hinduism, and not the political Hinduism of the Sangh parivar. No religion exists in its pristine, idyllic form; it morphs, it changes to meet new challenges. If this was not the case, why did Sikhism even emerge from the womb of Hinduism?

    Tharoor has this to say about Sikhism, placing its inception – rightly – in the Bhakti tradition at the time of Guru Nanak, and adding that its monotheism drew from elements in Islam, too. But, he says, “its persecution by the later Mughals, notably Aurangzeb, turned Sikhism into a warrior faith, fighting to protect itself and the larger Hindu community. For many years in Sikhism’s heartland, Punjab, Hindu families brought up one son as a Sikh to fight for the faith.”

    Two questions arise: if Sikhism had to turn militant because of persecutions under latter-day Mughal rulers, why is it out of form for modern-day Hindus or Hindutva-vadis to attempt the same? Then, while in the context of Sikhism, Tharoor is able to see Aurangzeb as villain, in the Hindu context he is unwilling to do the same, except for calling him a bigot. He goes so far as to eulogise the work of Audrey Trushke, who did much to airbrush Aurangzeb’s bigotry as being political, not religious. Tharoor says historical evidence suggests that “Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples as is claimed and that the ones he did destroy were largely for political reasons; that he did little to promote conversions, as evidenced by the relatively modest number of Hindus who adopted Islam during Aurangzeb’s rule.”

    This is the logic of a glass half-empty, when it suits you, and half full when it doesn’t. Is it logical to presume that Aurangzeb can be a Muslim “bigot” and “austere puritan” (Nehru’s words), impose jizya on Hindus, prohibit Hindu rituals in court, introduce policies to favour Muslims, and yet get a free pass out of bigotry in modern-day rewriting of history by the Trushkes of the world? It is indeed fair to say that we need to read Aurangzeb’s character with greater nuance, but isn’t it equally possible to read him the other way around? Can we not, for example, interpret his occasional acts of inclusion – the induction of Maratha aristocrats into his administration, patronage of some temples and land grants to Brahmins – as acts that were purely political in nature, while his bigoted acts were the result of his inner Islamist convictions?

    Minor concessions and inclusion of some Hindus in positions of power may have been the compromise necessary to ensure his hold on power, for it would have been well-nigh impossible for a minority community ruler to take on 90 per cent of his own population by force. And should Hindus feel great affection for Aurangzeb just because of his political limitations and demographic inability to massacre or convert them by the million? By this logic, the Nairs not massacred or converted by Tipu Sultan – including Tharoor’s own family of Nairs – should have a rose-tinted view of the bigot of Mysore.

    Tharoor quotes with great relish Swami Vivekananda’s statement without really going into it deeply. The Swami said in his speech at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in 1893: “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” Tharoor adds with approbation that “acceptance… implies that you have a truth but the other person may also have a truth, that you accept his truth and respect it, while expecting him to respect (and accept) your truth in turn.”

    He has not once asked himself if the votaries of Islam and Christianity, both keen on proselytising those unaware of ‘god’s truth’ in India, will even consider accepting the same proposition? Can India survive if only Hindus are expected to follow the idea of acceptance, and not the other faiths, whose core tenet is non-acceptance of non-believers?

    One can, however, buy Tharoor’s argument that violent Hindu activists are doing Hinduism a disservice. Lynching alleged cow smugglers or killing beef eaters is unacceptable. One can even agree with his outrage over the hounding of painter M F Husain, whose nudes of Hindu goddesses drew Sangh parivar ire. Personally, I would agree that Husain’s paintings were well within the broad rubric of Hindu literary and temple eroticism, as none of our gods or goddesses has been sexless creatures. However, again this brings up the dilemma: can liberality be one-sided? Would a Hindu critique or drawing of Islam’s Prophet be considered art, free expression or sacrilege?

    Tharoor also fails to see potential benefits in political Hindutva, one side benefit of which is likely to be the faster eradication of caste inequities. With caste under attack both internally and externally, the stark future for Hindus is either slow absorption into other religions, or stronger consolidation into a less caste-conscious Hindutva. During Islamic rule, caste provided the shield against conversions, but in the process it became more rigid and hierarchical and oppressive. But if caste ends, Hinduism needs another, stronger entity to take its place, and properly managed political Hinduism is one answer. Without this umbrella, Tharoor is essentially asking for the gradual dismemberment of Hinduism. Tharoor would like Hindus to be civic nationalists, but it will not have the same emotive content as Hindutva.

    If he is a true Hindu, he should engage with real Hindu issues and concerns – and these are often not about finding an enemy in Islam or Christianity. The insecurity that drives some fringe Hindus to violence against the minorities is essentially the result of both external attacks and the internal demonisation of the religion by “secularists”, most of whom are deracinated Hindus who have internalised the Abrahamic critique of Hinduism. In fact, the Hindu fringe and the card-carrying secularists are cut from the same cloth: the internalisation of Hindu demonisation has made one group overtly HIndu-baiting, and the other mindlessly Hindu. If Tharoor is not one of the latter, his real challenge is to understand Hindutva on its own terms. His book suggests that he is not yet upto the challenge.

    But there is a real danger in this book. The problem with having such a rose-tinted view of Hinduism in part one (where we are so tolerant, so accepting of every other faith, so non-violent, so large-hearted) is that it can easily weaken growing Hindu assertiveness. Insecure people are disarmed by excess praise and it is important that we should not take Tharoor’s gooey Hinduism literally. Indians keel over with ecstasy whenever someone from the West hails our “great democracy”, our past achievements, or some obscure good trait that we never knew we had. We then end up giving huge concessions that go against our interests (example, Nehru’s refusal of a Security Council seat when it was offered, Indira’s willingness to be over-magnanimous to Z A Bhutto on Kashmir when we had him over the barrel after the Bangladesh war). The tendency to go weak-kneed over praise is a particular Hindu failing, often resulting in a sacrifice of key interests.

    Assertiveness is important for Hindus to develop less insecurities about themselves. Only a secure people can be fair to minorities. Hindus are normal people, neither more magnanimous nor less, neither more violent nor less, neither more tolerant nor less than the rest of the world. This view is essential to developing a more assertive, and yet more tolerant, India. Tharoor’s book does not help this process. Hindutva is a key stepping stone to a more assertive and less iniquitous society.

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