It is generally believed that India is an overwhelmingly Hindu country. The ideologues of Hindutva push this argument to the extreme. It is necessary to take a close look at this assertion and check out whether it is backed by facts. Yes, the 2011 Census gives the following percentages of Religions in India : Hinduism 79.80, Islam 14.23, Christianity 2.30, Sikhism 1.72, Buddhism 0.70, Jainism 0.37, Zoroastrianism (57,264 Parsis), Others 0.90. Prima facie, the above figures bear out the claim of Hindus being the overwhelming majority of India’s population. However, the 79.80 figure conveniently includes the Scheduled Castes (SC) 16.60, and Scheduled Tribes (ST) 8.60, both of which are not strictly speaking Hindu. Traditional Manuvadi Hinduism included only the ‘savarna’ castes of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, while the Shudras were considered ‘antyajas’ or literally ‘born outside the fold’ and therefore untouchable. The last category are today lumped together as SC, while the tribals are enumerated as ST, often referred to by savarna Hindus as ‘vanvasis’ or ‘forest dwellers’.
It is another matter that aspects of Hinduism have influenced the SCs and STs even as they have influenced other faiths not excluding Islam and Christianity. If one deducts the 16.60 of the SC and the 8.60 of the ST from the 79.80 figure given for Hinduism, we are left with 54.60 for the latter which is certainly a numerical majority but not by any stretch an overwhelming one which warrants India being declared a Hindu Rashtra as the Hindutva ideologues would want. Indeed, if the SC and ST percentages are added to those of the non-Hindu faiths, the total for the non-Hindu segment of Indian society is an impressive 45.40.
The Founding Fathers of the Indian Republic very wisely decided that India should be a secular and not a theocratic State. Apart from statistics, a more basic question is how to define Hinduism. The answer is proverbially elusive on all counts, as the term does not imply adherence to any mandatory doctrine, cult or religious authority. It does not even demand belief of any kind, as non-believers (nastikas) are not excluded. It is more an allusion to the collective practices of the inhabitants of the geographical region deriving its name from the river Indus. It is a default category in view of the other faiths having a defined character in terms of founder, doctrine and cult. Hinduism is thus a phenomenon in search of an identity. The champions of Hindutva have launched a campaign to forge this identity by putting a spin on history and trying to homogenize Indian society along authoritarian lines. Part of their strategy is to demonize minorities and browbeat them into submission. They are blind to the fact that Indian society has over millennia absorbed myriad ethnic groups that have settled in the land, producing a kaleidoscopic civilization that boasts a wide spectrum of languages, beliefs and practices. This diversity is its beauty, strength and resilience.
In light of the above, even if India were to be declared a Hindu Rashtra, what would that mean in practice and how would you describe the nation when Hinduism itself lacks a definition? The advocates of a Hindu India need to apply their minds to this poser. In default of a firm definition of Hinduism, the Hindutvavadis face the odium of falling back on the category of caste as its sole defining characteristic. And it is not one monolithic caste they are dealing with. There is a bewildering vertical and horizontal proliferation of castes and sub-castes spread over subcontinental expanses. This makes it difficult to inculcate a spirit of national loyalty and civic solidarity. It is a myth that Hindus constitute a single race with a single root language and culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is what the RSS fails to see. Hence the recourse to the easy method of vilifying the faiths of ‘non-indigenous’ origin (read the Abrahamic faiths, Islam and Christianity) and portraying them as fostering extra-territorial loyalties inimical to nation-building. One wonders whether there is a deep seated mix of fear, insecurity and bias at the root of this mindset. The fanciful claims made about plastic surgery, space travel, stem cell research and so on supposedly carried out in ancient India by the Hindu forebears reveals a kind of inferiority complex affecting certain Hindutva circles.
In conclusion, one can only endorse wholeheartedly what former President Pranab Mukherjee said in his address to RSS cadres in Nagpur on the meaning of nationalism, patriotism, culture and democracy. If one lacks integrity, empathy and respect for pluralism and inclusiveness, one might as well bid goodbye to national integration and solidarity. Tolerance and compassion, the very foundations of the nation are in jeopardy. No nation aspiring to true greatness can afford to take that risk.
(The writer is retired Reader in Politics & Former Head, Dept. of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai. He is former Member of the Justice and Peace Commission and the Inter-Faith Commission, Archdiocese of Mumbai.)
(Published on 18th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 25)