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All liberal-secularist Hindus should first convert to Hindutva

Liberal-secularist Hindus, who don’t mind being applauded for raising voice against the saffonization of this or that, and present themselves as protectors of constitutional secularism, have always taken care never to challenge Hindutva at its core: caste. Photo: AFPPremium
Liberal-secularist Hindus, who don’t mind being applauded for raising voice against the saffonization of this or that, and present themselves as protectors of constitutional secularism, have always taken care never to challenge Hindutva at its core: caste. Photo: AFP

There is one 'ghar wapsi' that is not getting enough attention: the conversion of liberal-secularist Hindus to Hindutva

It is the season of conversions. Or ghar wapsi (homecoming), as it’s called by the Sangh Parivar. Across the country, from Agra to Kerala, Hinduism’s prodigal children, such as Muslims and Christians, are returning to the fold. Or so we hear. But there is one ghar wapsi that is not getting enough attention: the conversion of liberal-secularist Hindus to Hindutva.

I’m not being facetious here. Liberal-secularist Hindus, who don’t mind being applauded for raising their voice against the saffonization of this or that, and present themselves as protectors of constitutional secularism, have always taken great care never to challenge Hindutva at its core: caste. Therefore, in these happy times, when conversions are in the air, as it were, it would only be fitting if their loyal service to the cause of Hindutva is formally recognized through a proper Hindu ceremony, with appropriate use of ghee, fire, the chanting of Sanskrit shlokas, etc.

Sometimes, an image can express best what words tends to obscure. So allow me to share with you a cartoon by Malcolm Evans. It elucidates brilliantly the ongoing liberal-secularist breast-beating over conversions, religious extremism, the rising threat to constitutional secularism, etc.

The cartoon shows two women exchanging appraising glances as they walk by. One of them is clad in a bikini and sunglasses. The other is in a burqa. Their impressions find expression in thought bubbles. The bikini-clad woman is thinking of the burqa-clad one, “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated culture!" The burqa-clad woman is thinking of the bikini-clad one, “Nothing covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated culture!"

Of course, neither is the burqa-clad woman reducible to total victimhood, nor is the bikini-clad one reducible to empowered womanhood. Both the women conceive of emancipation in the very terms that, for their symbolic other, function as coordinates of oppression. In their very opposition, they mirror and define each other. This is the exact nature of the binary of liberal-secularism and religious fundamentalism—they are two sides of the same coin.

Like the women in the cartoon, they serve the same master. But so long as we are inside the thought bubbles of either liberal-secularism or religious fundamentalism, the real master is obscured, which is precisely the function of all such binaries.

In today’s India, what is it that the elements of the dominant ideological binary—liberal-secularism and Hindutva—mystify?

Hindutva, like any classically conservative ideology, posits a mythical organic unity—the Hindu Rashtra—where its adherents, the Hindus, will be happy as in paradise. Not only is the Hindu Rashtra the designated future of India and all Hindus, it was also their originary past.

Let us assume that the Hindutva ideologues are right. That India, once upon a time, was a land that was exclusively the home of the Hindus. What kind of a paradise was this? Well, whatever the kind of paradise it was, if it was truly a Hindu Rashtra, we can be certain of one thing: it had a caste system. And it had untouchability—in whatever progressive, non-oppressive form you may like imagine it, but it was there.

How can we be sure? Because Manusmriti, one of the seminal texts of Hinduism, prescribes the caste system and lays down the practice of caste dharma as the duty of every Hindu. The last anyone checked, nobody in the Sangh Parivar had denounced the Manusmriti. As for the liberal-secularists, not only have they made their peace with caste—they don’t think it is India’s biggest problem right now—they want you to believe that it is here to stay. As almost all of them belong to savarna castes, this should surprise nobody.

As B.R. Ambedkar demonstrated in Annihilation of Caste, the elemental contradiction of Hinduism is caste. The fantasy of a Hindu Rashtra flies in the face of the reality of caste. Therefore, like any religion that is called upon to do national duty, Hinduism needs to displace its internal contradiction onto something external to it—and this is the minority of the moment. The Muslim (and the Muslim invader) or the Christian (and the missionaries who first arrived with the Europeans) is the archetypal outsider who will make the internal antagonisms of the Hindu Rashtra disappear, thereby rendering it coherent and appealing as a fantasy.

This process has its parallel in the secular sphere of liberalism as well. In India, liberalism had for long allied itself with secularism and democracy. Elsewhere in the world, it has allied itself with capitalism and democracy. It is economic liberalism on steroids—liberalism 2.0—that is now hegemonic around the world. In India, liberalism 2.0 often goes by the name of neo-liberalism.

Wherever in the world liberalism 2.0 has established itself, it has sown the seeds of, and subsequently strengthened, rightwing extremism. If it played sheet anchor to Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world and North Africa, in Europe, liberal multiculturalism has been a fitting foil to anti-immigrant, Islamophobic politics. Around the world, it is precisely in places where the radical Left has been wiped out that religious fundamentalism and far-Right hate politics have take its place. And once the extremist right-wing is fully empowered to create havoc, the liberals come in and set up shop, finding new markets for the increasingly lucrative business of human rights.

What is rarely acknowledged is that if liberalism flourished for so many decades in Western democracies, it was on the back of the radical Left’s hard-won victories from capitalism. The countervailing example of the communist Soviet Union had no small role to play in this. The liberal’s primary role everywhere has always been analogous to the secular Hindu’s role in India – to mystify the central contradiction of capitalism, that is, class warfare. And class warfare, as any liberal will tell you, doesn’t exist. For the illiberal truth, you have to turn to a pure conservative and arch-capitalist such as Warren Buffet who famously observed, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning."

Both Hinduism and capitalism displace their internal antagonisms—caste and class conflict—on to entities outside the organic unified systems that they each present themselves as. In one case, the outsider disturbing the internal harmony is the minority community. With the other, it is the terrorist or the immigrant.

In India, the figures of the non-Hindu outsider and the figure of the extremist tend to coalesce around a few select figures—the adivasi-Maoist, separatists from the northeast or Kashmir, the Islamist terrorist, and so on. In each case, you can rely on the liberal-secularist Hindu to speak up against human right violations, while skirting anything that concerns the contradictions in the dominant ideologies.

The liberal’s existential dilemma, however, is that liberalism itself cannot survive without the oxygen produced by radical politics. So liberals tend to yo-yo from issue to issue, feeding on a multitude of genuine protest mobilizations wherever they happen, as we saw with Arab Spring, for instance. But again, a liberal, by definition, is opposed to genuine social transformation.

In India, supporting social transformation would mean extending solidarity to, say, radical Dalit politics, adivasi mobilizations against corporate capital, and workers’ movements—all of which is out of the question for any self-avowed Hindu liberal. That is exactly why it would be best if they vacated the progressive space they currently occupy, and surrender their monopoly over dissent by officially converting to Hindutva. As Ambedkar summed up in Annihilation of Caste, “It is useless to make a distinction between the secular Brahmins and priestly Brahmins. Both are kith and kin. They are two arms of the same body, and one is bound to fight for the existence of the other."

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