Being in public life comes with its fair share of scrutiny and even intense opposition. I have seen that first hand recently, when a certain group of people in Cambridge and beyond tagged me as something I have never been before: a ‘Hindu Nationalist‘. The basis? My participation in a cultural celebration of India’s Independence Day near the Indian High Commission, which was soured by hostile protests against us. Around 5000 protesters, as per London Police reports, against a handful of Indians, who even though hit by projectiles as varied as eggs, plastic bottles and tomatoes for two hours, did not hit back even once, except a stray incident. This essay has emerged from an ardent desire to express my position on my political thought and philosophy clearly, and to reflect on elements and foundations of social and political ideas and values. This is not as much from a position of trying to clarify or being pained by the recent baseless accusations, but rather a positive and pro-active drive to discuss something not many are comfortable discussing. Last but not the least, this essay is to categorically distance myself from what I see as the political concept of ‘Hindu nationalism‘ and to put forth a reasoning for the same, based on a deeper philosophical mooring that drives me to the position of what I call ‘Dharmic Universalism’.
Who is a Hindu nationalist?
I would like to begin with the historic words of Sri Aurobindo, in his Uttarpara Speech. In this speech, he gave a comprehensive perspective of Hinduism, which is different from the geocentric view developed by the later Hindu nationalist ideologues such as Deendayal Upadhyay and Veer Savarkar“But what is the Hindu religion? What is this religion which we call Sanatan, eternal? It is the Hindu religion only because the Hindu nation has kept it, because in this Peninsula it grew up in the seclusion of the sea and the Himalayas, because in this sacred and ancient land it was given as a charge to the Aryan race to preserve through the ages.But it is not circumscribed by the confines of a single country, it does not belong peculiarly and forever to a bounded part of the world. That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others. If a religion is not universal, it cannot be eternal. A narrow religion, a sectarian religion, an exclusive religion can live only for a limited time and a limited purpose. This is the one religion that can triumph over materialism by including and anticipating the discoveries of science and the speculations of philosophy.”
Sri Aurobindo’s views were however countered in form and practice soon after as the Hindu renaissance movements were seen to hold considerable influence over the revolutionary movements in the independence struggle against the British rule and thereby came to form the philosophical basis for the struggles and political movements that originated in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this also intertwined the religious and political aspects.
Historically, this took a more politically assertive tone from the times of the Anushilan Samiti and the Jugantar revolutionary trend in Bengal, with famous names such as Bagha Jatin and Khudiram Bose associated with it. The rise of the India House initiative and the advent of Veer Savarkar saw another phase of this story. Savarkar was responsible for the concept of ‘Hindutva’ in his book of the same name, which formed the basis of the ideology of the Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh. For Savarkar, Hindutva was an inclusive term of everything Indic, and the three essentials of Hindutva in Savarkar’s definition were the common nation (rashtra), common race (jati), and common culture or civilisation (sanskriti). As per Clifford Geertz, Lloyd Fallers and Anthony D. Smith, it was a form of ethnic nationalism. I have some distinct points of difference with him on this.
Though Gandhi never called himself a `Hindu nationalist‘, he believed in and propagated concepts like Dharma and the idea of `Ramarajya‘ (the exemplary rule of Lord Rama) as part of his social and political philosophy. He made the statement in Harijan (publication) on 2 January 1937:
By political independence I do not mean an imitation to the British House of commons, or the soviet rule of Russia or the Fascist rule of Italy or the Nazi rule of Germany. They have systems suited to their genius. We must have ours suited to ours. What that can be is more than I can tell. I have described it as Ramarajya i.e., sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority.
He emphasised that this Ramarajya to him meant peace and justice, saying in Young India on 19 September 1929,
Whether Rama of my imagination ever lived or not on this earth, the ancient ideal of Ramarajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure.
He also emphasised that it meant regard and respect for all religions and philosophies
My Hinduism teaches me to respect all religions. In this lies the secret of Ramarajya.
I agree with the principles and the sentiment expressed by Gandhi here, though there are some aspects and deeds of his in life that I do not entirely. The reason for that is simple: his quest for Satya – Truth, and here I like to see it as a higher truth and not just the absence of falsity in speech or action. The Truth of life, society and the universe, as envisioned by Vedic seers. A Truth that not only encompasses all people but actively embraces them. That is the Satya that I stand for as well.
Besides Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose also referred to the Bhagavad Gita and Vedanta as sources of inspiration during the freedom struggle from the British Raj. Swami Vivekananda’s teachings on Universalism, besides his focus on social service and reform, inspired Bose, for whom spirituality was fundamental to his political and social thought but with no sense of orthodoxy or bigotry. The interesting part was that Netaji Subhash Bose was a socialist through and through! Instead of being an atheist like most socialists and communists at that period, he believed that socialism in India emerged due to Swami Vivekananda. The Partition made the Hindu-Muslim conflict more intense, and this is where the concept of Hindutva played a significant and often polarizing role. On one hand, Gandhi continued using the practice of fasting for political reasons (often quite successfully), while Syama Prasad Mookerjee, M. S. Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyaya continued to contribute to the development and evolution of Savarkar’s Hindutva. In modern times, further renditions and interpretations have emerged. Thinkers like H. V. Sheshadri and K. S. Rao have emphasised a non-theocratic nature of the word `Hindu Rashtra‘ (which can be transliterated to mean a Hindu Nation). They believe this has happened due to inadequate translation, ill interpretation and wrong stereotyping of the idea as one promoting a theocratic state.
In a book, Sheshadri wrote
As Hindu Rashtra is not a religious concept, it is also not a political concept. It is generally misinterpreted as a theocratic state or a religious Hindu state. Nation (Rashtra) and State (Rajya) are entirely different and should never be mixed up. The state is purely a political concept. The State changes as the political authority shifts from person to person or party to party. But the people in the Nation remain the same.
Whether this true in actuality is for everyone to decide and see for themselves. In this article, I would like to take a radically different position and stance, arising from reflection and meditation. I am cognizant of all kinds of elements associated with the concept of Hindu nationalism, but unfortunately the term today comes with its fair share of baggage, and I want to make a sharp break from that, in going back to the basics and foundations and what I feel I am personally closest to.
Why I am a Dharmic Universalist, not Hindu Nationalist
The fundamental reason for wanting to not be associated with the concept of Hindu nationalism comes from a certain realisation of what it means to be truly Hindu, to be truly Dharmic. For starters, Hindu traditions maintain a respect for truth, whereby I am no lackey or blind follower of any political ideology or leader, even when there are issues of concern. I just am not. I have criticized Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on demonetisation, Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for populist measures, and the Indian National Congress for their dynastic politics. I have supported them on other points. The birth of India in the modern age was based on age-old traditions, ideas, ideals and values. Central and fundamental to this was the idea of liberation: liberation from the burden of identities. Mukti, some would say. Tolerance, inclusivity and a desire for equality in society comes from that. I have been someone who has not just believed but reflected and found resonances in the concept of Universalism as put forth by Swami Vivekananda, and I believe that the underlying Hinduism of Vedanta, which is as all-encompassing as it is, in embracing Islam and Christianity and Buddhism and so much more, is the only way to create a truly modern, a truly meaningful Hindu way of life and politics. And this Dharma (behaviours that are considered to be in accord with Ṛta – the order of life and the universe, and includes duties, laws, virtues, rights, conduct and `right way of living’) transcends bounds of nationalities, identities, ideas, constructs and times, for it has resonant elements in all cultures, civilisations and communities.
As someone who fundamentally disagrees with compartmentalisation based on ideologies and identities, I would distance myself from any tags, any -isms. I am a proud Indian but am not sure that nationalism, in the modern sense, has much to do with Hinduism. On principle, I would like to maintain the separation of religion and politics. If what is described here is the civilizational and cultural and not a religious sense of the tag ‘Hindu’, then I would be more open to identify with the same, and yet not with a certain nationalism based on the same. Simply because, and this is important: I believe that there are some ideals and values and truths that are just not geocentric. For millenia, India has kept some of these ideas and ideals safe. But much like air makes a tyre effective, the land is given life, is given an essence of belonging by its people and by the traditions, heritage and values they keep. I believe in a vision whereby even if one has to displace Indians from India, for whatever unforeseen reason, its spirit and essence would still remain intact and well. And it will. Since society since times immemorial, and I am happy to say this, in India, was built on fundamental and universal truths and values and understandings that remain as relevant as ever, and that can be re-awakened and discovered at any point by reflection and natural equilibriation. Values and ideals built on what I believe is the underlying essence of all there is. For anyone who is more atheistic could rely on the richness and resources encapsulated in humanism and humanity itself.
Nationalism is based on the premise that an individual’s loyalty and devotion to one’s country should come above all else, even above the interests and opinions of other citizens or groups of citizens. Nationalism involves the trumpeting of a country’s virtues and denial of its deficiencies, besides contempt towards the virtues of other countries, at times. The critical question here is: should such (oft self-proclaimed) greatness be above rational thinking and goodness? An excess of patriotism in the defence of a nation can quickly become jingoism. On the other hand, patriotism is a love, an attachment to a homeland, the place where one is born, where one is brought up, where one belongs to, but with an honest readiness and even eagerness to correct the deficiencies of the country. A patriot loves his/her country and is proud of it for what it does and is, in a responsible and balanced manner, whereas a nationalist loves his/her country and is proud of his/her country no matter what it does! I believe that Dharma speaks of balanced patriotism but with no overt obsession or attachment to countries but rather to ideas, philosophies, lived experiences, traditions and culture.
India has always had several schools of philosophy and faith, and these have had interesting engagements over millenia. These have included Darsanas such as Sankhya and Nyaya, naastik (atheistic) traditions such as Buddhism and Carvakas, and the Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and Islam. There never was a Hindu faith under one umbrella before the Britishers came along and categorized them as such, but since this categorization has come to be what it is today, with many schools of philosophy under it, Hindu nationalism invariably has become associated with it dogmatic or doctrinal elements that relate to theology, rituals and religion. Personally, while I not only respect and acknowledge but am proud of my cultural heritage, if this nationalism has to do with the parochial politics of moral policing and disregarding of the innate humanity of other people, then I am unequivocally not a Hindu nationalist but rather a Dharmic Universalist then. Dharma speaks of the equilibrium in society and nature, and this invariably involves the active participation and harmonious interaction of disparate cultures, identities and people. I believe in that and feel that the Indian civilisation can help mankind today, when it is struck by rifts and fissures everywhere, be it with Brexit, conflict in the middle east or human rights violations across the world, by providing it with the elixir of tolerance, inclusivity and true cosmopolitanism. I hope to represent and stand by that always.
The attempt at confining the Hindu and Dharmic way to a certain way of politics, to petty divisions and conceptions of life and society must be actively opposed. I do not accept that, I do not align with it and I do not follow it.
My Dharma speaks of a Truth that encompasses various realities and identities in society. My Dharma hits away at the premise of dogmatic and ideology-driven politics, simply due to the inadequacy of a certain political ideology to different kinds of circumstances and situations, and to the truths thereof. Policy and politics must be evidence-driven and respectful of the disparate people in the country. It is only when we identify with this that we can use the human resources and demographic dividend of India in the near future.
Casteism, political parochialism, communal divides, lack of socialist tendencies for economic growth, and populism can only make this opportunity a ticking time bomb for social unrest and fissures. I ask of the leaders and people of India to be not only be cognizant of this but act on this, and with urgency! I am a proud Indian but I believe this love for my country, this recognition of its beauty, need not be based on something that uses the term Hindu but, by definition, tears asunder its fundamental tenet of liberation and the need to transcend the bounds of physicality and temporality. I am a proud Indian but I believe being a proud Indian need not depend on revisionism or a sense of nostalgia alone when the realities and traditions of Dharma are ever-evolving, dynamic and beautiful. I personally believe that a bright future is on our doorsteps. Let us throw open the doors!
To conclude, I am a Hindu, a Vedantin, and I stand unequivocally for a Dharmic Universalism, not necessarily, if at all, for Hindu nationalism.
Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar