Narasimha Rao
Narasimha Rao; drawing by David Levine

When, some months ago, “The Idea of India” was agreed on as the title of my Nehru Lecture at Cambridge,1 I had not imagined that the subject would be as topical as it, alas, has become since the terrible events of recent months. The idea of a secular India, tolerant of different religions (and of people who believe in none), which had been taken for granted since independence, has been severely damaged by extremist Hindu political groups.

The present round of events began on December 6 with the destruction of a sixteenth-century mosque—the Babri Masjid—in the northern city of Ayodhya, by politically organized mobs of activist Hindus, who want to build a temple to Rama on that very spot. That outrageous event has been followed by communal violence and riots across the country, in which around two thousand people or more have perished—both Hindus and Muslims, but Muslim victims have far outnumbered Hindus. Some of the worst incidents have taken place in Bombay. In what is usually thought to be the premier city of India, a relatively small but thoroughly organized group of extremist Hindus went repeatedly on the rampage; the police frequently failed to protect Muslims under attack, and were often far more violent in dispersing Muslim mobs than Hindu ones.

It took quite some time for the nationwide condemnation that followed those events to move the government of India to take a tougher stand on law and order, and even now the determination of the government is far from clear. But on February 25 it did manage to prevent a huge and dangerous Hindu political demonstration in New Delhi, which could have easily brought communal riots to the nation’s capital. Stopping the demonstration unfortunately involved suspending the civil right of free assembly. But in view of the highly provocative nature of the planned demonstration (for which Hindu activists had converged from across the country), and in view of the fact that the confrontation was managed by the police with no loss of life, the Indian government has not had to face much criticism for these violations of civil rights, except, of course, from the Hindu parties themselves.

The extremist Hindu political movement that spearheaded the present turmoil has gone on to demand an official end to Indian secularism, to be replaced by the recognition of India as a Hindu state. This proposal, if accepted, would involve a dramatic alteration of one of the basic principles of the Indian constitution, and a radical departure from the idea of India—a pluralist, tolerant, and secular India—which was central to the Indian nationalist movement and which was reflected in the legal and political structure of independent India. It is that idea and the challenges it faces that I want to discuss. I shall argue that these challenges include quite distinct components, making it inappropriate to analyze the emergence of Hindu extremism as a single phenomenon: for example, the communal murders and, thuggery in Bombay are driven by rather different forces from activist religious politics in Ayodhya; and each in turn differs from the general increase of Hindu sectarianism among the urban middle classes. It is as important to understand the different forces underlying the distinct components as it is to appreciate their deep interconnections.

Secularism as a Part of Pluralism

It may seem extraordinary that a largely passive idea like secularism can be central to the conception of modern India. Is secularism really an important issue, or is it just sanctimonious rhetoric? When British India was partitioned, Pakistan chose to be an Islamic Republic, whereas India chose a secular constitution. Does that choice make a real difference?

The distinction is certainly important from the legal point of view, and its political implications are also extensive, applying to different levels of political and social arrangements, going all the way up to the head of the state. For example, unlike Pakistan, whose constitution requires that the head of the state be a Muslim, India imposes no comparable requirement, and the country has had non-Hindus (including Muslims and Sikhs) both as presidents and in other prominent and influential positions in government.

But secularism is, in fact, a part of a more comprehensive idea—that of India as an integrally pluralist country, made up of different religious beliefs, distinct language groups, divergent social practices. Secularism is one aspect—a very important one—of the recognition of that larger idea of heterogeneous identity. I shall argue that the sectarian forces that seek to demolish Indian secularism will have to deal not merely with the presence and rights of the many Muslims in India, but also with India’s regional, social, and cultural diversity. Toleration of differences is not easily divisible.

Muslims in India

Are Muslims marginal in the Indian population? Even though four out of five persons in India are formally Hindu, the country still has well over a hundred million Muslims, not much less than Pakistan has, and rather more than Bangladesh. Indeed, seen from this perspective, India is the third largest Muslim country in the world. To see India just as a Hindu country is fairly bizarre in view of that fact alone, not to mention the fact of the intermingling of Hindus and Muslims in the country’s social and cultural life.2


The religious plurality of India also extends far beyond the Hindu-Muslim question. There is, of course, a large and prominent Sikh population, and substantial number of Christians, whose history goes back at least to the fourth century AD (considerably earlier than in Britain). India also had Jewish settlements since shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. Parsees have moved to India from less tolerant Persia. There are also millions of Jains, and practioners of Buddhism, which had been for a long period, the official religion of many of the Indian emperors (including the great Ashoka in the third century BC). Furthermore, the number of people who are atheist or agnostic (as Jawaharlal Nehru himself was) is large too, though census categories do not record actual religious beliefs—atheists born in Hindu families are classified as Hindu, reflecting their so called “community background.”

The framers of the Indian constitution wanted to make sure that the state would not take a biased position in favor of any particular community religious conviction. In view of the heterogeneity of India and of the Indians, any alternative to secularity would be unfair.

Diversity Within Hinduism

The issue of religious plurality concerns not only the relationship between Hindus and followers of other faiths (or none). It also concerns the diversity within Hinduism itself. If it is seen as one religion, Hinduism must also be seen as thoroughly plural in structure. Its divisions are not those only of caste (though that is tremendously important), but also of school of thought. Even the ancient Hindus classification of “six systems of philosophy” acknowledged highly diverse beliefs and reasoning. More recently when the fourteenth century Hindu scholar Madhava Acarya, head of the religious order in Sringeri in Mysore wrote his famous Sanskrit treatise Sarvadarsana Samgraha (“Collection of all Philosophies”), he devoted early of his sixteen chapters to the different schools of Hindu religious postulates (beginning with the atheism of the Carvaka school), and he discussed how each religious school, within the capacious body of Hindu thought, different from the others.

Seeing Hinduism as one religion, fact, is a comparatively recent development. The term Hindu was originally used mainly to signify location and country rather than a homogenous religious belief. The term derived from the river Indus (the cradle of the Indus Valley civilization going back to 3000 BC), and that river is also the source of the word India itself. The Persians and the Greeks saw India as the land around and beyond the Indus, and Hindus were the native people of that land. Muslims from India were at one stage called “Hindavi” Muslims, in Persian as well as Arabic, and there are plenty of references in early British documents to “Hindoo Muslims” and “Hindoo Christians,” to distinguish them respectively from Muslims and Christians from outside India.

Ramayana and Rama

Plurality is an internal characteristic of Hinduism as a religion; it is not just a matter of the external relations between Hindus and non-Hindus in the secular polity of India. The Hindu activists who last December demolished the sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, wanting a temple to Rama instead, have yet to confront the fact that, even among those who see themselves as religious Hindus, a great many would dispute Rama’s divinity (not to mention his preeminent divinity).

Certainly, in parts of the country the name of Rama is identified with divinity. Ironically, perhaps the most famous incident in recent times in which the name of Rama (or “Ram,” as the word is pronounced in contemporary Hindi) was invoked as synonymous with God took place when Mahatma Gandhi was murdered on January 30, 1948, by a Hindu extremist who belonged to a political group not entirely dissimilar to the ones that destroyed the mosque last December. The leader of modern India, who was a deeply religious Hindu but whose secular politics had earned him the wrath of the extremist zealots, fell to the ground, hit by a Hindu bullet, and died saying “Hé Ram!”

The identification of Rama with divinity is common in the north and west of India, but elsewhere (for example, in my native Bengal), Rama is mainly the hero of the epic Ramayana, rather than God incarnate. Ramayana as an epic is, of course, widely popular everywhere in India, and outside India as well—in Thailand and Indonesia for example (even Ayutthaya, the historical capital of Thailand, is a cognate of Ayodhya). But we have to distinguish the influence of the epic Ramayana—a great work of literature—from the particular issue of divinity. In fact, in that ancient epic, Rama is treated very much as a good and self-sacrificing king rather than as God, and on one occasion he is even lectured by a worldly pundit called Javali: “O Rama, be wise, there exists no world but this, that is certain! Enjoy that which is present and cast behind thee that which is unpleasant.”3


One of the Hindu political leaders described the demolition of the mosque, with evident reverence, as “Hanuman’s mace at work,” referring to the monkey king Hanuman who was an ally of Rama, as told in epic Ramayana. No doubt this is how the destruction appeared to him, but he could scarcely ignore the fact that Hanuman is not much revered among hundreds of millions of Hindus in many other parts of India, or the fact that in popular plays in, say, rural Bengal, Hanuman is a riotously comic character—affable, amusing, and wholly endearing, but hardly endowed with any holiness. Indeed, in his Vision of India’s History, Rabindranath Tagore singles out the epic hero Rama for special praise precisely because Rama, as Tagore put it, “appeared as divine to the primitive tribes, some of whom had the totem of monkey, some that of bear.”4

Thus, the religious differences between Hindus and Muslims cannot be dissociated from the diversities within Hinduism and between regions in India. That regional variation applies to modern politics as well. Indeed, even in electoral politics, the strength of the Hindu political party, Bharatiya Janata Party—BJP for short—is largely confined to the north and west of India, with rather little support from eastern and southern states. If the religious distinctions within the country are striking, so are the sharp regional contrasts. Of the BJP members of the Indian parliament chosen in the last election, more than 90 percent came from just eight states and union territories in the north and west of India (more than 40 percent from one state—the large Uttar Pradesh—alone), out of a total of thirty-two states and union territories spread across India (twenty of which elected no BJP members at all).

To explain these regional contrasts, various factors have been cited: for example, the fact that even the Moghul empire never quite extended to the south and was relatively weak in the east, and also that there is more of a history of battles against the Moghul empire by Hindu rulers in the north (such as the Rajputs of Rajasthan), and in the west (such as the Marathas of Maharashtra). However, an adequate explanation of the contrasts has to bring in many other distinct social and cultural factors.

Unresolved Issues

Given the diversity and contrasts within India, there is not, in the comprehensive politics of the country, much alternative to secularism as an essential part of overall pluralism. This does not, however, mean that the secular approach is without its problems. Secularism can indeed take different forms, and there is much scope for discussing which form it should take. One of the problems with secularism as it is practiced in India is that it reflects the sum of the collective feelings of intolerance of the different communities and is not based on combining their respective capacities for tolerance. Any statement or action that causes the wrath of any of the major communities in India tends to be seen as something that should be banned. This trigger-happiness in the use of censorship sits uncomfortably with India’s otherwise good record of tolerating freedom of expression.

For example, India was the first country to outlaw the distribution of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, reacting well before the Iranian authorities took notice of the book and issued their murderous fatwa. Other examples could be cited of eagerness on the part of the authorities to take repressive action whenever any religious community claims that it has been offended. This does not lead to a tolerant society. The situation might be compared with the issue of blasphemy in modern Britain. The United Kingdom remains formally Christian in having an anti-blasphemy law only for Christian beliefs. There are demands in Britain to extend these blasphemy prohibitions to cover the beliefs of religions as well. One way of symmetrical position toward the different religions practiced in modern Britain would be to do just another would be to scrap the blasphemy laws altogether. A secular state could choose to move in either two directions, but those believe that a modern society that respects free speech should prefer doing away with anti-blasphemy laws in general, instead of making them apply to all religions, must base their claims on arguments more substantial than the demand for symmetry. These remain to be more fully addressed in modern India—and also, I might add, in modern Britain.

A second question concerns the fact that the Indian interpretation of secularism includes some legal differences among the various communities that have to do with their respectal, laws. For example, while a Hindu can be prosecuted for polygamy, a Muslim man can have up to four wives, following what is taken Islamic legal position (although, in practice, that provision is very rarely invoked by Indian Muslims). There are also other differences, for example, between the provision made for wives in the event of a divorce, where Muslim women—according to a certain reading of Islamic law—have less generous guarantees than Hindu women do.

These differences have been cited again by Hindu political activists to claim that Hindus, as the majority community, are discriminated against in India. This is of course a charge, since the discrimination, insofar as it exists, is against Muslim women rather than Hindu men; the sexist male point of view is writ large in such Hindu political complaints. Nor is there any serious empirical basis for the often repeated claim that polygamy contributes to a higher growth rate of the Muslim population with that of the Hindus. But the general issue of asymmetric treatment is an important one, and there would be nothing nonsecular or sectarian in trying to make the provisions civil laws apply evenhandedly to individual members of all the communities.

Challenges to Secularism

What are the sources of the challenge that secularism and pluralist tolerance are facing in India now? We can, distinguish between three though not unrelated—tendencies: (1) communal fascism, (2) nationalism and (3) militant obscuantism.

The term fascism is frequently employed indiscriminately as a word of abuse. It is certainly no part of my claim that the entire movement of Hindu politics is fascist in any sense. There are however, specific political characteristics that are generally associated with fascist movements,5 and these elements are certainly present among some of those identified with extremist politics in India today: the use of violence and threat to sectarian objectives, the victimizing of members of a particular community, mass mobilization based on frenzied and deeply divisive appeals, and the use of unconstitutional and strong-arm methods against particular groups.

Hindu organizations in Bombay, in particular, have revealed some clearly fascist tendencies. In addition to general riots, the killing of many Muslims in the city was well-organized by extremist Hindu groups. Much of the attack was coordinated by a militant organization, powerful in Bombay, called Shiv Sena, named after Shivaji, a seventeenth-century Hindu king of the Marathas from Maharashtra who waged several successful campaigns against the Moghul empire.

The violence in Bombay had features other than those of communal conflicts. For example, some landlords have evidently taken the opportunity to organize the destruction of unauthorized slums and shelters set up by the homeless. In order to eliminate competition, some trading interests paid these violent groups to destroy their rivals’ shops. And so on. Fascist operations are frequently accompanied by such activities, in a general atmosphere of the survival of the fiercest.

Most of the victims of the recent Bombay riots were Muslims; they were primarily poor and frequently helpless people living in ramshackle slums.6 But some members of well-to-do urban groups that are traditionally immune to violence were also murdered. In an interview, Mr. Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena, has explained that the mobs that carried out the violence were under his “control,” that his party did not mind extorting protection money from civilians for political use, and that if Muslims “behaved like Jews in Nazi Germany,” there would be “nothing wrong if they are treated as Jews were in Germany.”7

Shiv Sena is a local phenomenon, confined to the state of Maharashtra and largely to the city of Bombay. Even in Bombay, the electoral support of Shiv Sena, though substantial, is limited, and in last year’s election for the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the group won considerably fewer than one third of the seats. But its members have managed to channel the frustrations of the urban Maharashtrian poor in a destructive direction, and have tried to increase their political impact through violence, intimidation, and strategically organized mass hysteria.

Among the Bombay residents—Hindus as well as Muslims—there were many who risked their lives to save others. Some were praised internationally (the bravery of Sunil Gavaskar, the great cricketer, was reported widely in newspapers in England), but there were many others. However, the record of the Bombay police in preventing these riots is fairly dismal, and the extent of communal fascist thought among the police has been exposed by the Indian press. Journalists of Business India managed to tape partisan instructions radioed on a special frequency by some senior officers to policemen at trouble spots; and on that basis, the Indian courts instructed the Bombay police to seal the official tapes of their conversations, pending a judicial inquiry.

Muslims have not been victims of Shiv Sena’s wrath, first target. Shiv Sena has a long record of attacking unions preventing them from organizing, It has also been a major force in promoting regional sectarianism. Indeed, it came to prominence in the early 1970s because of its agitation non-Maharashtrian people of Bombay, particularly south Indian migrants, whom the Shiv Sena wanted to drive out of the city. Only more recently have they singled out Muslims for attack.

I have concentrated Shiv Sena’s violence on violence in Bombay both very large proportion of those recently killed lived there (the total number of murders in the city has exceeded eight hundred), and also because of communal fascism—the largely concentrated in could arise elsewhere in India. Facist movements tend typically to thrive when less determined political groups are willing to tolerate or appease them. In this case, the leading Hindu political organization, the BJP—not a facisit party itself—refused to condemn the violent activities of Shiv Sena and has treated it, in effect, as an ally

There would be nothing particularly surprising in such complicity on the part of the extreme right wing of the Hindu movement, for example the the now-banned RSS—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Voluteer Corp)—which was implicated in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi as well. But on this occasion even the more moderate Hindu leaders, such as Atal Behari Vajpayee, failed to denounce the barbarity that Shiva Sena had unleashed in Bombay. Perhaps, more important, the Congress Party which runs the governments of the Indian union and the Maharashtra state, as well as the Bombay municipality (including the police), did not make a serious attempt to stamp out Sena’s violence. The dog that did not bark is an important part of the tragedy that occurred in Bombay, and in the rest of India.

The Congress Party controls a minority government in India with 245 seats in a parliament of 545. On matter of economic policy (particularly measures to liberalize government regulation), it is often opposed by the parties to the left (the Janata Dal has fifty-nine seats and the two Communist parties hold forty-nine seats between them). But on matters involving secularism the Congress can count on their support and also that of nearly all the other—mostly regional—parties in confronting the Hindu BJP, which has 119 seats, and Shiv Sena, which has four. So the Congress Party is not threatened in Parliament on this issue, and indeed many of the other parties have expressed disapproval—even disgust—at the Congress’s failure to take a stronger position against Hindu political violence. Occasionally, Congress leaders have acted with sudden force: for example, after the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque they used a somewhat dubious constitutional provision to dismiss the BJP governments in the four states they controlled. But they have not consistently challenged the actions of Hindu political parties or provided effective leadership in defending national unity against communal politics.

The Congress seems inhibited not only by the mild and rather retiring nature of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao but also by the Congress politicians’ obsessive fear of losing votes to sectarian Hindu parties, particularly in the north of India. There are disagreements within the party, and some newspapers report that the stronger actions it has taken—dismissing BJP state governments, banning extremist organizations such as the RSS, and preventing the BJP demonstration in New Delhi on February 25—came mostly at the insistence of Cabinet members who are drawn to confrontation. The strong and efficient action by the police to stop the BJP’s demonstration on February 25 seems to have raised hopes that Rao still might be capable of stronger leadership. Still, the measures he took that day were mostly negative. Little was done to appeal to the public or organize mass opposition, and Rao relied almost entirely on the police force to prevent Hindu political activists from converging on the capital.

Sectarian Nationalism

Promoting a sectarian view of Hindu nationalism is not new in the subcontinent, though the Hindu Mahasabha—the party that represented Hindu nationalism in British India—was far less successful among the Hindus than the Muslim League was among the Muslims. While the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha never formally endorsed the proposition of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the head of the Muslim League, that Hindus and Muslims were “two nations”—an idea that was part of the League’s campaign for partition and the creation of Pakistan—their own approach was not entirely at odds with that view. As it turned out, Hindu Mahasabha failed miserably in Indian electoral politics both before and after independence, and most Hindus remained loyal to secular parties.

The BJP is the successor to that Hindu nationalist movement, and unlike the Hindu Mahasabha (and later the Jan Sangh party), the BJP is now very successful. It has grown rapidly in recent years, from only two seats in the Indian Parliament in the election of 1984 to eighty-five seats in 1989 and to 119 in 1991, out of a total of 545 seats. It is true that even in the last elections more than three quarters of the Hindus in India have, in effect, voted against the BJP since they voted for secular parties. But a quarter of the popular vote is a large proportion, and the recent agitation seems to have accelerated this growth, at least in the west and north of India. And central to BJP’s approach to Indian politics is some variant or other of Hindu nationalism.

Two Nations and Lesser Tales

How can a religious group within a nation see itself as a separate nation by virtue of that religious identity? In proposing that there were “two nations” in undivided India, some of the leaders of the Muslim League argued that the Indian Muslims came from countries further west and were not natives of India. In an odd turn in the history of political rhetoric, this “two nation theory” is now favored—explicitly or implicitly—by many Hindu spokesmen. In fact, there is scarcely any truth in that theory, since the overwhelming proportion of Muslims in the subcontinent come from indigenous families that converted to Islam and not from outside the country.

Another argument used by exponents of Hindu nationalism is based on the hypothesis that Indian Muslims are loyal to Pakistan rather than to India, but there is no serious evidence for this thesis either. On the contrary, a great many Muslims, instead of going to Pakistan, stayed on in post-partition India, making a deliberate decision to remain where they felt they belonged. In the armed forces, the diplomatic services, and government administration, Muslims have been just as loyal to India as have Hindus and other Indians.

Muslim Kings and Indian History

The Hindu nationalists try to draw on Indian history, pointing out that the Muslim kings in north India destroyed or mutilated many Hindu temples; and certainly between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries the early Muslim invaders and rulers were extremely destructive. For example, Sultan Mahmud who came from Ghazni, now Afghanistan, repeatedly north and west India in the century, and devastated cities as well as temples, including famous Mathura, Kanauj, and what is now Kathiawar. But as the Islamic rulers became more assimilated to India, such destruction clearly decreased. Most of the great Moghuls who ruled over much of north and central India from the sixteenth century onward could hardly be called destroyers of Hindu buildings and institutions.

Much is made by Hindu political groups of the intolerance toward Hinduism of the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb during the late seventeenth century, when he destroyed some temples and imposed special taxes on the Hindus, among other measures. All of this is true of Aurangzeb, but to see him as the typical Muslim monarch in India would be to falsify history. Indeed, none of the other Moghuls showed anything like Aurangzeb’s intolerance, and some made a great effort to treat the different religious communities in an even-handed way. Of course, Akbar—the best remembered of the Moghul emperors, who between 1556 to 1605—was particularly friendly to Hindu philosophy and culture. He attempted to establish something like a synthetic religion, drawing on the different faiths in India; he filled his court with Hindu as well as Muslim intellectuals, artists and musicians, and in other ways tried to be thoroughly nonsectarian.

Even Aurangzeb’s brother, Dara Shikoh, was greatly interested in Hindu philosophy and, with the help of scholars prepared a Persian translation of some of the Upanishads, which he compared, in some respects favorably, with the Koran. Dara was the eldest and the favorite son of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, and Aurangzeb became king only after fighting and defeating Dara, whom he tortured and beheaded, and he also imprisoned Shah Jahan for life. Whether or not Aurangzeb’s antagonism to Hindus owed something to his hatred for his eclectic and somewhat Hinduized brother is hard to tell; but to take him to be a typical Muslim emperor in India is a travesty of history.

Hindu extremist groups have been recently busy “reconstructing” Indian history; they have made repeated attempts to revise school textbooks to include doctored accounts of what happened in India’s past, playing down the Muslim contribution to Indian history. Their accounts are very different from the earlier assessments of more detached and less political Hindu religious leaders. For example, the Hindu religious leader Sri Aurobindo, who established the famous ashram in Pondicherry, saw the history of Muslim rule in India in a very different light:

Mussulman domination ceased very rapidly to be a foreign The Mogul empire was a great and magnificent construction and an immense amount of genius and talent was employed in its creation and maintenance was as splendid, powerful and beneficent and, it may be added, in spite of Aurangzeb’s fanatical zeal, infinitely more liberal and tolerant in religion than any medieval or contemporary European kingdom or empire.…8

If the Hindu middle classes in some parts of India have suddenly become more aware of alleged misdeeds of Muslim rulers in the past, this is not because new historical facts have just been discovered. It is because Hindu activists have been trying to re-create a mythical past, mixing fact with fantasy. The idea that retributive justice can be sought now for the past misdeeds of Muslim kings, by comprimising the civil status of contemporary Indian Muslims, is not only ethically grotesque, it is also historically preposterous.

Muslims and Indian Culture

It is hard to find any basis in Indian literature and culture for a “two nations” view of Hindus and Muslims. The heritage of contemporary India combines Islamic influences with Hindu and other traditions, as can easily be seen in literature, music, painting, architecture, and many other fields. The point is not simply that so many major contributions to Indian culture have come from Islamic writers, musicians, and painters, but also that their works are thoroughly integrated with those of Hindus. Indeed, even Hindu religious beliefs and practices have been substantially influenced by contact with Islamic ideas and values.9 The impact of Islamic Sufi thought, for example, is readily recognizable in parts of contemporary Hindu literature. Religious poets such as Kabir or Dadu were born Muslim but transcended sectional boundaries (one of Kabir’s verses declares: “Kabir is the child of Allah and of Ram: He is my Guru, He is my Pir”).10 They were strongly affected by Hindu devotional poetry and in turn deeply influenced it.

No communal line can be drawn through Indian literature and arts, setting Hindus and Muslims on separate sides, and the tradition of integrated Muslim and Hindu work continues in modern art forms, such as the movies, a large industry in India. Even films on Hindu themes frequently rely on Muslim writers or actors. Rahi Masoom Raza wrote the script for the hugely successful Mahabharata, made for Indian television, in which the actor Feroz Khan identified himself so closely with his role as the hero Arjun that he renamed himself after him.

In fact, Islam itself practiced in India for many generations, must now be seen as an Indian religion, much as the religion of the Parsees or of the Syrian Christians is accepted as Indian. While it is well known that Hindu and Buddhist influences were disseminated from India to Southeast Asia, and Hindu activists take pride in the grandeur of such shrines as Angkor Wat, dedicated to Vishnu, it is also the case that Islam, too, spread from India to the same region, particularly in what is now Indonesia and Malaysia.11 To sustain the thesis of Hindu nationalism, it is necessary to depreciate the Indianness of Indian Muslims. But there is no reasonable basis—racial, political, historical, cultural, or literary—for taking such a view.

Militant Obscurantism

The third component in the antisecular movement is militant obscurantism—the political use of people’s credulity in unreasoned and archaic beliefs in order to generate fierce extremism. Religious gullibility can certainly be exploited to work up a political frenzy on the basis of obscure convictions. If the events in Bombay indicate the influence of communal fascism, the attacks on the Ayodhya mosque show how the force of militant obscurantism can be exploited as a political weapon.12 The hundreds of thousands of Hindus who were mobilized in and around Ayodhya were ready to accept their leaders’ unestablished historical claims that a temple to Rama had once stood on the precise location of the mosque and that it had been destroyed by one of the Moghul kings. They were also willing to accept both the extraordinary ethical proposition that this claim justified the destruction of the mosque now in order to “rebuild” a temple there and the grand revelation that Lord Rama, the incarnation of God, was born 5000 years ago at precisely that spot.

The low level of elementary education in that part of India surely contributes to this gullibility. India still has a shocking rate of adult literacy—only about 52 percent—but in the “Hindi belt,” stretching across the north and central India where Hindi is the dominant language, the proportion is the lowest in India; in fact, the very low literacy rates in the Hindi belt drag down the Indian average substantially. It was here that the Rama agitation assumed such force, and in fact, most of the Ayodhya agitators came from three states in the Hindi belt: Uttar Pradesh, where the Ayodhya is located, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. All of these states disproportionately low adult literates (between 39 and 43 percent according to the 1991 census). While illiteracy may not be a central feature of communal fascism or of sectarian nationalism in general, its role in sustaining militant obscurantism can be very strong indeed.

An Eleventh-Century Account

Obscurantism is, of course, not a problem in India, and Mah. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru all wrote exclusively about it. Interestingly enough, one of the earliest descriptions of the phenomenon can be found in eleventh-century account in Arabic of the mathematician and scientist Alberuni, who wrote what was for many centuries the most authoritative book on Indian intellectual traditions, including mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy.

Alberuni came to India first with the rampaging invader Mahmud of Ghazni, and he wrote about the destruction caused by Mahmud’s raid in a way that even the BJP might approve

Mahmud utterly ruined the properity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits by which Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions.…. Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims.13

That alleged “aversion,” however, was evidently not enough to prevent Alberuni from having a large number of Hindu collaborators and friends, with whose help he mastered Sanskrit and studied contemporary Indian treatises on mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, sculpture, and religion. His work had great influence in continuing the Arabic studies (well established by the eighth century) Indian science and mathematics, which reached Europe through the Arabs.

Alberuni provided a closely argued account of why philosophical Hindu positions are not idolatrous. He then wrote at length on how idols were in fact, made for the followers of popular Hinduism, and discussed what were thought to be the appropriate sizes of idols, including that of Rama—like the ones in the Ayodhya dispute today—concluding:

Our object in mentioning all this mad raving is to teach the reader the accurate description of an idol, if he happens to see one, and to illustrate what we have said before, that such idols are erected only for uneducated low-class people of little understanding that the Hindus never made an idol of any supernatural being much less of God; and, lastly, to show how the crowd is kept in thraldom by all kinds of priestly tricks and deceits.14

The recent crowds in Ayodhya who have been kept in what can easily be described as “thraldom” have certainly experienced a fair share of “tricks,” both from politically active priests and politicians who exploit religion. Elsewhere, Alberuni speaks of the odd beliefs of people deprived of education, especially “of those castes who are not allowed to occupy themselves with science.”15

Nearly a thousand years after he made them, Alberuni’s points about the extreme gullibility of the uneducated, and the effectiveness of deliberately manipulating the “crowd,” have peculiarly contemporary relevance. While the failures of successive Indian governments (beginning with Nehru’s own) to expand mass education have done much to make these groups vulnerable to militant obscurantism, that vulnerability has also been thoroughly exploited by extremist Hindu political leaders.

It would, of course, be a mistake to see illiteracy as the cause of nationalist Hindu politics generally. Illiteracy may not be particularly important in encouraging the kind of communal fascism we have seen in Bombay, or in the general spread of Hindu sectarian nationalism. But in recruiting candidates for obscurantist agitation, as in the Ayodhya movement, widespread illiteracy and gullibility have certainly been exploited by skillful political leaders.

What can be done now to defend secularism in India? The different components of Hindu extremism call for a variety of responses. The threat of communal fascism can be dealt with only through determined opposition by the public as well as the government. The political authorities, in particular, have to stop appeasing such organizations as Shiva Sena. It is terrible to watch responsible political leaders who, instead of leading public opinion, wait for it to shift. The lesson of Bombay is mainly a negative one: catastrophic horrors occur when organized terror in the form of communal violence is not directly contested and when responsible authorities drift rather than govern. In the short run, this is mainly a matter of “law and order,” but in the longer run, the need to confront the ideology of Shiv Sena and other such groups is clear.

In doing so, it will be important to reassert India’s old traditions of tolerance and the acceptance of heterogeneity. In fact, even the seventeenth-century Hindu military leader Shivaji, after whom the strong-armed Shiv Sena is named, was quite respectful of other religions. Some historians (such as the respected Sir Jadunath Sarkar, the author of Shivaji and His Times, published in 1919) attribute to him a forceful letter on religious tolerance sent to Aurangzeb. The letter contrasts Aurangzeb’s intolerance with the policies of earlier Moghuls (Akbar Jahangir, Shah Jahan), and continues as follows:

If Your Majesty places any faith in those books by distinction called divine you will there be instructed that God is the God of all mankind, not the God of Muslims alone. The Pagan and the Muslim are equally in His presence.…. In fine, the tribute you demand from the Hindus is repugnant to justice.16

That letter may or may not have been actually written by Shivaji,17 but it would not be contrary to his attitude to religious differences. In fact, the Moghul historian Khafi Khan, who was very critical of Shivaji in other respects, nevertheless had the following to say about his treatment of Muslims:

[Shivaji] made it a rule that wherever his followers were plundering, they should do no harm to the mosques, the book of God, or the women of any one. Whenever a copy of the sacred Quran came into his hands, he treated it with respect, and gave it to some of his Mussalman followers.18

The tradition of religious toleration in India needs to be discussed more extensively in confronting today’s problems; and in doing so it is important to show that respect for other religions can be found even among those historical leaders who are seen as a source of inspiration for today’s intolerant Hindu organizers.

When it comes to dealing with militant obscurantism, we must clearly distinguish its special features from communal fascism as well as from the general threat of Hindu nationalism. Obscurantism thrives on educational backwardness and gullibility. A much more determined effort is certainly needed to overcome this backwardness, especially in those regions in the north of India where basic literacy is extremely deficient, where school education is most limited, and where it has proved easy to recruit passionate masses of destructive volunteers in the name of Rama’s birthplace and Hanuman’s mace.

In addition to expanding education, attention must now be paid to the content of education. In recent years, to the traditional problem of illiteracy has been added the danger of deliberately slanted instruction, including distorted versions of history and the cultivation of sectarian jingoism. The problem is particularly serious in those northern states in which BJP has been politically powerful, and where considerable revision of school textbooks has apparently taken place. This is where the specific threat of militant obscurantism has become coupled with the general movement of sectarian nationalism.

Caste and Inequality

The political exploitation of militant obscurantism depends not merely on the presence of potentially exploitable masses, but also on the actual policies of sectarian political leaders in dealing with them. If the BJP had tried to become a truly national party which sought support even among the Muslims (as it certainly wanted to do at one stage), the situation would be quite different now. But that statesmanlike move was abandoned, and BJP is now concentrating on becoming powerful through sectarian support. So the prevention of this exploitation must come now from other parties and other social and political groups.

That this type of political exploitation can in fact be prevented is borne out by the experience of the state of Bihar, which, like the rest of the states in the Hindi belt, has an extremely low rate of literacy and basic education (only 39 percent of its adults were literate in 1991), but whose citizens did not take much part in the Ayodhya agitation in neighboring Uttar Pradesh and managed to avoid communal riots following it. The Bihar state government showed determination and leadership in preventing chaos and killing which can be fruitfully emulated by others.

Underlying the situation in Bihar is also the fact that its main political leaders come from the backward castes; the government and the ruling parties have tended to channel the energy of rural agitation into movements attacking the dominance of high-caste Hindus. In fact, very little obscurantist agitation and remarkably fewer cases of communal violence have occured in those states in which organized challenges to the political domination of the high castes have been prominent and successful. Among them, the southern states—such as Tamil Nadu or Kerala—have much higher levels of education than all those in the Hindi belt. But even in Bihar, which is solidly in the Hindi belt and has just as much illiteracy as the other states there, it appears that serious attention to such fundamental issues as economic and social inequality has succeeded in restraining those who want to exploit the potential for militant obscurantism.

Hindu Nationalism and the Reliance on Ignorance

As for the third factor, Hindu nationalism, we have to distinguish between the small, hard-core of firm believers and the large, somewhat amorphous, group of partial recruits. The hard core is certainly not new—Mahatma Gandhi was shot by a member of it forty-five years ago—but what has given Hindu nationalism a boost in recent years is a huge increase in the number of partial converts. Their degree of commitment varies, but, as was argued earlier, they have been attracted to a sectarian Hindu view by the use of a systematically distorted reading of Indian history and culture. The success of the strategy has depended on such distortions not being challenged with appropriate force.

A remarkable aspect of recent Hindu politics is not only its manipulative reliance on ignorance—about the Ayodhya mosque, about the origins of the Indian Muslims, about the capacious nature of Hinduism itself—but the neglect by the Hindu leaders of the more major achievements of Indian civilization, even the distinctly Hindu contributions, in favor of its more dubious features. Not for them the sophistication of the Upanishads or Gita, or of Brahmagupta or Sankara, or of Kalidasa or Sudraka; they prefer the adoration of Rama’s idol and Hanuman’s image. Their nationalism also ignores the rationalist traditions of India, a country in which some of the earliest steps in algebra, geometry, and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where early philosophy—secular as well as religious—achieved exceptional sophistication, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education, and began the first systematic study of political economy. The Hindu militant chooses instead to present India—explicitly or implicitly—as a country of unquestioning idolaters, delirious fanatics, belligerent devotees, and religious murderers.

This is, of course, James Mill’s imperial view of India, elaborated in his famous “history” (written without his having visited India and without learning any Indian language)—an India that is intellectually bankrupt but full of outrageous ideas and barbarous social customs. Indian nationalists in the past had disputed the authenticity of that image; the Hindu nationalists of the present are bent on proving James Mill right.19

Antisecular sectarians are having their day in India right now. But their strength is ultimately limited. Their weakness does not lie only in the fact that even now a great majority of Indians—Hindus as well as Muslims—continue to stand opposed to those ideas (and do so without much leadership from the top). Their weakness arises also from reliance on exploiting one particular division among Indians, that of religion, while other national differences and traditions, as I have tried to suggest, pull in other directions.

First, there are regional differences between forms of Hinduism and what is or is not taken as sacred. (For example, in assessing the religious politics of Rama’s birthplace in Ayodhya, it is useful to recall that one of the most popular Bengali plays of the nineteenth century—Meghnadbadhkabya—portrays Rama as a coward and his enemy Indrajit as a magnificent hero.) Second, there are social as well as regional variations in the interpretation of Indian history and also in the resistance to deliberate distortions presented by sectarian politicians. Third, the rationalist heritage of India has force of its own and cannot be easily dismissed by appealing to violent religiosity. Fourth, the grievances of lower castes lead to a political confrontation very different from what the Hindu political leaders want.

The deepest weakness of contemporary Hindu politics lies, however, in its reliance on ignorance at different levels—from exploiting credulity in order to promote militant obscurantism to misrepresenting India’s past in order to foster factional nationalism and communal fascism. The weakest link in the sectarian chain is this basic dependence on both simple and sophisticated ignorance. That is where a confrontation is particularly overdue.

March 11, 1993

This Issue

April 8, 1993