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Contesting Ideas in the Battlefield of India

Two important anniversaries have just past in India. The first was the anniversary of the death of the first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru on 27 May, and the second, the birth of Hindutva ideologue, V.D. Sarvarkar on 28 May.  It is ironic that these two anniversaries fall in the same week. The vision that these men represent are at odds in modern-day India. And central to this debate is their competing notions of what it means to be an Indian.

In Nehru’s memoirs, My Discovery of India he expresses his belief in the diversity and plurality of Indian society. While discussing the empires that have ruled over India, he avers that India has adapted from the “shocks” it has received and evolved.

He writes that all who live in India and born in India shall be an Indian citizen. Nehru writes, “A Christian or a Moslem could, and often did, adapt himself to the Indian way of life and culture, and yet remained in faith an orthodox Christian or Moslem. He had Indianized himself and become an Indian without changing his religion.”

He further writes, “’Hindi’ has nothing to do with religion, and a Moslem or Christian Indian is as much a Hindi as a person who follows Hinduism as a religion.”

Sarvarkar, on the other hand, combines religion, geography, culture and racial features in defining who was a “Hindu” or Indian in his pamphlet Hindutva: The Essence of Hinduism. Here Sarvarkar suggests that a Hindu is one who was born of this land, share a common culture and who considers this land their holy land (punya-bhoomi).

By this logic, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains are considered Hindus, while Christians and Muslims “possess all essential qualifications of Hindutva but one, and that is that they do not look upon India as their Holy land.”

Therefore, these groups are considered foreign religions since their holy lands (Arabia and Palestine respectively) do not lie within the geographical boundaries between the Indus river and the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, he goes on to explain that as foreign religions, “their love is divided” and “their allegiance is more to their Holy Land than their Fatherland. Thus, they constitute a threat to the unity of the nation (Hindutva). In doing this, Sarvarkar’s notion of the nation was not inclusive.

Nehru being the first Prime Minister, and a powerful one at that, shaped the country in this image from its Independence in 1947. Most notably, Nehru’s unique version of secularism of the state keeping equi-distant from all religions has brought solace to minorities in a country where Hindus comprise more than eighty percent of the population. While Indian secularism has repeatedly taken hits throughout its career, the biggest has come recently, in the form of the present government which heavily leans towards the political ideology penned by Sarvarkar.

This past week, in Prime Minister Modi’s monthly radio address, Mann ki Baat, a few sentences of recognition were shared about Nehru, while Sarvarkar was eulogized as a “sensitive poet” and “courageous revolutionary”. This is the most recent in a long line of attempts that the central and several state governments led by the BJP (or its allies) to erase or rewrite history in their image.

History is often viewed as a battle of ideas. India is the battlefront for these two ideas. Christians and other religious and non-religious minorities are at the centre of this battle.

Image Credit: CC by  Narendra Modi/ Wikimedia Commons