Religion in India has always been a contentious issue. Despite the efforts of India’s first (and longest serving) Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to relegate religion to the private sphere, it continues to be a dominant force in the country. With a series of elections approaching in the country, we once again are seeing religion emerge as a salient issue. This time, however, it is not between religions but rather intra-religious as a battle over who is a Hindu. This is what the Philosopher Marta Nussbaum calls ‘The Clash Within’.
This has been epitomized over the past few months by the Indian National Congress’s (INC) approach to competing for the Hindu vote and fighting the perception that they are anti-minority. Few examples include Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s many visits to temples and open declarations that he is Hindu after being accused of being a “Christian Catholic” by his BJP counterparts. Perfectly-timed as always, outspoken Congress leader and prolific writer Shashi Tharoor has also been doing the rounds with his new book, Why I am a Hindu, which suggests that he is a Hindu because he believes that Hinduism is an inclusive religious tradition which appreciates diversity and pluralism. This goes directly against what he believes that ‘Hindutva’, the ideology which prominently guides the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), preaches.
A recent firing of jibes across the country has occurred between Congress and BJP- led states over this issue. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah (of the Congress) and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath (of the BJP) have publicly exchanged accusations about the other’s “Hindu-ness”. This quagmire is summed up perfectly by Siddaramiah who recently said, “The real Hindu is one who loves all religions”…”You judge who the real Hindus are. Us or BJP leaders.”
This debate is vital because of the timing. The BJP has enjoyed unprecedented electoral success over the past few years and has consolidated its position atop the country’s political hierarchy. During this time, reports have shown a steep increase in communal and caste incidents across the country, especially in BJP- led states since then. At the heart of the Hindutva ideology which governs the BJP, is one which considers Christians and Muslims as foreigners who threaten the integrity of the nation and as such must be treated like enemies. Congress’s efforts to reclaim Hinduism as a tolerant and inclusive religion is vital to combat the Hindutva ideology.
No one doubts that political motives of the Congress party in a country where more than 80 per cent of the electorate is Hindu. Especially since the BJP has done well in painting the Congress as a party which panders to minorities and preaches pseudo-secularism. An astute student of Indian politics would also make the claim that the timing of this move is intended to win supporters back to the party before the elections; especially among Hindus who are disillusioned by the performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and those who reject communal politics. It also must be noted that the Indian National Congress is not perfect by any means and has also had a significant role to play stoking communal tensions in the past, especially among the Sikhs in the 1980s.
No doubt, other events and issues will dominate headlines and demand our attention during the next few months of electioneering. However, at the heart of this election is really the battle within Hinduism and with it, the place of where minorities such as Christians and Muslims within the imagination of the nation.