A hardcore section of majority are arguing that from the dominant culture standpoint India is a Hindu nation just as, in their view, the US is a Christian nation even though both are formally secular…
Is India a Hindu nation? It’s a question that has shadowed the idea of India from the early nationalist movement of the late 19th century to the present day. One powerful faction argues that the culturally and numerically dominant section of its people is Hindu and therefore the nation is Hindu. No, say those who insist that the nation is, and must remain, secular because its defining characteristic is unity in diversity.
In recent years the argument has gained momentum within the nation as well as among people of Indian origin settled abroad, perhaps understandably because the government in power in Delhi seems to assert an identity of Hindutava for India. A friend, who has followed the debate for long, recently sent me his essay arguing that from the dominant culture standpoint India is a Hindu nation just as, in his view, the US is a Christian nation even though both are formally secular. My response was that India and the US may arguably have dominant ‘cultures’ inspired by Hinduism and Christianity, respectively, but they are both constitutionally secular ‘nations’.
Cultures evolve over millennia. Nations are a relatively new concept in human history. Some nations might be defined by singular cultures but most large nations, especially India and the US that have over centuries been hosts to large-scale migration, prudently opted for secular multi culturalism, more often than not over the objections of those who wanted assertive rights for the dominant culture.
Besides, regardless of the insistence of purists of various shades, cultures are dynamic and evolutionary. Take an important element of modern American culture: popular music. Not only has its appeal spread wide to influence cultural mores globally, its origins can be traced to several cultures. African beats, gospel choir harmonies, European formal scales, even Indian music’s improvisational techniques have helped evolve today’s pop and jazz into what it’s become and is still becoming.
Or, take Indian classical music. Sure, some of its origin can be traced to ancient devotional music. But is it possible to imagine its current incarnation without acknowledging Tansen, born a Hindu then became a Sufi, in Akbar’s court? Can we ignore the fact that the sitar is an amalgam of the Indian veena and the Persian setar? Weren’t Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan a jugalbandi in brilliance?
In other words, what some of us claim as pure Hindu culture is nothing but the result of a centuries-long process of synthesis. That is one reason why the founding fathers wisely opted to call this new nation India or Bharat, not Hindustan.
Such arguments, however, are unlikely to move those who are convinced that India is a Hindu nation, the so-called ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Perhaps nowhere was the conviction more ferociously expressed than in Nathuram Godse’s statement to the Punjab high court on May 5, 1949. Expressing no regret for the assassination, he passionately argued that killing Gandhi was a necessary act to avenge the betrayal that the new nation had suffered because of that compromising, Muslim-loving so-called Father of the Nation who he thought was actually “Father of Pakistan”. In his eloquent rage, Godse did not acknowledge that Gandhi had resisted the idea of Partition till the end. Godse wanted the new nation to be a Hindustan standing proudly as anti-thesis to Pakistan. That Gandhi had argued for a secular India precisely, the embers of Godse’s rage smoulder on in today’s ideologues.
I strongly believe that it is essential to realize that Godse, per se, is not responsible for the gruesome assassination of Gandhi. It was the ideology which killed him. The fundamentalist, divisive, communal, ultra-nationalist forces in the nation committed towards lumpen are in fact, the true murderers of Mahatma. In last 4-5 years I have met many who proudly argued that Godse was the most patriotic man in 19th century, and I often read on social sites where Godse is mentioned ‘Godse ji’. In my point of view Godse was the first terrorist who attacked and tried to assassinate the soul of India.
Gandhi, as well as Ambedkar and Nehru, Rajaji and Patel and others who thought India should be secular, wanted the new republic to be a pioneering venture in post-colonial nationhood. None of them were fans of Godse’s hero Veer Savarkar, even though Savarkar’s modern fans want to appropriate those leaders as their own.
Those pioneers were proud of the experiment in nationhood they were launching. Six decades on, the world does not doubt the viability of the venture. India remains a republican democracy, which holds regular elections, has a free press and allows its citizens to practise whichever religion they choose thanks to the secularism its Constitution guarantees. Any reason why all Indians cannot take pride in just that?