Bad Hindu, Good Hindu: The creation of a new politics of Hinduism vs Hindutva

Leaders who used to hide or apologise for their Hindu identity are now preaching about what Hinduism is after a few temple visits.

I remember not many years ago when Hindu politicians in India would seldom announce their Hindu identity. Indeed, it seemed that even to call oneself Hindu was communal and an unpardonable sin against India's secular state. Hindu politicians, on the contrary, worked carefully to prove their secular credentials by catering to minority religious banks, by respecting atheist Marxists, or by ignoring their religious identity altogether. If a Hindu politician did acknowledge their Hindu background it was only done as a necessity and accompanied by apologetics, in case it offended anyone. No significant defense of Hinduism occurred at any political or intellectual levels of the Nehruvian state.

This situation has changed radically since 2014, when a perceived Hindu vote elected Narendra Modi in a Lok Sabha landslide, shaking the core of the old anti-Hindu political atmosphere. Today, former anti-Hindu politicians, or those not previously highlighting any religious identity, are now claiming to be Hindus and visiting temples during the electoral season with a new media fanfare. Now, Hindu groups, and even Brahmins, are included in electoral promises by political parties that had previously treated them as political pariahs.

However, this situation may not have changed as fundamentally as it appears. The same groups that were  previously anti-Hindu remain stridently anti-Hindutva, in which they place may put important Hindu causes, including Ram Mandir. The previous battle between the 'good secular' forces and the 'bad communal' Hindu groups has been recast as 'good Hindus' versus 'bad Hindutva' - though previously, it was mainly the Hindutva forces that were supporting neglected and much-maligned Hindu causes. It is more a change of terms than a real change of policies or promises aside.

The politics of 'Hinduism vs Hindutva'
BJP and RSS groups, as well as Shiv Sena, that were previously condemned for being pro-Hindu are now criticized as being 'bad Hindus', and by the same political groups that today claim to be 'good Hindus' - but previously avoided asserting any Hindu identity though they took up defending every minority cause.

Such self-proclaimed 'good Hindus' claim that for Hindus to be political is wrong, and that Hindus should never vote in unity or form a vote block like other religious groups. Yet, they forget that the great Hindu classics of Ramayana and Mahabharata reflect Hindu rulers and their actions, including warfare. Even that oldest of texts, the Rigveda, honours great dharmic rulers and kings, not simply Brahmins or rishis.

Such 'new Hindus' portray intolerant Hindutva as the biggest threat to Hinduism. Yet, these same groups are silent on the extensive missionary, Marxist and Islamist efforts to discredit or convert Hindus - even seeming to be in complicity with them. Hindus can certainly debate as to what Hinduism truly is, and it is a vast and many-sided tradition, but there is no question that the real danger to Hinduism is coming from outside the tradition, not from Hindutva.

There is also a regional slant to this 'Hinduism vs Hindutva' debate. Since South India is more overtly Hindu in culture than North India, an effort is being made to define South Indian Hinduism and its temple culture as a regional culture, perhaps not Hindu at all, but Dravidian, Kerala, Telugu culture or something else - or to denigrate North Indian Hinduism as Hindutva - as in the formula Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva.

The critics of Hindutva often claim that Hindutva is Hinduism in a Semitic form, recast according to the limitations and exclusivism of the Abrahamic faiths. Yet, the same groups do not criticize Islam or Christianity as biased but reach out to them and praise their religions, standing with them politically against Hindutva forces!

What form of Hinduism are the new defenders of 'Hinduism vs Hindutva' promoting, and which gurus do they honour? It remains undefined, but emphasizes a political attack on Hindutva, and is not a spiritual articulation of Hinduism. Such schemes have one primary aim, which is to politically divide the Hindus, including placing caste and regional identities over any unitary Hindu identity.

'Hinduism vs Hindutva' is a false dichotomy
'Hinduism vs Hindutva' is a false dichotomy. There are certainly different trends in Hindu thought, which cannot be reduced to one pattern. But Hindutva groups have formed an important force in protecting Hinduism at intellectual, cultural and spiritual levels. The new leftist neo-Hindus are more of a political reaction against mainstream Hinduism than an attempt to defend what is good in Hinduism. What have they produced in honouring or protecting Sanatana Dharma, its temples, deities, gurus and history from damage or distortions? So far, only an echo.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)