The mystery of Hindu Rashtra
This is one of the phrases that worry those who are frightened of the tendencies of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But are they right to be worried?
What is the RSS thinking of when its chief Mohan Bhagwat says, as he did a few days ago, that “Hindustan Hindu rashtra hai (India is a Hindu nation)”?
The question to be asked is: What does Bhagwat mean by ‘Hindu’ in this context? And also a second one, what does he mean by ‘rashtra’?
To answer the second one first, rashtra means nation, though loosely it could also mean state (ordinarily the word used in Hindi for state is sarkar). A Hindu state is a reasonably precise thing, because the religious texts tell us what its structure is.
Till 2008, Nepal was the only Hindu state on earth. The Chhetri (meaning Kshatriya) dynasty ended with the republic of 2008. Why was Nepal a Hindu state? Because executive power flowed from a warrior king, as prescribed in the Hindu code, Manusmriti. But Nepal was a ‘Hindu state’ only to that extent. Nothing else from Hindu texts could be applied because much of it is against the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights.
India is a republic and its constitution bans discrimination on the basis of caste. Also, the RSS has not made the demand that the Indian state be organised by caste, so we will assume that the word rashtra was used in the sense of ‘nation’.
The dictionary defines nation as: "a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory." So perhaps Bhagwat was using Hindu in this instance as a geographic term rather than a religious one.
Let us look at the word Hindu then. The conflation of India, Indus and Hindu is of course ancient and we know of the Indica of Arrian (which records the campaigns of Alexander the Great in Punjab) and the Indica of Megasthenes. Arrian refers to Punjabis east of the Indus as the Indoi.
However this conflation makes no sense when used in the line “Hindustan Hindu rashtra hai” because it would then mean Hindustan is an Indian nation, which is a tautology. Clearly, Bhagwat was saying something a little different when he meant Hindu. One interpretation is that he meant that Indians should all recognise that it was Hindu identity that was at the root of their cultural expression. That Islam and Christianity in India were also in some way an aspect of Hindustani culture and should be different from Islam and Christianity as they were practiced elsewhere in the world.
When Hindu is used in the geographic sense, the RSS has support from many people, including some minorities who agree with its definition. Goa’s deputy chief minister, Francis D’Souza of the Bharatiya Janata Party told the Times of India in an interview: "India is a Hindu nation. There is no doubt about it. It is always a Hindu nation and it will always stay a Hindu nation. You don't have to create a Hindu nation."
Asked to explain, D'Souza said, "India is a Hindu country—Hindustan. All Indians in Hindustan are Hindus, including me. I am a Christian Hindu, I am Hindustani.”
The BJP’s Minority Morcha president Abdul Rasheed Ansari also agreed. In an interview to Press Trust of India, Ansari pointed to Allama Iqbal’s poem Tarana-e-Hindi (commonly known as Saare jahan se achcha). In it, Iqbal refers to Indians as Hindi in the lines – “Hindi hain hum, watan hai Hindustan hamara” (We are Hindis and our land is Hindustan).
Ansari said that "in my opinion, whatever Bhagwat said was in a social context. He did not mean to say that the people of other religions are Hindus in a religious manner. His comments should only be seen in a social light and there should not be any objection to it."
Another Muslim, Union minority affairs minister Najma Heptullah also defended Bhagwat in an interview to Hindustan Times. Asked if it was right to call India’s minorities “Hindu-Muslims” and “Hindu-Christians”, Heptullah said, “It is not about right or wrong. It is about history.” If some people called Muslims Hindi or Hindu they should not be so sensitive because it didn’t affect their faith, she added.
She then pointed to a series of references in Islam that supported what she was saying. The Arab world referred to India as al-Hind, she said, and one of Prophet Mohammed’s relatives was named Hinda. “Arabia’s best sword was called Hinda too,” she said.
To Heptullah's observations, we can add that Babur named one of his sons Hindal in the period that the Mughal was ruling Kabul and making raids into Punjab.
All these people who defended Bhagwat were eloquent but this is actually at the root of the problem. Bhagwat and the RSS are reaching for inclusion (I personally don’t think Bhagwat meant ill when he said it). However, their track record is such that their intent is seen by many with suspicion.
It is good that the RSS chief has Christians and Muslims interpreting his words, but it would be much better if he himself gave a coherent explanation that would satisfy his critics.