Hindutva and ethnicity

Gail Omvedt

(First published in February 2003)

The antagonism to conversion rests on an ideological foundation which takes ethnicity, that is a presumed community of blood and heritage, as central.

IN 1996, during a six-month employment in Bhubaneshwar, fascinated by the beauty and antiquity of the area, I travelled with friends to Konarak and to Puri. Here, I was interested in seeing the temple of Lord Jagannath, considered to be the symbol of Orissa. At the temple, however, while my friends were allowed to enter, and confront the solicitude and greed of the Pandas, I was not. The warning sign, "non-Hindus not allowed" clearly meant me. In the Puri temple at least, a white skin was the sign of a non-Hindu.

A couple of years after that, I attended a conference in Madurai, and decided to go see the great Meenakshi temple with a friend, a Chinese woman who had also read a paper at the conference. Though I was not particularly interested, she wanted to go into the inner sanctum, not taking the "only Hindus allowed" warning very seriously and hardly imagining that a temple of a god could be exclusionist. But she was also turned away. Clearly, yellowish skin and folded eyelids also indicated a "non-Hindu" to them.

Does this mean Hinduism is racist? This is a somewhat loaded term, but it is clear that "Hinduism" as it is seen today by the Hindutva forces has been consistently given an ethnic interpretation. The basis is one of taking it as a religion of a people who have inhabited a territory. In spite of significant differences among them in colour and racial features, there is in fact a sense in which South Asians — people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka — share enough common features to gain an identity. It is an identity that is known in the U.S. today as "brown" — and after 9/11 "brown" has been seen as an object of racism and chauvinism by many Americans, including American officials. Brown Muslims are the main target, but "brown" is an identifying mark, so that while beards and turbans are the most dangerous, any "brown" person is considered suspicious. With the George W. Bush Government taking the lead, thousands of Americans have been subjected to tyranny, and thousands of foreigners have been humiliated.

This is rightly condemned as racist. The Dalit position during the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in August-September 2001, which argued that the birth-linked characteristics of caste are also similar to racism, is also correct. Both racism in the U.S., which includes discrimination against all "brown" people, and casteism in India, which stigmatises those considered of "low" birth, are social forms of cruel discrimination in which groups of people are seen as somehow biologically inferior and socially dangerous.

But what do we call it when a religion is identified in ethnic terms? That is what took place during the 19th century when the founders of Hindutva formulated their ideology. The modernisation of traditional varna Hinduism at that time was expressed by the attempt to bring all Dalits and OBCs into one ethnically-defined, territorially-linked community. As the main ideologue, it was Sarvarkar who most clearly formulated the themes. According to him, "a Hindu is someone who views India as his holy land and fatherland". What this means is that a Hindu is not simply a person who has a particularly belief, but also a person whose ancestry is in a particular territory. In other words, it is an ethnic definition. It sought to create solidarity by overriding differences among those classified as "Hindus" — differences of language, region within India, and caste and status.

This attempt to create solidarity was an early way of dealing with objections of Dalits and OBCs that the discrimination against them on the grounds of their birth amounted to something like racism: it proclaimed that they had a racial, that is ethnic, origin in common with that of the upper castes. But, while denying an ethnic difference along caste lines, the Hindutva position simply formulated a different ethnicity as the basis of a religious community. It included and excluded people from the religious community on grounds of birth. That is, it excluded not only people from India who accepted religions whose "holy land" was elsewhere (the clear references were to Mecca and Jerusalem!); it also excluded people whose ethnic origin was from outside India, that is, whose "fatherland" (why not motherland?) was elsewhere. It continued in a different form the old idea that one can only be born a Hindu one cannot convert to it. Strikingly, the only other major religion of the world today which takes such a position is Judaism.

The antagonism to conversion rests on an ideological foundation which takes ethnicity, that is a presumed community of blood and heritage, as central. It suggests that the choice of a religion cannot be on the basis of aspiration, of a questioning and a spiritual search that transcends all barriers and resists all limitations to the human mind. It insists that this choice has to be bound by ancestry, by blood, by family and habit. What justifies this is the idea that somehow a religious faith is bound to a "people" so much that the heritage of blood and family cannot be transcended, and that those who don't share that heritage can never truly be a part of that religious faith. This in turn denies individual human creativity and freedom. The argument for "no conversion" seems to assume that humans are less than human, that they are tied down to instinct and heritage.

This is a strange idea, in many ways, to come in a land from which the first great missionary religion of the world, Buddhism, originated. It is perhaps not so strange, however, when we recall that many of the debates between Buddhists and their more orthodox opponents were on the issue of whether a person's worth was determined by action or by birth. In any case, the ethnic definition of religion is in many ways very pre-modern. To Ambedkar, agonising in his early days over what this "Hinduism" was that excluded him not only from temples but also from households, streets, water tanks, and the whole basis of public life, this ethnic definition of religion was unacceptable. In one of his early essays, "The Philosophy of Hinduism", he classified world religions into those of "modern" and "antique" societies. In cultural terms, he argued, the main difference was that the religions of antique societies identified god with a particular community and so had a community-centred collectivist ethics, while those of modern societies were universalistic, seeing god as the father/creator of all humans and centring their ethics on the individual rather than on the community. Ambedkar here was using the term "modern" in a different sense from the sociologists of today, to identify societies which proclaimed a universalistic morality based on a universalistic religion, societies which date back thousands of years.

This in turn led him into an attack on Hinduism as denying the equality and freedom necessary for a truly modern society. However, even apart from the issues raised by this attack, his distinction between community-based religions and universalistic religions is important.

The denial of the right of conversion amounts to the ethnicisation of religion. And, it was this denial that Ambedkar fundamentally challenged when he proclaimed in 1936 that "I have been born a Hindu, but I will not die a Hindu". Claiming the right to convert was a challenge to the ethnic definition of religious identity. And this remains the issue at stake in regard to conversion laws: are the religions of India to be defined in terms of one community, or universalistically?

[Courtesy: The Hindu, February 25, 2003]

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