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BJP version of Hindutva is rising but there is one aspect where it failed to convince Hindus

Muslims are often criticised for not conveying their nationalism in symbolic terms. Pew findings show this assumption is absolutely incorrect.

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Pew Research Center’s recent study, Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation, seems to remind us the lyrics of a popular song from Shah Rukh Khan’s film Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani.

Hum logo ko samajh sako to samjho dilbar jani, jitna bhi tum samjhoge utni hogi hairani

(If you can understand us, then try it my friend; the more you understand us, the more you’ll be surprised!)

The report explores the complexities of India’s national identity and introduces us to a few amazing public secrets. It reveals that religion and caste are recognised as the crucial markers of distinctiveness by Indian religious groups. Indians respect all religions and adherence to nationalism is celebrated as a religious virtue. An imaginary dividing line between religion and politics is also drawn. And precisely for these reasons, the living together separately phenomenon continues to exist.

At the same time, the old slogan of Hindu, Hindi and Hindustan finds a new concrete political overtone. The study suggests that Hindu religiosity is expressed in a sophisticated language of nationalism. A significantly powerful section of Hindus thinks that Hinduism, Hindi language and political support to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are fundamental elements of a true Indian identity.

These seemingly contradictory observations need to be placed in a proper perspective for a meaningful discussion. There is a need to ask a straightforward question: how does one explain India’s national identity on the basis of these conflicting statistical survey-based findings?

Also read: Liberal intellectuals lack popular political language against Hindutva. That’s just lazy

Four aspects of contemporary national identity

The Pew report emphasises the fact that Indian people are deeply religious. In fact, religion emerges as the dominant worldview by which the complex ideas of nation and nationalism are defined in four different ways.

First, overwhelming majority of Indians believes that India belongs to all religious groups. The respondents assert that showing respect to all Indian religions is a basic moral requirement to be identified as ‘truly Indian.’

Interestingly, this feeling of tolerant and peaceful religious coexistence is not merely invoked to define India as a nation. Around 80 per cent respondents feel that respecting other religions is also an inseparable aspect of their own religious belief. For example, a Muslim would not be treated as a Muslim and/or as a true Indian even by Muslims if he/she does not show any respect to other religions of India.

This idea of respect, we must remember, goes against the conventional Hindutva argument that always makes a distinction between Indian religions and foreign religions. The Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism are separated from Christianity and Islam to make a case for larger Hindu unity.

Indian religious groups, however, do not believe in this distinction. The report shows that although Indian people do recognise the significance of religious differences, they celebrate India’s diversity in its religious entirety. That may be the reason why all religious communities feel that they are free to practise religion.

Graphic by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint

Second, this religion-based notion of respect can also be employed to make sense of the civic elements of India’s national identity. There is a consensus that respect for elders, respect for the Army and belief in the Constitution of India and National anthem are essential preconditions for expressing one’s nationalism.

Graphic by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint

The assertion of India’s religious minorities is very significant in this case. Minorities, especially Muslims, are often criticised for not conveying their nationalism in symbolic terms. These findings clearly show that this assumption is absolutely incorrect. Almost 80 per cent Muslim respondents express their unconditional faith in the accepted symbols of Indian nationalism.

Graphic by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint

Third, the placing of political history in the framework of national identity is a rather complicated issue. Although the Indian religious communities recognise the need to have adequate knowledge of India’s Freedom struggle, the impact of Partition emerges as a contentious issue.

Also read: Congress must split to weaken BJP. Let those who want to join Hindutva exit

Majority of Hindu respondents think that Partition was as a positive development. On the contrary, the Muslim and Sikh respondents do not subscribe to this view. They envisage Partition as a negative phenomenon. This religious divide underlines the fact that the Partition was a highly diversified critical event that continues to evoke mixed and contradictory emotions and responses.

Graphic by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint

Finally, the rise of Hindu nationalism is the fourth aspect of contemporary national identity. The report shows that a sizeable number of Hindus (64 per cent) think that they are truly Indian because of their religion. This view is a north Indian phenomenon. Yet, one finds a clear manifestation of this political imagination in different regions.

In this context, the rise of Hindi as a marker of Indian identity is really a fascinating finding. It questions the dominant liberal imagination that Hindu-Hindi-Hindutva does not survive in non-Hindi regions. Table 4 shows that acceptance of Hindi is gradually increasing across the country, even in the southern region.

The spread of the BJP as an all India party has certainly affected the Hindu perceptions across the country. As a result, the BJP’s version of Hindutva seems to be emerging as the dominant expression of Hindu nationalism. However, Hindutva politics has not been able to convince Hindus that India does not belong to other religious groups.

The non-BJP parties and intellectual elites, it appears, are not interested in this significant failure of Hindutva politics. They have not yet come out with a constructive political programme that might accommodate religious tolerance (that defines India as a multi-religious nation) and Hindu nationalism (that seeks to assert religious identity in a positive manner).

The Pew report is significant because it was able to document the messiness of Indian social life with remarkable openness and sensitivity. It seems they honestly followed Javed Akhtar’s suggestion throughout this exploration: jitna bhi tum samjhoge utni hogi hairani!

 (The Pew study is a comprehensive in-depth exploration of India’s contemporary religious life. The report is based on interview of 29,999 Indian adults (including 22,975 who identify as Hindu, 3,336 who identify as Muslim, 1,782 who identify as Sikh, 1,011 who identify as Christian, 719 who identify as Buddhist, 109 who identify as Jain and 67 who identify as belonging to another religion or as religiously unaffiliated). Interviews for this nationally representative survey were conducted face-to-face from November 2019, to March 23, 2020. The questionnaire was developed in English and translated into 16 languages, independently verified by professional linguists with native proficiency in regional dialects. For full report, click here)

This article is part of a series on the latest Pew Survey on religion in India. Read all articles here.

Hilal Ahmed is Associate Professor at CSDS. He was one of the expert advisors for this study. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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