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Mohan Bhagwat’s idea of India is not a thali of identities but a khichdi: Shashi Tharoor

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Shashi Tharoor responds to criticism about his article on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s speech.

My column on the remarks of RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat last week elicited predictable reactions from both sides of the ideological divide. But the one criticism I feel obliged to respond to is that I have been unfair in refusing to take Bhagwat at his word. After all, several readers have pointed out, he accepted India’s diversity, embraced minorities and spoke of inclusiveness. How then could I still object to the RSS’ idea of Hindutva?

I could sum up my difference with Bhagwat in a hallowed phrase that, for all its over-use, has not yet lost its potency: Unity in diversity. That’s what I believe in, and that’s what the Constitution of India, written by the nationalists who fought for our freedom, propounds. Bhagwat doesn’t believe in “unity in diversity”; he believes in “diversity in unity”. Let me explain.

Also read: Mohan Bhagwat still sees other faiths as inferior to his own: Shashi Tharoor

The first idea assumes that there are various kinds of Indians, with very different views of their own identity, including religious assumptions that differ markedly from each other. Yet, we all belong together and share a common allegiance to India. I have described this for many years now, in various speeches and writings, as my “thali” theory of Indian nationalism. Like a thali, we are a collection of different items in different bowls; since we are in different dishes we don’t necessarily flow into each other, but we belong together on the same platter and combine on your palate to give you a satisfying repast.

Bhagwat’s idea of India is not that of my thali. It is, instead, a khichdi theory of nationalism: We are one dish, with many ingredients all mixed up and cooked together. Yes, individual pieces might stand out in the mash, a carrot here, an aloo there, but they are nothing other than parts of the meal. Thus for him, all true Indians are Hindus; there might be a “Muslim Hindu” here and a “Christian Hindu” there, but they must acknowledge that they are part of the mixed khichdi and have no identity separate from it. Their diversity, in other words, is subordinate to their common role as a part of the larger unity.

These are fundamentally different ideas of what Indian nationalism is all about. Mine sees each identity as valid in itself, and as an equal stakeholder in the larger identity of Indianness. Bhagwat’s sees Hinduness as the primordial identity to which any other identity is subordinate, and indeed is only tolerated as a part of the larger mix.

Yes, India is an overwhelmingly Hindu country, but the founders of our republic did not choose for India to be a Hindu state. Hinduism developed a tradition of acceptance of difference, but at the time of Independence, Hindu leaders understood that in both principle and practice, religion and politics should be divorced. The political system, early on, decided that India would not be, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s phrase, a ‘Hindu Pakistan’ — and Indians took pride in that assertion. Where Pakistan reserved its top constitutional positions only for Muslims, and stamped “non-Muslim” on the passports of its minority citizens in confirmation of their second-class status, India revelled in the prominence enjoyed by its various minorities in public life. Neither politics nor governance was based on religious principles, and success in no field required a litmus test of faith. Muslims could say with pride that they were Muslim, and with equal pride that they were Indian too – as Indian as their Hindu neighbours.

Also read: Amit Shah says BJP to rule for 50 years. Mohan Bhagwat is preparing the blueprint

Hindu chauvinism then emerged from the competition for resources in a contentious democracy. Politicians of all faiths across India seek to mobilise voters by appealing to narrow identities; by seeking votes in the name of religion, caste and region, they have urged voters to define themselves on these lines. Hindu assertion is arguably a response to the politics of division, but it makes the mistake of trying to suppress differences rather than accommodate them.

This is why the development of what has been called “Hindu fundamentalism” and the resultant change in the public discourse about Indianness is so dangerous. The suggestion that only a Hindu, and only a certain kind of Hindu, can be an authentic Indian is an affront to the very premise of Indian nationalism. An India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us.

The reduction of non-Hindus to second-class status in their homeland is unthinkable. It would be a second Partition— and a partition in the Indian soul would be as bad as a partition in the Indian soil. But the roots of such thinking run deep in the ideology of Hindutva, and that is a cause for alarm for all concerned Hindus.

The Hindutva project involves an attempt to create an overarching political ideology that would iron out the differences among all the adherents of a highly differentiated and eclectic religious faith, and also subsume the far greater differences with people of other faiths. Accordingly, the RSS idea of Hindu nationalism conflates ideas of religion and culture with those of nation and state.

For the Hindutvawadis, India’s national culture is Hindu religious culture, and cultural nationalism cloaks plural India in a mantle of Hindu identity. In Bhagwat’s Hindutva, the idea of the Indian nation is one in which the Hindu religious identity coincides with the cultural, and both equate to the national. He leaves no room for a Muslim to be a Muslim or a Christian to be a Christian and still call herself Indian.

The central battle in contemporary Indian civilisation is between those who, to borrow from Walt Whitman, acknowledge that we are vast, we contain multitudes, and those who have presumptuously taken it upon themselves to define (in increasingly narrower terms) what is ‘truly’ Indian. If Bhagwat and the RSS are not challenged in their assertion of what Indianness is all about, we are allowing them to inflict violence on something profoundly vital to our survival as a civilisation.

Also read: Silence speaks louder than words-What RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat didn’t mention

The real alternatives in our country are between those who believe in an India where differences of caste, creed, conviction, class, colour, culture, cuisine, costume and custom shouldn’t determine your Indianness, and those who define Indianness along one or more of these divisions. In other words, the really important debate is not about Hinduism, but between the unifiers and the dividers – between those who think all Indians are ‘us’, whichever God they choose to worship, and those who think that Indians can be divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. For Bhagwat and the RSS, only Hindus are ‘us’; everyone else is ‘them’. That cannot be the basis for the kind of unity that he and his organisation claim to promote.

The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 17 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is ‘Why I am a Hindu’. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.

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  1. Inspiring view point Born to Sikh parents married an Aryasamaji Hindu caused petty conflicts Reverence dominated but faith diluted understanding Hinduism as explained by Mr Tharoor is simplified The Udipi thali vs anganwadi kitchidi is a classic example for explanation to anyone who is confused

  2. The RSS concept of Indianness is one of subsumed identities while that of our founding fathers is one in which each identity retains the essence and flavour wile while remaining an Indian. Tharoorjis Thali vs kichdi anology is spot on

  3. A very creative piece of fiction writing by Shashi Tharoor. I just wonder such a bunch of educated f**ls have been calling the shots in our country ever since 1947 or may be since the famous khilafat fiasco of the Congress.
    He needs to understand India as a nation was not born on 15-8-1947.
    India is the OLDEST LIVING Civilization on the face of Earth.
    Why does not this buffoon deliver his sermons in J&K ?

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