I was born in a home of broad-minded Hindus. My father, though by caste a Brahmin, never wore a thread. His own father’s brother was a lifelong opponent of the caste system; a hostel he opened for Dalit students still functions in Bangalore city. My mother went from time to time to a temple, but was happy to eat with or make food for humans of any background or creed. Two of her brothers had married out of caste; a third had married a German.
When, in 1984, I got my first job, at the Centre for Social Studies in Calcutta, I had to fill in a questionnaire which, among other things, asked me to denote my religion. I wrote ‘Hindu’, immediately attracting the ire of a friend who worked at the same centre. He felt that a secular state had no business asking for a person’s religion, and thus I should have left the answer blank. This friend was a Marxist, so (although he would not then recognise or admit it) he actually subscribed to a faith of his own.
As I saw it, I was brought up, if loosely, in the Hindu tradition. One could still be a Hindu and not believe in—indeed, militantly oppose—caste discrimination and the subjection of women. One could be a Hindu and still be respectful of other faiths and traditions. That is what my reading of Gandhi had taught me. And if Gandhi, who in adult life did not enter a temple, and who was vilified by sants and sankaracharyas, could yet call himself a Hindu, so—when pushed—could I.
Five years after this debate with a Marxist, I encountered a rather more direct challenge to my Hindu faith. I had been with a team of scholars to investigate a communal conflict in and around the town of Bhagalpur, in Bihar. The riot was sparked off by the brick worship ceremonies connected with the plans to build a Ram temple on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The ceremonies clashed with a Muslim festival, and violence broke out between young men of the two religions. The conflict spread outwards from the town into the countryside.
Nearly two thousand people died in the Bhagalpur riots. Many more were rendered homeless. Although Muslims were less than 20 per cent of the population, they constituted more than 70 per cent of those who had been killed or displaced. We visited a once-flourishing village of Muslim weavers, or julahas, whose homes and looms had been totally destroyed by a mob of Hindus. The survivors were being taken care of by a prosperous Muslim weaver in Bhagalpur town, who had laid out tents in his garden. Other refugees were being provided food and shelter by a Muslim religious organisation. Of government work in the resettlement and rehabilitation of the refugees there was not a sign.
I was shaken to see that my fellow Hindus would willingly partake of such savagery, and that my government would take no responsibility for the victims. Till then, the politics of religion had no place in my scholarly work or writing. My principal field of research was the environment. I had just published a book on the social history of the Himalayan forests, and had written scholarly essays on environmental conflicts in Asia and North America. However, I was now provoked to write an essay on the Bhagalpur riots for the Sunday Observer. That newspaper collapsed soon afterwards, but I remain grateful to it for publishing the first article I wrote on the bloody crossroads where religion and politics meet in modern India.
In the 1990s and beyond, as the religious right gained in strength and importance across the country, I was making the move from academics to becoming a full-time writer. I now published fortnightly columns in two different newspapers. My brief, in each case, was very broad; I could, and did, write on history and sport apart from politics. But since these were the years in which the Sangh parivar moved from the margins to the centre of public life in India, naturally I wrote about their activities as well.
RSS cadre at one of the outfit’s functions in north Delhi. (Photograph by Narendra Bisht)
In the past two decades, I must have published some forty articles that have dealt with the politics or policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or of state and central governments led or directed by them. This constitutes somewhat less than 10 per cent of my total output—that is to say, at least nine in ten of my articles have dealt with other subjects. However, it is always articles that touch on the philosophy and practice of Hindutva that attract the most attention (and anger). They have brought me into contact with a certain kind of Indian who gets up before dawn, has a glass of cow’s milk, prays to the sun god, and begins scanning cyberspace for that day’s secular heresies. If a column I write touches in any way on faith, Hinduism, Hindutva, Guru Golwalkar, Gujarat, or Ayodhya, by breakfast I have had deposited, in my inbox—or perhaps in the ‘Comments’ section of the newspaper’s own website—mails which are hurt, complaining, angry, or downright abusive. A representative sample follows:
I think you are living on other planet. As historian, if India’s integrity is at stake from terrorist Islamic Shaitan Pakistan you are quiblling on small matters. …so called pseudo historians like you besmirch India in Western media from whom you get sinecures and royalty.
Ramachandra is very much a Hindu name. Please dont insult that name, and show your secularism by changing your name to rahim or rehaman. anyway… sanatana dharma does not want cowards like you!!! especially cowards who rape their own mother(land)!!!
It would be to your advantage if you get mentally treated before it is too late if you are suffering from a mental problem of distortions and if it is treatable and can be cured. Good luck. When muslims got a land to live out of the land that belongs to hindus of india since 2000 BC where is the need for muslims to continue to live in India and if they cannot go to there to the land given to them they should keep quiet and vote in Pakisthan elections not in India. You too can go with them to pakisthan and live there…I will be the most happiest man if a poison like you is not exist in this world. If so our country will be more safe with less one enemy.
Sometimes the mails are sent as letters to the editor of the journals where I write, with a copy mailed to me. These ostensibly impersonal rejoinders tend to be rather forceful as well. Consider these examples, where the historian is characterised as, respectively, a Naxalite sympathiser (but simultaneously a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist), a newspaper sales agent, a covert Christian missionary, and as akin to a Swiss bank:
India has been one country not in the westophilian sense but in a dharmic sense for the last thousands of years. He might not have heard about Adi Sankara who was born in Kaladi but established Mutts in the four corners of India. For him Indian spiritual unity does not exist. Guha who is a Naxalite sympathiser has got permission from Sonia (Gandhi) to use the archives at Nehru Museum to write his book and so sing the songs of the Sonia Dynasty.
What your news paper want cheap publicity I can understand. Actually you want to increase sell of news paper that’s why you published this type of anti India and anti RSS article because at least RSS people will buy your newspaper. I vow not to buy your news paper and will try to convince more and more people. The egoist people like Guha will be punished by masses along with you.
Any criminal in India can get his stupid views on every thing under the son published in any so called secular publication and even earn a very comfortable living provided he invariably starts his piece with a lamentation about the untold suffering the Christians have been undergoing in India since independence. But still, how could somewhat decent people like Mr Vinod Mehta (then editor of Outlook magazine) tolerate these fake intellectuals? It is advertisement income, stupid. The controlling share of almost all multinationals are held by church groups.
Mr Guha was one of the historical cartels in India who brainwashed the young and impressionable students in India about how worthless ancient Indian heritage was…. I think Ramachandra Guha’s assets are liable to be proceeded against in a Class Action law suit either in India or the USA like the Swiss Banks’ role in profiting from the Holocaust victims under Hitler by laundering the sufferings of Hitler’s Jewish victims. The Swiss Banks received the gold from Hitler’s Germany including those melted from the tooth fillings of his Jewish victims. I believe the Colonial victims of India and their descendants including those victimised by Mr.Guha censorship of ancient Indian Heritage for ideological reasons are on a similar standing to the Holocaust victims and their descendants!!!
Not all letters are angry or abusive. Some are written in a civil tone, yet reflect the same anxieties and (dare one say) paranoias of a certain kind of modern Hindu. A letter I received from an elderly gentleman now based in El Cerrito, California, feared that India was becoming a Muslim nation. In the 1940s, the leaders of what this man called a ‘rogue religion’ had intrigued with the British to create Pakistan; now, they sought by demographic means to convert the already balkanised motherland into another Islamic state. “Afghanistan,” wrote my Californian correspondent, “was once a 100 per cent Bodth (Buddhist) Country and entire poplation was converted to Islam by the terroristic tactics in the past many centuries. Now, the Madarsas of India are too churning out terrorists like Pakistan at the expense of Hindu taxpayers. …Soon the population explosion of Muslims will make them in Majority and the fate of Indian Temples will be the same as Bamyan Budha had faced…. You may not be able to give such thoughts to the Indian Press because of certain reasons but these fears are real and felt thousands of miles away by Hindus who are living in United States….”
Sometimes, the chastisement is gentle, offered in sorrow rather than anger, and outlining the hope that, despite my past errors and misdemeanours, I might yet come to respect and even represent the cause of the vulnerable and aggrieved Hindu. A correspondent with whom I had an extended exchange, asked:
I beg, please do a favour. Do not use every single opportunity to offend those who speak for Hindus. We have no where to go. This is our fatherland/motherland our spiritual land. The land of our gods. And we have only welcomed every persecuted race on earth and given space here. Helped them to flourish and now we are paying the price. There are bigger monsters to fight. Please use your energy there. We need bright intellectuals like you there, sir. For our great nation and its great civilisation. And like it or not, the Hindu Civiilsation is the only glue that keeps our great nation together. And if it dies we have no identity and India would not exist.
This was a selective but not unrepresentative sample of the mails I have received over the years from the intensely chauvinistic tribe of Internet Hindus. I have replied, as courteously as I possibly could, to each e-mail I received (a practice I still maintain), but discontinued the correspondence if (as was often the case) the mailer proved incapable of reasoned discussion or debate.
I have withheld the names of my correspondents. Notably, they were all male. I do have one Hindutva-oriented mailer who is a woman—but she is an exception, the only one I have encountered in some fifteen years of such correspondence. Along with the gender bias is a caste bias. Sharma, Shukla, Rao, Iyer, Gupta—these kinds of surnames recur with regularity in my inbox. These are typically dwija names, denoting ‘twice-born’ castes who, according to the tenets of orthodox Hinduism, can wear the sacred thread. (My experience in this regard tends to confirm the characterisation of the BJP as a ‘Brahmin-Bania’ party.) Other names I recognise are of Kayasth or Rajput origin, that is to say, also upper-caste. The age profile is harder to construct. It appears that a large proportion of my mailers are in their twenties and thirties, but there is a significant sprinkling of senior citizens as well. The former tend to be impatient, seeking to overcome India’s manifest weakness as a nation and a state with an infusion of the right kind of dharmic energy. The latter tend to be anguished or bitter, believing that India threw away its chances of becoming a great and powerful nation because of the reliance of its leaders on the pernicious Western ideology of secularism. Had India followed the example of Israel, they argue, and based its national unity on a shared religion, language and sacred text (Hinduism, Sanskrit and the Vedas, in this case), it would have stood tall among its neighbours, and in the world. For these despairing, defeatist nationalists, the one true moment of national pride was when India defeated Pakistan in the war of 1971, for them both revenge and consolation for centuries of humiliation at the hands of Muslim and Christian invaders.
VHP men moments before the Babri Masjid came down, 1992
The young profess to detest the West too. But for all this love of the motherland and the ancestral faith, it is striking how, while this particular heretic lives in India, so many of his orthodox opponents are based overseas, in the prosperous and decidedly un-Hindu nations of Europe and North America. One of my regular mailers writes from his home in 1650 Voyager Avenue, Simi Valley, CA, USA. A second, who chooses rather to address the editors of the journals I write for, signs his name and then adds, by way of further identification, ‘Out West, USA’. A third (the only woman in the pile) writes from Canada and always reminds me that she is a ‘Ph D, Western Ontario’. A fourth, who likewise combines an admiration of indigenous culture with an almost unreasoning hatred of the modern West, nonetheless never fails to mention that he is the possessor of those very Western certifications, ‘M. D., Ph D’. A fifth ended a long and very angry mail with these oddly defensive sentences: “I risk of being dismissed as a unemployed ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ and would not be surprised at all if this mail is put in trash can. Hence I think it is appropriate that I introduce to you that I am a experienced Senior Management professional working with a MNC in India’s sunshine industry.” A sixth first asked: “Who cares about your opinion, man? You speak as if you are representing a billion plus Hindus! Dimwits and slaves like you sit in a corner of your dimly lit houses and pontificate to others”; and then offered his own, rather, better qualifications for speaking about the subject at hand: “I am educated, young, well read (with 3 masters degrees) and residing in the west. Yet I have great pride and respect for my country, its culture, my Hindu religion, its Heroes, God and philosophies.”
The sociological background of the Hindutva hate-mailer can be partially reconstructed from his name and background. His ideology is more directly manifested in his mails. This rests on a deep suspicion of and hostility towards those Indians who are not Hindus by religious background. Christians and especially Muslims come in for special animosity. And yet, as the historian Dharma Kumar once pointed out, the philosophy of Hindutva only mimics and reproduces the ideology of its major adversary. Its unacknowledged model is the Islamic state, where those who do not belong to the ruling faith are tolerated if they are obedient and subservient, but attacked if they seek to assert the rights of equal citizenship.
Hindutvawadis thus want to construct what Dharma Kumar described as ‘an Islamic state for Hindus’. In medieval Muslim states, there was a category known as dhimmi, consisting of Jews and Christians, who, as people of the book, were treated somewhat more leniently than the kafirs, the unbelievers. The dhimmi were barred from the top positions in the state and in the army. However, so long as they paid their taxes and did not challenge the ruler, they could live in peace and security. The kafirs, on the other hand, were seen always and invariably as adversaries. In the same manner, if the RSS were to get its way, Muslims and Christians in modern India would live undisturbed, so long as they acknowledged their theological and political inferiority to the dominant Hindus. But if they sought equal rights of citizenship they would be punished as the kafirs had once been.
Like all fanatics, the Hindutva hate-mailer thinks in black-and-white. Although I am a liberal who has consistently stood against left-wing as well as right-wing extremism, the default reaction to my criticisms of Hindutva is that I must be a communist. The mail that follows is characteristic:
If the communist journalists thinking they can distroy an organization by writing few words against them, you are wrong sir. There was a time people forced to belive what you wrote. But today there is mass Communication between people. Unlike earlier there are people now to respond against communist journalists immediately.
Today even your own media can not survive without supporting Hindutva. You see today your CPM channel in Kerala is live coverage (though it was sponsored) of a Mahayagam at Thirivananthapuram. 90% of the participants are Sangh Parivar leaders. I pity your CPM channel, they have no other alternative but to telecast the live coverage. Remember that our work is already spreads each and every corner of the country. Now we are engaged to increase our activitis more powerful. It is our challange we will dismantle Communist party in India. You wait and see what is going to happen in the coming time.
The extremist only recognises other extremists. Since I carry a Hindu name, yet have distanced myself from the bigotry and chauvinism of the Hindutvawadi, I must be a crypto-communist.
The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, under attack during 26/11. (Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook 19 November 2012)
Apart from thinking in black-and-white, the fundamentalist is convinced that he will, in the end, be victorious. This triumphalist rhetoric, however, is actually a product of paranoia and insecurity. Like the Marxist, like the evangelical Christian, like the Islamic fanatic, the Hindutvawadi needs constantly to reassure himself that he will win in the end. This mail I received from a young man of Gujarati extraction is both typical as well as rather sad:
Narendra Modi is the Chief Minster of my great state Gujarat. He is without doubt the greatest Chief Minster in the history of India. One day in the near future he may become the Prime Minster of India. You all third rate parasitical dhimmi toads who do nothing all your lives except lecture others and contribute not an ioata to the Indian economy can then take a permenant sabbitical to your natural abode Paki Stan. You can bark you can rant and you can use every conceviable weapon to villify and demonise Narendra Modi and us Gujaratis and every time we will show you envious scums of the earth two fingers and treat you like one treats sewage. We Gujus are no 1 and will always remain no 1 whether you like it or not and continue to contribute the highest to the Indian economy. …You third rate filth we Gujus have nothing but contempt and disdain for your types. you can continue barking and ranting against my State, its Chief Minster and her people and everytime we will say Up yours!
To this deep suspicion of diversity and pluralism, this tendency to think in black-and-white, this insistent (if ultimately unconvincing) claim that they are history’s inevitable winners, let me add one final characteristic of the Hindutva hate- mailer—an utter lack of humour. The mails already quoted illustrate this in abundance, but consider also some responses to an essay I wrote criticising the Ministry for Human Resources Development for proposing that the wife of the richest man in India be made a ‘brand ambassador’ for their adult literacy campaigns. I had pointed out that “if one is thinking of a name to motivate poor women or men to learn their letters, no name could be more spectacularly inappropriate than Nita Ambani’s. She is soon to be the resident of a 4,00,000 square feet house; she is already the recipient of a Boeing aircraft as a birthday gift. If this exhibitionism does not run contrary to our constitutional commitment to socialism and equality, I don’t know what does. As for our other national commitment to secularism and the scientific temper—which I presume the HRD ministry shares—how does one square that with Mrs Ambani’s periodic visits to a Southern hill-top to pray for, of all things, a cricket team?”
The article was published in a paper that does not have an edition in Bangalore. Downloading it the morning it appeared, I noticed that the boys weaned on cow’s milk had come sniffing already. One mailer complained that “the ‘Southern Hilltop’ the journalist so callously refers to here is the much revered Lord Balaji’s temple. Where do these people get the nerve?? Will he say ‘People running to middle eastern desert’ for Haj pilgrimage?? This is called ‘Proving one’s secular credentials’ by putting down the most revered Lord in India.” Another angrily asked: “Would Mr. Guha have taken a swipe at a Muslim person, worthy or worthless in her own right, for praying five times a day or for doing Haz? Why this step-motherly treatment for visiting temples?”
Fortunately, these mailers had been put in their place by an Indian with a sense of proportion, who responded to their screeds as follows: “There we go again, just drag religious sentiments into it, and finish off with a Hindu-Muslim comparison to highlight a perceived bias. (Guha) was commenting on (Nita Ambani’s) visits to pray ‘for, of all things, a cricket team’… The point being she was praying not for literacy, not for end of poverty, not for benefit of fellow man, country or world but her commercial interests in a cricket franchise.”
The number and intensity of Hindutva hate mails in my inbox has varied over the past two decades. They have increased and become more abusive at particular moments—after the Gujarat riots of 2002, for example, or after the terror attack in Mumbai of 2008. Before the general elections of 1999, 2004 and 2009 I also got a flood of mails warning me that I would be put in my place once the party of the faithful would be elected or re-elected to power. The mails fly thick and fast in times of political controversy, but they by no means dry up in quieter periods in-between. For the hard-core fundamentalist, the hunt for heretics is a full-time business.
I shall end this essay by quoting five very special mails that, in their individual and distinctive ways, illustrate the peculiarities and pathologies of the Homo Indicus Hindutvawadi.
The first mail offers this apparently careful and close definition of Hinduism:
A Hindu is someone who believes in the native and natural traditions of India. These traditions include a lifestyle that is compatible with the natural bounties and limits of India. A belief in the multiple facets of spirituality and tolerance of diverse concepts of god(s) (incl. that it is Man who created god(s) – not the other way around!). By this token some Moslems or Christians may be better Hindus than those who were born Hindus. But in general Hindus are the backbone of India and give it its true character. Minority communities, no matter how large, are the unfortunate remnants of past invasions. Westernized seculars like Ramachandra Guha are mere third rate stool pigeons who could not move to the richer West on their own but would say anything to harm the core of India for a few dollars as baksheesh!
The definition was however undermined by the address of the writer (‘out west, United States’)—although, as a patriotic Hindu, perhaps he had demanded of his employer that he be paid in (saffron-coloured and lotus-shaped?) rupees.
A ransacked church in Kandhamal in 2008, Orissa
My second example, coming also from a non-resident Indian, is notable for its capacious demonology, which included Muslims and Englishmen but privileged above all the Muslim-loving and English-loving renegade Hindu, Jawaharlal Nehru:
Dear Mr. Guha,
I have read some of your articles, the headings of your articles have nothing to do with body of your articles, every article is BJP/RSS and Hindu bashing.
But if you care to answer two questions which are asked by large number of Indians, the questions are:-
1. After British left India, all British invaders had left India, why Muslim invaders were not evicted? What right Nehru and Gandhi had to keep tens of millions of Muslims after giving them “homeland” (read Hindu land)?
2. If there are 150 million Muslims in India then why Pakistan was created and if Pakistan was created then why there are 150 million Muslims in India ?
Are you denying that before British took over Hindus were not fighting to get rid of Muslims? It seems all the “historians” are on Saudi pay roll.
When I come to India I talk to rickshaw wallas, rail coolies, waiters and other real Indians, all ask the same questions. They talk to me because they know I live overseas and I am not a danger to them like journalists and people like you who immediately declare Hindus “anti-Muslim”, “anti-secular”, “chauvinists” etc and also let police and Congress goons let on them….
Nehru was a loafer, thug and a ruffian, he was only interested in Lady Mountbatten, can’t you see the damage done by Nehru? Kashmir, Tibet, Aksai Chin and decimation of Hindu society? About Gandhi, less said the better.
But coming back to my two question, do you have the courage, guts, IQ to detach yourself from white skinned lady and answer truthfully, not your general doble-de-gook….
The third example illustrates the hectoring and bullying typical of a certain strain of Hindutva. It was written from Maharashtra, after I had published an article in The Telegraph of Calcutta on the Maoist threat to Indian democracy. I here recalled a similar threat from the extreme right in the early days of Indian independence, and mentioned in passing that Gandhi’s murderer, Nathuram Godse, had once been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. An angry mailer claimed that my article “has nothing to do with facts and history also equating RSS with Maoist is sheer lie and hence court suit is inevitable against you if you doesn’t tenders straightaway apology to RSS.
A Bajrang Dal activist during the Gujarat riots, 2002. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook 19 November 2012)
We have successfully countered such type of blasphemous propaganda against RSS through court battle…. So I am hereby demanding immediate apology from you and The Telegraph for the report or be prepared for legal battle, In case legal battle starts it is sure that your career as journalist would end abruptly, so it is not in your personal interest hence better to tender apology and end the matter here before reaching to the Court premises.”
No apology was offered either by myself or The Telegraph—a libel suit is yet awaited.
My fourth example illustrates the streak of paranoid triumphalism I spoke of earlier. After I had published a long essay explaining why, given the social and political fault-lines within, India would not and should not become a superpower, a reader wrote in to say that “India is bound 2 be worldpower. Take my words. People like Mr Guha are agents of China and they also go to temple (though in the dark of night)”.
Of all the hate mails that, over the years, have popped into my inbox, my personal favourite came from a man (with a resoundingly Brahmin name, as it happens), living in the town of Ghaziabad, in Uttar Pradesh. This, in one single sentence, encapsulated the sentiments of his fellow fanatics and ideologues. “It is suspected,” said my correspondent, “that you are getting money through Hawala (the black market) from antiIndia forces or your mindset is communist or you are psychologically weak requiring treatment or modern time ‘Asura’ (demon) wishing to destroy motherland.” I think of myself as a patriot, who loves his country, and lives and works in it. I also think of myself as a moderate, middle-of-the-road, liberal democrat. But by the definitions of right-wing Hindus I was something else altogether. Since I found flaws in Hindutva thought, it was self-evident that I could not be a patriot. Since I criticised the practice of Hindu fundamentalist groups, I must be an extremist on the other side, that is to say, a communist. Since I made these criticisms repeatedly, it was overwhelmingly likely that I was in the pay of foreign powers. And since I was published in a well-circulated Indian newspaper I was probably a demon in disguise, too. To be fair, the criticisms also allowed for a more benign interpretation of the words that appeared under my name—namely, that I was suffering from some kind of mental illness. If only I could see the right doctor, who would then prescribe me the correct medicines, the motherland would be saved.