Most religions bind their adherents into a community of believers. Hinduism segregates them into castes. And people excluded from the hierarchical caste system — the ‘untouchables’ — are permanently doomed to a life of scripturally sanctioned calvary. This hideousness doesn’t, however, hinder Shashi Tharoor from breathlessly exalting Hinduism as ‘a religion for the 21st century’. Having catalogued the Raj’s depredations in his previous book, Inglorious Empire, and demanded an apology from the current generation of British politicians for the crimes of their forbears, Tharoor, a prominent Indian parliamentarian from the opposition Congress party, declares in the introduction to Why I Am a Hindu, that he will ‘make no apology’ for the ‘flaws’ of his faith. And when he touches upon caste, it feels, despite his sincerity, like an inconvenient detour, akin to those perfunctory chapters on the Amritsar massacre in apologias for the British empire.
Those exposed to the rough edges of Tharoor’s (and my) faith will find that the claims made for Hinduism in this book bear no relation to their experience with it. Like all believers, Tharoor regards violence in the name of his religion as a departure from, and not an affirmation of, its ‘values’. But how do you distil the values of a faith as heteroclite as Hinduism? There is no Hindu papacy, no Hindu Bible. It is the ‘ordinary believer’, as Tharoor writes, ‘who demonstrates the essence of his faith in his own practice of it’. Which is why his denunciation of the current Hindu-supremacist dispensation in Delhi as a deviation from Hinduism is so unpersuasive.
The anti-colonial nationalism pioneered by the Congress party, seeking to unify Indians of all faiths in opposition to the British, obfuscated India’s pre-colonial history. It didn’t work. The subcontinent’s decaying Muslim nobility pitched for a state of their own to preserve the privileges introduced by medieval India’s Muslim overlords and snatched away by the British. And Hindu nationalism emerged as a force in truncated India in the 1980s by promising a violent release for the accumulated resentments of Hindus about their historical defeats.
A deeper reconciliation might have made it impossible for Hindu nationalists to weaponise India’s past. Instead, India’s ‘secularists’ furnished explanations of the kind Tharoor reheats here when he writes that the Islamic invaders who settled in India were different from British imperialists because they invested their loot in India. Reading this, I pictured Warangal as the Delhi Sultanate’s Muslim troops captured its Hindu king in the 14th century. I don’t think any native who witnessed that great city’s subsequent destruction thought to himself, ‘They are smashing our majestic temple, carting away its golden idols, slaughtering men and abducting children, but it’s all right: I hear they are investing the gold up in Delhi.’
Even today, when India is politically united, southern Indian states and politicians (Tharoor among them) complain that the wealth they create is being squandered on the more populous north. If Tharoor expects us to swallow the suggestion that in pre-colonial India — when there existed no sense of Indianness — the atrocities endured by people in one part were mitigated by the reinvestment of their wealth in another, it’s a miracle that Hindu nationalism took so long to break out.
India is undergoing the most total social and political transformation since 1991. Narendra Modi’s Hindu-supremacist rule, animated by an ideology inspired in part by Nazi doctrines of racial purity, may culminate in the erection, as Tharoor warns, of a ‘Hindu Pakistan’ on the ruins of the secular state founded by Congress. But faced with apocalypse, Tharoor can do no more than reiterate the pieties he internalised in his youth even as the republic premised on them collapses before his eyes. Almost every book Tharoor has published over the past decade is padded with gargantuan chunks of material pilfered verbatim from his preceding books, and this tract is no exception. I am an admirer of Tharoor’s, but the repetition speaks of a self-cherishing intellect saturated with its own certitudes.
Tharoor, eager to reclaim his faith from Modi, doesn’t appreciate how much his conceit of Hindu ‘inclusiveness’ is conditioned on Muslim self-abnegation. A quarter century after the demolition of the Babri mosque on Congress’s watch by Hindu mobs who claimed that the building was constructed by the Mughals on a spot where a temple had stood, Tharoor wishes for a resolution that honours the feelings of Hindus ‘without inflicting pain on Indian Muslims’. The Congress party’s pledge to rebuild the mosque has fallen by the wayside. India’s Supreme Court will decide the fate of the Babri site — but if a temple rises on the scene where Congress so cravenly countenanced Hindu-nationalist savagery, it will be as a tombstone for the republic founded by Nehru.
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