Friday, March 06, 2020

What Feeds Hindutva?

This may not be a great question to raise when Delhi is still recovering from its worst communal riots in 30 years, but it does not deserve to be ignored, or boxed into simple binaries.

Hindutva or "Hinduness" is described as the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India. If you try to look deeper, the narrative, particularly in the English speaking world, has been dominated by Marxist historians and commentators. Prominent among them is Prabhat Patnaik who calls Hindutva a movement "almost fascist in the classical sense", adhering to a disputed concept of homogenised majority and cultural hegemony. This is also the view promoted by the editors of Wikipedia.

Needless to say, this dim view is not widely shared. If it were so, the Hindutva political grouping (BJP, Shiv Sena, etc.) would have neither come to power, or increased its vote-share in the last general elections. The very notion of a homogenised majority or cultural hegemony makes no sense in a country as diverse as India.

Over the past few days, I have come across two possible leads to this conundrum. The first is an oped by Faizan Mustafa, the Vice Chancellor of NALSAR, and the second a talk by Prof. Arvind Sharma at the Cervantes Institute titled, "Religious Tolerance".

Last week Mustafa wrote an oped titled, "Dishonouring a Pledge". The pledge here refers to the constitutional rights provided by the Indian Constitution, to religious minorities in India, which enable them to propagate and practice their religion freely, and assures protection to their places of worship.

The article refers to the following parts of the Indian Constitution, and related laws -

  • Articles 25 to 30 - Right to Freedom of Religion
  • Article 27 - Freedom from payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion
  • Article 290A - Annual payment to certain Devaswom Funds
  • The Places of Worship Act 1991 

I have always thought of Mustafa as a very erudite, balanced scholar and practitioner of law. So it was surprising to note a tone of grievance against Indian institutions. Referring to the constitutional provisions, he says that despite its pledge to be secular, the state funds religious institutions, and cites Art. 290A under which funds go to the Dewaswom Boards.

This is a clear case of cherry picking, an argument that deliberately overlooks the fact that the Indian state takes much, much more from Hindu temples compared to what it returns for their upkeep. Over 90,000 Hindu temples are controlled by the state governments while the state does not interfere at all in the functioning of churches, mosques and gurdwaras. Ditto for Hindu educational institutions.

Just the four government-controlled Dewaswom Boards in Kerala earn over INR 1000 Crores annually (USD 135 million), while under Article 290A, the state is obliged to spend only INR 37,50,000 (USD 50,850) every year! Where does the government spend the rest of the money collected from Hindu temples?

Prof. Arvind Sharma takes this point head on. He is perhaps uniquely placed to present a counter-argument - a former civil servant who went to the Harvard School of Theology, he now teaches abroad. According to him, Hinduism is only beginning to recover from the trauma of ideologies, massacres and the wanton destruction of temples that overwhelmed the country over the past 1000 years, at the hands of Islamic armies, British Colonialism and Post-Independence "Secularism".

Unless this trauma is acknowledged, as in the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission, the majority majority community will will only continue to increase its support to politicians who support Hindutva, which is seen as a bulwark against Indian Secularism in its present form, which is perceived to discriminate against Hindus.

Ironically Hinduism as a religion - if it can be called one - is not amenable to fundamentalism because it does not have a single set of fundamentals, based on one book or text. So far from being a fascist movement Hindutva is perhaps more of a collective pushback against sustained bullying, a reclaiming of its assimilative traditions.



* The Place of Worship Act, 1991 -

* Managing Gods Wealth (ToI 2012) --

* Quora - Where does Dewaswom funds go? -
* Kerala's unique Treasury Savings Bank system -

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