Sarita Sarvate

THE LAST WORD

INDIA CURRENTS FEBRUARY 1999

Is it realistic for the world to expect India, the only nation with a majority Hindu population, to give up its unique identity, while its neighbors remain intolerant in the name of Islam?

Hindus Say The World is a Family

The West distorts the Indian ruling party’s agenda as fascist

BY SARITA SARVATE

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s ascent to power in India, and the subsequent nuclear tests have sent a Shiver through the Western world. India’s nationalist resurgence, and the Ayodhya temple riots, has engendered fears that the BJP’s agenda of Hindutva, or a Hindu identity, is fascist, and its social arm, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, RSS, is out to kill all Muslims.

Fascism today is intertwined with images of Hitler and the Swastika in the universal psyche. Yet, for my generation of Indians born after independence, the Swastika only evokes auspicious drawings our mothers made with colored rice powder every morning. Hitler’s notion of Aryan superiority couldn’t be more divergent from the Sanskrit prayer we sang every evening at RSS meetings, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, “the whole world is a family.”

The RSS was indeed an integral part of our lives. My earliest memories are of playing “cops and robbers” on the grounds of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, where men in khaki shorts assembled every evening, wielding wooden sticks and performing calisthenics. The saffron colored Hindu flag was raised afterwards and Sanskrit prayers were sung to the motherland.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, which literally translated, means the National Self-Service Association, was founded in 1925 in Nagpur by a fierce freedom fighter named Dr. Hedgewar. The RSS, or Sangha, viewed India as a nation that had been mutilated by British and Islamic rulers for centuries and rallied its members around heroes and heroines drawn from India’s glorious past.

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of RSS meetings where we were regaled with stories of Shivaji, the Maratha king, who engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Mughal despot Aurangzeb. There was the legend of Shivaji disemboweling a Mughal emissary with a pair of hidden steel claws, and the tale of Shivaji cutting off Aurangzeb’s uncle Shaista Khan’s fingers after infiltrating his tent in the middle of the night!

Remarkably, in all of my years of association with the Sangha, I do not recall a single incidence of violence against the Muslims!

It is a testimonial to the diversity and tolerance of India that within our own family, brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts have co-existed for over half a century while adhering to opposing political affiliations. For, although my father is a reformist in the tradition of Nehru and Gandhi, my cousins and uncles and aunts all belong to the RSS. My uncles never attempted to persuade my father to join the RSS. My father never tried to convert his brothers to the Congress Party, for he had long realized that it was their Sangha training that enabled them to rally the community in times of births and deaths, rations and layoffs.

The RSS has not only provided much-needed social services to the middle classes, it has made an attempt at assimilating the downtrodden. A friend in Nagpur gave up an engineering career to volunteer in tribal Assam. One remained a bachelor to serve the Sangha’s social causes. But it is the agenda of a unified Hindu nation encompassing a plurality of cultures that has expanded the Sangha’s influence from the alleys of Nagpur into the length and breadth of India, even overseas. The Hindutva movement’s initiative thus comes, not from the fascist ambitions of its leaders, but the very grass roots.

The ancient prayer, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” still encompasses the essence of Hindutva. With its multitude of Gods and Goddesses and dozens of cults, Hinduism has never been a rigid doctrine, but rather a spiritual democracy. Polytheism, the Hindu belief that God could take many forms, enabled other religions to emerge and flourish in India, including Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Zoroastians and Christians settled there for millennia without persecution. India’s plurality ultimately proved to be both its downfall as well as its strength, making it an easy prey to invaders, but also preserving its culture for centuries. The Mughal ethos of its conquerors merged with its native sensibilities to create a rich amalgam of language, cuisine, and art.

While the monotheistic religions of the world created centralized states, the polytheism of Hindu belief conferred power in the individual, who abided by dharma or personal ethic. The Western form of social contract was therefore unnecessary.

A militant India today has evolved only as a reaction to its hostile neighbors, China and Pakistan, often armed with American aid. The West reacts to this new, nuclear India, oblivious to the fact that it still remains a highly individualistic state, with as many personalities as there are Gods in the Hindu diaspora.

Although the nationalist revival in India has been exploited for personal gains by a few politicians, the survival of the world’s largest democracy for half a century attests, not to fascism, but to a secular society.

The more the West attacks Hindutva as fascist, the more it steels the common Indian’s resolve to pursue it wholeheartedly. My cousins, for example, traveled to Ayodhya recently, to witness the birthplace of Lord Ram. None of them have ever attacked Muslims.

Is it realistic for the world to expect India, the only nation with a majority Hindu population, to give up its unique identity, while its neighbors remain intolerant in the name of Islam? To critics of the Hindutva movement, I ask, how many Hindus live in Pakistan and with what sort of civil liberties? In contrast, the Muslim population of India continues to thrive and remains larger than that of Pakistan.

The Hindu psyche aches even now at the wounds inflicted by the partition of India at the hands of the British. If the West fails to understand the BJP’s Hindutva philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam — The Whole Universe Is A Family — Hindus might indeed resort to fascism.