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By Andre Beteille
SOME OF the most vivid recollections of my childhood go back to the Great Calcutta Killings when as a boy of 11 or 12 I had to travel by bus and tram between home and school in an unsafe city. I did not have a clear understanding of what was happening, but something from those days that echoes in my memory is the phrase `Islam in danger'.
The phrase had different connotations at home and in the school. At school I came to befriend a number of Muslim boys whose social and political orientations were very different from those of my home. They spoke Urdu and English rather than Bengali. They were a couple of years older than me, took a keen interest in politics and were passionately attached to the idea of Pakistan which in 1946 seemed a fantasy to me. They had obviously been taught at home that in India there was a serious threat not only to the Muslims as a minority but also to Islam as a way of life.
My home environment was quite different. The place where we lived at that time was not my parents' home but one to which my mother, born a Bengali Hindu, was closely attached by ties of fictive kinship. It was a liberal, secular, middle-class Bengali home, strongly attached to the idea of a single India and strongly opposed to the two-nation theory. The most articulate member of the household, who was a humane and broad-minded nationalist, became my mother's political mentor. I remember him explaining to us with great clarity and conviction that the idea of Islam in danger was wrong and pernicious and that it would bring great suffering to the Muslim minority for whose predicament he had deep and genuine sympathy.
The wheel seems to be turning full circle now, and more and more people are beginning to feel and say that Hinduism is in danger. If someone strongly opposes that view, he may be denounced as a pseudo-secularist, even if he happens to be the Prime Minister of India. Surely, it is this growing hysteria about the danger to Hinduism that has led members of his own parivar or extended family to describe even the stout-hearted L. K. Advani as a pseudo-secularist.
The hysteria about Hinduism in danger is growing and spreading, and it tends to catch liberal and enlightened Hindus on the wrong foot. This seems now to be the most serious challenge not only to the religious minorities but to Indian society as a whole and, indeed, to Hinduism itself. One would expect Hindu intellectuals, whether they are secularists, pseudo-secularists or plain honest Hindus, to oppose the spread of this hysteria which is being nurtured by persons whose main motivation is revenge for real or imagined injuries inflicted on their co-religionists in the past or the present. Yet one sees very little intellectual opposition to it from within Hinduism.
At the time of Independence Hindu intellectuals were by and large free from the kind of paranoia that characterised many of their Muslim counterparts, and this continued into the years of Nehru's prime ministership and beyond. But the tide may now be turning. Hindu intellectuals appear less confident about the prospects of a modern, secular and democratic political order in India than they were when the Republic came into being in 1950. Some if not many of them have begun to feel that Hinduism is in danger not only from other religions but from secular modernity itself. The attack on pseudo-secularists comes not only from those who are opposed to other religions but also from those who are opposed to secular ideas and institutions.
Is Hinduism really in danger? On the evidence, objectively considered, the presumption will be that Hinduism is far less endangered in independent India than Islam was in India before Independence. But that is not really the point, for the objective evidence of danger is one thing and the feeling of being endangered is another. It may well be that the number of Muslims now in Pakistan who feel that Islam is in danger is larger than the number of those who felt in that way in undivided India. The partition of India did not reduce the feeling among Muslims on the Subcontinent that Islam was in danger, it probably enhanced it.
Where is the danger to Hinduism believed to come from? Does it come from other religions within or outside the country? Or does it come from the ascendance of secular ideas and institutions which tend to be represented by both Hindu and Muslim traditionalists as godless and immoral?
There has been some agitation in recent times over conversions from Hinduism to other religions. Various things may be said for and against religious conversion. But surely, one is not going to argue that the conversion of a few hundred, or a few thousand, or even a few hundred thousand Hindus to Islam or Christianity or Buddhism will bring about the collapse of an ancient, complex and vibrant religion such as Hinduism. Hinduism has withstood conversion on a far more massive scale in the past. It is most unlikely that conversion on that kind of scale will ever take place in the future.
It is said that Hindus are no longer safe in their own country since their temples are now open to assault. The assault on places of worship of no matter which religion is a criminal act which does not weaken religious faith and observance as much as it challenges the legitimacy of the secular state whose responsibility it is to protect all places of worship.
Acts of competitive vandalism aimed at the desecration of sacred places are on the increase. Sometimes they are undertaken with the open or tacit encouragement of popular religious functionaries. Today it is those who engage in such acts who are likely to raise the slogan that their religion is in danger. But the sad thing is that they are not the only ones. Those who first raised the slogan of Islam in danger in pre-partition India were not all vandals. Some of them were educated, even cultivated men. Indeed, intellectuals always play a part in creating channels for the expression of popular passions. They do not always do so with evil intentions, but they are easily intoxicated by their own ideas when they find that those ideas resonate among the masses of people.
The disquiet about the future of Hinduism seems to be more widespread among Hindu intellectuals than it was 50 years ago. How far this mirrors the disquiet among those who speak for the minority religions, and how far it is based on autonomous and independent causes, it is not easy to determine.
As the strains created in society by secular modernity become increasingly apparent, more and more Hindu intellectuals are beginning to believe that their religion and way of life are endangered. They are less confident about it than they ought to be in view of its demonstrated vitality, resilience and adaptability. One consequence of this is that the internal critique of Hinduism which began in the 19th century and continued for well over a hundred years seems to be drying up. This is unfortunate because the vitality of a religion depends upon a continuous critique of it by its own reflective members. Some years before he died, the Marxist economist and writer, Ashok Rudra, published a critique of Hinduism in Bengali entitled "Brahminical Religion and the Mentality of the Modern Hindu". I wonder how many such books are being written today in Hindi which is the most widely used among the Indian languages.
Enlightened Hindus in the 19th century felt free to attack the corruption and decay in their own religion and among their own religious leaders. Their present-day counterparts find it more convenient to train their guns on secular intellectuals than on their own religious leaders whose intolerant and vengeful acts do far greater harm to Hinduism from within. If Hinduism is in danger today, the main source of that danger may lie within and not outside it.
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