The Unimaginable Became Reality: The Millions Interviews Shashi Tharoor

March 22, 2019 | 8 min read

On December 6, 1992, a chanting mob of Hindu nationalists, enraged by a contested claim, spread by India’s BJP party, that medieval Muslim invaders desecrated the birth site of a Hindu deity, descended on the Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. Some rioters climbed to the rooftop domes and began battering them with poles and rocks. Others stood by, waving saffron flags of Hinduism. By the end of the day, the 450-year old mosque was destroyed. In the nationwide unrest that followed, more than 1,000 Indians were killed.

In his book Why I Am a Hindu, Indian author, member of parliament, and former candidate for U.N. Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor challenges the nationalist philosophy, known as “Hindutva,” which has encouraged countless acts of violent vigilantism against Indian Muslims in the years since the mosque’s destruction. He traces its trajectory as a fringe movement influenced by Nazi theories of racial purity in the 1930s to its rise as a mainstream ideology endorsed today by the ruling BJP party.

Part memoir, part polemic, Why I Am a Hindu reminisces about the India Tharoor remembers from his childhood, a country he says was more tolerant not just of diverse interpretations of Hinduism, but other religions too.

The Millions: What prompted you to write Why I Am a Hindu now? You’ve mentioned that you felt there was a moral urgency to address Hindutva. Was there a particular incident in recent years that made you feel like this?

Shashi Tharoor: No, it’s an accumulation of the last few years where a certain kind of Hindutvan heresy has portrayed itself as the authentic voice of Hinduism, which it’s not. That was what led me to say, “time someone fought back.” But as I said, it’s not totally new in the sense that these ideas have popped up in my earlier books for 30 years. It’s not that I’m suddenly leaping onto a purely political agenda hitting back at these chaps. I just felt it was no longer enough to leave scattered observations and ideas in various books. I needed to have one solid work that would attack the issue head on and say everything I wanted to say about the matter.

TM: Do you remember what your initial response was after the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992?

ST: Disbelief. I was in New York actually when it happened, and I had gone to a brunch party attended by a few Indians and some scholars of India and one person told me they destroyed the mosque. I said, “You’ve got to be wrong. India doesn’t do things like that,  that doesn’t happen in my country. Some idiots may have thrown a stone at the dome or something. I can imagine that or mobs getting out of control, but no one could have actually pulled down the entire mosque.” I was in a state of shock and disbelief.

TM: Was there a sense that things had permanently changed after that?

ST: Well, yes. From about that time on, the unthinkable became sayable. The unsayable became publicly sayable, and the unimaginable became reality, such as a 450-year-old mosque being knocked down. All of these things happened, and when you break the barriers of civility that help hold certain standards of conduct in a society together, and therefore keep us all together, you make anything possible. So yes, there was a qualitative change.

TM: In Why I Am a Hindu you write about how Hinduism is the ideal religion for the 21st  century. Could you elaborate?

ST: In a world today, where so much is uncertain, we have a religion that recognizes and embraces lack of certitude. In a world today, where there is genuine doubt about authority and hierarchy, we have a religion that doesn’t have any inbuilt authority; no pope, no Vatican, no ecclesiastical hierarchy. In a world where increasingly individuals want to assert themselves, we have a religion that allows each individual to fashion his own way of worship. In an increasingly networked world—the world wide web as it were—we have a religion that networks its believers and doesn’t actually press them into one conformity; one community hall, one Sunday worship, nothing like that. In its universalism, it also goes beyond the conventional borders of religions…[according to Hinduism] all ways of looking at the truth are equally valid. All of these things, I think, make it a very, very good faith for today’s world.

TM: At the end of the book you mention that Hinduism “must be revived and reasserted in its glorious liberalism.” Do you have any hope that this can happen in the foreseeable future?

ST: The problem is that Hindu revivalism is at the moment in the hands of people who interpret the faith very differently from me, who have reduced it to a brand of identity politics rather than one of metaphysical enquiry. So, my frustration with that is linked to the unavoidable conviction that what they call revivalism is going to mark the death knell of what was precious about the religion. What I would like to revive is the tolerant, inclusive, accepting Hinduism that I spoke about. It’s certainly something that I would like to continue working on, not that I’ll write any more books on it. I think all I have to say is said, but rather that I would like to try and contribute towards a greater realization of the need to stand up for this kind of Hinduism.

TM: In the book you list all these things that the Hindutva movement condemns despite there being no instructions in Hindu texts to do so—for example, condemning public displays of affection. Why do you think they’re making these entirely new moral claims in the name of Hinduism?

ST: It actually confirms my theory that the Hinduism these people belong to is a Hinduism of defeat, subjugation, and resentment. This is what became of Hinduism after Muslim invasions. We felt besieged. Hindus felt the need to wrap up their women and sequester them and cloister them. They felt the need to keep their heads low and hide. And from there comes the desire to defensively protect the faith… So, what that means is that they end up saying, “If we let our girls have freedom, they might go off and fall in love with Muslims. If we permit social practices that many Hindus very easily and readily embrace, like dating and affection”—Hindi movies depict a world in which boy meets girl across various barriers of class, creed, wealth and so on—“if we allow that to happen in real life, our faith will be diluted by all sorts of other influences, therefore we have to be nervous.” Well, I’m sorry, but our faith was large enough to survive 4,000 years of various influences, reform movements, attacks on it, revivalist movements, movements seeking to convert people from it, and it survived very well. It doesn’t need this kind of petty behavior to keep it alive and flourishing.

TM: You write that, at one point, ancient Hindu society would have had no qualms with public displays of affection. Can you tell me a little bit about that history?

ST: It’s amusing reading the accounts of Muslim travelers to India in the 11th century, or even before, who were quite shocked by how free Indian men and women were with each other, how open sexuality was. Indeed, some of the temple architecture of India, which has of course survived, speaks to this sexual liberalism. You have all sorts of sexual practices, including non-heterosexual ones, depicted on temple walls in some of the most famous temples of India. It just was a very open society and, as you know, the kamasutra was actually a very detailed volume about the various acts of amatory coupling…You know, when it was one individual traveler, he could write about this, either with shock or prurience, but when it was an army load of people coming in and conquering, they would tend to impose their own views, and the horrified local people would tend to cloister themselves and cut themselves off in reaction to this. So, a lot of Hindu orthodoxy and conservatism and so forth is actually a reaction to the attacks on Hindu society from outside, rather than a normal organic development from within.

TM: You write about BJP politicians using Hindutva to justify the rejection of a bill to decriminalize homosexuality. Why do you think they would see that as a threat to their Hindu identity?

ST: There’s no rational explanation…In fact, I pointed out at the time and in parliament and in subsequent articles that Hindu culture recognizes all forms of sexual behavior, as well as transgender [people] who are described in our great epic texts, in our mythology, in our literature. It was not as if people were in denial, as very often they were in the Western world. In India they were openly acknowledged. They were not necessarily exalted, but they were openly acknowledged and accepted, far from what society is doing now. But the overall orthodox conservatism of the Hindutva movement includes conservatism across the board on everything and anything. And it’s a conservatism shaped in the crude crucibles of reacting to Muslim invasions and then Victorian morality imposed by the British, who were of course very hypocritical about things like homosexuality—as we know from the example of Oscar Wilde and others, where they ruthlessly stamped on it instead of accepting what existed. And Indians in turn were forced to believe that the British way was the right way. So, something that had never been illegal in India was made illegal by the British. It has ceased to be illegal in Britain, but we are still clinging onto British law as the right model. It’s pathetic. One of the many fractures and distortions of colonialism.

TM: You also write that not all forms of Hinduism condone the caste system. Could you explain the distinction between casteist and non-casteist Hinduism?

ST: Well, my argument is that caste is an emanation of Hindu society rather than Hindu religion. Those that find sanctity for it in religious text will have to point to what text they’re referring. They’re usually referring to relatively secular texts like the Manusmriti, which are the laws of Manu, one of the ancient law texts, which is indeed something that sanctifies caste oppression and also is pretty misogynistic in many places. My counter argument is why do you want to rely only on a text that preaches this when the Hindu canon is full of so many other texts that preach the opposite, that respect women, that exalt women, and that reject the idea of external factors like caste, class, social position, education, financial means, and so on as unacceptable. So yes, it is true you can find examples that exalt caste and you can also find examples that don’t exalt caste. If you take a holistic view of the faith, the idea of the unity of all human souls makes it very difficult to differentiate between them. You cannot distinguish between people on the basis of external factors like caste when the internal factor of the soul links them all on an exactly equal plain. That was the belief of Adi Shankara, the belief of Swami Vivekananda, the belief of Mahatma Gandhi. Most of the people I respect who write about the Hindu faith tend not to take the social practice of caste as something that’s accepted and sanctified. There are undoubtedly so-called traditionalists who will anchor their views in texts that they claim sanctify their view of caste, their version of caste.

TM: Is there a particular Hindu religious text that you feel best embodies the tolerant and pluralist spirit of Hinduism?

ST: My book! [Laughs.] If you read widely and eclectically and find the materials that you’re looking for and construct a narrative it gives you a holistic picture, which is why I was not entirely joking when I said, “my book.” Because each of the many hundreds of sacred texts that exist seeks to explore different aspects of divinity or to engage in different debates of different metaphysical speculations. It’s the sum total of them that gives you this picture of inclusiveness and eclecticism…Swami Vivekananda of course read and studied a whole lot of Hindu texts, and what he preached was a synthetism of everything he’d read, so I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve very much been inspired by his reading. Obviously, he read them in Sanskrit and has explained them to me and the world in English. I’ve only read them in English and I’m happy to be guided by his light.

is a freelance journalist based in Wellington, New Zealand. Find him on Twitter at @ThomasVPhillips.

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