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Book Review
Hindutva : a timely warning
By Yoginder Sikand

Name of the Book:
Secularism’s Last Sigh?
—Hindutva and the [Mis] Rule of Law

Author:  Brenda Cossman and Ratna Kapur

Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi

Year: 2001
Pages: 190
Price: Rs. 225
ISBN: 019565798-5

As Hindutva worms its way into every sector of civil society, its logic threatens to take on the form of accepted and incontestable truth. Not content simply with capturing political power, Hindutva has now spread its tentacles to establish a firm presence in the bureaucracy, the media, education, the police and so on, through a variety of seemingly innocuous frontal organizations. Hindutva ideologues have even targetted the legal system, calling for replacing the present Constitution by what they see as one true to Hindu principles and teachings as they understand them. The growing challenge of Hindutva, and the extreme dangers that this poses for prospects of genuine secularism in India, is what this timely, well-researched and thought-provoking book is all about.

Cossman and Kapur take as their point of departure the decision by the Supreme Court in a case in 1995 involving accusations against candidates of the Shiv Sena/ Bharatiya Janata Party in the Maharashtra state elections in 1987. They were accused of inciting hatred against Muslims, advocating a Hindu Rashtra, a state based on the ideology of Hindutva, and thereby violating the law for appealing for votes in the name of religion. The decision of the Supreme Court in the case came as a shock to secular opinion. The accusation of misusing religion in the name of Hindutva levelled against the Shiva Sena/ BJP candidates was dismissed. Predictably, the Hindutva combine welcomed the decision with glee and rejoicing.The authors regard the decision of the Supreme Court as tragic for the country, and as having only served to further embolden the advocates of a fascist Hindutva state. They argue that the Court’s opinion that appeal to Hindutva did not constitute misuse of religion on the grounds that, allegedly, Hindutva represents ‘the way of life of the people of the subcontinent’ is wholly incorrect. The Court, they say, has failed in actually ascertaining what exactly Hindutva means to its protagonists and the relation it bears to what is known as Hinduism. Critically examining the writings of the pioneers of the Hindutva movement, including such figures as Savarkar, founder of the Hindu Mahasabha, and Golwalkar, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, they show that Hindutva is based on a fascist agenda that is vehemently opposed to the rights and identity of non-Hindu groups, particularly Muslims and Christians. In other words, appeal to Hindutva in election campaigns does actually constitute a gross violation of all secular principles, which the Supreme Court is actually meant to uphold. That the Court, in its wisdom, decided otherwise the authors regard as ominous for the future of India as a plural, democratic and genuinely secular and democratic society.

While the Supreme Court decision forms the crux of the book, the authors also reflect on an appropriate model of secularism for India today. They dismiss Hindutva claims of standing for what it calls ‘positive secularism’ as actually representing a thinly-veiled ‘majoritarianism’ They also critique a passive understanding of secularism as mere tolerance of diverse faiths, which again, they opine, reflects a ‘majoritarian’ ethos. They appeal for a radical substantive equality of different religious groups, which might require special safeguards for minorities to offset in-built disadvantages and discrimination. They also point to the need for inter-faith dialogue initiatives for promoting better understanding between followers of different faiths, and to offset the tendency of what they call the ‘majority community’ to impose its own vision of equality and tolerance on the rest. The point is well taken in principle, but in the Indian context, where the ‘Hindu’ identity, consisting of numerous, often mutually opposed castes, is itself a flimsy construction, the notion of a ‘majority community’ is misleading. Indeed, one can argue that by going along with the understanding of ‘Hindus’ as a monolithic ‘majority community’ the authors and other ‘secularists’ like them only play into the hands of their Hindutva foes. The radical Dalit critique of Hinduism and Hindutva as Brahminism is completely ignored, as is the Ambedkarite understanding of the ‘Hindu’ ‘majority community’ identity as an edifice constructed by the ‘upper’ caste minority to promote its own interests using the logic of majoritarian rule. That fundamental flaw aside, this book excels, a timely warning of the impending dangers of sanctified terror that threatens to plunge India into irretrievable chaos.

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