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There are one billion people in India, the second most populous

country in the world. This means every sixth person in the world
is an Indian. About 450 million Indians live below the poverty
line. Suppression of religious minorities and its nuclear blasts
have made India visible to the world. One of the messages that
India sent to the world was that it needs to be reckoned with.
The Hindu nationalist leadership on the whole sent this
message. While each country needs dignity before others, many
ask why such a poverty-ridden country should invest massive
amounts in nuclear devices and why it persecutes a Christian
religious minority that has made bold attempts to empower the
poor of India.

Religious Landscape in India

Of the one billion people in India, 85 percent are Hindus, 10
percent Muslims, and 2.5 percent Christians. The rest belong to
other religious minorities: Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsees and
other groups. Though the decennial census classifies 85 percent
as Hindus, there is no positive definition of what Hinduism is.
Negatively, whoever does not belong to any of the other
religious minorities is taken to be a Hindu. British discourse
shaped the terminology used in reference to Hinduism. The
British in India began by asking the Indians: "Our religion is
called Christianity, what is yours?" It was then decided to call
Indias religion Hinduism. The British asked, "We have the Bible
as our scripture, what is your scripture?" It was decided to
consider the Vedas, the Upanishads, etc. as the scriptures of
Hinduism. Further the British asked, "We have religious heads
like the pope and the bishops, but who are Hinduisms heads?"
They declared the Shankaracharyas as their pontiffs. The West
initially tried to understand the religions in India in its own terms
and categories.

But in truth many religions are grouped together under the title
of Hinduism. First of all, there are the religions of autochthonous
(indigenous or tribal) people, and second, there are the religions
of Aryan invaders known as Hindus (living on banks of the Indus
River). The latter had two main divisionsShaivism and
Vaishnavism. Later came the protest religions, Buddhism and
Jainism, criticizing the religion of the Aryan or Brahminic Hindus.
In the medieval period came the Bhakti movements, through
which the lower castes sought equality with the upper caste
Hindus. Then came Sikhism, blending both Hindu and Muslim
religious elements. As a result of the British colonial rule,
reformist movements like Brahmo, Prarathana and Aryasamaj
sought to reform Hinduism from within. Today Hindu nationalists
prefer to classify Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism as insider
religions to India and Islam and Christianity as outsider religions,
even though Christianity has existed in India for 2000 years.

Two Traditions Within Hinduism

One useful approach to finding ones direction within Hinduism is
to see it as composed of two traditions: the Great Tradition and
the Little Tradition. The Great Tradition consists of the higher
forms of Hinduism, also known as Sanskritic or Brahmin
Hinduism. This encompasses the hegemonic classical
philosophy, rituals, dance, music and art of the upper castes
(middle and upper classes) or the elite of Hindu society, who
compose about 20 percent of Hindus. The Little Tradition
consists of the lower forms of Hinduism, also known as non-
Sanskritic or non-Brahminic. This encompasses the rites, folk
wisdom, folk dance, music and art that have become the cultural
heritage of the lower castes (the lower classes) or the masses,
who consist of 80 percent of all Hindus.

It is important to understand the existence of two categories of

elite within the Great Tradition. According to Schermerhorn, the
first is known as the "parochial neo-traditionalists" and the
second the "conditionally Westernized." The parochial neo-
traditionalists "had their education primarily in the vernacular.
They are more attracted to local or regional than to Western
culture. Males prefer Indian to Western garb. Vegetarianism
retains a strong hold on dietary habits, while caste restrictions
and practices remain potent in the home, no matter how often
they are violated in public. Most members in this category have
a strong susceptibility to patriotic appeals couched in Hindu
slogans, and they tend to share the suspicion that Muslims and
Christians lack commitment to the nation. They usually ignore
members of the lower castes and/or untouchables as much as
possible unless the upper level politicians make a temporary
display of favoritism towards them."

The "conditionally Westernized" have the opposite

characteristics: "Educated almost universally in English medium
if not public schools, the members are fluent in the English
language; they prefer Western to regional culture. People in this
category consume meat and alcohol without a qualm, though in
other respects they maintain an all Indian diet. Nearly all are
secular minded. For the most part, patriotic appeals touch them
only lightly except during national conflicts. They are convinced
secularists in politics and have no difficulty in regarding Muslims
and Christians as loyal patriots." The "parochial neo-
traditionalists" and "conditionally Westernized" are 80:20
percent of the total elite or those belonging to the Great
Tradition of Hinduism.

Hinduism and Hindu Social Order

Hinduism and the Hindu social order (caste system) are two
sides of a coin. One cannot be understood without the other.
One cannot exist without the other. The caste system is similar
to the racial society in many ways. One is born into a caste
group. A caste (endogamous) group is ranked high or low
according to its purity or impurity and is always linked to a
traditional occupation. These caste groups are ranked in a
hierarchical order like the rungs of a ladder. The higher the
caste, the greater its social status, wealth, power and privileges.
The lower the caste, the lesser its status, wealth, power and
privileges. Hindu theological concepts like dharma,
karma and sanskara lend legitimacy to the privileges as well as
the deprivations. For instance, karma means, "as you sow, so
shall you reap." You are born into a caste because of the actions
in your previous life. Dharma calls upon an individual to fulfill
the proper obligations of ones caste (division of labor) assigned
to it by the code of Manu (the lawgiver). Sanskara are caste-
specific performances of sacraments and rituals.

The lower castes in Hinduism perpetually suffered economic,

social, political and religious deprivations. They were largely
laborers, who had to give free services to the upper castes by
working in their fields and doing demeaning jobs. They had to
live in a segregated part of the village. They could not be
touched lest they pollute the upper castes. The Brahmins did not
serve them, so they had to create their own priestly castes. The
upper castes were literate intellectuals, and the caste system
they created gave them a foolproof social security and welfare.
Religion and the social order were so intertwined that most of
those who belonged to the Little Tradition were the illiterate,
laboring masses who make up 80 percent of the Hindus. These
rebelled, protested and asserted their rights from time to time,
largely through religious movements. Buddhism, Jainism,
Sikhism and the Bhakti movement exemplify such movements
within Hinduism that sought equality from within.

Paradoxically, what they got was spiritual but not socio-

economic equality. Many lower castes opted out of Hinduism and
joined Islam and Christianity in order to overcome indignities
and deprivations through a new identity that would give them
equality. Normatively, both Christianity and Islam preached an
egalitarian social order. The British colonial period brought about
a lot of social consciousness among the lower castes. Large
numbers of them converted to Christianity, setting off alarms
among the upper-caste Hindus. If many from the lower castes
deserted the Hindu social order, who would provide cheap labor
to the upper castes? Reactionary movements like Arya Samaj
began to reconvert the low-caste Christian converts
through shuddikaran (purification).

Struggle for Empowering the Poor

The struggle for freedom led by Mahatma Ghandi managed to
throw out the British colonial power. The architect of Indias
constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, an untouchable himself,
managed to put in generous clauses of affirmative action
(reservation or protective discrimination) for the lower castes.
The egalitarian ethos of the secular, liberal and democratic
constitution was another blow to the hierarchical Hindu social
order. "One man, one vote" flattened the merit system of caste.
A Brahmins vote and an untouchables vote were of equal
value. For the lower castes education opened new windows for
upward mobility. Affirmative action too had some beneficial
impact on the lower castes. All this meant loss of power, loss of
opportunities for employment and loss of status for the upper
castes. This was seen as undermining the traditional Hindu
social order. The upper castes were being sidelined. The vertical
social structure (caste ladder) was being brought down to a
horizontal level. No longer was it going to be one group placed
on top of another, but groups placed side by side on the same

The role of the church is significant in the above-mentioned

context. The educational, health and awareness-raising activities
of the church have helped the lower castes in many ways to
assert, protest and defy the upper castes, and to become
upwardly mobile, thereby escaping the humiliation, indignities
and exploitation suffered in the past. As droves of people from
the lower castes took conversion to Christianity as an escape
route, the upper-caste Hindus were alarmed. This is not to say
that traits of caste do not exist in the Indian church.

The church was also serving the upper castes through its
educational institutions, and by and large this service gave rise
to the "conditionally Westernized" elite class mentioned earlier.
The church had in a way appeased the upper castes to allow it
to work among the lower castes. But the "parochial neo-
traditionalists" mentioned earlier gave rise to Hindu nationalism.
The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (national voluntary corps,
known as R.S.S.) was the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism
during independence, and it was a man linked to the R.S.S. who
shot and killed Mahatma Gandhi for having permitted the
division of India into India and Pakistan. This organization was
banned but later allowed to rise again. In post-independent India
it has been implicated by different inquiry commissions
appointed by the government in a number of Hindu-Muslim riots
in different parts of the country.

Fury of Hindu Nationalism

In 1982 a federal government dominated by the middle order
castes or other Backward Castes (O.B.C.s) appointed a
commission to consider extending affirmative action to a few
more disadvantaged communities and castes. This further
angered the "parochial neo-traditionalists," as if it were going to
eat into their share of the cake. This was the turning point in the
relations between the upper castes and the O.B.C.s. The upper
castes declared war on the O.B.C.s within the Hindu fold.

Hindu nationalism upheld one religion, one culture and one

nation. Being numerically small, the upper castes needed mass
support or lower-caste support to come to power in the "one
man, one vote" system. In order to regain political supremacy,
they played the religious card to mobilize the masses. On the
one hand, they tried to homogenize the differences within
Hinduism, and on the other, they declared war against Muslims
and Christians. The latter were defined as the "other," enemy,
outsiders, unpatriotic and were to be eliminated in order to
realize the golden age of Hinduism in India. Besides the R.S.S.,
multiple other organizations came into being, such as the
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (V.H.P.), the Bajrang Dal (B.D.), the Hindu
Jagran Manch (H.J.M.) and others, under the umbrella of the
Sangh Parivar with the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) as its
political organ. They all proclaimed that Hinduism was in danger.
Accordingly, the birthplace of Ram in the city of Ayobhya in the
northeast state of Ultar Pradesh had to be liberated from the
Muslims, who had built a mosque over it hundreds of years ago.

In 1992 the demolition of the mosque known as Babri Masjib was

preceded by rath yatras (car processions) made by the Hindu
nationalist leaders across the country to mobilize the masses,
which led to the death of scores of Muslims in the ensuing riots.
More riots followed the demolition of the mosque itself. In
Bombay alone rioting took the lives of 900 Muslims. But the
general elections in 1994 saw the results of religion-based
political mobilization. The Hindu nationalists captured the
highest number of seats they had ever won in the parliament. It
was almost as if the party rode in on the dead bodies of Muslims.
But mobilization based on stirring emotions, particularly hatred,
does not last long. The Hindu nationalists had to identify newer
issues to stir up the emotions of the Hindu masses to keep them
together and cultivate their vote bank.

In 1997 the Hindu nationalists turned the heat up on Christians

in India, particularly in Gujarat State, where nationalists were in
power. There were only 50 cases of registered atrocities against
Christians during the first 48 years of independence. But
between 1997 and 1998 there were 500 cases, a geometrical
rise during two years. Christian missionary personnel were
accused of converting tribals (indigenous people) and the lower
castes by force or fraud, though no cases of this were cited to
substantiate the allegation. Christian churches were desecrated
or burnt, sacred festivals were disrupted, Bibles were torn and
trampled upon, and priests and nuns were killed or raped. Most
recently, in my home state of Gujarat, the nationalists disrupted
Christmas midnight Masses by holding rallies outside Catholic

These atrocities are taking place mostly in tribal areas, where

Hindu nationalists have publicly declared war on Christian
missions. Their strategy is to use the existing ritual differences
among the Christian and non-Christian tribals to divide them
further and pit one against the other. The one-sided vernacular
press is making it look as if the non-Christian tribals are fighting
the tribal Christians and missionaries for ruining their culture.

The Hindu nationalists focused upon the tribal regions

(indigenous people) not so much because of conversions among
them to Christianity but because the tribals were awakening to
their plight. They were increasingly deprived of their life-
supporting resourcesforests, land and waterby the
"developmental" policies of the state. Large dams displaced
thousands of tribals. Tribals could not cut trees even for fuel.
Their land was acquired by the state for industrial plants. Non-
tribals also were encroaching on their resources. The
educational, health or developmental activities of missionaries
raised the awareness of the tribals. Hindu nationalists struck
upon the strategy of actively Hinduizing the tribals and making
missionaries the scapegoats. They did this first to pre-empt or
check the self-assertion of the tribals and, second, to cultivate a
vote bank among the poor tribals.

Real Agenda
The Hindu nationalists targeted minorities like the Muslims and
the Christians, who historically belonged to the lower castes,
and tribals, who composed the lower strata of Indian society. It
was a war on the lower strata, their upward mobility and on the
democratic constitution, which upheld equality for all citizens
irrespective of creed, code and cult. Hindu nationalists on the
one hand gloried in the fact that Hinduism was tolerant, and on
the other fomented, provoked and indulged in arson and
atrocities, all in the name of producing a proud and glorious
Hindu India. The atomic blast has been glorified. The bodies of
dead Indian soldiers who died in the recent Kargil conflict in
Kashmir have been used to whip up Hindu nationalistic hysteria
among the masses before the recent elections. Indian history is
being rewritten from the Hindu nationalist's perspective. School
textbooks are being produced with an anti-minority bias.
Muslims and Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to get
employment in the public sector. They have little option except
to eke out a living in the unorganized sector or migrate to the
Middle East.

Hindu nationalism's hidden but real agenda is to wage war

against the lower strata of Indian society and against anyone
who empowers them. The Christian missions-while
acknowledging the presence of an insignificant number of
quixotic, aggressive salvation- and Bible-peddlers and street
preachers-have largely done empowering work among the lower
strata. This empowerment deals with social transformation,
redistribution of power and human rights; it seeks to secure
basic needs, economic security, capacity building, skill formation
and conditions of dignified existence for the poor. By and large
the secular Hindus, English press and the international media
have supported the Christians in India in recent times. More of
this support is welcome in the name of the poor in India.