Monday, Aug 15, 2022

Where Are Moderate Hindus?

Why don’t more moderate Hindus speak out against Hindu fundamentalists as terrible crimes are committed in the name of their religion?


In India, violence by Hindutva groups has become common over the accusations that the Muslim victims killed or smuggled cows or ate beef. Killing a cow in India has become extremely dangerous in the last forty months, while killing a Muslim is not such a big issue if it is in the name of protecting Hindu religion or culture. Vigilante groups in the name of cow protection and to fight against inter-religious relationships have become hyperactive in small towns and villages across India. A world treasure like Taj Mahal has also become the target of Hindu fanatics for its Islamic roots. Murder of rationalists and critics of Hindutva brigade have almost become a regular feature.

While the focus of the world has been on the violence by Islamic extremist groups, the violence perpetrated by Hindu extremists in India have been generally overlooked as it has not yet posed threats outside the South Asian region. In this context, the question arises: Why don’t more moderate Hindus speak out against Hindu fundamentalists as terrible crimes are committed in the name of their religion?

Fundamentalism and violence are not new features of Hinduism. Evidence of broad shades of opinion within Hinduism can be traced back to as far back history allows us to analyze it. But, today, the Hindutva movement has publicly captured the Hindu world. A small but powerful group with the help of organizational strength and state patronage has taken the center stage and the majority of moderate Hindus have been forced to toe the ‘fundamentalist’ line. Everyone knows that the majority of Hindus are moderating, but it is getting sparse to find them and their views in public discourse. When moderate Hindus remain silent, fundamentalists speak for all.

No religion is free from fundamentalist or extremist forces. Hinduism also has its own share of infamy. A careful look at Hindu mythology and Indian History suggest that Hinduism is not a peace-loving religion as some want us to believe. The freedom movement under Gandhi had basically created and maintained this myth for half a century. However, in recent years, particularly after the Ayodhya Movement, Hindu fundamentalism in India has proven itself to be better coordinated, more powerful and well-funded; it has also become more aggressive and capable of committing appalling violence against other religious groups. The present spell of Hindu fundamentalism is expressing itself from many forums, political parties like BJP and Shiv Sena to the cultural puritanism propagated by RSS to openly violent outfits like Bajarang Dal and Sanatan Sanstha to vigilante groups like Gau Raksha Dal and Hindu Yuva Vahini. In recent times, the moderate Hindus have been seriously marginalized and are in no match for fundamentalist forces within India.

Hinduism provides the opportunities for its believers to be tolerant, inclusive and wise, but it also suffers from reverting customs and traditions, particularly on caste and gender equality. Moderates and fundamentalists are people of faith and they believe and practice Hindu religious tradition. However, while moderates are committed to tolerance and diversity, fundamentalists go to any extent to glorify their own faith and vilify others. No doubt, the qualities associated with moderate Hindus are positive and desirable in a democratic and secular country like India. But, at the same time, due to near absence of influential reformist forces, moderate Hindus continue to follow and practice socio-religious traditions and dogmas and are hesitant to challenge fundamentalist forces. These days, most religious preachers under political patronage have taken a more rigid and exclusive direction in interpreting Hinduism. Getting an open and fertile field to operate, Hindu fundamentalists have been shaping the group position on the basis of regressive rituals, traditions and customs. Thus, in the recent years, moderate Hinduism has failed to provide any meaningful competition to fundamentalists.

Hinduism is basically an umbrella, which provides cover to multiple branches of thoughts within the religion. However, Hindu fundamentalists have now been able to clearly seized the mantle of the religion. They have been forcefully trying to impose their sectarian version on others. For moderates to take back the control of the discourse at the time of this crisis, they need to not only stand up unitedly against fundamentalist forces, but also strive for the serious reform within Hinduism. In 21st century, particularly when India hopes to be a major global power, Hinduism has to reform itself as it continues to remain rigorously caste-wise hierarchical and gender-wise unequal.

Congress Party promoted secularism in independent India but it has not done enough to encourage religious reforms to enable social reality to match the secular ideal of the country. Instead, it has from time to time played ‘soft Hindutva’ for electoral reasons, which has further strengthened the hands of the Hindu fundamentalist forces. So-called cultural organizations like RSS also in the name of providing social services, have worked towards strengthening traditional social practices among Hindus, the same way Muslim Brotherhood has been doing in the Arab world, among Sunni Muslims.

Hinduism has failed to sufficiently reform itself with time, rather in recent years it has become further inward looking and tradition blind. Thus, at present fundamentalist forces are setting the agenda for most if not all Hindus in India. Before it gets too late, even in the absence of much needed social reforms, for moderate Hindus, there is still plenty in Hindu traditions and culture to forcefully stand up against the abuse of their faith and to advocate for moderation and peaceful coexistence. By just remaining silent at this time, as Martin Luther King Jr. had once described moderates will become a cop-out to fundamentalist forces.

(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. The views are personal)