Wisdom of experience

  • Nepal should learn from the mistakes made by nation-states with a specific religious identity
- Pramod Mishra
Raised as I have been with a belief in multiple gods, goddesses and incarnations, my worldview can never conceive of only one way to anything, let alone God

Mar 30, 2017-

The victory of the BJP and the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh have stirred the aspirations of many, while also provoking fear in others. Even moderate Indian commentators like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have raised serious objections to the firebrand cleric’s appointment, while Hindu nationalists and royalists in Nepal have begun to dream of a restored Shah-Hindu monarchy, where Nepal will once again be a Hindu state.  

Despite India’s secular and pluralist founding fathers—Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Tagore—Hindu nationalism seems to have captured Indian imagination. Though the length of its run is uncertain, nationalism has found the right message to be conveyed by rightist messenger Narendra Modi. The Molotov cocktail of nationalism and development has proved effective in demolishing the bastions of his left-liberal opposition. 

Deity of Bharatvarsha

Tagore used many of his novels as platforms to debate the issue of Indian nationalism. For example, his novel Gora engages with this question head-on.  The eponymous protagonist obsesses himself with orthodox Hinduism and its identification with Bharatvarsha; he brooks no opposition to this identification from either reformist Brahmo followers or his liberal friend Binay. But, as the novel nears its end, his orthodox adopted father reveals to him his true identity—he was adopted and born of Irish parents during the mayhem of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. 

Thus, given that he wasn’t born into Hinduism, he cannot become a Hindu nationalist. Finding himself both bereft and freed—bereft of the shield of orthodox Hinduism to base his nationalism on, and freed from Hinduism’s inbuilt discrimination based on caste and the binding ideology and practice of purity and pollution—Gora visits Poreshbabu, a humanist Brahmo follower. Gora  declares, “Make me your disciple. Initiate me today into the mantra of that deity who belongs to everyone, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Brahmo, whose temple doors are never closed to any community or any individual, who is not merely a deity for Hindus but the deity of Bharatvarsha!” 

In the epilogue, Gora rushes to his mother Anandmoyi, who has held a tolerant view of society because of her adoption of a mlechcha child, Gora, and who has herself faced discrimination from orthodox Hindus for her actions. He tells her, “You have no caste, no discrimination, no contempt for anyone. You are the very image of goodness! It is you who is my Bharatvarsha!” 

Earlier in the novel, Poreshbabu explains the predicament of Hinduism to his foster daughter Sucharita, who has come to him for clarity on the confusion over identifying Hinduism with the nation. He says, “This [Hindu] community is not for the whole of humanity, it is only for those who happen to be born as Hindus...Hindu society insults people, excludes people, hence in today’s world it is becoming daily more difficult to protect itself.”

Hinduism’s pluralism

Tagore’s novel was published in 1907 and is set in the aftermath of the events in 1857. Since then, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar have also tried to define the nature of India as a nation through their writings, movements and actions. They assume stances similar to Tagore’s, exploring ideas of a non-discriminatory state, free from the trappings of caste and creed where Indians can freely practise the faith of their choice.

But the BJP has instead taken lessons from their Hindu nationalist “founding fathers”,—Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. They sprang a surprise on liberals and secularists by razing the Babari Mosque to the ground in December 1992, earning instant notoriety. The dictum ‘all publicity is good publicity’ was confirmed when this notoriety translated into votes. 

In the 1990s, Atal Bihari Bajpayee’s sweet rhetoric propelled the BJP to power, and now Modi, the tea seller mascot and development man, has mobilised the masses to propel a divisive cleric into the seat of the chief executive of the largest state in India. Nepali royalists and Hindu-state sympathisers are showcasing renewed sentiments of Hindu nationalism, owing to the fact that Adityanath not only wants Nepal to be a Hindu state, he wants a restoration of monarchy to boot. This development has made Nepali secularists and pluralists wary. 

Unlike monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism is indeed pluralist. Raised as I have been with a belief in multiple gods, goddesses and incarnations, my worldview can never conceive of only one way to anything, let alone God. But this pluralism gets neutralised by Hinduism’s inherent structure, ideology and practice of discrimination based on purity and pollution in food, and marriage within and without. But even if there was no discrimination at all, can an organised religion or a sense of religious identity be an integral part of a nation-state and remain trouble-free? 

Asil Hindustan

To be sure, the pressure of militant Islamists in India may have aggravated or encouraged Hindu nationalists. But once a communal ideology gets identified with the nation-state, the search for the nation’s ‘others’ becomes inevitable. Hundreds of years of strife within Christianity gave birth to secularism in the West. The need to unite followers of diverse faiths against colonialism made Gandhi and Nehru choose secularism. Buddhism, probably the most tolerant of faiths, made even the pacifist monks in Sri Lanka and Myanmar violent and militant once identified with the state. The effect of this nature of identification in Bangladesh, Pakistan and numerous other countries is evident. 

Once religions are identified with the state, both intra- and inter-religious discrimination and strife becomes inevitable. But there is always a section of the populace—mullahs in Muslim countries, privileged caste groups in India and Nepal, fundamentalists in Christian majority countries—that always tries to identify its faith with the state because of vested interests and state power. In the last 50 years, countries have become places of mixed faiths and diverse populations; singularly Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Buddhist states are a recipe for disaster. From Israel to Pakistan, states with a specific religious identity have created breeding grounds for unending conflicts.

Nepal cannot repeat the mistakes Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and many others have made. It should learn from them. It has too many other problems on its plate to take one more that it already resolved. The root of Nepal’s discriminatory state lay in the past and lies in the present in its aspiration to be “Asil Hindustan,” which it can never be, and should never try to be for its own good. Tagore, who penned the national anthem for both Bangladesh and India, remains relevant even for Nepal.

Published: 30-03-2017 08:55

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