"Only Hinduism Can Unite India"
The title of this post is in quotes because someone told me this. This was some days ago, over lunch in London, something that I stayed with me since. This is one post I started writing, and then deleted, and then tried again, and again - until this moment when I resolved the question of the headline: Rather than trying the feeble 'reimagination' or 'new idea', using this quote directly was better.
Indeed, there is nothing new here. This is the current conversation in India. In fact, suggesting anything else risks being shouted down in India today. However, why this made me reflect is that this was not coming from any zealot, but someone I know and regard highly for intellect. Also, this came out of no online spat or shouting match, but a reasoned conversation about India's future, and came from someone who cares about the country as deeply as anyone could. Finally, and importantly, the person telling me this was liberal and highly educated professional, lest anyone question his credential. In summary, I could not have dismissed this as a non-argument, a statement of faith.
Of course, I did not agree. For me, India is a modern, political, idea, very different from Hinduism, which is an ancient religion. I am sufficiently aware about the ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity of India to disagree with the idea of India as a mere placeholder for a Hindu sphere. But, as I would acknowledge, this stance is also a statement of faith, unless I can satisfactorily answer - "what else can unite India?"
The history books that I read in school quoted Vincent Smith about India having "unity in diversity". This is a nice idea, but one could surely point to the Victorian and Colonial lineage of it. What really united India never had any easy answers. Churchill famously said that India is no more a country than the Equator, implying that this is a geographical expression rather than a political one. This is indeed quite a dominant view, and at the least, a lot of people believed that India was made into a country by the British dominion of it. The fact that the modern country of India still follows the colonial borders, uses many of its geographical and administrative expressions, and the language of English connects the Northern and Southern Indians, makes this a salient fact, not just a conspiracy theory. In more ways than one, the alternative to begrudgingly accepting Hinduism as the binding glue is to accept the Colonial Heritage as the basis of Indian imagination.
And, indeed, that would be wrong. The concept of India did exist years before the British ever arrived - indeed, they were making their journeys to India. And, it did it exist as a political entity - the Mughals were emperors of India - even if its borders were different from what we have today. Beyond political borders, India was a cultural and religious expression: Diana L Eck of Harvard's Divinity School makes the point that India was united through its sacred geography - the pilgrimage trails and sacred places - and to all Indians, this would resonate. This idea also should not sound foreign to those who believe in the existence of something called Christendom or Ummah, which are just as much political expressions as they are religious ones. Even the British tax codes united the country misestimates the unity of identity that Ashoka's roads or Mughal wars achieved.
Then, there is the question of English uniting the country. However, one could trace back the idea of English becoming the administrative language of India to the ideas of Charles Grant, an influential eighteenth century evangelical administrator, who drew his ideas from the success of Persian as the common language being used across India, by Hindus and Muslims alike. The success of Mughal Empire, for Grant, depended on its genius in introducing a foreign language in India, as the Hindus, observed Grant, were quite good at learning languages. So, the idea of an Indian Lingua Franca is not a British invention, but one they merely borrowed.
And, finally, it would be wrong to speak about British roots of Indian unity because the very basis of unity in Modern India was its anti-colonial imagination. That Indian National Congress, and Gandhi in particular, provided a common platform, symbols, messages and ideas, against the British Empire, where all Indians could participate, was a key factor in making of the India as it is today. Not the British influence, but the opposition to it, was at the root of making India.
This is why the point about Hinduism as the uniting force needs more consideration than being one of a partisan debate. We should accept that the idea of India, formulated in the early Twentieth century, needs to refreshed, for several reasons. First, because it is almost seventy years old (Jefferson thought the constitution should be amended every twenty years, as new generations need new rules). Second, the context has changed and no one is fighting the anti-colonial battles anymore. Three, and a related point, the Indians now want to be more globalised, which is the opposite of the sentiments in 1947 when it was about looking inside and rediscovering and rebuilding one's own country. Fourth, India's growing economy, young population and spreading literacy create an altogether different context than the devastated economy and disease and caste-ridden country of the 1947. There were some failures in the last Seventy years, but many successes - and it makes abundant sense to rethink what India stands for, and look beyond the legacies of the colonial past, with greater hope and aspiration than ever before.
This brings me to the key point of my answer: This could not be Hinduism. The assertion makes sense at a superficial level - it is perhaps the one common thing visible now - but not just that it excludes two-thirds of the Indian population, there is no such thing as 'Hinduism' as its most ardent supporters would like to claim. The public sphere of Hinduism and the Indian public sphere made of English and other cultivated languages (and the social media space this occupies) may now be one and the same, making the idea seem obvious, but we know that the caste Hindus make up only about 20% of India's population. This is less than obvious, because Indian census never tabulated the castes till 2010, and because the Caste Hindus dominate all the professions and educational sphere in India: But they remain a smallish minority. Secondly, despite all those claims of Hinduism being an open and flexible religion (including all the jokes about 'atheist Hindus'), when someone talks of 'Hinduism', we are necessarily looking at the doctrinal core of a religious practise, which is built on exclusion and superstition.
One may claim most Muslims and Christians in India were from Hindu lineage, lower castemen who converted. However, this does not prove Hinduism to be a democratic and open religion, but rather a cruel practise that excluded a lot of people. In fact, as both the Muslim and the British administrators of India correctly understood, it is Hinduism and its divisive practises that caused structural weaknesses of Indian polity, and this is why India as a political entity could be subjugated. In essence, while the modern Liberal imagination may confuse India's culture and Hinduism as one and the same, they are not: Hinduism divided India more than it ever united it.
So, finally, what can unite India then? Our time may be about building walls and pulling up drawbridges, but hope has not yet lost the potency. One does not have to necessarily look to past for building the future. And, one could indeed look at India's past, its divisions and its successive domination by foreign powers, and see this not with shame but for the strengths it provides: It makes India, I shall claim, 'anti-fragile', more flexible and open, polymorphous and inventive rather than rigid in the quest of a singular identity. It is 'Indianness', the ability to deal with diversity without putting everyone in the same mould, the cultural affinity with nature (in the form of whichever God one prefers to worship), our ability to learn new languages and being open to new ideas, that can form the basis of a new national idea: One that would be inclusive, in sync with our future and hopeful.