Just as a supposedly socialist constitution does not prevent India, except at the margins, from being configured into a capitalist economy, it could be argued that a secular constitution does not prevent India from being a Hindu state. It has become customary to write the history of the modern Indian state in something like the following terms: India, after Independence, sought to create a secular state. There is some dispute about what this secularism entailed. This project entailed that there would be no state religion, but it left the precise boundaries of state involvement with religion open. Whe- ther such a secular state could thrive in a society not itself fully in the throes of secularization was also an open question. But there was no doubt that this secular state was the quintessential project of modern India, the basis of the state’s legitimacy.
Hindu nationalism was the first powerful ideology to openly challenge this objective, and the extent to which it has managed to compromise the state’s secular credentials is the object of fierce debate. But does the narrative of Hindutva versus secularism adequately capture the ideological trajectory of the Indian state'
Ask yourself a question with graceless frankness. What would a Hindu state do that the secular state has not already done' The Indian state has used state power to consolidate Hindu identity in more ways than one can list. The state, for the first time, created a territorially unified body of Hindu law, transcending numerous regional divisions. Supreme Court judges not only promulgate public purposes; they act as authoritative interpreters of Hindu religion, defining what is essential to it and what is not. The state runs thousands of temples across the country, appropriated in the name of social reform or financial propriety.
Cow protection, an issue which many think is the most symbolically potent of Hindu demands, is allowed in many states. The entire burden of anti-conversion legislation, acquiesced to by all parties and the Supreme Court, is to privilege Hinduism. Anti-conversion legislation privileges Hinduism in its interpretation of the relationship between religion and propagation; it privileges Hinduism in its attempts to protect it from other religions, in the way it seeks to eliminate competition for the allegiances of those who might be the target of conversion: Dalits and Adivasis, and so forth. Rather than eliminating religious identity from law, the state constitutes these identities in legal terms.
Even the so-called reform of Hindu law undertaken during the Fifties can be given another interpretation. It was not so much that a secular state was reforming a religious law, an alien imposition on an otherwise recalcitrant religion. Rather the reform process was an example of Hindus collectively exercising their authority as Hindus, deciding on what the laws should be. It was not so much a secular state reforming religion, as it was Hindus exercising self-determination, in a somewhat progressive direction. That Hindus reformed their laws democratically does not make those laws any less Hindu. The fact that the reform was carried out through a process of democratic representation, was a result of the fact that Hindus chose to resolve their disputes over who exactly had authority over its laws democratically.
Even in terms of public representation, it could be argued that India has been more like a Hindu state. Minority representation in public life has been dwindling, but the curious thing is the asymmetry of legitimacy that religious leaders have in politics. It is quite all right for mahants and pandits, sadhvis and gurus to participate in politics, even contest and win elections, not to mention run governments, without in any sense attenuating their identity. On the other hand maulvis or priests in politics at this juncture would be quite a hazardous affair. Most of them are confined to issuing odd statements here and there, but the idea that they could enter politics qua religious leaders would be quite anathema. We can put the matter this way: it is more legitimate to be a Hindu leader and be in politics than it is to be a religious leader of any other sect and participate in politics. Has not the representative space been defined in Hindu terms'
It is true that the state cannot preach the Hindu religion, but it can do the next best thing. It can write textbooks that give a particular version of Indian history, promulgated by a set of Hindus who have access to power (justified by the canard that the Marxists did the same thing). Or better still, it can not provide any robust state education in Dalit and tribal areas, so that these remain at the mercy of schools inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. And if the government of Rajasthan is to be followed, direct preaching in state schools may not be far off. It also has to be admitted that state power is complicit in turning what should have been, at most, a private dispute in property law, into a religious dispute and it is only a matter of time before a temple is built at Ayodhya.
So what would a Hindu state do that the Indian state is not doing already' Given the character of Hinduism, it would be difficult to anoint an official god for this state. If we pick one that has any form, the protagonists of different gods will be fighting one another. Saivites and Vaishnavites can partake of the same ultimate reality when political symbolism is not at stake; if political power comes into the picture, they will be, as they often have been in medieval India, at each others throats. So, for the sake of Hindu unity, we cannot have an official god.
You might protest. I am going too quickly. Has not the Indian state guaranteed freedom of religion' Has it not been solicitous towards minorities, granting them supposedly separate laws, subsidizing their Haj pligrimages, sometimes tolerating their loudspeakers and so forth' This may be true enough, but it is never entirely clear why this is incompatible with the Indian state acting as a Hindu state would. Even in these acts of toleration there is an assertion of majority identity. It is made very clear that the majority, if they can be called as such, grants these privileges; if the minorities get too demanding, we will be within our rights to admonish them.
Of course, Hindus can grant a significant space to minorities; it is to their credit that they often have. But the state makes sure that these grants are on Hindu terms. And besides, anti-minority communalism is, in principle, only contingently related to Hindu nationalism. In principle, you can be secular and think that minorities are traitors to India’s territorial integrity, or you could want a state to be solicitous of Hindu sentiment and grant space to other religions as well.
So we remain stuck at the question. What would a Hindu state do that is not already being done' It is true that the state did not protect the Kashmiri Pandits. But their plight was as much a result of the Centre exercising undue proprietary rights over elections in Kashmir, in the name of the interests of the rest of us Hindus, as it was a failure of the state to take Kashmiri Hindus seriously. Secularism has become to Hindu nationalism what socialism in our Constitution is to capitalism: form without content.
This argument can have its comforts. One might be able to say to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS, “Calm down, you don’t need to agitate. India already is close to being a Hindu state. You are fighting to get something you already possess. That is why the Bharatiya Janata Party is so calm these days. What else do you want' Do you want it also to be an extremist Hindu state'” But then we were reminded in the last couple of weeks that there are other big battles to be fought. As Uma Bharti has reminded us, India is pretty close to being a Hindu state. The big question before us now is whether it will be a vegetarian or a non-vegetarian Hindu state.