Shashi Tharoor is that rare animal in modern India: a writer-politician. While working as a bureaucrat at the United Nations, Tharoor wrote the Great Indian Novel, a satirical version of the Mahabharata set in the context of the Indian independence movement and its aftermath. He has also written on the history of the British Raj and on the journey of India as a modern state.

His latest book, though, takes a look at religion, specifically Hinduism. Titled Why I Am A Hindu, the book has been written and published at a time when there is an aggressive push to introduce the majority religion into the public sphere in India. Tharoor talked to about why he wrote the book, the danger from Hindutva, and, among other things, Rahul Gandhi’s visiting temples as part of election campaigning. Excerpts from the interview:

To begin at the beginning, I find the title of your book intriguing: Why I Am A Hindu. Why did you feel the need to explain why you are a Hindu?
Well, frankly, I shouldn’t have felt the need to explain except that a very different idea of Hinduism has been placed front and centre in our political discourse by the powers that be in our country today. And for me what was troubling about this was that it bore very little resemblance to the Hinduism I had grown up with. I know how devout my parents were. My mother is still alive. But my father, who is no more, was a very, very devout Hindu.

But the Hinduism he practised and believed to the very bone was a Hinduism of tolerance and acceptance. In fact, I prefer the word acceptance to tolerance. And one in which he got along extremely well and showed a great deal of respect to friends of other faiths. So how could I reconcile the Hinduism that I had been schooled in and frankly had confirmed from my own reading, my own observation, my own learnings with these mob lynchers and love jihadis and ghar wapsi types? The whole lot of delirious fanatics who are portraying my faith in a light that I found deeply revolting. So I said, let me not approach this debate from outside the pale, because if I were to say this is wrong, I would immediately be stereotyped, as indeed I have been for the last few years, as a “pseudo-sickular”.

I wanted this to be an argument within the Hindu faith. Between people who consider themselves to be good, decent, believing Hindus or seeking Hindus, but who don’t subscribe to this notion of Hindutva and those who have reduced Hinduism, far from the soaring metaphysics, philosophical enquiry and spiritual yearnings of the ancient texts, into something more akin to the team loyalty of the British football hooligan.

Today the depiction of Hinduism is very much like these yobs who go around saying my team is better and I’ll hit you on the head if you disagree. That has never been, my idea of Hinduism or Swami Vivekanand’s idea of Hinduism or any of the great teachers and mahatmas whom I have read, watched and heard about. And I said, let me therefore approach this as a quarrel within the Hindu faith, rather than between believing Hindus and godless secularists as they would prefer to see it.

Photo credit: Aabid Shafi
Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

You’ve said that you are being stereotyped as an outsider. Given your background, aren’t you afraid that you will always carry less weight than a pracharak from Uttar Pradesh in this debate?
Probably, with a certain kind of audience. But I have been very touched by one thing: the number of people who’ve come up – and so far I agree, it’s mainly English-speaking kinds of people, of a kind of background that I can find, who would read an English-language book – just saying that your book spoke to me because it described what I had instinctively known about Hinduism but had not thought about this way.

Now when the book comes out in Hindi and Malayalam and Telugu and Bengali, then we will really see whether this book can have an impact comparable to that of the RSS pracharak. Perhaps it won’t. But even if I can reach a small segment of Hindus and give them confidence in their own faith, I will have, I hope, made a contribution to resisting the takeover, the hijacking of Hinduism by forces inimical to its very essence.

One of the reasons you say you’ve written this book is the merging of religion and identity that is taking place, between Hinduism and Hindutva. That almost seems to me the aim of the book. You want identity to be related to citizenship and not faith. That sounds great on paper…
It’s also the Constitution!

Yes, but do you think, given India’s stage of development, that it’s practical? Or even in the United States today, for that matter?
But that’s precisely what makes the argument worth having and a fight worth fighting.

Because the truth is yes, increasingly in many parts of the world and in many other faiths, this notion of religious identity being the primordial identity and all other loyalties being secondary is gaining ground. It is certainly there in Islam. Many, many people in the Muslim community will say – less so in India – we are Muslim first and everything else second, whether it’s Iran or Iraqi or Lebanese. Similarly, you will have people saying that our Christianity matters. Though in many cases, in America, for example, there is almost a conflation between that kind of Christian chauvinism and the Make America Great Again chauvinism.

But still, politics of identity is on the rise around the world – I don’t disagree with that. And people say, why should India be an exception? Well I believe India should be an exception. Because we are the kind of extraordinary diverse society that very few countries are. Our history is one of multiple influences from everywhere – from across the seas, from across the mountains, across the plateau, people have come into this country and merged their destinies into the soil of this land. Therefore we are a wild ethnic mix, we have languages, religions, habits of life, customs of life, eating habits – all of which differ from one part of the country to another, from one Indian to another. And yet we are united by a common dream of Indianness, a shared geography and a shared history and – I hope –sustained by a democracy that gives us the aspirations for our future.

To maintain that, to build on that, you have to have a citizenship that transcends identity. I have argued in my earlier writing, for example in India: From Midnight to Millennium, I have said, look the great thing about India is you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. That’s the strength. But I have also argued that it is the Indianness that makes you secure in all the other identities. If being a Muslim made you vulnerable, or being a Keralite made you vulnerable, it is being an Indian that protects you. The Constitution, the institutions, democracy, equal rights, all of this is what gives you the place – and of course, the politics, which you can’t get away from, gives everybody a voice, gives everybody a stake, gives everybody a possible future. That is India’s great strength. So I would feel it worth fighting for.

If it all becomes linked to or boils down to religious identity, then you have a real problem, because ultimately there will be aspects of religious identity that clash with others. My answer is Vivekananda’s answer: he said that our religion teaches tolerance, and not just tolerance but acceptance.

And what he meant by that is very profound. Though tolerance is a virtue in everyone’s dictionary, it is ultimately a slightly patronising emotion. It says, I am the truth, you are an error, but I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong. Whereas acceptance says, I believe I have the truth, you believe you have the truth. I will respect your truth, please respect my truth. And it seems to me this is the best way we can all get along in a society like ours.

Photo credit: Aabid Shafi
Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

That’s a fascinating point about Islam: that a lot of Muslims have their primary identity as Muslim and then, maybe, a national identity or a linguistic identity. In the book, you say that Hinduism is getting semeticised. What do you mean by that?
The Semitic faiths do believe first of all, in divine revelation, they believe in absolute truths, there are blacks and whites in these faiths. They also are faiths in which there is only one permissible way to salvation and that is through either Jesus in the case of Christianity or Mohammad, the prophet, in Islam. There are some very, very narrow requirements to qualify to be treated as an appropriate adherent of the faith. And there are only very limited paths through which you can achieve your salvation on this earth.

Whereas in Hinduism, these things don’t exist. It’s much more, as I have described at some length, eclectic, much more inclusive of differences, of variety. Even god can be imagined in literally millions of ways. And this strength of Hinduism is in my view being diluted if you reduce it to a series of yardsticks that the Semitic faiths have. But that’s what some of our Hindutva types are trying to do today.

Right at the start of your book, you say that Hindutva goes against the spirit of Hinduism. Later you call it a “malign distortion of Hinduism”. Do you not think that this very endeavour, to identify a “spirit of Hinduism”, to posit a binary between a distorted and an undistorted Hinduism – just to go back to your Semiticisation point – isn’t this a form of heresy, takfiri?
[Laughs] Hindu takfiri…

Isn’t it paradoxical? If so many Hindus believe in Hindutva, why shouldn’t it be a valid form of Hinduism?
Okay because of the very nature of Hinduism – and every religion has a nature...I agree with your point. Philosophically, you’ve made a very logical argument. By distilling an essence, you’re falling into the same trap as the other side of the argument, which says, this is what Hinduism should be.

My difference is that, I am not saying that it should be. I am saying it is. It has always been a faith with an astonishing amount of diversity, no single sacred book, but many sacred books. In fact, it’s very interesting when you look at how some of the great teachers of Hinduism have themselves focussed on a limited numbers of texts. Because there is so much to choose from. And that choice to the worshipper or the teacher, to choose a certain number of texts, focusses on this. In the case of Adi Shankara, he developed the Vedanta on some Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavad Gita. He didn’t worry about the rest. Almost all his commentaries are only on these. So you’re looking at somebody saying, this is what I consider the essence.

You maybe have somebody else, as indeed there are, who say, “We are Krishna-bhakts, the Bhagavatam is all that matters to us”. Somebody else may practise the faith with an excessive reverence, let us say, for Lord Shiva, who doesn’t feature in these texts that Adi Shankara has focussed on. And it doesn’t matter. That’s the essence of Hinduism. Hinduism is nothing if it is not diversity. Hinduism ceases to be Hinduism the moment you put it into a straitjacket. To that degree, I have a right to say that it has an essence.

And that diversity, that pluralism within the faith – I joked in the preface of the book that it is almost like Wikipedia that so many authors have contributed to it. So I can say that Wikipedia has an essence – and the essence is the multiplicity of voices, of authorities of sources in it, and the same is true of Hinduism.

But isn’t that the paradox? Given that Hindutva is a growing belief, right or wrong, amongst a very large numbers of Hindus, how do you explain it then?
So here is the process: Hindutva is a political ideology. It’s really not a religious interpretation. It’s a political ideology that has hung itself on a hook that is embedded on the wall of religion. But it is not actually a religious ideology. What they’ve done is they’ve created a political project around the idea that the people who follow the Hindu religion are a distinct people. Some have used the word Hindu race. They have their own culture, their own history their own heroes And this collectivity has somehow been humiliated, conquered, subjugated – 200 years of British rule, 1,000 years of Muslim invasions. Now the time has come for them to reassert themselves and Hindutva is a project to advance the political agenda of those who believe this by trying to create a consciousness of separation amongst these self-defined Hindus.

Isn’t it ironic: separatism is what minorities do to break away. Pakistan broke away from India as a separatist project. Now we have majority separatism. Which is quite a bizarre development.

Now my rejection of this is that it’s actually a philosophy born of inferiority. Of lack of self-confidence, of memories of subjugation. A self-confident Hinduism is a Hinduism that can embrace others. When excerpts from my book started appearing and the first reactions started coming on social media from the Hindutva brigade, it’s very interesting that they couldn’t really argue with me on Hinduism. Their arguments were, “Okay, so you’re saying this about Hinduism, would any Muslim say this about this faith? You know, as long as the Muslims have a different attitude, how can you have this attitude as a Hindu?”

To which my answer is, why is it the duty of Hindus to tell a Muslim to be a good Hindu? Let him or her form his or her own faith. The whole logic of what I’ve tried to describe, what Vivekananda has tried to describe is, you be the best Hindu you can be. Let him be the best Muslim he can be and let somebody else by the best Christian she can be. The point is, that’s up to them. Your job is to live up to the ideal tenets of your faith. That’s not what you’re doing, while he’s trying to be a good Muslim, you’re going and hitting him on the head. You’re not being a good Hindu [if you do that], that’s the issue.

Photo credit: Aabid Shafi
Photo credit: Aabid Shafi

One of the things that I thought you could have written more about is caste. You’ve mentioned that one of the facets of being a Hindu that Gandhi listed out that a person needs to believe in the varna system. In a couple of places you mention that middle-class Anglophone Hindus have left caste behind. Do you think that’s true?
I think to a very great extent it’s true and part of the Hindutva project is to try and pull that back. Because especially in the urban areas, but also among some elites in the villages, this was changing. Love marriages across caste lines as well as across religious lines are beginning to happen. There is this atavistic fear that they will lose their Hindutva project if people start becoming more liberal in their social attitudes and behaviours. That explains simultaneously a number of things: the opposition to inter-religious and inter-caste marriage as well as the opposition to gay relationships. Anything and everything that cannot be narrowly straitjacketed into an almost khap panchayat ideal of what Hinduism ought to be is something that terrifies them. It’s the same with their attitudes to history. Everything has got to be somehow put into this straitjacket.

Now when you look at issues of inter-communal relations, marriages, love and so on, many of the educated urban elite have been heading in that direction for a number of reasons. First you’ve got urbanisation: caste is easier to practise in village where everyone knows who everyone else is, what profession they or their father practises or practised. In cities, this is no longer so true. Second, affirmative action from the Constitution. You might be very proud of your upper caste origins and go to an office and take orders from a Dalit. That teaches you some humility.

And third, this perception increasingly that it became more and more difficult in the modern circumstances of life, to know who was what. So increasingly, for example, people don’t use caste names. You have to guess or you have to ask. Those who have been brought up in this sort of Anglophone urban environment don’t ask. It’s just not the done thing. So ultimately they live a certain kind of way and don’t worry about these things [like caste].

The only time you do ask when you are conducting an arranged marriage for your own daughter. Then you have to be very careful who you are marrying her to. But since I don’t have that problem: neither having had an arranged marriage myself nor having arranged the marriages of my children, I am quite relaxed about that. But I do know many, many other friends [who don’t care about identity in marriage]. Today a fellow MP from Kerala came to me with a wedding invitation for his daughter who is marrying a Muslim boy. She is a Hindu. And a Muslim MP laughed and said, “Haha! You are propagating love jihad.” And this is to a Hindu MP. So the fact is that at a certain level of our society caste genuinely doesn’t matter. The young couple had met at university. To my mind, that’s what India ought to be all about. This is precisely what the Hindutva project wants to resist.

Recently, Rahul Gandhi went on a temple tour just before the Gujarat elections. Is being Hindu part of the Congress strategy to help defeat the BJP’s Hindutva?
I think it helped neutralise one part of the BJP’s appeal. See, the BJP is going around saying, “We’re the only Hindus in the fray, and if like us you go to temples you should be voting for us.” Let’s get that out of the way. We also go to temples. We have never showed it in the past, but now we’ll show it. You know they go to temples, we go to temples, now let’s talk about development. Let’s talk about the issues that matter in your lives. And that was essentially, I think, what was accomplished in the process.

Look, I am an MP from Thiruvananthapuram where I have various kinds of people in my constituency. I go to temples, I go to mosques, I go to churches. All the time. I’ll be at urs, I’ll be there at Eid, at Christmas Eve Mass. In fact, every single year, except last year when I had family reasons, I have attended Christmas Eve Mass in four churches. And this is not because I am turning Christian, it is because I am showing respect to a faith adhered to by a large number of my constituents. And that kind of politics has always been there in multi-ethnic, multi-religious India. Why should practising all faiths not include the majority faith?