Shashi Tharoor speaks at Chatham House

Dr Shashi Tharoor is an Indian parliamentarian and member of the opposition Indian National Congress. He is the author of 19 books, including studies of British colonial rule, the political life of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, most recently, “B. R. Ambedkar: The Man Who Gave Hope to India’s Dispossessed”.

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long advocated Hindutva, an exclusionary ideology that seeks to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu values. The party has now been in power for nine years. What does it want for India?

What the BJP wants is not just power for its own sake, but power to create – they would say restore – a version of India that is very much in keeping with their Hindutva philosophy. That is an India that in their telling would be truer to the ancient glories of past Hindu kingdoms, one that stands up for the principles of greater unity in which all of India speaks Hindi and holds allegiance to Hinduism. “Hindustan” or “Bharat” is this idea of a united nation with one religion, one language, one leader. It flies in the face of India’s very diverse nature, its pluralist history and the very different attitudes of many parts of the country who feel quite distanced from the vision of India that’s embodied in both the politics and the rhetoric of the BJP.

To what extent has the BJP achieved these aims under Modi?

I don’t think it’s possible for them, or for anyone, to reduce India into a sort of monochromatic picture of their imagining, but in the process [of trying], they have managed to do some very worrying things. They have injected a toxin of bigotry and hatred into the veins of Indian society, which has made it acceptable now for people to demonise Muslims, for people to make Muslims feel unwelcome, for classmates to go and tell other little children, “Sorry, my parents say I can’t play with you because you’re Muslim.” That kind of nonsense, which has never happened in India before, is now suddenly all too common. It’s these things that have poisoned India in ways that I feel may be irreversible – not that they will create a totally different India, but they will have affected the nature of the India that always was.

In your new biography of B. R. Ambedkar, the great economist, legal scholar and political leader, you wrote of how he wished Indians to “recognise and overcome a world that had been ‘been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls’”. What has become of that wish?

Ambedkar felt there was no question of reforming the caste system – we had to abolish it. But in fact the caste system has become deeply entrenched in part thanks to democratic politics, because caste became a very useful instrument for mobilising votes and voters. As a result you have a situation where caste identities – which centuries ago, before they became ossified through British habits of categorisation, were more fluid – have now become so entrenched that there are political parties organised around them, including Ambedkar’s Dalit caste.

And so caste isn’t disappearing, as Ambedkar would have wished. Discrimination has lessened enormously, in part thanks to the affirmative action that Ambedkar introduced into the constitution, but still persists. A major survey on caste in India found that 27 per cent of Indian families still practise untouchability. Given the size of India’s population, that’s an alarmingly large number of people essentially discriminating against their fellow man or woman on the grounds of birth in a specific caste.

Ambedkar was one of the architects of the Indian constitution. What do you think he would make of how the system is running today?

Where Ambedkar succeeded is in writing, and enshrining, a constitutional system in which he intended to give agency to the individual Indian citizen – and that has largely happened – while protecting the collective rights of oppressed communities. That, too, has largely happened.

I think what he probably would have been least happy about is the fact that the parliamentary system has essentially been distorted to deprive India of effective parliamentarianism. This is thanks to the BJP’s crushing majority and the fact that our anti-defection law makes it impossible to challenge your party’s whip, even when the party is being unreasonable. So essentially, the prime minister has an automatic rubber stamp to pass anything he wants.

As a defender of minority rights, Ambedkar had also warned against glorifying a national “guardian” or “protector”, hadn’t he?

He said that throughout India you see statues of great men, but everywhere that you see statues of great men, you also see the greatest wretchedness, poverty and misery. So let’s not exalt great men; let’s focus on changing the lot of the most unfortunate Indians. That message hasn’t been terribly well heeded in India. Ambedkar warned against “bhakti” or worship in politics, but we have a personality cult around the prime minister, encouraged by the ruling party, which makes him a larger-than-life figure. We admittedly had a similar deification around Indira Gandhi 50 years ago. And this is not what Ambedkar would have wanted.

What did Ambedkar think should be the key qualities of modern political society in India?

I think he saw modernity as involving a great degree of rationality, liberty and fraternity. He’d have had no patience with the exaltation of superstition that we are seeing with the Hindutva movement in the present government. I suspect that he would not have been terribly enamoured of some of the legislation that this government likes – for example, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The very notion of your being able to jail somebody for a couple of years without even charging him would have struck him as anathema. As for fraternity, he would have been dismayed by the persistence of casteism. I can’t help feeling that progress in the sense of seeing Dalits in prominent positions in government and industry, in politics, in business and so on, would have pleased him, but he would have probably felt it hasn’t gone far enough. Putting oneself in the mind of people long dead is never easy to do, and one can only extrapolate from their writings and their speeches, but I think these are reasonable conclusions.

You’ve spoken of the need to draw a sharp distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, and reclaim the former from the latter. What do you mean by this?

Hinduism, as classically understood, is an incredibly eclectic faith that gives believers an extraordinary amount of flexibility in how to interpret the Godhead, and in their ways of contemplating the absolute. It has a fundamental concept that all ways of worship are equally valid, and that all ways of worship end up with the same divine. It’s also a strikingly individualistic faith in which every individual has to find his own truth, has to seek his own truth within himself as well as outside through service, and so on.

It’s just very different to the kind of faith that Hindutva demonstrates. They [the BJP] have taken the soaring majesty and philosophical inquiry of Hinduism and reduced it to the team identity, the team passions, of the British football hooligan. They’ve tried to create a sort of mob mentality around Hinduism, and there is no Hindu scholar who will agree that this is what Hinduism is or should be reduced to.

I believe that in so doing, the proponents of Hindutva are profoundly anti-Hindu because they’re destroying the best and most appealing aspects of our faith. And rather than attacking them from a purely secular perspective, as most political parties have tended to do, I feel an urge and a need, as a believing Hindu, to challenge what they’re doing to my faith.

This article is from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.