I recently came across the article Secular India? by Rachel Sondkar, a college student who writes about the perpetuation of a “Hindu India.” As a fellow student, I believe it is important to share my perspective as an Indian Hindu.
Sondkar’s article presumes British colonization is the unifying force of India, yet I believe India’s unification is no modern conception.
Historical Unity of India
In fact, India has a long history of underlying cultural, civilizational, and spiritual unity, which continues to this day. Today, India is an intricate yet unified tapestry of various cultures, practices, and beliefs.
Geographically, the ancient Greeks, Persians, and Chinese all regarded the area as one geographic entity despite its differences, referring to it as India, Indica, Hind, Tianzhu/Wutianzhu, etc. Politically, large areas of the Indian subcontinent were unified several times under various kingdoms and empires.
Even when part of disparate kingdoms, each kingdom (or princely state in modern times) had a sense of being part of a larger entity. This cultural unity was maintained through interactions between kingdoms, political ties and alliances, the arts, religious and spiritual movements, as well as various cultural practices.
Sondkar’s article ignores these historical factors and then inaccurately claims that religion was a key defining characteristic of a modern Indian national identity. In reality, independence movements and ideologies were primarily based on a patriotic sense of Indian-ness rooted in a civilizational and cultural unity, with religious identity being a secondary factor.
Indian Nationalism vs. Religious Nationalism
Organized Indian nationalism, in the modern sense of allegiance to a nation-state, arose when Indians desired representation in bodies of government. As ties to a national identity strengthened among Indians after the first Indian War of Independence in 1857, the Indian National Congress was created in 1885. Their goal was to overthrow British rule, with members of every religious community in India taking part in the struggle.
Religious tensions in India emerged as religious communities formed political bodies. While the Muslim League of 1905 as well as Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha of 1915 both catered to the interests of their respective religious followers, the secular Indian National Congress remained the dominant political force for most Indians irrespective of religion. Although conflict between Muslims and Hindus became more frequent, the Pakistan movement led by the Muslim League never gained traction until years later (e.g., until 1942, the secular Unionist party in conjunction with the Indian National Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal held sway in Muslim majority Punjab, not the Muslim League). This religious and political movement aimed to create a nation from Muslim-majority areas in the British Indian Empire.
The Indian Independence movement, which aimed to end British rule in India, ran parallel to the Pakistan movement. Mahatma Gandhi was the leader of the Indian Independence movement. His vision was based on religious pluralism in India, not a Hindu state. Yet, the Pakistan movement did not allow for a unified nation. Instead, British India was divided into two countries: A Muslim-majority Pakistan formed specifically around religious identity and a secular albeit Hindu-majority India with large minority populations.
Today, many religious minority groups flourish in India. It is estimated that India will have the largest Muslim population by the mid 21st century. As of now, India has the world’s second largest Muslim population (approximately 176 million or 14.4 percent of India’s population), and the world’s largest Sikh (1.9 percent) and Jain populations (0.4 percent). There are also substantial numbers of Christians (2.3 percent) and Buddhists (0.8 percent). Smaller communities of Jews and Zoroastrians have been living in India for over a millenia. India was founded on secular principles and as a home for multiple religious communities. On the other hand, Pakistan was and continues to be an exclusionary state intended only for Muslims, where the state has legalized and institutionalized discrimination against minorities. As a result, in both Pakistan and Bangladesh minorities, face much greater difficulties than minorities in India.
Pluralistic and Inclusive Indian National Identity
Sondkar goes on to complain of a non-inclusive national Indian identity, with the “labeling [of] Hindu customs as Indian customs.”
This is fundamentally ignorant of the embracement and celebration of both religious and cultural holidays and practices by all Indians. Eid, Christmas, Diwali, and many other holidays are officially celebrated by the government, in popular culture, by cultural and religious institutions, and in society at large. Indians and Indian institutions have gone above and beyond to be sensitive to and celebrate minority religions and cultures.
Sondkar’s article specifically targets Diwali as an example of a Hindu holiday that is labeled as Indian rather than Hindu, and as a result “further[s] the narrative of a Hindu India.” If anything, it is not the Government of India that labels it as such, but non-Indians or non-Hindus who don’t know how Diwali is celebrated and by whom. Diwali is, in fact, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists alike — albeit with a different significance attached to it for each community.
Sondkar claims that the intersection of religion and Indian culture omits non-Hindu Indian culture and leads to the appearance that “true Indians are Hindu and non-Hindu Indians are less so.”
This simplistic dichotomy ignores the reality of life in several Indian states, where there is a flourishing vibrant non-Hindu culture.
The states of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, and Kerala all have large Indian Christian populations that celebrate the intersection of their religion and Indian culture by wearing saris on Christmas or incorporating Indian food into their Easter brunches. These areas are still very culturally Indian, and are not treated as “less Indian” than other areas. They celebrate their religious customs and their Indian culture. I strongly believe that non-Hindu Indians are just as Indian as Hindu Indians, and are perceived as so.
It’s also worth emphasizing that there are non-Indian Hindus that practice Hinduism without the cultural influence of India. It is both possible to practice Hinduism without being part of Indian culture, and it is also very possible to participate in Indian culture without practicing Hinduism.
Political, Legal, and Institutional Accommodation of Minorities
Sondkar then moves into a discussion of Indian government and politics, starting with her strong distaste towards the current administration, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
She claims that “the very existence of the BJP party is a testament to the toxicity of a narrow-minded national identity” that is preferential towards Hindus. This disregards the many non-Hindu BJP supporters and its broad-based social and economic agenda to uplift Indians of all religious backgrounds.
As for India’s legal system and constitution, the Indian government provides significant accommodations, subsidies, reservations in government and educational institutions, and protections to minorities. It is in many ways the largest affirmative action program in the world.
According to the 2016-2017 Government of India budget, $600.8 million was earmarked for the Minorities Affairs Ministry to benefit the country’s religious minorities, reflecting an increase of over $14 million from the previous year.
The article argues that non-Hindus are negatively impacted by the government.
In reality, the government has control over Hindu institutions and temples, while non-Hindu institutions enjoy independent control. This has caused a reduction in religious freedom among 8 in 10 Indians.
Minority communities which face persecution in neighboring nations have long been welcomed in India. Ahmadiyya Muslims, for example, who are not even recognized as being Muslim in Pakistan, are free to worship, build mosques, and propagate their faith freely in India.
The article blames the Indian government for limiting non-Hindus and displaying “blatant favoritism” for Hindus, yet the author seems to be politically unaware of Indian states in the northeast, Kashmir, etc. that have placed restrictions on the rights of Hindus.
Sondkar uses the cow slaughter laws as an example, claiming that “such laws do not impact the Hindu population as most already abstain from it, but directly impact religious minorities who tend to consume beef”.
In truth, the cow protection laws are born from the uniquely Indic ethos of compassion towards animals and the practical reality of the wealth cattle represents for people in a primarily agricultural society.
Globally, the prohibition of the sale of certain food products is common, even if the ideological reasons are different. Not to mention, that despite beef bans, India is one of the largest exporters of beef in the world.
Inter-religious Conflict in India
Secular India? next claims that the Indian government “repeatedly instigates Hindu- Muslim conflict”. Sondkar points to Jammu and Kashmir as an example of Hindu nationalism attacking religious minorities, specifically Muslims.
First, I’d like to point out that Hindus are a minority in the state and normally at the receiving end of discrimination and violence. 68.31% of Jammu and Kashmir’s population identifies as Muslim, while the Hindu population is only 28.44%. Other minorities make up the remaining population. More specifically, 99% of the Kashmir Valley’s population identifies as Muslim. This is a result of the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus in 1990, which involved the bona fide ethnic cleansing of over 350,000 Kashmiri Hindus.
I come from a family of Kashmiri Hindus (Kashmiri Pandits), the indigenous inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley, who were forced to flee their homeland and faced mass genocide, torture, and terrorism as a result of an Islamic insurgency sponsored by Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus. My father’s Hindu family, friends, and neighbors were massacred at the hands of Islamic extremists solely based on their religious affiliation. Kashmiri heritage remains a major part of my life, yet after 19 years, I still have never visited the land of my ethnic origin due to the dangerous conditions in parts of Kashmir, as well as the emotional difficulty my father faces in revisiting his homeland that was painfully and unfairly snatched away from him and his fellow Kashmiri Pandits.
As exemplified by Kashmir, India does have communal tensions as any diverse country does, but they are not as one-sided or simplistic as Sondkar states. Religious conflict is complex and rooted in differing perspectives. My father’s family was given one night to leave their home behind and escape. If they had not made the decision to run and take refuge outside of Kashmir, there is no doubt that they would have been killed the next morning, among many other Kashmiri Pandits. My Kashmiri Pandit family is permanently scarred by the horrific events of their past, yet their history is denied and swept under the rug. Rather than selectively reporting incidents of Hindu perpetrators, I urge Sondkar to take a closer look at India’s history, including the years of bloodshed and violence Kashmiri Hindus faced due to their religious beliefs.
Despite Kashmir being a majority-Muslim state today, it is still considered to be an important part of India. Both non-Hindus and Hindus consider India to be home, and are celebrated by India’s governing bodies and citizens. Non-Hindus are truly an integral part of India, and will continue to be part of the narrative, as they have always been.
Roshni Koul is a rising sophomore honors student at Loyola University Chicago, majoring in Pre-medicine/Anthropology. She is a summer Advocacy Intern in the Hindu American Foundation office in Washington, D.C. She is passionate about Hinduism and Indian culture, and runs a Hindustani Sangeet singing school for children. Roshni is a Gannon Scholar and fights for social justice in the realm of gender inequality. She loves composing music and is the Music Director of LUC Raag, Loyola’s South Asian/Western fusion acapella team.