Stephen Chan: Religion and World Politics part 14: The Hindu State. Or is there actually any such thing as a Hindu state? Mr. Modi, the Prime Minister of India is the representative of the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which stands for Hindu values. Hindu values as foundation values for the Indian state. And yet it’s very difficult to talk about such foundation values for an Indian state as if it had existed since time immemorial. But the very claim of the BJP and hindutva, the ideology of all-embracing, all-encompassing Hinduness, is very much that what we’re looking at in terms of an Indian identity is something which is holistic, encompassing, and stretches back through time.
Trying to make this into a national ideology for the modern age, but also using this as a modern ideology of exclusiveness, of standing apartness, of being in some way competitive with other identities (for instance the Islamic identity of neighboring Pakistan, and by direct extension the Islamic minorities within India), poses all kinds of difficulties for how we conceive of an international relations and a citizenship built upon belief that has several very very overarching religious elements to it.
And yet when we look at the history of India, we’re actually looking at a history of fragmentation. Even the British Raj, the British colonial experiment over India, divided India into two very very large portions. One was underneath direct rule from the Raj. The other was the indirect rule via 175 princely states. With 175 princely states, with many languages being spoken, with many different histories, the claim of one India is one which has to overcome and navigate a past history full of multiplicity. And this multiplicity stretches back through time. So the idea of a Hinduness from time immemorial is something that deserves interrogation.
What you’re looking at in fact is an earliest civilization in India really from about the 4th millennium BC. But really it’s from about 2000 BC that we start to see something which can be identified as a mark of Indian organizational capacity. And that’s the foundation of cities all built along similar lines. Cities built around rectangles and squares on lower ground, and an acropolis or public space—an administrative space—of government buildings, of temples, of meeting halls, and public baths on upper ground.
So the organization of society, the organization of urban society, was a characteristic which was identifiable in many parts of India in 2000 BC. But those were not the Indians that survived down unsullied until to the present day. Because what you had from about 1700 BC were major waves of migration. Aryan migrations from Mesopotamia, from what is today Iran. And they brought with them all kinds of new influences. They brought with them for instance early forms of Sanskrit. So that what is regarded as the heritage language of India is in fact something which was brought in in original form by outsiders, then diluted, mixed, and developed in terms of its interaction with local influences.
It was really only about 1000 BC, just 3,000 years ago, that the Vedas, the holy songs, the holy poems, are [?] characteristics of a Hinduness began to be composed and began to be sung, and began to form something of a sacred canon. At each stage of Indian history, one encounters admixtures of the external and the internal. You have the advent of Buddhism in 400 BC followed very very quickly by the invasion in the Northwestern part of India of Alexander the Great and his Macedonian phalanx army. It was followed by the nationwide adaptation and adoption of Buddhism underneath the Emperor Ashoka.
Underneath Ashoka we have the very first manifestation of something that resembled a united India. A politically United India won by conquest, and given a national doctrine (in this case Buddhism) adopted by Ashoka because he was so horrified at the carnage he had caused in uniting India that he turned to the ways of peace in his late age. But that was as recently as about 268 BC. So all of the great manifestations are recent and in fact the Indian pantheon of gods like Shiva, gods like Vishnu, really only took place at the turn of the millennium between 200 BC and 200 AD. The writing of the great books, the Mahabarat, the Bhagavad Gita, all of those come from that point in time, consolidated finally into an institutionalized ethos in temple Hinduism only about 1,000 years ago.
So looking back you see Hinduism as recent, even of course if 1,000 years is a long time for something to settle and consolidate. But we’re not looking at something historically monolithic. And the idea of using Hinduness as a national ideology, and its consequences for international behavior against all of those with different confessional beliefs, can be something which is seen as problematic. The relationships with Pakistan for instance—Pakistan and India achieving rival independences after much communal bloodshed in 1947. Those two countries continued since that point in time to lead fraught competitive existences.
The Indians developed nuclear capacity and the bomb first, the Pakistanis some years later. Particularly going onto a crash course after the wars with India over the independence of Bangladesh. So that now you have nuclear stockpiles in the two countries of roughly about 120 nuclear warheads for India and about 130 nuclear warheads for Pakistan. It’s entirely possible to articulate the relationships between the two countries along the lines of balance of power. It’s also entirely possible to interpret the Indian assistance for the independence struggle of Bangladesh in terms of weakening what was once a united Pakistan by separating from what is now Pakistan its Eastern portion and turning that into a state which could be more easily dominated by India.
India in any case has had many problems on its borders quite apart from Pakistan. The 1962 war with China, which India resoundingly lost, is a case in point. But what is the real problematic aspect of relationships between Pakistan and India remains today the status of Kashmir. There’ve been a number of wars between the two countries over Kashmir: 1947, 1965, 1999, each of the two metropolitan states claiming that they should be the rightful government of the troubled province. But within the troubled province itself, a very very strong and very very visible minority but insurgent group of Kashmiris, wanting to go to learn and have independence underneath their own rubric, underneath their own identity.
What you have in the Indian subcontinent are the politics of contestation. An unsettled region after the departure of communism, after the end of the British Raj which once stretched as far as Burma, which tried to take Afghanistan. Which in the end gave independence to rival countries eking out their rivalry now almost as sacred totems, that rivalry being almost as sacred a totem as Hindutva is claimed to be one for India.
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