There has been much chitchat about “internet Hindus” (IH) of late, on Al Jazeera, twitter, the blogosphere, and perhaps smoke-filled drawing rooms of sinister forces planning to wreak havoc upon the world 🙂 Jokes aside, there has been much discussion of the term ‘internet Hindu’ recently, but everyone has clung to their cherished facet and refused to acknowledge the entirety of the phenomenon. The one exception, I think, is Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute, who appeared quite perceptive about the dynamics, diversity, and ideology of IHs on Al Jazeera.
The wide scope of this topic has made it difficult to describe thoroughly, and I have had to scrap two previous drafts as they stated the obvious, were too long, or descended into academese about mental scapes and imagination of cultural cohesion post facto. Ultimately, I have decided to take a page from B. Raman’s book – blog – and attempt this in a combination of an extended bullet list and descriptions.
Scope of discussion
- The IH world is not homogenous and its members probably disagree on a host of issues – secularism, economics, foreign policy, defence, social issues, sport, etc.
- There is one thing that unites IHs – a belief in his/her faith (however it is defined). Consequently, there is a deep loathing of the Congress party, which is seen as corrupt/morally bankrupt and opportunistic without bounds.
- Furthermore, since the term implies tech savvy (internet) and religion (Hindu), that is how it shall be taken. If this is not the intended meaning, greater care should have been taken in nomenclature…internet Hayekists or internet Rajaji-ists, perhaps.
- The focus shall, therefore, be on religion.
Who are internet Hindus?
- Like most political phenomena, IHism contains the entire spectrum, from elitists to the lumpen saffronists. Both should be considered.
- While we are led to believe that the IH refers only to abusive, Right-wing netizens, no one has explicitly said so. For all purposes, we may assume that anyone who speaks in favour of Hinduism online is an IH.
- If this is the case, the outrage against IH is nothing but a poorly disguised (and intellectually bankrupt) rant against those who differ in opinion from India’s Progressives.
- However, if the term restricts itself to boorish, uncouth, and aggressive misfits, then it is merely one among a large family of terms – internet Jihadists, internet Evangelists, internet Congis, internet Caste-ists, etc.
- In either case, it is not an offensive term because if it describes anti-Progressivism, then it merely reflects the crude and unsophisticated, almost ad hominem, reaction to criticism from the Left
- If IH describes the latter – uncivil behaviour – the incivility should weigh more heavily on one’s mind than any label. Sorry, this is not your father’s barn, and such behaviour is simply unacceptable in civilised society.
- There is a belief among some that IHs are all organised in a global secret conspiracy against “secularism,” Islam, and socialism. Please, permit me a giggle here; with me, that hits about the same level of conspiracy-theory-opium-addled-brainwork as believing in the Protocols of the elders of Zion.
In defence of Hinduism…historically
- Although the internet is a modernising factor, it should be noted that the defence of Hinduism is the locus of some of the earliest opposition to foreign rule.
- Figures like Vishnubawa Brahmachari and Arumuga Navalar challenged Western missionaries on their disrespectful and inaccurate portrayal of Hinduism.
- The notion that IHs are hijacking the nation is buncombe. There is a tradition of seeing India as a culturally Hindu majority nation, as Subramanian Swamy said on Al Jazeera. There is a tradition from Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Vallabhbhai Patel, to C. Rajagopalachari. While the last two may have disagreed with the vehemence of the first four, none denied India’s history.
- Admittedly, the IH Samaj may have lost some of the intellectual brilliance since, but that hardly diminishes its right to be in the national debate.
- The state, whose Constituent Assembly could not tell the difference between religious pluralism and secularism, is unequal in its dispensation of justice. For example,
- Article 25 of the constitution affirms “the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.” This, however, is an unequal right since Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, etc. do not proselytise and only Christianity and Islam does. Given the social fractures conversion causes, some states have even banned conversion, and others have placed restrictions on missionary activity (within the bounds of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).
- Article 26, which allows institutions to manage their own religious and charitable affairs, is not entirely applicable to Hindus: in the famous 1983 Kashi Vishvanath Temple vs. Uttar Pradesh case (as well as other such as the Sabhanayagar Temple in Chidambaram), it was ruled that the state can take over temple management if it can be shown that the temple is being mismanaged. All of Kerala’s temples fall under the Devaswom architecture, whose boards are filled by Kerala State Public Service Commission exams rather than traditional caretakers of the temples. This same precedent, however, is not applied to institutions of other religions, eg., the massive Wakf scandal that was revealed in 2009. In fact, Wakf boards do not even allow access to their files.
- Article 30 is not extended to Hindu institutions either, as the 1980 Ramakrishna Mission case illustrated. Again, the claim is mismanagement allows the Government to interfere in administration in the interests of the citizens.
- The state exhibit a clear bias against the majority Hindu population under the pretext of minority rights. For example:
- Hajj subsidy: Finally ordered by the Supreme Court in May 2012 to be phased out by 2022, this is an example of blatant state financing of a religious activity. In 2008, it was approximately Rs. 48,000 per pilgrim (80%) from the Centre (state subsidies also exist), resulting in a total subsidy of approximately Rs. 700 crores. In contrast, New Delhi pays Rs. 3,250 per pilgrim to Mansarovar, but some state subsidies range from 10 – 40% of expenses, and in many cases, are not paid.
- The language of state largesse is “minority” rather than financial disability. This is manipulated by the elite layer of the minority communities, and yet the state persists in its divisive and ineffective policies. Worse, while touting the Sachar Committee report as the indisputable gospel, no attention is paid to the inherent reasons for backwardness in a community; nor is anything done to alleviate it. For example, even by 1960, educated Muslim leaders began to remark openly that “it was indifference to secular education that was responsible for Muslim inequality with other communities” and that it had “blocked their progress, retarded the community economically, and created a public image and private mentality of backwardness.” Such voices are ignored.
- The famous overturning of the Shah Bano case (1978) verdict in 1986 by the Congress government through legislation is a benchmark in political opportunism and hypocrisy. Muslims were not answerable to Section 125 of the Criminal Code any more.
- The ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the allowing of Majid-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (MIM) thugs to assault Taslima Nasreen seems hollow when juxtaposed with the state’s (and media’s) defence of MF Husain’s right to free expression.
- Not all blame lies with the state (though it should take the lion’s share). The English language media has also exhibited a strong anti-Hindu sentiment as well. Completely acceptable in private capacity, as members of the fourth estate, however, they have no such right. Equally culpable is the “intelligentsia” of the country.
- The most cited example of bias is, not surprisingly, the Gujarat riot issue. Undoubtedly, there was much bloodshed, but Narendra Modi has been convicted in a trial by media long before any court ever pronounced anything. The recent SIT report has raised questions about the allegations made against Modi, but the media has clearly picked a side on this.
- In contrast, the recent stay given to Congress party member Sajjan Kumar’s case over the 1984 anti-Sikh riots hardly generates any frothing at the mouth. Even Rajiv Gandhi’s callous comment, “When a giant tree falls, the earth below shakes,” was allowed to slide.
- Another issue that is often skirted, or at least receives little column inches or air time is the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, while the army is the favourite whipping boy when it comes to bringing to attention the suffering of their Muslim brethren.
- The war over textbooks is another highly fraught issue. Whether it is the saffronisation of textbooks or their reduction to little more than poor quality toilet paper, there is no scope for a balanced view. Muslim leaders are portrayed as monsters or as paragons of virtue, and in most cases, the answer may be somewhere in the middle. The idea that a king, or anyone, could have negative and positive aspects both, has found no constituency. Subscription to theories that have been challenged more and more by scientific data, such as the Aryan Invasion Theory, remain on the books.
Counterpoints and responses
Those not so enamoured by the IH crowd would probably retort: “contrary to what the IH Samaj thinks, there are many problems with the Saffron Brigade. Although the Congress has made a pig’s breakfast of communal harmony, there exist genuine problems on the ground that cannot be solved by rabid polemics.” Personally, I do not disagree; but it is worth looking at some of those issues without hysterical accusations of bigotry, Islamophobia, and whatever other colourful waste of time anyone can come up with.
- There is a deep-rooted bias against Muslims in India; once citizenship has been conferred upon them, they are equal in every way and should not be subject to discrimination. Even if they are not citizens, humanist principles would dictate that they be treated fairly if not necessarily with respect. Even big names like Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar cannot find flats in Bombay easily
- There is, undoubtedly, a historical bias against Muslims in India. The bias is exacerbated by the preferential treatment given to Muslims by the establishment. No one denies that they be treated fairly – in fact that is what is demanded! As for the difficulty of finding housing, there are many areas where it is blatantly advertised that housing is available for Muslims or Christians only. Why is no one talking about that?
- Secondly, the housing issue can also be a matter of class more than religion – while many would have no problem with a Muslim person of class as their neighbour, they would object to low-class (class is not about money) people of any religion sacrificing a goat in front of their flat. On a personal note, I have changed flats because my previous building was infested with low-class Hindus (yes, I am an unapologetic elitist) – religion was really not a factor there. Each case should be examined properly before ascribing everything to the most common bogeyman.
- It is a fact that Muslims are woefully backward in India – that is not an opinion. Should a society not reach out to its less fortunate?
- Of course it should. But how? The fact that is not mentioned by the media is that Muslims are backward largely of their own choosing. As secular Muslim elites have repeatedly pointed out, allowing the Muslim community to exist in isolation in their “customs” is what contributes to their underdevelopment. The Mappila Muslims, who boast of the highest literacy rates among Muslim communities, also have the highest percentage of their children enrolled in secular schools and universities rather than madrassas. Malappuram has taken significant strides in the empowerment of Muslim women too. So what is responsible for Muslim backwardness, Congress policy or the alleged bigotry of the Sangh?
- IHs like to sing of the glories of Hinduism, but the horrors of the caste system and low status of women (cultural if not scriptural) is evident for all to see. Why is this whitewashed and justified?
- There is no doubt that the caste system is an unmitigated evil. However, state policy in abolishing the notion of caste has only reified caste in India. The lower caste elite acquire most of the state’s bounty themselves, and in turn discriminate against those lower than them. The quota system could be adjusted to accommodate merit as well, but as it stands, it reinforces the idea that the backward classes need lower standards because they are less capable. Strong state intervention is welcomed in this area, but please…show some sign that you have at least a couple of neurons firing.
- Women’s empowerment is a funny issue. Dowry and domestic violence among Hindus is frequently the focus and I am glad it is – unequivocal equality between men and women in all fields must be the standard. However, while the government sees it fit to come up with ill-conceived laws such as Section 498a, it does precious little and in fact accepts the marriage of a 15-year old Muslim girl “as long as she has attained puberty”. In some places, Muslim women are forbidden to enter mosques, much like Dalits used to be forbidden entry into temples. Aligarh Muslim University recently banned women from using the library. The plight of Muslim women in divorce proceedings is known – in e-Islam, you can talaq by SMS even! Child marriage is frequent in the Muslim community too, not just among Hindus.
- Regarding the textbook controversy – teaching children to hate is abhorrent. Saffron history highlights and reinterprets the story of India as a massive struggle between Hinduism and Abrahamic religions.
- If you compare secular schools with madrassas, you will see which one preaches more hate. Israeli activists have pointed this out umpteen times among their neighbours, and India probably has the same problem with some of its neighbours, maybe even domestically. Saffronisation is the pendulum effect – swinging to the opposite extreme to balance a wrong – but it might actually be in the interest of the children to hear multiple facets of history from different sources and different interpretations. The complexity and the need to discern good evidenciary and logical standards from bad ones will do them a lot more good than the history they are taught right now.
- And please – not Abrahamic religions. Most of the problems seem to occur with religions that proselytise. Hindus seem fine with Jews, Parsis, etc.
- Many temples – not all – are a fertile bed of corruption, superstition, and casteism. They cannot be seen as ideal institutions despite the charity work many do.
- Agreed, though we can quibble between many and some. But why does this not apply to churches or mosques or wakfs? And besides, is government control really any assurance of efficiency and no corruption? Really?
- A religion cannot be judged by its worst element. IHs like to see the worst in Christianity, Islam, or whatever their target of the day is and portray it in the most negative light possible, sometimes falsely.
- As Sadanand Dhume said on Al Jazeera, can anyone point out one state in the region that is more tolerant of minorities than India? Admittedly, there is much by way of improvement that India can do. However, development must be taken in context of historical circumstances too – India cannot be Germany thanks to Congress’ economic policies from independence until forced liberalisation in 1991. Secondly, Islamophobia is prevalent not just in India but the world over – while it is unhelpful to draw crude connections between terrorism and Islam, it can certainly be said that the Muslim moderates have simply not captured the stage in denouncing terrorism. In fact, it can also be pointed out that interfering in temple management is unlikely to get you killed. It is not IH imagination that shows Muslims in a bad light but their own action or inaction. And to those who like the line about not being “real” Muslims, newsflash – only the qualified can interpret the word of God; to do so otherwise would be blasphemy, the punishment for which could be very severe.
So why the internet? Well, for one, this debate is not on just the internet – the vernacular press certainly carries much more of these debates, as do novels by writers like SL Bhyrappa. The reason the IH debate is largely absent in the English language press is because they have been effectively shut out. Hence, with the advent of the internet and social media, the popularisation of news, IHs have taken to a medium that does not restrict or censor their views.
Are they, at times, primitive? Yes. Abusive? Unreservedly. Poor in logic? Absolutely. But then, these are characteristics of every idea, from monarchism to Marxism and socialism. But as Lewis Lapham once wrote, “Rightly understood, democracy is an uproar, the argument meant to be vigilant, blunt, and fierce; not, as the purveyors of our respectable opinion would have it, a matter of liveried civil servants passing one another polite synonyms on silver trays.” As revolting as it might sound, it is sadly true in our populist age.
Nonetheless, the summary dismissal of IHs by sampling their lumpen segment would be akin to coming to an understanding of Islam by listening to Zakir Naik, the man who declared on national television that he is unsure if Osama bin Laden is a terrorist (again, something that got little by way of outright condemnation and ad hominems) – isn’t this what critics accuse IHs of? If anyone wants to seriously challenge the Hindu or Hindutva narrative, let them take it up with individuals who form the intellectual backbone of IHism, with ideas that IHs have adopted as their own from Sardar Patel, Rajaji, and Minoo Masani but were condescendingly dismissed by the socialist Congress establishment.
Where does this all leave us?
It is a positive step to admit that there has been a fundamental breakdown of secularism in India. Perhaps it’s time to have a real debate. And if we are going to have a real debate on religion and minorities, we might as well get into one about the real contribution of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to Indian politics. The conversation can be bypassed if desired…but don’t be surprised by the consequences. Odd how some people will open-mindedly talk to anyone, including sponsors of terrorism, except internet Hindus.