Mangalore and the myth of Hindu tolerance

The incident does not shock me any more or less than the fact(s) that every day millions of Indian women (rural and urban) are beaten up in their homes, that women of underprivileged classes suffer humiliation that rarely gets the same footage, that even as I type, a rape is probably happening somewhere. And when I hear the Minister for Women and Child Welfare call it an “aberration by misguided youth” (on television)  the despair deepens. This is no mere “aberration”  stemming from party ideology alone.  That’s just convenient, political mud-slinging. The ‘misguidance’ comes from various sources.

One source according to Prakash Kona, Indian English writer and poet based in Hyderabad, is the urban, Westernized youths’ lifestyle that insulates them from the communalization of Indian politics, thereby spawning outfits like the Sri Ram Sene. (You can read his post here.) I agree that the rise of Hindutva (and thereby the self-styled enforcers of “Hindu culture”) is in part a consequence of the indifference of the educated electorate. But I think the rot runs deeper. I think it’s time we put the much-touted “Hindu tolerance” under the scanner.

In a hard-hitting essay* that examines the genealogy of the myth of Hindu tolerance, Rajeswari Sunder Rajan points out that while the likes of Advani, Vajpayee and Singhal (predictably) take recourse to psychological and political explanations for communal violence, whether Babri Masjid, Godhra, or Kandhamal, it is significant that even Hindu religious leaders (and she refers mainly to the Shankaracharyas) haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory by denouncing such violence. If Hinduism is indeed tolerant, then practicing Hindus and Hindu religious leaders should be denouncing such violence, and the ire of this majority should be enough to snuff out the Modis and the Singhals.  That this isn’t happening should force us to ask whether the Hindu religion itself could be a legitimizing or a constraining factor in such violence.

It’s a fascinating essay, but I’ll quote just one paragraph that sums up Sunder Rajan’s explanation of how the myth of Hindu tolerance works:

Since democracy passes easily into majoritarianism, the nation-state could be kept in check only by making Indian secularism an aspect of, indeed dependent upon, Hindu tolerance. In other words, tolerance was placed on the Hindu majority as obligation of secular citizenship in their dealings with minorities. As such, it soon enough came to look like a magnanimous and voluntary concession on the part of Hindu groups, one that might be condescendingly bestowed at times and capriciously withheld at others. Secularism, as the constitutional right to freedom of worship, should have freed minorities from the burden of a reciprocal accommodation (even gratitude), but has always had to yield to the implicit construction of secularism as Hindu tolerance. . . . . And in time, of course, having been tolerant for so long, Hindus could claim to feel the strain of such continued restraint.

It is easy enough to see how the leap is made from the “metaphoric time-bomb of tolerance” to the “spontaneous revenge” that the Sangh Parivar offers as explanation.

There is another shade to the Mangalore attack. According to the report in the Times of India

 The Sena activists accused the women of  “involving themselves in immoral activities, including consuming alcohol, dressing indecently, and mixing with youths of other faith”.

 Ominous bells ring, reminding me of the acid attacks on young girls that Andhra is now notorious for, and incidents like the one I saw on the streets of Delhi some years ago a protest march against the Westernization of women’s attire in India. The protestors were all male and all dressed in shirts and trousers.

One could argue  that the ‘misguidance’ for such acts stems from the most vocal and visible role-models we have today — the market-driven popular culture of films, television soaps and ads that exploit the binary division of the ‘good’ Indian woman and the ‘bad’ Westernized woman. Perhaps. But I believe that this binary representation is itself driven by the age-old male expectation that places the onus of safe-guarding ‘culture’ on women, and the equally ancient male fear of female sexuality and the desire to control it.


*Rajeswari Sunder Rajan. The Politics of Hindu ‘Tolerance’.  Journal of Contemporary Thought. (No. 27, Summer 2008.)



  1. Aparna Singh said

    SS, in the backdrop of violence against women across the country, a single incident shouldn’t be shocking. Yet, the self-avowed ‘protectors of Hinduism’s justification of the attack makes it so. I don’t think secularism is something that Hindus have given others; it is a path that we, as a nation, have chosen to take. For those who keep pointing out that look at the record of Muslim countries, I feel that, why bother with them? If countries like Saudi set themselves the standards of the stone age, should we stoop to their level to prove that Hinduism is also great? Militant Hindutva has been set up as an answer to militant Islam but the truth is that people of neither religion are going to progress as long as their focus is on such things.

  2. Quirky Indian said

    Shocking incident, and as both you and Aparna have pointed out, one amongst so many…and like the rest, this too will fade from our memories.

    Quirky Indian

  3. Aparna:

    I appreciate both your comment and your own post on the subject.

    Although the sheer magnitude of violence against women in India numbs, every incident that I see, hear and read about reinforces the vulnerability of being woman. The violence seems frighteningly able to morph and enter every liberal space that women struggle to create and sustain, doesn’t it?

    “I don’t think secularism is something that Hindus have given others; it is a path that we, as a nation, have chosen to take.”

    Let me clarify what I’ve said (obviously an excerpt does not do justice.)

    ‘Politicized religion’ is a term widely used in India to explain Hindutva violence. A distinction is sought to be made between ‘pure religion’ and ‘politicized religion’. I’m questioning this distinction and suggesting that it is blurring, because if such a distinction did exist, then practicing, proud Hindus should have been able to save ‘religion’ from the ‘politics’. Babri Masjid, Gujarat, etc. should have created a crisis for Hinduism. Instead what we see is the ideology of Hindutva gaining acceptability among much of the middle class. (Is it just happenstance that Ratan Tata walked out of Bengal and straight into Gujarat?)

    The Constitution upholds Secularism – the right to freedom of worship. But what is enshrined in the Constitution is not necessarily what we see happening. What I’m talking about is the way in which this right has actually been interpreted and constructed in the Indian polity. The Congress vote bank politics of appeasing the minorities has made a mockery of secularism by making it hinge on majoritarian tolerance, benevolence. And the limits of that tolerance stand exposed by the rise of Hindutva.
    The comparison with Islam: organized religion, whether Islam, Christianity, or Hinduism, is by nature authoritarian. I prefer to speak of Indian culture, if, as my friend The Quirky Indian would say, indeed such a thing exists. And Indian culture which Hindutva claims to represent and protect is not a monolithic religion – it is a complex, pluralistic mixture of different religions, and the bhasa and mlecha traditions along with Brahminical Hinduism. And since I believe Hindutva is just the militant form of Brahminical Hinduism I’m not at all surprised that women are their soft targets.

  4. @abz: I do not entertain offensive language on my blog. Please go find another forum for your views.
    @Sumanth: ditto

  5. greycity said

    I agree that secularism in India has degenerated into Hindu tolerance, but I do not want to be cynical or pessimistic enough to conclude that this was inevitable. I would much rather believe that it is possible for secularism to become established in our society through a gradually increasing disregard for religion, or caste, or any other aspects of identity that are counter-productive to personal progress in the modern world.

    Of course, this isn’t true. In fact, there are substantial rewards for identifying oneself with a particular group, and I cannot think of a way to entirely rid the system of such incentives. (Incidentally, I don’t think that militant Hindutva was set up as an answer to militant Islam. I think both of these exist simply because it pays to be divisive.)

    Still, and I’m not saying it’s time to rest on our laurels or anything, still, things *do* get better. People *are* looking to improve their condition, and often, with enough thought, they *do* come to the conclusion that the best way to do this is to improve the condition of the entire human race.

    Or am I just being too optimistic?

  6. greycity:

    That’s a pertinent point you make about militant Islam and Hinduism – because it’s become a convenient justifcation for Hindutva.

    Yes, eventually good sense will prevail. One needs the optimism, no?

  7. Space Bar said

    send them pink chaddis, no? (Are youon FB? there’s a group there and it’s all too weird to say in the comments section of a good post. mail!)

  8. SB:
    I can imagine. Got some gems myself, too.

    No FB, Orkut, Twitter … no social media for me. Dont have the time or inclination.
    But yes, the whole thing is utterly weird. And on hindsight I don’t even think we should make it the context of any discussion on religion, culture, morality …

  9. […] before the BJP erupted on the scene and that they’re now leading us back into that heaven. But as I’ve said before, the insecurity of minorities in this country is as much a legacy of the Congress as it is of the […]

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