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The Ugly H Word
Pritish Nandy


President George W Bush, in his inaugural address, made so many references to God, the Bible and Christianity that even the American media sat up and noticed it. No, no one was in the least embarrassed by it. But they noticed it and some of them pointed it out, quite approvingly. For in American politics such references to religion are not seen as anything wrong. A President who flaunts his faith is no zealot; nor is he a Christian fundamentalist. He is a good, decent, God-fearing man.

Bush is not the first American President to be so openly Christian. Many before him have also rooted for a good, strong Christian image. No one doubted their motives. No one disparaged them for doing so. Even when it won them votes, no one accused them of religious bigotry or political opportunism.

Compare this to India. Think of what Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee goes through every time he mentions the dreaded H word. While many are ready to applaud him when he talks about fresh peace initiatives in Kashmir or making friends with Pakistan, the moment he says anything about being Hindu or defends the cause of Hindutva, he is promptly accused of revealing his true colours as a khaki knickerwallah. The very mention of his religious antecedents, however gently, raises the hackles of the Opposition and the media. Forget President Bush; if Vajpayee were to just talk about what being a Hindu means to him, he would be flagellated as a bigot who has emerged from the closet.

So strong is the pressure built up by the secular lobby in India that even leaders like Vajpayee, known for their open-mindedness in matters of religion, are now increasingly embarrassed to acknowledge their Hindu roots. It is as if being Hindu is politically incorrect, something to be ashamed of. The moral of the story is: If you must wear khaki knickers, wear them under your white dhoti so that no one can out you as a bigot, a traditionalist, or simply as an old fashioned prig. Secularism today is synonymous with modernity. It is synonymous with human rights. With the spirit of liberalisation, the scientific temper, with globalisation as we aspire to it.

Can you imagine Vajpayee in one of his speeches referring to Ram as the guiding spirit of our nationhood? Can you see him repeatedly quoting from the Bhagvad Gita or the Upanishads to underscore a political point? He would be torn apart. Even Vande Mataram is labelled as a Hindu anthem today, not the national anthem. The national anthem is Jana Gana Mana which is ostensibly secular. No speech by a prime minister refers to anything Hindu without promptly balancing it with a cross reference to Islam or Christianity or Sikhism. We are always anxious to show the world how secular we are. If in the process we are regressing from our own faith, so be it.

When President Bush refers to God or Jesus Christ or the Bible, it does not make him a bigot or a fundamentalist. So why should we blame Vajpayee when he sees the Ram Mandir as the collective dream of this nation? His secular credentials are well known. His abiding faith in the peace process has been repeatedly demonstrated and, even though he has been let down again and again by Pakistan, he has refused to give up hope in the possibility of achieving peace in Kashmir. All this, against the wishes of some of his own supporters in the NDA. Yet he has been brave enough to stick his neck out and root for peace. He knows that radical Islam is a dangerous and destabilising force all over the world but he never refers to it. Instead, he has chosen to deliberately secularise our semantics by referring to it as cross-border terrorism even though the whole world knows where this cross-border terrorism comes from, who funds it, and why.

My question is: Why must we deny Prime Minister Vajpayee his right to be a Hindu? Bush does not become a fundamentalist when he refers to Christianity or the Bible. No one argues that he is anti-Muslim or anti-secular simply because he flaunts his own faith in public. By the same argument, when Vajpayee speaks of Hindutva or the Ram temple, why should we brand him as a fundamentalist? He remains what he always was: a Hindu at heart, a secular leader in office. In fact, as we all know, the only way to be truly secular is to be (first) a good Hindu or a good Christian or a good Muslim. Unless you respect your own faith you are unlikely to respect the faith of others.

The media and the Opposition are repeatedly arguing that Vajpayee is double-faced. That he hunts with the hounds and runs with the hares. On one hand he is the gentle and liberal face of the BJP. On the other, he keeps using the Hindu card to further his own political ends. That he is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing. A Hindu bigot wearing the mask of secularism to sneakily woo the minority vote.

This is a foolish argument. The prime minister has no reason to be bashful of the H word. It is possible to be a Hindu without compromising one's secular credentials. Like Gandhi. He was a good Hindu and a great secular leader too. There was no conflict of interest. In fact, it is just the opposite. Those who speak so passionately about secularism are the ones who barter it away so easily. In their pursuit of easy political goals. Without realising the simple fact that hypocrisy is no substitute for political conviction.



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