One of my heroes is Marathi writer and reformer Hamid Dalwai. Born in 1932 on the Konkan coast, Dalwai wrote some well regarded short stories and novellas; then, appalled by the reactionary tendencies in his faith, he abandoned writing for activism. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he campaigned relentlessly against the stranglehold over the Muslim community exercised by a backward-looking clergy.
For all his commitment, Dalwai failed to shake the Muslim leadership out of their torpid orthodoxy. In 1971, he went to seek the counsel of an old freedom fighter named Anisur Rehman, a modernist who had worked with Jawaharlal Nehru. An eyewitness reported this exchange:
Dalwai: ‘In your opinion how can we put an end to the separatist tendencies that exist in Muslim politics? Please tell us how to put an end to separation [from the mainstream].’
Rehman: ‘This is a very pertinent question. The fact is that the Muslims seem to have locked their sensibilities with a huge padlock and have thrown the key away. Now it has become difficult to open that lock. If you choose to break it open you are considered an enemy of Islam and an anti-Muslim person.’
Despite their vision and their fearlessness, modernisers like Dalwai did not command much popular support within their community. On the other hand, through the 19th and 20th centuries, liberals and modernisers had a considerable impact on ridding Hinduism of regressive social practices. The roll call of these influential Hindu reformers is long: A partial listing would include the names of Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Swami Vivekananda, Mohandas K Gandhi, Swami Shraddhanand, DK Karve and Jawaharlal Nehru.
These individuals I have (so far) mentioned were all male and all upper caste. Yet, to their enormous credit, they worked either for the emancipation of the so-called untouchables, or for the rights of women, or for both. This process of reform from above was complemented and furthered by the process of reform from below, with women and lower castes sending forth their own leaders to fight for their rights, such as (among others) Tarabai Shinde, Pandita Ramabai, Savitribai Phule, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay; Jotiba Phule, Iyothee Thass, Narayana Guru and BR Ambedkar.
Inspired by these reformers, many Hindus across India learned to orient their actions according to reason and justice rather than a blind adherence to tradition or scripture. Had it not been for these remarkable men and women, India would never have adopted the progressive Constitution that it did. On the ground, the progress was uneven; visible more in the cities than in the countryside, more marked in southern than in northern India. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the country was moving slowly in the direction of gender and caste equality, and of individual freedom and liberty as well.
All that may now be in the past. Hindu liberalism, once so vigorous and on the ascendant, is increasingly besieged, as the leadership of the community passes into the hands of bigots and reactionaries. Having (to quote Gandhi) once lived in a house whose windows were kept open to let the breeze from outside come in freely, having once (to invoke Tagore) gloried in the illumination of a lamp lit anywhere in the world, Hindu leaders are now turning inwards, looking backwards. And large sections of the community are following their lead. Thus ever larger numbers of Hindus seem to have locked their sensibilities with a huge padlock and have thrown the key away. Besides, it has become difficult to open that lock. If you choose to break it open you are considered an enemy of Hinduism and an anti-Hindu person.
The most emphatic evidence of the victory of Hindu bigotry over Hindu liberalism is the enormous importance given by the ruling party to the worship of the cow. The epidemic of gau gundagiri now sweeping UP, Rajasthan, Haryana and Jharkhand is antithetical both to the rule of law and to the rights of individuals. To be sure, for a particular person to show reverence for a particular animal is entirely reasonable. But for a community to use the power of the State to enforce this worship on society as a whole is deeply repugnant. As field studies have shown, the State’s ban on cow slaughter and curbs on trade in cattle are having damaging consequences for the rural economy.
Gau gundagiri is directed outwards, at the minorities. Other forms of contemporary Hindu chauvinism are directed inwards. Hindu patriarchs believe that Hindu women cannot make their own choices; rather, they must be guided and protected by Hindu men. Ambedkar encouraged Dalits to educate, agitate and organise for their rights, but now (as an Indian Express report on the UP Chief Minister’s visit to a Dalit village showed) they are given soap and shampoo to clean and purify themselves for presentation to Hindu leaders. The Constitution saw complete equality for women and Dalits as an absolute right; Hindutva ideologues see it as a discretionary favour, to be granted or withheld as they please.
Back in the 1960s, Dalwai wrote despairingly of the Indian Muslim leadership that ‘when they find faults, the faults are invariably those of other people. They do not have the capacity to understand their own mistakes….’ This description applies in toto to the Hindu leadership of today, which only finds faults in other people – whether Muslims, Christians, sickulars, libtards, or foreigners – while proclaiming that their own community is flawless, guiltless and divinely ordained to lead the world. This would be funny, were its consequences not so tragic.