Thoughts on economics and liberty

The increasing lack of tolerance in Hinduism

Continuing a public discussion of draft sections from DOF, this is the current revision on Hinduism (further portions of this section, in relation to proselytisation, are yet to be revised – and I'll put them out for comment later).

As usual, I seek comments  – this time particularly from those who see themselves as Hindus. I'd like to be challenged/questioned on accuracy and analysis, not on language which will be further improved. 

Tolerance (and intolerance) in Hinduism

Some people think that Hinduism is particularly tolerant. For instance, Max Weber wrote in 1958 that ‘[i]t is an undoubted fact that in India, religions and philosophical thinkers were able to enjoy perfect, nearly absolute freedom for a long period. The freedom of thought in ancient India was so considerable as to find no parallel in the west before the most recent age.’[1]

In comparison to the sheer brutality displayed, on occassion, by some other religions, the India-orginated religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism – have almost never resorted to violence or even economic coercion to convert others. While some internecine battles in Hinduism did, at times, degenerate into violence, these were very rare and relatively small, being an exception not the rule (I therefore disagree with a 1925 encyclopaedia entry that suggests that ‘though Hinduism is eminently eclectic and tolerant, disputes between rival sectarians, ending in bloodshed are not uncommon’.[2] Indeed such bloodshed has been extremely uncommon. Most such disputes have been at the intellectual level, with no use of physical force It is clear that a wide range of competing worldviews co-existed in India. Refugees from other religions have also, almost always, found shelter. For example, the Zoroastrians who migrated to India from Persia upon its conquest by Muslims have continued to thrive in their new homeland with the Tata family being a prime example.
Similarly (and there is a lively controversy regarding this event which is obviously earlier in historya and has relatlively fewer evidentiary sources), many Syrian Christians of Kerala trace their roots to Christ’s apostle, St. Thomas, who is said to have taught in south India. They were apparently not persecuted by Indians, but it was the Portuguese, upon their arrival 1400 years later, who declared these early Christians to be heretics and apparently destroyed their documents.
Regardless of the doubts that surround the story of the ‘doubting’ St. Thomas, it can be reasonably said that the Hindu tradition is tolerant towards others’ beliefs. The typical Hindu thinks that the truth is one, although sages call it by different names.
But Hinduism is not all good news. While Hinduism was largely tolerant of other beliefs, it showed extreme intolerance towards those it calls the ‘untouchables’. Although it appears that the caste system was not hereditary during the Vedic period, things changed for the worse down the line. While untouchables were not killed (exceptions notwithstanding), they were treated with greater contempt that slaves might suffer. Hinduism has not yet wiped out the caste system, but, instead, strengthened it by including references to it in the Indian constitution.
But there is another aspect of Hinduism that I explore in some detail now, an aspect that indicates increasing amounts of intolerance in Hinduism, a trend that has gathered pace in the past few decades.

Hindu political claims on India

There is simply no doubt about it that most Muslim rulers of India did not endear themselves to the Hindus. Some destroyed temples, others forcibly converted Hindus to Islam, albeit not as rampantly perhaps as sometimes attributed to them. But the Mughal rule ended long ago. The more recent problems of intrusion of religion into political affairs seem to have commenced in the early 20th century when some Hindu political leaders became over-assertive, even aggressive, after it became evident that the Muslims would become a minority in independent, democratic India. They seem to have taken this as an opportunity to exact revenge for previous Muslim rule.
One would have imagined that this delicate political situation, where India was going to be governed by its own people as one nation after a gap of hundreds of years, would have been an occasion for Hindu tolerance to smoothen the debate and embrace those who had been forced to convert to Islam (by the jaziya). But that did not happen.
It is true that the situation was extremely confounding. British rulers, as a strategy to bolster their negotiating position, decided to promote the Muslim League that was founded in 1906 by Aga Khan as a counterweight against the Indian National Congress founded in 1885. The Muslim League did not need much promotion, for many Muslims had already arrived at the view, based on the actions of some Congress leaders, that the Congress was a Hindu, not nationalistic body. Many Congressmen demanded a ban on cow slaughter – an imposition of religious belief on the affairs of the state. Bal Gandadhar Tilak, in innocence surely (but that is not a good excuse), made relations worse by glorifying Shivaji’s actions. In a poem by Tilak, Shivaji speaks thus:
I protect the cow as my mother
She is the foundation of life, the giver of strength
…Yet these people, they take mother cow away
they lead her to the butcher, they have her slaughtered.[3]
Thus ‘a vague Hindu aura pervaded much of the nationalist agitation because of the use of Hindu symbols, idioms, and myths.’[4] The implicit demand that new India be restructured around Hindu beliefs alienated many Muslims, even those who had joined the Congress (like Jinnah). Many such Mulisms joined the Muslim League as well[5] – perhaps as a precaution.
The Congress, to make amends (prompted by Gandhi) went overboard through the 1916 Lucknow Pact, and promised a disproportionate share of electoral seats to Muslims. That was unwarranted, and implied that the rule of law would be bent to accommodate Muslims. Many Hindu Congressmen (rightly) saw this as appeasement. In his discontent Madan Mohan Malaviya created the Hindu Mahasabha (sometime between 1909 and in 1917). The honemoon between Hindus and Muslims was over. By 1920-22, ‘Abu’l Kalam Azad and the Jamiyyat were already advocating the division of India’[6], asking for self-governing institutions for Muslims.
In the 1920s, furious communal rioting broke out across India. Religion and politics got deeply intertwined, and remain so, today. In 1925 K.B. Hedgewar founded a more rabid Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Gandhi did not help matters by calling for Ram Rajya, claiming he meant Divine Raj. In a speech he gave at Bhopal on 10 September, 1929 he said:
I warn my Mussalman friends against misunderstanding me in my use of the word ‘Ramarajya’. By ‘Ramarajya’ I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean by ‘Ramarajya’ Divine Raj, the Kigdom of God. For me Rama and Rahim are one and the same deity. I acknowledge no other god but the one god of Truth and righteousness. Whether the Rama of my imagination ever lived or not on this earth, the ancient ideal of Ramarajya is undoubtedly one of true democracy in which the meanest citizen could be sure of swift justice without an elaborate and costly procedure.[7]
Regardless of what he meant, this was a very wrong signal to send to India, linking religion with politics and droving a wedge between Hindus and Muslims.
In the most spiritual area on earth, it was inevitable that the freedom struggle should take on the guise of a religious crusade, and Gandhi had made it one… Inevitably, unintentionally, Gandhi’s Congress Party movement began to take on a Hindu tone and colour that aroused Moslem suspicions.[8]
In 1930 Sir Muhammad Iqbal, presiding over the Muslim League’s annual session, proposed the amalgamation of India’s four Muslim majority states. This suggestion, divisive as it was, was not the equivalent of asking for two separate nations. But in January 1933, Rahmat Ali, a then law student in Cambridge University, first put forth the two-nation idea, calling the proposed nation Pakistan (Punjab, North-West Frontier Province (Afghan Province), Kashmir, Sind and Baluchistan). But – and this is important – almost no Muslim bought into this. At least till 1937, most Indian Muslims were convinced about living in one united nation.
[W]hen Muslim politicians came to fight the first elections to be held under the 1935 Act, the fought them with the same assumptions as did the other parties to those elections, namely that India would remain constitutionally united, albeit under a federation, and that Muslims would continue to live as fellow-citizens of non-Muslims all over the sub-continent. Indeed, in many spheres of policy Muslim politicians went into the elections determined to prove how much Muslims shared with their fellow-countrymen.
And now Muhammad Ali Jinnah entered the scene again – this time to play a decisive role. A short digression on Jinnah is perhaps in order. Jinnah, born to a recently Gujarati family that had only recently converted from Hinduism to Islam, trained in law in England (the youngest Indian to be called to the bar) and came to hold firm classical liberal views. He worked closely with liberal stalwarts like Gokhle upon his return to India, and joined the Congress in 1906. When the Muslim League was founded, he opposed its formation[9] and also opposed the concept of separate electorates. But things changed. By 1916 he had become a conservative Muslim voice in favour of the Lucknow Pact, though he remained in the Congress. As a constitutionalist, he objected vigorously to Gandhi’s civil disobedience plans. In the process, he felt patronized, even humiliated by Gandhi, a Johnny-come-lately, who had returned to India only in 1915. He left the Congress in 1920.[10] Over the years he become increasingly frustrated and irrelevant in India, as Gandhi became the main leader. And so he ended up in England, in 1931, a recluse[11]. However, by 1935 the Aga Khan, Rahmat Ali and Muhammad Iqbal had persuaded him of the two nation theory and persuaded him to return. Despite that, he genuinely tried to cooperate with the Congress and the smaller Muslim parties for a while.
In the 1937 provincial elections that were held across India under the Government of India Act 1935, the Muslim League secured just 109 of the 482 reserved seats for Muslims, the rest going to the Congress. The League had become irrelevant. Jinnah sought a face-saving agreement with Congress to provide representation to the League in a coalition government. Nehru’s Congress declined – arguably the greatest mistake he made in his life (his second major mistake was the adoption of socialism in independent India – noting that Nehru clearly did not represent Hindus in any way, being a paragon of securalism). The ‘Congress proceeded to read the Muslim politicians of the United Provinces, the province where historically Muslims had considered themselves the natural aristocracy, a lesson in the power of elected majorities’[12]
Nehru demanded that the Muslim League disband before he could accommodate Jinnah. This seemed to Jinnah to be a weaker version of the by now well established concept of Hindutva according to which everyone in India was supposed to abide by a Hindu heritage. (India has a distinct fundamental character but it is definitely not Hindutva. Instead, it is a liberal, questioning, tolerant and self-reflective, peaceful character.)
Jinnah was furious. Muslims across India took this to be a sign of the Hindu arrogance they could expect in independent India. Jinnah exploded: ‘We are not going to be camp followers or a subject race of a Hindu Raj’[13]. The ‘Muslim[s]… felt betrayed and humiliated, and in opposition took every opportunity to make public the wrongs, real or fictitious, suffered by the Muslims under Congress rule.’[14] Strategic foresight could have prevented this disastrous outcome.
And yet, Jinnah still did not publicly call for two nations.
Instead, the knife was driven through India first by Hindu Mahsabha which proclaimed the two-nation theory during its 1937 annual session in Calcutta, when V.D. Savarkar (an atheistic Hindu) declared: ‘Let us bravely face unpleasant facts as they are. India cannot be assumed today to be a unitarian and homogeneous nation, but on the contrary there are two nations in the main; the Hindus and the Moslems, in India.[15] This was the first public articulation of the two nation theory by a major political organisation. 
Golwalkar of RSS also expressed strong support for such an idea through his 1939 book We in which he said:
The foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture … or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment-not even citizen’s right.[16] [Note that We has now been officially proscribed by the RSS[17].]
Jinnah was now wedged. He could no longer control the events. Neither Congress nor the Hindu Mahasabha were willing to negotiate a cooperative position. The Muslim League, with great regret, passed the ‘Pakistan’ resolution in Lahore on 23 March 1940.
This is not an analysis of India’s partition, but an analysis of Hindu tolerance. Unfortunately, based on the way Hindus mixed religion with politics before partition and afterwards (such as the 1992 demotion of the Babri Masjid and subsequent killings of Muslims across India), the supporters of Jinnah could well argue that he had made the right decision in 1940.
Jinnah never got to rule Pakistan for long, dying soon after Pakistan’s creation. A liberal at one time, he had set in motion events that made Pakistan into an Islamic state, without moorings in the constitutionalism he so admired. The fuel given to fanatic Islam in Pakistan and Bangladesh led to the suppression of Hindus who chose to remain behind. Virtually none now remain. The sub-continent has thus suffered (and continues to sufer) unimaginable pain over the past sixty years, with the Kashmir issue, for intance, which arose from the ill-thought out partition, not yet resolved.
Upon looking at these facts of the case from a distance, one can’t avoid attributing blame to both Hindus and Muslims for this outcome in which no one won, and everyone lost. What happened next affected millions, including my family. Half a million people were killed during India’s partition. And tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands have lost their lives during subsequent tensions in Kashmir, during wars between India and Pakistan, in during communal violence across India and other parts of the sub-continent.
In recent decades, rabid Hindu groups (e.g. the Sangha Parivar which includes RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal) have indulged in or promoted violence against Muslims. Fanatic ‘Hindu’ politicians (including members of Congress (I)) have provoked riots or allowed Muslims to be killed through deliberate incompetence. The Indian police, comprising largely Hindu employees has, on occasion, participated in major atrocities against Muslims. Official investigations of communal riots tell us about the severe communalisation of India’s governance.[18] And from my reading of what is going on, the educated Hindus are on average even more intolerant than uneducated ones. With all this, to suggest that Hinduism (as a whole) is a tolerant religion would be a travesty of the truth. It could equally be argued, given available data, that it is vindictive, and that it attacks the weak and helpless.
While Muslim citizens in independent India have broadly been law-abiding. However, this increasing Hindu intolerance combined with Islam’s inability to modernize has made India into a seething cauldron of tensions from which violent erupts at unpredictable intervals.

Let’s pause for a moment in memory of those killed, maimed, and uprooted in the sub-continent, and pray (if there is God) that religions will begin to play a constructive role in the future.

[1] Weber, Max, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, New York: The Free Press, 1958. [CHECK FROM ORIGINAL BOOK]

[2] W. Crooke, in his entry on Hinduism in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics ed. James Hastings, 1925, T&T Clark. Vol. 6 p. 709.

[3] Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s ‘Shivaji’s Utterances’, cited inJasper, Daniel, ‘Commemorating the "Golden Age" Of Shivaji In Maharashtra, India and the Development of Maharashtrian Public Politics’, Journal of Political and Military Sociology, Winter 2003 .

[4] Chandra, Bipin, India’s Struggle for Independence, New Delhi: Penguin, 1989, p.410.

[5] Hardy, P., The Muslims of British India, 1972, p. 187.

[6] Hardy, P., The Muslims of British India, 1972, p. 195.

[7] Complete Works of Gandhi, VOL. 47: 1 SEPTEMBER, 1929 – 20 NOVEMBER, 1929, p.41

[8] Lapierre, Dominique, and Larry Collins, Freedom at Midnight, 1997 (2003 reprint), New Delhi, Vikas Publishing House, p.32.

[9] Chandra, Bipin, India’s Struggle for Independence, New Delhi: Penguin, 1989, p.432.

[10] Noorani, A.G., Assessing Jinnah, Frontline, Aug 13 – 26, 2005.

[11] Hardy, P., The Muslims of British India, 1972, p. 223.

[12] Hardy, P., The Muslims of British India, 1972, p. 225.

[13] Indian Annual Register, 1937, Vol. I, Calcutta Session, 27, 28 December 1937, reported in Pandey, Deepak, ‘Congress-Muslim League Relations 1937-39: “The Parting of the Ways”’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1978), p. 634n.

[14] Pandey, Deepak, ‘Congress-Muslim League Relations 1937-39: “The Parting of the Ways”’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1978), p. 635.

[15] Nichols, Verdict on India, 1944, p.185.

[16] Golwalkar, M.S. We, or Our Nationhood Defined, Nagpur: Bharat Publications, p. 35, cited in Islam, Shamsul, ‘RSS and the Raj’, in Puniyani, Ram, Religion, Power and Violence: Expression of Politics in Contemporary Times, SAGE, 2005,Google Books. Note that there is a slightly different version of this quotation in Chandra, Bipin, India’s Struggle for Independence, New Delhi: Penguin, 1989, p.437.7

[17] Mukul, Akshaya, ‘RSS officially disowns Golwalkar's book’, Times of India, 9 Mar 2006 [,curpg-2.cms]

[18] Some illustrative case studies at: []

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6 thoughts on “The increasing lack of tolerance in Hinduism
  1. ramesh

    Dear Sabhlok,
    It is not the 'Hinduism' that is intolerant but it is the people who are intolerant. Hinduism or preferably 'ism' is represented by its 'tenets' which need not always be understood correctly by the people who  are supposed to be the followers of the same and who are everywhere (throughout the world) always the 'same'–tenet of Hinduism.
    Instances which you quote need not represent the 'isms'. Just because 'accidents' are more and kill the people, the invention of 'vehicles' itself need not be blamed. They are two different things. Your way of judging the 'isms' particularly 'Hinduism' seems to be erroneous and uncritical for this reason.

  2. Shilpa Nargund

    Hi Sanjeev,
    I think Hinduism is becoming intolerant in retaliation as you yourself have pointed out in your previous blog "Do I demand higher standards of tolerance from Muslims". I have noticed myself becoming more and more angry, which translates to intolerance eventually, every time a terrorist attack occurs in India or other countries. And I don't think this is a knee jerk reaction at this point. Therefore I can believe it when you say that Hindus are becoming more intolerant and to an extent relate to it.

  3. Paritosh J

    @ Sabhlok

    i am all for the economic reforms stated by you in BFN and “re-booting” Hinduism, but i really think that your knowledge of the India’s internal political situation is extremely poor.

    you have seen the radicalisation of Hinduism, but how the heck could you miss the reason behind it? Islamic fanaticism has been bleeding the Hindu faith since several centuries and its only today that this eruption of pent up anger is taking place. only aggression can save Hinduism. in those regards, you seem least bothered.

    you may say, “let the Muslims kill the Hindus, let them riot and make hate speeches as they should have the FREEDOM to do that”. your knowledge of economics is commendable, but you suck at a perceiving political realities the way they are.

  4. Sanjeev Sabhlok

    Hate can’t be reduced by driving it underground. If someone utters hate speech, please engage in debate with the person. By taking the approach you are suggesting, only violence will happen, driving all good people PERMANENTLY out of India. Complex societies need to have mechanisms to resolve differences peacefully, through debate.


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