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This Is Why It’s Not Fair To Refer To All Indians As ‘Hindus’

Posted on September 12, 2014 in Specials

By Chandrashekar B:

Recently many right wing fringe elements and prominent politicians associated with the BJP have been professing their views on Indians’ religious identity. A central minister says, “All Indians are Hindus”, and later retracts saying that she meant ‘Hindi’ and not ‘Hindu’. A deputy CM of the ruling party, who is a Christian, also says the same before adding, “I’m a Christian Hindu”. Not that their views are anything that is totally unexpected of them, but is there any substance in this view? Are all Indians Hindus? Well, the answer is both yes and no!

Picture Credits: Allen Brewer
Picture Credits: Allen Brewer

Let’s look back at the origin of the word ‘Hindu’. The word ‘Hindu’ is derived through Persian from the Sanskrit word ‘Sindhu’. People living on the other side of the Sindhu (present Indus) river were called ‘Sindhus’ by the ancient Persians, which eventually became ‘Hindus’ because the Persians pronounced ‘S’ as ‘H’. Hence the word ‘Hindu’ initially started as a geographical term. There is no mention of the word ‘Hindu’ in any old Indian scriptures because there was no need to contrast the religion, as there was no other religion prevalent in the land. Even after Buddhism and Jainism stemmed out of this country, and even after the entry of Muslim rulers, ‘Hinduism’ was not a popular term. It was the Europeans who popularized the word ‘Hindu’ , associating with religion that we call as ‘Hinduism’ today.

So, when we get into the etymological meaning of ‘Hindu’, yes, everyone living in India is a Hindu.

Another interesting aspect that these people put forward is that the followers of different faiths in India were originally Hindus, who were later converted to their respective religions. Even if we believe that India once remained an all-Hindu nation. It even embraced Buddhism and Jainism as a liberal offshoot of Hinduism. When Afghans entered India a thousand years ago, they brought their religion with them and so did the Europeans a few centuries back. All non-Hindus in India are converts is a view that is shared even by some of the most liberal of our politicians, including Jawaharlal Nehru in his book Discovery of India.

Great! Does that mean we can call all our citizens as Hindus?

Words go through something called ‘semantic drift’, where the word evolves to mean a point in the modern society that is radically different from the original usage. ‘Hindu’ is such a word. There are various factors that lead to this semantic drift including sociocultural forces, linguistic forces, psychological forces etc. When a new meaning is established, it wouldn’t be fair to use the word at its original face value. Now we use the word Hindu to denote a person following ‘Hinduism’ and that is the right way to use it even if it originated referring to people living beyond a geographical boundary.

It would be puerile to say Hindu is a person with a certain way of life and quote the Supreme Court judgement of 1995 that ruled ‘Hindutva as a way of life or a state of mind and not to be equated with Hindu fundamentalism’ because of two reasons. One, some legal experts still opine that the Supreme Court’s verdict in this facet is flawed. Two, practically speaking, in our contemporary society, Hinduism is a religion, and in a way, all religions are just a ‘way of life’.

Many people are also of the belief that the followers of Christianity and Islam in India were originally Hindus, centuries back. Even if that were the case, now that they have associated themselves with a different faith, it wouldn’t be right in expecting them to agree to be labelled as Hindus. Imposing a single identity with a term that has any religious shade will lead only to discomfort, and more importantly, hatred.

When Narendra Modi took office, he promised that he would be an accommodating PM and would take every one along. At least till a few days back, only people who were not in the policy making level used to voice such controversial views. Now this has taken a turn where ministers and CMs are following suit, which is really dangerous for a multi-religious nation like India.