It was the year 1961. I had entered the California Institute of Technology as a graduate student and a JRD Tata Fellow. That great institution of learning had a large number of programs to make the foreign students feel at home and savor a taste of American life. A fellow graduate student Rao Varanasi and I were invited to spend a weekend with an American family. When we showed up at the house, a five-year old greeted us and asked: “Are you two brothers?”
Rao was an Andhra Brahmin and I was a Kannadiga Muslim. Yet, in the eyes of a five-year old American child we were brothers.
Many years ago, I was visiting the pyramids of Giza. It was a hot summer afternoon and after an exhausting tour of the ruins I sat down briefly in the shadow of the great Pyramid. A tall, dark Egyptian from Nubia emerged from the crowds and seeing me seated on the ground shouted from a distance: “Hey Indian! Do you want me to take your picture?
In the global village, if you want to know who is an Indian, do not look at your passport but look through the eyes of a five-year-old American child or an African man from the Egyptian desert.
There is a symbiosis between a man and the place of his birth. It transcends race, creed and nationality. It is not just how others see you, it is how you see yourself. I have felt the heat of the Sahara Desert on my forehead and the cold of the Rockies in Colorado in my bones but when I dream, I dream of the serenity of Devarayanadurga near my birthplace of Tumkur and the trips we made as school children to the many springs that dot its foothills. I will take the morning song of the Cooyal in Bangalore over the sound of a Blue Jay in San Francisco any day.
That is Hindustaniyet, an unshakeable bond that the land of Hindustan creates with its children whether they drank their first cup of water from the Cauvery or the Jamuna. Hindustaniyet transcends Hindutva and in some respects stands in stark contrast with it.
As India has concluded yet another election and some exult in the triumph of Hindutva, it is time to reflect on what we have gained and what we have lost. The BJP gained because it championed its vision of a unified homogeneous majority and projected itself as a staunch defender of majoritarian nationalism and national security. Pulwama was a timely shot in the arm for this position as were the Balakot strikes. By contrast, the opposition was mired in the calculus of caste politics which diluted its message of economic justice. The Indian National Congress tried soft Hindutva but who wants to buy raw mangoes when the vendor across the street offers fully ripened ones?
When Hindutva was first articulated by Savarkar in 1925, India was a different country. The failure of the khilafat movement and the scuttling of the non-cooperation movement following the events of Chauri Chaura had created a turbulence in the communal harmony of northern India. The British Raj finally collapsed, weakened and exhausted by the Second World War. The challenge of the INA led by Subash Chandra Bose convinced the British that the Indian army was not a trustworthy ally in the maintenance of the empire. The INA had a significant Muslim and Sikh component as most of the British Indian army was recruited from the region between Delhi and Peshawar. Significantly, there was little contribution from Hindutva, or from any Muslim right-wing organization in the independence struggle of India. The space occupied by the British Indian empire is now shared between three independent nations, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (include Myanmar if you go back to 1937).
There are elements of Hindutva such as nationalism, individual discipline and emphasis on traditional Indian culture that are praiseworthy. However, it is flawed in its historical narratives and communal exclusivity. Its portrayal of the Great Mughals as foreign invaders is historically untenable. The Mughal empire was a shared Rajput-Mughal enterprise. Shah Jehan was three-fourths Rajput by blood and one fourth Mughal. When Akbar extended his domains to Badakhshan in Uzbekistan, he chose Raja Man Singh to lead the Mughal armies. The Mughals enriched India, built it into the most prosperous country in the world with over 30 percent of global GDP and left a legacy of music, art, architecture, language and literature, which is to this day the marvel of the world. Can one imagine an India without the Taj Mahal, the Red Ford, the music of Tan Sen or the Urdu Ghazals of Mirza Ghalib?
The 200 million strong Muslim community in India bears the brunt of Hindutva. Devastated by the trauma of partition, now marginalized, leaderless and rudderless, it finds itself naked in the face of what it perceives as an existential threat from the forces of Hindutva. Bereft of leadership, it runs into the arms of reactionary mullahs who have no knowledge of science or history and are clueless about the winds of change sweeping the global village. The Shah Banu case and the Triple Talaq Bill are only milestones on its long road to self-flagellation.
The opposition failed in the recent elections because it did not articulate a vision for India that would provide an alternative to the emotive appeal of Hindutva.
Today, India stands at historic crossroads. One road leads to a Hindu Rashtra, guided by the principles of Hindutva. The other leads to a pluralistic India guided by the principles of Hindustaniyet. Whereas Hindutva offers a monochromatic vision of India, Hindustaniyet presents the full rainbow that captures its diversified greatness. Whereas the one erects a tent standing on a single pole, the other builds an edifice supported by many columns.
This is a historic opportunity for the Indian National Congress and the opposition to articulate clearly an alternate vision of India based on Hindustaniyet. This vision builds on the natural bond between a man and his birth transcending his race, color, language, region, caste or religion. Hindustaniyet is a mighty tree under which a Bengali and a Kannadiga, a Gujarati and a Keralite, a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian of whatever caste or color can take shelter.
A Hindustan based on Hindustaniyet has the existential potential to provide leadership to all of South Asia, including the neighboring countries and anchor a region of prosperity extending from Samarqand to Colombo. That would be a game changing paradigm in world history.
Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a retired space scientist. Currently, he is a director of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education in Washington, D.C.