Indian ethos, not Hindu ethos

By Usama Khalidi

One of the most vicious phrases the Hindutva ideologues employed during their debates over many years was “Hindu ethos”, at once setting Hindus apart from the Muslims, conjuring up all kinds of negative images of the Muslim “other”, seeking a presumed unity of views with the audiences. After five weeks of soul-searching since the drubbing it received in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP issued a statement again invoking Hindu ethos, albeit a more inclusive one. Its national leaders declared in a resolution adopted June 21st:

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“Hindutva is not to be understood or construed narrowly confined to religious practices or expressed in extreme forms. It is related to the culture and ethos of the people … a way of life … and, therefore, inclusive.” It also rejected theocracy or any form of bigotry as “alien to our ethos.”

The election results have generated a new national self-awareness, one that is more confidently rooted in the country’s traditions. As we celebrate a re-assertion of the values that have made India a great civilization, it is worth examining – and establishing – the fact of an Indian ethos that includes not only Muslims, but Sikhs, the Dalit, Christians and everybody else. The Indian ethos is perfectly analogous with the American ethos and its British, French and German varieties, but not with those of the totalitarian states.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ethos as: “1. The fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society. 2. The distinguishing character or disposition of a community or group, person etc. the moral element in dramatic literature that determines a character’s action or behavior (Greek: custom, habit, character.”)

Obviously, these are subjective categories of thought. There may be differences in the religious rituals or other cultural practices among the different segments of the population, but the spirit, character and sentiments underlying these practices are pretty much the same across the board. These differences cannot possibly be subject to legislation. So when a political party talks about ethos, its purpose cannot be anything other than to divide the electorate between “them and us” in its crudest form. This was the tactics of the Nazis, the Fascists, and their numerous imitators all over the globe, except that these tactics have worked minimally in the West, but more substantially in the nascent democracies of the third world.

The BJP resolution would seem to indicate a remarkable recognition of India’s deep-rooted multiculturalism if it was honest and meant what it says in all its significant implications:

Indian ethos envelops and encompasses its Muslim population simply because they have been an integral part of India’s political and cultural history for more than a thousand years. Islam enriched Hindus as much as Hinduism enriched the lives of Muslims and thus the Indian version of Islam, which evolved in a dialogue with Vedic values. In its classical, textbook form, removed from the realities of daily life, Islam stood for universal equality, thus posing a challenge to the Vedic sanction of the caste system. The Sufi version of Islam as it evolved in India accepted the premise that some spiritually highly evolved individuals acquire a closeness to Divinity. Honoring these holy men brings peace and good tidings to devotees, who may even help fulfill some of their longings. The classical Vedic definition of karma also underwent some changes as it acquired a sense of fatalism influenced by Muslim notions of taqdeer.

The impact of television and spread of education were bound to produce a standardization of social and political behavior regardless of religious pieties, as has been witnessed in the West as well as in other economically successful societies, such as China and Japan.

The process of modernization also was destined to help standardize behavior, with its acceptance of the basic principles of secularism, rationalism in dealing with social problems, and establishing equal rights for women.

Viewed in this light, the Indian ethos acquires equivalence with the national ethoses of most mature democracies, such as America, the UK, France and Germany. Each of these societies has some peculiarly national characteristics, which find expression in its political culture. Perhaps it is the maturity of democratic systems that allows the most progressive and universalist elements of national culture to gain ascendency. These elements seem to be missing from the national cultures of such totalitarian and authoritarian countries as China, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The assertion of India’s national ethos by the BJP would be more meaningful if its leaders and theorists own up the gross violations of India’s moral traditions on their watch in Gujarat in 2002, when many more than 2,000 innocent citizens were slaughtered under state supervision. They would also need to revisit the nationally staged vandalism organized by the BJP leaders in UP in 1992.