AT THE OUTSET of Why I Am a Hindu, the politician and writer Shashi Tharoor—a member of the Nair castes, and so a Shudra—writes that the book is in large part a response to the “intolerant and often violent forms of Hindutva that began to impose themselves on the public consciousness of Indians in the 1980s.” I am also a Shudra, part of what are now officially called the Other Backward Classes, and I wrote my book Why I Am Not a Hindu in response to the rise of Hindutva as well.
My book was published in 1996, in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the struggle over the Mandal reservations. It was widely opposed by Brahminical forces, including Hindutva groups, and earned me many threats. No mainstream publisher agreed to carry it, and the book was finally published by Samya, a Kolkata-based imprint of the publishers Bhatkal and Sen. Kolkata was a safe place for such a book in those days, with West Bengal ruled by the Left Front. Bhatkal and Sen also had an imprint in Mumbai, but if the book had been published there, with Maharashtra ruled by an alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, it would have faced the book-burning squads notorious in the state at the time. Why I Am Not a Hindu was not widely promoted, but as word of it spread the book became a bestseller.
Why I Am a Hindu is on its way to becoming a bestseller too, but under very different circumstances. It has been put out by a prestigious publisher that has not been shy with publicity. Tharoor’s argument is that Hindutva goes against what he sees as “the spirit of Hinduism,” but no Hindutva forces have raised any protest against the book, even as they are ascendant across much of the country.
Tharoor’s book is the very opposite of mine, and not just in its title. I said I am not a Hindu because of the inequality by birth of different communities within Hinduism, as enshrined in the caste system that pervades Hindu scripture, morality, ritual, social organisation—really the entire Hindu worldview. The very theory of caste goes against the fundamental principle that all humans are created equal. I also criticised Hinduism’s negation of the values and labour that go into productive work, which it stigmatises and reserves for oppressed castes, and the resulting maltreatment of productive communities, including Shudras and Dalits (my book referred to both under the collective term “Dalitbahujans”). Tharoor, by contrast, talks of restoring Hinduism “to its truest essence, which in many ways is that of an almost ideal faith for the twenty-first-century world.” He celebrates it as “a religion that is personal and individualistic, privileges the individual and does not subordinate one to a collectivity; a religion that grants and respects complete freedom to the believer to find his or her own answers to the true meaning of life; a religion that offers a wide range of choice in religious practice, even in regard to the nature and form of the formless God; a religion that places great emphasis on one’s mind, and values one’s capacity for reflection, intellectual enquiry, and self-study; a religion that distances itself from dogma and holy writ, that is minimally prescriptive and yet offers an abundance of options, spiritual and philosophical texts and social and cultural practices to choose from.”
Tharoor does not seem to have read my book, despite choosing a title that echoes mine. He does not engage with my arguments anywhere. He also ignores some far more important thinkers on Hinduism. Among Shudra writers alone, the tradition of critiquing the religion goes back at least to Jotirao Phule, the Maharashtrian social reformer whose 1873 book Gulamgiri, or “Slavery,” was a stinging critique of Hinduism and the caste system. In 1941, Dharma Theertha published The History of Hindu Imperialism, another serious assessment of Hinduism, and came to conclude that it oppresses all Shudras. Although Dharma Theertha was a Nair like Tharoor, he refused to describe himself as a Hindu.