If you really want to know how different real Hinduism is from political Hinduism of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, Shashi Tharoor’s latest book has the answer.
Why I am a Hindu comes at a time when attacks on religious minorities continue to grow under the BJP government.
Hindu extremists who've been targeting Muslims and Christians—as well as Dalits, or so-called untouchables—with impunity want to turn India into Hindu theocracy.
Calls for a Hindu India are being made shamelessly under hawkish Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though it is still a matter of time before the Indian constitution can be amended to make that happen.
Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002 when an anti-Muslim massacre was organized by the BJP supporters following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims.
More than 50 people died in the train incident, which was blamed on Muslim extremists.
Human rights activists and survivors continue to allege Modi’s complicity in the violence against Muslims, though he's denied this.
Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, there has been a spike in religious violence.
Tharoor is a practising Hindu, former diplomat, and an MP with the opposition Congress party, which describes itself as the secular alternative to the BJP.
In his book he throws light on the history of Hinduism, a great religion that has always been liberal and tolerant.
He writes how Hinduism gave refuge to Jews and Parsis in India over the centuries and allowed Christianity and Islam to grow. Hinduism itself is very diverse and eclectic.
Tharoor points out that Hinduism has no one scripture or deity to follow and allows self-criticism and even agnosticism. In his book he takes a critical look at the brutal caste system that has been practised among Hindus for centuries, and emphasizes the importance of breaking these barriers.
In addition, Tharoor goes into great detail about the narrow brand of Hinduism practised by BJP supporters in a section titled "Political Hinduism".
Based on his understanding of Hinduism he counters their divisive politics and misinterpretation of the religion. He repeatedly writes how political Hinduism or Hindutva—based on the idea of a Hindu theocracy—can divide the soul of India, which has always been known for its pluralism and diversity.
However, Tharoor glosses over the inconvenient truth of his party’s culpability in the growth of Hindutva forces. After all, it was Congress leader and former prime minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, who started hobnobbing with Hindutva forces during the mid 1980s.
Gandhi's party was responsible for the anti-Sikh massacre of 1984 that followed the assassination of his mother and then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards.
The widespread attacks on Sikhs helped her son win the general election with a brute majority and set a precedent for future pogroms, including the one that happened in Gujarat in 2002.
Although Tharoor briefly mentions that, he does not show courage by going into details of the pogrom to reveal how Hindutva forces were used as foot soldiers in the crime.
On the contrary, he tries to rationalize Gandhi’s decision to allow the public broadcast of Hindu epics that actually helped the BJP. For instance, several stars in the TV serial of Ramayana ended up becoming BJP MPs.
Rajiv Gandhi was also responsible for opening the doors of a disputed site of Ayodhya to let Hindu priests perform rituals, which finds no mention in the book. Hindus claim that the ancient Babri mosque that stood at Ayodhya was built by a Muslim ruler after demolishing a temple originally built at the birthplace of Lord Rama, a revered Hindu god.
The BJP started a campaign to rebuild the Ram temple at the disputed site. Once access was granted, it emboldened the Hindutva brigade.
On December 6, 1992, when BJP supporters pulled down the structure, the late Congress leader P.V. Narsimha Rao was prime minister. Tharoor obviously knows all of this and yet he chose to overlook these facts in his book, which essentially deals with Hindutva politics.
By simply pointing fingers at the BJP, he cannot exonerate the Congress party that has to take blame for the majoritarian intolerant society that India has become. This only creates more doubts about the sincerity and honesty of the Congress in the eyes of those who are looking for an alternative to Modi in the 2019 elections.
Despite all this, Tharoor has undoubtedly done an important work that helps people understand key difference between Hinduism and Hindutva.
This gives hope to ordinary Hindus to reclaim their faith from the self-styled gatekeepers of their religion, who are giving it a bad name worldwide.
In a fight against such forces, we do need allies from within the Hindu community who can hold up a mirror to Modi and his supporters—and for that reason Tharoor’s narrative will come in handy in educating masses.