Yoginder Sikand


Excerpt from a major article titled “Indian Muslim community discourses: continuities,changes and challenges” argues that the assumption that Hindus are the ‘majority community’ in India and that Hinduism is the ‘majority religion’ is actually fallacious.

A general and widely-held assumption is that India is a largely ‘Hindu’ country, that Hindus form the country’s ‘majority community’ and, consequently, that Hinduism is the religion of the ‘majority’ of the Indian people. Hence, non-Hindus are described as ‘minorities’ and the religions that they claim to follow are considered as ‘minority religions’. This, what is now ‘commonsensical’, assumption is reflected in most writings about India, in the country’s politics and by the Indian state. However, as numerous critics as well as social activists have pointed out (notwithstanding the fact that their pleas continue to fall on deaf ears), the assumption that Hindus are the ‘majority community’ in India and that Hinduism is the ‘majority religion’ is actually fallacious.


Numerous scholars have pointed out that what we understand as ‘Hinduism’ today is a relatively recent historical construct. There are no common or basic beliefs, dogmas and practices that can be said to be central to ‘Hinduism’. One can worship a million or more gods or none at all, regard the cow as divine or eat it, revere the Brahmins and mock the Dalits or the other way around, and still be considered a ‘Hindu’. If textbook definitions of ‘Hinduism’ are regarded as the criteria to define what it really is, the beliefs and practices of a substantial proportion of Indians who are otherwise defined as ‘Hindus’ could hardly qualify to be part of ‘Hinduism’. If the Brahminical and neo-Hindu (Gandhian, Arya Samajist, etc.) definitions of ‘Hinduism’ are said to lay down what it is all about—such as belief in the divinity of the Vedas, the sanctity of the Varna system, belief in metempsychosis etc.—many people defined by the census as followers of ‘Hinduism’ can well be said to fall outside its pale. In other words, ‘Hinduism’ is not a single religion. Rather, it can be said to be a collection of religions, cults and traditions, some of which uphold beliefs and practices that others included in the broader ‘Hindu’ fold would find obnoxious or heretical, or, to say the least, greatly  objectionable. Hence, to argue that ‘Hinduism’ is India’s ‘majority religion’ is fallacious, there being no clearly-defined and universally accepted empirical referent for the term.


If ‘Hinduism’ is thus an ‘imagined religion’, the associated notion of ‘the Hindu community’, too, isobviously misleading, and, indeed, meaningless. As Babasaheb Ambedkar mentioned in his critique of ‘Hinduism’, a community is a group of people united by a strong sense of we-feeling and brotherhood. This can hardly be said to be the case with the people who are arbitrarily defined as constituting the ‘Hindu community’, who are deeply divided among and against themselves, particularly on the basis of caste and ethnicity. The very edifice of the ‘Hindu’ social order is itself a complete antithesis of the strong ‘we-feeling’ that defines a community. Indian law implicitly admits this in defining the term ‘Hindu’ negatively, rather than positively—as a group of people who are not something else, rather than as a group possessing certain attributes that they share in common. Hence, according to Indian law, a ‘Hindu’ is an Indian who is not a Parsi, a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew. It is merely enough to follow a religion, cult, sect or religious tradition that had its birth within the Indian subcontinent to be regarded as a ‘Hindu’ by Indian law, although the disparate groups that are defined as ‘Hindus’ in this arbitrary way might have very little in common, and can, therefore, in no sense, be said to represent a single community, leave alone ‘the majority community’.


It can safely be said that, owing to the lack of any strong ‘we-feeling’ among the groups arbitrarilydefined as ‘Hindus’ (originally a geographically-defined term used by Arab or Persian Muslims to refer to all non-Muslims living in the subcontinent to the east of the Indus river), sustained efforts have historically been made by elites who claim to represent the ‘Hindus’ to generate this feeling in a negative way: by fanning hatred and violence against ‘non-Hindus’, in this way trying to build a solid ‘Hindu’ bloc, defined negatively, as against non-Hindus, particularly Muslims. As a Hindutva ideologue once quipped, ‘If India did not have Muslims, they would have to be invented’—for stoking anti-Muslim hatred and thereby uniting (or, more precisely, creating) the ‘Hindu community’ is the principal way in which entrenched ‘Hindu’ elites have consistently sought to project the notion of ‘Hinduism’ as India’s ‘majority religion’ and ‘Hindus’ as India’s ‘majority community’.


In contrast to ‘Hinduism’, Islam, as a textual or scriptural tradition, does indeed have a certain set of defining beliefs and ritual practices. The Quran and the Prophetic Traditions give great stress on the unity of the believers, as exemplified, for instance, in the notion of the universal ummah that transcends boundaries of geography and ethnicity. Be that as it may, what is often described as ‘the Indian Muslim minority community’ is not actually a single community as such in the true sense of the term. Indian Muslims are divided into numerous sects (firqas), and almost each sect claims that it alone represents the true Islam of the Quran and the Prophet’s Tradition (sunnah), critiquing the other sects as deviant, or even, as is often the case, as ‘un-Islamic’ or ‘anti-Islamic’. Hence, at the purely theological level, obviously the various groups labeled together as ‘Indian Muslims’ cannot be said to represent a single category. At the social level, too, in many parts of India, Muslims, like Hindus, consist of a number of endogamous caste-like groups, and are not a single unit. This further raises the question of the usefulness of the monolithic category ‘the Indian Muslim minority community’.

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