Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, spoke to NDTV’s Sonia Singh on his new book, ‘Why I Am A Hindu’. He has been trolled for years for being anti-Hindu, Mr Tharoor said during the interview. He also shared his observation on how the political discourse about Hinduism in the country is getting worse.
Here’s the full transcript of the interview:
NDTV: Good evening and welcome to the NDTV Dialogues: A conversation of ideas and who better to discuss ideas with than a man of both politics and letters. Two-term MP and prolific author Shashi Tharoor joins us in the studio with a young audience, thanks so much Dr Tharoor, on his new book ‘Why I Am A Hindu’. Shashi, an interesting title and interesting timing, tell us about it, why?
Shashi Tharoor: The title is quite simply that. You know, after years of being trolled by certain kinds of people who accuse me of being anti-Hindu, I said these are people who have no idea about my beliefs, my values, my upbringing. Maybe it’s time I set the record straight. It’s not that I am anti-Hindu, I am a Hindu and I should talk about it. Obviously why am I a Hindu? The very first sentence of the book says, hey because I was born one, but then I go into somewhat depth, into the reasoning, the logic and the learnings and the teachings that have inspired my Hinduism. Timing, there is no particular reason for timing, other than the fact that you know, at one point of time when I had finished ‘An Era of Darkness’ and my publisher kept clamouring for another book, this had been an idea that had been gnawing at me for some time and as I said, with all the political discourse about Hinduism in our country getting even worse as we are getting closer to the next elections, I thought it had reached a point where if I was going to give an answer, this was as good a time as any.
NDTV: I asked about the timing because it also coincides with what seems to be a Congress transition as well. We have seen a Congress President Rahul Gandhi visiting many temples in Gujarat, almost a first for him. He visited a temple just now when he went to Amethi and apparently temples on schedule in Rajasthan as well.
Shashi Tharoor: Why not Karnataka too if you want?
NDTV: Karnataka as well, so why is the Congress, there are many mutts there, on the schedule, so why is the Congress, why is Rahul Gandhi, why is Shashi Tharoor, why are other Congress leaders rediscovering their Hindu identity at election time?
Shashi Tharoor: We’re not re-discovering it, we have always been Hindus in private. We belong to a certain school of belief that said you don’t have to show it in public, especially in our public life, in our politics. There has been this tradition that religion is your private business, go ahead and do it and someone like Mr Digvijaya Singh, who I know respects and follows all the rituals of his faith, he is a very traditional practitioner of his faith, but at the same time publicly has a different political message and he doesn’t bother to show this publicly. This is the kind of thing that we have seen in the Congress party throughout but what has happened as a political consequence of that behaviour is that we have unintentionally, as if we have ceded the space completely to those who claim to be the only true Hindus, which in my view, they’re not. I mean the kind of Hinduism practised and extolled by many in the Sangh Parivar is not in any reflective of tenets and teachings and precepts and values of Hindus. And yet they’re saying we are the only Hindus, these guys are pseudo-secular and all that sorts of nonsense. Secularism doesn’t say that you should be anti-Hindu or anti any other religion. In the Indian contexts, Secularism just means Pluralism i.e. you respect all faiths, where the government doesn’t privilege any of them. So we as Hindus said, why should we suddenly surrender our Hinduism to others? Let’s now just admit publicly what we had been doing privately.
NDTV: Why I’ll ask you again on that Shashi is because the coincidence that this all coming around election time. Maybe again that the Congress seems to be catching on to whatever BJP has been doing, as you said, ceded the space. But they are being as cynical as well in using religion for a certain electoral gain. Also the point that when you say that Congress leaders practice their religion in private, that’s fine, but the acquisition on why you’re called pseudo-seculars is as it were because the Congress seems to profess certain religions because it appealed to vote-banks. So it’s a different side of the coin, but it is as bad as what you would call majoritarianism as minoritarianism.
Shashi Tharoor: I would beg to differ. First of all our Hinduism, as it were, let me speak for myself since I’ve written this book. My Hinduism is essentially one which respects other faiths greatly. Swami Vivekananda really put it best, way back in 1893 in his famous speech in Chicago to the world parliament of religions, where he spoke about Hinduism for an international audience and explained what it was. He said, “Ours is a faith that has taught the world not just tolerance but acceptance”, and I find that incredibly powerful as an idea. Tolerance, which is what everyone says, oh we must be very tolerant, is actually a very patronising idea. Tolerance says, “I have the truth, you are an error, but I will magnanimously indulge you in your right to be wrong”. Whereas acceptance says, “I believe I have the truth, you believe that you have the truth, I will respect your truth, please respect my truth”. Now that is the kind of Hinduism that Swami Vivekananda preached and that’s the Hinduism in which I was brought up and most Hindus in this country were brought up. We were never brought up to believe as unfortunately, members of the Sanghivaadis do, that Hinduism is the best faith and that everyone else should be hit on the head, that’s not our belief. On the contrary, Swami Vivekananda explicitly has pointed out that there are so many different parts to the divine, so many different parts to the truth. Our scriptures, we don’t even have one single holy book; we have multiple holy books.
NDTV: But are you evading the question on whether the Congress favoured one religion over another?
Shashi Tharoor: No. So the Congress’ attitude was that all religions are equally valid to their believers. So if you wish to follow a different kind of worship from me, it was not my place to judge it. In any case Hinduism says seek the Truth within; seek within yourself. You are finding your own way of worship, your own way of belief, I respect that. In my own constituency, as a Congress politician now having won two elections, I go to mosques, I go to temples, I go to churches. If there was a Synagogue in my constituency, I’d go there too, because ultimately it is a way of showing respect for the beliefs of others. It is not by any way being less Hindu to respect a Muslim worshipper at his mosque on Eid. It is a way of saying I respect you for who you are, it’s not my belief.
NDTV: Let me open this up to young students as well. Arjun has a question; go ahead Arjun.
Arjun: Good evening Sir. You covered in your book ‘Why I Am A Hindu’, I read this somewhere, I haven’t gone through the exact text, but the gist of it is that you dwelt more into origins and the fact-finding truth of Hinduism and not today’s construed version that is perhaps covered. What I want to ask you is that do you think this fundamentalism can corrode our democratic institution to such an extent that it actually becomes unstable and b) do you believe that Hindutva is overpowering Hinduism as a religion altogether?
Shashi Tharoor: The first half of the book more or less, slightly less than half, is as you said, my searching into the Hinduism that I knew, that I grew up with, that I read and understood and that I was taught. So it’s everything, it’s a summary of the faith as I understand it, its practices, including some that I questioned, some of the doctrines and practices. I am not a fan of the caste system so I questioned that. We’ve got all of this, and then I go into the doctrine of Hindutva and I do it by and large in the words of its practitioners and exponents. I am not there to attack them at this stage; I am just quoting what they believe. Then, I have a section for taking back Hindus, where I actually answer the latter part of your question, that this kind of distortion of Hinduism being advocated by believers in Hindutva in the name of Hinduism, is both a negation of Hinduism and a danger to the body of politic and therefore to all Hindus and non-Hindus in our country. So the argument is essentially both an argument about religion and an argument about the practice or interpretation of religion as it impinges upon our political life in this country. So it takes the entire span.
NDTV: It’s interesting almost, whether Hindutva is almost coming as a separate religion to Hindus in a way. Manya has a question as well, Manya go ahead.
Shashi Tharoor: By the way, one could argue that Sarvarkar, who is the first man who came up with the concept of Hindutva, said Hindutva is not Hinduism, don’t confuse it to. He said Hinduism is religion, Hindutva is much more, he said, than religion. So it’s a different argument.
Manya: Sir, Hinduism is considered a secular religion but the way now it is being practised, cow vigilantes, mob lynching and burning down schools just because students performed a song from Padmaavat, so isn’t religion becoming a threat not only to other religions but to Hinduism itself?
NDTV: In fact there is a line in your book where you say “let sleeping dogmas lie” and you point to the fact also. But this whole re-interpretation of history through a Hindutva eye, the dangers of that, linked to that question, what’s going on with Padmaavat, go ahead.
Shashi Tharoor: First of all, on what she is saying, there is absolutely no question that the Hinduism of the mob lynchers, the people who have actually gone and killed others because of what they are eating or how they are worshipping or the faith they belong to or what they’re doing professionally, those are, to my mind are not Hindus at all. To my mind they have not even understood the first thing about Hinduism, the basics. We speak about ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’. Hinduism is arguably a religion without fundamentals because it has such a wide range of choices of way of worship and ways in which you can seek the divine, but having said that, there are some things that are simply not acceptable. Ahimsa is basic; Satya is basic. You cannot betray Satya and Ahimsa and call yourself a Hindu but that’s what these people are doing. So to my mind, there are some real questions to be asked, about their view of Hinduism which is really not Hinduism of the faith, it is the Hinduism in the way which a football hooligan celebrates his team, that my team is better than your team, that kind of hooliganism is what these people have reduced our faith to.
NDTV: Like an India versus Pakistan match, in a sense.
Shashi Tharoor: Exactly. It’s coming down to that and that certainly is not what a Hindu like me considers to be representative of my faith. So they, to my mind, are actually not at all acceptably Hindu in their behaviour. But on Sonia’s question about the way in which history is being used, part of the problem with the Hindutva brigade, I am sorry to say, is that their notion is profoundly inferiority complex based. They see Hindus and Hindutvas having been invaded, oppressed, defeated, humiliated for a thousand years and from their point of view, this is now a chance to hit back and assert themselves. That’s a very un-Hindu way of looking at, first of all on our history and of the past, but also as a Hindu I don’t want to be some sort of oppressed, humiliated, inferior species. I consider myself a belonger to a very self-confident faith; one that has been very resilient throughout history. So many different reform movements have come up. Hinduism has openly embraced them, transformed itself. Buddhism started as a reform movement in Hinduism, Jainism came that way. Many Hindus embraced Sikhism because they felt it actually improved in some ways. The whole Bhakti cult, roughly from the 11th to the 16th centuries completely transformed and revived the faith. So Hinduism has gone through various things. Even in reaction to British colonialism, we found ways of reinventing Hinduism. Why should we see ourselves in this pathetic, humiliated sort of way that the Hindutvavaadis see and they want thereafter to reassert themselves; against whom? Against the helpless members of their own religion, I think it’s pathetic. Condemning Hindu children to ignorance by rewriting History to make Hindus heroes when they lost wars or battle is foolish, in fact, it promotes ignorance.
NDTV: Because interestingly Shashi, because this lynching of Muslims is really a danger on completely opposite end of the spectrum in terms of extremism, in terms of how it damages India and our democracy. But it’s also moving from that to the actually ridiculous, this whole re-writing of history, that Rana Pratap won the battle of Haldi Ghati. Padmaavat, that KG children are attacked for dancing to a song. Karni Sena is invited to watch the movie. How would you actually look at this kind of range of what it was? First this new normal and I do find that even political parties, though of course statements do come out, that there seems to be less of a reaction, this actual horror of people being lynched because of their community, the fact that in Rajasthan a man was beaten to death, a video goes viral and the man who committed the murder actually gets support.
Shashi Tharoor: Well, I’ve said enough for me and I want to say that…
NDTV: But is the Opposition playing a strong role here?
Shashi Tharoor: I believe the Opposition does but the question is perhaps the media in all fairness is demanding more than is strictly possible for the Opposition to do. Certainly, we have condemned every single attack by these elements. There has been, going right back, I am sorry to say, within a month of victory of the BJP, we had murder of Mushtaq in Pune, the IT techie coming out of a mosque. We have had the Mohammed Akhlaq tragedy, this father of an Indian Air Force hawaldar, who has been beaten up because they accused him of carrying meat in his bag and having meat in his fridge, that they claim was beef and it turned out not to be of course.
NDTV: And it was seen as some kind of a justification, if it would have been beef.
Shashi Tharoor: But even if it was beef, did they have the right to kill him? Then the poor Dalits who were flogged for skinning the carcass of a dead cow; there are so many such cases; the poor boy Junaid, who was killed when he had just brought fresh clothes to show to his mother for Eid and he was killed on a train because he was a Muslim. These are people who are really scum, they are not worthy to claim the mantle of Hinduism to justify their evil actions and certainly we have condemned it from start to finish and speaking for myself, I will openly stand up to condemn all of those. I have deplored the fact that, sadly one of the men who led the mob who killed Akhlaq was given a funeral where an Indian flag was draped on his coffin in the presence of a Union Minister. Such things to my mind are completely unacceptable and so they should be. In our country, we have to stand up for an inclusive India. The book talks about an inclusive Hinduism but the political counterpart of that is an inclusive Indianism. I’ve said in the book, you know, people tell us to say ki garv se kaho ki hum Hindu hain, but what kind of Hindu are you talking about? If it’s the kind of Hindu that does those kind of things, I cannot say that with pride. If it’s a kind of Hindu who embraces others, shows them respect and moves forward to greater glory of this country, yes of course we can say that. But one can also say garv se kaho ki hum Indian hain.
NDTV: And the ridiculousness of this whole rewriting of history, Rana Pratap, and you pointed that you have talked of outside rule of 200 years and Prime Minister Modi talks about 1200 years and the kind of basic difference which lies there?
Shashi Tharoor: There is a fundamental difference there because, to my mind, the way in which the Hindutavaadis have made Muslim Indians particularly their enemies, it’s a denial and negation of basic facts of history. Undoubtedly, there were invaders who came, killed, looted and left. And those invaders are enemies of India and Indians and we should condemn them and you can name Ghori and Ghazni and Nadir Shah and Timur, all of those. Their victims by the way included Muslim Indians as well as Hindu Indians. But then, you cannot in the same breath, completely include those Muslims who came and stayed, assimilated in this soil, married Hindu women, produced children, contributed to this country, whether it was art, architecture, painting, philosophy, ideas. Some of them may have well indeed looted and killed as did Hindus at that time. But they spent the proceeds of their loot and profit on India, on Indian craftsmen, on Indian architects, on Indian jewellers and sometime indeed on Indian temples and mosques. The fact is, they have built our country, they are us; they are part of us.
NDTV: And the Taj Mahal seen as ‘invader’, not a symbol of Indian culture. Then we have Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife pose on that bench. So I think some of that contradiction comes out there. But just more questions, let’s go across, Mohit has a question? Mohit, go ahead.
Mohit: Sir, the polarisation on the basis of religion during the election is always a part of election campaign. So it’s all about Hinduism for the BJP and the Congress tries to make the Muslim vote-bank. So why are the religious always the target, sir?
Shashi Tharoor: No I would beg to disagree. The polarisation idea frankly has come specifically from those who made the very obvious mathematical calculation that since 80% of Indians are Hindus, if you can consolidate a majority of that 80%, you win every election. So it was very much a political tactic on one side. I mean let’s face it, in our country only 15-16% of population is Muslim. No one is going to win a democratic election on the Muslim vote alone except in a few districts of our country. So to suggest that the two can be equated is wrong. Yes, the Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party, the Trinamool Congress, there are many parties who tell the Muslim community we will protect you. But that’s because they have felt beleaguered by those who have made them feel insecure; that other parties have gone to them to say don’t feel insecure, we will be there to ensure that our rights our respected. To my mind, that is a legitimate thing to say to every Indian citizen. As far as I am concerned, every Hindu, every Muslim, every Christian, every non-believer has a right to be protected in my country. India rests on the principle that all faiths must be respected but no faith must be privileged. If tomorrow you tell me I am atheist, you have no faith, will you protect me? I will say yes, because you have the right to have no faith if you don’t want to, that’s what our Constitution grants us. Why should I privilege a Muslim over a Hindu? I have no reason to do so. But why should I privilege a Hindu over an atheist? I have no reason to do so either. Ours in that sense is a truly democratic country where equality of religion also means having equality of having no religion if you don’t want one.
NDTV: But Shashi, often in elections, perceptions matter as much as facts, we’ve seen that of course in elections not just in 2014 but earlier as well. And this perception that the BJP is a Hindu party and the Congress, the Samajwadi Party are Muslim parties and this whole kind of now sticks and a tug of war to perhaps change that perception. For instance when you condemn Hindutva politics, what about some very extreme statements made by the MIM or the Owaisi brand of politics? Why is it that we feel that we don’t see the same kind of similar condemnation when some of their statements and we have seen this in the Uttar Pradesh campaign as well, that often, Muslim candidates of parties say the most shocking things as well. They have asked for the Prime Minister’s head, there will be some kind of bizarre fatwas issued, but the condemnation from say, the secular parties, isn’t there at all.
Shashi Tharoor: I think, you know, I can’t speak for every instance, during elections we are all busy with our own issues, own constituencies. If I am fighting in Trivandrum, am I going to be aware of what Mr Owaisi may have said in Hyderabad, perhaps not?
NDTV: No, but looking at what the Muslim League specifically says in Kerala as well, now this whole controversy over the PFI, so the same playing out in Kerala, in a different way.
Shashi Tharoor: Muslim League is, in that sense, a secular party, in the sense that though it is the party of a community, principally of the Muslim community, but they always make sure they have one non-Muslim candidate always. The fact still is that they are not a party that uses extreme language, so it’s easier for us to work with them. But there are parties you mentioned, the Popular Front of India and its offshoot, the so-called Social Democratic Party of India, and if they say irresponsible extremist things we do criticize them and condemn them in Kerala. In different states there are different parties, I can’t answer for every single one of them. But let me say, speaking for myself, that I would be equally condemnatory of excessive language from any religious minority. I have, as a pre-political figure, as a writer or public intellectual or whatever you want to call, I have been equally condemnatory of excesses of all faiths. I certainly spoke up in defence of Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen when they were being condemned by Muslim extremists, and threatened as well. Similarly, I have spoken up.
NDTV: But the MIM which is a political party legitimate with an MP in Parliament.
Shashi Tharoor: I have spoken up in favour of Hindu writers who were attacked because of their rationalism or their atheism or their criticism of Hindus. I think the point is ultimately in our country we do need to defend, more robustly, freedom of speech. What’s happened to the political class as a whole is that we have tended to abdicate this to the courts. The courts don’t have to look for votes, politicians do and so politicians say, when someone says we are offended, we go out and appease them until the Court says well, if they are offended, it’s their problem, but your job as the State is to uphold the law. Then you suddenly have the Court’s sanction to do something or not to do something. This is a problem and this is a problem because, indeed we’ve come to a point where every community now will have the ability to put a stranglehold on a political party and maybe someone like me doesn’t have to worry about this, because I don’t lead a political party, but the leaders of parties would always have to worry about who they are antagonizing with what comment. You speak in favour of freedom of press in one place, you’re offending a Muslim voter, you speak in favour of freedom of press somewhere else you are offending a Rajput voter. So, it’s easier not to speak in favour of anyone for some.
NDTV: I want to take the whole Padmavati controversy. It is a microcosm of perhaps what’s going wrong. That we actually bizarrely take out an ‘i’ from the movie title and we think oh that’s okay, and we have that comment on how KG children are attacked for doing a Ghoomar song. We’ve got this now; that the Director has to call a fringe group, the Karni Sena, to actually come and watch the movie and be a kind of a separate censor. But the Congress in Rajasthan is being very, very cautious in commenting on it, in fact, they are kind of staying quiet because they don’t want to offend the Rajput vote. There is hypocrisy right there.
Shashi Tharoor: I can’t comment on the Congress party’s decision.
NDTV: Well not just in Rajasthan by the way, the Congress across the board. No Congress spokesperson is coming on the Padmavati controversy. I am warning you now before, because you are not a spokesperson.
Shashi Tharoor: I am just saying when one set of people have shot themselves in the foot on an issue, why should the other set of people come in the way? Ultimately in politics, sometimes silence doesn’t necessarily imply a substantive position, it implies a tactical position. If the Congress says right now…
NDTV: It doesn’t imply cowardice?
Shashi Tharoor: No, no. If the Congress party, I say if, because I am not a part of the political decision making in the Rajasthan Congress, but if the Congress is saying right now the BJP and the Karni Sena are having it out among themselves, why get in the way? Two sides are firing bullets at each other, you want the bullets to hit you? You stay out. That’s a sensible tactical choice. I don’t see any problem with that.
NDTV: Just to ask, we were talking about Kerala earlier and the point of Kerala, suddenly this whole issue of Love Jihad which has reached the Supreme Court. We had mothers coming out and say our young girls are being taken, brainwashed, maybe to convert religion. What’s your stance on this whole Love Jihad issue? Is it true at all? What is Love Jihad for you?
Shashi Tharoor: Frankly speaking, it’s an exaggeration. First of all, in our country, you are entitled to marry whoever you want to of any faith. No one says you have to marry only within your community or your caste or any other prescription, right? However, some have argued that there is a conspiracy afoot, that young Muslim men are seducing Hindu women and converting them in order to increase Muslim numbers through this process of Love Jihad.
NDTV: Or that ISIS is behind this?
Shashi Tharoor: This is a bit preposterous. Why? Because if you look at the total number of such marriages, there are Hindu-Muslim marriages and there have been Hindu-Muslim marriages before anybody came up with the idea of Love Jihad. But, in many, many such cases and I know a few couples, perhaps you do too, who would qualify and perhaps never thought of their marriage that way. But the fact is that the total number in all of Kerala in the last 10 years has been 800 such odd cases. Now you are not going to convert 80% of the population at that rate of pace. It would take you 8,000 years of loving before you can even get to something like 10% of the Jihad you won. So the whole thing is a bit preposterous. Even if you assume that in these 800 marriages, there are one or two that are not really genuinely love and there was actually some ISIS conspiracy behind it, it should not be beyond the capacity of our investigative agencies, of our police and so on to nail the one or two cases, where there is a misuse of human relationships to come to beguile an innocent girl. But for the most part, an adult woman knows what she is doing, if she happens to fall in love with somebody of another religion, she has the right to do so.
NDTV: Well, let’s just get in more questions. This young girl had a question, go ahead.
Girl 1: Good evening Dr Tharoor, thank you Ma’am. My question to you is the front and foremost agenda of the Congress has always been the youth; and you really do resonate with the youth. My question and I think a lot of us here agree, when is your candidature for Prime Minister going to come out? Or what is stopping Congress from actually nominating you for a Prime Minister candidate?
Shashi Tharoor: First of all our system doesn’t work that way. We have a parliamentary system and in a parliamentary system we don’t sort of run for the Prime Minister like you run for the President in America. The party decides who will be its candidate for the Prime Minister. It’s usually the Leader of the Party and the party workers, the party representatives; they decide who should lead them. In the party, we have a leader. I am quite sure that if anyone of us in the Congress Party were to contest against him for the leadership, the Congress party workers would resoundingly be for him. There is a good reason for that, the party workers do have faith in the leadership and I want to stress that ultimately behind your question is a different idea, which is perhaps much more influenced by the kind of Prime Minister we have today, who has made leadership all about one person, one man, who knows all the answers, the hero on the white stallion who comes with his upraised sword and will cut through all the problems of the nation and solve them. That isn’t the job of a Prime Minister. A Prime Minister is supposed to be first among equals. Whereas we have now somebody who wants to be a one-man-army and is running the country in that way, which is of course what a presidential system often encourages, but a parliamentary system doesn’t. In our case, we have a leader who says “hey! I don’t know all the answers. But you know what, I would come to you and you tell me what your questions are and I will be working with a team of experienced, qualified, able people, large numbers of them, far more than that one-man-army has to help him and we will work together to solve your problems.” In such a situation it will matter, in many ways much less, who the Prime Minister is. The Prime Minister would be leading and guiding a team. What we are saying to the nation is, “What is the team you want to place your problems in the charge of? Who are the kinds of people that you are being offered by the present ruling party versus the kinds of people the Congress is offering you?” I think it’s going to be difficult to argue that pound for pound and kilo for kilo they can do better than us.
NDTV: Though interestingly Shashi, you have advocated for Presidential form of election in India as well.
Shashi Tharoor: That’s because our country increasingly seems to want to vote for individuals rather than parties, policies, teams. But we have the system we have and we have to try and make the parliamentary system, because that is what we have got, succeed until we no longer have that system.
NDTV: But let me ask you, even as a two-term MP, in a sense you are a rare Indian politician who has actually come up with no dynasty or with no link to politics at all and you completely came as an outsider. You may be more of an insider after two terms, but still quite different, perhaps, from traditional Indian political families and dynasties and the Congress especially. And whether this starts from Rahul Gandhi and many of its young leaders who are all part of political dynasties; as someone who has shown by his own career the primacy of merit, does that sometime actually gall you? Is it a contradiction? Do you feel that perhaps I could have done a better job?
Shashi Tharoor: Oh come on. I mean the truth is, life is unfair right? I mean we all learn this by time we are five years old. Somebody is always better looking, richer or you know has more advantages or drives in a nicer car or does a better job or whatever. The world is unfair, life is unfair, you learn. As you grow up you learn to deal with that and then make the best of it. I want to say that as far as your point is concerned, obviously my entire life I have had to work for everything I’ve had. Everything I have accomplished I’ve done through my own hard work and I believe that and respect it. Yes, I don’t come from a political family and I am not going to start a political family because my kids are both writers, journalists, are not interested in politics.
NDTV: You started a literary family.
Shashi Tharoor: Literary family, but that too requires merit, no one publishes on their own. So when it comes to politics and public life, merit is not quite the merit that lies behind the ability to publish a book or anchor a TV show. Merit is principally about electability. So if you are able to win the support of voters, then you have acquired merit in politics and that may come through hard work, it may come from compelling oratory, as we have seen with our present Prime Minister. It may come through other factors including family and lineage and everything else, but ultimately, whatever advantages you have, it’s subject to the referendum of the voter. Will the voter put you there? Will the voter put you there again? Will the voter continue to support you and what you stand for? That ultimately in a democracy, is the answer to your question.
NDTV: I think that’s true that political families as well, you have to win the election otherwise the last name doesn’t matter. Somehow when you entered politics as an outsider, as I put it, whether it was about tweeting and I think really that you’ve had perhaps the last laugh on that one in terms of how many Indian politicians tweet, from the Prime Minister downwards. Controversy after controversy, even related to the death of your late wife. You’ve really become a child of controversy in so many ways.
Shashi Tharoor: Not willingly, believe me.
NDTV: How do you deal with that? How do you deal with the various controversies that surround you?.
Shashi Tharoor: It’s been tough you know, because initially, I obviously was over-sensitive and was easily hurt and reacting, saying what’s going on here and I remember one of the sillier controversies that some journalists particularly embroiled me into. One was this whole business of my using this phrase ‘cattle class’; it was a reply to a question that said, “Mr Minister, will you travel cattle class?” I was using the phrase as asked in the question. It was a phrase I knew, that I thought was routine but because many Indians were unfamiliar with it, it was distorted into an accusation that I was sneering at people who travelled Economy, I wasn’t. The expression ‘cattle class’ is actually meant to denigrate the airlines for herding us all in like cattle. Or when I used the word Interlocutor, which does not mean intermediary and it was distorted by some in the media to imply that I was upending all of India’s foreign policy by asking Saudi Arabia to be an intermediary with Pakistan. I had not. Interlocutor simply means the person you are talking to. Right now you’re my interlocutor, I am your interlocutor. I won that one in the end because even the government started appointing interlocutors to go off to Kashmir and so on, but this is the problem. And then there was ridiculous controversy when I said, quite correctly I believe, and it was not an opinion that was unfounded, I said “In Vietnam, on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, they work”. I said, “Mahatma Gandhi said that work is worship, why are we declaring a holiday on his birthday?” The way to honour a man who said work is worship is to work on his birthday. And the controversy that got me into and my own party reprimanded me saying that you should not speak and all. And the fact is that…
NDTV: That’s why you not an official spokesperson Shashi.
Shashi Tharoor: I don’t want to be an official spokesperson, because in some of these things I believe that my opinion doesn’t harm the party, doesn’t harm the country, but is a valuable contribution to people’s discussion on these issues. Obviously the public holiday is continuing and I know that it will continue tomorrow even if the Congress comes to power, but I still work on October 2nd and I don’t see why we shouldn’t. I think the best way to honour Gandhiji is to work.
NDTV: But more seriously, how do you react to the controversy surrounding your late wife’s death and the fact that many say that, “Oh, Shashi Tharoor is a darling of the media and gets an easy ride on some channels. There might be a tough ride on other channels but he’s got away with it.” How would you react to that?
Shashi Tharoor: First of all when any tragedy like this happens, there is a competent body, the police; and we as we know the government isn’t exactly sympathetic to me. The police come under the central government. They’ve been doing an investigation now for four years. They have yet to establish whether any crime was committed by anybody. So the entire exercise, it seems to me, has been kept alive principally in the media and particularly, as you said, by some media who have an agenda and an axe to grind. Now what do I do? Obviously anybody who knew my late wife and myself, including her own brothers, her own father, her own son, have absolutely no problems or any misgiving or any doubt and they certainly have continued to remain close to me. So the people who matter, they are not affected by it. Those who are affected are people like my 81-year-old mother, who goes into tears every time she sees certain reports or sees certain channels, which seem to have been implying that I could have been capable of an action that everyone who knows me knows I am incapable of, to even contemplate. So the question is what do I do? Do I say that everyone who knows me knows I couldn’t have done it? No; because 99% of the country doesn’t know me and so there could be large numbers of people who really think I did what some channels have an incentive in suggesting. As I have said openly, anyone who feels that they have any proof that I am what they claim I am, give it to the police, the police are there, that’s their job. There is no charge-sheet filed, there has been no claim in fact, that has established any sort of wrong-doing. It was a deep tragedy and in fact, one of things that I will never forgive some people for, is that I was never allowed to mourn in peace; that there was this political agenda that was inflicted on me. And not just me, frankly, on also, on her other loved ones by this unseemly disgusting media controversy about her passing.
NDTV: I think you are right. Let the investigation agencies find something against you, if there is, otherwise who is anyone else to do it? Just to come on another point, I think that’s something a lot of people lauded you for, was because you were amongst the first to actually come out and talk about Section 377 and how it must be scrapped. You even tried to get a Private Members Bill through. We saw you being shouted down by some BJP MPs. Do you feel in a sense and you made that point that the Courts don’t need votes, do you feel vindicated when the Supreme Court actually said they would reconsider their own decision earlier on this?
Shashi Tharoor: Yes. In fact I had announced at the end of my second unsuccessful attempt that I would now persist and as Einstein said, definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I said now that it’s very clear that as long as the BJP has a majority in Parliament, this is not going to go anywhere, I wouldn’t try. I’d leave it to the Courts. But I was confident that eventually the Courts would get around to it because the Courts have progressively been expanding the freedoms available to our country. Many of the rights that women are able to take for granted in our country today didn’t come, I am afraid, from courageous lawmakers. Some did, but many came through the interpretations by the successive judicial benches of the rights of women in our country and I think the same will happen to other kinds of victims of our Victorian era Penal Code. And the sexual minorities are definitely people who deserve a fair interpretation of, in 21st century terms, of what their rights are as human beings. I am proud to confess that I am a liberal, I express that openly. I believe that I should accept people as I find them, that it is up to them to be who they are, to become who they are, to say what they want to say, to do what they want to do, provided they don’t harm others. If somebody in Section 377, you know it prohibits, for example, child sex, you want to molest a child I want the full force of the law against you. But if you are two consenting adults expressing your love or desire for each other, why is it the business of the State? I don’t want the government in the bedroom, I don’t want the government in the kitchen, I don’t want the government opening the fridge, this not the kind of India that any liberal Indian would want to support.
NDTV: I am glad because liberal is seen so much as a dirty word nowadays. In fact, that said, almost liberal is being seen as something which is not really popular right now. This whole question of Nationalism, you’ve written in the book on the difference between what Indian Nationalism is and Hindu Nationalism. You’ve also made the point that when Sushma Swaraj said that perhaps the Bhagwad Gita should be the religious national book of India and you said you have a very different view on that. Tell us a little bit about your view on the difference in Indian and Hindu Nationalism in a sense.
Shashi Tharoor: First of all, Indian Nationalism goes beyond faith. It is all faiths and people of no faith, as I said earlier in response to one of the questions. As far as Hindu Nationalism is concerned, it suggests that Hindus are the constituent element of this nation. There has been a very specific disagreement on this, going back to two of the big votaries of Hindutva. Golwalkar then headed the RSS and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who was from RSS and then became the head of the Bhartiya Jan Sangh, who both rejected the Constitution. They said it is written by westernised lawyers, full of foreign ideas and they specifically said that the biggest flaw in the Constitution, both Golwalkar and Upadhyaya, and Upadhyaya said it in great detail that the biggest flaw in the Constitution is its definition of a nation. It says the nation is a territory and the people on it. Whereas to Golwalkar and Upadhyaya, the nation is not a territory, the nation is a people and the people are the Hindu people. So there is a fundamental difference there. An Indian nationalist says the nation of India is everybody, doesn’t matter if you are a Hindu, Parsi, Jew, Christian; you’re an Indian, nationalism applies to you and that’s all that matters. Whereas the Golwalkar, Upadhyaya view, very clearly articulated beyond debate, it’s very clear, is that no, to be a member of this nation, you have to be a Hindu. This is the true Indian nation and all other are either guests or interlopers. And they were prepared to admit Jews and Parsis as guests, they were model minorities and they were rejecting Christians and Muslims as interlopers, unless these Christians and Muslims were prepared to subsume their ideas and their faith into this idea of Hindutva that was being propagated. Now this is a very fundamental difference. To my mind a Muslim Indian is no less Indian than I am. Whereas, to the Sanghivaadis, a Muslim Indian is not as much of an Indian as a Hindu is.
NDTV: That’s a fascinating explanation. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why everyone should go out and read this book, but just final thoughts. Sarthak has a question as well. Sarthak, go ahead.
Sarthak: Hello sir. We have seen that the Meme culture is expanding unprecedentedly and you’ve been a target of it, time to time.
Shashi Tharoor: Some of them are quite funny actually.
Sarthak: So what’s your opinion on…
Shashi Tharoor: I like Memes. Frankly, people pass them around left, right and centre and I occasionally tweet one or two of them, especially the ones that are poking fun of the ruling party, that’s my job as an Opposition MP. But I’ve received several that are poking fun at me and at others like me. The thing is that humour in many ways is the best escape valve for any political system, but in a Democracy it becomes all the more necessary because if start making saints out of our political leaders, we are doing the saints a disservice, but we are also doing the political leaders a disservice. They’re human beings; they are capable of making mistakes. Let’s remind ourselves and them, of their fallibility with these Memes poking fun at them. I think the moment a political leader takes himself or herself too seriously and believes that he is god’s answer to all the problems of India, the day that happens, then woe betide both the leader and India, because I don’t think that any one individual is going to be able to solve all our problems. All we can do is try our best; try with sincerity; try with compassion; try with caring for all the people we are there to represent. And in the meantime accept that once in a while we make mistakes, we will say silly things or do silly things and that people will laugh at us. To be a reminder that people are laughing at you keeps you straight. I think it is a very good thing.
NDTV: But Shashi what’s with all the grammar lessons on Twitter? Do you do that to tease? Come on, or are you showing off?
Shashi Tharoor: I don’t teach grammar lessons.
NDTV: Are you showing off?
Shashi Tharoor: Others are using my words to teach lessons. Don’t forget I grew up in an India without TV, without computers, without mobile phones, without internet; all I had was books and I was an asthmatic child, so I wasn’t out there playing as much as I wanted to. So I read and read and read like crazy, I have quite an extensive vocabulary through reading. I wasn’t somebody like a nerd studying dictionaries. I hardly ever consulted a dictionary. I understood the words from the context in which I read them. You read the same word ten times in ten different books, you’d understand what it means, from the usage and that’s why I started using these words.
NDTV: Farrago is a word you use often?
Shashi Tharoor: Yes, to attack an opposing speaker in a debate by saying it’s a farrago of inconsistency; it’s a farrago of misunderstood facts. I used to do it all the time. In fact, after this controversy, because someone alleged that I had used a word that someone else had used in a debate of 4-5 years ago, people on Twitter found articles I had published 25 years ago using the word farrago. So I have this vocabulary, I suppose god gave it to me, but I also took it from books by reading. I am not trying to show off, I am being myself but if, in the process of reading my tweets you learn a few new words, what’s wrong with that?
NDTV: Exactly. All English literature students should read them but finally Shashi, there was one line in your book, actually, a chapter which really I thought summed it up about Hinduism as a 21st century religion. I think it’s so important with, as I said, a young audience, so much of India is now young, to look at it as a modern progressive religion. Do you feel that’s changing nowadays or is that really a Hinduism you see alive and thriving?
Shashi Tharoor: I believe, the Hinduism I believe in, the Hinduism that I have described here is a perfect religion for the 21st century because I described the 21st century as a world full of doubt and incertitude with legitimate questions to be asked about everything. And here you are with Hinduism, a religion that in the Rig Vedas Creation Hymn says, “Where has all this come from? Who made this world in the Heaven’s universe? Only He in the Heaven knows or maybe He does not know.” So that level of doubt and incertitude even about the Creator is there in our faith. Now to my mind, in the 21st century, a religion that respects different points of view, that says various ways of finding the truth is available and open, is a perfect religion for our times. But the religion of the Sanghivaadis, what they claim is Hinduism or Hindutva, is a religion of the 14th century or maybe of the; certainly the 10th century was a more enlightened period than the 21st century would be under their tender mercies. So therefore when I speak of Hinduism being potentially a universally acceptable faith, it is the Hinduism I have described and not the Hindutvavaadi’s Hinduism.
NDTV: But interestingly in the book you’ve also talked about the fact the kind of controversy surrounding who invented ancient theories, whether it was the law of gravity or various other issues. You see the BJP is not wrong in looking back to the Rig Vedas and ancient Indian texts. Aryabhata, much before the western world came to this actually. But today we have someone who says look we are questioning Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. So where do you actually match the kind of pride or really the research and the knowledge of our ancient texts and what’s happening today?
Shashi Tharoor: See Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, he should have said has been anticipated in various avatars of Vishnu because you start off with the matsya. You start off with the sea creature who then becomes amphibious, who then becomes a tortoise walking on land, who then becomes a half man-half lion, who then becomes human, becomes Ram, becomes Krishna. It’s very much an understanding of evolution, so one could argue that the ancient thinkers had all these brilliant ideas. Instead of this, the man simply says that evolution makes no sense because no one has seen an ape transforming itself into a man which, I think, shows the need for serious scientific education to our Council of Ministers. But my point was a different one in the book. What I was saying was that by saying preposterous things, like our Prime Minister saying Ganesh’s head on a human body shows that we did plastic surgery. I mean the fact is that you imagine the smallest imaginable elephant head and the largest imaginable human neck and you tell me is it even possible to think of that as an actual action, as actual transplantable commodity? But the truth is, India was the world’s leader in plastic surgery. We actually invented surgery, as far as human records know. Sushruta was the world’s first surgeon. Instruments were found. The world’s first recorded rhinoplasty operation, an operation on a human nose, was done by Sushruta, by the ancient Vedic era surgeons. So we are discrediting the real achievements of science by saying ignorantly preposterous things about what the science was. So you can actually look at concrete examples of genuine accomplishments and then you can discredit them by saying “Oh, Pushpak Vimaans flying around the world” which obviously there is no evidence for and the only text that has so far been cited, by those who advance this preposterous theory, was debunked in 1920s as a forgery.
NDTV: Well Shashi Tharoor, it’s been fantastic to have you on the programme with this young audience but you have to promise me that you are going to come back with who you call a Sanghivaadi, with some BJP Hindus and let’s just actually have this debate as well because I think it’s fascinating.
Shashi Tharoor: Thank you very much.
NDTV: Next time. Thanks so much for being on The Dialogues and thank you all for being a part of it. Thank you.