Earlier this month, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy launched Virat Hindustan Sangam, a new Hindu organisation, which, he told HuffPost India, will be a “promoter of a renaissance in India."
In a tumultuous political career spanning four decades, Swamy has rarely been very far from controversy. He has been a lawmaker in both houses of parliament, served as a union cabinet minister, and memorably once attended Parliament and artfully dodged the police even as there was an active arrest warrant against him during the Emergency.
Amplified by social media in recent years, the maverick politician has become one of the most vocal proponents of Hindu nationalism and fearless advocate of many accompanying controversial ideas.
The hordes who dismiss him as a dangerous man with ruinous ideas are matched only by the legions of his admirers on Twitter--the veritable Swamy Army--who view him as the intellectual and social media savvy protector of Hindu interests. He frequently tweets to more than a million followers with codes and abbreviations which, like religious prayer or sporting jargon, are inscrutable to the outsider but familiar to the faithful (Here is a helpful key).
His successful legal activism in the 2G spectrum case and other matters have helped cement his social media support base.
In 2011, Harvard University, where the 75-year-old politician earned a doctorate in Economics in 1965, dropped his summer courses after he wrote an op-ed about Muslims losing their voting rights in India unless they acknowledged their Hindu ancestry. Recently, Swamy said that a mosque can be demolished since it is not a religious place.
HuffPost India talked to Swamy about why he launched Virat Hindustan Sangam, his interpretation of Hindutva, and how he responds to those who find his remarks offensive and dangerous.
Is Virat Hindustan Sangam a religious organisation or do you see it as a political party in the future?
It is not a religious organisation at all. It is an organisation which selects out of the Constitution of India those items which impinge on the Hindu community and, in fact, are part of secularism too. For example, Uniform Civil Code is a secular demand, but it is a demand of the Hindus saying that we are doing family planning but the others are not. Sanskrit is not religious but, of course, all our prayers and vedas are in Sanskrit. But Sanskrit is now considered as the most computer-friendly language, and therefore, we want to see that ultimately the link language between the union of India and the states is Sanskrit. Ban on cow slaughter is a demand which the Supreme Court has held up as constitutional many times. And we are for it. "We are selecting what would popularly be called the Hinduvta plank which is not getting due attention from the present government."
Ram Temple is a question of justice. A most holy temple was demolished and we want to see it rebuilt. It's not a religious thing. But it is being an advocate for religious people who want to worship in the place where Ram was born. So like that we are selecting what would popularly be called the Hinduvta plank which is not getting due attention from the present government.
Could you clarify the nature of VHS if it is not a religious organisation?
This is an activist organisation for a renaissance for the country. And I’m not excluding Muslims and Christians from this organisation except that I require that they accept that their ancestors are Hindus, which is a fact, which is what modern science says. All of them have the same DNA as me.
Do you see this becoming a political party in the future?
No. I am committed to the BJP.
Other Hindutva organisations like Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh already exist. Why launch another one?
I’ll tell you why I’ve launched it. Because I found a large number of educated people in the social media asking me how do you explain this and how do you explain that. They wanted to know where the origins of the caste system is. I pointed out that it has nothing do with birth, it is out of date now, now regard yourself as nothing but Hindu. So there was a growing hunger to shape their love for India with the love of the heritage of India. So I felt that this is an English speaking crowd which is unlikely to go to shakha in the RSS, which is unlikely to go to a drill in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
"There was a growing hunger to shape their love for India with the love of the heritage of India."
So I spoke to the leaders of RSS and VHP and said I want to focus on this limited crowd of English speaking, young population who want to know and be, what I call a Virat Hindustani, and that is what motivated me.
What will your organisation's relationship be with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad?
The VHP works in a different dimension for the same goal. Their dimension is mobilisation. Mostly mobilisation of the sanths sadhus, and bhaktas. I will not be going amidst all these sanths and sadhus. I know all of them but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in those who have come through an English-language education, who are part of the modern professional management, IT. I find that crowd has become increasingly nationalistic but they don’t know how to argue because the barrage against them is so tremendous. They call them fringe group, fanatic, communal. "I will not do any agitational activities. I will only educate these young people to enter public life including political parties and be armed with arguments to defeat all these people, who, in my opinion, have been running down Hinduism."
So to articulate their arguments, it is kind of an open-air university, it is kind of a think-tank that I will run. I will not do any agitational activities. I will only educate these young people to enter public life including political parties and be armed with arguments to defeat all these people, who, in my opinion, have been running down Hinduism.
You want to build a Ram Temple at the demolished site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and you want the mosque to be shifted across the Sarayu river. Don’t you think such a campaign cause religious strife and trigger communal violence?
It is a commonplace occurrence in countries that are more pristine Islamic than we are, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Pakistan, too, where in order for construction projects, apartment buildings, roads, they traditionally tear down a masjid and build it somewhere else. They give an alternative plot. Recently in Calcutta, which much of the media ignored, I don’t know why, a major event took place where the steering committee of a heritage masjid, they demolished it. There was a furore and they explained that it was too small for the present crowd that comes for namaaz. So we need a bigger masjid and so we will build a new masjid. The masjid is a place really to facilitate the reading of namaaz. It is kind of a prayer hall. It is not religious in the way a temple is.
The temple, we believe, once we set it up on the poojas that we conduct particularly according to Agama Shastras as well as prana pratishtha pooja, the lord enters the temple and he becomes the owner of the temple. And we can at best be trustees.
But the Babri Masjid- Ram Temple problem has caused so much violence in the past. Why go down that road again?
I intend not to do it forcibly. I intend to discuss with them, argue with them. I nearly did it when Chandra Shekhar was prime minister and Mr. Shahabuddin was heading the other side. But the government fell so I could not complete the process. Muslims just don’t like unauthorised demolitions. They don’t like them being insulted. But they are not against a discussion and coming to a conclusion mutually.
You’ve said that 800 years of Islamic violence needs to be acknowledged and addressed. Do you see removing mosques from sites of temples as step towards that?
One of the ways to make us forget what all happened in the 800 years of atrocities, differential taxation, forcible conversions, abducting of women, all this we are willing to forget if these three temples are restored. And then the Hindus, who are anyway the forgetting types, they will forget these 800 years. And we will live as if nothing has happened.
So only three temples?
If the Muslims willingly agree for three, Mathura, Ayodhya and Kashivishwanath, then we will not ask about the others, which are about 40,000.
Some of your tweets are not clear: You say that India is secular and not a "Hindu Rashtra," but you also tweeted about a "Hindutva constitution" and a "Hindustan Republic"? Could you explain these?
Hindu Rashtra means that India is nation for Hindus. That I don’t accept because we have a constitution and we cannot go beyond it. There is a basic structure in our constitution which the Supreme Court has said cannot be amended.
"Hindu Rashtra means that India is nation for Hindus. That I don’t accept because we have a constitution and we cannot go beyond it." So India is not Hindu Rashtra in the constitutional sense. But India is Hindustan, and Hindustan is of Hindus as well as those of other religions who acknowledge that their ancestors are Hindus. This is our identity. Our republican identity is Bharatiya. But in terms of national identity we are Hindustanis. Incidentally, if you look at the Urdu papers, they don’t refer to India as India or Bharat, they refer to it as Hindustan.
Do you believe that India is as much for Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths, as it is for the Hindus?
Yes, but within the framework of the Indian constitution.
What does that mean?
That means they cannot have separate laws. They must acknowledge that some injustices which have been done will be corrected by mutual agreement.
So you are saying that Muslims and Christians are equal citizens of India only if they accept their ancestors are Hindus?
No, citizenship is a legal concept. We are a republic and we are governed by the constitution. And that no one can take it away. You will get a passport whether you grow a beard or not. I’m not on that. I’m on the identity issue. The identity of ‘Who we are’ which the Americans debate.
"So it is a question of identity. We are all participants of the same heritage. We acknowledge it. We didn’t come from Ghori and Ghazni" The Americans say -- and no one seems to mind -- that the American identity is white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, Christian, English-speaking, population, when a large population is not that. But they say so. Britain says we are a Christian nation. So it is a question of identity. How do you identify India and I identify India where I say that we are all participants of the same heritage. We acknowledge it. We didn’t come from Ghori and Ghazni.
You have pointed out that religious conversions in India are legal if they are not done by bribe or force. Do you think that Ghar wapsi is legal?
Ghar wapsi is not conversion. It is de-conversion. The law is very clear. The Supreme Court judgments are very clear. If you have induced somebody to convert then that conversion is illegal, which means it is as if the conversion didn’t take place. So most of the Muslims, over the years, have come out of differential taxation which they couldn’t pay, brutality, and so on.
It has happened in every other country. In our country, we resisted it greatly and that is why we are still 80 percent Hindu. But those Muslims who have come and they willingly, without any force, without any canvassing, if they come to us and say and ‘I accept that my ancestors were Hindus and I want to be a Hindu now -- that is Gharwapsi. He acknowledges that this is my home and I’m willing to return to it.
Are you concerned about the spate of attacks on churches in recent months?
Well, I am concerned. I have also investigated and found that many of them have nothing to do with Hindus. There was one where a cricket ball broke a window. And I don’t think there is anything called a saffron cricket ball. Then, there was one in Navi Mumbai where four or five people used to do gambling near the church, and the church complained, and they were removed by the police. As a revenge, they went and attacked the church. One or two others were due to local rivalries.
No Hindu organisation to which I have an affiliation whether it is the RSS or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has anything to with this kind of activity. We have to investigate each one. There was one of a Christmas tree being burned and later it turned out to be a short-circuit. So, I mean, the media doesn’t follow up. The media is one that is doing the poisoning.
What is your interpretation of Hindutva?
We believe that Hindutva translated means Hindu-ness. What is Hindu-ness. We believe that women are equal to men. In fact, in our divine dispensation women have more power than men. You look at who presides over defence, finance and education. It is women Gods. We don’t think that men and women are identical. There are differences of shape, size, physical strength and so on. But in terms of pure intellectual content we make no distinction. And that is Hindutva. It’s not so with Islam where they say that two women witnesses have to depose in equal to one man witness. A man can have four wives but a woman cannot have more than one husband. You can by SMS do talak. These are things which we consider abhorrent to the state of women. To wear black burqas in the hot sun… forcing them. I’m not going to interfere with that. It is their sweat.
"We don’t want to repeat the concept of western nuclear families where everything becomes a cost benefit analysis. We want a Hindu approach to these things "
But the fact is that we want to change the relationship between father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife. We don’t want to repeat the concept of western nuclear families where everything becomes a cost benefit analysis. We want a Hindu approach to these things which means the Hindu values, which means we don’t place ultimate importance for material prosperity. We think that spiritual prosperity is also equally important. There should be a balance.
Did you find there was something missing in the existing Hindutva organisations that you launched a new one?
No, no, no. Nobody can replicate the RSS. It has turned out to be the largest volunteer organisation in the world. But it is based on the formation of cadres and a certain discipline. I don’t require people to be with me 24-hours a day. Nor do I want them to conform to any personal disciplines which is within the framework of the constitution. There is no overlapping, there is no contradiction, there is no collision, nothing.
What does Virat mean?
Virat means a person who will stand up for values and fight for it not just speak about it.
How do you respond to those who accuse you of spewing hate against Muslims and Christians?
Well, nobody has been able to prosecute me for it. So it easy to say these things, it is mostly the left-wing people and it’s all the people who don’t like my views on homosexuality, lesbianism and so on. They think that I’m a conservative. That’s not correct. And the growing popularity I enjoy today is an indication that people think that I am person who wants orderly change not anything by violent means or by destruction.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Dr. Swamy's group as Virat Hindu Sangam. The correct name in Virat Hindustan Sangam.
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