India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has inspired a flush of optimism and heightened expectations around the world. He is very pragmatic, charismatic, determined, and presents an aura of strong leadership and demanding management. His aggressive style and forceful oratory seems like just what India needs at the moment. His emphasis on development and economic growth has delighted businessmen and enchanted the poor. His newfound interest in diplomacy and overseas trips has flattered foreigners and left a good impression abroad.
… But there’s another side to Narendra Modi, and although many of his supporters wanted to wave it off during and after last year’s election, it’s not going away. That’s his Hindu nationalist side. Modi is a deep believer in the Hindu faith and subscribes to a fundamentalist faction in Indian politics. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), stands for militant Hinduism and staunch nationalism. Understanding these strains in Indian politics is essential, because they’ve always been important and despite some eulogies seem destined to have a future impact.
Hinduism is one complex religion. It might not even be best to think of it as one unified faith. The product of a medley of mythologies, local cults, and the distinctive features of Indian society melded together by some philosophical tracts (the Vedas, the Upanishads) and epics (the Mahabharata, the Ramayana), it stands apart by how disparate it is. It embraces violence and nonviolence; monotheism and polytheism; a universal law code and local traditions; local, regional gods and internationally recognized gods; monarchy and rule by consensus; esoteric philosophy and elaborate ceremonies. Despite serious divisions — along caste lines, for example, or between worshipers of different gods — it has a record of shrugging off the divisions and reconciling them harmoniously. It has no real central scriptures, no national organized hierarchy, no rules for how to worship. It runs on millennia-old custom and tradition.
Hinduism may be striking in its diversity and openness, but there are some clear limits to its scope. The first one was set down firmly in the Middle Ages, when Islam reached the Indian subcontinent. Islam is emphatically Not Hinduism. Islam’s stern opposition to idol worship can’t be accommodated by idol-loving Hinduism. That meant that Islam’s arrival in India brought with it a wave of idol-smashing and temple-destroying. When Muslim rulers conquered India, they further persecuted Hinduism and encouraged conversion to their religion. Hindus began to get a sense for how their religion differed from those further west.
The next limit was set down in modern times, when Europeans invaded the subcontinent. Europeans are Christian, and zealously promote their faith. Just as Muslims were disgusted by idol-worship and Hindu worship, Christians refused to accept polytheism and pushed the Bible. The Europeans’ differing patterns of thought also reinforced how separate and distinctive Hinduism was.
All this led to a Hindu reform movement in the early 1800s. Led by Ram Mohan Roy, it got rid of some of the most medieval and outdated practices in Hinduism, which had caused a great deal of shame once it became clear how much they clashed with foreign customs. It also encouraged Hindus to take pride in their past, to stop turning to foreign religions and look to their own faith for guidance and inspiration. The contemporary European fascination with Hinduism, which has always seemed like a more authentic and spiritual religion than the boring familiarity of Christianity, encouraged them.
By the 1900s these thoughts were hardening. By then India was on the march, determined to trash the foreigners and establish independence once again. Hinduism’s emphasis on nonviolence, acceptance, and detachment from earthly suffering, as exemplified by the independence movement’s leader, Mohandas Gandhi, was starting to seem naive and a failure. A new movement tried to take Hinduism in a more martial direction and make Indians realize they needed to fight for their freedom. Its leader, Vinayak Savarkar, wrote a book, Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” which lent the movement its name. He argued that beyond any consideration of religion, Hindus needed to rediscover what made them and their civilization unique and create a new India that combined Hinduism with modernity.
From the beginning the movement defined itself in opposition to Islam. Many Hindus have long distrusted Muslims as alien interlopers and have not forgotten their sometimes oppressive rule before the British onslaught. When most Muslims broke away from the independence movement in the 1930s to form the “Muslim League” agitating for a separate Indian Muslim country, Hindu nationalists felt justified in demanding a Hindu nation that privileged the Hindu majority. When the British acceded to the Muslim League’s demands and created Pakistan in 1947, its birth (and India’s) was accompanied by horrific riots and a spasm of religious (more accurately “communal”) violence and large-scale massacres across north India. The long-wished-for dream of history’s most prominent nonviolent campaigner was tarnished by bloodshed.
Once the dust had settled, India’s new government refused to mimic Pakistan. India’s Founding Father, Jawaharlal Nehru, maintained his party’s line — that India was a pluralistic, secular, open-minded and open-armed democracy. If Pakistan wanted to break off, that was fine, but India would pursue Gandhi’s ideal. Savarkar saw this as foolish, even treasonous: if Muslims had rejected India altogether and gone their own way, why bother to accommodate them? Instead, he saw Partition (Pakistan’s breakaway) as the perfect opportunity to create a Hindu country at last: a real “Hindustan” (a local term for India) governed by ancient Hindu codes and run by the Hindu majority, with other faiths marginalized and even persecuted.
Meanwhile, to add punch to the Hindutva movement, an organization arose called the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization) to mobilize youth behind its ideology. It was explicitly modeled after Fascist groups in vogue in the early 1900s: training camps, heavy emphasis on martial arts (which in India revolves around wrestling and stick combat), crisp uniforms, strict discipline, hand salutes, and a sense of solidarity and community. Its leader, M.S. Golvarkar, admired Adolf Hitler and tried to import his blend of bellicose nationalism, martial spirit, fixation on young men and persecution of religious minorities. The RSS troops were heavily engaged in the fighting before and during Partition and helped stoke a climate of fear and intolerance afterward. As Golvarkar said, “The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture… in a word they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment — not even citizen’s rights.”
For a while it seemed as if the RSS and the Hindu right would carry the day and take over India. An RSS man shot Gandhi for his soft stance on Pakistan. Sweeping reforms to the Hindu law code that restructured marriage and inheritance to be more egalitarian and feminist met with vicious counterattack from conservative Hindus. But Nehru and Congress (his party) outlasted the storm and defeated the Jana Sangh, the Hindutva party, in national elections. Gandhi’s assassination went a long way in discrediting militant Hinduism for most Indians, and the RSS was banned and its leaders jailed in its aftermath. For a long time the Hindutva movement was in eclipse, and India entered a long period of Congress rule…. but it never really went away, and the RSS kept recruiting young men to its ranks, eventually becoming the world’s 2nd-largest political group (behind the Chinese Communist Party).
Hindutva had a new opportunity in the ’80s. A heavy-handed period of dictatorship in the ’70s had discredited Congress. The successor government was lackluster and unimpressive to the electorate. The Jana Sangh, newly rebranded as the Bharatiya Janata Party, pressed the attack, helped along by a TV adaptation of the Ramayana that stirred up religious feeling. The problem was finding an issue that could unite the Hindu masses. It finally found one in Ayodhya, a city in the Ganga Valley in north India that was the capital of Rama, the divine hero of the Ramayana. A mosque had been built there in the 1500s, and the BJP decided it was built on the site of Rama’s birthplace. A nationwide campaign built up support for the mosque’s destruction and for a temple to Rama to be built in its place. The BJP agitator Lal Krishna Advani drove around India in a chariot (actually a chariot-looking pickup truck) rallying support, volunteers, and money for the project. It finally happened in 1992… well, at least the mosque was destroyed. Hindu-Muslim riots after that were so vicious that the government prevented the temple from being built (but also the mosque from being rebuilt).
The BJP finally came to national power in 1998 under Atal Vajpeyi, but there were no sweeping changes of Indian society as a result. Vajpeyi is widely considered more moderate and conciliatory than others in the party, and he focused on economic reform in his time in office. But his government did take a more nationalist stance, provoking Pakistan with a nuclear test shortly after coming to power, and the education ministry slowly introduced revisions to the way India’s ancient history was taught with the effect of stimulating pride in India’s heritage and presenting it as the wellspring of civilization. Nonetheless, most observers seemed to feel that the Hindutva wave had passed and that the question of Indian society had been settled.
Now they aren’t so sure. In the past few years, Congress has demolished its own popularity. Aside from a few diehard pockets in the northeast and south, it was wiped out in last year’s elections. It has appeared impotent, corrupt, and lazy. In contrast to the dynamic and crowd-pleasing Modi, Congress seems out of ideas and drive.
But Modi is a member of both the BJP and the RSS; in fact, the RSS is how he got his start in politics. The energy and discipline he brings to his position was instilled by the training and self-sacrifice he was forced to endure in its camps. Before the election, he was most famous for the role he played in the Gujarati riots of 2002. After a Muslim crowd burned a train of Hindu pilgrims coming from Ayodhya, Hindu crowds took revenge by killing, raping and torturing innocent Muslims across the state of Gujarat. Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat at the time, did nothing, and punished the Muslims but not the Hindus. In the election campaign he refused to apologize for the riots.
The BJP remains committed to a hardline Hindu agenda. Its president, Amit Shah, relies on Islamophobia and nationalism to get votes. It fields candidates that were accused of inciting communal riots in 2013. It spreads rumors about Muslims to whip up fear and is currently complaining about a “love jihad” waged by Muslim men against the hearts of Hindu women. It encourages Hindu converts to other religions to return to their ancestral faith, often in huge public ceremonies. It continues to press a religious and nationalist interpretation of history despite India’s secular constitution.
One example of the new atmosphere in India is the controversy over Wendy Doniger, an American scholar of Hinduism who wrote a recent book on the religion, The Hindus: An Alternate History. It alleges that sex held a much more prominent position in Hindu history than it does now and examines the religion from the position of women and minorities. The Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Movement to Save Education), a Hindutva advocacy group, cried foul, claiming its representation of Hindu deities was offensive and inaccurate. Its publisher caved and destroyed all unsold copies of the book in India.
So far Modi has mostly avoided religious politics. He still puts development, economic reform, and foreign relations first. His position on India’s myriad social problems is further left than many of his compatriots. He is sympathetic to women and lower castes (he’s lower caste himself). He has even courted the Muslim vote before on the grounds that economic growth would benefit them (Muslims are poorer on average than Hindus). It worked, to some extent.
But he continues to be dismissive about the riots he oversaw. He continues to tolerate hardcore Hindu nationalists in his government and inner circle. He believes that ancient India was far more advanced than is generally accepted, and said in a speech last year that plastic surgery must have been invented long ago in India, because how else would the god Ganesha have an elephant’s trunk? The ancients must have studied genetics science, because how else could the Mahabharata character Karna have been born outside of his mother’s womb? The head of the Indian Council of Historical Research, appointed by Modi, says that ancient Indians had invented airplanes and nuclear weapons.
The underlying current beneath Hindutva, especially noticeable in the RSS’s militant organization, is frustration with India’s long history of subjugation to foreign power. Hindus are stereotyped as docile, submissive, and peaceful. The caste hierarchies deeply embedded in India’s basically feudal society enhance this. The Hindutva crowd believes that with Muslims and Christians encroaching on India, Hindus must fight back and assert themselves as a proud nation. Although Gandhi is nearly universally revered as a Mahatma (Great Soul) nowadays, the BJP disdains the clique that founded and ruled India in its first decades. It was secular, naive, pacifist, and Western-oriented, they say. If India is to survive in a fiercely competitive world, it must be more aggressive and confident.
In this way Hindu nationalism isn’t that much different from other nationalist ideologies circulating these days. The post-colonial world in general has an inferiority complex and strives to prove itself vis-a-vis the West. History is interpreted in a way to stimulate pride and nostalgia. Government policy is driven by a determination to make the country stronger. What distinguishes Hindu India is its strong religiosity, ancient religious traditions and sense of uniqueness. But the Hindutva movement isn’t even that much about religion. Many of its followers are not particularly religious. Plenty of Hindu gurus and saddhus (holy men) are not associated with it. BJP politicians have appealed to Muslim and other minority voters before Modi. Savarkar, the movement’s Grand Old Man, was an atheist and sneered at several now-cherished Hindu customs, like vegetarianism and cow worship. Hindutva latches onto Hinduism because it’s what makes India different. Hinduism played such a fundamental role in Indian history in premodern times that it would be a struggle to construct a secular nationalist narrative.
Comparisons between the RSS and Fascism can be strained, since the movement supports and participates in (via the BJP) parliamentary democracy. Hindutva is mostly a reactionary movement, and it is doubtful that Modi will actively persecute or discriminate against Muslims. But with Modi sympathetic to it and with Hindutva ideology spreading into classrooms and chambers of power, it has set India’s minorities and many foreigners on edge.