India’s status as a secular nation is in danger.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pro-Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the country’s 200 million Muslim minority population is increasingly being targeted. Over the years, so-called cow vigilante groups have attacked Muslims for eating beef, an act that many Hindus consider unholy.
The ruling party has also overshadowed the freedom of expression.
Alarmed by these developments, 53 US universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Columbia, co-sponsored a three-day conference “Dismantling Hindutva” in September 2021, in which scholars discussed the rise of Hindu nationalism.
India is the largest democracy in the world. But according to many experts, that democracy is in danger.
As a scholar of South Asian affairs, I argue that it is important to understand that India’s move towards Hindu identity has its roots in the early 20th century, when it was part of the British colonial empire.
In 1923, an anti-colonial revolutionary, Vinayak D. Savarkar, was the first to coin the term Hindutva, meaning “Hindu-ness”. This approach emphasized that a native of India, even if not a Hindu, could fully embrace the geography, languages and religions of “Mother India”.
a movement inspired by an unbeliever
Savarkar was an atheist, who had little interest in religion other than in political usage. In 1910, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for participating in a plot to assassinate the British Assistant Foreign Minister Curzon Wyllie.
During his imprisonment, Savarkar wrote his seminal treatise, “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” wrote.
One of the most famous scholars on Hindu nationalism, Christophe Jaffrelot, calls Savarkar’s work “the first charter of Hindu nationalism”. Savarkar sought to unite India’s native religions against Muslims and Christians, who were considered outside invaders.
At that time, Savarkar wanted to call the Indian subcontinent the great Hindu Rashtra, or a nation encompassing a similar geography, religion and culture. Followers of other religions, such as Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, would only need to pay homage to Hindu culture and accept a national identity within the larger Hindutva framework. The same would apply to “foreigners”, such as Muslims and Christians, as long as they did not attempt to impose their rule.
First, the concept of a Hindu identity did not include a religious sect. Instead, it favored pursuing identity politics based on notions of dominant ethnicity and nationalism.
The Khilafat movement, a 1919 pan-Islamic campaign that involved the Islamic world and had a profound effect in unifying the Indian Muslim community, radicalized Savarkar.
According to Savarkar, the unity of Indian Muslims was a threat during this period in contrast to the divided caste-based Hindu community, and in 1921 gave birth to a political party, the Hindu Mahasabha, of which he was a prominent figure.
After his release from prison, Savarkar’s rhetoric became less inclusive and hostile towards Muslims.
In his 1963 book “Six Glorious Epochs”, written shortly before his death, Savarkar stated that Muslims and Christians want to destroy Hinduism. He also argued that India should implement the kind of authoritarian rule that was imposed in totalitarian Germany, Japan and Italy during World War II.
Savarkar also believed that Muslims and the military were potential traitors in law enforcement and that their numbers needed to be kept under control.
Savarkar’s ideas became the foundation of contemporary Hindu nationalism.
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new shadow of nationalism
In 1925, another leader, KB Hedgewar, emerged near Mumbai and formed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. Today, the RSS is the umbrella organization of the ruling party, the BJP.
By the 1940s, the membership base of the RSS had grown to 600,000 volunteers. Today, it is over 5 million. Under Modi, Hindu nationalism has been brought into mainstream politics, and Hindu nationalists now hold key cabinet and ministerial-level positions in government.
The RSS was twice banned as a political party. Once in 1948 Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by former RSS member Nathuram Godse. The second was more recent after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, a holy site in the north Indian city of Ayodhya. The demolition led to nationwide riots where 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. Hindu nationalists claim that this place is the birthplace of Lord Rama. In 2019, the Supreme Court of India allowed the construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site.
After the first ban, the RSS and the Mahasabha formed their own political party in 1951 called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh – the predecessor of the current BJP – Jana Sangh walked on a platform of “Indianisation,” or assimilation, of all minorities into a unified Hindu nation.
For centuries, Muslims were regarded by many Hindus as another ethnic group or sub-caste within South Asia and not as an external threat that needed to be overcome. But Savarkar did not believe so. He wanted to bring about an internal harmony among the various Hindu groups to protect them from any external aggression.
Savarkar’s treatise was the foundation of the 2014 BJP manifesto, which set the party’s agenda to reform the “abandoned vision” of a Hindu nation.
Secularism is enshrined in the Constitution of India, but the BJP’s re-election in 2019 shows that India is undergoing a fundamental change and adopting a Hindu identity.
Ram temple construction is expected to be ready before the next parliamentary elections in 2024. The construction and celebration of a Hindu temple on the grounds of a destroyed Muslim mosque, I believe, marks India’s transition.