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The Politics of Hindu Nationalism

Indian state has witnessed ever since colonial times an institutionalized form of colonial politics. But before we evaluate the future of the politics of Hindu nationalism in the light of the historic judgment over Babri mosque dispute, it is necessary to look at the way it has been evolving over the period of time. The politics of revivalism has evolved to the effect that it seems now to be in conflict with its own past principles, more than that it seems to negate the core ideas of its own founding fathers…

Peeping into the Hindu (ist) past

The story of Hindu nationalism does not start with RSS and its political wing although it reached by all means its pinnacle in the politics of Sangh Parivar. The process of Hindu revival in India began with Raja Rammohun Roy, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj and generally regarded as the father of modern India. He tried to show that the worship of idols of innumerable gods and goddesses had not originally been a part of Hinduism, which has really been based on monotheism. Although endowed with a universal outlook, Rammohun Roy subscribed to the widely prevalent view that Muslim rule had caused great damage to Hindu society and culture. He argued that the Muslim had introduced a tyrannical government destroying temples, universities and all other sacred and literary establishments. Another key Hindu revivalist in mid 19th century was Dwarkanath Tagore who remarked that these evils as ‘a want of truth’ ‘a want of integrity’ and so on had not existed in India in ancient times, but had emerged as a result of Muslim conquest and the consequent loss of liberty and national degradation. To quote his observations, “The Muhammadans introduced in this country all the vices of an ignorant, intolerant and licentious soldiery. The utter destruction of learning and science was an invariable part of their system and the conquered, no longer able to protect their lives by arms and independence, fell into opposite extremes of abject submission, deceit and fraud. Such has been the condition of the natives of Hindustan for centuries (R C Majumdar, the glimpses of Bengal’ p.20).

Similarly Dayananda asserted that the vedic religion was superior to all other religions including Christianity and Islam. The tidal wave of Hindu nationalism was not only confined to the political treatises but went much beyond that to the social literature and literary personalities like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who was also regarded by some as the creator of Hindu nationalism. To quote him, “If religion is the source of true happiness, the whole life should be governed by religion. This is the essence of Hindu dharma. Other religions do not say so, that is why they are incomplete, only Hindu religion is the most complete religion. Other people believe that religion is concerned with only God and the life beyond. To the Hindu, religion encompasses this life, the life beyond, God, man, all living beings, the whole of creation. Is there any other religion so all encompassing, so full of bliss, so pure” (M K Haldar, Renaissance and Reaction in 19th c Bengal, p.121-2). In his essays and novels, he used ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ as synonymous terms. He was followed by a horde of literary Hindu nationalists in all vernaculars, like Bhartendu Harischandra, Pratap Narayan Mishra and Radha Chandra Goswami as the pioneers of modern Hindu literature in mid and late 19th century. In his poetry welcoming the Prince of Wales in 1875, Bhartendu expressed his happiness at the end of centuries of oppression by Muslims through the establishment of British rule in India and referred to the wounds in the heart that were preserved through the presence of the mosque built by Aurangzeb just by the side of the sacred Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. Bal Gangadhar Tilak refers to the destruction of the temples undertaken by Muslim invaders and rulers and ascribes their success to the prevalence of certain weakness among the Hindus.

According to N Gerald Barrier, the systematic attack on Islam, carried on by the preachers of the Arya Samaj, contributed to a more intense level of Hindu-Muslim antagonism and produced a regularized pattern of conflict. The Arya Samajists, following the methods of religious propaganda adopted by the Christian missionaries, sent a number of preachers to various parts of the province and published several pamphlets and posters attacking Islam. The organization of cow-protection societies in the early 1880s, in which the Arya Samajists played a leading role, further aggravated the situation resulting into as many as fifteen riots in the Punjab over cow-killing and other related matters from 1883 to 1891. Originating from the Punjab the movement for cow-protection soon engulfed large parts of northern India and particularly strong in the Bhojpuri speaking areas of UP and Bihar.

Institutionalization of Hindu Nationalism:

Hindu nationalism could not get quite institutionalized unless the RSS and Parivar got well entrenched in Indian political scenario. But before we tend to describe the conditions that led to the birth of RSS, we cannot miss but mention a personality who was the earliest forerunner of the Sangh Parivar. It was none other than Rajnarain Bose a member of the Adi Brahmo Samaj and described by many as the Grandfather of Indian nationalism and who can also be regarded as the first prophet of Hindu nationalism. In 1866, he founded in Midnapore a Society for the promotion of national feeling among the educated natives of Bengal. By ‘Natives’ of course he meant ‘Hindus’ as was the vogue in those days in Bengal and other parts of the country as well. In one of his pamphlets Bose expresses concern with the indiscriminate copying of Western modes by educated Hindus and stressed the need for an effort to see that the entire Hindu heritage was not lost. With this end, the Nationality Promotion Society as Bose called the proposed organization, was to seek to revive the national gymnastic exercises, establish schools for instruction in ‘Hindu Music’ and ‘Hindu Medicine’, encourage the cultivation of Sanskrit and instruction of the mother tongue before the start of instruction of English, oppose the trend of mixing English words with those in Bengali in common conversation, make it obligatory for its members to correspond among themselves in Bengali, and encourage the use of Bengali in meetings and associations and the uses of Indian forms of etiquette. These militant methods introduced by Bose inspired Nebagopal Mitra, editor of the National Paper and a member of the Brahmo Samaj, to start in 1867 an annual gathering called Jatiya Mela which became famous later as ‘the Hindu Mela’ with a view to promote national feeling, sense of patriotism and a spirit of self-help among the Hindus. Susobhan Sarkar has noted that these annual meetings stirred up all Calcutta.

Efforts at Hindu political organization was not confined to Bengal only. A Hindu Sabha, for instance, was founded in Madras in 1881. Punjab in particular witnessed a series of such efforts. Thus some Hindus in Lahore founded the Lahore Hindu Sabha in 1882 for protecting the so-called Hindu interests. By the summer of 1908, there were Hindu Sabhas in each of the districts of Punjab and at their head stood Punjab Hindu Sabha. It was the latter’s initiative which led to the foundation of the All India Hindu Mahasabha at Hardwar in 1915. Although not a large organization the Mahasabha’s role in expressing or moulding general Hindu opinion on communal issues could not be completely ignored. For over two decades several Hindu leaders of the Congress attended its annual sessions. Such association continued till 1937 when it was formally banned by the Congress. Some Congress leaders like Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya even presided over the sessions of the Mahasabha. Even those Congress leaders who kept themselves generally aloof from the Mahasabha occasionally tried to influence its decisions and extend the hold of their supporters over it. This was resented by Muslims in particular of Congress in view of the fact that the Mahasabha adopted an openly partisan attitude on the issue of Hindu-Muslim riots and strongly supported the Suddhi and Sangathan movements in the twenties.

Where Savarkar Takes Over:     

The elections of 1937 marked the emergence of the Congress as a powerful parliamentary as well as a mass-based party, completely eclipsing the Hindu sectional organizations like the Mahasabha, but instead of being discouraged, the latter under the leadership of the ex-revolutionary V.D. Savarkar now acquired a much more strident tone, basing itself openly on Hindu nationalism and strongly opposing any concession to Muslims at the cost of the so-called Hindu interests. Thus at the annual session of the Mahasabha at Ahmedabad in 1937, Savarkar declared in course of his presidential address that Hindus were ‘bound and marked out as a nation by themselves’ and that all the various test of nationhood such as country, race, religion and language entitled the Hindus to claim nationhood by themselves much more than many other nations. The Mahasabha, he further claimed, was preeminently a national body representing the Hindu Nation as a whole. Referring to Hindus and Muslims, he observed that these were “two antagonistic nations living side by side in India and their antagonism is not likely to end soon”. He called ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’ a myth and it would not serve any purpose. The only wise thing to do was, he suggested, to make it clear that Muslims would have the same rights as other Indians but no special privileges. If on this basis they were prepared to join Hindus in the struggle for freedom, they would be welcome.

Thus was the ‘two-nation theory’ propounded from the rostrum  of the Hindu Mahasabha, seven years after Iqbal had expounded it from the rostrum of the Muslim League but about three years before Jinnah publically adopted it and made the basis for the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan. Savarkar was the first modern and systematic theoretician of Hindu nationalism who formed a bridge between pre-Gandhian Hindu nationalism and post-Gandhian Hindu nationalism and remained the most influential figure to inspire every believer in Hindu nationalism. To quote him again, “No other nation in the world, excepting perhaps the Chinese, can claim a continuity of life and growth unbroken as our Hindu-nation does. The Hindu nation is not a mushroom growth. It is not a treaty nation. It is not a paper-made toy. It was not made to order. It is not an outlandish makeshift. It has grown out of this soil and has its roots struck deep and wide in it. It is not a fiction invented to spite the Muslims or anybody in the world. But it a fact so stupendous and solid as the Himalayas…that borders our North. To us Hindus, Hindustan and India mean one and the same thing. We are Indians because we are Hindus and vice versa” (Hindu Rashtra Darshan, 23-7).

Deepening Sectarianism:

Hindu nationalism got more sectarian and institutionalized from mid 192os and the sole credit for this goes to Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who founded the Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh in 1925 and he remained its supreme leader till his death in 1940. The RSS took on several features of the then Indian terrorist societies including a military style of training recruits and a certain religiosity. From its inception, the basic unit of the RSS has been the Sakha (local branch) which in the beginning had close affinity to the akharas (a place for physical exercises and games). It includes a temple generally dedicated to Hanuman; it is placed under the authority of a guru who instructs the members of the akhara in physical and mental discipline, giving them a certain balance. The RSS distinguished itself from the traditional model by their ideological character and physical exercise. For Joseph Alter, the Sakha’s physical training is ‘unambiguously Western’ because even “stave training and other kinds of Indian exercise are regimented according to Western standards of cadence formation and discipline”. V.M. Sirsikar, who joined the RSS in 1933 at Nagpur, mentions that the Sunday parade was accompanied by a band playing English Music (the orders for the drill were in English) and most of its practices had been borrowed from the University of Training Corps. Hedgewar, the founder of RSS was raised to the status of a god so much so that from 1927 he subjected his young recruits to weekly sessions of ideological education consisting of simple questions to the novices concerning the Hindu nation its history and heroes especially Shivaji. The first public task assigned to the RSS by its founder included a religious element in so far as it was to protect pilgrims against the rapacity of Muslim fakirs and Brahmin priests at the great festival of Ramanavami held at Ramtek (near Nagpur) in 1926. However its dominant mission was directed against Muslims as the events of 1927 in Nagpur reveal. RSS volunteers were involved in a riot during the procession of Mahalakshmi.

M.S. Golwalkar, designated by Hedgewar as his successor shortly before his death in 1940, was unquestionably regarded as one of the greatest gurus by its members. Much like Savakar, Golwalkar was remarkable in his anti-Muslim rhetorics. To quote him, “There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture or to live at mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. This is the only sound view on the minorities’ problem” (Golwalkar, We or Our Nationhood Defined, p.4).

Post-colonial Revivalism: 

With Golwalkar ends the first wave of Hindu nationalism and more than that the death of Golwalkar also coincided with steady ideological dilution of Hindu nationalism. It was solely in the post-Golwalkar phase that Hindu nationalists came to believe in the realpolitik or electoral politics. This is to say that in the Gandhian and Nehruvian phase of Indian politics, Hindu nationalists were reduced to a mere cultural group formed by the then ascriptive social elites. These social elites invented a cultural nationalist ideology with utopian elements into it and when they endeavored to take this ideology to the masses, they found themselves rebuffed by the masses. Amongst other things, this rebuttal to the cultural nationalists by the masses was caused primarily by two factors: (a) Gandhian mass movements and (b) the inherent duplicity in their approach to politics.

Almost for three decades (till Gandhi dies) Gandhism was the opium of the masses to the extent that rest of the ideologues, let alone Hindu nationalists, found themselves helplessly on the fringe of Indian politics. Hindu nationalists hated Gandhi more than they hated Nehruvian secularism chiefly because at least they had the privilege of criticizing Nehruvian secularism on the ground of its being Western import. But they could not even criticize Gandhi (except on some trivial issues) as he was much more indigenous and Swadeshi than Hindu nationalists claimed to be. So Gandhi snatched away the very ground on which they wished to base their politics and this eventually resulted in extreme frustration in the ranks of the Hindu nationalists, may be, leading to the assassination of Gandhi.

As to the duplicity in their approach to politics, it can without doubt be affirmed that their ideology was purposively vague and self-contradictory. The vocabulary of Hindu nationalism was by all means borrowed from the West (as it has been well proven by the scholars today that terms like nation and nationalism are modern construct rather than pre-modern) and yet using this modern and Western vocabulary they wanted to revive what they called their golden past. Another major contradiction in their ideology was that on the one hand they called their ideology ‘Hindu nationalism’ which means an ideology relating itself with Hindus (more than 80% of the total population, as per their own claim), on the other hand they remained the pioneers in excluding sometimes south Indians or Dravidians and other races by glorifying exclusively the achievements of the fair-looking Aryans. Similarly their perpetual silence over caste and untouchability issues and manning their organizations mainly out of Brahmins and Baniyas make them further exclusivist and paradoxical. Their consistent reluctance to recognize caste in public life and practice casteism in private life was not received well by the backward classes and dalits. So apart from Congress, even Hindu nationalists left enough space for caste to creep into Indian political system and corrupt the electorate itself. But the electorate cannot be blamed for this in somuch as the political parties and pseudo ideologies. Hence the argument here was that for the above mentioned reasons the appeal of the Hindu nationalists, even in the aftermath of Mandir movement led by L.K. Advani, was confined largely to the upper caste. Both backward classes and dalits saw the politics of Hindu nationalism with a skeptical eye. This is what amidst others led to the rise of political parties like RJD, SP, BSP and many others.

Babri Verdict and the Current State of Hindu Nationalism:

The post-Golwalkar right-wing politics witnessed the first line of moderation drawn by its proponents especially in the backdrop of first non-Congress government formation in 1977 when Hindu nationalists tasted power (in coalition) for the first time. In the post ’77 phase of politics, Hindu nationalists began to emphasize more on equal political treatment to both Hindus and Muslims, implying that Muslims must not be given any special concession or privilege by state just because they are minority. They ceased to mention Muslims as Jews (as Golwalkar had done) at least in public sphere. They stopped discussing in public the mass expulsion of Muslims from India. They no longer publicly held that Muslims could never be loyal to India as India might be their Janmabhumi but not Punyabhumi… They began to talk more about the preservation of Hindu rights which should not be sacrificed on the altar of minority rights. It is notable that in this phase Hindu nationalists began to critique Congress and other secular Political Parties on the ground that they were pseudo-secularists as they remained busy with Muslim appeasement. In this criticism what is remarkably implicit is that Hindu nationalists seems to cherish “secularism” as a value in politics which they had theoretical rejected in colonial age. This became the central plank Of BJP, the political Wing of RSS, with which it entered into Ram Mandir movement. Ram Janmabhoomi was the sacred place, to the claims of Hindu nationalists, and the presence of a mosque there was in violation of the most sacrosanct Hindu right and therefore the sacred place must be liberated and Ram Mandir must be restored. With this goal in mind they started the Mandir agitation and to the surprise of the progressive intelligentsia and even political scientists, by 1999 BJP became the single largest party in India. This popularity of Hindu nationalism was unpredictable as it demolished the very structure of Party system in India. Party system in India was no longer one-party dominant system or what Rajni Kothari called Congress system got massively destroyed. As a result of this agitation, Hindu nationalist ideology for the first time in History seemed to get translated into mass ideology or ideology-in-power, especially when they formed government.

And then comes on 31st September 2010, the judgment of the Lucknow Bench, Allahabad High Court giving the verdict which divided the disputed area into three equal portions to be given to Hindus (Ram Lalla), the Nirmohi Akhara and Muslims. The Court accepted that the disputed place was Ram Janmabhoomi as per the claim and idols would remain where they were kept way back in 1949. This verdict was welcomed not only by Hindu nationalists and Mahanthas but across all political parties and even largely by the Muslim clerics at least in public sphere. Civil-society associations were asked both by the Court and party-in-power not to criticize the verdict as the grieved party as well as the other party were free to appeal to the Supreme court.

But inspite of all prohibitory orders from the authorities concerned, some of the noted intellectuals did voice their concern regarding the judgment. This goes without saying that the sole scientific legitimiser of the judgment (which seems more political than legal) was ASI report submitted to the honorable Court in April 2003. But this is equally true that historians have drilled holes in the ASI report and these holes (to the resentment of historians) were taken into account by the Court. Historian Irfan Habib feels the “Compromise Judgment” had come at the cost of history and facts (TOI, Oct 1, 2010). Similarly noted political scientist Zoya Hasan feels while the courts judgment should be respected there are issues with it. Hasan beleves that there cannot be any constitutional reasoning here. By ruling on that issue, the court could legitimise the majoritarian position on the matter (TOI, Oct 1, 2010). The noted social activist Shabnam Hashmi sounded even more forthcoming in affirming that the verdict made her feel like a second-class citizen. So it can be very much deduced from all this that though members of the Muslim intelligentsia put up a brave face on TV channels and other media, talking in politically correct terms, in private, many of them accepted with a sense of grief that they saw the verdict as “anti Muslim”.

These versions of the Muslim intelligentsia on the verdict make one thing clear that Muslims do not want to make a public issue of their injury or they are ready to compromise on this issue with the Majoritarian position. This grown up political maturity of the Muslim electorate In general and clerics in particular, has contributed immensely to the hollistic development of democratic values and secularist ethos. Mobilization of the paramillitary forces and police not only around Ayodhya site but almost in all cities of India on the verdict day and thereafter sooner-than-expected demobilization of the same was witnessed by the whole country in amazement. Looking at the larger picture now, where this judgment has left the future of Hindu nationalism. Is it really the victory or debacle to the Hindu nationalists??? Where they (Hindu nationalists) would go from here??? Mandir movement, though it made Hinduttva popular and helped it enter into the corridors of power, also had another side to it. This movement  set a smaller goal (that of a temple building on a particular site) than what Golwalkar had set for Hindu nationalism as an ideology. This issue converted the BJP from being an ideological party to an issue-based party. The problem with the issue-based parties is that when the issue gets dead, the parties enter into a phase of identity crisis. Let us see if it happens with the BJP as the issue seems to be dead, nay, it was almost dead long back, may be, by 2004 General Election. Let us also not disscuss further the rationale and scientificity of the verdict…let us not probe deeper into the verdict and leave the question – whether the honorable Court has gone for history or myth – for indian populace to respond… 

(Dr Preetam, a JNU Research Scholar.)


Preetam has done Ph D from JNU and now Assistant Professor in St. Stephen’ College, Delhi University.

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  1. Я не нашла гостевой поэтому пишу тут. Какой толк от регистрации у вас если можно писать комментарии сразу на новости ?

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