Six months into his post, India’s Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi appears to be facing his worst nemesis, the resurgence of militant, chauvinistic and violent Hindu nationalism. It is ironic because, after all, Modi’s politics is deeply rooted in the Hindutva movement. His election victory was attained with promises of development and growth for a young India. Foreigners and Indians alike had not expected Hindu nationalist ideologues to derail Modi even before he could launch his agenda of economic reform.
The origins of Hindutva or militant and revivalist Hindu chauvinism can be traced back to the early 20th century British rule in India. Hinduism is a religion unlike others, especially the Abrahamic faiths, in that you are born a Hindu but you cannot be converted into one through any ceremony. There is also no fundamental creed or any book or books which every Hindu should know or recite. The basis for the spread of Hinduism across the Indian subcontinent was its pluralism, its acceptance of differences and its catholicity.
However, there were Hindus who increasingly believed that their polytheistic faith lacked the wherewithal to face monotheistic faiths. A conservative backlash within Hinduism started which led to the creation of various organizations, some educational and cultural and others political. In 1909 a pamphlet titled ‘Hindus: A Dying Race’ was published which made the absurd argument that Hindus would soon become a minority and Muslims would become the majority in India. That this view still has prevalence is reflected in a recent statement by senior leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) Praveen Togadia spoke about the need to raise the percentage of Hindus from 82 percent to 100 percent.
A Hindu revivalist, Nathuram Godse, who believed that India’s founding father Mahatma Gandhi was too sympathetic to Muslims, assassinated him on January 30, 1948. This assassination and the bloody and violent Partition left a legacy on Indian nationalism and the definition of citizenship in the Indian constitution. The Indian constitution provides wide-ranging rights to its citizens, including to its large minority populations. India is a secular, pluralistic democracy where citizenship is territorial and all minorities, ethnic and religious, are treated as equals.
Hindutva, or Hindu chauvinism and revivalism, instead defined citizenship differently. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the leading ideologue of Hindutva, wrote a pamphlet in 1923 titled ‘Who is a Hindu’ /‘Essentials of Hindutva’ where he defines what he refers to as citizenship for any Hindu or person who lives in the Indian subcontinent. Savarkar states that a Hindu is he who considered the land from the Himalayas or the Indus to the Indian Ocean as his Fatherland (pitrubhumi) and Holy land (punyabhumi). This meant that only followers of these religions Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism and Buddhism can be true citizens. Since all the other faiths in India — Zoroastrian, Christianity, Islam and Judaism — have their holy lands outside of the Indian subcontinent their followers cannot be seen as true citizens. When Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, minister in Mr Modi’s cabinet, in a speech in Delhi on December 2, 104 differentiated between ‘Ramzadon’ (Progeny of Ram) and ‘Haramzadon’ (illegitimate offspring) she was harking back to Savarkar’s definition of who is a true citizen and who is not.
Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy as father of the nation coupled with the fact that for the first seventeen years India was ruled by Jawaharlal Nehru, a secularist and pluralist to the core left what is referred to as Nehruvian secularism. This is what has underlay Indian nationalism for the last six decades and has ensured a semblance of stability. This edifice started to crack from the 1990s with the rise of Hindutva within India and with the rise of revivalism in other parts of the world and its reverberations within India. As in other parts of the world with economic growth comes the rise of a middle class which is more conservative, outwardly-religious and demonstrative of beliefs it often seeks to impose on others. The rise of Islamic radicalism and revivalism in other parts of the world including in the Indian subcontinent has only strengthened the roots of Hindu revivalism.
There has been a steady rise in the number of religio-communal incidents in India in 2014 whether it be the case of a member of parliament force feeing a Muslim who was fasting for Ramzan or the staged conversion of 57 Muslim families in the city of Agra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh under the title of “homecoming”
There are three potential explanations for these incidents. The first is that this is an internal revolt within the Hindu revivalists who seek to put pressure on Modi to use his electoral mandate to implement policies of their choice. This could explain why members of Modi’s own cabinet have made controversial statements: whether Niranjan Jyoti with her remarks on Ramzadon/Haramzadon or External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj talking about the need to make the Bhagvad Geeta the national book of India. However, what is also known is that Modi has reprimanded his ministers for such remarks in private. A few days after her Geeta remark, Swaraj also spoke about the need for tolerance in India.
Another explanation is that the Hindu revivalists supported Modi simply in order to come to power and now that the BJP is in power the Parivar is demonstrating that it is really they who are in control and not Mr Modi.
The final possibility is the assertion by some that Modi is coming out of the closet and showing his true self. However, Modi’s election campaign and his speeches after becoming prime minister have focused on development not Hindutva. Further, in his August 15 speech Modi emphasized the need to reduce “communal tensions” and spoke about pluralism and moving forward.
India’s future is tied to its identity as a pluralistic, democratic and secular society that is a pillar of stability in a region and world that is increasingly chaotic. What Indians would like is for Mr Modi to come out and say in the open what he believes instead of allowing others to frame the issue for him.