By Ananya Vajpeyi
12 July 2014
Hindutva is a historic and possibly doomed attempt to change everything about Hinduism that makes it what it is — its ability to accommodate mind-boggling diversity, its avoidance of strict definitions and boundaries, its amorphous, heterogeneous, tolerant and fluid character
The 2014 national election, resulting in a decisive victory for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seems to have thrown the Indian commentariat into ideological disarray. Intellectuals and opinion-makers who have professed particular beliefs and held certain positions for the longest time, appear now to be changing their views. This began happening during the campaign, continued through the election, and has become routine in the new dispensation.
Larger changes in the media, in institutions of research and higher education, and the electoral rout of the Congress and Left parties add to the general climate of confusion and mistrust. Each day it appears that one more person whose voice carries weight comes out to endorse Narendra Modi’s regime. Criticism is replaced with qualified support, while in some cases the reverse is true — heartfelt enthusiasm is replaced with bitter condemnation of the Prime Minister and his team. Nobody knows any more who is with us and who is with them; who is on the left and who is on the right.
Fading Secular Opinion
In an earlier piece in The Hindu (April 9, 2014), I had suggested that the “euphemistic contract” leading some commentators to pass over Mr. Modi’s Hindutva agenda and turn a blind eye to his complicity in the violence of Gujarat 2002 needed to be broken if there was to be some chance of curbing or defeating the BJP at the hustings. Others argued that his veiled and explicit stances against minorities worked in his favour, and increased his popularity rather than damaging his image. Whatever the case, his party won the majority of seats and he was able to form the government.
Mr. Modi has begun appointing individuals who are adherents or sympathisers of the hard-line Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to serve as ministers and as heads of cultural and educational institutions. He has shown little interest in the services of former secularists, liberals and feminists who had indicated their willingness, even eagerness, to work with him once he took office. The fact that neither the Congress nor the Left seem any longer to be conversant with or proud of the left-liberal political traditions that dominated Indian politics since independence, drives the final nail into the coffin of secular opinion.
A face-off between majoritarians and egalitarians, between the Sangh Parivar and secular-liberal parties, has been a long time coming. This election may have turned the tide, but the build-up began close to a century ago. The RSS was founded in 1925. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh was founded in 1952. The BJP was founded in 1980. Considerable gains were made by the Hindu Right during the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, climaxing in the demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in December 1992 and nationwide Hindu-Muslim rioting.
The National Democratic Alliance, headed by the BJP, had its first substantial stint in government from 1998 to 2004. Seen in this chronology, Hindu nationalism punctuates the entire 20th century at intervals of 20-30 years, but it is never able to decisively transform the mindset of most Indians. Even today, when the BJP polled 31 per cent of votes cast, it is not clear whether it is the party's Hindutva face or its face of economic growth that appealed to voters.
The Problem with Hindutva
The problem with Hindutva, which has impeded its capture of the average Hindu’s political and cultural imagination, is that it is the outcome not so much of hatred for others, especially Muslims, but rather of Hindu self-hate. It’s a historic and possibly doomed attempt to change everything about Hinduism that makes it what it is — its ability to accommodate mind-boggling diversity, its avoidance of strict definitions and boundaries, its amorphous, heterogeneous, tolerant and fluid character.
Hindutva wants to “Semitize” Hinduism, giving it a god, a book, a revelation, a prophet, an ecclesiastical order, a pontiff, a race, a language, a country (or a holy land), a history, a canon, doctrinal stability and missionary zeal. It’s an attempt to standardise, essentialise, codify and systematise a vast universe of incommensurate beliefs, practices, rituals, theologies and narratives — to render Hinduism modern and modular.
Vinayak Savarkar’s manifesto for Hindu nationalism, Hindutva (1923, 1928), was conceived and written over several years of solitary confinement and hard labour in British jails on the Andaman islands and in coastal Maharashtra — Savarkar was sentenced to two consecutive life-terms for anti-government activities. His sentence was later commuted but the trauma never left him. Hindutva opens with its most definitive claim: “A Hindu means a person who regards this land of Bharatavarsha, from the Indus to the seas, as his Fatherland as well as his Holy Land, that is, the cradle of his religion.” Savarkar wants to imbue Hinduism with all the qualities it lacks — and thus his coinage, Hindutva. A true Hindu, in his estimation, has in him something better than and apart from mere Hindu-ism — he has Hindu-ness.
A face-off between majoritarians and egalitarians, between the Sangh Parivar and secular-liberal parties, has been a long time coming. This election may have turned the tide, but the build-up began close to a century ago
In order to possess Hindutva, a man (because Hindu nationalists tend to think in rigidly gendered, masculinist and patriarchal terms) must regard India as his “fatherland” (the land of his ancestors, Pitr-Bhumi) and his “holy land” (the land where he accumulates the fruits of good karma, Punya-Bhumi); he must be attached to this land, this territorial expanse called “Bharat” through the fact of his birth there, through ties of blood to his family, his forefathers, his race of fellow-Hindus, and moreover through a love for Hindu “civilization” (Sanskriti) “as represented in a common history, common heroes, a common literature, a common art, a common law and a common jurisprudence, common fairs and festivals, rites and rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.” His insistence on what is “common” between the innumerable “Hindu” cultures of the subcontinent comes precisely from the impossibility of stating where exactly lies this commonality, so fervently desired by Savarkar.
If Hinduism is centrifugal, Hindutva is centripetal. Savarkar responded to the demands and pressures of modern nationalism — he was not only disinterested in, but perhaps even averse to, the religious life of millions of Hindus. It’s interesting and entirely reasonable that Savarkar was a thorough atheist. For him, being a Hindu was a political identity, not an identity based on religion. Even Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists, so long as they are born and raised in India, and follow the Indian way of life, are thus de facto “Hindus.” Hindutva is a pure construct, a completely empty envelope that Savarkar creates from his own mind as he spends decades locked away, utterly segregated from the shared collective life of his fellow-Indians.
Gandhi vs Savarkar
Mohandas Gandhi’s vision for the future was Swaraj or self-rule, where the “self” was at once each individual struggling to master inner demons, and a vast aggregation of millions in search of India’s independence from British rule. Gandhi himself was deeply religious, but he never defined the “self” of “self-rule,” the swa- of Swaraj, as Hindu, Muslim or even Indian. It was Gandhi’s quest for the self and for its sovereignty that carried the day, creating the decades-long struggle which eventually liberated India. Savarkar became president of the Hindu Mahasabha — the precursor to the BJP — in 1937, firmly opposing Gandhi’s non-violence, his “Quit India” movement, the rise of the Muslim League and the creation of Pakistan through Partition.
When Savarkar’s acolyte Nathuram Godse shot at Gandhi on January 30, 1948, at the Mahatma’s daily public prayer meeting, ironically, Gandhi’s dying words were those of a devout Hindu: “Hey Rama!” In the wake of the Mahatma's assassination, Savarkar had to retreat from public view for the remainder of his life. He was regarded with intense dislike, suspicion and contempt by Nehru and other leaders who constituted the top echelons of the Congress administration. Nobody from the Maharashtra government attended his funeral in February 1966.
Today, for the first time the RSS can dream of a restitution of Savarkar in the modern national pantheon. The question is, have decades of official secularism made Indians, more than 80 per cent of whom are Hindu, receptive or hostile to the father of the Hindu Right? Can ordinary Hindus look upon him with a fresh perspective, or has history left him behind in the dust?
Recently, I was startled to see in the Central Hall of Parliament a portrait of Savarkar staring at Gandhi’s portrait directly across the length of the room, symbolising a foundational antagonism written into the very genealogy of our nation-state. It is Hind Swaraj pitted against Hindu Rashtra. Indian intellectuals, understandably feeling bruised and buffeted by enormous political changes, would do well to remember that the roots of their present ideological conflicts go back to the beginnings of organised nationalist politics, and that questions of ideology are unlikely to be settled in a hurry.
Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, HUP, 2012.