Hindutva: Its Past & Future

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A. G. Noorani*

*The author is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.



(Hinduism is a noble and ancient faith. Hindutva is a modern and fascist concept… Under Modi the gloves are off. Hindutva has acquired a menacing lease on life.- Author.

In this article, A.G. Noorani references and analysis the rise of Hindutva in India “based on a central theme – rejection of the very concept of Indian nationalism; i.e. ‘territorial nationalism.’” And the formulation of the concept of “‘cultural nationalism’ which the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and its successor the Bharatiya Janata Party swear by. ‘Cultural nationalism’ is a deceptive cover for Hindu religious nationalism.” – Editor and Quotes from Author)

The term Hindutva was coined by V.D. Savarkar in his seminal essay Hindutva, published in 1923. But its roots went back over half a century earlier. He made it plain that “Hindutva is not identical with Hindu Dharma”. He was right. Hinduism is a noble and ancient faith. Hindutva is a modern and fascist concept.

The Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayanand in Bombay on 10 April 1875. He began as a reformer of Hinduism and its religious practices but his exclusiveness proved harmful. “His ideas paved the way for the emergence of the ideology of the Hindu Nation and Hindu Nationalism … Dayanand injected an element of militancy and zealotry in Hinduism” (Dr. B. R. Purhot; Hindu Revivalism and Indian Nationalism; Madhupriya, Bhopal; 1990; a neglected work rich in insights).

Prof. Chetan Bhatt demonstrates how the seeds sown by Dayanand sprouted. “In 1989, Lajpat Rai published an article for the Indian National Congress in the Hindustan Review in which he declared that ‘Hindus are a nation in themselves, because they represent a civilization all their own’. However, for Lajpat Rai, this idea was directly influenced by a conception of Hindu nationalism in the aftermath of the ‘purification’ of Hinduism by the Arya Samaj. In 1902, Lajpat Rai entered a debate occurring in the pages of Hindustan Review and Kayastha Samachar between an anonymous ‘Hindu Nationalist’ and Pandit Madhao Ram about the basis for creating ‘Hindu Nationalism’ (‘A Study of Hindu Nationalism’ in Lajpat Rai 1966: 37-44). …

‘A question has often haunted us, asleep or awake, as to why is it that notwithstanding the presence among us of great, vigorous and elevating truths, and of the very highest conception of morality, we [Hindus] have been a subject race, held down for so many centuries by sets of people who were neither physically nor spiritually nor even intellectually so superior to us as a fortiori to demand our subjection.’

“It was precisely this question that preoccupied both B.S. Moonje and K.B. Hedgewar, from which they derived the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as the answer. In a densely fascinating way, a logic was started that severely minimized British colonialism within a much longer ‘historical’ frame of Hindu resistance to what were conceived as all ‘foreign invaders’. This logic culminated in Savarkar’s Hindutva (1923) and Swami Shraddhanand’s Hindu Sangathan – Saviour of a dying race (1926), both written in the midst of one of the most violent troubled periods of anti-colonial agitation during the first manifestation of a genuinely mass anti-colonial movement, but which can be read with barely any indication within them that British colonialism was even present. (A similar theme preoccupied later Hindutva ideologues: the British colonial period was effectively dismissed or conceived as relatively being, even civilizing and moral in character in comparison with the early or high medieval periods of Mughal rule, which were seen as periods of ruthless oppression and genocide of Hindus).” (Hindu Nationalism; Berg, Oxford; pp. 50-53). It is a war on history and a revenge on the Muslims of today for imagined wrongs of the past.

Nor must one forget the role played by Bankimchandra Chatterjee in the spread of the concept of Hindu nationalism as opposed to Indian Nationalism. He wrote the novel Anandamath (1882) in which occurs the poem Bande Matram which was anti-Muslim. It was promoted by some as India’s National anthem and has proved to be “a virtual anthem for the contemporary Hindutva movement” (ibid.; p.27).

Interestingly it was none other than Lala Lajpat Rai who noted the growth of Hindu revivalism in the 9th of the series of 13 articles he wrote for The Tribune in 1924. “In their own way, Hindu revivalists have left nothing undone to create a strictly exclusive and aggressive communal feeling. Early in the eighties of the last century some of the Hindu religious leaders came to the conclusion that Hinduism was doomed unless it adopted the aggressive features of militant Islam and militant Christianity. The Arya Samaj is a kind of militant Hinduism. But the idea was by no means confined to the Arya Samaj. Swami Vivekanad and his gifted disciple Sister Nivedita, among others, were of the same mind. The articles which she wrote on aggressive Hinduism are the clearest evidence of that mentality.

“It must be remembered in this connection that Western knowledge, Western thought, and Western mentality took hold of the Hindu mind at a very early period of British rule. The Brahmo Samaj was the first product of it. In the early sixties the Brahmo Samaj was a non-Hindu body, and under its influence Hindu scholars, thinkers, and students were becoming cosmopolitans. Some became Christians; others took to atheism and became completely westernized. Thus a wave of indifferentism about Hinduism spread over the country. The Arya Samaj movement, and aggressive Hinduism, was a reaction against that un-Hinduism and indifferentism. Most of the early Hindu leaders of the Indian National Congress were in this sense non-Hindus. What did Mr. S. N. Banerjea or Lal Mohan Ghosh or Ananda Mohan Bose care for Hinduism? Even Mahadev Govind Ranade was but an indifferent Hindu. G.K. Gokhale was not a Hindu at all.” Intellectual integrity here went hand in hand with communal bias. In 1899 Lajpat Rai asserted that “Hindus are a nation in themselves”. On 14 December 1924 he advocated in the Tribune partition of India and partition of Punjab.

J.N. Farquhar recorded that from 1895 to 1913 “a frightful portent flamed up in India, anarchism and murder inspired by religion… that in all the best minds the new feeling and the fresh thought are fire by religion, either a furious devotion to some divinity of hate and blood, or a self consecration to God and India.” He went further to connect this “anarchism” with the work of Dayananda, Vivekananda and others. “It is as clear as noonday that the religious aspect of anarchism was merely an extension of that revival of Hinduism which is the work of Dayananda, Ramkrishna, Vivekananda and the Theosophists.”

Dr. Purohit opined: “One may not wholly agree with such views, yet there is some element of truth in them. That truth is that Hindu revivalism had a powerful influence upon the ‘Revolutionaries’ of India. Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Anand Math had a very powerful impact upon the revolutionaries of the day. His depiction of future ‘Mother India’ was singularly religious; future Mother India was Durga, the goddess with a resplendent face, wearing all sorts of weapons of force in her hands, and in the left hand seizing the hair of the Asura, her enemy, and in the right hand assuring all not to be afraid. The revolutionaries who moved incognito as ‘Sanyasins’ were like the characters in the Anand Math. Durga, the goddess and the mother, became one with the country, the greater goddess and the mother. His Bande Mataram became the hymn for the revolutionaries….

“Hindu revivalism has influenced the development of Indian nationalism both positively and negatively. We reach a stage here when it must be pointed out that the positive contribution of revivalism to Indian nationalism becomes feeble and the negative role of revivalism becomes more prominent. With the growth of the Mahasabha and RSS ideologies, a new current of nationalism – the Hindu Nationalism – grew powerful in the country. Hindu nationalism, instead of supplementing the forces of Indian nationalism, tried even to supplant it. The opposition of Indian nationalism by ‘Hindu Rashtravad’ was detrimental to the steady growth of the former. Hindu revivalism reached its high water mark under the aegis of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.” (B. R. Purhoit; 1990; pp. 171-173).

These forces organized themselves. The Hindu Sabha were formed in many cities, especially in Punjab, in Aryas Samajist stronghold. In 1909 a Provincial Hindu Conference, held at Lahore, was attended by Lajpat Rai who made a speech on the “Desirability of Feeling of Hindu Nationality and Hindu Unity”, during which he reiterated his earlier statement of 1902 about Hindus constituting a distinct and separate ‘nation’. In 1913, the Hindu Sabha undertook to form an India-wise (Sarvadeshik) Hindu Sabha to ‘safeguard the interests of the Hindu Community throughout India and the following year, the first Akhil Bharatiya (All India) Hindu Mahasabha Conference was organized at Hardwar during the Kumbh Mela. Further meetings were held during 1915 that defined the objectives of the All India Hindu Sabha.

The Sabha framed its objective of loyal cooperation with the colonial government. Indeed, the All India Hindu Sabha did not organize annual national meetings during the mass satyagraha and boycott periods of 1919 or 1920, partly because it was by then a moribund organization but also because it tended to remain aloof from the explicit non-cooperation strategy of Congress. However, in its session of April 1921, during which the Sabha was renamed the ‘All-India Hindu Mahasabha’, the objective of loyal cooperation was appended with the aim of evolving ‘a united and self-governing Indian nation’.

“The influences upon and leadership of the Hindu Mahasabha from 1924 included N.C. Kelkar, Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malaviya and B.S. Moonje, important figures in the next phase of the development of Hindu nationalist ideology and practice. … Under Malaviya, the Mahasabha had made significant inroads into the political machinery of Congress, opposing both the Gandhian and Swarajist factions and their (divergent) strategies of non-cooperation. By 1926, the Mahasabha had not only claimed the right, within Congress, of its local Sabhas to nominate their own candidates for local elections but had attempted to get Congress to abstain from provincial elections where the Mahasabha proffered an alternative candidate representing ‘Hindu interests’. … From the early 1920s, the attention of the All-India Hindu Mahasabha turned towards the issue of religious conversions and shuddhi, and the formation of the All-India Shuddhi Sabha in 1923 under the aegis of the Arya Samaj.

This had two aspects: campaigns to ‘reclaim’ ‘neo-Christians’ and ‘neo-Muslims’, and eventually any Muslims, into Hinduism; and campaigns to ‘purify’, ‘uplift’ and ‘return to the Hindu fold’ those belonging to ‘untouchable’ or adivasi (tibal) groups.” (Chetan Bhat; pp. 59-60).

As the Mahasabha went into a decline, another more powerful body cropped up. It was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was founded at Nagpur by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who maintained close ties with the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha – B.S. Moonje and Savarkar (Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar Damle; The Brotherhood in Saffron; 1987; p.39).

Hedgewar died in 1940 after designating M.S. Golwalkar as his successor. By the time Golwalkar died in 1973 he had built up the RSS not only as a formidable force organizationally but also enunciated for it an ideology which, he admitted, drew upon Savarkar’s Hindutva.

Together three important Hindu texts poisoned the atmosphere and debased public discourse. They form a coherent whole based on one central theme – rejection of the very concept of Indian nationalism; i.e. “territorial nationalism.” Every one born in the territory of India does not belong to the nation. The concept of an Indian nation is a British construct. Savarkar formulated the concept of “cultural nationalism” which the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and its successor the Bharatiya Janata Party swear by. “Cultural nationalism” is a deceptive cover for Hindu religious nationalism. A person must share Hindu culture and outlook before he is accepted as part of the Hindu nation which Lajpat Rai had conceived two decades earlier.

The Jan Sangh was set up by the RSS in 1951. In 1977 it dissolved itself and merged with other opposition parties to form the Janata Party. It seceded in 1980 to revive the Jan Sangh as the BJP. Every election manifesto of the BJP swears by “cultural nationalism”.

Savarkar’s doctrine in his book Hindutva (1923) reads: “We Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of the love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections warm, but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilization – our Hindu culture, which could not be better rendered than by the word Sanskriti suggestive as it is of that language, Sanskrit, which has been the chosen means of expression and preservation of that culture, of all that was best and worth-preserving in the history of our race. We are one because we are a nation a race and own a common Sanskriti (civilization).”

“To every Hindu, from the Santal to the Sadhu this Bharat bhumi this Sindhusthan is at once a Pitribhu and a Punyabhu – fatherland and a holy land. That is why in the case of some of our Mohammedan or Christian countrymen who had originally been forcibly converted to a non-Hindu religion and who consequently have inherited along with Hindus, a common Fatherland and a greater part of the wealth of a common culture – language, law, customs, folklore and history – are not and cannot be recognized as Hindus. … Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin … they do not look upon India as their Holyland.”

But the non-Hindus are free to become Hindus. “Ye, who by race, by blood, by culture, by nationality possess almost all the essentials of Hindutva and had been forcibly snatched out of our ancestral home by the hand of violence – ye, have only to render whole-hearted love to our common Mother and recognize her not only as Fatherland (Pitribhu) but even as a Holyland (punyabhu); and ye would be most welcome to the Hindu fold.”

Savarkar elaborated on the theme: “These are the essentials of Hindutva – a common nation (Rashtra) a common race (Jati) and a common civilization (Sanskriti). All these essentials could best be summed up by stating in brief that he is a Hindu to whom Sindhusthan is not only a Pitribhu but also a Punyabhu. For the first two essentials of Hindutva – nation and Jati – are clearly denoted and connoted by the word Pitribhu while the third essential of Sanskriti is pre-eminently implied by the word Punyabhu, as it is precisely Sanskriti including sacraments, that makes a land a Holyland.”

The second text is Golwalkar’s, We or Our Nationhood Defined, published in 1939. The BJP tried to disown it, unsuccessfully. It was reprinted in 2006 (Pharos Media & Publishing P. Ltd., Jamia Nagar, New Delhi 110 025). It pays obeisance to “the Divine Mother – the Hindu Nation”.

His thesis is startling; “applying the modern understanding of ‘Nation’ to our present conditions, the conclusion is unquestionably forced upon us that in this country, Hindusthan, the Hindu Race with its Hindu Religion, Hindu Culture and Hindu language, (the natural family of Sanskrit and her offsprings) complete the Nation concept; that, in fine, in Hindusthan exists and must needs exist the ancient Hindu nation and naught else but the Hindu Nation. All those not belonging to the national i.e. Hindu Race, Religion, Culture and language, naturally fall out of the pale of real ‘National’ life.

“We repeat; in Hindusthan, the land of the Hindus, lives and should live the Hindu Nation – satisfying all the five essential requirements of the scientific nation concept of the modern world. Consequently only those movements are truly ‘National’ as aim at re-building, re-vitalizing and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu Nation. Those only are nationalist patriots, who, with the aspiration to glorify the Hindu race and Nation next to their heart, are prompted into activity and strive to achieve that goal. All others are either traitors or enemies to the National cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots.”

Golwalkar offers them a grim choice. “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 its 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. That is the only sound view on the minorities problem. That is the only logical and correct solution. That alone keeps the national life healthy and undisturbed. That alone keeps the Nation safe from the danger of a cancer developing into its body politic of the creation of a state within the state. From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reference Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, 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.”

Advocates of Indian nationalism are roundly denounced. “The ‘Educated’ class of Hindus became in truth slaves of the English, as the late Dr. S.V. Ketkar has aptly described them. They had cut their traces, lost their footing in the National past, and became deculturised, denationalized people. But they also formed the bulk of the ‘Congress’ and found no difficulty in eagerly gulping down, the extra-ordinary absurdity, that their country was not theirs, but belonged to the strangers and enemies of their Race equally with them. These creatures took upon themselves the burden of ‘leading’ the people, to what they considered, following the false start, as the National regeneration. And today the same old tale of the blind leading the blind is going on, necessitating trumpet calls of correction from right minded Patriots, following whose resounding footsteps we have compiled this little work, towards the same end of arousing power National Consciousness among the Hindus in the country.”

The third text was also sought to be disowned. It is Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts, published in 1966. These extracts from the RSS’ bible reveal its outlook. “In fact, we are Hindus even before we emerge from the womb of our mother. We are therefore born as Hindus. About the others, they are born to this world as simple unnamed human beings and later on, either circumcised or baptized, they become Muslims or Christians. … All the requisites for making a full-fledged nation are thus fulfilled in the life of this great Hindu people. Therefore, we say that in this land of ours, Bharat, the national life is of the Hindu people. In short, this is the Hindu Nation. …

“The question before us now is what is the attitude of those people who have been converted to Islam or Christianity? They are born in this land, no doubt. But are they true to its salt? Are they grateful towards this land which has brought them up? Do they feel that they are the children of this land and its tradition, and that to serve it is their great good fortune? Do they feel it a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone are the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.

“Nor does it end there. They have also developed a feeling of identification with the enemies of this land. They look to some foreign lands as their holy places. They call themselves ‘Sheikhs’ and ‘Syeds’. Sheikhs and Syeds are certain clans in Arabia. How then did these people come to feel that they are their descendants? That is because they have cut off all their ancestral national moorings of this land and mentally merged themselves with the aggressors.”

Golwalkar launches on his programme of purification.“Everybody knows that only a handful of Muslims came here as enemies and invaders. So also only a few foreign Christian missionaries came here. Now the Muslims and Christians have enormously grown in number. They did not grow just by multiplication as in the case of fishes. They converted the local population. We can trace our ancestry to a common source, from where one portion was taken away from the Hindu fold and became Muslim and another became Christian. The rest could not be converted and they have remained as Hindus. …

“It is our duty to call these our forlorn brothers, suffering under religious slavery for centuries, back to their ancestral home. As honest freedom-loving men, let them overthrow all signs of slavery and domination and follow the ancestral ways of devotion and national life. All types of slavery are repugnant to our nature and should be given up. This is a call for all those brothers to take their original place in our national life.”

Golwalkar rejected the view that “Hindus in this land stand on the same footing as the Muslims”. This lies at the very heart of the thesis of Sangh Parivar (family). The land belongs to the Hindus; none else. That explains the ghar wapsi (return to home) campaign which spread under the BJP Government headed by Narendra Modi. In the 1920s it was called the shuddhi (purification) movement.

One must not overlook the fact that Savarkar expounded his ideas on Hindutva once again when he became President of the Mahasabha in 1937. He spoke of “Hindu Nation” well before Mohammed Ali Jinnah did. Savarkar said: “Yes, we Hindus are a Nation by ourselves. Because religious, racial, cultural and historical affinities bind us intimately into a homogenous nation and added to it we are most pre-eminently gifted with a territorial unity as well. Our racial being is identified with India – our beloved Fatherland and our Holyland, above all and irrespective of it all we Hindus will to be a Nation and, therefore, we are a Nation. None has a right to challenge or demand a proof of our common nationality when some thirty crores of us Hindus are with it.

“It is absurd to call us a community in India. The Germans are the nation in Germany and the Jews a Community. The Turks are the Nation in Turkey and Arab or the Armenian minority a community. Even so the Hindus are the nation in India – in Hindusthan, and the Moslem minority a community.”

Alarmed by this ideology, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar said: “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. … Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost” – (Pakistan or the Partition of India; 1946; pp. 354-355). He was against majoritarianism which in the Indian context meant unbridled rule of the majority community, the Hindus.

Ambedkar wrote in a Memorandum on the Rights of States and Minorities, dated 24 March 1947, which he submitted to the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights set up by the Constituent Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Fundamental Rights, Minorities, etc.: “Unfortunately for the minorities in India, Indian nationalism has developed a new doctrine which may be called the Divine Right of the Majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority. Any claim for the sharing of power by the minority is called communalism, while the monopolizing of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism. Guided by such political philosophy the majority is not prepared to allow the minorities to share political power, nor is it willing to respect any convention made in that behalf as is evident from their repudiation of the obligation (to include representatives of the minorities in the Cabinet) contained in the Instrument of instructions issued to the Governors in the Government of India Act of 1935. Under these circumstances there is no way left but to have the rights of the Scheduled Castes embodied in the Constitution.” (B. Shiva Rao; Select Documents; Volume 2, page 113). The majority abuses the democratic process to alter the character of the State.

That has now come to pass. In 1990 the BJP President L. K. Advani said: “Henceforth only those who fight for Hindu interests would rule India” – L. K. Advani on 19 November 1990. “Secular policy is putting unreasonable restrictions on Hindu aspirations” – Advani on 20 October, 1990. “It would not be wrong to call the BJP a Hindu party” – Advani to BBC as quoted in the Organiser of 5 August, 1989”.

Under Modi the gloves are off. Hindutva has acquired a menacing lease on life. As Prof. Donald Eugene Smith warned in his classic, India as a Secular State (Princeton University Press; 1963), “Nehru once remarked that Hindu communalism was the Indian version of fascism, and, in the case of the RSS, it is not difficult to perceive certain similarities. The leader principle, the stress on militarism, the doctrine of racial-cultural superiority, ultra-nationalism infused with religious idealism, the use of symbols of past greatness, the emphasis on national solidarity, the exclusion of religious or ethnic minorities from the nation-concept – all of these features of the RSS are highly reminiscent of fascist movements in Europe. Fascism, however, is associated with a concept of state-worship; the state as the all-absorbing reality in which the individual loses himself and in so doing finds ultimate meaning. This conception has no counterpart in RSS ideology; in fact, the Sangh explicitly rejects the notion that its objectives could be attained through the power of the state. Its aim is the regeneration of Hindu society, which must come from within. However, it is impossible to say how the RSS would respond if political power ever came within reach, either directly or through the Jana Sangh. The implementation of certain aspects of its ideology (the policy toward Muslims and other minorities, for example) presupposes extensive use of the machinery of the state.” (p.468).

Modi has been systematically altering the ethos of public life and subverting the secular character of the State by a series of executive measures (cow slaughter and the rest) and by willful neglect of Muslims. Not one Muslim was given the BJP ticket in the UP Assembly elections.

The future seems bleak. The divided opposition parties show no signs of giving battle to Modi’s regime. Though Civil Society speaks up, it is, hard to predict what all this spells for India’s secularism and for its democracy.