Posts Tagged ‘religiopolitics’

©Tessa Valo, 2007


„Declare without hesitation that this is a Hindu rashtra, a nation of Hindus. We have come to strenghten the immense Hindu shakti into a fist. Do not display any love for your enemies … The Quran teaches them to lie in wait for idol worshippers, to skin them alive, to stuff them in animal skins and torture them until they ask for forgiveness. [We] could not teach them with words, now let us teach them with kicks … Tie up your religiosity and kindness in a bundle and throw them in the Jamuna. Any non-Hindu who lives here does so at our mercy.“ (Uma Bharati, cit. in. Talbot 2000:175)

The primary objective and aim of the Hindu nationalist movement is the unification of all Hindus into a single community that would serve as a foundation of a strong Hindu rashtra and that would ensure social cohesion in India. The Indian state, civil society and social formations should be according to this ideology “reorganized in a holistic and organic way along exclusively ‘Hindu’ precepts” (Bhatt; Mukta 2000:408). The ideal of Hindutva is thus one of assimilation, one that aspires to dissolve all religious pluralism and constitute India as a religiously homogenous Hindu nation. This means for the Hindu nationalist movement overcoming of all the innumerable divisions of the Indian society (caste divisions which remain the strongest, family, gender, territory, rural-urban divisions etc.) and integrating all the marginal groups, such as untouchables and other backward classes, into the body of the Hindu society and simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening the division between non-Hindus, especially Muslims, and Hindus themselves. Muslims are being constructed as the Other, as invaders, foreign transplants and as a great threat to Hindus. Muslims and secularism are recognized as the two main enemies. We can thus identify four basic premises underlying the claims of the right-wing Hindu nationalists: for the first the ‘Hindu’ identity is constructed as the privileged, exclusive identity, encompassing all other types of identities which are considered as subordinate; for the second the bearers of the above mentioned identity are presupposed to share a distinct ‘Hindu’ culture, which is perceived as a source of common interests; for the third “ ‘Hinduism’ is a phenomenon which can be understood largely sui generis, and in isolation from political and economic processes and conflicts” (Searle-Chatterjee 2000:498) and for the fourth ‘Hinduism’ is primarily considered as a culture that is associated with a particular group of people and with a particular country (”one nation, one people, one culture”) (cf. Searle-Chatterjee 2000). Though the Hindu nationalist movement is often labeled as “fundamentalist”, I would rather use the more fitting label borrowed from Nikki R. Keddie and consider the Hindu nationalist movement as a part of the New Religious Politics (from now on religiopolitics), which is characterized by several distinctive features which are all part of the Hindu nationalist politics:

These features include, first, an appeal to a reinterpreted, homogenized religious tradition, seen as solving problems exacerbated by various forms of secular, communal or foreign power. Second, these are populist movements that aim at gaining political power in order to transform governments on the basis of their religiopolitical program. Third, they are not led by liberals or leftists and have predominantly conservative social views (Keddie 1998: 697).

This definition has the advantage of being broader and including not only religiously fundamentalist aspects of Hindu nationalism and omitting all the connotations the word “fundamentalist” without question has.

The Emergence of the Hindu Nationalism and the Sangh Parivar

The origin of the idea of the Hindu Rashtra lies in the mid to late nineteenth century, in the British colonial period and is connected with the names of Vivekananda, Dayanand Saraswati and Aurobindo Ghose. But it must be noted that it is highly problematic to trace the historical origins of Hindu nationalism since Hindu nationalism itself claims legitimacy in the writings of this period. Vivekananda has thus for example become a crucial icon of the Hindu nationalist discourse, though the Ramakrishna Mission he founded has distanced itself from the Hindu nationalism (cf. Bhatt; Mukta 2000). But the birth of Hindutva itself can be dated from 1920s when the founding text of Hindu nationalism and a definition of Hindutva – Vinayak Damodar Savarkars Hindutva – or who is a Hindu? (1923) – was written. Hindutva can be translated as ‘Hinduness’, i.e. the essence of being Hindu. “Hindutva is fundamentally an empty signifier that has become extraordinarily politically potent” (Bhatt; Mukta 2000:413) and serves as a great example of the invention of a primordial tradition that is supposed to stand at the core of the contemporary identity politics. Hindutva is associated with common blood resp. ‘race’, jati, Vedic-Aryan forefathers, and makes use of different ethnic, religious, ‘racial’ and nationalist motives, but does not use any of these exclusively – its nature is thus fundamentally eclectic. In 1924 the most important male nationalistic organization – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – was founded by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, while Golwalkar is considered as the ideological father, the great “guruji”. This organization is still at the core of organizations that are allied to Hindutva ideology (the so called Sangh Parivar), it is a highly centralized semi-paramilitary organization devoted to recruitment and training of young men for service to the Hindu Nation[1]. Later numerous offshoot organizations were created, the most important ones were: the Jana Sangh in 1951, which was the precursor of the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in 1964. This ‘family’ of organizations which RSS created is often labeled as Sangh Parivar, and these organizations are the largest body of organizations in Indian civil society. The BJP formed in 1998 its first shaky coalition government which was followed by another coalition government in 1999 which was in power until 2004.

Demonizing the Muslim Other

The Muslim Other plays in the Hindutva ideology a crucial role in defining, delineating and creating a boundary around the Hindu community; the Muslim Other is usually portrayed as the absolute opposite of the Hindu, where the Hindu is the educated, civilized, tolerant, rational, modern, caring etc. This polarization is also present in the distinction between semitic and non-semitic religions which is being continually emphasized. The well-known case of the Ayodhya (van der Veer 1994; Talbot 2000), the recovery of Ram’s birthplace from the hands of its Muslim “occupants” and the building of a new temple became another strong and potent symbol of the restoration of the Hindu nation and its pride and of demonizing the Other. Muslims are also presented as a “pampered” minority with special reservations and since the era of the ‘Mandalisation’ of politics, when special reservations were assigned to different groups of the Indian society – which was apprehended as dividing the Hindus – the Muslims began to be perceived as greater a threat to the Hindu nation; the stereotypes and prejudices were strengthened. Secularism is in this context conceived of as overriding Hindu rights (and labeled as ‘pseudo-secularism’) since it is connected with appeasement of minority claims and favoring of Muslims (Ruud; Mageli; Price 2006:380), secularism is thus “portrayed as a source of national weakness” (Talbot 2000:176). Another way how to create and strengthen the boundary between Hindus and Muslims is the strategy of using Hindu women’s bodies and portraying Muslim men as violators of the Hindu women and thus the evil and threat to the Hindu nation (cf. Das 2006). The nuclearization of India serves as another mighty symbol and an agent of Othering between India and Pakistan.

Idealized Men and Women as Portrayed in the Ideology of Hindutva

Men and female bodies hand in hand with cultural representations of femininity and masculinity serve as powerful symbols and metaphors for depicting a nation. In the discourse of Hindu nationalism two images of manliness and masculinity are especially highly celebrated – i.e. the image of Hindu soldier and warrior monk (Banerjee 2006) – and have great impact also on women, who are trying to respond properly to the call of nationalism that glorifies muscular strength, moral fortitude, readiness to go to the battle and defend the nation against the enemy, the Other. Women can thus within the frame of this ideology play either roles of heroic mothers, chaste wives or celibate warriors (Banerjee 2006). The gendered power imbalances as such are not challenged and the patriarchal Hindu family remains in the ideology of Hindutva the primal reference point.

Hindu Religiopolitics and Public Rituals

Since the primary aim of the Hindu Religiopolitics is to unite all Hindus and overcome all possible divisions within the Indian society, the ever-present polytheism and hierarchichal differentiation within Hinduism is necessarily perceived as a great problem that must be dealt with. It is highly problematic to translate all the multiple – regional, caste, family – gods and goddesses, beliefs and practices into symbols of unity, when these signify belonging to a definite group or category. The Hindu nationalist leaders are perfectly conscious of this situation and have therefore chosen several deities that appeal to as great number of people as possible and that symbolize best the pan-Hindu unity. The pantheon of the ‘celestial nationalists’ thus consists of Rama, Ganesha, the ‘epic’ Krishna, Durga and others (Fuller 2004). The Hindu unity is promoted in public rituals and worships of these gods and in diverse festivals, which also serve as a manifestation of Hindu strength and physical control. “Converting private devotion into demonstrative public worship has been a consistent strategy of Hindu nationalists, whose broader aim is to transform the polity and civil society, and the public sphere as a whole.” (Fuller 2004:287).


As we have seen from the brief sketch of the ideological background, symbolism and metaphors employed by Hindu nationalists, the arena where Hindu nationalists operate is very broad and can not be reduced to either the religious or the political field. The Hindu nationalism emerges in the sphere of the public and thus attacks directly and in different ways the representation and recognition of individuals and the creation and institutionalization of diverse communities.


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  18. Searle-Chatterjee, Mary. 2000. ”World Religions” and ”ethnic groups”: do these paradigms lend themselves to the cause of Hindu nationalism?. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 23(3): 497-515.
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  1. Talbot, Ian. 2000. India and Pakistan. Arnold, Oxford University Press.
  2. Thapar, Romila. 1989. Imagined Religious Comunities? Ancient History and the Moderen Search for a Hindu Identity. Modern Asian Studies. 23(2):209-231.
  3. van der Veer, Peter. 1994. Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. University of California Press.

[1] „We expect three-four things from our workers. First, that they take pride in Hindutva. Second, that they have knowledge of Hindutva. Third, that they have the ability to expend time and energy, and be ready to meet responsibilities given. And they have to have discipline. As our workers get ready, they are sent, for overall development of society, to different fields according to their abilities. Their main task is to take along other sections of society and to try and find solutions to problems in those assigned areas, under the Hindutva ideology.“ From an interview with RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan in the Outlook Maganize (http://www.rss.org/New_RSS/Columns/Colum

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