We Need to Reanalyze our Understanding of Hindu Nationalism
India's Prime Minister and leader of the Bharatiya Janta Party(BJP), Narendra Modi.
Like most phenomena in South Asia, Hindu Nationalism has a rich and diverse scholarship that aims to understand it. From History and Sociology to Film Studies and Consumer Studies, Hindu Nationalism has found itself to be a matter of academic analyses in various fields during the last three decades. This is rightfully so since it has come to dominate not only the political discourse of India but also the everyday life and immediate experience of society for a vast majority of people in South Asia. However, the recent developments in Kashmir with the Modi-Shah regime deciding to abrogate the once-sacred article 370, and then announcing its plans to conduct a nation-wide NRC-exercise, have come as a major shock to the largely liberal sensibilities of those within academia.
This shock is received as such for one reason in particular. Most scholars and public intellectuals who have analysed or commented on Hindu Nationalism have made it a point to note how the liberal and democratic tendencies that are enshrined in the Constitution are such an important part-and-parcel of the roads of Lutyens’ Delhi that even a party as xenophobic and extremist as the BJP would be forced to shed its right-wing authoritarianism, at least to some extent. Even if this hasn’t been the sole purpose of their argument, even tall academic scholars on the matter like Stuart Corbridge, John Harris, and Christophe Jaffrelot were, at the very least, hopeful that the ‘compulsions of power’ at the Centre would force the BJP to adapt to the logic of ruling with restraint. The reasons for this shift away from right-wing extremism was supposed to have been twofold. First was the ‘deepening of democracy’ witnessed in greater federalism and the rise of OBCs as a formidable political force during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The second was the importance of alliance-building and compromising on party-lines during the same time. Even the electoral defeats of 2004 and 2009 were seen by some as proof that pragmatic alliance-building will be the new future of Indian democracy, and the tide of big-ideologies like Hindutva was going to recede.
These scholars might not have been wrong in suggesting this. In fact, this was the trend in academia in the 1990s, as the Cold War ended. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” theory had been widely accepted as true. One can clearly see today – even Fukuyama himself agrees – that the “end of history” argument did not quite turn out to be accurate. What Fukuyama, and very much the scholars on Hindu Nationalism, had assumed was that liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism were the highest points in historical development and that there was nowhere else to go beyond this. Little tweaks here and there, a little bit more sharing of power, a little more access to basic civic utilities, and so on, and the world would have to no longer struggle to find new ways of organising life.
However, as it turned out, the crisis of 2008 shook the very foundations of this neoliberal consensus and forced us to acknowledge that structural inequalities that were inherent to this system could not allow things to continue as they were. Cracks began to widen and discontent was widespread – across the globe. Although more and more people began to join the ever-growing middle classes in India after the Liberalisation policies of 1991, the ‘popular’ protest movements in the early 2010s – a lot of which were manned by the RSS/BJP or other non-Congress groups – proved that things were not quite right. This discontent was used by the BJP, as Modi rode the anti-incumbency wave to power in 2014.
Narendra Modi with former leader of the BJP and Hindutva Ideologue, LK Advani.
There is something to be said here about the nature of the Postcolonial Indian State. It fails, much like most other states in South Asia before it, to pervade through the many layers of hierarchy in South Asian society. Therefore, access to state services and indeed state institutions has been layered. In simpler words, there is a general sense of inaccessibility of the services that the state offers to its citizens. In such a scenario, organisations like the RSS (along with its subsidiaries) have found legitimacy through offering seva where the state could not reach. The sense of disenchantment and alienation from the state has been quelled by the many schools, hospitals, relief programmes, cultural and social events, and even everyday psychological support that RSS and its subsets offer. And it is through these channels of seva and services that the RSS has found an easy route to mobilise support and spread its propaganda from below for many decades.
This aspect of mobilization from below has been further ignored since most commentators and scholars have equated Hindu Nationalism with the BJP, and have mapped the trajectory of Hindu Nationalism based on the electoral performance of the party. The failure to consider the weight of years of ground-level mobilization of the non-BJP organisations while talking about Hindutva has only resulted in the inability to foresee the extent of the threat that Hindu Nationalism has always posed.
This is true for the 2014 campaign as well, where the core issues of Hindu Nationalism supposedly took a back-seat as “development” and vikas became the ‘real’ issues that the BJP had to offer to the people. It was argued from pro-Modi corridors in the public sphere, and indeed many voters believed so, that the RSS was no longer calling the shots, as a more technocratic Modi-Shah faction had taken over the BJP from within. Although it cannot be said that academic scholars on Hindu Nationalism subscribed to this discourse fully, these were exactly the signs that could be proof of the abandonment of the Hindutva agenda by the BJP.
This has clearly not been the case. The elusive vikas has only given way to a more vocal call for Hindutva. More so in the re-election after 2019, the BJP has slowly but surely side-lined all non-RSS background members from positions in the government and the party. Virtually all of the important people in the new Modi government have been shakha members or started their political journey in an RSS-related organisation. This is anything but a turn away from Hindu Nationalism. This is anything but an acceptance of the ‘logic of governance at the centre’ by Modi-Shah’s BJP.
And with the ethically and legally questionable decisions that the government has made in Kashmir and the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act with a plan for a nation-wide NRC, it is now clearer than ever that the BJP will not succumb to Constitutional pressures. They have no intentions of playing the game designed by the neoliberal consensus of the late 1990s and 2000s. The hegemony of liberal democracy is no longer supreme, and the BJP/RSS have actively worked to subvert this.
Narendra Modi (right) with fromer PM of India and BJP Leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (left).
Although it sounds a bit conspiratorial at this stage, one might even conclude that 2014-2019 was about alliance building between the BJP, their industrial financiers, the media, and the bureaucratic machinery, and 2019-2022 is going to be the playing out of the BJP’s actual plans. In fact, if Kashmir and the CAA-NRC episode have anything to show us, it is that the BJP and the RSS will use only constitutional mechanisms to carry forward their agenda. In both scenarios, there has been no subversion of democratic institutions, and neither has the government resorted to extra-constitutional measures to enforce its Hindu Nationalist vision. The solution to the Kashmir problem came from within the Constitutional paradigm; CAA was passed in Parliament without resorting to any non-parliamentary practices. If anything, this is telling of the contradictory tendencies in our constitutional structure itself. Not only does it allow for a fascist party to come to power, it is liberal enough to facilitate the fascists in marginalising millions of people. If there is a political lesson to be learnt, it is this: our Constitutional coordinates require redefinition in order to curtail a swing towards fascism.
But coming back to our original question: what can academia learn from the last decade or so of Hindu Nationalist upsurge? It is time for us to update our analysis of Hindu Nationalism. It is fruitless to debate whether the BJP is a fascist organisation or not, or whether there the constitutional structure is resilient enough to withstand the Hindu Nationalist onslaught. The BJP is fascist. The Constitution is flexible enough that it will bend into fascism. The important question to ask right now is what made the BJP so pervasive and acceptable to such large numbers in society that a typical ‘bhakt’ would reject any critical comment on the Hindu Nationalist agenda. To develop any understanding of Hinduism, academia must ask tougher questions that put constitutional mechanisms and everyday patterns of life under the microscope alongside the RSS’s mobilisation tactics. Perhaps the question of “What is Hindu Nationalism?” must be accompanied by “Why does Hindu Nationalism exist?” and “Why is the BJP so popular?”
An image of the demolition of Babri Masjid (Mosque) in Ayodhya, India. It was demolished in 1992 by parties and groups sympathetic with the BJP. Read more about it here.
It is easy to blame scholars for not analysing the phenomenon of Hindu Nationalism to its full extent. However, it isn’t wise to expect them to have foreseen the developments of the 2010s while writing in the 1990s. One must not expect social scientists to be fortune-tellers. We can, however, acknowledge as a community of thinkers concerned with our present and our future, that holding on to structurally unequal institutions of liberal democracy and the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus will do us no good in trying to understand Hindu Nationalism and indeed authoritarian regimes across the globe.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
...We have a small favor to ask. Polemics and Pedantics is a non-profit educational venture whose writers work only because of their penchant for the art. If you like our work, please support us by sharing it on social media and helping us reach more people. Remember to subscribe and never miss an update by providing your email on the Contact Page. We don't sell ads, and won't spam you or share your details with anyone. Comments and suggestions are welcome at email@example.com.
About the Author
Saarang Narayan is a Phd. Candidate in History at the University of Leeds, UK. He holds a Master's from Oxford University in Modern Asian Studies, a Bachelor’s in History from Hansraj College, India. A closet cricketer, a home-based music producer and sound engineer, and a session guitarist, he is on his path to academic glory in the field of History.