Hindutva vs History

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As a nationalist doctrine and movement, Hindu nationalism — or Hindutva — grew in parallel with the portrayal and solidification of Hinduism as a single, coherent, organised religious system. The former informed the construction of the latter, and a selective interpretation of the latter undergirded the former.1 In contrast with Nehruvian secularism, which is grounded in the anti-colonial struggle, Hindu nationalism champions an alternative national identity centred around the dominant creed of Hinduism.2 A triptych, often used as a staple slogan by its proponents, best illustrates the Hindutva ideology: ‘Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan’.

Hindu nationalists aim to achieve an ‘organic homogeneity’ in India based on their ethnocentric interpretation of Indian history. This has, however, put them at odds with historians of the sub-continent.

Hindutva: An ethno-nationalist populist movement

Any examination of the Hindutva phenomenon will first require us delineating its position in the broad constellation of nationalism. All varieties of nationalism, despite their manifold and often contrasting claims and manifestations, share a common thread. They offer selective interpretations of history, often to the extent of conjuring up the existence of a mythical community since time immemorial. They lay claims on particular territories by invoking either lineage or manifest destiny. They celebrate certain languages, cultures, and traditions and confer official or de facto status on them. According to Anustup Basu, what makes Hindutva noteworthy is its political monotheism inspired by European fascism and an orientalist Hindu nationalist self-imagination.3 Hindu nationalism seeks to achieve an ‘‘organic homogeneity’’ in a country divided by ethnicity, religion, language, caste, and class.4

As to whether this nation-making process commenced before or after the advent of the Indian state, I will side with Ernest Gellner5 by arguing that, at least in the Indian sub-continent, nationalism preceded the post-colonial nation-states. Joya Chatterji has demonstrated how the demands of maintaining an effective colonial administration forced the British Raj to increasingly allow its Indian subjects to participate in institutions of self-governance, leading thus to the generation of nation-wide linkages and alliances — that ultimately culminated into an all-India nationalism.6 The all-India nationalism was partly informed by a need to reform Hinduism, and a dispute about the latter precipitated a rupture in the former.

Those who harboured a primordialist conception of nationalism opposed the civic nationalism of the Indian National Congress party and entwined orthodox defence of Hinduism with militant nationalism.7 This primordialist conception defines the nation primarily in ethnic terms. Indian nationalism, according to this view, should reflect the values and interests of the mythical autochthonous communities, who can trace their lineage to the ‘Vedic fathers’ and who share a ‘common culture’ that had originated between the Himalayas in the North and the Indian Ocean in the South.8

An ethnic and monotheistic conception of nationality requires inventing the non-ethnic who threaten the integrity of the ethnically pure by virtue of their foreign pedigree. A populist brand of politics is particularly apt for accomplishing this task. Populism, according to Jan-Werner Müller, is “a moralistic imagination of politics”, where, assuming an anti-pluralist position, “populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people.”9 Following the populist rulebook, Hindutva advocates create a binary distinction between ‘us’, those who can trace their religious and cultural heritage within the bounds of the sub-continent, and ‘them’, who purportedly cannot.

Thus, in Hindutva parlance, followers of all religions originating in the region are subsumed under the category of ‘Hindus’, while Muslims and Christians are categorised as the ‘foreign other’. Claiming to represent the native Hindu population, Hindutva advocates rally against liberal urban elites and the Western ideologies that these elites supposedly espouse. Those who converted to Islam and Christianity are asked to return to the Hindu fold or pledge allegiance to Hindu symbols in the public sphere.10 Hindutva advocates claim not only to represent the dominant religious group but also the authentic people of India11 — a bona fide populist modus operandi if one agrees with Müller’s conceptualism of populism.12

Two competing narratives of history

For Hindutva’s advocates, history serves as the most potent index to judge any claim of belonging to the ethnic nation. Hindu nationalism has consequently made history the centrepiece of its political agenda since its very inception. Still, despite having a centuries-old pedigree, its appeal to history did not gain wider currency in Indian society until the last decade of the twentieth century. The focus on the ancient past gained traction when India pursued economic liberalisation and opened its domestic market to foreign companies. In tandem, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main political wing of Hindu nationalism, traditionally sceptic of a free-market economy, transformed itself into a pro-business, pro-development party.13

Benedict Anderson first highlighted the capitalism-driven print industry’s role in consolidating a sense of national consciousness.14 The proliferation of privately owned newspapers and TV channels created new spaces and opportunities to divide the population into segments: first coming up with and then catering to their separate interests. Demands were placed on communities to distinguish themselves based on their heritage, accentuating the fault lines along communal identities and even redrawing them overnight.

For example, in the opening paragraphs of his influential work, Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, Kancha Illaiah writes about an identity crisis he had to encounter against the backdrop of an increasing societal pressure to declare himself as a Hindu. Until the last decade of the twentieth century, the Dalitbahujans of India, a community the author is a member of, were unfamiliar with the term ‘Hindu’.15

This view of Indian history radically differs from the one offered by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the chief ideologues of Hindutva. In Hindutva: Who is a Hindu, Savarkar substitutes historical accuracy for myths by linking nationalism with geography and territoriality.16 Claiming Hinduism a mere derivative of Hindutva, Savarkar champions the primacy of the latter and offers a surprisingly capacious definition of the term ‘Hindu’.

It must not be forgotten that we have all along referred to the progress of the Hindu movement as a whole and not to that of any particular creed or religious section thereof — of Hindutva and not Hinduism only. Sanatanists, Satnamis, Sikhs, Aryas, Anaryas, Marathas and Madrasis, Brahmins and Panchamas — all suffered as Hindus and triumphed as Hindus.17

Savarkar does not find it necessary to take into account competing narratives of history. Otherwise, he would have to answer why these communities should consider themselves united despite a historical backdrop of inter-communal violence that many of these communities often waged against one another.18 Instead, Savarkar decides to double down by arguing that

This one word, Hindutva, ran like a vital spinal cord through our whole body politic and made the Nayars of Malabar weep over the sufferings of the Brahmins of Kashmir. Our bards bewailed the fall of Hindus, our seers roused the feelings of Hindus, our heroes fought the battles of Hindus, our saints blessed the efforts of Hindus, our statesmen moulded the fate of Hindus, our mothers wept over the wounds and gloried over the triumphs of Hindus.19

History’s political exploitation is probably as old as the discipline itself. Anna Clark observes that the strategic use of the past is an effective tool to win political battles in the present.20 However, as Lynn Hunt notes, such slapdash tinkering with historical facts faces stiff resistance from historians.21 By tracing the lineage of the Hindus to the ancient Vedic community — the Aryans — the advocates of Hindutva confront a dilemma. Excluding the Muslims and Christians hinges on the argument that these two groups are outsiders and thus cannot trace their heritage to the ‘Vedic fathers’. However, the standard ‘Aryan migration theory’, supported by mainstream historians of ancient India, identifies ancient Aryans as pastoral nomads who gradually entered the sub-continent from central Asia in separate branches.22

If ancient Indian civilisation was formed through the interactions between the Aryan immigrants and the natives, if the ‘Vedic fathers’ were outsiders, then the edifice of the Hindutva ideology, built on the belief in a utopian unspoiled native lineage, falls apart. To resolve this contradiction, Hindutva’s proponents and historians sympathetic to the cause of Hindu nationalism have advanced an alternative theory — the ‘Out of India’ theory — that identifies the Aryans and the entire Indo-European culture as native to the sub-continent.23 Battles over India’s ancient past have thus spread into academia.

Hindutva’s exponents juxtapose a utopian vision of ancient India with a dystopian vision of Muslim rule in India. Hindutva narrative portrays the Muslim rulers, especially the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, as foreign invaders who ruled over the native Hindu population with an iron fist, despite evidence to the contrary.24 The Babri Mosque, established by the Mughal emperor Babur in 1528 in Ayodha, a city where Hindus believe the god Rama was born, acts as a flashpoint in this regard. Claiming the mosque compounds to be the original birthplace of Lord Rama, radical Hindu groups led by BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani demolished the mosque in 1992.25 Similar to the 1938 Tweede Trek that propelled Afrikaner nationalism26, prior to the destruction of the Babri Mosque, the then BJP leader Advani led a ten-thousand-kilometre procession to mobilise his Hindu nationalist confrères.27

In recent years, history has gained renewed currency in India as nearly two million Muslim citizens in the northeastern state of Assam are rendered stateless through their exclusion from the updated National Registry of Citizens (NRC). The BJP-led Assam government accuses these Muslims of being illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who migrated illegally after the 1971 war.28 At the same time, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has opened the door for non-Muslim refugees to gain citizenship in India29 — essentially reconfiguring the ethos of Indian nationalism from secular to religious.

The underlying logic is that non-Muslim refugees, being natives of the sub-continent, deserve the protection of Hindu majority India, while Muslim refugees are encouraged to seek refuge in Muslim countries. One can notice a similarity between this act and the ‘Law of Return’ enacted by Israel. Never before has history played such a central role in Indian politics, and Hindu nationalism, based on its dogmatic interpretation of history, has played the most salient role in engendering this outcome.

New fault lines

Not by military coups or other non-democratic means, Hindu nationalists have shot to power by winning the approval of vast numbers of the Hindu majority. A Pew Research Centre survey testifies to this fact, where two-thirds of Hindus maintain that being Hindu is important to be genuinely Indian, while a little more than half say that speaking Hindi is quite important to be truly Indian.30 There seems to be a lack of consensus on this latter point. There are signs that efforts to impose Hindi on non-Hindi-speaking states are facing vociferous pushback.31 Many non-Hindi speakers consider Hindutva a manifestation of Hindi nationalism, and resistance movements that champion their ethnolinguistic identity have sprung up in many non-Hindi-speaking states.32

Put differently, Hindutva’s fetishisation of primordialism has unwittingly given rise to counter-movements that often borrow its rhetoric to champion regional identities. And since India remains a democracy, albeit flawed, it is difficult for the Hindu nationalists in power to suppress these opposing voices. By contrast, full-blown autocracies have been much more successful in quashing regional ethnocentric aspirations. The suppression of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government is a telling example.

These recent developments suggest that so long as India remains a federal democracy, where regional identity continues to be relevant in swaying election outcomes, any attempt to homogenise a diverse country like India is highly unlikely to be successful in the long term. They also show why democracy remains the most potent antidote against populism. If this prognostication sounds too optimistic, then it could be tempered by the brute reality that India’s democratic foundations are shakier than ever before.



  1. James Chiriyankandath, ‘Hinduism’, in Routledge Handbook of Religion and Politics, ed. Jeffrey Haynes, 2nd edition (London; New York: Routledge, 2016), 82.
  2. Christophe Jaffrelot, ed., Hindu Nationalism: A Reader (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 5.
  3. Anustup Basu, Hindutva as Political Monotheism (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2020), 17.
  4. Ibid, 31.
  5. Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, 2nd ed. (Cornell University Press, 2009), 55.
  6. Joya Chatterji, ‘Nationalisms in India’, in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism, ed. John Breuilly, Reprint edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 244–245.
  7. Chiriyankandath, ‘Hinduism’, 82.
  8. Christophe Jaffrelot, ‘Hindutva’, in Key Concepts in Modern Indian Studies, ed. Rachel Dwyer et al. (Washington Square, New York: NYU Press, 2015), 109–110.
  9. Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 24.
  10. Jaffrelot, Hindu Nationalism, 15.
  11. D. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (New Delhi: Hindi Sahitya Sadan, 2003).
  12. Müller, What Is Populism?, 27.
  13. Priya Chacko, ‘Marketizing Hindutva: The State, Society, and Markets in Hindu Nationalism’, Modern Asian Studies 53, no. 2 (March 2019): 377–410, doi:10.1017/S0026749X17000051.
  14. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised edition (London New York: Verso, 2016), 41.
  15. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy, First edition (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2018), xiii.
  16. Janaki Bakhle, ‘Country First? Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883–1966) and the Writing of Essentials of Hindutva’, Public Culture 22, no. 1 (January 2010): 166, doi:10.1215/08992363-2009-020.
  17. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, 20.
  18. Ajaz Ashraf, ‘Opinion: Why It’s Essential for School Students to Learn about Religious Violence in Ancient India’, Text, Scroll.in (scroll.in, May 2018), scroll.in/article/877050/religious-violence-in-ancient-india-a-lesson-for-those-who-write-history-textbooks-for-school.
  19. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?, 20.
  20. Anna Clark, ‘Politicians Using History’, Australian Journal of Politics & History 56, no. 1 (2010): 120–131, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8497.2010.01545.x.
  21. Lynn Hunt, History: Why It Matters, 1st edition (Cambridge; Medford, MA: Polity, 2018), 2–3.
  22. Cynthia Ann Humes, ‘Hindutva, Mythistory, and Pseudoarchaeology’, Numen 59, no. 2/3 (2012): 187.
  23. Humes, 188.
  24. Katherine Butler Brown, ‘Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? Questions for the Historiography of His Reign’, Modern Asian Studies 41, no. 1 (January 2007): 77–120, doi:10.1017/S0026749X05002313.
  25. The Indian Express, ‘From Babri Masjid to Ram Temple: A Timeline of Events in Ayodhya’, The Indian Express (blog), August 2020, indianexpress.com/article/india/from-babri-masjid-to-ram-temple-a-timeline-of-events-in-ayodhya-6540033/.
  26. Anne McClintock, ‘“No Longer in a Future Heaven”: Women and Nationalism in South Africa’, Transition, no. 51 (1991): 107, doi:10.2307/2935081.
  27. Jaffrelot, Hindu Nationalism, 281.
  28. Sanghamitra Baruah, ‘“To Dehumanise, Terrorise Us”: Muslims Evicted in India’s Assam | Human Rights News | Al Jazeera’, October 2021, www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/12/india-assam-muslims-forcibly-evicted-dhalpur-bjp-darrang.
  29. BBC, ‘Citizenship Amendment Bill: India’s New “anti-Muslim” Law Explained’, BBC News, December 2019, sec. India, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-50670393.
  30. Manolo Corichi and Jonathan Evans, ‘For Most of India’s Hindus, Religious and National Identities Are Closely Linked’, Pew Research Center (blog), accessed 6 November 2021, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/07/20/for-most-of-indias-hindus-religious-and-national-identities-are-closely-linked/.
  31. Amit Ranjan, ‘Language as an Identity: Hindi–Non-Hindi Debates in India’, Society and Culture in South Asia 7, no. 2 (July 2021): 314–337, doi:10.1177/23938617211014660.
  32. Manasi Shah, ‘Bangla Pokkho: The Outfit Fighting for the Rights of Bengalis’, accessed 6 November 2021, www.telegraphindia.com/india/bangla-pokkho-the-outfit-fighting-for-the-rights-of-bengalis/cid/1681567.

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