Hindutva and the counter-revolution in India

The Hindu right is organising an effective counter-revolution against the democratic, secular and pluralistic order set up by Nehru. A credible progressive alternative is required to stop the advance…

The prime ideologue of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteer Organisation, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was instrumental in making European fascism an ideological influence on the Hindu right. He declared, “Surely Hitler knows … what suits Germany best. The very fact that Germany or Italy has so wonderfully recovered and grown so powerful as never before at the touch of the Nazi or Fascist magical wand is enough to prove that those political ‘isms’ were the most congenial tonics their health demanded.”

Savarkar’s glowing admiration was seconded by another figure in the RSS pantheon, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, who asserted, “To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.” Perhaps the best known contemporary admirer of Savarkar and Golwalkar is India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who began his political career as an RSS organiser and is accused of supervising an anti-Muslim pogrom that took the lives of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister of that state. Modi has been effusive in his praise of Savarkar, saying “Savarkar means brilliance, Savarkar means sacrifice, Savarkar means penance, Savarkar means substance, Savarkar means logic, Savarkar means youth, Savarkar means an arrow, and Savarkar means a Sword!”

Today, Hindu nationalists, for whom the RSS is the political centre, are the hegemonic force in Indian politics, having captured many state governments and, during the 2014 national elections, an outright majority of seats in the Lok Sabha, the national parliament, as well. Modi, once banned from entry into the US for his role in the Gujarat massacre, is probably the most powerful Indian leader since Indira Gandhi and, under his watch, the peaceful democratic competition, pluralism and secularism that post-war India was known for are in grave danger of becoming history.

A few decades back, the hegemony of the Hindu nationalist right would have not only been regarded as improbable but unthinkable. 

The decline of Congress

While not exactly on the fringe, groups associated with the ideology of “Hindutva” (best translated as “Hinduness”) were marginal players in post-independence politics. While there were instances when it resorted to communal politics for its own ends, for the most part, Congress espoused the vision of an India that was secular, democratic and diverse. As Jawaharlal Nehru put it in his speech on India’s achieving independence in 1948: “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”

The shocking role reversal, from a hegemonic Congress to a hegemonic Hindu right, unfolded over three decades. The explanation for why it happened must address two questions: What did Congress do wrong, and what did the Hindu right “do right?” What accounts for the erosion of Congress’s credibility? 

Several factors contributed to this, but foremost among them are four: the authoritarian turn of Indira Gandhi in the mid-70s; the unhinging of the relationship between Congress’s central leadership and the local brokers that provided it votes in the grassroots; Gandhi’s introduction of populist politics into India, which ultimately benefited not Congress but the Hindu right; and the failure of Congress to deliver on its social contract with the Indian masses.

The crumbling of Congress’s hegemony began with the death of Nehru. That fine balance between the national centre and the subnational brokers that he had cultivated was increasingly eroded, with the local brokers gaining more and more autonomy from the centre. At the local level, Congress became increasingly merely a patronage party, that is, a mechanism for winning power and distributing spoils to its voting base, while at the national level, the strong central leadership of Nehru gave way to a feuding, fragmented and weak party elite. This combination threatened to erode the party’s dominance nationally and locally, prompting Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who eventually became his successor, to try to decisively recentralise power.

Gandhi’s project culminated in her resorting to a populist style of political mobilisation and governance, which meant establishing a direct link to voters to break the hold of party brokers and prevent the emergence of autonomous power centres in the states. In this intra-Congress fight over control of the state, Indira Gandhi remade herself as a populist, appealing directly to the people “in a way no Indian leader since M.K. Gandhi had done prior to independence.” Her populist makeover, with her appeal to “end poverty,” resulted in her getting a conclusive mandate after the 1971 elections. She then moved to translate this electoral support into an authoritarian system that would enable her to gain direct access to local voters and resources.

This authoritarian interlude was disastrous for Congress, resulting in the erosion of its credibility as the party of Indian democracy. It also facilitated even greater autonomy of state-level power brokers, with many of them forming political parties along regional, ethnolinguistic or caste lines, but with most of these having as their central aim winning elections on an exclusivist platform in order to gain access to the spoils of government.

The rise of Hindutva

Congress’s descent, however, provided only the conditions for the Hindu right’s ascent to power. Most of its momentum derived from its skilled employment of coalition politics at the national and state leadership levels, and its coordination of national or state leadership with its actions at the level of the mass movements. While the necessities of electoral coalition politics obliged it to calibrate its pushing its ideological agenda at the national parliamentary level with the promotion of more popular measures – like promising growth via neoliberal measures – at the mass, street level, it cultivated ideological politics, using it not only to gain recruits but also to denounce and often physically attack those considered enemies of the Hindu nation.

Hindutva, according to the most influential Hindu fundamentalist ideologue Savarkar, was the fundamental essence of being Hindu. As pointed out by theologist Sathianathan Clarke, this “essence” consists first, of an intimate sense of belonging to a sacred geography, to a motherland, Hindustan. Second, Hindutva binds all those of the motherland together by a common blood, seeing the diverse peoples of India as parts of a race that shares the inheritance of the Vedic ancestor. Third, Hindutva asserts that as the biological community devoted to this sacred land, all Hindus share a common culture, one that is the cradle of all civilisations.

As noted by scholars like K. Satchidanandan, Hindutva is an attempt to deny the many cultural streams that made Indian civilisation so dynamic and create an artificial monolithic unity of Hinduness, one that is actually “a colonial construct borrowing elements from Western Orientalism, the Judaic idea of religion and the fascist ideals of cultural nationalism.” Like all fundamentalist ideologies, Hindutva makes exorbitant claims, saying that the Vedic teachings, which go back 1 500 years, already contained the advances of modern science, and asserting that ancient Hindus developed plastic surgery and flew airplanes.

Hindutva was articulated by Savarkar and his followers within a narrative of victimhood, whereby invaders, first the Muslim Mughals, then the Christian British subjugated, repressed and divided the Hindu nation. Thus Hindutva was a project of reclaiming the Hindus’ collective identity, creating a Hindu government and restoring the glory of a culture from the depredations of alien forces, namely Muslims and Christians. Savarkar and his followers fashioned Hindutva into an exclusionary ideology and movement that justified violence against the representatives of alien forces residing in the homeland, namely the Muslim and Christian communities. As one analyst put it, “India’s fundamentalists were radicalised by anger over the past and fear for the future.”

Fascist violence

This movement has been driven forward by a psychology that is remarkably similar to that which propelled the classical fascist movements in Europe, again a reminder that the latter did have a direct influence on the development of the Hindu extreme right. It is not difficult to see in the Hindu right, says Satchidanandan, “almost all the symptoms of European fascism dissected by Umberto Eco and Wilhelm Reich, though “at times in transformed, veiled, or diluted forms”.

Not only did the Hindu nationalists have a militant ideology and a shared psychology,  they also developed the organisational capacity to put it into action. 

The concept of democracy, the relationship of the state to religion and justice – the traditional mainstays of liberal democracy – have been reformulated to fit the Hindutva paradigm. Thus since democracy is the rule of the majority, this means it must serve as an instrument for promoting the interests of the 80% of India’s population who are Hindu.

One of the most spectacular cases of Hindu nationalist violence against religious minorities was the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque by Hindu militants in Ayodhya in 1992 based on the claim that it had been built on a temple of Lord Ram in the 16th century – a claim for which there is limited historical evidence. But overshadowing the Babri Masjid incident were the Gujarat riots of 2002, an orgy of killing, mainly of Muslims, triggered by the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims returning to Gujarat from Ayodhya. In response, there was a systematic two-month-long deadly massacre of Muslims that struck many as methodical, well thought out, and carried out with the support of the state whose chief minister then was Narendra Modi. Modi’s role has been much debated, but it cannot be denied that “the Sangh Parivar (the umbrella organisation of all militant Hindu organisations) was well prepared and well-rehearsed to carry out the murderous, brutal and sadistic attacks on Muslim men, women and children.”

By March 2002, at the end of this riot, the estimate of casualties ranged “between 1 000 dead (official) and 2 000 (unofficial), spread over thirty cities and towns in Gujarat. Apart from the deaths, which occurred at a ratio of 15 Muslims to every 1 Hindu, nearly 150 000 Muslims were driven from their homes while 500 mosques and Muslim shrines were destroyed.

As for Christians, they were put on notice that they were fair game by attacks, including murder, rape of nuns and pulling down of churches, that began in 1998 with the burning of an Australian missionary and his sons.

Modi’s populist campaign in the national elections of 2014 allowed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to break social and regional barriers by attracting voters from the so-called scheduled or historically disadvantaged classes – the Dalits and Adivasis – and regions where the BJP had not previously been dominant to add to its core Hindu, upper caste and Hindi speaking support base to secure an outright majority in the Lok Sabha or national parliament. And not to be discounted in his rise to power is the BJP’s skilful deployment of social media, which was also utilised to intimidate critics into silence after the elections.

As one critical observer notes, “Cow protection vigilante groups have become ubiquitous, and have lynched Muslims for allegedly selling or eating beef.” 

While nothing of the scale of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat has occurred since Modi took office, violence against Muslims has become routinised and normalised. The use of the state’s security forces has been an important element in the Hindu right’s repertoire of repression and violence, but a special role is played by mob violence. Lynchings have usually been carried out by Hindu mobs inflamed by rumours about the identity or actions of the victims, usually in relation to the slaughter or transport of cows, which are invested with a sacred identity by hardline Hindus. These lynchings have been gruesome affairs, with the attackers usually filming the incidents and circulating them on the internet. 

The use of information technology to spread and promote lynchings and riots is a practice that the Hindu right has become particularly adept at, with devastating consequences – as when the uploading of a fake video by a BJP legislator in Uttar Pradesh purportedly showing a Muslim mob murdering a Hindu youth provoked riots in the city of Muzaffarnagar that took 47 lives and displaced 40 000 people.

Lynchings are not aberrations or deviations from their political project, as senior BJP and regime officials are wont to claim. In fact, claims scholar Ashok Swain, lynching serves the function of enforcing “inter-group control and to keep the idea and practice of upper-caste Hindu domination”. In this context, it does not matter whether the victim is guilty of wrongdoing or not – the lynching serves a larger political objective.

A counter-revolution 

For the populist leader, the people prevail over the rule of law and public institutions at large. In fact, the vigilantes and their leader supremo (a key component in every populist dispensation) are on the same wavelength for this very reason: they overwhelm public institutions and neutralise them … Last but not least, the fact that the vigilantes “do the job” is very convenient for the rulers. The state is not guilty of violence since this violence is allegedly spontaneous and if the followers of Hinduism are taking the law into their hands, it is for a good reason – for defending their religion. The moral and political economies of this arrangement are even more sophisticated: the state cannot harass the minorities openly, but by letting vigilantes do so, it keeps majoritarian feelings satisfied.

In short, what opposition forces in India face is a highly ideological nationalist force whose agenda is being pushed by a highly skilled pragmatic leadership who can make tactical adjustments within what is nevertheless a determined strategic pursuit of the objective of recreating an imagined Hindu civilisation purged of the “historical shame”, “aberrations” and “injustices” imposed by the Muslim, Christian and Western secular enemies. Denunciations of violence, violations of human and democratic rights and corruption on the part of its fanatical adherents will not stop the right-wing wave, many liberal and progressive partisans now realise. What is needed, they say, is nothing less than a comprehensive progressive vision for India that is not seen merely as an apologia for liberal democracy’s failures.

What is transpiring in India is a counter-revolution. It may not be principally a class-based counter-revolution, but it is a comprehensive and fundamentalist enterprise that seeks to overturn a liberal democratic, secular and pluralistic order. It is a “total” counter-revolution that has transformative goals at the levels of the ideological, cultural, political, social and economic. Like all counter-revolutions it looks back to an idealised past in order to justify and legitimise old and new mechanisms and processes of domination.

As in Indonesia, Chile and the Philippines, there is an eliminationist dimension to the Hindu counter-revolution. Not just political subordination of the Communist-led left but its total physical extermination was the aim of the counter-revolutions in Indonesia and Chile, while in the Philippines, drug users fill the role of Jews or vermin to be stamped out in the political project of Rodrigo Duterte 

Hindutva ideology considers especially the Muslim community – numbering 172 million or 14.2% of the population – as an alien element grafted into the current political order, as a force that cannot be absorbed into a Hindu social and political order. Thus the strategic thrust of Hindu nationalist ideology is the Muslims’ physical elimination, and, as the Gujarat riots in 2002 revealed, this is a solution that is pursued when the opportunity presents itself.

In the relationship between the right-wing mass movement and the state, the latter becomes gradually subordinate to the former, with the representatives of the state, as in Italy, turning a blind eye to the actions of the mob or even participating in them, as in many cases of lynching. But what is especially noteworthy in the dynamics of the state-civil society relationship in India is the synergy between the elected regime, acting from above, and its “civil society” allies pushing from below, to neutralise and eventually take over and transform the administrative and security machineries of the state to serve the political and ideological ends of the Hindu nationalist movement. The parallels to fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany are striking.

This is an edited excerpt of a new essay, ‘The Hindu Counter-revolution: The Violent Recreation of an Imagined Past’, by Walden Bello. It was first published by Focus on the Global South.

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