Interview #48 — Hindutva, from interwar fascism to Narendra Modi

Eviane Leidig brings us to India to talk about Hindutva, a very successful and powerful form of Hidu nationalism. In particular, we discuss its historical roots, including the links to fascism and Nazism, and how Narendra Modi in recent years mainstreamed this ethno-nationalist ideology. Modi, who portrays himself as a common man, son of a tea seller and victim of a news media conspiracy, has been re-elected as Prime Minister in 2019 thanks to its populist rhetoric and its references to nationalist symbols.

Enjoy the read…


Vinayak Damodar Savarkar

A 1970 stamp paying homage to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, author of “Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?”, first published in 1923 with the title “Essentials Of Hindutva”

1) In your recently published work you study Hindutva, a form of Hindu nationalism. Can you give us a brief account of what Hindutva represents, the ways in which it was shaped by British colonialism, and its links with European fascist and Nazi ideologues?

Hindutva literally translates to Hindu-ness, and is often a shorthand to refer to Hindu nationalism, which is a political project of achieving a Hindu rashtra (or state) on the Indian subcontinent. 

Hindutva first emerged as an anti-colonial resistance movement against the British in the late 19th century, and advocated for a primordial interpretation of nationhood in the run up to independence in 1947. Its ideologues were greatly inspired by European theorists of nationalism, in particular on ethnonationalist conceptions revolved around sacred territory, race, and language.

Out of this interest emerged a sustained engagement with contemporaries in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. With the former, early Hindutva ideologues traveled to meet Mussolini and were inspired by the activities of the Blackshirts, including paramilitary drill exercises and an authoritarian disciplinary structure. This would later become the modus operandi for the first Hindu nationalist organization, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteer Organization), an all-male paramilitary organization founded in 1925. Relations with Fascist Italy during this period also included recruiting Indian students to learn Italian and exposure to fascist propaganda.

RSS

A good overview of the flamboyant characters who created the RSS (National Volunteer Organisation).

With the rise of Nazi Germany, Hindutva ideologues were openly supportive of the Third Reich, publishing newspaper editorials in German newspapers and making references in speeches and writings that admired it as a model or society. Nazi officials were likewise receptive of Hindu nationalism and circulated Hindutva texts in German media and even engaged in covert intelligence operations. Like the Italians, educational institutes were established to encourage German language instruction and intellectual exchanges between students. Thus, European and South Asian political spheres were deeply intertwined in their parallel developments of far right ideology and movements in the 20th century, incorporating elements from each other to further their agendas. I argue that because the origin of Hindutva is uniquely global in orientation, it is important to situate it within a universal framework of far right studies.

2) Can you describe the recent process of mainstreaming of Hindutva, and in particular the role played by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi?

Although Hindutva has long been present in Indian society, it was never truly mainstream until the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. Modi is the product of a massive Hindutva apparatus. From a young age, he rose through the ranks of the RSS and later the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, or Indian People’s Party), which is the only political party that has adopted Hindutva as its official ideology. The BJP is part of an umbrella network of Hindutva organizations, called the Sangh Parivar (Family of Organizations), of which the RSS is the parent organization.

Before 2014, the BJP had only won elections at the local and regional level, and it had been part of a coalition with the national government from 1998 to 2004. But in 2014, the BJP secured an outright majority victory. Much of this can be attributed to Modi, who was then coined ‘the social media politician’ by the New York Times. As the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Modi’s campaign extensively used social networking platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and YouTube as a highly effective communicative tool in engaging with the public by replying to questions, crowdsourcing recommendations on policies, and hosting livestreams with young, urban-based, first-time voters. The campaign also created a mobile app called NaMo for users to follow exclusive campaign updates.

Perhaps the most strategic aspect of Modi’s popularity is that he rarely discusses Hindutva issues, leaving that rhetoric instead to prominent BJP politicians and Hindutva activists with more extreme views. This distance allows for Modi to engage on other issues like economic development and job creation, anti-corruption, and governance. Thus, while the BJP can push legislation in parliament that advances a Hindutva agenda, Modi remains relatively immune from criticism of involvement yet is still complicit.

Now, Modi is in his second administration after having been re-elected in 2019 with an even greater majority. Since 2019, there have been a number of high-profile events that signal the Modi government’s Hindutva agenda. These include the revocation of Article 370, a clause in the Indian constitution which grants semi-autonomous status to the region of Jammu and Kashmir (a region split between India, Pakistan, and China-administered sections). Revoking Article 370 led to a lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir since mid-2019, which is still ongoing. Human rights abuses have been reported, although foreign journalists and even Indian MPs are not allowed into the region. Despite this lockdown, I wrote an op-ed about an international delegation of MEPs, mostly from far right parties, who visited Kashmir last year. This move in Jammu and Kashmir symbolizes Hindutva’s aim of Akhand Bharat (Undivided India), an irredentist project in which the surrounding territories of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Myanmar are reunited under the Hindu rashtra (state).

Another noteworthy incident concerns the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) last December. The CAA provides fast-track Indian citizenship for what the government deems persecuted religious minorities from the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The bill defines such minorities as those of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, and Christian faith, but excludes Islam (despite the fact that there are persecuted Muslim sects in these countries). There was a public outcry with the passage of this legislation, as it violates the country’s founding principles of secularism and religious pluralism as stated in the constitution. Protests sparked across the country against the CAA, organized by Muslim and civil society organizations, which are accused by Hindutva actors of taking part in ‘ant-national’ activities. These protests culminated in mass violence in Delhi earlier this year as a result of a BJP politician encouraging Hindu mobs to attack Muslim neighbourhoods.

Keshav Baliram Hedgewar

Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, founder of the RSS.

The irony is that Hindutva is an ideology and movement that originates from upper-class, upper-caste Hindu elites. For much of its history, Hindutva remained exclusive and exclusionary. However, Modi’s 2014 campaign was able to attract a broad socio-economic demographic, which was necessary in order for the BJP to secure a victory. The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot attributes this to a core voting bloc known as the ‘neo-middle class’, that is, a new middle class that has recently emerged out of social mobility who identify with Modi’s ‘upwardly mobile trajectory’ and ‘humble origins’ (2015, 26). In many ways, it is Modi who represents a populist ideology rather than Hindutva itself. In 2014, Modi positioned himself as a charismatic outsider, often as an aam admi (a common man), who is the son of a chaiwala (a tea seller). He conflates ethno-religiosity as a basis of belonging in contrast to the secular, corrupt political and media establishment. During the campaign, for instance, Modi repeatedly targeted the incumbent, secular centre-left Congress Party for decades of dynastic politics, tapping into growing voter disillusionment with unscrupulous party politics. In addition, Modi often associates himself with Hindu symbols, dress, and rituals, playing into the domain of Hindutva politics.

3) In what sense can we understand Hindutva as a populist ideology separating the virtuous people and the corrupt elites? And concerning its ethno-nationalistic and xenophobic component, through which kind of rhetoric and strategy are Muslim people portrayed as a threat for the Hindu majority?

The irony is that Hindutva is an ideology and movement that originates from upper-class, upper-caste Hindu elites. For much of its history, Hindutva remained exclusive and exclusionary. However, Modi’s 2014 campaign was able to attract a broad socio-economic demographic, which was necessary in order for the BJP to secure a victory. The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot attributes this to a core voting bloc known as the ‘neo-middle class’, that is, a new middle class that has recently emerged out of social mobility who identify with Modi’s ‘upwardly mobile trajectory’ and ‘humble origins’ (2015, 26). In many ways, it is Modi who represents a populist ideology rather than Hindutva itself. In 2014, Modi positioned himself as a charismatic outsider, often as an aam admi (a common man), who is the son of a chaiwala (a tea seller). He conflates ethno-religiosity as a basis of belonging in contrast to the secular, corrupt political and media establishment. During the campaign, for instance, Modi repeatedly targeted the incumbent, secular centre-left Congress Party for decades of dynastic politics, tapping into growing voter disillusionment with unscrupulous party politics. In addition, Modi often associates himself with Hindu symbols, dress, and rituals, playing into the domain of Hindutva politics.

Another reason why Modi prefers social media channels for communication is that he often claims to be a victim of a news media conspiracy, and prefers instead the image of transparency, accountability, and accessibility of social media platforms. An image which fits in very well with his vision of India becoming a techno-economic powerhouse in the 21st century afforded by a growing IT sector in the country (which employs young people attracted to his message).

Concerning the ethno-nationalistic and xenophobic component of Hindutva, Muslims are portrayed as a threat to the Hindu majority through dehumanizing rhetoric. They are frequently attributed as having ‘anti-national’ sentiments (for not supporting a majoritarian nationalist agenda), or as ‘foreign’ and holding sympathies towards the ummah, not India. In addition, Hindutva takes on strong gendered dimensions, in which Muslim men are often portrayed as Islamist terrorists, or viewed as hypersexualized deviants intent on engaging in ‘love jihad’ (when a Muslim man seduces and converts a Hindu woman into Islam). In contrast, Hindu women, who symbolize the daughters of Bharat Mata (Mother India), are often viewed as in need of protection by masculine Hindu men. By extension, an attack on a Hindu woman is seen as an attack on the nation itself.

Savitri Devi

Savitri Devi cultivated a Nazi-Aryan ideology during her time in India. In 1938, she met Asit Krishna Mukherji, editor of The New Mercury, a National Socialist magazine supported by the German consulate in Calcutta. The two married and carried out espionage on US and British officials during the war.

4) More often than not, these movements refer to a mythical past that should be restored and invent traditions. Why are the foundational myths for Hindutva, to what ‘golden age’ do they refer?

The ‘golden age’ for Hindutva refers to the ancient Vedic period (1500-500 BCE) that existed prior to the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) and British Raj (1858-1947), which introduced Islam and Christianity, respectively, to the subcontinent. It was during the Vedic period that the Vedas—a body of religious texts written in Sanskrit and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism—were composed in the geographical territory known today as parts of the northern Indian subcontinent. The ‘Aryas’, or noble ones, of the Vedas constitute the autochthonous people of this sacred territory. Hindutva ideologues believe that the Vedic period is the birthplace of Indo-Aryan civilization, which is in turn linked to the ethnic and linguistic origins of the Indo-European language family. These ideas were later developed into Aryanism by British and German Orientalist scholars as a racial theory of civilization.

5) In Europe we are used to understand right-wing extremism as based on ethno nationalism, but Hindutva also has a strong religious component that in the secularizing west is virtually absent. Is it possible to understand Hindutva by separating ethnicity, culture, society, history, and religion?

Hindutva is frequently misunderstood as a form of religious nationalism rather than ethnic nationalism. This misunderstanding is based on two aspects. The first concerns conceptualizing secularism, which is different in the European context than it is in the Indian context. While secularism in Europe often connotes separation of church and state, in India it is conceived of as more of a principled distance than a strict separation. In other words, the Indian brand of secularism stresses expressions of religious plurality on egalitarian grounds, not absolute disappearance from public life. On a related note, however, is it accurate to claim that right-wing extremism in Europe is solely based on ethno-nationalism in which religion is virtually absent? Often religion takes a more implicit, sometimes invisible, dimension, such as claims that Judeo-Christian ‘culture’ underpinning western civilization is under threat from Islam. How is this different from Hindutva claims of Hindu ‘culture’ under threat from Islam?

The second dimension of misunderstanding is the centrality of religion. For the founders of Hindutva, religion was actually considered secondary to, and thus not important as, the fundamental combination of race, language, and territory for constituting Hindu identity. This is due to the influence of primordialist conceptions of nationalism developed by European intellectual contemporaries, as mentioned earlier. Of course, religiosity plays a role in Hindutva, but only in as much as religion is linked to blood and soil. One is considered a Hindu by virtue of being born a Hindu. Thus, Hindutva merges ethnicity, culture, society, history, and religion as intertwined components.

Benoy_Kumar_Sarkar

Benoy Kumar Sarkar, a spokesperson for a range of right-wing networks composed of scholars, ideologues and political activists. He was an enthusiast of both Fascism and Nazism.

6) Studies on right-wing extremism are mostly focused on Europe. What do you think we can learn by studying Hindutva? Can we compare it to right-wing extremism in Europe and the US and in what is Hindutva quintessentially Indian?

What often strikes me is how often scholars will point to the dissimilarities between Europe and India when it comes to studying the far right, claiming that such comparisons are too broad or worse, irrelevant. However, there are a number of significant factors that make studying Hindutva important for scholars in this field. Firstly, India is the world’s largest democracy, and while some consider it an ‘exotic’ case study, this is demeaning and woefully ignorant of far right phenomena around the world. Instead of the term far right being used, we instead see labels such as ethnic conflict or authoritarianism being applied. I do not contest that local, relative context matters in understanding these phenomena, but that does not omit the possibility for conceptualizing a universal framework. Further, Hindutva is uniquely globally oriented in terms of ideology and origins, having emerged out of sustained engagement with European far right intellectuals and movements. This alone provides enough merit for study by scholars of the far right. 

Perhaps most importantly, Hindutva provides an ideal case study for what happens when a successful far right government is in power, and continues to receive extensive popular support. The fact that Modi and the BJP was re-elected with an even greater majority in 2019 provided the legitimation to enact more extreme Hindutva-driven domestic and foreign policies, as well as reinvigorated socio-cultural issues.

Lastly, I do not think it is sufficient to simply apply frameworks developed to analyse case studies in Europe to manifestations of the far right in other parts of the world. This may seem like I am contradicting my point above about creating a universal framework, but rather, it is about understanding how local knowledge can inform and help redefine new universal schemes. For instance, the BJP can often blur the boundaries of a radical right versus extreme right party. By assumed definition it is radical right since it uses democratic means to get elected, but on the other hand, it encourages violence at times, so that would qualify it as extreme right. In other words, studying the far right in other regions like India can help us problematize our understanding of these broad categories and definitions.


Leidig pic

Eviane Leidig is a postdoctoral affiliate at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. Her current research compares the role of women in the far right in India and North America. She looks in particular at influencers on social media who promote Hindu nationalist and alt-right narratives, respectively, and the transnational connections between these movements. Eviane is a co-founder and co-editor of the new Manchester University Press book series ‘Global Studies of the Far Right’. For more see her website: evianeleidig.com

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