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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 9, New Delhi, February 13, 2021

Hindu Nationalism; From Genesis to Present Rule: An Overview | Ram Puniyani

Friday 12 February 2021, by Ram Puniyani


by Ram Puniyani

As per Indian Constitution India is a secular democratic Country. Lately Hindu nationalism has started impacting the nature of state and citizenship in a very strong way. As Indian Nationalism developed during freedom movement, Hindu nationalism and Muslim Nationalism came as opposites of Indian Nationalism. The origin of Hindu nationalism and also Muslim Nationalism can be traced to colonial period. During colonial period, when the rising freedom movement was articulating the concept and values of Indian nationalism, the section of Hindus, from the kings of princely states and upper caste elite to begin with, kept aloof from freedom movement asserted the concept of Hindu Nationalism. Hindu nationalism is a politics and a category with a specific meaning which is the agenda of RSS-BJP. Similar were the roots of Muslim nationalism.

Hindu Nationalism: Historical roots

During colonial period the rising classes of industrialists, businessmen, workers and educated classes came together and formed different organizations, Madras Mahajan Sabha, Pune Sarvajanik Sabha, Bombay Association etc. These organizations felt for the need for an over arching political organization so went in to form Indian National Congress in 1885. (1) The declining sections of society, Muslim and Hindu landlords and kings also decided to come together to oppose the all inclusive politics of Congress, which in due course became the major vehicle of the values of freedom movement. These declining sections were feeling threatened due to the social changes. To hide their social decline they projected as if their religion is in danger. They also did not like the standing up to the colonial masters by Congress, which had started putting forward the demands for different rising social groups and thereby for India. National movement and Congress saw this country as ‘India is a Nation in the making’.

As per declining sections of landlords and kings; standing up to, not bowing in front of the ruler is against the teachings of ‘our’ religion so what is needed according to them is to promote the loyalty to the British. They, Hindu and Muslim feudal elements, came together and formed United India Patriotic Association in 1888. (2) The lead was taken by Nawab of Dhaka and Raja of Kashi. Later due to British machinations the Muslim elite from this association separated and formed Muslim league in 1906, while in parallel to this the Hindu elite first formed Punjab Hindu Sabha in 1909 and then Hindu Mahasabha in 1915.

These communal formations argued for Muslim Nationalism and Hindu nationalism respectively. Hindu nationalists also developed the political ideology of Hindutva, articulated particularly by Savarkar in 1923 in his book ‘Hindutva or Who is a Hindu?’ (3) While Hinduism is a religion, Hindutva is a politics based on Aryan race, this land and elite Brahmanical culture. This was an enviable situation for British as such groups would weaken the rising national movement. On one side they quietly supported the Muslim League and parallel to this they handled Hindu Mahasabha-RSS with velvet gloves.

Hindu Nationalism: RSS

Taking a cue from the ideology of Hindutva, RSS came up in 1925, with the path of Hindu Nationalism and goal of Hindu Nation. The values of rising classes embodied in the persona of Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar, Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and many others mainly revolved around Indian Nationalism, built around the principles of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Justice. The ideology of Muslim League selectively drew from some Muslim traditions to assert the class, caste and gender hierarchy of feudal society. While Hindu Mahasabha and RSS had tomes like Manusmriti to talk about similar graded hierarchies of caste and gender. Muslim and Hindu communalists were not part of freedom movement as freedom movement was all inclusive and aimed at secular democratic values. Muslim and Hindu communalists drew from glories of Kings of the past and kept aloof from anti-British struggle. (4)

Gandhi’s attempt to draw the masses in to anti British struggle was the major point due to which the Constitutionalists like Jinnah; traditionalists of Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha further drifted away, and consolidated themselves after 1920s. The trajectory of Hindu Nationalism from the decade of 1920 becomes very clear, to be on the side of British to oppose the Muslim Nationalists and also freedom struggle. Same applies to Muslim League, as it regarded Congress as a Hindu party. The Freedom of the country and tragic partition led to Muslim Leaguers going to Pakistan while leaving sufficient backlog to sustain Muslim communalism here. Hindu Nationalists in the form of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS gradually started asserting themselves, beginning with murder of Mahatma Gandhi, who surely was amongst the best of the Hindus of that century. (5)

RSS: A Brief History

RSS was formed in 1925 in Nagpur. The immediate cause of its formation was the discomfort among the upper castes/landlord elements due to the non-cooperation movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi as a part of freedom movement (1920). This movement brought the average people to the freedom movement; this caused discomfort to the elite sections of society. At the same time, the ‘non-Brahmin movement’ in Maharashtra was shaking the social relations of Brahmin-landlord on one side and Dalit-workers on the other. The founders of RSS were inspired by the ideas of nationalism of Hitler. (6) The RSS had contempt towards the concept of Indian nationalism, which was the ideology of freedom movement of India, led by Gandhiji.

The RSS took off from Hindu Mahasabha, an organization formed by the Hindu kings and landlords. Later this organization was led by a middle class intellectual, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. He propounded the ideology of Hindutva, Hindu-ness, which is the concept of Nationalism based on Brahminical values of hierarchy of caste and gender. The RSS founders were to make the concepts of Hindutva and Hindu Rashtra as their base ideology and politics. (7)

The RSS began with training its volunteers in a new version of history which was communal and had nothing to do with truth. It said that India has always been a Hindu nation and Muslims are aggressors, Muslims and Christians are foreigners. The concept promoted by Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru that India is a land belonging to people of all religions is wrong and what is needed is to build a Hindu nation and undermine the Muslim nation. It decided to keep aloof from direct electoral politics and went on to create a set of volunteers, swayamsevaks, trained in the ideology of Hindutva. It kept aloof from freedom movement as it was based on the values of secularism and democracy. It stood for Hindu nation and perpetuation of Brahminical values in a new garb.

It was, and is, exclusively a male organization. When Laxmibai Kelkar wanted women to be taken into RSS, they were advised to form a subordinate organization, Rashtra Sevika Samiti (1936). In the very name of this organization the word swayam (self) is missing as this organization, like all other communal organizations, stands for superiority of males, and believes in patriarchy. It discouraged people from participating in movements related to freedom. (8) Barring few exceptions (K.B. Hedgewar), none from RSS went to jail during freedom movement. And those who happened to go to jail went either looking for more recruits for RSS or accidentally went to jail and later on apologized to the British and got themselves released from prison (like Atal Bihari Vajpayee). (9)

The RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha held Gandhiji responsible for appeasement of Muslims, for partition of the country etc. On this charge, Nathuram Godse, an ex-Pracharak of RSS, who joined Hindu Mahasabha later, killed the father of the nation. Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel had said that it was due to the hate spread by the RSS that the country lost its father Mahatma Gandhi and Patel banned RSS for some time. (10) Savarkar was also one of the accused in the murder of Gandhiji, but he was let off for lack of corroborative evidence.

The RSS formed other subordinate organizations. One of them was Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad for working among students. In 1951, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee of Hindu Mahasabha in collaboration with RSS formed Bharatiya Jan Sangh. It raised identity related issues and resorted to war mongering by calling for Nuclear weapons to be made by India. It also demanded that Muslims should be Indianized. It remained a marginal force till it joined the Jaya Prakash Narayan movement and became part of the Janata Party. Meanwhile, RSS was silently infiltrating in all the wings of state and society, bureaucracy, police, education, media, judiciary and army. It was working to oppose the progressive liberal values by promoting religiosity and conservatism in cultural arena. (11)

Jan Sangh joined Janata Party and came to power in 1977; its leaders became a part of the Government. Using this opportunity, they planted their workers in media and other areas of the state apparatus. After splitting Janata Party, the Jan Sangh component emerged as Bharatiya Janata party on the ground of Gandhian Socialism. For electoral purposes it projected those values it never believed like Gandhian Socialism. It lent support to Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 elections. Meanwhile, it gave birth to Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram. VHP started taking up emotive issues and Ram temple was made the center of its political credo. They went on to form Bajrang Dal on the lines of storm troopers of Nazi party in Germany. (12)

During 1960s and 1980s, it kept propagating hate against minorities, first against Muslims and then Christians. The result was anti-minority violence in many parts of the country. In anti-Muslim violence, 80 per cent of the victims are Muslims. Most of the inquiry committee reports have concluded that riots are generally begun by RSS affiliates. (13) They create one or other pretext leading to violence. Due to communalization of state apparatus, most of the guilty are not punished. Many a time, other political leaders have also used communal violence for their narrow political goals. The agitation around Ram temple created a great deal of social hysteria, leading to Babri demolition and major violence in Mumbai, Bhopal, Surat and other places. Mumbai violence of 1992-93 shook the whole country and instilled a great amount of fear among minorities.

Due to violence, the RSS base became stronger and its political wing BJP too grew up to the extent that it could grab power at the center in 1996. (14) It came to power again and ruled the country, under RSS supervision, for six years. From 1997, in order to scare away Christian missionaries from Adivasi areas, the areas where their work is leading to empowerment of poor Adivasis, it started violence and during its course Pastor Graham Stewart Stains (1999), along with his two sons, was burnt alive on the charge that he was indulging in conversion. The Wadhva Commission, which enquired into this murder, opined that the Pastor had not done any conversion. Most horrific form of anti-Christian violence was witnessed in the BJP-ruled Gujarat and later in Kamdhamal in Orissa (2008). With every act of communal violence, BJP became stronger. (15)

After the 9/11 incident in the US, when globally terrorist activities started going up, the RSS intensified its campaign of demonization of Muslims saying that all terrorists are Muslims. With the Malegaon blast of 2006, concrete evidences against RSS affiliate ABVP’s member Pragya Singh Thakur came to light. It was her motor cycle which was used in the blast, which brought the matters to surface. It led to other RSS workers associated with the Sadhvi. (16) The role of serving military officer Lt Col Prasad Shrikant Purohit, Swami Dyanand Pande, and Major Upadhyay in the blasts was being pursued doggedly by Hemant Karkare, the chief of Maharashtra ATS, before the 26/11 terror attack took place in Mumbai in which Karkare was killed.

Most of the links of these blasts led to those who were indoctrinated into the ideology of Hindu Rashtra by some or the other affiliates of RSS. The Hindu Jagran Samiti, near Thane-Mumbai, also allegedly resorted to acts of terror. This organization is inspired by Hindu Mahasabha and RSS leaders and believes that Hindus, the Devs (Gods), are facing the Danav (demons) in the form of Muslims and Christians in the Kali Yug (Dark Ages). As per them such acts of terror should be engineered to teach these communities a lesson.

With the polarization of society on the upswing, the electoral strength went on the rise. With clever support to Anna Hazare movement, RSS combine succeeded in defaming Congress on the eve of 2014 elections. With corporate support and immaculate electoral management, the BJP came to power. From 2014 onwards apart from other phenomenon, the number of RSS shakhas rose phenomenally and emotive issues have created an atmosphere of intolerance in the society and has succeeded in relegating minorities to second class citizenship. (17)

Hindu Nationalists formed first Jan Sangh (1951) and later present BJP. The major issue taken up by these nationalists was opposition to cooperative farming, public sector and undertook a program called ‘Indianization of Muslims’, ‘protection of Cow’, ‘Love Jihad’ and Ghar Wapasi (Reconversion to Hinduism) along with hyper nationalism, directed against Pakistan. Hate for Pakistan hints at Indian Muslims association with Pakistan and demonizes them in society.

The identity related issues have been the staple diet for religious nationalist tendencies. ‘Cow as our mother’, Ram Temple, Ram Setu, Abolition of article 370 and Uniform civil code has been the foundation around which emotive hysterical movements have been built. While they keep bringing to our notice as to under whose rule more riots have taken place, one forgets that the root of communal violence lies in ‘Hate other’ ideology spread by communal streams. And most of the communal violence led to coming to power of communal party. Its major outcome is polarization of communities along religious lines.

Present Ruling Dispensation

Modi-BJP is part of Hindu nationalist ideology. They gloss over the fact that the large masses of Indian people, Hindus never called and do not call themselves Hindu nationalists. Gandhi was not a Hindu nationalist despite being a Hindu in the moral and social sense. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was not a Muslim nationalist, despite being a devout Muslim, being a Muslim scholar of highest caliber. During freedom movement also most of the people of all religions’ identified with Indian Nationalism and not with religious nationalism as being projected by Modi and company. Even today people of different religions identify with Indian nationalism and not with religious Nationalism on the lines of Modi and his ilk.

Hindu nationalism is exclusive and divisive, Indian Nationalism is inclusive; rooted in the issues of this world, and not the identity related ones. Unfortunately Hindu nationalists have been raising the pitch around identity issues undermining the issues of the poor and marginalized. The Indian Nationalism, the product of our freedom movement is being challenged by the Hindu nationalism in India, Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and is a major threat to the process of democratization in those countries; Muslim Nationalism has wrecked havoc in Pakistan, and many other places.

As Modi came to power in 2014 on the promises of ending corruption, controlling price rise, controlling violence against women, none of this came true. Instead the rising prices broke the back of common people. The demonetization increased the miseries of people as nearly 100 people died while standing in the queues to withdraw their own money, and later 99.7% of currency returned to the banks. The implementation of GST was tardy and increases the miseries of traders and others. The state started being more authoritarian to the extent that many felt it is moving towards ‘elected autocracy’ (18). The institutions of state, which are autonomous like Election Commission, Enforcement Directorate and CBI, started showing their partisanship to the ruling dispensation.

The overall atrocities against Muslims, Christians and dalits started going up. (19) The Muslims were targeted in the name of cow-beef. Nearly 100 people died after 2014 in mob lynching. Of these over 80% were Muslims and remaining were dalits. The campaign to stop interfaith marriage took the form of intensifying the attacks on interfaith couples where the girl happens to be a Hindu. New legislations are being brought in the name of freedom of religion. These aim at preventing conversions away from Hinduism, while conversion to Hinduism, in the name of Ghar Wapasi (Return Home) is going on. Many a prayer meetings have been attacked on the pretext that conversion to Christianity is going on. Sub radar violence against Christians is an ongoing phenomenon.

The tedious and painful exercise of NRC (National Register of Citizens) in Assam was undertaken on the premise that nearly 50 Lakh Bangldeshi infiltrators have entered Assam. People were to submit their papers related to citizenship. At the end of the whole exercise 20 Lakh people were found to be without papers. Of this 12.5 Lakh were Hindus and remaining Muslims. In major violation of Indian Constitution Citizenship Amendment Act was brought in. This gives citizenship to persecuted minorities in neighboring countries. All are eligible for citizenship barring Muslims as per this law. The response to this came in the form of massive Shaheen Bagh movement. In city after city Muslim women did the sit in’s, which went on in a peaceful way (20). To disrupt this great democratic movement for withdrawal of CAA, the Delhi violence was orchestrated. In this violence 50 people lost their lives of which 2/3rd were Muslims. The major damage was done to the Muslim properties.

The communal forces are always in collusion with the big Corporate. Three new farm laws have been brought in. These laws are totally opposed by farmers as it makes them vulnerable in the hands of big corporations eying the agricultural sector. Huge protests are on in Delhi. Government is impervious so far and building barricades of nails and concrete wall to prevent farmers from entering Delhi to voice their protests. (21)

The agenda of Hindu nationalism is multifold. At one level it wants to put the religious minorities, Muslims and Christians on the margins. Dalits and women are deprived of affirmative action and status quo of their social situation is maintined. The civic norms have been shelved and social activists working for the cause of Adivaisis and Dalits have been labled as Urban Naxals and put behind the bars without any proper or expeditious process to give justice to them. In a as Jean Dreze points out that Hindu nationalism is a revolt of the upper caste male against the values of equality due to which dalits and women are marching towards equality. (22) In revised edition of book on Partition Ambedkar strongly opposed the formation of Pakistan in the name of Islam. His argument was that if Pakistan is formed in the name of Islam, the path of Hindu Raj will be facilitated and Hindu raj will be a great calamity for dalits.

Way Forward

Struggle for restoration of democratic values is a big task in current times. The misconceptions against minorities have been constantly propagated through multiple channels and have become the part o social thinking to a large extent. The hatred against these sections is widely prevalent; it is this hatred which forms the ground on which violence can be orchestrated. This violence in turn leads to polarization and coming of communal forces in seat of power. Communal forces in power in turn strengthen the RSS, the organization working the agenda of Hindu nation.

A multilayered struggle to counter the misconceptions against religious minorities is the core task. This needs to be supplemented by building the bridges of love and amity between different religious communities. The social movements for defense of human rights need to be supported and a platform of social issues has to work for the values of Indian Constitution, where fraternity, equality and justice have to accompany the liberty. Tasks are immense.

Foot Notes













13. Teesta Setalvad ‘Who casts the First Stone’ Communalism Combat, March 1998,










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