Hindu Cultural Nationalism and its implication for India

By Amit Singh, PhD candidate, University of Coimbra:

Cultural nationalism is a form of nationalism in which the nation is defined by a shared culture. It focuses on a national identity shaped by cultural traditions. In the Indian context, the reference to cultural nationalism is rife and frequent- which can be seen in colonial and post-colonial times-especially employed by Hindu nationalists during the freedom movement against the British. Currently, Hindutva (political Hinduism) forces effectively and efficiently have been using Hindu cultural national narrative to unseat secular forces, silencing their critiques, demonizing Muslim minorities, and to capture the political power in India.

Approximately six years of rule by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has proved that it has difficulty accepting the core of Indian constitutional values such as secularism and religious pluralism. Through the discourse of ‘Cultural nationalism’ BJP and its parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have been successful in selling the idea of a new India where only Hindu rules, rest of ‘other’ had to accept a second-class citizenship status. Hindutva’s hatred against dissent is reflected in the censoring of critical books, victimization of secular writers, film director, academics, painter and rationalist, and communal violence, heightened censorship.

It shall be noted that the Indian State has adopted secular democracy and religious pluralism- to avoid multicultural conflicts. The Indian Constitution guarantees religious freedom and mandates the government to treat all religions equally. Article 19 of India’s constitution guarantees the right “to freedom of speech and expression.

When the First Indian Prime Minister Nehru crafted secularism to assure equal play of all religions, Hindutva, was made a substitute for secularism by the proponents of majoritarian politics. Nehru reasoned that religion should be divorced from politics, hoping that communalism would eventually wane with modernization and development. However, it did not happen. Communalism, as an ideology for political mobilization, was persistently resonating in the sentiments of the religiously conscious communities particularly religious-nationalist Hindus which finally resulted in the rise of the Hindu right groups, such as RSS/BJP/VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) known as a Sangh family.

The Sangh ‘family’ emphasis has been empowering Hindus and affirming Hindu identity. Yet even though the Sangh family claims to speak for all Hindus, and characterizes its platform as ‘Hindu-ness’ (Hindutva), its goals and assumptions often diverge sharply from traditional Hindu ideas; despite the rhetoric of reclamation, it is redefining what it ‘means’ to be Hindu.

When the BJP came to power in 1999, it sponsored and finance academic research, teaching, and publishing, to give Hindutva many voices, in many languages, in India and abroad. The Sangh took control of countless government agencies and offices, doling out public as well as private funds. Official Hindutva gave communalism cultural validity that made Hindu violence against Muslims seem a natural manifestation of Hindu rage, Hindutva acquired respectability as a national party ideology. In 2014, BJP repeated the agenda of 1999-only more forcefully and ruthlessly damaging the Constitutional institutions and social-religious fabric of the Indian society.

The main objective of Hindu religious-nationalists is to establish Hindu rule in India: to spread Hindu values and to defend Hindu society from alien religions, cultures, and ideologies. There is a tendency in Hindu nationalism to evoke the history of the Hindu kingdom which is manifested into replacing the Muslim names with Hindu, such as the names of the city, railway stations, and historical places including the rewriting of the school text. They do so because, to define a nation, it is necessary to evoke the nation’s past. This attempt to resurrect a past is linked to the tendency to enforce uniformity of belief, particularly religious homogeneity, among members of a body politic.

A nation is born in culture; and nationalism (nation-ness) are cultural artifacts around which, imagined nation, its history, religion, myths, and legends revolves such as the case of Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalism is ideologically a combination of religion and nationalism; it’s a form of cultural nationalism that stresses the supremacy of Hinduism and Hindu culture. It warns against foreign influences and claims to be an indigenous product of authentic religious and cultural traditions, combining classical Hinduism, Hindu reformism, and modern nationalism. Hindu nationalist leaders often use myths and symbols from the ancient holy texts in their analyses of political issues. This kind of religious discourse has been boosted and sustained by the mythological tv. serials in the 1990s such as Ramayana and Mahabharat. Ramayana left a long-lasting impact on Hindu masses, made them more self-conscious about their religion; deeply polarized, and communalized their psychic.

Ernest Gellner conveys the idea that nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they don’t exist. In the case of Hindu nationalism, it was developed (and invented as Gellner would say) as an alternative political culture as the dominant idiom in Indian politics during the independence movement; Hindu nationalism crystallized as an ideology; it rejected non-violence as a legitimate and effective modus operandi against the British; it propagates the superimposition of a religion, a culture, a language, and a sacred territory thus Concept of Hindutva, is a form of ethnic nationalism. Its motto, ‘Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan’, echoed many other European nationalisms based on religious identity, a common language, or even racial feeling.

Right-wing Hindu politicians with their extensive support network of like-minded people, through the ‘institutionalized riot system’ stoke fire of communalism; kept the idea of violent Hindu nationalism alive in which millions of Muslim minorities have been killed. Violence in Godhra against Muslim minorities, and the aftermath of the Babri Mosque demolition, riots in Bombay are such examples. Recent incidences of mob lynching, riots in Delhi, Cow vigilante, and expulsion and revocation of citizenship of Rohingya Muslims from Assam to Bangla Dash are a case in the point.

Studies have shown that communal riots have benefited (electoral victory) Hindu fundamentalist parties/groups and have encouraged them to carry out such more violence. Thus, one shall not be surprised if, we observe a constant pattern of communal violence since Hindu nationalist Indian Prime Minister Nagendra Modi came to power in 2014.

It would be interesting to note that Hindu nationalism has become part of the everyday common-sense of many Indians as Michael Billig has called it ‘banal nationalism’. This banal nationalism easily connects with the educated urban middle-class professional population- among whom Hindu religiosity is growing which provides fodder to Hindu fundamentalism and its cultural nationalism. This was reflected in the resounding victory of Hindutva forces in 2019 in the Indian national election.

Extreme cultural nationalism may prepare masses for the War frenzy, but not for the peaceful co-existence with other denominations. Aggressive Hindu cultural nationalism thrives on creating the fear of ‘Other’ and constantly looking for the scapegoats to cover its miserable performance on the economic, social and political front, as it is apparent the way Narendra Modi blamed Muslims for spreading COVID-19 in India. The aforementioned development shall be alarming for those who believe in the idea of India which is secular, religiously plural, and tolerant to dissenting ideas.

This blog post was redirected to AsiaPortal from South Asia Journal:

Hindu Cultural Nationalism and its implication for India

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