The Appeal of Hindu Nationalism

By Heer Ratda

A tense start to the year in New Delhi. (Rajat Gupta)

On the 15th of August, Indians around the world celebrated 75 years of independence from British rule. Yet celebrations over the liberation from the British empire were overshadowed by the rising undercurrents of right-wing Hindu nationalism that have become increasingly prevalent since the nation’s foundation.


When India gained its independence from Britain, it was imagined by its founding fathers as a secular, multicultural state, and these principles were enshrined in its constitution. As Gandhi said in his opposition to majoritarianism, “I do not believe in the doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number. It means in its nakedness that in order to achieve the supposed good of fifty-one percent, the interest of forty-nine percent, maybe, or rather should be sacrificed. It is a heartless doctrine and has done harm to humanity.”


Yet, 75 years later, Indian politics has moved far away from its secular constitution, climaxing with the election of Narendra Modi as PM and the rise of his party, BJP, which pursues an explicitly populist and nationalist form of politics that threatens Indian liberal democracy and treats Muslims as second-class citizens.


The rise and immediate appeal of Hindu nationalism can at least in part find its roots in the British colonization of India. Notably, the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’, which broke up larger concentrations of power into less powerful pieces to maintain authority, created animosity between Hindus and Muslims, populations that otherwise co-existed in relative peace. In the eyes of many Hindus, Muslims today remain the quintessential, evil ‘Other’ of nationalism, and this mentality has incited violence between communities.


This religious hatred then festered, culminating in 1947 with the hasty and devastating Partition of India in which nearly 2 million people died, laying the foundation for decades of religious hostility to come. Through their role in the Partition, the British irrevocably transformed the geopolitics of the subcontinent, and by splitting off the majority Muslim areas as Pakistan, they rendered Indian Muslims demographically and politically marginal, if not irrelevant, to an independent India. The series of conflicts that followed around the highly contested region of Kashmir only further emphasized the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and fueled nationalist sentiment.


Finally, the loss of freedom and pride during the psychologically and physically traumatizing British Rule can also be said to partly fuel the Hindu nationalist hubris today. As Sikata Banerjee, (the author of MAKE ME A MAN! Masculinity, Hinduism and Nationalism) argues, the hegemonic masculinity, and the almost hyperbolic assertions of masculinity that characterize Hindu nationalism today, are borne out of the horrors of the British Raj, which were often emasculating and degrading for Indian men. These created the need for the “noble, valiant defendant” to carry out the tradition of suraksha (good defense) against the imminent threat of foreign invasion, a dynamic we see easily evoked and intensified in the current sociopolitical climate of modern India.


Of course, right-wing nationalist parties in India like the BJP and RSS, and PM Modi in particular, have capitalized on the pre-existing friction between Hindus and Muslims from the collective trauma of colonialism to gain power (almost as the British did during the colonial period).


In one of his first parliamentary speeches as PM, Modi referred to the need to shed “1200 years of slave mentality.” Referencing the traumas of not only the British Raj, but also India’s Mughal Empire, he invoked the idea of the threats of foreign invasion, and portrayed himself as a strong and noble leader to teach these invaders a lesson.


Indeed, Modi’s nationalism appeals more to the masses than say, that of the RSS, as he effectively dovetails the traditional, religious nationalism with a more modern focus on economic progress, appealing to both the progressive middle classes and older traditionalists. To many Indians, he presents the perfect solution to a fractured nation post-colonization. The India of the 21st century is one with a constant paranoia of foreign invasion and an inability to reconcile its current fractured and westernized culture with the values and traditions of the past, which were destroyed in the cultural genocide of the British Raj. He presents to Indians the hope of restoring a glorious Hindu civilization and a strong leader to prevent the potential threat of a foreign invasion, ready to teach them all a lesson and restore India to its former cultural and economic glory, which is an idea of great allure.