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Explainer: The dangers of India's Hindu nationalism

Explainer: The dangers of India's Hindu nationalism
7 min read
08 July, 2022
In-depth: Proponents of Hindu nationalist ideology define India as a country for Hindus. They view non-Hindu groups - especially Muslims and Christians - as outsiders.
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Violence against Muslims and other non-Hindu groups has become an almost daily occurrence in India.

Radical Hindus have harassed, beaten, or killed hundreds of non-Hindus, especially Muslims, with few consequences. They have been shielded by a government that has consistently made life difficult for India's Muslims, which make up around 15 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people.

These acts are perpetrated by followers of a Hindu nationalist ideology born in the mid-1900s and heavily influenced by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, claiming everyone who lives in India other than Hindus - especially Muslims and Christians - to be outsiders.

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Hindu nationalism is the dominant worldview of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and his government has presided over waves of violence against minorities in India since it was elected in 2014.

“The sustenance of the Hindu nationalist project rests largely on 'othering' Muslims and other minorities in terms of their origins, dress, food habits, language, [and] patriotism,” said Niranjan Sahoo, a governance and public policy expert at the Observer Research Foundation. 

Here's everything you need to know about this dangerous ideology. 

What is Hindu nationalism? 

Hindu nationalism is not to be confused with the Hindu faith. The former is an ideology, while the latter is a religion with around a billion adherents, and, like most religions, is not inherently political.

"Hindu nationalism is a majoritarian project which is based on Hindu supremacist ideology," said Niranjan Sahoo. "It attacks the very idea of India which is diverse and multicultural."

Its roots lie in India's encounter with colonial rule. Leaning on British conceptions of a single monolithic religion, its early thinkers sought to draw boundaries between Hindus and Muslims and Christians, who are considered outsiders. 

Many of these thinkers were leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - a paramilitary volunteer organisation that seeks to forge Hindus into a single political entity and alienate Muslims from power. 

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

The RSS is a paramilitary volunteer organisation widely viewed as responsible for the rise of Hindu nationalism in India - it is the power behind Narendra Modi's BJP. 

Niranjan Sahoo says their ideology is based on the "exclusionary idea of Hindutva or 'Hinduness'; that Hindus have first right over everything on Indian nationhood".

Founded in 1925 when India was still under British rule, its early leaders such as KB Hedgewar and VD Savarkar– who are nationalist icons today – were inspired by Adolf Hitler, and believed minorities in India should be treated as the Jews were in 1940s Germany. 

Complete with an armed wing, uniforms, and a unique salute, the RSS constantly targets the Congress party, which has ruled India for much of its independent history. It blames the 'Congress leaders' policy of appeasement of Muslims for the "erosion of the nation's integrity in the name of secularism".

The organisation's most infamous member was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu extremist who assassinated MK Gandhi – the main icon of India's freedom struggle.

Several lawmakers from the ruling BJP have been accused of 'worshipping' Godse.

“The RSS has been continuously working on remanding India's secular democratic character,” said Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict research at Sweden's Uppsala University. 

"They have infiltrated all institutions - from the military to the judiciary, to the bureaucracy, to politics."

The right-wing nationalist organisation RSS was founded in September 1925. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is the ideological parent of the ruling BJP. [Getty]

Common falsehoods propagated by Hindu nationalists

  • They depict 'Hinduism' as constantly under threat from the external forces of Islam, Christianity, and 'secularism', and justify violence against these groups as a form of 'self-defence'. 
  • They say Muslim 'invaders' destroyed 'thousands' of temples in the past and built Islamic monuments on some of those sites, such as the Taj Mahal or the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya - which was violently destroyed by a Hindu mob led by senior BJP figures in 1992. There is barely any evidence for 80 such destroyed temples.

What they target

  • History - Any structure built by Muslim rulers during India's 800 years of Muslim rule is now suspect.
  • Symbols - People with Muslim names, beards, skullcaps, and face coverings have become targets for violence. In 2020, a man named Akhlaq had his arm chopped off for sporting a '786' tattoo, a sacred number for Muslims.
  • Food - People accused of eating beef, or even transporting cows – a sacred animal in Hinduism – have repeatedly been assaulted by Hindu extremists. According to a Reuters report, 24 Muslims were killed in 63 attacks by 'cow vigilantes' between 2010 and 2017, nearly all of which took place after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
  • Institutions - Modi has been accused of subverting all of the country's institutions by placing RSS members in prominent positions.
  • Media - Many news agencies, especially Hindi outlets, appear to have become mouthpieces for Modi's Hindu nationalist agenda. Reporters like Suresh Chavhanke and Sudhir Chaudhary who repeatedly peddle misinformation and hatred are becoming increasingly popular. Those journalists who challenge the government's narrative have been viciously attacked, and sometimes killed.
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Violence by non-state actors

Over the past months, right-wing groups have attempted to stop Muslim prayers at historic mosques – such as the Gyanvapi masjid in Varanasi, PM Modi's constituency – claiming Hindu relics that were captured by Muslim rulers are hidden there.

In May, right-wing groups set fire to a mosque in Madhya Pradesh, and conducted an arms training workshop at an educational institute in Karnataka, home to India's 'Silicon Valley'.

Last December, Al Jazeera reported 42 instances of attacks against Christians in the state of Karnataka in 2021.

In February 2020, violent Hindu mobs rampaged through Muslim neighbourhoods in Delhi after being encouraged by a BJP lawmaker. 53 people - 38 Muslim victims and 15 Hindus - were killed.  

Over the last few years, Hindu activists, including some regional governments, spreading the dangerous love-jihad conspiracy theory have attacked Muslim men, falsely claiming that Muslims attempt to marry Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam. 

Violence by the state

In April this year, lawmakers in several states called for the banning of the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. 

The same month, authorities in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and New Delhi bulldozed Muslim homes and properties hours after they were targeted by sword-wielding mobs.

Earlier this year, the Karnataka government banned women and girls from wearing the hijab to school.

In August 2019, Narendra Modi's government revoked the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir – India's only Muslim majority state.

Later that year, the government pushed through the Citizenship Amendment Bill which specifically prevents Muslim refugees from obtaining Indian citizenship, fuelling fears that Muslims who fled Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to India would be placed in detention camps or asked to leave. This led to widespread protests across the country. 

In January, Gregory Stanton - the founder of Genocide Watch - warned that India was on the brink of an anti-Muslim genocide

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What does the future hold?

The list of attacks against Indian Muslims could go on for pages.

Ashok Swain, who studies India, says that only a sudden jolt, like an economic collapse, can shake India's middle class out of its torpor and lead to change. 

In most of India's independent history, the unifying, secular ideology espoused by the likes of Gandhi has been the dominant theme of Indian politics. That has come crumbling down, according to Swain. 

“A project of bringing countries or religions together is a difficult project, is a long-term project,” he said. 

“But it is a simple and straightforward project when the political elites are engaged in dividing the people on the basis of cultural, religious or linguistic lines. And [Modi's government] has been doing everything well in that respect.”