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South Asia

What is Hindutva?

A primer on the extremist ideology that is rising in India.

Mohan Bhagwat is the leader of the Hindutva extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization. (Image Credit: Vishal Dutta/Flickr)
Mohan Bhagwat is the leader of the Hindutva extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization. (Image Credit: Vishal Dutta/Flickr)

Hindutva, often referred to as Hindu nationalism, is an extremist ideology that aims to dismantle India’s secular edifice and transform the country into a Hindu Rashtra—a majoritarian Hindu religio-nationalist state that relegates its 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians into second-class citizens. With the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in power for a second consecutive term, the threat of Hindutva forces achieving their goal is very real.

At the outset, it’s important to make clear that Hindutva is not the same thing as the religion of Hinduism. While both Hindutva and Hinduism are modern constructs, Hindutva is an ethnonationalist or religio-nationalist ideology that derives from the ancient Indian religious traditions that have been bracketed together today under the umbrella of “Hinduism.”

The word Hindutva, coined by the early 20th-century ideologue V.D. Savarkar, literally means “Hinduness.” It is a form of identitarianism that marries religious nationalism with notions of territorial belonging and citizenship.

population of india by religion

Proponents of Hindutva equate Indianness with Hinduness. They say that Hindus—or true Indians—are the people who belong to India (referred to as Bharat or Hindustan) and regard it as their spiritual motherland. Hindutva extremists also believe that identifying and behaving as a Hindu in an outward fashion should be requirements for full citizenship in India.

Forcible assimilation to an outward Hinduness can take a number of forms, including violence. In recent years, India has witnessed Hindutva extremists kill Muslims for failing to chant the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” to hail a Hindu deity. The law too may one day be a vehicle for compelling India’s Christians and Muslims to embrace Hindu identity and rituals. Some Hindutva ideologues have said that Muslims in India should be denied voting rights if they do not recognize their supposed Hindu ancestry.


Why Hindutva Matters

The BJP’s rule of India since 2014 and the commensurate rise of its parent group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, have resulted in a surge of violence targeting religious minorities.

India today is very much a country obsessed with the past, fixated on stripping the influence on its culture and society of centuries of Muslim rule. Hate speech and the demonization of Muslims is common in political speech and on television. And Muslims are being erased from the public sphere, with their numbers in the armed forces, bureaucracy, and parliament shrinking.

Mass religious violence in the form of riots and pogroms is not only a feature of modern India but also integral to the BJP’s election strategy. Hindu-Muslim violence boosts the party’s election performance and is key to the broader Hindutva network’s campaign to reengineer Indian society by flattening all identities into two categories: Hindu and non-Hindu (i.e. Christian and Muslim).

The potential consequences of the spread of the Hindutva ideology in India are immense, particularly for its religious minorities. It could tear at the very fabric of the country, producing a generation of tumult that will irreparably harm India.

In 2003, the Indian writer Khushwant Singh wrote: “The fascist agenda of Hindu fanatics is unlike anything we have experienced in our modern history.” He warned that “India is going to the dogs” and “unless a miracle saves us, the country will break up.”

Singh penned those words in the wake of the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, enabled by the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. As Singh noted, Modi returned to power in a “landslide victory” after the violence, becoming the face of muscular Hindu nationalism. The late writer warned that Modi’s reelection as chief minister of Gujarat “will spell disaster for our country.” More than a decade later, Modi became prime minister of India. And he is now serving his second term.

Modi today epitomizes Hindu nationalism in a way no single leader has before him. He has fused the Hindutva network’s grassroots army with his own strongman image and, through political savvy, has gained the acquiescence of India’s business community and media.

But the ideology of Hindutva predates Modi’s hold on power by almost a century. And its roots go back even further.


The History of Hindutva

Hindutva is an ideology that took form in the early 20th century and was inspired by European fascism. But its origins go back even earlier to the Hindu revivalist movement of the 19th century that emerged in response to the intellectual and political challenge posed by British colonial rule. Indeed it is British imperialism that catalyzed the emergence of the two prerequisites for Hindu nationalism: one, the notion of a single organized religion with the name of Hinduism; and two, the very identity of being a Hindu.

‘Hindus’ Respond to British Imperialism

The British imperial presence in India began in a commercial form with the spread of the East India Company. Founded in 1600, the British East India Company acquired a monopoly on England’s trade with coastal Asia. But what began as a commercial enterprise took on military and political forms over the course of more than a century as the power of the Mughal Empire and its regional successor states declined. The East India Company’s tiny trading posts, known as “factories,” grew into vast semi-sovereign spaces, referred to as “presidencies,” with their own governing systems.

With the spread of the East India Company came people, institutions, and systems of ideas challenging the status quo for the native people of India. In the early 19th century, well before England assumed direct administration of India, the British began to take on a more transformative role, with some among them engaging in efforts to “reform” local societies and even spread Christianity.

The spirit of positivism and modern science that the British brought posed intellectual challenges to the Hindu and Muslim intelligentsia, who were put on the defensive and displaced by the new regime. Both communities reacted in a variety of ways, including through apologetics, reformism, and revivalism.

The Birth of ‘Hinduism’

Among the pioneers of Hindu reformism was Ram Mohan Roy, a madrasa-educated Bengali Brahmin intellectual fluent in English, Persian, and Sanskrit. Roy was by no means a Hindutva extremist. Born in 1772, he predated the phenomenon of Hindutva by a century.

“…the reality [of pre-Islamic India] perhaps lay in looking at it as a cluster of distinctive sects and cults, observing common civilizational symbols but with belief and ritual ranging from atheism to animism and a variety of religious organizations identifying themselves by location, language, and caste.”

Historian Romila Thapar on pre-modern “Hinduism.”

Indeed, today’s Hindutva extremists would be aghast by Roy’s intellectual production as it reflects a fusion of religious traditions. Given his eclectic mix of inspirations, it may be inaccurate to even describe Roy as a Hindu. His first work was a Persian-language manuscript titled Tuhfat al-Muwahhidin or The Monotheists’ Gift, published in 1803.

Historian Amiya Sen notes that in addition to early colonial British observers of India, Roy “was perhaps among the first to confer upon a loose collective of religious ideas and practices the label of ‘Hinduism.'” Roy’s reformist revivalism and conceiving the idea of a single religion known as “Hinduism,” and by extension, a religious community known as “Hindus,” is what connects him to the Hindutva movement.

The word “Hindu” actually originates from the Perso-Arabic world and was used to describe the native inhabitants of what we now know as India. Until the modern era, the people we regard as Hindus, on the whole, did not identify themselves as Hindu. There was no shared sense of a community. As Audrey Truschke, a historian at Rutgers University, notes in our podcast from earlier this year, pre-modern Hindus identified by caste and the deity or avatar they were devoted to.

Now, the traditions and texts associated with what is called Hinduism today go back centuries and even millennia. The oldest of the Vedic Sanskrit texts, the Rig Veda, dates back to around 1200 BCE. But Hinduism is not a religion in the Western sense of the term.

In a lecture delivered in 1988, India’s most-esteemed living historian, Romila Thapar, contended that pre-modern Hinduism was a “conglomeration of sects” rather than a “uniform, monolithic religion.”

Hindu Mass Organizations Emerge

Ram Mohan Roy founded his own monotheistic sect, the Brahmo Samaj, which split from the Hindu fold after his death. But he helped initiate a process of Hindu identity formation and search for a “pure” iteration of the Hindu tradition, with an emphasis on the early Vedic-era religious texts.

In 1875, the Hindu guru Swami Dayananda Saraswati founded the Arya Samaj, a group aimed at reviving the Hindu tradition by going back to its original texts, similar in some ways to Roy’s Brahmo Samaj.

Swami Dayananda Arya Samaj
A postage stamp issued in honor of Arya Samaj founder Swami Dayananda Saraswati by the Government of India in 1962.

Dayanand was at least initially influenced by the Brahmo Samaj, according to scholar A.C. Niemeijer. Like Roy, Dayanand opposed idol worship. But Dayanand also believed in Vedic exceptionalism. As scholar Christophe Jaffrelot notes in his book Hindu Nationalism, Dayanand also argued that there was a “cultural and social greatness” to the Vedic era that surpassed the achievements of the west. He likened the Vedic era to a golden age, led by a chosen people, the Aryas, who communicated in a perfect language,

Dayanand’s Arya Samaj also became an active proselytizing group, which made it different from Roy’s Brahmo Samaj and other groups in the Hindu tradition. And it invented a process of converting to Hinduism known as “shuddi” or purification.

Dayanand was not only a revivalist and nostalgist but also a polemicist. He engaged in apologetics on behalf of the Vedic tradition and was a staunch critic of other faiths, including the Abrahamic religions. And he spoke of self-rule or “swaraj” for the colonized Indians.

Dayanand died in 1883, but his Arya Samaj took on a more active role with the creation of the Hindu Sabha and Hindu Mahasabha, two Hindu political outfits aimed at protecting the political interests of Hindus, first as a front within the main Indian National Congress party and then, beginning in the 1930s, as a separate political party.

Like the Arya Samaj, the Hindu Mahasabha, which was founded in 1915, also worked to convert Muslims to Hinduism. But as Jaffrelot notes, the Hindu Mahasabha struggled to dominate Hindu hearts and minds due to the rise of “Mahatma” Mohandas K. Gandhi, whose own politics was “based on a universalist and reformist Hinduism.”

In 1921, Gandhi, a London-educated barrister, adopted an outward dress similar to that of a sanyasi, a Hindu ascetic who has renounced worldly life. Gandhi’s dress was actually far more simple than that of a typical Hindu sanyasi and it was a testament to the uniqueness Gandhianism, which fused political ideology and theology and Western philosophy and Hindu religious traditions.

Gandhi first read the Bhagavad Gita in its English translation. And his interpretation of the Hindu tradition was quite “freewheeling.” But Gandhi evolved into “political sanyasi”—a term he used to describe himself—and powerfully deployed Hindu symbolism in his appearance and speech to transform the elite-dominated Indian National Congress into a mass movement that could appeal to ordinary Hindus. Gandhi’s soft Hinduization of Congress left less space for Hindutva groups to operate, but also alienated Muslims.

In the 1920s, as Gandhiism takes form, so does the Hindutva ideology. And this is a transformative period in India and the world. The end of the First World War brought about a new set of winners and losers in the world order. Multiethnic and multinational empires, such as the Ottoman, were replaced in many areas by states made for singular “nations.” In India, not only did demands for “home rule” grow, but a new set of cadre-based organizations also emerged, inspired by the rise of communism and fascism in Europe and beyond.

Hindutva is Born

Born in 1883 near Mumbai, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, also known as Veer or VD, came of age in a period and milieu in which being “Hindu” and “Indian” were emerging as coherent social and political identities.

The British completed their first census in India in 1872, utilizing for the first time the categories of “Hindoo” (Hindu) and “Mahomedan” (Muslim). The Indian National Congress was founded in 1885 in Mumbai. And the broader Maharasthra region to which he belonged was a crucible of the emergent Hindu nationalism.

These forces would play a defining role in shaping him at an early age. Born into a Brahmin family, as a young boy, Savarkar took part in an attack on a mosque amid communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. And as a young adult, he gravitated toward the militant section of the Indian nationalist movement. Soon after returning from studies in London, he was sentenced to prison by the British for sedition, though he was released after his clemency petition was approved.

Savarkar was a self-avowed atheist but instrumentalized Hindu mythology as historical truths. It served as the basis for the Hindu nationalist ideology he would play a pivotal role in shaping. In a 1923 pamphlet, Savarkar gave the ideology its name: Hindutva.

hindutva savarkar
The cover of the fifth edition of V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?

Savarkar argued that Hindus are one “nation” because of their “common blood.” Hindus, he wrote, “are one because we are a nation, a race, and own a common Sanskriti civilization.” Savarkar used ancient Hindu texts to define the geographical boundaries of India. And he took inspiration from a battle between the Afghan Durrani Empire and the Marathi Confederacy, recasting it as one between religious communities. He wrote of the 1761 Battle of Panipat: “the Hindus lost the battle, but won the war.”

There is an element of inclusivity to Savarkar’s definition of who is a Hindu. He includes Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs within the Hindu fold. But his intended effect is to single out Christians and Muslims.

“Thirty crores (thirty million) of [Hindu] people, with India for their basis of operation, for their Fatherland and for their Holyland with such a history behind them, bound together by ties of a common blood and common culture can dictate their terms to the whole world. A day will come when mankind will have to face the force.”

Hindutva ideologue V.D. Savarkar

Savarkar recognized the diversity within the tradition that has come to be regarded as Hinduism. He wrote that “Hinduism is a word that properly speaking should be applied to all the religious beliefs that the different communities of Hindu people hold.” But Christians and Muslims, he argued, “cannot be recognized as Hindus” because their “holy land is far off in Arabia or Palestine.” He claimed: “Their love is divided.” The scholar Jaffrelot argues that Savarkar saw the Muslims of India as “fifth-columnists whose allegiance was to Mecca and Istanbul.”

Savarkar’s greatest contribution to the Hindutva ideology, other than giving it its name, is defining in clear terms who is a Hindu or true Indian. He listed four main requirements: seeing India as a fatherland and a holy land; sharing a common Sanskrit-based culture; belonging to a common ‘indigenous’ race (jati) by blood.

The great changes taking place in India today bear Savarkar’s fingerprints and his singular disdain for Muslims. In the 1930s, Savarkar called for Indian Muslims to be treated in the same way as Jews were in Nazi Germany. Today, India is imposing laws to exclude Muslims from citizenship and public life. Shortly before his death in 1966, Savarkar—in his book Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History—inferred that the systematic rape of Muslim women would have served as a deterrent for the sexual assault of Hindu women. Rape has been weaponized by Hindutva extremist networks in India and by the Indian Army in Muslim-majority Kashmir.

An organization Savarkar founded, the Abhinav Bharat, was relaunched by a serving Indian Army officer Lt. Col. Prasad Purohit in 2006 as a militant network that would kill over 100 Indian and Pakistani Muslims in a series of terror attacks, including the 2007 bombing of the Pakistan-bound Samjhauta Express train. One member of the Abhinav Bharat terror network, Pragya Thakur, was elected as a parliamentarian on a BJP ticket in 2019 while out on bail on terrorism charges.

The RSS Ideology and Machine

“To understand India,” write Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle in Messengers of Hindu Nationalism, “requires an understanding of the RSS.”

The RSS—short for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—was founded in 1925 by political activist Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. Like Savarkar, the Hedgewar was a Marathi Brahmin. And while Savarkar was instrumental in shaping the Hindutva ideology, it is Hedgewar’s RSS that would develop a vast grassroots network with millions of members today.

Hedgewar RSS
A portrait of the founder of the RSS organization Hedgewar. (Image Credit: Sudhirn/Wikimedia Commons)

Under Hedgewar, the RSS shied away from overt politics. It focused mainly on creating a Hindu nationalist vanguard through individual and organizational development. The RSS, however, did take part in mass violence. In the fall of 1947, as the Hindu ruler of the Muslim-majority princely state of Jammu and Kashmir sought to cling to power and resist popular demands to join Pakistan, the RSS joined the forces of Maharaja Hari Singh in an ethnic cleansing campaign targeting Jammu’s Muslim population.

It’s under the leadership of Hedgewar’s successor, M.S. Golwalkar, that the RSS grew into a vast grassroots cadre organization aiming to influence all aspects of Indian society.

The two core elements of the RSS’s operations are its local shakhas (branches) and pracharaks (full-time workers). The group also has a paramilitary element. According to Andersen and Damle, the RSS had 6,000 pracharaks in 2017, and 1.5 to 2 million people who took part in its 57,000 shakhas held across India.

The RSS’s direct involvement in politics came after Indian independence. In 1948, the group was banned after one of its members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Then, in 1951, the RSS teamed up with the Hindu Mahasabha to form the Bharatiya Jana Sangh political party—the precursor to the BJP.

The goal of the RSS, according to Andersen and Damle, “is a harmonious society that is assimilationist, but also rejects both special cultural privileges for minorities and the adoption of Western cultural values.” The RSS says that it supports the free practice of any religion, but with one major caveat, as Andersen and Damle note: worship must be conducted “within the framework of cultural Hinduism and with respect for national traditions.”

That caveat renders the RSS’s proclamations of being in favor of “real” secularism and freedom of religion to be hollow. In the RSS’s Hindu Rashtra, monotheists like Christians and Muslims would be compelled to revere deities they view as false.

A Hindu Rashtra inspired by the RSS ideology would be similar in some ways to Communist China today under Xi Jinping, with an official national ideology superseding religion and taking precedence if there is a contradiction between the two. Just like China is imposing Han Chinese culture and communist atheism over Uighur and other Turkic Muslims, an RSS-dominated India would impose a Hindi-speaking Hindu culture on the country’s Muslims as well as non-Hindi speakers in the south. The three pillars of the RSS ideology are Hindu (identity), Hindi (language), and Hindutva (ideology).

Hindutva is a supremacist ideology. In his 1939 book We or Our Nationhood Defined, Golwalker made clear that he expected non-Hindus to be “wholly subordinated” to Hindus. His words are chilling:

“The foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment -not even citizen’s rights. There is, at least should be, no other course for them to adopt. We are an old nation; let us deal, as old nations ought to and do deal, with the foreign races, who have chosen to live in our country.”

And so it is no surprise that Golwalkar spoke with admiration of Nazi Germany. In 1939, as the Nazi campaign against the Jewish people gained momentum, Golwalkar wrote:

“To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.

In the same book, Golwalkar proclaimed India to be “the land of the Hindus” and claimed that this is proven by the “essential requirements of the scientific nation concept of the modern world.” That language is telling: Hindutva is a modern ideology that builds off of Western conceptions of a nation-state. Golwalkar used the theories of American and European political scientists as well as Hindu mythology to make his claim that Hindus are a nation.

With the rise of Narendra Modi, the image of Golwalkar has been rehabilitated. In 2008, Modi, while serving as chief minister of Gujarat, authored a book on the lives of sixteen historical figures he admired. One of those men was none other than Golwalkar. Modi praised Golwalkar as a man who gave up “his entire life for the saffron flag.”

In addition to being rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-Christian, Golwalkar and his successors in the RSS were also critical of Western ideologies and decentralized governance. They criticized democracy, capitalism, and Indian federalism, advocating instead for a strong center.

Golwalkar wrote: “The concept of Democracy as being ‘by the people’ and ‘of the people’, meaning that all are equal shares in the political administration, is, to a very large extent, only a myth in practice.”

Golwalkar called on Indians to “shake ourselves free from the mental shackles of foreign ‘isms’ and foreign ways and fleeting fashions of modern life.” His successor, Deendayal Upadhyaya offered his own third way alternative to both capitalism and communism. He wrote: “We want neither capitalism nor socialism. We aim at the progress and happiness of ‘Man,’ the Integral Man.”

It is under Upadhyaya’s leadership that the RSS ideology fully consolidated. Upadhyaya developed a doctrine known as “Integral Humanism,” which also serve as the title for one of his books, which, Andersen and Damle write, is “considered by the RSS to be a central catechism of its ideology.”

Upadhyaya called for dharma rajya, a term that is quite difficult to translate. The word dharma means many things in the Hindu tradition, including religion, a way of life, the natural way, a cosmic order, and the path of righteousness. The multiplicity of meanings allows for great contradictions in Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism.

Upadhyaya, on the one hand, said that his dharma rajya would not be a theocratic state, but at the same time would not be secular. Upadhaya argued that Indian or Bharatiya culture differs from the Western worldview in that “it looks upon life as an integrated whole.” The Western world, he wrote, has a “tendency to think of life in sections and then attempt to put them together by patchwork,” resulting in confusion. What he offered was a conservative worldview that aims to uphold traditional values, spiritual degradation, and avoid materialism.

Upadhyaya’s Integral Humanism also includes a feature common to Indian political thought across the political spectrum: economic nationalism. He called for swadeshi or self-reliance in the economic realm. And that has translated into strong protectionism espoused in RSS economic policies, even to this day.

So, as Americans advocate stronger ties with India and assert that there are cultural and ideological affinities between the two countries, it’s important to note that the RSS—the organization that has the greatest influence on India’s ruling party today—is a fundamentally illiberal organization with strong anti-democratic, protectionist, and supremacist tendencies.

Today, the RSS, according to Andersen and Damle, has upwards of two million members, thirty-six full affiliate organizations, and a hundred more subsidiary groups. Chief among its affiliates: India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.


The Sangh Parivar

(This is a partial list of the organizations part of the RSS-led Hindutva network known as the Sangh Parivar)

OrganizationRole
Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan YojanaSociety of historians aiming to rewrite Indian history according to a Hindu nationalist narrative.
Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)University students group
Bajrang DalYouth militant wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad
Bharatiya Janata PartyPolitical party
Bharatiya Kisan SanghFarmers’ association
Bharatiya Mazdoor SanghLabor union
Hindu Swayamsevak SanghInternational wing of RSS
India FoundationThink tank
India Policy FoundationThink tank
Rashtra Sevika SamitiWomen’s organization
Vanavasi Kalyan AshramTribal outreach organization
Vidya BharatiPrimary and secondary education school network
Vishwa Samvad KendraCommunications/media
Vivekananda International FoundationThink tank
Vishwa Hindu ParishadWorld Hindu council

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News and host of The Pivot podcast. He's contributed to publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, and POLITICO Magazine, and has appeared on broadcast outlets such as Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio. Rafiq is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

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