Understanding Hindutva ideology: Origins and future

A look at a powerful ideology born from historical grudges against Muslims and how its ascension under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has jeopardised India's secular democracy

Hindutva has come to mean the belief in Hindu supremacy and the extremism, anti-egalitarianism, ultra-nationalism, and authoritarianism that accompany it.
Eduardo Ramon_Getty Images
Hindutva has come to mean the belief in Hindu supremacy and the extremism, anti-egalitarianism, ultra-nationalism, and authoritarianism that accompany it.

Understanding Hindutva ideology: Origins and future

Given that India is the world’s largest democracy, it's extremely important to understand the Hindutva movement, a Hindu nationalist doctrine at the centre of the BJP's agenda, which has dominated the government since 2014.

The term's modern-day meaning is quite different from what it originally meant: to be an adherent of the Hindu religion. Today, the word carries very different overtones and is associated with the belief in Hindu supremacy and the extremism, anti-egalitarianism, ultra-nationalism, and authoritarianism that accompany it.

It is an ideology born from historical grudges, myths, false notions of nationhood, lofty ambitions, and a perpetual inferiority complex. It scoffs at the idea of a diverse, constitutionally secular, democratic, and rules-based India, which boasts a population of 1.4 billion people, 200 million of whom are Muslim. But more than being motivated by its quest to revive Hindu glory, it is mainly preoccupied by its grudges against Muslims.

Origins and evolution

A brand of political populism, Hindutva is controlled by a narrow elite caste within Hindu society, and its messaging is propagated through pliable elite-owned media outlets which spout vitriol against Muslims and vehemently oppose monotheism—i.e. the Abrahamic faiths, including Islam and Christianity, which make up a sizeable minority population in India.

Indian society has always been complex, with centuries of Islamic rule (during the Mughal Empire from 1526 to 1707) and two centuries of British rule. Hindu nationalism can be traced to the second half of the 19th century, as Indians from different religions rose up together against British rule.

When Indian troops were forced to load their Enfield rifles by biting the ends of bullets greased with the fat of pigs and cows—in contravention of strictures in Islam and Hinduism alike—Indian officers rose up in 1857. They chose the 82-year-old Muslim king Bahadur Shah Zafar as their leader, but he had no real authority, and the British crushed the 18-month rebellion—later known as the 'Indian Mutiny'—using overwhelming force to re-establish their authority.

With the last Mughal emperor arrested and exiled to Burma, the British imposed direct rule over India, taking over the East India Company, its possessions and troops. The British imperial strategy was divide-and-rule. It was in this political climate that Hindu dogma arose in northern India.

Initially, Hindu dogma came in the form of the Arya Samaj—a monotheistic Indian Hindu reform movement set up by Dayananda Sarasvati, a Gujarat-born Brahmin, in 1875. The Arya Samaj established councils in the Punjab, the United Provinces, and elsewhere, ostensibly to protect cows, which the faith views as sacred. The move also marked the beginning of Hindu nationalist politics, extending the mutineers' cause. By 1893, riots began erupting.

The birth of the BJP

For a century, one organisation had been the backbone of Hindu nationalism: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. Its name roughly translates as 'national organisation of volunteers.' It was set up in 1925, and its political successor, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been in power since 2014, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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The BJP dates back to 1980, but its brand of electoral politics has deeper roots. Its forerunner, Bharatiya Jana Sangh, came into being in 1951. It emerged from a period of turmoil following a state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. Several opposition parties, including Jana Sangh, merged into the Janata Party.

It went on to form a coalition after winning the 1977 elections, becoming the first non-Congress government since independence. However, internal divisions prevented it from completing its five-year term, and Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980. During this time, the BJP focused on building its strength to dislodge the Congress party from government by popularising its separatist agenda. Meanwhile, its grassroots organisation Rashtriya Swawamsevak Sangh (RSS) proved highly effective in mobilising voters.

Although it calls itself a 'cultural group,' its critics frequently accuse it of fomenting Hindu-Muslim conflict. Its recruits include workers, students, and tribes. An RSS affiliate called Bajrang Dal was set up in 1984. It is a network of street militants, often less educated, whose members can be seen wielding weapons during riots or attacks against mosques and churches.

Read more: Are communal tensions being deliberately stirred to court votes ahead of India's elections?

It even recruits Muslims via its Muslim Rashtriya Manch unit. The RSS reaches beyond India's borders to the Hindu diaspora, including in North America, Britain, Australia, the Gulf, and Southeast Asia.

Gandhi's killing

The RSS was banned a few days after the murder in January 1948 of Indian lawyer and anti-colonial nationalist Mahatma Gandhi, whose campaign of non-violent resistance led to India's independence from Britain. Nathuram Godse, the assassin, was a staunch Hindu nationalist born into a Brahmin family in Maharashtra state.

Angered by Gandhi's conciliatory position toward Muslims' political demands before the partition of India, he shot the elderly statesman three times at point-blank range. Godse was linked to the nationalist party Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. The latter distanced itself from the crime, saying Godse left the group in the 1930s, but Godse's brother said he never left. Today, Hindu extremists openly venerate Godse, with moves to rename the city of Meerut after him. Likewise, they consider Gandhi a traitor.

Hindu fundamentalist and priest Ashok Sharma sits in front of the statues of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins Nathuram Godse (L) and Narayan Apte at Godse temple in Meerut on January 23, 2023.

The 1948 RSS ban, which was applied during Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's rule, aimed to "root out the forces of hate and violence." His senior minister running India's home office, Vallabhbhai Patel, was seen as sympathetic towards Hindutva, but Gandhi's assassination upset him greatly. He wrote to RSS leader Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar, accusing the group of spreading the poison that led to Gandhi's murder.

Golwalkar's 1939 book We or Our Nationhood Defined remains an influential text for Hindu nationalists today. In it, he says Muslims "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". Golwalkar also admired Adolf Hitler.

"To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by purging the country of the Semitic races: the Jews," he wrote, adding that "race pride at its highest has been manifested here." He also said that Germany had shown "how 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 Hindustan to learn and profit by".

Banned and re-banned

The RSS ban was lifted in July 1949 with conditions that it must respect the Indian constitution. In the following decades, the RSS tried to rebuild its image, which had been shattered by the Gandhi assassination. However, it was banned again after the demolition of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 by a Hindu mob. This triggered riots across the Indian sub-continent, which killed up to 3,000 people.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks into the Ram temple to officially consecrate the temple in Ayodhya in India's Uttar Pradesh state on January 22, 2024.

Read more: Ayodhya temple inauguration gives Modi popularity boost ahead of polls

A judge soon revoked the RSS ban, however, and the Ram Temple's opening on the demolished mosque's site in January of this year was seen as a historic triumph for both Modi and Hindutva. Hindu nationalists say the mosque was built on the site of the legendary birthplace of Rama—a principal deity in Hinduism. Modi and several of his ministers have RSS backgrounds. In fact, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat sat right next to him at the Ayodhya inauguration ceremony.

Today, the group enjoys extraordinary power. Its members and supporters hold positions of authority in state institutions, corporations, police and security services, and government departments. The RSS dominates all segments of society, including education, medicine, bureaucracy, media, and law enforcement. Modi's cult-like popularity—along with the RSS's powerful grip on state institutions and media—led many to believe the BJP would dominate India's recently held election.

However, while the party maintained its majority in parliament, it fell way short of grand expectations that it would secure 400 out of 543 seats. The BJP's poorer-than-expected performance gives India's opposition greater power to obstruct any BJP grand ambitions of eroding India's democratic character—at least for now.

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