World Policy Journal – World Policy Institute


ARTICLE: Volume XVIII, No 1, SPRING 2001

Hindu Nationalism Clouds the Face of India
H. D. S. Greenway 

[Go to interactive discussion forum]

There is a moment in one of Paul Scott’s classic novels of India, The Jewel in the Crown, when an old Rajput princess soon after independence says: “I have a feeling that when it was written into our constitution that we should be a secular state we finally put the lid on our Indian-ness, and admitted the legality of our long years of living in sin with the English.”

That was in the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, the aristocratic Cambridge man whose secularism was never in doubt. Although an ardent nationalist and Mahatma Gandhi’s chosen heir, Nehru never had any trouble admitting the legitimacy of British democratic institutions as the model for India. The Hindu extremists, one of whom assassinated Gandhi for being too considerate of Muslims, were an embarrassment to Nehru, and he brought the ruling Congress Party along with him. But there have always been Indians who looked upon the colonial period as living in sin. There have always been Hindus-and Muslims too-who consider secularism on the subcontinent a foreign body to be expelled. In Pakistan, blowing back from the mujahedin of Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalism grows ever more threatening to what is left of Pakistani democracy. In India, it is Hindu extremism that is challenging the secular order of things and the rule of law. As with other fundamentalist movements, the battle has much to do with the modern versus the traditional in a war of values.

Secularists realize that a united India was a product of the British Empire. Before the British, Indians owed their allegiances to family, clan, religion, or princely state. It was the British who established a centralized administration, a common educational system, and countrywide transportation that gave the subcontinent a sense of belonging to one country. Hindu nationalists, however, believe that for a thousand years India has been a single cultural unit that absorbed all its invaders, and that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists are all converts from, or offshoots of, a basic Hindu entity. They believe that differences in geography, religion, ethnicity, and language never really detracted from this basic cultural whole and sense of nationhood.

An Assertion of Indian-ness
To a visitor who first came to India in the 1960s, the last three decades have seen a considerable assertion of Indian-ness, a disinvestment in the colonial heritage on the part of both secular and religious nationalists. With 16 official languages, and many more dialects, English was, and is, virtually the only universal language in India. Knowledge of English has also given India a boost in the Internet revolution in which Indians have excelled. But in nationalist quarters, English is under attack. In January, Vishnukant Shastri, the governor of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, lambasted visiting Rotarians at the opening session of their convention for relying too heavily on English. He said they should use Hindi a common Indian language in the north, but which Indians from the south cannot understand. He said that the use of English made people feel inferior using their own language. The Rotarians promised to give Hindi its proper place in future meetings, but few could find the Hindi words for the convention’s topic: “Gazing through a crystal ball, Rotary in the new millennium.”

Throughout India, English-language newspapers have been steadily losing market share to the vernacular press. The venerable old cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta have been renamed Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata to rid them of colonial associations. In Calcutta, the most recent to be renamed, there has been some resistance to change. Neeraj Bhalla, head of the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, “one of the oldest golf clubs in the world,” said that the club would not be known as the Royal Kolkata any time soon. And of 50 businesses that use the name Calcutta, 30 opposed changing their names.

In other parts of the country, there is pressure to abandon what some Hindus see as a colonial legacy older than the British. Hindu nationalists, for example, want to change the name of Allahabad, that great city on the Ganges, to Prayag, which they claim was the original name for the town mentioned in the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, and other mythological texts before the Muslim Moghul emperor, Akbar, changed its name to suit his own god.

In the Indian military, regiments with traditions far older than the republic, still cling to their old ways. The annual Republic Day parade in January saw outfits such as the Rajputana Rifles, raised in 1775, the Sikh Light Infantry, the 113-year-old Gurkha Rifles, marching down the Rajpath in New Delhi with the swinging arms and crashing heels of a crack British unit; with bagpipers in tartan dress bringing up the rear. They marched to the India Gate, monument to the 90,000 Indian army dead in World War I. But in city squares throughout India one sees more and more statues of Subhas Chandra Bose, the nationalist leader who joined the Nazis and then the Japanese in an effort to raise an Indian national army from Indian prisoners of war to fight against British rule, and against their own colleagues in the regular Indian army. Bose is described by tour guides as a “freedom fighter,” and in India today there is debate over who are the real heroes-those who fought for the Allies or against them?

Reactions against Western culture are becoming more frequent. Hindu nationalists have threatened to close down hotels that celebrate New Year’s Eve, and shops selling valentine cards were recently attacked in Uttar Pradesh by a group calling itself the “Hindu Awareness Platform.” Similar protests were made in Bombay. The Hindu militants also wish to forbid the slaughter of cows, which are sacred to Hindus but not to Christians and Muslims. Protests against Western fast-food shops have also become a feature of life in modern India.

The Miss Universe and Miss World contests, which Indians love and often win, are another symbol of Western decadence to Hindu nationalists. Four years ago, I found myself in the midst of a Miss World contest in Bangalore, the center of India’s modernity and high-tech industries. The protests were so vehement-at least one person set fire to himself-that the swimsuit contest had to be moved offshore to the Seychelles.

A Hindu Nation
The struggle between secularism and a Hindu-based sense of Indian exceptionalism is not new. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), or National Volunteers Association, was founded as a militant Hindu organization in 1925, dedicated to the over-throw of the secular programs of the National Congress, which was led by Gandhi and then Nehru. The RSS late last year celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday with a military-like drill of 60,000 uniformed men and boys from 7,000 villages-all come to dedicate themselves to a Hindu nation. In the years since its founding, the RSS has spawned other organizations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which, along with more secular coalition partners, rules India today. The RSS holds that Christians and Muslims are basically converts from Hinduism and should be reintegrated into the mainstream of Indian Hindu culture. If they prefer not to integrate they should step aside. Christianity has had a toehold in India since the middle of the first century-far longer than in many parts of Europe-but Christians still represent less than 2 percent of the population. Muslims, although hardly more than 15 percent, number somewhere between 180 and 200 million, however, which makes India the second biggest Muslim country in the world after Indonesia. Pakistan, which was ripped from India by partition in 1947, has, according to the last census, roughly 135 million mostly Muslim people.

The biggest political change in India in the last decades has been the demise of the once all-powerful Congress Party and the rise of regional-based parties and the Hindu nationalists. Like all political parties that remain in power too long, Congress fell into corruption and cronyism. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi-no relation to the Mahatma-brought India as close as it has ever come to dictatorship in 1975, when she declared an “Emergency,” suspended democracy, and threw many of her opponents in prison. It is to India’s credit that democracy eventually prevailed. But Indira Gandhi saw India and the Congress Party as a family enterprise. After her assassination her son, Rajiv, became prime minister-only to be assassinated himself. Today, the head of the Congress Party in opposition is Sonya Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow, who is an Italian trying her hardest to appeal to Hindus.

The Congress Party’s demise has seen the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP. It is India’s most powerful political force, but it rules through a coalition that has necessitated a softening of the party’s more militant Hindu positions. The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has gone out of his way in recent weeks to stress the importance of secular politics. He told a recent gathering of foreign news executives in New Delhi that “ours is a multi-religious, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic nation. The rights of religious minorities are fully protected. We believe that India’s demonstration of unity in diversity is, in many ways, useful to the entire world in the age of globalization.” Later he said that that there could be no India without secularism. “As far as I am concerned, secularism means that the state should have no religion, and there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion.”

But inclusiveness and the rights of minorities have not always fared well at the hand of the Hindu nationalists, and Vajpayee’s remarks were made in the shadow of the most divisive issue in India today: Ayodhya.

Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh, was until eight years ago, the site of a sixteenth-century mosque. It is believed by Hindus that the site is also the place where the god Ram, an incarnation of Vishnu, was born. Like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Ayodhya is one of those unending, god-inspired sources of communal friction.

There had been Hindu nationalist rallies at the site for several years previously, but in 1992, whipped up by BJP politicians, 200,000 militants shouting “Hindustan is for the Hindus” and “Death to the Muslims” stormed the mosque and using sledgehammers, picks, and bare hands literally reduced the mosque to rubble. Unrest swept India. In the end some 1,400 people, most of them Muslims, were massacred under the eyes of the mostly Hindu police. Hindu nationalists want to build a temple for Ram on the rubble-strewn site. Muslims are incensed and want the mosque rebuilt. The matter is now in the hands of the Indian supreme court.

Last December, the upper house of India’s parliament censured the government for refusing to dismiss three cabinet ministers who had been charged with the destruction of the mosque. Vajpayee further inflamed the situation by saying that a temple for Ram at Ayodhya was “an expression of national sentiment” that had not yet been fulfilled. Much of his secular talk today is seen as an effort to climb down from and modify that inflammatory statement. Vajpayee today says the matter should be settled in discussion between Muslims and Hindus, and that he would abide by whatever the court decides. Vajpayee is feeling his way carefully because there are important elections this year in Uttar Pradesh, where Hindu nationalism is strong.

The militant Hindu organizations, however, took the occasion of the intensely religious Maha Kumbh Festival, during which this past January as many as 70 million Hindus-and Sonya Gandhi-bathed in the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical river Saraswati, to announce that the government had one year to hand Ayodhya over to them or they would take matters into their own hands and build the temple themselves, no matter what the law and the courts said. They announced plans for mass demonstrations and marches in the coming months. In a direct threat to Vajpayee’s coalition, militant Hindu leader, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, said that four governments had already fallen”in the wake of demolition. There will be no objections if one government goes for construction.” As for the Muslims, they “will act on their own to stop the temple construction at the disputed site only if government agencies fail to safeguard the interests of the minority community,” said a Muslim spokesman.

The threats, and using the sacred bath as a forum, incensed secularists who lashed out at the militants and blamed Vajpayee for playing both sides against the middle-saying that his secular statements were only a mask behind which he hid the intolerance of Hindu nationalism in his own party.

However he may feel in his own heart, Vajpayee has tried to tone down the militants in the BJP, if only to be able to rule India. He held out his hand to Muslim guerrillas in the Kashmir, a rebellious province that has caused wars and friction with Pakistan ever since partition, by twice extending a Ramadan cease-fire. He also entered into the kind of earthquake diplomacy that brought Turkey and Greece a little closer by talking to Pakistani leader Gen. Parvez Musharraf, on the telephone for the first time since the general took power in October 1999. He thanked Pakistan for its contribution to the victims of the great January disaster in Gujarat. Both Vajpayee and Musharraf expressed the desire for further contacts to settle Kashmir.

Secular at the Political Core
The battle between Nehru’s secular India and what the historian Burton Stein called the “distorted particularisms and intolerance” of religious-based nationalism comes just as a new, market-oriented and technologically minded India is trying to be born from the old, socialist and inward-looking country that was, ironically, also Nehru’s legacy. Wags like to say that India suffered mightily because socialism was so in vogue at Cambridge University when Nehru was a student.

Russia and China hope to woo India into alliances against American hegemony, but the historic tilt toward India, and away from Pakistan, that President Clinton wrought is also a powerful draw. A new middle class versed in modern communications and dedicated to a free-market economy is growing. Secularists are not giving in easily to pressure from Hindu nationalists, and it is probable that secularism will survive at the political core. But in the margins, concessions to Hindu nationalism will continue to change the face and the customs of the country.

Postscript-When Prime Minister Vajpayee finally brought India into the open as a nuclear power in 1998, the lines from the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad Gita, that Robert Oppenheimer uttered at Alamogordo in that dawn of the nuclear age were remembered and widely quoted across India:

If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky,
That would be the splendor of the
Mighty One…
I am become Death,
The destroyer of worlds.

Nationalists like to think of it as a Hindu bomb, and they talk of building a Hindu temple at that site in the Rajastan desert where the explosion took place.

-New Delhi, February 2001

[Go to interactive discussion forum]