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Since 1st March, 1999
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Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths By Chetan Bhatt, Berg, £ 14.99

In the political and social scene of India today, there is nothing more controversial and more exciting than the rise of religious fundamentalism based on Hindutva. The subject is mired in prejudice and bias. This makes it a minefield for the social scientist. Chetan Bhatt’s sympathies are clear. He has no love lost for this brand of fundamentalism. It is difficult to avoid bias on the subject because there is something amoral in adopting a value neutral position on as ominous a movement as the one represented by the sangh parivar. There is also the bigger question about the possibility of a value neutral position. Fortunately, for human beings, creatures from another planet cannot write history.

The use of the term Hindu nationalism is by itself a trifle contentious since the sangh parivar advocates Hindutva which may not be the same thing as Hindu/Hinduism. Moreover, very large sections of believing and practising Hindus do not subscribe to the ideology of the sangh parivar and what it defines as Hindutva.

Bhatt traces the genealogy of what he calls Hindu nationalism, which represents “a dense cluster of ideologies of primordialism, many of which were developed during processes of vernacular and regional elite formation.” The cluster was given rigorous shape by V.D. Savarkar, who used the term Hindutva. Savarkar departed from Hinduism by emphasizing race, militarism and culture. He made India into the land of Hindus. He made a heady punch of patriotism, militancy and hatred. Savarkar himself was an atheist and his ideology had nothing to do with religion. It had clear political and cultural goals and these were exclusivist. It was a movement for the Indians who were a priori defined as Hindus. Non-Hindus were excluded. They could live in India on terms set by Hindus or leave.

This ideology received an organizational structure in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which saw itself, and still sees itself, as a cultural organization. Bhatt argues that the “RSS and its characteristic ideology of ordered and disciplined society, bodily control, hierarchy, conformity and unanimist conceptions of collective Hinduism were formed in opposition to the national movement’s strategies of disobedience, disruption, non-cooperation, equality and freedom.” He underlines the RSS’s orientation towards Nazi Germany and Italy under Mussolini.

In the Fifties, the Jan Sangh was formed as the political wing of Hindutva. This was later recreated as the Bharatiya Janata Party. Side by side were born other members of the Hindutva family. The most important of these was the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Bhatt examines in some detail the VHP’s use of religious symbols, mythologies and practices in order to politicize Hindu devotional traditions and direct them towards the concerns of landscape and territory.

At the heart of the RSS-VHP-BJP ideology and movement, Bhatt underlines, is “narcissistic self-aggrandizement and revulsion at the independent existence of autonomously formed identities that are not completed within their narrow Hindutva ideology.” The ideology also has embedded in it the demand that India must be considered sacred by all its citizens. This makes it easy for the advocates of Hindutva to label those who disagree with them as anti-national.

Bhatt’s research is good but his analysis is at times marred by his occasional lapses into obfuscating jargon. After Christopher Jaffrelot’s study, this will stand as the most valuable contribution to the understanding of the Hindutva movement.

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