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A Critique Of Hindutva

By Praful Bidwai

29 May, 2004
The South Asian Media

If one looks at the shifts that have taken place on the political
map of India over the past two decades, the single most important
change that strikes one is the rise of militant political Hinduism
or Hindutva, or broadly, the ensemble of doctrines, social movements
and political formations of Hindu-supremacism or Hindu-communalism1.
Hindutva has mobilised and energised large numbers of people,
perhaps comparable to the numbers drawn into struggles for land,
work and social justice. It is indisputably India's largest
centralised social movement of the past half-century.
There is clearly a paradox here. How did a highly plural and
assimilative society like India's, which consciously adopted
secularism as one of its crucial guiding principles at Independence,
come to be, or allow itself to be, dominated by a particularistic
and parochial ethno-religious politics within the course of barely
four decades or so?

And how did the party-level _expression of Hindutva-the Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP) or its earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jana Singh
(BJS)which for long years commanded roughly seven percent of the
national vote, and only a modest number of seats (such as 20 to 35)
in the 540-odd-strong lower house of the parliament (the Lok Sabha),
meteorically rise to pre-eminence with the number of its seats
galloping from two (1984) and 85 (1989), to 120 (1991) and now 183
(1999), with its vote-share rising from 7.4 percent of the vote cast
at the national level (1984) to 11.4 percent (1989), 20.1 percent
(1991) and 26 percent (1998), to fall only marginally to 23 per cent

The BJP's tenure in power in India's national government for five
and a half years also raises a number of other questions. How
strong, committed and enduring are the party's social base and
organisational structures? What is the source of its political
appeal? What is its relationship with other organisations and
movements which are members of that collectivity called the sangh
parivar or sangh combine-the 'family' defined around the fulcrum of,
and dominated by, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)? What are
the strategies that allowed the BJP to break the social and
electoral barriers the Bharatiya Jana Sangh faced for over a quarter-
century, and thus to come into the 'mainstream' in the late 1980s
and the 1990s? What larger social, economic and political processes
explain the BJP's growth and the spread of its influence? What is
unique about the BJP's policies, its political strategies, and its
management of parliamentary processes and elections?

It is equally relevant to inquire into other, related, issues. Has
the experience of power at the national level brought about a change
in the BJP's ideological orientation, its practical politics and its
approaches to international relations, economic policy and to global
and regional issues of security? Has it transformed its relationship
with the rest of the sangh parivar, in particular, the RSS? If so,
what does that spell for the Hindutva collective?

Within the past five years or so, the BJP has lost power (and votes)
in a number of states, including important ones like Uttar Pradesh
and Maharashtra, mid-sized ones like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan,
and smaller ones like Himachal Pradesh and the Capital territory of
Delhi. Recent opinion polls show that its national approval ratings
are in decline. But has its political influence really plateaued
decisively and with finality? Can the BJP regenerate and
reinvigorate itself, and return to power in New Delhi in a multi-
party alliance, like the 24-party coalition which it currently
heads? What is the likely future of Hidnutva and its impact on South

This article will provisionally attempt to answer some of these
questionsroughly the first half of those listed above. We start with
the premise that the BJP is not just a ordinary political party, but
both a political formation and a social movement which is integrally
related to and driven by the agenda of establishing a society and
state based on the primacy of the Hindus, who form 82 percent of
India's population.

The roots of the Hindutva phenomenon go back to the colonial period,
in particular the late 19th century, when the encounter between
Western modernity and 'traditional' Indian society produced a range
of effects and crystallised many social processes, including,
especially, what has been called 'disorientation', the
reinterpretation of traditional cultures in order to preserve them
and at the same time to give them a contemporary sense or new

In India, a substantial section of the Hindu middle class which was
exposed to Western education and modernist values adopted a broadly
liberal orientation, which aspired to reform tradition and combat
hierarchy and superstition (which were integral to that tradition).
However, a significant minority of Hindus felt threatened by
modernity, and by the restructuring of the Indian state under
colonialism, and the 'reforms from above' undertaken by the state to
abolish certain customs like widow-burning and child marriage.

Some conservative Hindus began to reinterpret their religion and
tradition by imitating Western concepts and models in order to
preserve the core of that tradition, especially its intensely
hierarchical and Brahminical aspects. Some posited the 'Golden Age'
of Hinduism, such as the Vedic Age or the 'Aryan period' or some
other notion of a 'pure' state of India, identified with dharma
(religion), quintessentially Hindu, which preceded the
country's 'invasion' by 'aliens' such as Muslims, and later

Thus began the formation of ethnic or ethno-religious nationalism,
which received a major impetus in the 1920s, especially in a
reaction to the khilafat (Caliphate) movement, the mobilisation of
Indian Muslims for an apparently 'global' cause in which the
mainstream party of Indian nationalism, the Indian National Congress
(founded in 1885) also took part. Central to this ethno-religious
nationalism or communalism was the stigmatisation and simultaneous
emulation of the supposed enemy-conquerors-the 'threatening
others'.3 Equally important was the project to reorganise society as
a means of producing 'a new kind of people'. This new movement
of 'Hindu Sangathan' was to produce organisations like the Arya
Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Of these, the RSS (founded in 1925) was the most important and in
some ways the most militant: it was a paramilitary organisation
right from the outset and stressed physical fitness, exercise, and
training in armed and unarmed combat. The uniform of the RSS was
derived from the attire of the colonial police and the British
Indian army. The RSS was the direct progenitor of the Bharatiya Jana
Sangh, and later the BJP.

The principal appeal of these Hindutva groupings lay in their
ability to exploit the sense of inferiority that many upper-caste
Hindu strata felt, and the attraction of their project of re-
creating or reviving a mythological 'Golden Age' of Hinduism based
on 'racial purity', dharma and unadulterated devotion to religion in
its most puritanical and Brahminical forms.

The sense of inferiority was itself rooted in a certain reading of
Indian history, largely through colonial eyes, as a succession of
periods or epochs based on the religion of the rulers.
The 'glorious' Hindu age of Antiquity was followed by the dark agea
series of alien invasions. In this period, docile, undisciplined,
unorganised and unarmed (because unmilitarised) Hindus were
conquered and subjugated by aggressive, militant and well-armed
invaders and marauders. The conquerors looted, impoverished and
ruined prosperous India along with its thriving civilisation and
supposedly unparalleled achievements in all fields of science and
the arts.

The most stigmatised and vilified of the conquerors, and allegedly
the most brutal, were the Muslims. But a more persuasive view is
that Muslims came to India's Western shores as traders, not
conquerors. Islam took roots in India well before it did in
Southeast Asia or parts of Africa. There was flourishing interaction
between Indians and Arabs, Persians and Turks long before Mahmud of
Ghazni arrived as marauder. There were centuries-long transactions
between Hindus, Muslims, and followers of other faiths, reflected in
India's composite culture, its languages (many of them influenced by
Persian or Arabic), music, dance, cuisines and eating habits, the
sciences, and even in the birth of new religions like Sikhism.
Distinct communal identities were formed only in the 1860s.4

A paranoid, pathological kind of Islamophobia has been integral to
all currents of Hindutva. That set their priority: the Muslims were
their greatest enemy, the dire 'threat from within'. No wonder the
RSS shunned participation in the anti-colonial nationalist movement
which had acquired mass dimensions by the 1920s. Its appeal and
membership was largely confined to upper-caste Hindus, especially
Marathi-speaking Brahmins in Western and Central India, with a
sprinkling of shakhas (or branches, the basic unit of the RSS) in
areas of the North where Hindu-Muslim riots had occurred, the
exception being the Punjab, which had a large number of shakhas. The
RSS had no significant presence in the South.
The two most influential theorists of Hindutva before Independence
were Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, both
Maharashtrian Brahmins. Savarkar pioneered the 'Two-Nation Theory',
which argued that Hindus and Muslims could not co-exist within the
same nation. Golwalkar developed the ethnic-racist and national
content of the concept of 'Hinduness' and invested Hindutva with its
highly disciplinarian, puritanical, ritualistic and rigid
hierarchies which defined it as an all-male secret society led by a
small cabal.

Golwalkar was notoriously fascinated by Nazism and Italian fascism
and directly praised Hitler's view of racial purity: 'To keep up the
purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her
purging the country of the semitic racesthe Jews. Race pride at its
highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well
might 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.'

Gowalkar defined the RSS thus: 'The ultimate vision of our work … is
a perfectly organised state of society wherein each individual has
been moulded into a model of ideal Hindu manhood and made into a
living limb of the corporate personality of society.' For
Golwalkar, 'the mission of the RSS was to fashion society,
to 'sustain' it, 'improve' it, and finally merge with it when the
point had been reached where society and the organisation had become

All the different currents of Hindutva remained fairly marginal in
their influence until the 1940s, but then registered a sharp rise,
partly as a reaction to the Muslim League's adoption of the Pakistan
agenda at Lahore in 1940 and the increasing likelihood, even seeming
imminence, of the formation of Pakistan.

The most notable act of Hindutva's adherents in the 1940s was the
assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948. This was committed
by a former RSS member who regarded Gandhi as effete and dangerously
pro-Muslim, and a disarming and emasculating influence on the
Hindus. The RSS was banned following Gandhi's assassination but was
later restored on condition that it stop conducting itself as a
secret society and become open to public scrutiny, a condition it is
yet to fulfil.

It is necessary to dwell at length on the origins and ideology of
Hindutva in order to understand where some of its appeal lies for
the upper-caste, upper or middle class Hindus. But being limited and
narrow, that appeal cannot explain how the BJP managed to win vastly
greater influence than the RSS some six and a half decades after the
sangh was set up. Nor do the RSS's origins or ideology provide
adequate guidance to the practical strategies and tactics which lie
at the root of the BJP's phenomenal growth, such as forging
identities, gaining influence, recruiting cadres, fighting elections
and entering into alliances with other parties.

Two other factors are vital to this understanding: The decline of
the Congress (which has ruled India for fourth-fifths of its
independent existence) and the political vacuum created by
Hindutva's adversaries, the decline of the Left, in conjunction with
other major changes in India's competitive party politics; the
growth of new forms of aggressive ideologies, such as social
Darwinism, bellicose nationalism and militarism within Indian
society, as well as other changes..

The BJP's original avatar was far less lucky than itself. The Jana
Sangh was sponsored in 1951 as a political party by the RSS, which
has always sought to pretend as a 'cultural' organisation.6 The BJS
employed a whole range of strategies to gain political influence:
ethno-religious mobilisation, (apparent) moderation of hard-Hindutva
to gain support from conservative right-wing and feudal classes,
such as the former princes; electoral alliances; ideological appeal
to anti-socialist ideas (the favoured platform of the Congress in
the late 1960s to the mid-1970s); interest-group mobilisation
focused on traders, businessmen and white-collar workers etc.

Above all, the BJS used communal violence and riots as a means of
polarising political sentiment, building cadres and mobilising
itself politicallyan exact replica of the tactics of small groups of
Muslim fanatics like the Jamaat-e-Islami in certain parts of India.7

The BJS consciously projected itself as a Right-wing party in
addition to being Hindu- communal: A formation that represents
socially conservative values such as respect for the (unequal and
hierarchical) caste status quo and one which advocates pro-trade
policies, defends privileges inherited from feudal and colonial
regimes (like the Privy Purses awarded by the deputing British to
former Maharajas and Nawabs) and opposes land reform and good labour
standards. The Jana Sangh was strongly supportive of the United
States and the Western bloc in the Cold War-contrary to India's long-
standing (but now abandoned) policy of Non-Alignment and in sharp
distinction to most other political parties. It even went to the
extent of supporting America's war on Vietnam, which was deeply
unpopular in India.

The Bharatiya Janasangh had by the late 1960s perfected a certain
equation and a well-defined relationship with the RSS. The RSS was
the Jana Sangh's mentor, ideological guide and political master. It
was also its organisational gate-keeper. It would be the arbitrator
of all internal conflicts within the BJS. The RSS pracharak
(proselytiser-preacher) was crucial to Jana Sangh's vote-gathering
strategy. The RSS needed the BJS as its loyal representative in the
field of party politics. The two maintained some autonomy from each
other. But in a dispute, the RSS would always prevail. The RSS had
the last word in the parivar.

None of the various combinations of strategies it tried could help
the BJS break its isolation at the political margins for yearsnot
even the huge windfall opening produced by the Congress's miserable
performance in state after state in the 1967 elections, thanks to
the alienation of the middle castes (officially called the Other
Backward Classes, OBCs) and the formation of multi-party 'United
Fronts' against the Congress, especially in the Hindi heartland.

The BJS's national vote share fluctuated between 3.1 and 9.4 percent
in the Lok Sabha elections in the period 1962-77. The average works
out to 6.4 percent. The number of Lok Sabha seats held by the BJP
varied between 3 and 35 (the highest it ever bagged as the Jana
Sangh). By contrast, the Communists alone were at least twice as
strong, and their influence and social base was wider and their
implantation deeper and more evenly spread. The Left as a whole was
at least three times stronger than the Hindutva Right. The BJS was
especially badly hit by the 'Left Turn' taken by Indira Gandhi in
the late 1960s with the nationalisation of commercial banks and the
1971 slogan of Gharibi Hatao (Abolish Poverty!).

However, in June 1975, the declaration of a State of Emergency by
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave the Jana Sangh a 'dream' opening.
The vilification and the jailing of Jana Sangh leaders by Gandhi's
government put them in the same bracket as her centrist and left-
wing opponents and bestowed a degree of legitimacy upon them. Most
important, RSS and BJS cadres were able to infiltrate the 'J.P.
movement', the (somewhat deceptively) credible, respectable and
broad-based mobilisation led by the ageing Gandhian leader and
former socialist Jayaprakash Narayan, especially in states like
Bihar and Gujarat.

This gave Hindutva politics the miraculous opening it was looking
for an entry into the respectable mainstream from the margins on the
Far Right. Thus, when the State of Emergency was lifted and general
elections announced in 1977, the Janata Party was formed as a
conglomerate or de facto coalition of all the major non-communist
parties, both national and regional. The Jana Sanghis became a part
of the Janata, piggybacking on Jayaprakash Narayan and on media
magnates like The Indian Express's Ram Nath Goenka.

The Janata Party put up straight single-candidate fights against the
Congress in a majority of constituencies in the 1977 Lok Sabha
elections. The Congress was wiped from the entire Hindi-speaking
belt. Of the 294 Janata MPs elected, between 80 and 100 are
estimated to have been former Jana Sanghisa number representing the
tripling of the BJS's highest seat holdings in the Lok Sabha till
then! This was a gain beyond most optimistic projections of the old
Jana Sangh.

By 1980, however, the Janata experiment ended in disaster thanks to
internal contradictions within the uneasy conglomerate. A major
contribution to the disintegration of the Janata Party was made by
former BJS members, who tried to smuggle in the RSS's sectarian
agendaon issues of religion and politics. The Janata's former
socialists resisted this and there appeared huge rifts in the party
edifice. In 1980, Indira Gandhi romped back to power, with the
Janata reduced to a mere 31 seats in Lok Sabha (of which no more
than one-half was estimated to be the former Jana Sangh's share).

In April 1980, the former Jana Sanghis got together and launched a
new organisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party. The new party promised
that its leaders, especially Atal Behari Vajpayee, would be free of
the Jana Sangh's jaded ultra-conservative image and some of its
ideological constraints. It would put a more liberal facade on
Hindutvawithout compromising with its core agendas. It would in
particular emphasise the 'values' of the JP movement and thus widen
its base.

Vajpayee emerged larger than life as the BJP's pre-eminent leader, a
good orator and campaigner, with a 'soft' style a deceptive
appearance, (as we see below). Even sanghi hardliners like Lal
Krishna Advani were now advocating a moderate and pragmatic line.
For instance, a 1980 issue of RSS journal Panchajanya interviewed
Advani, who said: 'In India, a party based on ideology can at the
most come to power in a small area. It cannot win the confidence of
the entire countryneither the Communist Party nor the Jana Sangh in
its original form.'

Panchajanya: 'But by ignoring the ideological appeal will you be
able to keep together the cadres on the basis of these ideals?'
Advani: 'Effort is being made to make them understand. That is why I
want the debate to go on.'
Panchajanya: 'However, despite its ideological anchorage, the Jana
Sangh's appeal was steadily increasing.'
Advani: 'The appeal increased to the extent the ideology got
diluted. Wherever the ideology was strong, its appeal diminished'.8

The tumultuous events of the early 1980s, including the outbreak of
a secessionist militancy in Punjab, Indira Gandhi's political
disorientation and her turn to soft-Hindutva (she took to visiting
Hindu temples by 1982), and her assassination by a Sikh bodyguard
following the storming of the Golden Temple by the Indian Army,
further polarised Indian politics along religious lines, to the
advantage of the Congress which was now courting the Hindu voter.
The Congress cynically drove this advantage home by mounting a
paranoid and hysterical Lok Sabha election campaign in 1984
about 'the nation being in danger'.

This marginalised the Hindutva party once again. The BJP was reduced
to a mere two Lok Sabha seats despite having won 7.4 percent of the
national vote and having emerged as the second largest party
displacing the Communist Party (Marxist). As the RSS organ, The
Organiser, put it: 'It was a Hindu vote, consciously and
deliberately solicited by the Congress party as a Hindu party. And
this is what steered the party to a grand victory, decimated
the "revisionist" BJP and reincarnated Cong (I) as BJP.'

The BJP once again ran the risk of being isolated from support of
the RSS and its committed cadres. It vacillated and prevaricated,
including on its much tom-tommed yet remarkably ill-defined ideology
of `positive secularism' meaning a politics that purportedly rejects
Congress-style minority `vote-banks' and of 'Gandhian Socialism', a
homespun set of ill-digested and mutually incompatible ideas, as far
removed from socialism as they conceivably could be, which divided
the party's ranks. The vacillation was not to last long. In the
early 1980s, the RSS revived the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which
launched religious propaganda and proselytisation work and focussed
on the issue of temples which were allegedly destroyed by 'invading

None other than the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi lent a helping
hand to the BJP. In adopting an 'even-handed' policy of appeasing
both Hindu and Muslim communal hardliners, Gandhi brought in a Bill
to override a Supreme Court judgment providing marginal support to
an old Muslim widow under the Code of Criminal Procedure-widely seen
as a concession to ultra-conservative mullahs who stiffly opposed
any reform of personal law or practices. Simultaneously, he had the
locks to the Babri mosque opened, thus allowing Hindus to offer
prayers at the images of Lord Rama which were surreptitiously
smuggled (with official complicity) right into the heart of the
monument in 1949.

Both moves helped the VHP mount a strident campaign against 'Muslim
appeasement' by the Congress and other 'pseudo-secular' parties, and
for the demolition of the Babri mosque and the construction of
a 'grand temple' to Rama at its site. In the intervening period, the
VHP had gathered additional momentum by launching a 're-conversion'
movement to bring back into 'the Hindu fold' Dalits at
Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu who, oppressed, harassed and humiliated
by upper caste Hindus, had decided to embrace Islam in 1980.

Initially, the temple movement only evoked a feeble response,
although propaganda about 'appeasement' appealed to many middle
class Hindus who are prone to a supercilious and patriarchal view of
all religious minorities and deeply cynical about democratic
politics in which they only see manipulation of 'vote banks'. But
soon, the term 'pseudo-secular' entered the vocabulary of the
mainstream media as if it conveyed some profound truth. In reality,
by using that term, the BJP was scoring points against whoever
rejects Hindu primacy and supremacy. 'Appeasement' is a loaded
pejorative term (Correctly, it should only be used in respect of
inimical forces). It completely misrepresents the reality of Muslim
life in India, which is even grimmer than the life of the average

In the mid-1980s, the temple movement too began to pick up momentum
when the VHP-RSS leadership, with the BJP's encouragement and
participation, launched a series of powerful mobilisations using
religious symbols and gestures, for example a campaign to collect
bricks for the temple, carrying Ram-Jyotis or lamps in processions,
and holding special pujas (worship) in cities and towns, especially
near mosques.

Some of the most committed early participants in the movement were
highly politicised sadhus and upper-caste cadres of the sangh
parivar. But it soon began to draw in some low- and middle-caste
Hindus, many of them first-generation literates. For them, the
temple movement's principal appeal was that it provided a pan-Indian
or pan-Hindu and a homogenous, respectable and 'Sanskritised'
identity to them, as distinct from the subaltern, marginal and
oppressive reality of their (typically rural or semi-urban)

As soon as the BJP saw the rising popularity and potential of the
Ayodhya mosque/temple movement in 1980s, most of its leaders
actively joined it. In 1986, Advani replaced Vajpayee as BJP
president. But even before that, a change of strategic orientation
had begun, towards a Hindu 'Sanghatanist' style of organisation and
an ethnio-religious strategy of political mobilisation. The BJP by
1987 had clearly formulated the three 'trident' issues, greatly and
long agitated by the Jana Sangh, as its principal focus and
concerns: A ban on cow slaughter; abrogation of Article 370 of the
Constitution, which gives a special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and
imposition of a Uniform Civil Code detached from a gender-just,
human rights-based, reform of personal lows.

The late 1980s saw many strategy meetings being held among the top-
most leaders of the sangh parivar, including the BJP and the RSS and
various 'fronts' of the latter such as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh
(labour federation), the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad
(students' union), the so-called think tank called Deendayal
Research Institute and the newly formed Bajrang Dal.

Each of these 'fronts' and parivar members has a special function
and a special relationship to the RSS. They are said to number
between 150 and 300, spanning such fields as education (the Vidya
Bharati network of over 20,000 schools), labour (the BMS claims to
be among India's top three union federations), and women (the
Bharatiya Mahila Sangh, which loathes modern feminism and women's
liberation and believes that the traditional, highly patriarchal,
Hindu family provides the best example of the women's rightful place
in society).

No less important are organisations like Vanavasi Kalyan Sanghwhich
purports to work for tribal welfare but usually does proselytising
work among India's indigenous people, as in Gujarat, and the
Swadeshi Jagran Manch, which advocates a fiercely nationalist (but
strongly-anti-internationalist and almost autarkic) economic policy,
itself opposed to the BJP's naïve and blind dedication to unequal

The functions of these front organisations are instrumental and well-
defined. For instance, the VHP was set up by the RSS in the early
1960s to serve as an explicitly religious-cultural front and to
recruit lumpenised sadhus and disaffected sanyasis. The VHP
participates in communal and political activities of various sorts
and operates worldwide amongst the Hindu diaspora. The Bajrang Dal
functions like the modern-day equivalent of storm-troopers and uses
physical violence to intimidate opponents. Bajrang Dal goons and
ruffians periodically smash public property and burn churches and
mosques, as happened in Orissa, where an Australian missionary and
his two young sons were burnt alive in 2001. This is just when Prime
Minister Vajpayee was calling for a 'national debate' on religious

The typical relationship between these fronts and the RSS-and most
are more loyal to the RSS than to the BJP--is that of the hub-and-
spokes variety. They relate to one another not so much directly as
through the hub that is the RSS. Some of them are designed and
deployed to occupy the space of opposition to BJP policies, and thus
to marginalise the true ideological-political opposition.

With the 1989 Lok Sabha elections and the installation of the
minority V.P. Singh government in power in New Delhi, the BJP
intensified its religious mobilisation campaign. The most eloquent
expressions of this intensification were periodic semi-religious
mobilisations in Ayodhya, with volunteers pouring in from all over
the country, as well as Ram Shila Pujas in different cities. Of
particular importance was the Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra launched
by Lal Krishna Advani, now deputy prime minister and home minister
of India ,in a souped-up Toyota van in 1990 made to resemble the
cheap commercial-film version of an ancient chariot.

This yatra (procession) left a trail of blood in numerous states.
There was a close fit between its route, especially between the
cities and towns where it evoked the greatest response and ferocious
anti-Muslim violence. The most frequently chanted slogan during
Advani's rath yatra was: 'There are only two places for
MuslimsPakistan or kabristan (graveyard)'.

Advani was finally stopped and arrested in Bihar by Laloo Prasad
Yadav's government. But it was clear that the temple campaign and
inflaming rank communal passions through hate-speech and open
provocation and instigation to violence would become the BJP's
principal political strategy.

The BJP was only waiting for the right moment to convert the Ayodhya
mobilisation into an actual, physical act of destructionmeant
to 'avenge history's wrongs'and then use that to its electoral
advantage. The moment would come with the installation of a weak,
compromised and collusive government in New Delhi. This would remove
the last barrier between the plans of the Hindutva movement to raze
the Babri mosque and its actual demolition. The sangh parivar had
for years described the Babri mosque as the most potent symbol of
subjugation of the Hindus by Muslims `an 'ocular' insult', as Advani
put it.

That moment came at the beginning of the decade of the 1990s when
the Indian judicial and administrative systems retreated time and
again in the face of the mounting Hindutva assault, and in
particular when P.V. Narasimha Rao's Congress government took office
after the 1991 elections following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.
This government was in a parliamentary minority for half its term
and entered into an informal or unstated half-alliance with the BJP
which had by now emerged as the principal opposition party.

The Rao government not only failed to hold the BJP-VHP-RSS down to
their specific legal commitments not to disturb the status quo in
Ayodhya, it allowed them to escalate the tempo of their hysterical
mobilisation and close in on their target. The Babri Mosque had by
now become both an emblem of, and a kind of litmus test for, India's
commitment to secularism and to defending its multi-religious
composite culture against the majoritarian onslaught. Through 1991
and 1992, more and more kar sevaks (volunteers) were mobilised at
Ayodhya. At these gatherings, replete with pseudo-religious rituals,
they would be treated to highly inflammatory speeches and
stormtrooper-style propaganda.

The chain of events leading to the razing of the Babri mosque on
December 6, 1992, and the developments of the day itself, could not
have occurred without the collusion of the national and state (Uttar
Pradesh) governments. With the mosque's razing, India suffered a
terrible trauma, the worst blow since Partition to the very idea of
peaceful co-existence between different religious communities.

It is impossible to understand the pusillanimity of the Rao
government of Congress Party in the face of the Hindutva assault
except by reference to far larger social and political processesin
particular, the erosion of the 'Nehruvian paradigm' or 'consensus'
of democracy, secularism, non-Alignment and socialism (in reality, a
modicum of distributive justice). This erosion was reflected in many
phenomena: The exhaustion and discarding of the model of import-
substituting industrialisation adopted in the early 1950s; the
historic decline of Congress party, indeed the 'Congress system' of
governance; the shrinking of the Centre-Left space within Indian
politics; and the ascendancy of a new illiberal middle class and
upper-caste elite detached from the mass of the people, driven by
intense consumerism and acquisitive hedonism, and inspired by new,
restless, bellicose forms of nationalism.

The BJP moved aggressively into the ideological and political spaces
vacated by the Congress. Potentially, the Left could have competed
with the BJP in replacing the Congress. But by the 1980s, the Left
too had entered a phase of stagnation and decline for a variety of
reasons, including the passing away of a generation of pre-
Independence leaders; failure to actively develop alternative
policies, strategies and perspectives; the contraction of its social
base, especially among the urban working class under the impact of
policy-driven economic processes leading to the informalisation and
casualisation of labour under a neo-liberal model of capitalism; and
last but not the least, the disarray in the international communist
and socialist movements generated by the fall of the Berlin Wall
and ,above all, by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern

The rise of the BJP to political prominence and especially to
ideological respectability within the middle class cannot be
understood without reference to some larger social processes at work
in India, as well as the growing weakness of the party's own
adversaries. These 'external' factors are probably far more
important in explaining the BJP's ascendancy than 'internal' ones
such as Hindutva's changed mobilisational and organisational

Among the greatest phenomena of the late 1980s and the early 1990s,
especially in the Gangetic plains of Indiaor its Hindi-
speaking 'heartland' or 'cow-belt', were the self-assertion of the
middle and lower middle castes of the social order the Other
Backward Classes (OBC's), or the 'Forward March of the Backwards'.
Secondly, the rise of new tendencies of self-consciousness and self-
organisation among the Dalits (the former Untouchables) and the
emergence and growth of specifically Dalit parties like the Bahujan
Samaj Party. Thirdly, the greater regionalisation of politics, with
both state- and region-based (as opposed to national) parties and
localised caste organisations, etc, playing a more important role
than before.

The BJP could not relate to the first two processes in any organic
or integral way. Indeed, the parties representing the OBC's and
untouchables represented the very antithesis of the upper caste-
dominated content of the BJP's Hindutva ideology with an emphasis on
Sanskritisation and its privileging of Brahminical values and the
Greater Tradition (of the literate elite among Hindus, as opposed to
the 'popular' or folk-based and plebeian Lesser Traditions). But the
BJP became an unintended beneficiary of the backlash produced by the
two phenomena, especially the political assertion of lower-middle

Thus, when in 1990, Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh
introduced a policy of limited positive discrimination in favour of
the OBCs, there was a violent agitation opposing it, led by upper-
caste groups covertly (but increasingly and forcefully) backed by
the BJP. That upper-caste backlash immensely helped the party in the
Hindi belt in political and electoral terms.

As for the third tendency, towards regionalisation of politics, the
BJP was its biggest gainer through the accretion of regional parties
as its potential and actual allies. Although greatly weakened after
the mid-1090s, the Congress was still (and remains) India's most
broad-based and widely represented national party. Its state-level
opponents became the BJP's convenient allies. This was another major
advantage of being a late entrant to a position of national
prominence, when the early major incumbent stood discredited and in

In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP emerged as the single
largest party. Buoyed largely by the Ayodhya movement, it had by
then formed governments, typically coalition governments, in
alliance with other parties, in many states of north-central and
western India. But this was the first time when it could ascend to
power at the national level-albeit for a mere 13 days. So isolated
was the BJP, and so extreme and unacceptable the image of its
ideology and politics, that not a single party, (of the 40 to 50
significant ones represented in the Lok Sabha), was willing to join
hands with it even to form an opportunist coalition.

This isolation ended soon. In March 1998, after barely two years of
the rule of the unstable, fissiparous and ideologically divided
United Front government of the Centre-Left, the BJP was back in
power in New Delhi heading a 24-party National Democratic Alliance
(NDA). By this time, strong, even committed, support for Hindutva
from the upper-caste, upper and middle class strata crystallised.
This core or committed support base, along with varying degrees of
backing from OBC layers (and even from some small Dalit groups)
explained by local, contingent or transient reasons, was a winning

To form the NDA, which included mainly regional parties and some
prominent former socialist leaders like Defence Minister George
Fernandes, the BJP offered to make a 'sacrifice': Keep in abeyance
trademark Hindutva issues like a cow-slaughter ban, Uniform Civil
Code, Ayodhya temple and Article 370 from the post-election common
programme, or National Agenda for Governance. But it insisted that
it would not compromise on two issues: Reviewing 'the working of the
Constitution' (with a view to promote a more centralised
presidential oriented government structure) and reconsidering the
country's nuclear policy, in particular exercising the nuclear
weapons option. Before exercising it, the government said, there
would be a 'strategic defence review'.

A commission to review the working of the Constitution was indeed
set up, but the BJP could not find anyone respectable enough to head
it. A former chief justice of India finally agreed to chair it on
condition that its terms of reference would not include a departure
from the Westminster-style parliamentary system centred on the Prime
Minister. This review exercise in essence turned out to be a dud.

On the second issue, of nuclear policy, the BJP simply proceeded to
exercise the nuclear option by detonating a series of five
explosions on May 11 and 13, 1998 without the promised 'strategic
defence review' and a discussion of the security environment, indeed
without as much as a reference to the cabinet or the defence
minister. Also excluded from this decision were the armed services.
There is reason to believe the decision to conduct the tests was
taken by a small cabal of people, including top RSS leaders and a
handful of cabinet ministers belonging solely to the BJP, excluding
even Defence Minister George Fernandes.9

By nuclearising India, the BJP not only fulfilled its own long-
standing nuclear obsession and fascination with militarism and
weapons of mass destruction; it successfully mopped up, gave a new
thrust to and capitalised on a bellicose form of Hindu nationalism
growing in the country. The growth of this nationalism is intimately
related to the burgeoning of a new consumerist elite under India's
neo-liberal capitalism with its intense dualism and grotesque

This elite has set its face against the people, indeed sees them as
a drag on its own growth and prosperity. It lacks any commitment to
liberal values or the spirit of democracy. It is culturally crass
and driven by a peculiar kind of hubris and blind faith in
India's 'manifest destiny 'Mera Bharat Mahan (literally, my India is
great; more accurately, 'right or wrong, My Great Nation!'). This
elite nationalism is highly receptive to the Hindutva notion of
India's incomparably glorious past: The Vedic Age or the pre-
Muslim 'pure Hindu' period, as the source of everything that is
great in the ancient world's arts, sciences and cultures.

This elite, comprising no more than a tenth of the population, is
strongly social Darwinist in orientation. As an ideology, social
Darwinism holds that only the fittest survive, and ought to survive,
in society as well as nature. There is no place for the weak, the
underprivileged and the powerless. This is held to be some immutable
law of nature. This idea rationalises the horrendous callousness
with which India's globalising middle classes are seceding from, and
turning against, the mass of the people, the poor and unwashed,
the 'laggards' and losers.

This elite is strongly drawn to the culture of authoritarianism and
is fascinated by forcewhether to guard borders, settle disputes,
secure the family, or deter rape through capital punishment. This is
most starkly manifested in the proliferation of repressive ideas and
institutions of the sangh parivar, with its 20,000 Vidya Bharati
schools, 30,000 RSS shakhas and its penetration of labour and
student unions, as well as institutions of culture and higher

Of a piece with this is the role of Hindutva as a vehicle for upper-
caste domination, with all its anti-liberalism, hatred for the poor,
suspicion of modernity, and opposition to the constitutional values
of democracy, secularism, pluralism, universal human rights and
egalitarianism. Some analysts see Hindutva as an upper-caste and
upper class weapon against the weak, who are now asserting
themselves and demanding their share in democratic decision-making.

The malign upper-caste orientation of Hindutva, and its utility as
an instrument of domination not just of the religious minorities but
all underprivileged groups, finds its highest _expression in what
might be called the Golwalkar Programme, outlined by the RSS's most
important ideologue. The Golwalkar Programme consists in
systematically assaulting modern-liberal ideas, weakening and
undermining all democratic institutions, and using coercion to
disenfranchise the minorities politically so as to turn them into
second-class citizens without any rights.

The Gujarat pogrom of 2002, in which 2,000 Muslims were massacred
with state complicity under BJP Chief Minister Narendra Modi, shows
the extent to which the Hindutva forces can go in implementing the
Golwalkar Programme. The Vajpayee government has shamelessly
colluded with Modi and shielded him in a variety of unseemly ways.
This not only proved the secularists' contention that Vajpayee's
image as a 'soft' leader or half-liberal is totally deceptive: he is
as steeped in Hindutva's toxic ideology and communal politics as
anyone else. It also showed that Hindutva remains the most serious
and deadly menace to democracy in India.

(Praful Bidwai is former senior editor of The Times of India. He is
a freelance journalist and regular columnist for leading newspapers
in India and Pakistan).


1. Communalism or communal nationalism connotes here the doctrine
that social groups form a legitimate political identity or community
and as well as site of political decision-making (polis) by virtue
of being members of one religious faith.
2. See Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture, (Basic Books,
New York, 1973). There is also a rich discussion in the sociological
tradition of the relationship of emergent nationalisations with
ressentiment, 'a term coined by Nietzsche and later defined and
developed by Max Scheler'. Ressentiment refers to 'a psychological
state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred
(existential envy) and the impossibility of satisfying these
feelings'. The envy and hatred arise from the importation into a
culture of a model (of the modern nation) considered superior. For
an interesting discussion and further development of this, see Liah
Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity,( Harvard University
Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1992.)
On the history of the origins of communalism in India, and its
character, there are a number of books and analyses. But in
particular, see Achin Vanaik, Communalism Contested: Religion,
Modernity and Secularisation, (Vistaar, New Delhi, 1997); Christophe
Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics,
(Viking & Penguin India, New Delhi, 1996); D.R. Goyal, Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh, (Radha Krishna Prakashan, New Delhi, 1979); Craig
Baxter, A Biography of an Indian Political Party: Jana Sangh,
(Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1971); Walter K. Andersen and
Shridhar D. Damle, The Brotherhood in Saffron: The Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism,( Westview Press, Colorado,
1987); Pralay Kanungo, RSS's Tryst with Politics: From Hedgewar to
Sudarshan, (Manohar, New Delhi, 2003); A.D. Smith, Theories of
Nationalism, (Duckworth, London, 1971); Bruce Graham, Hindu
Nationalism and Indian Politics: The Origins and Development of the
Bharatiya Jana Sangh, (Cambridge University Press, 1990); D.E.
Smith, India as a Secular State, (Princeton University Press, 1963);
Gyanendra Pandey (ed.), Hindus and Others: The Question of Identity
in India Today, (Viking, New Delhi, 1993); K.R. Malkani, RSS Story,
(Impex India, New Delhi, 1980); M.S. Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts,
(Jagarana Prakashana, Bangalore, 1980); Peter van der Veer,
Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India, (University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1994); Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit
Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar and Sambudda Sen, Khaki Shorts and Saffron
Flags, (Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1993); V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva:
Who is a Hindu?,( S.S. Savarkar, Bombay, 1969); Paul R Brass, The
Politics of India since Independence, (Cambridge University Press,
1990); Paul R Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India,
(Cambridge University Press, 1974); David Ludden (ed.), Contesting
the Nation: Religion, Community, and the Politics Of Democracy In
India, (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1996).
3. This is further analysed in Christophe Jaffrelot, The Hindu
Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, op cit., to whose analysis
of Hindutva's strategies this essay owes a good deal.
4. C.A. Bayly, 'The Pre-History of 'Communalism'? Religious Conflict
in India, 1700-1860.' Modern Asian Studies 19:177-203.
5. All quotes from M.S. Golwalkar, We, or our Nationhood Defined,
(Bharat Publications, Nagpur, 1939)
6. This permits the RSS to be unanswerable to any public agency. It
does not have to be registered. Not being a political party means it
is not accountable to the Election Commission; its books and
accounts are not subject to public scrutiny.
7. On communal violence, see Paul R Brass's work, in particular The
Polity of India since Independence op cit.
8. Cited in Frontline, (Madras, October 13, 1990)
9. For a fuller discussion of this, read Praful Bidwai and Achin
Vanaik, `South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future
of Global Disarmament', 2nd Edition,( Oxford University Press, New
Delhi and Karachi, 2002)