Hindutva’s imagination of people
THE recent populist surge across the world has brought people back into focus in public discourse. Though the concept of people is vague and elusive, yet political leaders with contrasting visions, incessantly invoke the people for legitimacy and political power. For instance, the idea of people/volk, which represented a romanticist imagining of the German nation a century ago, is contested in the political terrain of contemporary Germany. Essentially, the volk was anti-rationalist, ethnic, racialized, anti-Semitic and organicist which glorified all things it could claim as ‘Germanic’.1
This conceptualization had its resonance in India as well, when a Savarkarian Volk as propounded in Hindutva (1923), and later, a Golwalkarian Volk, as underlined in We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939), which was later disowned by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and substituted by Bunch of Thoughts (1966), claimed everything in India as ‘Hindu’; this exclusivist version sharply contested the Gandhian inclusivist vision of people as envisaged in Hind Swaraj (1906).
The RSS, keeping a strategic distance from Savarkar’s Hindutva for some time, has finally appropriated it as an integral element of Hedgewar’s Hindu Rashtra; thus, Hindutva has emerged today as a catch-all term representing all hues of Hindu nationalists. Hindutva/Hindu Rashtra belong to a genre of nationalism whose imagination of people shared many elements with a Germanic Volk as they glorify an authentic Hindu/‘Aryan’ history, a sacred geography and a chosen race.
While reflecting on Hindutva’s Volk, it needs to be clarified that it is not restricted to Savarkar and Hindu Mahasabha, or Golwalkar and the RSS, but also includes a wide range of Hindu traditions and representations – from Arya Samajists and Theosophists to Sanatanis and Sangathanists. All such representations valorized a racial conception of nation of a people called Hindus. Thus, a large fraternity of Hindu groups, despite being disparate, broadly shared the vision of a Hindu Volk/people a century ago; today, their descendants continue to assert this vision with more unison, cohesion and aggression.
Admittedly, the construction of Hindu homogeneity had been an uphill task as Hindutva had to overcome a plethora of societal and political challenges, and numerous contradictions and divides: Purity-Pollution, Aryan Dravidian, Sanskrit-Vernacular, Modernity-Tradition, Faith-Science, Elite-Mass, North-South and Nation-Region, to mention a few. Hindutva succeeded in this mission primarily because of its everyday engagement with grassroots through a dedicated cadre and its willingness to learn, adapt and act timely.
Moreover, constrained by political pragmatism, it made strategic shifts and tactical manoeuvring periodically to its advantage. Thus, Hindutva had to shun Brahminical conservativism to expand its social base and incorporate diverse social classes, prioritize mass politics over the politics by notables, and reorient its strategy of inclusivism-exclusivism. Yet, surprisingly, these strategic twists and turns have not eroded the ideological core of Hindu Rashtra. Rather, along with these shifts, it has further shaped its vision, sharpened its ideology, and concretized Hindutva on the ground, thereby achieving legitimacy and acceptability among a large section of Hindus.
In this backdrop, the paper attempts to understand how Hindutva’s conceptualization, construction and concretization of Hindu people evolved over a century, broadly dividing the period into four moments, under six sarsanghchalaks (RSS chiefs). Sequentially, they may be identified as the moments of emergence (Hedgewar), consolidation (Golwalkar), resurgence (Deoras-Sudarshan-Singh), and dominance (Bhagwat). Each moment, having its own distinct objective conditions, aura of leadership and strategies of adaptation, stuck to the same mission – disseminate Hindutva and expand the Hindu base. A careful reading of these four moments would explain how and why the nature and strategy of construction of people changed over the century, making Hindutva resilient, legitimate and formidable.
In the midst of Hindu-Muslim communal clashes, Hedgewar’s rationale behind the formation of the RSS was simple: Muslims were organized and strong whereas Hindus were divided and weak, and hence, the mission of the RSS would be to organize Hindus into a unified and militant community. While he subscribed to Savarkar’s ideology of Hindutva and claimed India as Hindu Rashtra, he decided to launch a new organization independent of the Hindu Mahasabha, focusing on ‘man-making’ and organization building – manifesting Hindutva in praxis. A pragmatic Hedgewar, having no aversion towards political power, was very clear that any such aspiration at that point would be a misadventure; the RSS had to patiently wait as uniting Hindus would be a long torturous journey.
Hence, adopting a Sangathanist approach (organization-making), he concentrated on his ‘man making’ mission by recruiting Hindu boys and giving them physical (sharirik) and ideological (boudhik) training in daily ‘shakha’ (assemblies). The training was integrally designed to construct a holistic Hindu nationalist persona with robust physical and mental prowess. Cultivation of body culture was oriented to create a muscular Hindu community, who would take on, defeat and conquer the Muslim other. Ideological training, disseminating Hindu ‘mytho-history’, consistently harping on Hindu oppression and Muslim aggression, would convert the recruits mentally and psychologically into militant and aggressive Hindus. However, Hedgewar’s boys were trained to internalize controlled aggression and use it only under a well defined line of command.
Hedgewar’s ingenuity produced a disciplined and loyal band of future Hindutva missionaries. Being loyal to the RSS and committed to Hindu Rashtra, the first batch of RSS pracharaks (missionaries) spread out to different regions to launch and expand the organization and spread the ideology. They zealously recruited Hindu boys, opened shakhas, replicated Hedgewarian training methods, created networks of Hindutva sympathizers and quietly disseminated the message of Hindu Rashtra.
These disciples of Hedgewar, renouncing families and staying celibate, worked full time for the RSS. Being austere and dedicated, they attracted Hindu boys to join the RSS and persuaded many to become future ‘navigators’ of Hindu Rashtra.2 Hedgewar integrated in its training regime certain values, such as hierarchy, loyalty, obedience, brotherhood, temperance, perseverance, pride, austerity and cleanliness, and above all, mili-tancy. His young recruits, mostly Maharashtrian Brahmin boys, not only related to these values easily, but all future recruits, cutting across castes, classes and regions, imbibed these templates, manifesting a uniform pan-India Hindutva persona.
Hedgewar’s vision and connections quickly took the RSS beyond Maharashtra. His ability to negotiate and networking with rival Hindu organizations helped RSS entrench in Punjab and the United Provinces, potential Hindutva hotspots. Intelligently, Hedgewar played a neutral role and avoided identifying with any specific Hindu organizations like the Arya Samaj or the Sanatan Dharma Sabha, thus accommodating various Hindu sects and groups. This approach became a precursor for Hindu unity in which RSS emerged as the anchor in later years. After a decade and a half, before Hedgewar’s death, a pan-Indian skeleton of Hindu Rashtra was ready and the seeds of Hindutva had started germinating from Maharashtra and Punjab to United Provinces and Tamil Nadu. Hedgewar had succeeded in creating a sample of ‘Hindu people’ with real flesh and blood.
Hedgewar’s successor Golwalkar’s task was to achieve multiple progression of this small number and convert it into a large ‘Hindu Samaj’, and more importantly, by adding an effective ideological adhesive to make this multitude strong and sustainable. Thus, he concretized the idea of Hindu people and the ideological contour of Hindu Rashtra, simultaneously marking the battle lines between Hindus and others, prominently and permanently. Golwalkar reaffirmed India as a Hindu nation since time immemorial, as it manifested ‘five trinities’ of nationhood – Country, Race, Religion, Culture and Language.
For him, Hindus were ‘the chosen people’, the very idea which was alien to Hindu Dharma; however, this characterization bolstered the Hindu pride and continues to inflate the Hindu psyche and the Hindu racial superiority. Again, Golwalkar added Rashtra to the pantheon of Hindu Gods, insisting that devotion to the nation, rather than devotion to God should be the marker of the Hindu identity.
Golwalkar argued that Hindus constituted the nation in India; non-Hindus/minorities, being usurpers and aggressors, would have no rights in a Hindu nation. Bunch of Thoughts, despite moderation, continued to retain the spirit of We by identifying Muslims, Christians, and Communists as three internal threats to the Hindu nation. Once these three enemies are identified, it becomes easy to motivate and mobilize Hindu people against them for protection and preservation of Hindu Rashtra. Gandhi’s assassination, adoption of a secular democratic Constitution, Congress hegemony and dynamics of post-independence electoral politics, emergence of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Bengali Hindu nationalist Shyama Prasad’s leadership of the party compelled the RSS to reorient its strategy. Thus, Deendayal Upadhyay and Balraj Madhok gave a moderate spin to Golwalkar’s construction of Hindus and others.
Deendayal’s Integral Humanism, a nuanced Hindu nationalist rendering of man, society and universe, rejected western economic and cultural imperialism and Marxism, prescribing a ‘Third Way’. Following Advaita, Deendayal observed that Humankind encompassed four hierarchically organized attributes of body, mind, intellect and soul, which corresponded with four universal objectives – artha, dharma, kama and moksha.
Reiterating Renan’s idea of national soul (Chiti), he made state a subsidiary to the nation. Deendayal favoured a Unitary Constitution; while opposing state planning, he introduced the welfarist idea of ‘antodaya’ (reaching out to the last man). Balraj Madhok, one of the architects of the Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS), who later fell out with the RSS, called for a significant strategic shift as well. In response to Golwalkar’s privileging of the ethnic element over the universal, Madhok preferred a Hindu traditional line over the Sangathanist model, which would go hand in hand with the ‘Indianization’/‘Hinduization’ of Muslims and Christians. Deendayal and Madhok, not straying from the ideological orbit of Golwakarism, certainly attempted to broaden the idea of Hindu people and Hindu nation and adopted accommodative strategies to enhance Hindutva’s mass appeal.
Golwalkar, allowing such experiments, tirelessly continued with
rigorous and regimented training
in Shakhas and built a powerful pracharak system to control and manage the Hindu people. The
RSS, through shakha network, systematically penetrated different regions and incorporated local/regional elites/notables, a section of urban middle and lower middle classes, and a substantial small business class. As a shrewd organizer, he realized that the RSS should spread its wings beyond the core by creating a network of affiliates (each under the supervision of a trusted and competent pracharak) encompassing various social and cultural fields and varied social classes/groups. Thus emerged the Sangh Parivar with a number of affiliates covering workers, students, farmers, sadhus, vanavasis, thereby expanding the Hindu base substantially.
Besides, Golwalkar also made seva a significant agenda; the RSS, offering service by a disciplined cadre during natural calamities, endeared itself to large section of people as a selfless patriotic service organization. This approach, to a great extent, neutralized the negative public perception of the RSS as instrumental in Gandhi’s assassination and as a riot-engineer. Hindutva’s political experiments might have had ups and downs, but its social base and ideological and cultural entrenchment among Hindus across India had taken deep roots when Golwalkar passed on the baton to Balasaheb Deoras. Golwalkar’s dedicated work for more than three decades greatly shaped and cemented the project of Hindu consolidation.
Hindutva’s construction of Hindu people had already reached a critical threshold when Balasaheb Deoras took over. A pragmatic Deoras, unlike his ideological predecessor, always had a flair for politics. His astute political sense anticipated a climate change in Indian politics, and hence, he took a daring decision to go for direct political intervention by opposing the Emergency. Balasaheb’s bold strategy became a turning point for Hindutva’s national politics.3 The Participation of RSS cadre in the ‘second freedom struggle’ and their imprisonment gave the RSS a pan-Indian recognition and legitimacy which it had been searching for decades. The RSS became a key player in the first non-Congress government in New Delhi 1977 and controlled some North Indian states as well.
Despite having a political hold in New Delhi and North India, Deoras realized that it was transitory and fragile, and hence, could not be sustained for long. Hence, the RSS should continue to expand the base by particularly reaching out to the marginalized communities like the Dalits and the Adivasis and bring them to the Hindutva fold. Moreover, the Emergency experience, in which affiliates like ABVP and BMS made significant contributions, taught him to draw a fresh strategy on the affiliates. Shrewdly, he utilized state resources to expand and empower affiliates like Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (Adivasis/Vanavasis), Vidya Bharati (Education) Rashtra Sevika Samiti (Women) and Seva Bharati (Dalits/Slum dwellers) to make the Parivar more entrenched and robust for future politics. The Janata experiment failed shortly, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the new avatar of the BJS in 1980.
After initial ideological vacillation between hard and soft Hindutva, and the subsequent electoral rout in the 1984 parliamentary elections, made the RSS realize that the pan-Indian Hindutva base was still narrow and the Hindutva glue was still dilute to keep the Hindu base solidly behind its political project. Hence, Hindutva had to make a decisive strategic shift to bring more Hindus to its fold and create an organic Hindu unity.
To the advantage of the RSS, the conversion of Dalit families to Islam in Meenakshipuram (1983) and the Shah Bano judgement (1985) opened new windows. While the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) raised an alarm over the grand design to convert Hindus, the BJP went all out hammering the Congress for overturning the Supreme Court judgement by passing the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act (1986), buckling under Muslim backlash. L.K. Advani’s aggressive campaign convinced a large section of Hindus that the Nehruvian state was pseudo-secular and unfair to Hindus, harbouring minority appeasement in the guise of secularism.
Deoras could read that Nehruvian secularism had weakened substantially and it was the right time for the penetration of Hindutva grammar of politics. To steer this project, an open-minded Deoras, who was also ailing, concretized collective leadership in the RSS (Rajendra Singh, Bhaurao Deoras, H.V. Sheshadri, K.S. Sudarshan, Madan Das Devi among others) and allowed more functional and financial autonomy to the Sangh Parivar. Collective leadership, since then, reflecting, assessing and accommodating diverse views and experiences, has enabled the RSS to adopt appropriate strategies for expansion of Hindu people and the Parivar.
Thus, the RSS, involving the entire Sangh Parivar, revived the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in the late 1980s. A militant campaign under the VHP-BJP combination made Ram a national icon, used violent rhetoric against Muslims and polarized Hindus and Muslims. The Sangh Parivar’s provocative campaign resulted in violence and bloodshed, ultimately leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. This tragic event symbolized Hindutva’s victory over Nehruvian secularism.
It was much more than symbolic as the Ramjanmabhoomi movement attracted many Hindus across India towards the Hindutva ideology and politics, particularly the youth, across region, class and caste. This mass induction of Hindus compelled the RSS to adopt an innovative strategy. Govindacharya’s formulae ‘social engineering’ (samajik samarasta) Mandalized the Sangh Parivar leadership and helped large-scale entry of backward castes and Dalits into the Parivar. The BJP had thus acquired high electoral potency, particularly in North India. Hindutva’s political expansion finally ensured a mandate for BJP/NDA rule for six years, under the prime ministership of Atal Behari Vajpayee, a Swayamsevak and a charismatic mass leader.
Despite coalition constraints, the RSS, using its access to state power, continued to invest in building the Hindu people and Hindu nation. Bolstering Hindu pride by exploding the Hindu Bomb, winning the Kargil war, re-writing Indian history, propagating swadeshi economics, re-orienting institutions furthered the RSS mission.
An ailing Deoras, breaking RSS tradition of succession, handed over the reign to Rajendra Singh during his lifetime. Singh, having a good equation with Vajpayee, and understanding coalition dynamics, by and large did not interfere in governance. However, Singh’s successor K.S. Sudarshan, a control freak, being frustrated over Vajpayee’s assertion, used affiliates like BMS, SJM and ABVP to unsettle Vajpayee’s governance. Though this did not work, it dented the image of the Parivar as a unified and disciplined entity; a divided Parivar became one of the factors for the BJP’s defeat in 2004 and subsequent wilderness. Sudarshan asked the aging Vajpayee and Advani to retire paving way for a new generation of leaders.
Advani, once the top Hindutva icon, lost out politically after praising Jinnah’s secularism, from which he never recovered and his prime-ministerial ambitions were ruined forever; the RSS would not tolerate any dilution of Hindutva by anyone, howsoever powerful he might be. Amidst this chaos, the BJP lost the 2009 parliamentary elections. Hindutva’s moments of resurgence went into a brief period of wilderness.
Hindutva made a return to the political centre stage with vengeance in 2014, which was aided by the loss of legitimacy by the Congress-led UPA. Meanwhile, Sudarshan had passed on his mantle to a relatively young, dynamic and pragmatic Mohan Bhagwat. It was Bhagwat’s decision to choose Narendra Modi to lead the BJP that was a game changer; Hindutva’s glorious moment of dominance began when a charismatic RSS pracharak became India’s prime minister ensuring an absolute majority for the BJP. Modi’s charisma was greatly complemented by the Sangh Parivar which worked hard on the ground to strategize, mobilize, micro-manage, and coordinate the campaign. In the 2019 elections, Modi had an emphatic win and the BJP has subsequently dominated Indian politics with an enviable ‘BJP System’.
The Sangh Parivar’s strategies of construction of Hindu people for decades – disseminating Hindutva ideology in daily Shakhas, mobilizing Hindus in periodic communal riots, reaching out to diverse Hindu communities through networking and social welfare, steering the Ayodhya movement with phenomenal Hindu mobilization, participating in pan-Indian political campaigns like the anti-Emergency and Anna Hazare led IAC – finally clicked to install Hindutva at the highest political pedestal. More importantly, grassroots social welfare projects among the Dalits and Adivasis, and meticulous electoral alignments through ‘social engineering’ stitched the most backward classes and non-dominant Dalits with Hindutva’s traditional upper caste Brahmin-Bania social base, paid rich dividends in the national and state elections.
This expansive Hindu social base was further cemented by the Modi government’s welfare programmes, which, being ideologically wrapped with Deendayal’s antodaya, created a large number of Hindu beneficiaries (labharthi Hindus) from the poor, backward classes and Dalits; the BJP’s electoral victory in the 2022 UP assembly elections is a testimony.
Modi’s 2014 victory was primarily the outcome of his focus on ‘development for all’, while occasionally reminding Hindus about the dangers of ‘Islamic terror’, Pakistan and Kashmir; the Muzaffarnagar riots also played a role in certain pockets. The BJP’s 2014 victory signalled that Hindutva had the support of a critical mass of Hindu people and it could go for its Hindu majoritarian agenda. Hence, Modi, who started as a messenger of peace and an icon of development, and introduced structural changes in governance, and launched pro-poor welfare schemes, soon switched over to an aggressive Hindutva narrative. Obviously, he was prompted by the RSS as the construction of Hindu people had not yet been complete. Hindutva had to go on tirelessly until its hegemonic ambition to convert India into a Hindu nation gets fulfilled.
Modi initiated a ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan, withdrew support to the Mehbooba Mufti-led Jammu & Kashmir government; abrogated the special status to Kashmir under Article 370 and took away J&K’s statehood. This action further rekindled nationalism across India and jubilant Hindus applauded Modi; even the major opposition parties remained silent fearing an electoral backlash. Majoritarian politics went ballistic when Hindutva groups targeted Muslims by launching campaigns like ghar wapsi (reconversion) and gau raksha (cow protection). At some places, Muslims were forced to chant ‘Vande Maatarm’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, even as some innocent Muslims became victims of mob lynching. Vigilantism and violence unleashed a state of fear and insecurity among religious minorities. Any citizen, who opposed the government fiat, was dubbed anti-national and charged with sedition.
When these developments created governance pangs, derailed develop-ment and dented Modi’s global image, Bhagwat periodically intervened calling for moderation. He publicly announced that the RSS would relook Golwalkar’s rigid construction of we and others. He claimed that Hindus and Muslims shared the same DNA; amid the Gyanvapi row, he advised the Parivar not to reclaim Hindu religious sites as history could not be reversed. Despite such reconciliatory gestures, aggressive Hindutva had moved ahead unchecked. While some Hindu sadhus even called for Muslim genocide, the list of ‘others’ got further expanded to include secularists, liberals and dissidents, even though they are Hindus. The RSS perhaps deliberately allows such interplay of contradictions as a strategy to achieve its hegemonic ambition – a Hindu Rashtra.
This dominant moment of Hindutva was guided by the Bhagwat-Modi pact,4 which undertook a mission to recast the nation politically, culturally and ideologically on the lines of majoritarian nationalism. The Modi-RSS bonhomie became evident with Modi’s execution of the Sangh agenda to perfection: Ram Mandir and Kashmir to Triple Talaq and Citizenship Act; now enacting a Uniform Civil Code is knocking at the door. Interestingly, the RSS, known for its antipathy towards a personality cult, has allowed Modi to consolidate his cult, charisma and power. At the same time, Bhagwat imaginatively adds Hindutva’s ideological ‘valence’ to Narendra Modi’s populism, thereby making a new recipe to ensure a quantum leap in the construction of a Hindu Rashtra and a Hindu people.
People (Hindus) have been an integral component of the Hindu nationalist imagination since the very beginning. Obviously, the ideal of Savarkar’s Hindutva and RSS’s Hindu Rashtra carries the nation and Hindus together. However, this imagination has not remained static; rather Hindutva ideologues and practitioners have continuously developed, sharpened and experimented with this vision in response to socio-political requirements. A careful reading of Hindutva’s political history over a century reveals that while claiming India as a nation since time immemorial, which exclusively belonged to Hindus, the RSS, the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism/Hindutva, has been engaged in the simultaneous construction of a Hindu Rashtra and a Hindu People. This construction has been an exemplary success as evident from the fact that the RSS, which has begun its journey with only five people in 1925, has reached each nook and corner of India today, controlling all the levers of power.
Constitutionally, India has not become a Hindu state yet, but current social symptoms and political trends indicate that the RSS goal may not be far away, unless its Hindu social base erodes, and popular discontent ousts it from political power. This seems unlikely at this point in time as majoritarianism has gone deep into the psyche of Hindus and become a new normal in social and state behaviour in India.
1. Benjamin Zachariah, ‘At the Fuzzy Edges of Fascism: Framing the Volk in India’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 38(4), 2015, pp. 639-655.
2. Pralay Kanungo, ‘The Navigators of Hindu Rashtra: RSS Pracharaks’, in Satish Saberwal and Mushirul Hasan (eds.), Assertive Religious Identities: India and Europe. Manohar, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 233-54.
3. Pralay Kanungo, RSS’s Tryst with Politics: From Hedgewar to Sudarshan. Manohar, New Delhi, 2002.
4. Pralay Kanungo, ‘Sangh and Sarkar: The RSS Power Centre Shifts from Nagpur to New Delhi’, in Angana P. Chatterjee, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (eds.), Majoritarian State. How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India. Hurst, London, 2019, pp. 133-150.