The Cultural Nationalism of the New Hindu

The Cultural Nationalism of the New Hindu

The genocidal violence in Gujarat that killed more than two thousand Muslims last year is only the latest expression of militant Hindu nationalism. An extremist movement has been growing from strength to strength for more than fifteen years. Once only the marginal voice of a small number of Hindu ideologues threatened by the Muslim mobilization of the 1920s and stung by the inclusive nationalism of the Indian National Congress, the Hindu nationalist movement now boasts of the most powerful cluster of political and cultural organizations in the country. Once a mere irritant to secular forces confidently defining the agenda of the country, it now shapes the common sense of the very large Indian middle class. Its goals, beliefs, emotions, and prejudices are fast penetrating the discourse of ordinary people.

Who are the Hindu nationalists and what do they stand for? What are they after? They are not a religious sect, even though they sometimes behave like one. They are not a political party, although they have a party and can not do without it. Though well-knit, they are not a single organization, nor are they driven by a single idea. They think of themselves as an Indian extended family, a parivar. Taken together, their networks and organizations constitute a massive right-wing arena that contains all known varieties of illiberalism.

Hindu nationalism brings together fundamentalists, traditionalists, anti-modernists, and right-wing conservatives who covet a modernization process radically different from the one begun by secular humanists such as Jawaharlal Nehru. Under its wings, there are proponents of old-style terrorism, authoritarianism, and fascism, cheek by jowl with people who reluctantly submit to the constraints of representative democracy. Present in the movement are Hindus with rigidly hierarchical convictions, who never shed their strong upper-caste leanings, as well as half-hearted egalitarians who, for strategic reasons, grudgingly include the lower castes within their fold. Among its many organizations is the avowedly culturist Rashtriya Svayamsewak Sangha (RSS-Association of National Volunteers) whose members patiently and determinedly work far away from state-sponsored sites. But the movement also has political organizations such as the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), whose sole purpose is to capture state power. Given these different strands, its actions are bound to be octopus-like: each tentacle appears to move independently, and yet all come together to push the body in the desired direction.

One would think that a movement with such seemingly opposed tendencies would have split, if not collapsed, by now. This has not happened because four commitments cement all the various groups: first, an abiding and pervasive anti-liberalism; second, a repugnance for the socialist left or for anything that is remotely like it; third, a belief in a distinctive and exclusivist variant of nationalism that aims to r...