Make India Great Again?* The Tightening Grip of Hindu Nationalism in Postcolonial India

By Swati Sureka (Editor)

*When I first wrote this piece and granted it this title, it was as a nod to the nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments in India, and how they parallel the rhetoric of the Republican nominee for president of the United States (e.g. a border fence and deportation of Bangladeshis). A few days later, the Republican Hindu Coalition, headquartered in New Jersey, hosted a rally with their favorite reality star as chief guest. The event was rife with alarming iconography and represented a lucrative culmination of the parallelism between PM Modi’s rhetoric and the rhetoric increasingly taking hold in the United States popular discourse. This has exacerbated concerns about the US election contributing to a global nationalist movement (oh, the irony), which may be overstated at times but are not unfounded. This event has redoubled the decibel level of my mental alarm bells, and further highlights the importance of the issues introduced in the following article.


As the title to this piece may suggest, India’s political climate has me worried.

In order to explore these worries, I am going to focus on two organizations: a volunteer organization known as the Rasthriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and, by extension, India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Despite my Indian cultural heritage, I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t made a special effort in the past several years to keep updated on subcontinental happenings, so my understanding of these organizations’ histories and modern impact is imperfect and decidedly incomplete. What I do see is that India’s current ruling party was borne out of—and continues to be heavily influenced by—a self-described Hindu nationalist organization that is politically influential, extremely large for a voluntary organization of this sort[1], and growing more rapidly than ever before.

I first heard of the RSS during a casual dinner conversation at home, when my father revealed that it had sent emissaries to his village, throughout his and his brothers’ childhoods, to train boys in Hindu ideology and hand-to-hand combat, and that they now continue to do so on an even greater scale. The RSS has existed since 1925, when it first articulated its vision of a Hindu nation. It is a politically expedient organization which, perhaps paradoxically, never actively fought British rule preceding Indian independence, but used the Muslim exodus to Pakistan during India’s partition to further its Hindu nationalist agenda. It has been banned three times since its formation, most notably following Mahatma’s Gandhi’s assassination by a former RSS member, supposedly due to his favorable treatment of Muslims.[2] Its history and the scope of its historical influence is murky and poorly understood, but its former leaders have been accused of direct ties to Nazism and fascism.[3] India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is himself a former RSS member, was backed by the RSS in his election, and has been widely criticized for allowing anti-Muslim sentiment to fester among Indian publics and his own party. His previous leadership in Gujarat was held responsible for the deaths of hundreds—if not thousands—of Muslim citizens, whom law enforcement failed to protect from Hindu violence, a phenomenon many scholars and journalists have controversially decried. It is tremendously difficult to understand the exact nature of these events—including PM Modi and the RSS’s involvement—from a distance of both space and time, I am compelled to believe that they amount to no less than state-condoned ethnic cleansing. Ostensibly, PM Modi continues to overlook or even promote public figures associated with Hindu violence.

For a frame of reference, the RSS has over 5 million active members, amounting to about 0.4% of the Indian population. This may seem relatively small, but for comparison, the English Defence League, a fringe nationalist organization in the UK, represents only 0.04% of the UK population, and the American Ku Klux Klan represents only 0.002% of America’s population.[4] This is not to say that the actions or ideology of the RSS is comparable to these organizations’, but merely to demonstrate that the RSS is far more mainstream and publicly supported than most “extremist” or “fringe” organizations which generally enter into our discourses in democratic nations.

The RSS’s modern, often explicitly political rhetoric and activities represent a departure from its history of presenting itself as a purely cultural or social collective. In some cases, it provides paramilitary training for its members, but its most dangerous weapons are ideological and political. The RSS appeals to a rhetoric of India as a once-great and glorious nation that has been held back by foreign rule, and the RSS Chief has recently called (Hindu) religion the “base of the nation.” RSS leaders have recently named national security their highest priority[5], but the RSS has thrown its weight into a variety of social, political, and economic debates. Since the turn of the century, they have called for the deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and construction of a Hindu temple atop the ruins of a 16th century mosque demolished by many of its own members (including BJP leaders).They have opposed the spread of new agricultural technologies (GM crops and chemical fertilizers), perhaps partially to preserve their vision of traditional farmers and partially to push back against economic globalization by multinational corporations. They have attempted to restrict freedom of artistic expression in university street theatre, replacing what they view as leftist anti-national and anti-social messages with “the core values and traditions of Indian culture.” The RSS and the BJP have rewritten history as it is taught in Indian schools, shifting curricular emphasis from “democratic values, social justice, and national integration through appreciation of the commonalities of different subcultures” to “national spirit,” “national consciousness,” and Hindu ethos and values.[6] The Hindu-nationalist right is a bastion of heterosexual patriarchy[7] that invokes the protection of Hindu Womanhood from Muslim masculinity[8] as justification for militarization (including nuclear weapons),[9] much as White Womanhood has been used in the United States to justify racial violence – all of this without allowing a single female member in its ranks.[10] RSS ideology and influence represent a threat to human rights of lower castes, ethnic minorities (particularly minority women), and the queer population, not to mention a threat to the already fragile regional stability.[11]

My final observation, an altogether fuzzy one, is one of puzzlement as to Mr. Modi’s ostensible acceptance among Western leadership. America, and broadly the West, has championed itself as the global defender of democracy and human rights, spurring foreign intervention on behalf of the ‘oppressed’ (and, of course, its own interests). I am not condoning this strategy, but the relative silence on such blatant issues, effecting one of our allies, does strike me as odd. Is Eastern democracy not held to the same standards or values as Western democracy? Is institutionalized ethnic violence somehow less problematic in the East, or when directed against Muslims? Or has Modi’s commitment to neoliberalism enticed us to brush his dubious political ties under the diplomatic rug? The West is currently busy grappling with our own fluffy-haired, small-handed threat to democracy. But the world’s largest democratic state resides in the east, and it, too, is under threat of unstable, singular majority rule.[12]

[1] M.G. Chitkara. (2004). Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh: National Upsurge. New Delhi: A.P.H. Publishing Corporation.

[2] Datta, R. (1999). Hindu Nationalism or Pragmatic Party Politics? A Study of India’s Hindu Party. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 12(4), pp. 573-588.

[3] Casolari, M. (2000). Hindutva’s Foreign Tie-Up in the 1930s: Archival Evidence. Economic and Political Weekly, 35(4), pp. 218-228.

[4] Based on figures from the ACLU, DNA India, Demos, and World Bank.

[5] This statement was largely in response to attacks by foreign militants at several Indian army bases in Kashmir and, subsequently, a widely-celebrated Indian military strike across the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir to pre-emptively neutralize alleged terrorists that had been identified by Indian intelligence. For an analysis of the way ‘security’ is used to justify violence, see Anand (2005), “The Violence of Security: Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Representing ‘the Muslim’ as a Danger.”

[6] Visweswaran, K., Witzel, M., Majrekar, N., Bhog, D., and Chakravarti, U. (2009). The Hindutva View of History: Rewriting Textbooks in India and the United States. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 10(1), pp. 101-112. 

[7] Bacchetta, P. (1999). When the (Hindu) Nation Exiles Its Queers. Social Text 61, 17(4), pp. 141-166.

[8] Anand, D. (2007). Anxious Sexualities: Masculinity, Nationalism and Violence. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9, pp. 257-269.

[9] Das, R. (2006). Encountering Hindutva, interrogating religious nationalism and (En)gendering a Hindu patriarchy in India’s nuclear policies. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 8(3), pp. 370-393.

[10] For an overview of the women’s wing of the RSS, known as Samiti, see Menon’s (2005) work, “‘We Will Become Jijabai’: Historical Tales of Hindu Nationalist Women in India.”

[11] Narula, S. (2003). Overlooked Danger: The Security and Rights Implications of Hindu Nationalism in India. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 16, pp. 41-68.

[12] Jaffrelot, C. (2013). Refining the moderation thesis. Two religious parties and Indian democracy: the Jana Sangh and the BJP between Hindutva radicalism and coalition politics. Democratization, 20(5), pp. 876-894.