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Accusations of Hinduphobia in those who do not see eye-to-eye with Hindutva have reached new heights in recent years. An obscure 19th-century concept is now the default mantra for Hindutva-vadis against all critiques of their ideas.
The recent furore against the upcoming conference called “Dismantling Global Hindutva” (September 10-September 12) has made me wonder whether, ironically, these same individuals might also – if they had the patience and capacity to read his large corpus of writing – need to identify Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as Hinduphobic.
After all, a basic truth made clear in Savarkar’s writing is that Hindutva is not Hinduism. They are not equivalents. In fact, you do not have to read Savarkar all that carefully to see the clarity with which he argued that Hindus should consider “abandoning” the concept of Hinduism as part of their lexicon.
One does not need to search deep into his oeuvre to discover Savarkar’s distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism. In Essentials of Hindutva, published in 1923, he begins by clarifying that “Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva”. He declared Hinduism as one of the many “isms” that had plagued modernity, by calling it a “spiritual or religious dogma or system”.
He not only argued that Hinduism was inferior in comparison to Hindutva, he also stated that it was “more limited, less satisfactory and essentially a sectarian term”.
An existential crisis
The Marathi intellectual and Marxist scholar GP Deshpande had long argued that Hindutva-vadis do not actually read Savarkar. I think we should take Deshpande’s claim seriously, despite the increasing number of celebrations of Savarkar’s life as exemplary for Hindus. I suspect that Savarkar’s arguments about Hindutva and Hinduism would create an existential crisis among those who claim to be his supporters.
If their logic is that any critique of Hindutva or Hinduism is a form of Hinduphobia, then certainly Savarkar’s call to abandon “Hinduism” – he believed it was an inferior concept created by Western Orientalists – should also be viewed in the same framework.
Does this mean that Savarkar himself was Hinduphobic?
There was once a period in the 1930s when Sanatanis in Maharashtra decided to stage protests against Savarkar’s call for temple entry for, and inter-dining with, “Untouchables”. Petitions were circulated to British officials demanding that Savarkar be prevented from speaking because it was believed he posed a threat to social order, that he was hurting the sentiments of Hindus. Rocks and chappals were regularly thrown at Savarkar’s processions.
Does this mean that these adherents of Sanatan Dharma were Hinduphobic? Or does it mean, conversely, that Savarkar’s advocacy of social reform linked to Hindutva was Hinduphobic as it was hurting the sentiments of Hindus?
If the adherents of Hindutva actually read Savarkar, they would know that he also advocated the need for Hindus to kill other Hindus. Savarkar’s intended Hindu victims were individuals who promoted ahimsa. Savarkar saw ahimsa as a kind of weakness that needed to be weeded out. In similar vein he identified as effeminate all Hindus who lacked a theory of warfare.
Was Savarkar Hinduphobic in celebrating the killing of Hindus? When Savarkar and Gandhi publicly disagreed with each other on interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita or the meaning of the Ramayana, did this mean that both were Hinduphobic?
To push this argument further, are all disagreements between Hindus merely expressions of Hinduphobia? By this logic, the only end to Hinduphobia would be the annihilation of all Hindus, which would happen when there could be no critique of Hindus, Hinduism, and Hindutva. Perhaps this is what all Hindutva-vadis actually desire: reductio ad absurdum.
I do wish that those Hindutva-vadis who decided to burn copies of the Kama Sutra in Ahmedabad recently had read Savarkar on what he called “the sexual urges of mankind”. As also the importance he attached to Hindus celebrating their rich literary traditions. They would then learn what Savarkar clearly argued, namely, that the libido was more powerful than the claims of any man, god, or prophet. They would also then understand that Savarkar celebrated textual pluralism, and that he had a deep affection for the Bible.
Will these Hinduva-vadis who burned the Kama Sutra now seek to destroy the temples at Khajuraho based on their same argument of indecency? Is the artistic magnificence of Hindu temple architecture to be made hostage to Victorian notions of sexual correctness?
The question that in fact comes to mind by carefully understanding Savarkar’s sophisticated and clear-headed mind, as evident from his Marathi and English writings – the vast bulk of which I have read over many years – is this: are these modern Hindutva-vadis who claim Savarkar as their hero in fact themselves Hinduphobic?
In 1937, the Marxist revolutionary MN Roy shared a stage in Mumbai with Savarkar. Roy wanted to introduce Savarkar as a great revolutionary who had influenced him in his childhood. But Roy also publicly disagreed with Savarkar’s interpretations of Hindu-Muslim relations and his conceptualisation of Hindutva. Savarkar did not denounce Roy as Hinduphobic.
On the contrary, he shared a stage with this Marxist and stated that Roy was more interested in structural inequality based on class differences, and not in the divisions between Hindus and Muslims. Savarkar added that he was willing to accept Roy’s description of socialism as long as it meant equality for all Hindus.
The fact is that Savarkar himself exemplifies a liberal principle and broad-minded intellection when he shows, by his presence alongside MN Roy, that political enemies could and should have a debate about ideas. Modern Hindutva-vadis betray their own hero Savarkar when making it clear that debate is no longer possible.
The purpose of an academic conference on “Dismantling Global Hindutva” is exactly meant to debate interpretations about the very meaning of Hindutva in the 21st century. Those who oppose the conference without even knowing what scholars will actually say by declaring all participants “Hinduphobic” is a sign that those who promote Hindutva no longer have the capacity for intellectual exchange. Instead, Hindutva-vadis have mastered intimidation and threats of violence, rape, and murder as a way to shut down any intellectual engagement, all the while claiming victimhood in the process.
Hindu fragility is something that Savarkar had anticipated during his lifetime. He claimed that the more the Hindus worshipped cows, the more the Hindus would behave like cows.
Savarkar also wanted to harness what he saw as Hindu fragility into excessive or cruel violence as a form of vengeance, which is why he promoted the lion as the spirit animal of Hindus, and celebrated Narasinh’s savage killing of Hiranyakshipu. The fact is that without the claims of victimhood and hurt sentiments, the entire edifice of contemporary Hindutva-vadis falls apart. The endless repetition of Hinduphobia as a chant against anyone who provides a critique of Hindutva is today’s tactic to reinforce the idea that those Hindus who support Hindutva are victims.
I cherish this simple irony: that if Hindutva-vadis actually read what Savarkar had to say about Hindutva and Hinduism, we would be one step closer to the declaration that Savarkar was Hinduphobic.
Vinayak Chaturvedi is at the History Department, University of California, Irvine. His Essentials of History: VD Savarkar and the Meaning of Hindutva will be published in 2022 by Permanent Black and Ashoka University, and subsequently by the State University of New York Press.
Hindutva Harassment Field Manual
Being Hindu in a Hindu Rashtra
Difficult, but important.
Talking about complex political, historical, and religious issues may seem intimidating, especially for those of us who have grown up outside India. Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to speak up. This guide is intended for Hindu-Americans who may want to talk to their parents, relatives, friends, or colleagues about Hindu nationalism but don’t know where to start. It will give an overview of Hindutva from a Hindu perspective and then provide some links we have collected that address the issue thoughtfully.
Hindutva is not simply “Hindu-ness.”
Hindutva, also called Hindu nationalism, is a right-wing political ideology that guides the current ruling party in India, the BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sometimes, people will argue that Hindutva is “a way of life,” or that Hindutva simply means “Hindu-ness,” synonymous with Hinduism. However, Hindutva is a modern, political ideology that is barely more than a hundred years old.
In some ways, Hindutva resembles right-wing nationalist movements around the world, advocating for economic protectionism and increased border security. Its distinguishing factor, though, is its core belief that India’s national identity should be synonymous with a Hindu identity.
The word “Hindutva” wasn’t even used until 1923, when it was first mentioned in V.D. Savarkar’s book Hindutva, which “articulates criteria for Indian identity based on citizenship, common ancestry, common culture and regard for India as fatherland (pitrbhu) and sacred land (puṇyabhu).” For Savarkar, Christians and Muslims could never be true Indians, despite the presence of both religions in India for centuries.
Hindu nationalist groups in India like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were inspired not by Hindu teachings, but by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s fascists in Italy.
“The idea of fascism vividly brings out the conception of unity amongst people… India and particularly Hindu India need some such institution for the military regeneration of the Hindus… Our institution of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh of Nagpur under Dr. Hedgewar is of this kind.”
– B. S. Moonje, Hindu nationalist leader who met fascist Italian dictator Mussolini in 1931
Hindutva violates the core teachings of Hinduism.
Some of the core teachings of Hindu scriptures include ekatva (oneness) and ahimsa (nonviolence). Hindutva promotes division and exploitation on the basis of religion. In a country where one fifth of the population is not Hindu, Hindutva advocates argue that India should be a country that privileges Hindus and openly incite violence against minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians. This is a majoritarian vision no different from the ugliness of white nationalism or conservative politicians who argue that the United States is a Christian country.
Hindutva is an American problem too.
Hindutva groups have a significant presence in the United States. This past September, 50,000 Indian-Americans attended a rally in Houston organized by Hindutva political activists that featured Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Last year, in Chicago, leaders of India’s largest Hindu nationalist group spoke in Chicago to an audience of thousands of people at the World Hindu Congress.
Hindutva groups are active in the United States — they might be active at your local temple, on your college campus, or elsewhere in your community. These groups include the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the American counterpart of the RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A), and the Hindu Students Council.
Several Hindu American politicians and elected officials have displayed admirable leadership in opposing Hindutva as Hindus. These include U.S. Congressman Ro Khanna (D-CA), Illinois state senator Ram Villavalam (D), and former Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar (D).
Unfortunately, other Hindu American politicians have covertly and overtly supported Hindutva. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), the first Hindu in Congress, has received significant donations from Hindu nationalist leaders in the US, and was initially named chairwoman of the 2018 World Hindu Congress in Chicago. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) spoke at the 2018 World Hindu Congress and also spoke this past October at an event in Chicago celebrating the founding of the RSS.
More Hindus need to speak out against Hindutva.
It is important to listen to and amplify the voices of groups who are most directly affected by Hindutva: Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, and other marginalized groups. However, as Hindus, we have a special responsibility to speak out against Hindutva.
For years, some Hindu voices have been publicly opposing Hindutva, but now the time is more urgent than ever. Hindu scholar and pandit, Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, tells us that “The rise of populist nationalism, and especially those versions that clothe themselves in religious colors, requires a critique from the same religious traditions.”
No ancient Hindu texts or traditions call us to the service of a nation. However, they repeatedly suggest that we commit ourselves to supporting the welfare of all beings (sarva bhuta hite ratah). Our highest calling is not identity with a nation, but identity with fellow beings in joy and suffering. The Bhagavadgita commends a concern for the universal common good (lokasamgraha) in all actions. The implication is that a nationalism that advances the interests of a nation by the exploitation of other nations or which ignores the suffering of other nations violates the Gita’s call for commitment to a universal common good. Our prayer as spiritual and religious people should be for the happiness of all (loka samasta sukhino bhavantu).
It’s on us to have these conversations: we need to confront bigoted views in our family WhatsApp groups, question why they may be liberal when it comes to US politics but support a right-wing agenda in India, and work to continuously uplift spiritual, progressive, and humane values.
Scaachi Koul, “The Crisis In Kashmir Has Started A Conversation I Don’t Know How To Have” (Buzzfeed News, December 18, 2019)
In this article, Koul writes about the difficulty (and importance) of discussing the Indian government’s actions in Kashmir with her Kashmiri Pandit family. She asks, “If Hindus who live comfortably around the world, who don’t worry about being oppressed by other brown people, aren’t going to speak publicly about the harm their own community is doing, who will?
Dr. Balmurli Natrajan, “Searching for a Progressive Hindu/ism” (Tikkun, October 2009)
In this article, Dr. Natrajan provides an overview of the history of Hindutva, and how Hindutva-affiliated groups have been able to claim to be the public representatives of Hinduism. He also outlines some possibilities for Hindus to take back their religion from Hindutva.
Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, “Populist Nationalism and the Kena Upanishad” (Sadhana, September 13, 2018)
In this article, Dr. Rambachan draws upon the teachings of the Kena Upanishad to argue that “Any version of nationalism and national identity that undermines the dignity of others or that justifies and instigates violence is contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Hindu tradition.”
Ramesh Venkataraman, “Hindu way to resist Hindutva” (Indian Express, December 31, 2015)
Hinduism’s great diversity is one of its strengths—there is no one way to be Hindu. In this article, Venkataraman argues that advocates of Hindutva are trying to homogenize Hinduism, erasing its diversity of perspectives and practices. He calls on liberal Hindus to “engage seriously with Hinduism’s history, texts and living practices to articulate from within it an ethic of pluralism and tolerance that resonates in today’s India.”
Nivedita Menon, “Bharat Mata And Her Unruly Daughters” (Buzzfeed News, July 18, 2017)
In this article, Menon shows that the Hindutva “project of homogenizing Hinduism … remains an incomplete project to this day.” She outlines many fascinating examples of “the refusal of Hindu practices to be tamed into the pallid, rigid North Indian, upper caste version that is the basis of the Hindu nationalist project.”
Dr. Stanley Thangaraj, “Sipping on the Indian Haterade: Hindu American Whiteness and Support for Trump” (Tropics of Meta, January 30, 2017)
In this article, Dr. Thangaraj points out that “the Hindu fundamentalist community aligns perfectly with the anti-poor, anti-black, and anti-Muslim rhetoric of Donald Trump.” He goes on to say that “History is not on the side of Hindu fundamentalists in the United States. Rather, history has shown that Aryan myths of lighter skin tones, religious identification, caste status, or financial wealth will not stave off white supremacy. Let us stop sipping on this concoction that Modi and Trump share and rather jump into the waters of civil rights organizing with BlackLivesMatter, TransLivesMatter, Dreamers, Muslim civil rights activists, and immigration and refugee rights activists for a taste of democratic living.”
Valay Singh, “Ayodhya’s Forgotten Mahant and His Message of Peace” (The Wire, November 13, 2019)
This article discusses the life of Baba Lal Das, a Hindu priest who opposed Hindu nationalist groups like the RSS in their efforts to target Muslims and demolish Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid to build a temple for Lord Ram. He was assassinated in 1993.
Shivani Parikh, “Howdy Modi? The Case for a New Indian American Resistance Movement” (Hyphen, November 26, 2019)
In this article, Shivani Parikh outlines the ways that progressive Hindus and South Asians in the United States can look to other South Asian diasporas in order to combat Hindutva and other conservative ideologies.
Looking for more resources? You can find dozens of articles on Hindutva and other topics on our Sadhana Syllabus.
Last updated December 2019.
How 9/11 Ushered in a New Era of Conspiracy Theories The breakdown of institutional legitimacy helped shape our current information crisis By Jason Stanley on September 10, 2021 9/11 conspiracy theorists protest outside a memorial service at the World Trade Center construction site on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack. Credit: James Leynse Getty Images All governments lie and distort to advance their agendas. But it’s fair to regard the current moment as a singular age of unreality in recent United States politics. Most members of one party have embraced an explicitly fictional world, one in which the 2020 election was stolen by rampant election fraud by Democrats. Historian Timothy Snyder has called this fabricated conspiracy “the Big Lie.” The rise of such a flagrant mendacity is usually located very recently, in Donald Trump’s first election run or in the dawning of the social media age. But the inflection point was actually 20 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In Mother Jones, David Corn has argued that the George W. Bush administration paved the way for the Big Lie, on the grounds that its propaganda push that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction constituted its own “Big Lie.” More generally, one might think that the misinformation-filled campaign in the lead-up to the Iraq War was itself an early example of the “post-truth” era. Admittedly, its effects on the promotion of false beliefs were extreme. We focus so much today on the role of social media and digital disinformation when it comes to our fractured sense of reality and the rise of conspiratorial thinking. But it’s worth remembering that in September 2003—five months before a site called thefacebook.com went live—a Washington Post poll found that almost 70 percent of Americans thought that Saddam Hussein was at least somewhat likely to have been personally involved in the 9/11 attacks. There is, however, a distinction between the distortions that the Bush-Cheney administration made in its rush to war and the “Big Lie” of Trump’s Republican Party. As historian Joseph Stieb argued correctly in the Washington Post, unlike the Bush administration’ propaganda, “Trump’s case for a stolen election isn’t exaggerated, it’s pure fiction.” In other words, the Bush administration attempted to deceive American citizens by distorting evidence and insinuating falsehoods. In intending to deceive, one treats one’s audience as reasoners whom one must persuade. In contrast, Trump and the party he controls simply made up, whole cloth, a fictional reality for its own loyal audience. Trump’s “Big Lie” was never intended to be digested by anyone other than unwavering supporters of the leader. A Big Lie isn’t part of an argument. A Big Lie is a rallying cry. ADVERTISEMENT How, then, did the immediate post-9/11 era give rise to our current politics? Some of the most trusted Americans in public life, such as Colin Powell, were used to present wildly exaggerated and false claims to the public. Much of the mainstream media felt impelled to give far more credibility to the government’s justifications for the Iraq War than they warranted. When democratic institutions are revealed to have misled the public as badly as they did, what results in a crisis of legitimacy. In such a crisis, people look for a charismatic leader in whom they can place their faith. The failures of the Bush administration made Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party possible, because the success of Trump’s style of politics depends on a vast loss of public trust in government and the media. It is not just the decline in public trust that paved the way for the flourishing of what can rightly be called fascist politics. After 9/11, Muslims were represented as an existential threat, domestically and internationally. Trump’s favorite government institution, ICE, is a product of the post-9/11 era. The logic of a militarized border, with a massive department of “Homeland Security” and a designated internal police force to protect “us” against “them,” is a legacy of that era. It’s no wonder that social platforms have exploited the rise of this in-group versus out-group mentality, attuning their algorithms to profit off of powerful emotional triggers such as fear, outrage and disgust. Fascist politics thrives when democratic institutions can be painted as corrupt and untrustworthy. It thrives when a population is taught to fear a supposed enemy that is both foreign and yet insidiously domestic—be they Muslims, Jews (as in Nazi Germany) or another minority group. Social media and online influence operations provided platforms and fuel for conspiratorial thinking to proliferate. But it was the post-9/11 era, with its nativist anti-Muslim appeals, betrayals of public trust and failures of democratic institutions, that enabled a politics based on rallying cries and faith rather than mutual deliberation over policy. It laid the groundwork for the future success of politicians who prey on our fears and encourage conspiracy theories, if not manufacture them outright. This is how they push aside democracy in pursuit of absolute power.