The Indian general election of 2014 was of monumental significance. As Varshney (2014: 36) observes, not only did it account for the largest voter turnout in Indian electoral history (ECI, 2014) but also ushered an overwhelming majority for the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Harriss (2015) has noted the rise of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva since the 1990s, and with the recent triumph of BJP has concluded that it has advanced from virtual obscurity to being a chief force. Shani (2009) noted what makes Hindutva dangerous is its ‘normality’ and its capacity to thrive as ‘common sense’ and thus requires more scholarly focus.  


Popularised by Savarkar (1925), Hindutva has been mentioned as the expression of social and political thought based on the native spiritual and cultural traditions of historical India (Corbridge and Harris, 2013: 4). Scholars like Shani (2009) refer to it as a political ideology cementing disparate segments of the society into a major political bloc. Some scholars (Varshney 2014, Graham 1990, Freitag 1989) have argued that the term “Hindu Nationalism’ refers to Hindu Raastravaada, is a simple translation and is properly expressed by the term ‘Hindu Polity’. Attempting to explain the place of this polity in modern Indian politics, a wealth of literature taking different approaches has emerged.


Kinnavall (2007) attempts to explain the rise of Hindutva movement as an effect of globalisation. She contends that the destabilizing effect of globalisation made it possible for Hindu nationalism to rise. Following a similar methodology, scholars like Hibbard (2010) attempt a cross-national study to compare political mobilisation and religious nationalisms of fundamental Muslims in Egypt and Christian conservatives in the US to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. These studies do involve some relevant points addressing the wider debate, however, they have serious internal validity concerns. As they completely miss out on taking the social, political and economic aspects in India that scholars like Chatterjee (2009) and Thapar (1989) have argued are fundamental in shaping the Hindu movement.

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            Chatterjee (2009) and Thapar (1989) base their work on a very learned observation, presenting the mournful realities of Hindu nationalism. Thapar (1989) analyses the militancy of the movement and the negative impacts on the social position of the country from a post-colonial perspective. Her elaborate and simulating research provides a thoughtful insight into the dominance of the movement on the ‘culture, polity, economy and law of the land’ (1989: 34). Even though it has only been a few decades since her study, it shall be compelling to analyse the movements of her arguments in recent times with the background of BJP’s massive victory. Extending the post-modern argument, Chatterjee’s (2009) work critically addresses the dominance of the movement on civic mentalities in everyday life, re-evaluating the importance of nation-building, ethnic nationalism and subaltern disenfranchisement. However, some parts of her work lack clarity and cohesion making it seem loosely like her own discourse about the topic, rather than the actuality. As reviewed by Anand (2011: 7), the thorough extent of her evidence itself deserves a notable recognition, which also makes her work relevant even beyond the Indian context.


            Orientalist scholars like Juergensmeyer (1993), Malik and Singh (1994), Graham (1990), and Lochtefeld (1996) have presented a rather contentious but pragmatic cause for the rise of Hindu nationalism. Arguing that the increased threat from minorities led to a strive for a reimagined Hindu identity and pride in the 1980s, ultimately leading to the rise of Hindutva. To support their claims, Juergensmeyer (1993), Malik and Singh (1994), provide various incidents in form of evidence that they consider would have fostered the Hindutva movement. While citing these evidence, one of the first incidents which scholars like Juergensmeyer (1993: 131) refer to the is the mass and forced religious conversion of 1981 that took place in Meenakshipuram, Tamil Nadu in which hundreds of low caste Hindus were converted into Islam. Allowing for the right-wing party to champion this as a legitimate Islamic threat to the Hindu majority.


The next prime evidence is given by Malik and Singh (1994) who argued that the Sikh separatist movement of 1984 stoked Hindu nationalist devoutness. The movement turned violent when the separatists captured the holy Golden Temple in Amritsar. As Das (1990: 54) previously studied that it was during Operation Blue Star, the movement was ultimately suppressed – when the troops on Indira Gandhi’s order exterminated the separatists from the temple. Later in the same year, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards as revenge for her orders to attack the holy Sikh temple (Lochtefeld, 1996: 110). The horrific consequences are noted by Das (1990) as a series of pogroms against Sikhs, where the estimated number of deaths crossed 8000. Das’s (1990) detailed study contributed towards Malik and Singh (1994) reaching an unfortunate conclusion.


Lastly, the central example given as evidence for the rise of Hindutva by many scholars (Anand 2011, Hansen 1999, Kinnavall 2007) is of the national mobilisation of Hindu Right under the Ramjanambhoomi movement. A movement hinged upon reclaiming the Babri mosque to restore it as a temple in the holy city of Ayodhya. 


Transcending from the religious paradigm, many scholars like Chhibber (1999), Hansen (1999), Pandey (1990) and Freitag (1989) switch focus to the political system as primary causal factor fostering the Hindu movement. Chhibber (1999: 45) studies the vacuum created by the decline of Congress party in the 1970s and 1980s as the primary reason for the rise of Hindu right as the chief opposition, creating a national platform for growth of the Hindu movement. Expanding the argument to recent times, Harriss (2015), analyses the similarities between the rise of Hindu movement in the 1970s and in 2014. Like Chandra (2004: 28), Harriss (2015: 714) refers to Hindutva as an ethnic-nationalist movement rather than religious, understanding it from an unpopular but emerging approach.


Building from the orientalist and post-modern colonial perspective, Pandey’s (1990) work infer that the past is not an established entity to recover, but has been used for different purposes ‘by the state, colonialists, leaders, nationalists and the people’ (1990: 5). Pandey attempts to analyse other separatist movements like in Kashmir that fuelled anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments, enraging the larger Hindu community to unite. However, his analysis fails to consider the impact of such portrayals on the consciousness and behaviour of people and its relation to the economic, political and demographic factors in fostering Hindutva movement. While Pandey notes that ‘the political uses to which religious symbols were so easily put’ (1990: 53) should be re-examined, he fails to understand the meaning of these symbols to the masses and how these religious symbols help them comprehend the changing political world. Upholding the colonialist-nationalist pattern, Pandey lacks in using vernacular sources as evidence in expressing his stance (Jaffrelot, 1996: 22). Pandey’s work has no narrative line – he proposes one motion and defends another, what he states as necessary to demonstrate in one chapter is referred as demonstrated in the next. Despite basing his argument on the importance of understanding the ‘changes in communication, politics and society more generally’, he only mentions them casually when analysing the rise of Hindutva (1990: 150). The absence of discourse on the causes of change and no exploration of ‘actuality’ reflects that there is a lack of a standard viewpoint, theory and a model in Pandey’s work.


On the other hand, Jaffrelot’s (1996) work is better structured. His book follows a sequence and a narrative. Exploring the contributions of socio-religious reformers like Dayananda Saraswati in preparing the ground for Hindu nationalism by glorifying the Vedic golden age (1996: 34), he analyses the viewpoint of Savarkar (1925) who saw other religions like Islam as a threat and a symbol to be stigmatised (1996: 51-56). He then attempts to study how this discourse was refined by the BJP to get the support of the masses in a nation with Hindu majority population, leading to the growth of a ‘more mature ethnoreligious concept of Hindutva’ (1996: 109).


Analysis of the literature on Hindu nationalism has shown a variety of approaches and explanations behind its resurgence. A few factors cited in the literature were true in short-term, however, not all have stood true over time. The ‘culturalist’ studies of Hindutva take an essentialist’s approach, flawed for assuming the Hindu identity as historically invariant. Making such scholarship (Kinnavall 2007, Hibbard 2010) incapable of explaining the downfall and revival of the movement. The ‘materialistic’ approaches understanding the socio-economic and political factors do a better work in explaining the rise of the movement. However, such literature (Thapar 1989, Chatterjee 2009, Juergensmeyer 1993, Pandey 1990, Hansen 1999) is often criticised for not explaining the impact of these factors, rather is flawed in casually addressing them. An emerging approach (Harriss 2013, Chandra 2004, Shani 2009, Jaffrelot 1996) doing an assessment of the spirit of caste politics, understanding deep internal divisions among Hindus and recognising the expanding pluralism of the Indian polity seem better placed to understand the dynamic nature of Hindutva.

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