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08 May 2013

Hindutva: a schizophrenic nationalism

(THE discourse of Hindu nationalism – Hindutva – is best understood as a collection of eclectic ideas, images, and practices. It is easy to reject Hindutva as an intellectually bankrupt idea, as a collective fantasy of a few delusional individuals, as an illiberal attack on the secular multi-ethnic plurality of India, or as a regressive extremist movement based on a problematic and empirically flawed category of the ‘Hindu nation’. For instance, such rejectionist approaches were recently evident after the General Elections of 2009 with commentators discussing BJP’s defeat as a product of, as well as contributing to, the existential crisis within Hindu nationalism.

If Hindutva is indeed in crisis, what explains its tenacity and hold over a significant section of Hindus inside India and in the diaspora? Could this be a case of political setback without a serious dent in Hindutva’s cultural project and the long term vision for a Hindu India? That Hindu nationalism has so far failed to provide a stable basis for an ever-expanding political movement does not challenge its more pernicious project of shaping a Hindu samaj (society) and sanskriti (culture) into existence. There have been no stories of declining attendance at RSS shakhas, ABVP membership falling or sadhus abandoning VHP in droves.

The topic of Hindu nationalism has been approached by scholars, intellectuals, politicians, activists and ordinary people from many different angles. I do not offer a comprehensive overview of these approaches nor do I claim to provide an exhaustive account of Hindutva. In this short article, I put forward a simple idea – Hindutva is a schizophrenic nationalism.1

I do not imply that individual Hindu nationalists suffer from a pathological disorder or that no other nationalism is schizophrenic. I have no intention of dehumanizing individuals suffering from schizophrenia; I merely use a lay person’s idea of the disorder to analyze a collective phenomenon.)

In fact, all nationalist movements are to a variable extent based on contradictions, delusions, fantasies and fragmentations. Hindutva is akin to majoritarian nationalisms (such as Han chauvinism in China, Hutu supremacy in Rwanda, White supremacism in the USA, neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism in many Central and East European countries, radical Islamism in Egypt or extremist Zionism in Israel) that combine a cultural hubris with political anxiety about the presence of minorities in the body politic. A better understanding of Hindu nationalism may come from a comparative approach but in this article the focus is on Hindutva’s schizophrenic Self.

If Hindu nationalism had been an individual, it would have been classified as exhibiting an abnormality, one that may be amenable to treatment. But it is not an individual; it’s an idea for a collective movement. Curing Hindutva of its paranoia, hallucinations and delusions will dissolve the rationale for its existence. To put it simply, Hindutva’s schizophrenia is productive of its identity; without it, Hindu nationalism is a dead proposition.

There are many consistently identifiable patterns in the discourse of Hindu nationalism. Yet beneath the illusion of consistency there is a selective amnesia of several contradictions that populate the Hindutva world view. Here I highlight a few of these contradictions and fantasies which provide meaning to the majoritarian nationalism of Hindutva. The contradictions are as much a source of weakness as of strength. They militate against a coherent large scale political movement. But they also enable a flexibility, fungibility and ambiguity for extremist, parochial and illiberal ethos of Hindutva to pass itself off as moderate, universalist and enlightened. The primary contradiction is to do with a ‘Hindu nation’.

What makes Hindutva different from any other nationalism in India? It is the accent on Hindu. Unlike the mainstream Gandhi-Nehru-Congress civic nationalism which asserted its legitimacy in the name of all residents of India irrespective of their religious affiliation, Hindutva’s legitimacy is its ethno-religious claim2 to speak for the majority Hindu religious community. The raison d’etre for Hindutva is the privileging of the putative Hindu community in the territory of India.

Hindu nationalists imagine the Hindu community as consisting of all castes, subcastes, outcastes along with Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, all religionists they call ‘indigenous’ except the ‘foreign religionists’ adhering to Islam and Christianity; in short everyone except Muslims and Christians.3 However, in practice, their relationship to Sikhism or Buddhism is problematic.

In contemporary times, Hindutva argues that Hindus are a distinct politico-cultural nation, a nation whose numerical majority has not translated into a political majority in post-independence India. This ‘discrimination’ is ascribed to a conspiratorial alliance of Islam, Church, Communists, Secularists and Westernized media. Hindutva wants the Hindu nation to acquire its rightful place within India. But where is this Hindu nation?

While Hindu nationalism claims to represent the Hindu nation, Hindu nationalists also lament the absence of a united Hindu collective. Hindu nationalist political consciousness has never been hegemonic among Hindus in India. A close analysis of the writings of Hindutva leaders and ideologues shows that while ‘Sanatana Dharma’ is used as the umbrella term and (mis)quotes from non-Hindutva leaders including Ambedkar, Aurobindo or Gandhi are selectively scavenged upon to make a case against Muslims and Christians, Hindu nationalism’s main grudge is against Hindus themselves for not being united. The exhortations of Hindutva ideologues is for the Hindus to ‘awaken’, ‘arise’, recognize the enemies, vote for pro-Hindu parties to punish anti-Hindu secularists and those who betray their earlier promises of being pro-Hindutva, organize as a vote-bank, and remind the ungrateful Muslim and Christian minorities who the ‘real’ (awakened Hindu nationalist) Hindus are.

The Hindu nation does not exist as a conscious corporate body and a Hindu nationalist seeks to create one. In this sense, while claiming to be a mere representation of the pre-existing nation, Hindutva’s main emphasis is on creating this imaginary nation. This process of representation-creation is intimately connected with the question of Self-Other.

Hindu nationalism is a celebration and affirmation of the Hindu Self, but it derives its meaning only from a negation of the minority Others and their allies (the Communists, Secularists, and Westernized elite). The Hindu Self is represented as a self-evident category of identity that has existed for millennia. The naturalization of this modern Hindu Self under-emphasizes the historical and political processes through which it has been created since late 19th century starting with the Revivalist movements and the beginning of religious-category based enumeration through Census. Going against the mainstream Indian nationalist movement, Hindu nationalism in the 20th century sought to present the Hindu Self as the Indian Self, rendering non-Hindu Indians as the untrustworthy Other, anti-Hindu and invariably anti-Indian.

It should be noted that Hindutva seeks to create a unified Hindu samaj, not by removing hierarchies nor by redressing the historical and contemporary injustices suffered by many Hindus, but by shifting the blame for all ills onto the ‘foreign’ Other. Everything that is wrong within Hinduism is a product of a society perverted through a series of foreign invasions mostly by Muslim rulers. Reform of Hinduism is touted only as a tool to counter the possible appeal of Islam or Christianity for the hitherto unprivileged and oppressed Hindus. There is no evidence of a genuine desire to make Hindu religion and practices progressive. By creating the spectre of the dangerous Other, inimical foreigners within the rightful homeland of indigenous Hindu body politic, Hindutva seeks to brush under the carpet, not very successfully, the tensions existing within the category ‘Hindu’.

The story of Hindu Self is thus a story of non-Hindu/anti-Hindu Other.4 Despite the half-hearted claims made by some Hindu nationalists in BJP that Hindutva is not anti-Muslim or anti-Christian but is universalist so long as Muslims and Christians accept to live on the terms set by Hindutva, even a cursory examination of the philosophy and ideology of all strands of Hindu nationalism shows that representation of religious minorities (Muslims and Christians) as inimical, is an obsession for many.5 The Hindu samaj, sanskriti, and sabhyata (society, culture and civilization) are under siege from Islam and Christianity – this is not a nightmare but a waking reality according to Hindutva. Deploying various stereotypes, the minorities, especially Muslims, are presented as waging a war against Hindu India. The extremely diverse Indian Muslims are reduced to a singular stereotyped identity – ‘Muslim’ – and invested with a belligerence and fanaticism that individual Muslims cannot escape.

Hindu nationalists may differ amongst themselves over the root of this supposed Muslim fanaticism – moderates in BJP may blame some Muslims for disloyalty and terrorism without mentioning Islam as a religion or Prophet Muhammad. But most Hindu nationalists from the Sangh Parivar, especially VHP, Bajrang Dal and even the RSS, do not shy away from rejecting entire Islam as the enemy. In treating all Muslims with the same Islamophobic brush, Hindutva plays a game of fear – Islam by its very nature is fundamentalist (the idea of moderate Muslims is an oxymoron); history of Muslim rule in India is nothing but a catalogue of crimes of violence, plunder and rape of Hindus; Muslims are solely responsible for the partition of Akhanda Bharat and those Muslims who stayed back in India did so because they were not satisfied with a separate Pakistan but desired the Islamization of entire India; Muslims, with the active backing of Pakistan and Gulf money, are waging a continuous war against Hindu India.

Terrorism, violence, genocide of Kashmiri Hindus, conversion, illegal infiltration by Bangladeshi Muslims, seduction and rape of innocent Hindu girls, and over-population are all conjured up as weapons used by the traitorous Muslims to overwhelm Hindus in India.6 Christians are said to collude in this war by seducing poor Hindus into conversion and by encouraging separatism in the North East. By stereotyping Muslim and Christian minorities as the irredeemable anti-Hindu, anti-India Other, Hindu nationalism generates a politics of fear, a politics that is set to continue.

This process of essentializing and stereotyping antagonistic identities (Self vs Other) is central to the Hindu nationalist project; a benign and pluralist imagination of minorities on equal terms will take the wind off the sails of Hindutva. A poetics and politics of fear is instrumental in explaining away the use of violence by Hindu nationalism as a spontaneous reaction.7

Violence is central to an understanding of Hindutva. It plays a dual role – it is the rationale for, as well as the product of, Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalists frequently indulge in violence and yet it is the Muslims who are blamed for all violence. Acts of anti-minority violence are sought to be legitimized by ascribing them to just reactions and hurt sentiments of long suppressed, unusually patient Hindu samaj.8 In this way, the sufferings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and Christians in Orissa in 2008 are seen not as the results of a conscious pogrom or a well-planned hate attack; rather, they are claimed to be the regrettable but justifiable and understandable reactions of the awakened Hindu community.

The state is absolved of all responsibility – after all, what can it do when it is the entire Hindu samaj that lashes out in hurt caused by an arrogant expansionary minority? Thus, in the Hindu nationalist view, complicity of politicians, police, activists and general populace are all bracketed under the rubric of an aroused Hindu nation. This performs an important function of explaining away individual responsibilities and state complicity. If it is the abstract Hindu nation which has reacted to the originary violence of expansionary minorities, how does one begin pinpointing responsibility for the violence? Numerous, well-documented acts of anti-minority violence committed in the name of Hindutva do not disrupt the self-understanding of Hindu nationalists where they see themselves as the wronged party.

Hindu nationalism can be conceptualized as a discourse of security, yet it feeds insecurity into society. As pointed out earlier, according to Hindutva, the minority Others, in alliance with secularists and communists, are waging a war against the Hindus. The stereotyped Muslim figure is represented as a danger to Hindu security at different levels – individual Hindu (especially female) bodies, Hindu neighbourhoods, Hindu India, as well as the entire world.

In the face of such hostile foreign religionists, Hindutva prescribes a multi-pronged approach – a propaganda warfare to ‘reveal’ (in practice, manufacture) the conspiracy of minorities and their secular allies to fool Hindus into believing that there is no danger; socio-cultural mobilization of Hindus so that they are proud of their unified Hindutva identity; political organization of Hindus to ensure that they form a vote bank; capturing the state to reflect the Hindutva interests; and using violence against minorities in the name of securing the Hindu body politic. The aim is to create a potent Hindu nation.

Hindu nationalism fantasizes potency (of a Hindu collective), yet it fears impotency. Nationalism, for Hindutva, is a politico-cultural project to create, awaken, and strengthen a masculinist-nationalist body.9 Elsewhere, I have conceptualized the extremist beliefs of Hindutva (held especially by Bajrang Dal and less overtly by VHP) activists as a porno-nationalism.10 The sexual dimension of the Hindutva discourse, as revealed in the jokes, slogans, gossip, and conversations of young male activists, is relevant not only as an ethnographic curiosity but because it is politically salient. Such a porno-nationalist imagination of the hypersexualized Muslim Other performs two moves at the same time: it assures the Hindu nationalist self of its moral superiority and yet instils an anxiety about the threatening masculine Other. Hindu nationalism, despite claiming to represent the majority Hindu community, has at its core a deep masculinist anxiety which, it claims, will be solved through a masculinist, often bordering on militarized, awakening.

The disjuncture between the imagined militarized Hindu nation and the actual fact of a rich plurality of Hindu society turns the rage of Hindutva against the Hindus themselves. The Hindu nation becomes a rarefied ideal which only the Sangh Parivar and its sympathizers are capable of appreciating. Other Hindus, under the spell of anti-Hindu ideas of Secularism, Communism, ‘Macaulayism’, Westernization, Women’s emancipation, and even Democracy, remain ‘ignorant’.

Hindu nationalists speak of secularism and democratic rights11 with a forked tongue. They reject the mainstream version of secularism as appeasement of minorities and as pseudo-secularism, they argue that a genuine democracy should recognize the primacy of Hindu majority, they argue for the Uniform Civil Code and against Article 370 in the name of equality. But the same Hindu nationalists will also reject secularism as alien (only Hindu sanatana dharma is ‘true secularism’), claim that the celebration of the diversity of Indian culture is a conspiracy to erase the essential oneness of India as expressed in sanatana dharma, promote Hinduization of public life, appeal to Islamophobic western ideologues to support their case, criticize state measures to promote equality (such as the right of daughters to have a share in paternal property) and progressive social and environmental movements as anti-family, and express intolerance of dissident views by beating up artists, writers and activists.

Democracy is not only about majority rule and minority rights, but also a political culture that allows for expressions of dissent without fear. Hindu nationalism has limited tolerance of dissent, resents minority rights and only focuses on majority rule. But its understanding of the principle of majority rule goes against the very principle of liberal democracy – democratic majority is a political majority (the composition of which changes all the time) and not an identity based majority. By investing the numerical Hindu majority with a political agency, Hindu nationalism seeks to make Indian democracy illiberal and potentially authoritarian.

The only ‘rights’ which Hindutva struggles for are those of Hindu nationalists to stamp their mark on the society, culture and politics of India. Otherwise, ‘rights talk’ (where individuals make a claim against the collective, or religious or sexual minorities demand a recognition of their difference, or hitherto oppressed groups struggle for justice) is viewed as promoting individualism and tensions within an otherwise pristine, family-based Hindu/Indian society.

It is tempting to view Hindu nationalism primarily as a political movement and therefore lament or celebrate (depending on one’s views) its limited influence on Indian democracy. The fact that Hindu nationalists have never won more than a minority share of Hindu votes or that Hindutva based parties such as the BJP have had to moderate their views for reasons of governance does not imply a serious setback for Hindu nationalism. The idea of Hindutva remains unsullied for many of its subscribers. The BJP’s defeat is perceived with the same old lens – an unholy alliance of minorities and opportunist secularists led by a foreign-born woman; unawakened and divided Hindus; and a Hindutva party that had gone against its principles. Varun Gandhi’s incendiary speech in 2009 or Narendra Modi’s hate speeches in 2002 may have contributed to BJP’s problems and losses, but it certainly brought a thumping victory in the targeted locales. Such politics of hate clearly worked for Narendra Modi’s party in Gujarat or Varun Gandhi in Pilibhit constituency.

Hindutva’s relationship to politics is one of a convenient split. The dominant self-image is of an apolitical cultural nationalism that despises the ‘dirty’ realm of politics and is primarily interested in a regeneration of Hindu society, protection of Hindu religion and culture, and establishing of a Hindu Rashtra in India. Politics is presented as a regrettable necessity which Hindu nationalists have to indulge in to protect dharma, samaj, sanskriti and sabhyata.

This seeming split of the political and the cultural domain allows RSS to selectively embrace or distance itself from other members of the Parivar and adopt a sanctimonious role of being ‘above politics’.12 If there is an outcry over Bajrang Dal’s hooliganism, RSS would claim that it has nothing to do with them. At the same time, the distinction between RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal and so on is highly blurred and the personnel shifts between these.

Like other religious fundamentalisms, Hindutva has a bigger goal of socio-politico-cultural transformation. Setbacks in elections are seen as peripheral to the long term vision of a Hindu Rashtra – after all, in a narrative of a continuous war of hostile religious groups for more than a millennium, a decade of setbacks is not a big deal.

Hindutva as a social and cultural project remains active and thriving. RSS’s shakha activities continue uninterrupted; Hindutva ideologues adapt their ideas to suit the tastes of non-resident Indians (for example, linking Hindutva’s cause with that of Zionists or toning down the swadeshi agenda) and urban middle classes (for example, through Online Shakha); VHP adopts the internet for its agenda; and Bajrang Dal utilises new technologies for spreading intolerance. Hindu nationalism is here to stay in the Indian landscape.

While acting as a defender of faith and culture, Hindutva in practice intervenes in both, and seeks to transform them from fluid, diverse, highly contested entities to ones that can be mobilized for Hindu nationalist purposes. More research is needed on the myriad ways in which Hindutva scavenges upon existing religious and cultural practices, shapes the common-sense of a wider Hindu population, transforms what it means to be a ‘Hindu’, and selectively appropriates ideas of secularism, democracy, rights, equality, and security for its own long term agenda of establishing a Hindu India.

Contradictions, splits, fantasies, and paranoia continue to be mobilized by Hindu nationalist activists. The schizophrenic Hindutva Self remains a lethal threat to the ideas of democracy, secularism, liberalism, and plurality in India. A Hindu Rashtra, with domesticated unified Hindus and subservient minorities, remains a vision for which millions of Hindu nationalists continue to work.


1. For a discussion of schizophrenia and nationalism in a different context, see John Kane (2007), ‘Schizophrenic Nationalism and Anti-Americanism’, in Brendon O’Connor (ed.), Anti-Americanism: History, Causes, Themes, Vol. 2, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT, 29-54.

2. For a discussion of Hindutva as an ethnic nationalism, as different from civic nationalism, see Christophe Jaffrelot (1999), The Hindu Nationalist Movement: 1925 to the 1990s, Penguin, New Delhi.

3. This distinction between Indian and Foreign Religionists is made most starkly in a work on religious demography that sought to prove the theory of declining Hindu population in India (India here was seen as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh together). Lal Krishna Advani, the Home Minister of India at the time of publication, wrote a foreword to the book. See A.P. Joshi, M.D. Srinivas and J.K. Bajaj (2003), Religious Demography of India, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai. Summary available online (accessed 5 July 2009).

4. On the history of this, see Jyotirmaya Sharma (2003), Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism, Penguin, New Delhi.

5. See for instance, speeches and writings of VHP leader Ashok Singhal. Ashok Singhal (2005) Public Speech During VHP Dharma Sansad, 13-14 December, Hardwar, India; Ashok Singhal (n.d.), Secularwadiyon dwara hindu samaj par uttpan chaturdik hamla (Total attack on Hindu society due to secularists), VHP, New Delhi.

6. For a sample of Hindutva writings on this, see Goel, Krishnaswami, Swarup, and ‘Love Jihad’. Sita Ram Goel (n.d.), Hindu Society Under Siege, Voice of India, New Delhi, (originally published 1981, revised 1992). Available online http://voiceof (accessed 5 July 2009); Krishnaswami (n.d.), Islam and Pseudo-Secularists, Shradha Prakashan, Delhi; Ram Swarup (n.d.), Understanding Islam Through Hadis: Religious Faith or Fanaticism?, Exposition Press, Smithtown, New York. Available online http://bharatvani. org/books/uith (accessed on 3 July 2009); ‘"Love Jihad" – A Jihadi Organisation To Trap Hindu Girls’ (2009) Hindu Janajagruti Samiti 27 February. Available online (accessed 23 July 2009).

7. A detailed discussion of the poetics and politics of fear deployed by Hindu nationalists can be found in my forthcoming book. Dibyesh Anand (2010), Hindu Nationalism and Politics of Fear in India, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

8. For a discussion of legitimisation of violence, see Paul Brass (2003), The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi; and Thomas Blom Hansen (1996), ‘Recuperating Masculinity: Hindu Nationalism, Violence and the Exorcism of the Muslim "Other"’, Critique of Anthropology 16(2), 137-172.

9. For an incisive treatment of sexuality, gender and Hindutva, see for example, Paola Bacchetta (2004), Gender in the Hindu Nation: RSS Women as Ideologues, Women Unlimited, New Delhi; Charu Gupta (2001), Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu Public in Colonial India, Permanent Black, Delhi; Kumari Jayawardena and Malathi De Alwis (eds) (1998), Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia, Zed, London; Dibyesh Anand (2007), ‘Gendered Anxieties: Representing Muslim Masculinity as a Danger’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 9(2), 257-269.

10. See Dibyesh Anand (2008), ‘Porno-Nationalism and the Male Subject: An Ethnography of Hindu Nationalist Imagination in India’, in Jane Parpart and Marysia Zalewski (eds), Rethinking the ‘Man’ Question in International Politics, Zed, London. See also Tanika Sarkar (2002), ‘Semiotics of Terror: Muslim Children and Women in Hindu Rashtra’, Economic and Political Weekly 38(28), 13 July.

11. See for instance, Thomas Blom Hansen (1999), The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India, Princeton University Press, Princeton; David Ludden (ed.) (1996), Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

12. On Sangh Parivar, see Christophe Jaffrelot (ed.) (2005), The Sangh Parivar, Oxford University Press, New Delhi; Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Sambuddha Sen (eds.) (1993), Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags, Orient Longman, New Delhi.

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