Hindu Nationalism: From Ethnic Identity to Authoritarian Repression

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterSpecial Section: India @75: Religion and Citizenship in IndiaArticles
Hindu Nationalism: From
Ethnic Identity to Authoritarian
Pratap Bhanu Mehta1
This article reflects on the relationship between Hindu nationalism and democracy and how the former
emerges from within democracy only to subvert it. The essay outlines important conceptual issues in
the relationship between Hindu nationalism and democracy, discusses the relationship between the
idea of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and ‘Hindu Rajya’, and delves into the complex interplay between Hindu
nationalism and caste. This article ultimately argues that Hindu nationalism’s alignment with authori-
tarianism in a political style does not simply corrode democracy, but it also undermines all values. The
objective of this analysis is not to provide a comprehensive explanation of the rise of Hindu nationalism,
as much as to reflect on the ways in which its ideology operates at multiple levels.
India, Hindu nationalism, BJP, secularism, democracy, authoritarianism
On 5 August 2020 Prime Minister Narendra Modi did the bhumi pujan (land worship) for the construction
of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. This moment symbolically signalled the arrival of Hindu Rashtra. The
grand spectacle of a regal of Narendra Modi performing the religious rites for the temple was, at a
symbolic level, the recreation of an ancient ideal of kingship. Modi was not just consecrating the temple.
He was enacting a new form of political power: A monarchical protector of the faith of the community
performing one of the traditional functions of Hindu kingship, which was to consecrate and protect
That moment also crystallized the project of Hindu nationalism and the transformation of Indian
politics in the starkest terms. Every theme central to Hindu nationalism was present in the Prime
Minister’s speech (The Indian Express, 2020). He signalled that Hindu nationalism is, in the first
instance, constituted by a historical memory: a construction of victimhood, a sense of constantly having
1 Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA.
Corresponding author:
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.
E-mail: Pbmehta@princeton.edu
Studies in Indian Politics
10(1) 31–47, 2022
© 2022 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230221082828
32 Studies in Indian Politics 10(1)
been subjugated by foreign invasion. For Hindu nationalism, the real and enduring colonial hurt is not
British colonialism, but what they describe as Muslim invasions in the eight centuries prior to British
rule in India. The restoration of the temple at site of the Babri Masjid that Hindu nationalists had razed
to the ground, was akin to the independence of India. Perhaps it was even more significant since it was,
as the Prime Minister described it, a culmination of hundreds of years of struggle. August 5th rather than
August 15th was declared of equal significance in thinking of India’s independence. August 5th was
significant in the longer arc of India’s civilizational history, the moment where a glorious but subjugated
civilization finds its utterance. The Prime Minister emphasized that Indian history needs to be seem in
these civilizational terms and the Ram temple was an epicentre of that civilizational imagination.
Religious leaders of different Hindu denominations from all across India were present, displaying a
show of Hindu unity around Ram under the political auspices of the Prime Minister. Hinduism in
complex ways has been a deeply connecting cultural thread across the geography of India. But here it
was displaying the core ambition of Hindu nationalism: to collect these complex cultural threads and
weave them into a political unity and display it in full might.
The moment was also a political vindication of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its associated
family of organizations including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was the culmination of
the political and legal claims they had made since 1948 that this site belonged to Hindus, that the Babri
Masjid that stood there was a usurpation, and that the Ramjanmabhoomi trust had legal title to the land.
The Supreme Court judgement was in some ways as total a legal vindication of these claims as possible.
It set aside the secularist argument that restoring status quo ante for events that may have happened in
the sixteenth century was not an outlook befitting a modern secular state. It even set aside the Allahabad
High Court’s Judgement, which at least had the flavour of a compromise for the sake of peace: dividing
up the property, and building a mosque and temple side by side. The Supreme Court gave an order to find
an alternative land for building a mosque, much outside the city limits of Ayodhya. And finally, in a
lower Court decision, all those accused of conspiring to demolish the Babri Masjid, were acquitted. The
Mosque had been demolished by a vigilante mob. But apparently no crime had been committed. After
all, how could a movement that had been designated as freedom movement be punished?
This article is a rumination on the relationship between Hindu nationalism and democracy: on how it
emerges from within democracy to ultimately subvert it. The aim of the article is to explicate what Hindu
nationalism has done through the work of politics, its moral psychology and ruling style. It has four
sections: The first section lays down some conceptual issues in the relationship between Hindu
nationalism and democracy. The second section continues this discussion with a brief consideration of
the relationship between Hindu nationalism and caste and language. The third section looks at
nationalism’s transformation of Indian Constitutionalism, specifically its attempt to distinguish ‘Hindu
Rashtra’ (nation) and ‘Hindu Rajya’ (state). Finally, I end with a discussion of Hindu nationalism’s
alignment with authoritarianism in a political style that is not just corrosive of democracy, but of all
values. The aim is not to provide a full explanation of the rise of Hindu nationalism, as much as a
reflection on the way in which different levels of its ideology operate.
Hindu Nationalism and Democracy
In order to fully grasp the specific character of Hindu nationalism, it has to be placed in the long arc of
political, cultural and legal transformations that have taken place in India since the nineteenth century
(Zavos, 2000). Although the political triumph of the BJP has vastly intensified the threat of Hindu
nationalism, as an ideological force, its fate transcends the fortunes of the BJP. It can also remain a

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