Home / Opinion / A day in the life of a Hindu nationalist

On Monday, I woke up and was astonished to find myself—overnight, and against my own will—a Hindu nationalist.

Specifically, I found myself a member of India’s largest and most vociferous Hindu nationalist organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has no membership requirements other than the initiate being Hindu and male. Gone were the boxer shorts in which I’d gone to bed; in their place were the charmingly baggy, beige long shorts, or half-pant, worn by RSS members of all ages and in all climes, the mark of a disciplined collective. Gone, too, was my status as a citizen of a multicultural nation—a more elevated viewpoint replaced this false consciousness, and I saw that the origins of the Indian nation went back deep into time, into the source springs of Hinduism.

My usual early-morning desire for solitude, coffee, a walk in the bustling multicultural neighborhood where I live had been dulled. Instead, I yearned to seek out the local RSS shakha, or gathering place, where uninhibited joy fills the air. There, with like-minded people, I would do group exercises to cultivate a more martial awareness before sitting down cross-legged to discourse about the glories of the motherland, under the saffron flag that symbolizes Hindu nationalism—Hindutva—in India today. I even began to see the grandeur of the Sangh’s mission statement: to carry the nation to the pinnacle of glory, through organizing the entire society and ensuring protection of Hindu Dharma.

But wait a moment, said a small voice inside me. How could the Indian nation and the entire society equate with the Hindu faith? Even if 80% of Indians are self-described Hindus, that means 1 in every 5 are not. In a country of more than 1 billion people, that is more than 200 million citizens. What about them?

There’s an answer for all such frivolous arguments. Last weekend, Mohan Bhagwat, the 64-year-old head of the RSS and a close friend of Prime Minister Narendra Modi (himself a lifelong RSS worker), made it loud and clear at a public meeting in the eastern city of Bhubaneswar. Modern India corresponds to a realm that was by Greeks and Persians in antiquity first called Hindustan (the realm of the Hindus). Ergo, the minorities of modern India are all Hindu, too, in cultural orientation and nationality if not in actual faith. As reported prominently on the RSS’s website, Bhagwat said:

All those who live here in Hindusthan are Hindus. Our style of worshipping may differ, some may not even worship at all, we may speak different languages, we may belong to various parts of this land, our eating habits may differ, yet we all are one. We are one nation. We are Hindus. Just as those who stay in England are English, those who stay in Germany are German, and those in US are Americans, all those who stay in Hindusthan are Hindus. It is a such a simple thing to understand. Hindutva is our nationality. It is a way of life. Unnecessarily some people are confusing the nation.

We are one nation. We are Hindus. Making such a contentious assertion requires a great determination to ignore the history of the Indian subcontinent (which once teemed with Buddhists), to merge the history of Hindu nationalism with the history of Hinduism itself, and to disdain the modern, secular Indian nation-state’s constitution, which was expressly designed to moderate religious conflict and guarantee freedom of faith for all.

Further, it requires a patronizing attitude toward Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and tribals—not to mention dissenting Hindus themselves (such as those millions of lower-caste Hindus who disagree with the caste system, or those who believe their religion is too internally diverse for any one group to lecture them on how to practice it).

But scepticism or sympathy—what in philosophy is called negative capability, the willingness to see the world from the standpoint of another—is not the strong point of Bhagwat or the RSS. Quite possibly, they consider even their ‘you are culturally Hindu’ theory an attempt at a sympathetic dialogue with India’s mass of vexing minorities. Modi’s May election victory has emboldened them immeasurably.

If the RSS had been nothing more than a rabid fringe, there would have been something comical about the extreme complacency of Bhagwat’s claims and the banality and bad faith of his coercive syllogisms. But no resentful demagogue or paranoid minority is behind this arrogant grab of the keys to Indian identity; rather, it is one of the prime minister’s closest friends.

In fact, as revealed by Modi in one of his own essays, it was Mohan Bhagwat’s father, Madhukarrao, who initiated him in the RSS’s worldview. For three generations, his family served Mother India, writes Modi of his mentor, but he remained low-key and did not advertise this.

Ah, yes: Mother India. One might say that since Modi’s election from the ancient Hindu temple city of Varanasi, there has been a slow drift in the political culture of Mother India—beginning with the religious ceremony that marked Modi’s own victory—away from the explicitly secular values of the Indian constitution to the implicitly religious ones of the ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ideas that were once considered absurd are now asserted as if self-evident.

Impressively, the Prime Minister himself, in his two-and-a-half months in office, has stayed silent on divisive questions of religion (many say he is hard at work, thinking about the economy, defence, foreign policy). But this silence also means there is a looming crisis of credibility when, on his watch, a horde of culture warriors has begun the work of turning India saffron, from the textbook writer and proponent of Indian values Dinanath Batra to Bhagwat himself.

And that explains why I woke up on Monday in a pair of beige half-pants, which I soon discarded once I’d had my coffee and read a bit of B.R. Ambedkar. It’s not me who wants to join the peculiar world of Hindu nationalism. It’s Hindu nationalism that’s moving stealthily to paint Indian life saffron. Each time they wake up, those who believe in values other than that of the Hindu right are compelled to pick up their own paintbrushes.

Modi won because voters (including a vast number of Muslim voters and millions of young people) trusted his promise that he would deliver jobs and growth to the economy, and that he would treat all Indians the same regardless of their religious beliefs. He should move immediately to refute the growing suspicion that there was a semantic sleight of hand in this: the conviction that Indians are only Indians when they acknowledge the supremacy of Hinduism. The longer he tarries, the more his cohorts will squander his political capital.

I was a Hindu nationalist for a day, and that was enough. I’ll go back to being a proud Hindu—proud not because I am a Hindu nationalist, but precisely because I’m not. Bloomberg

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