Part I: Birth of Hindutva
The rise of Narendra Modi and his BJP in India has thrust the Hindu Nationalist movement into the global spotlight. The ethnic supremacist and authoritarian aspects of the ideology have even led many to compare Hindu Nationalism with Hitler’s Nazism. While the Nazi analogy can often seem tired and overdramatic, in this case its entirely appropriate. In fact Hindu Nationalism, or “Hindutva” for short, is best understood as a Frankenstein’s monster of early 20th century European Fascism and Hindu Extremism.
This piece will analyze the ideological foundations of the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS, the two umbrella Hindutva organizations from which nearly all later branches (including Modi’s BJP) can trace their roots.
The Founding Fathers
Hindu Nationalism as we understand it today was first given voice in 1922 by a Brahmin named Vinayak Savarkar, who while incarcerated, penned the now infamous, “Essentials of Hindutva”. Savarkar had been serving jail time for organizing the murder of Magistrate Arthur Jackson¹ and instigating a revolt against the government, in retribution for recent reforms granting affirmative action to the disenfranchised Muslim minority of India.²
In Essentials of Hindutva Savarkar identifies India principally with the, “Hindu Race”, describing the region as, “the land of dreams”, basking in a, “very undisturbed enjoyment of peace and plenty”. This idealized paradise was cruelly snatched from Hindus however, when, “nearly all of Asia (Muslims), quickly to be followed by nearly all of Europe (Christians)” conquered the Indian Subcontinent. Savarkar goes on to claim, “that though their original Hindu blood is almost unaffected by alien adulteration…our Muslim or Christian countrymen who had originally been forcibly converted to a non-Hindu religion…are not and cannot be recognized as Hindus.” ³
India was excellent when it was solely Hindu, and this excellence was ruined by Muslims and Christians, who can never be accepted due to racial and religious differences. This premise underlies the Hindu Nationalist ideology, and as we shall see, led Hindutva thinkers to horrifying conclusions.
Our story now shifts to B.S. Moonje, another Brahmin, who from 1927–1937 served as the President of the Hindu Mahasabha, the first major Hindu Nationalist organization. Moonje had earlier been a member of the Indian National Congress, but departed after he became disenchanted with the party’s secular-liberalism⁴. In 1931 he went on a tour of Europe, in search of an ideology that could help, “rejuvenate” the Hindus of India.
During his visits to Italy and Germany Moonje noted, “Italians, by nature, appear ease-loving and non-martial like the Indians generally…Mussolini saw the essential weakness of his country and conceived the idea of the Balilla organisation…Nothing better could have been conceived…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 Hindu”. ⁵ Upon returning home he recommended that Hindu leaders, “imitate the youth movement of Germany and the Balilla and Fascist organisations of Italy. I think they are eminently suited for introduction in India…I have been very much impressed by these movements and I have seen their activities with my own eyes in all detail.” ⁶
In 1934 Moonje went even further, stating, “I have thought out a scheme based on Hindu Dharm Shastra which provides for standardisation of Hinduism throughout India…But the point is that this ideal cannot be brought to effect unless we have our own swaraj (rule) with a Hindu as a dictator like Shivaji of old or Mussolini or Hitler of the present day in Italy and Germany…But this does not mean that we have to sit with folded hands until some such dictator arises in India. We should formulate a scientific scheme and carry on propaganda…” ⁷
Moonje’s idolization of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, his goal of India being ruled by a Hindu dictator in the mold of Mussolini and Hitler, is striking. True to his word, Moonje helped create the Hindu version of the Hitler Youth; the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization, “meant for qualifying and fitting our boys for the game of killing masses of men with the ambition of winning victory”. ⁸
We come now to M.S. Golwalkar, yet another Brahmin, who reigned as Supreme Leader of the RSS from 1940–1973. He is the man credited with transforming the RSS into India’s largest religiopolitical movement, with millions of members across every state, international branches, and dozens offshoot organizations specializing in everything from labor to education.
Golwalkar burst onto the national scene in 1939 with his work, We Our Nationhood Defined. Here Golwalkar continues the Hindutva tradition of admiring the Nazis, stating, “German national pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races — the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by”.⁹ A clear dog-whistle calling for the genocide of India’s Muslim and Christian minorities.
In case there was doubt about what he meant however, Golwalkar continues, “The non-Hindu peoples of Hindustan (India) must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but the glorification of the Hindu race and culture…in one word they must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen’s rights…In Hindusthan exists and must needs exist the ancient Hindu Nation and naught else but the Hindu Nation. All those not belonging to the national Hindu Race, Religion, Culture, and Language, naturally fall out of the pale of real National life.” ¹⁰
We return now to Savarkar, who was declared President of the Hindu Mahasabha soon after his release from prison in 1937. By 1938 he was applauding the measures taken by the Nazis against their Jewish minority, proclaiming, “Germany has every right to resort to Nazism and Italy to Fascism and events have justified that those isms and forms of governments were imperative and beneficial to them.” ¹¹ A few months later Savarkar adds, “A Nation is formed by a majority living therein. What did the Jews do in Germany? They being in minority were driven out from Germany.” ¹² He concludes the year with, “in Germany the movement of the Germans is the national movement but that of the Jews is a communal one.” ¹³ By 1939 he’s analogizing the Jewish and Muslim “problem”, claiming, “the Indian Muslims are on the whole more inclined to identify themselves and their interests with Muslims outside India than Hindus who live next door, like Jews in Germany.” ¹⁴
In March 1939 the Hindu Mahasabha under Savarkar put out the following statement, proclaiming, “Germany’s solemn idea of the revival of the Aryan culture, the glorification of the Swastika, her patronage of Vedic learning and the ardent championship of the tradition of Indo-Germanic civilization are welcomed by the religious and sensible Hindus of India with a jubilant hope. Only a few socialists headed by Pandit J Nehru have created a bubble of resentment against the present government of Germany, but their activities are far from having any significance in India. The vain imprecations of Mahatma Gandhi against Germany’s indispensable vigor in matters of internal policy obtain but little regard insofar as they are uttered by a man who has always betrayed and confused the country with an affected mysticism. I think that Germany’s crusade against the enemies of Aryan culture will bring all the Aryan nations of the world to their senses and awaken the Indian Hindus for the restoration of their lost glory.” ¹⁵
Two aspects of Savarkar’s ideology are worth highlighting. First, he continues the Hindutva trend of not only celebrating Nazi Germany’s treatment of its Jewish minority, but hoping this model is adopted by Hindus for use against India’s Muslim minority. Second, he reserves particular venom for Congress Hindu leaders who are adversarial to his project, particularly Gandhi, who he accuses of, “betraying” India.
These thoughts are echoed by Moonje in 1939, as he states, “the Muslims are making themselves a nuisance. The Congress government will not stand up but will yield to them. We cannot expect any consideration at the hands of the Congress government. We shall have to fight both the government and the Moslems…the RSS may be useful and handy.” He later muses, “what will happen if, in the mutually antagonistic and clashing ideologies, the Charka were to come into conflict with the Rifle…?” ¹⁶ The Charka was the spinning-wheel symbol of Gandhi.
The Hindu Nationalist obsession with Fascism did not abate even when it became plain what such an ideology entailed. A police report on a 1942 speech given at a Pune training camp observes that Hindutva official P.C. Sahasrabudhe proclaimed, “the Sangh (RSS) followed the principle of dictatorship. Denouncing democratic government as an unsatisfactory form of government, he quoted France as a typical example and, praising dictatorship, he pointed to Japan, Russia and Germany. He particularly praised the Fuehrer principle of Germany… he drew attention to the value of propaganda, quoting Russia and German as examples, and again extolled the virtues of the leader principle, citing Mussolini’s success as a further example.” ¹⁷
Words Into Actions
In the lead up to the Partition of British India, violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims occurred with increasing frequency. While Indian partisans often blame this phenomenon on Muslim aggression, violent incidents were most commonly seen in Hindu dominated areas, particularly the Hindutva strongholds in Northern and Western India (see figure below).
The RSS played an increasingly prominent role in these clashes, the most gruesome of which was the infamous 1946 Garhmukhteshwar massacre. As Lieutenant General Sir Francis Tuker described, “Practically every Muslim man, woman and child was murdered with appalling cruelty…even pregnant women were ripped up, their unborn babies torn out and the infants’ brains bashed out on walls and on the ground. There was rape, and women and children were seized by the legs by burly fiends and torn apart…” A survivor recalls; “I saw a girl of about 15 or 16 being taken by a huge mob towards the Ganges. She was ducked in the river and asked to take ‘Ram nam’ [the name of the Hindu deity, Ram]. She cried out, ‘Ya Khuda’ [invoking Allah], and refused to say anything else. She was beaten to death…I saw other women whose clothes had been removed…Not a single one of them agreed [to get converted] … and they were murdered.” ¹⁸
Soon after news of these horrors began to circulate, those sympathetic to the Hindutva program followed Moonje’s sage advice cited above, and busied themselves with propaganda. Claims that Hindus were simply defending themselves from earlier attacks, or responding to Muslims who had slaughtered a cow (a holy figure in Hinduism), were rampant. Estimates for the number of Muslims killed ranged from 6–230, and blame was given to both Muslims and Hindus for indulging in a senseless “riot”.¹⁹
Tuker rubbished these rumors, stating, “The massacres were committed by (Hindu) Jats, without provocation”, adding that it was, “certain that 1,000 Muslims died, perhaps 2,000”, and that contrary to being a spontaneous riot, “the Gurhmekhtesar incident was carefully planned and organised.” Another British official noted, “In view of (the Hindu Jat’s) bestial behaviour, it is surprising that Muslims have indulged in so little retaliation.” ²⁰
The Rifle and Charkha
In 1947 British India was partitioned into the modern states of India and Pakistan. In the midst of the chaos, the then chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, Rajeshwar Dayal, observed, “an episode of very grave nature” when he uncovered, “incontrovertible evidence of a dastardly conspiracy to create a communal holocaust throughout the western districts of the province.” Namely, trunks seized from, “raids conducted on the premises of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)” which contained blueprints of the location and methods of access to every Muslim habitation in the region. Dayal pressed for Golwalkar’s immediate arrest, but Indian officials were loathe to take action. Instead, Golwalkar, “had been tipped off and he was nowhere to be found in the area.” Dayal lamented how, “the roots of the RSS had gone deep into the body politic,” and how the failure to stop them, “led to dire consequences.” ²¹
We come now to Delhi, where police reports noted how, “According to the Sangh (RSS) volunteers, the Muslims would quit India only when another movement for their total extermination similar to the one which was started in Delhi sometime back would take place… They were waiting for the departure of Mahatma Gandhi from Delhi as they believed that so long as the Mahatma was in Delhi, they would not be able to precipitate their designs into action.” Soon Golwalkar himself surfaced in Delhi, stating, “no power on Earth could keep them in Hindustan. They would have to quit the country… not a single Muslim will be left in India. … Mahatma Gandhi could not mislead them any longer. We have the means whereby such men can be immediately silenced, but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus. If we are compelled, we will have to resort to that course too.” ²²
Such rhetoric had a powerful effect, particularly on the recently arrived refugees from Pakistan, who, “could not tolerate the sight of Muslims moving about in Delhi.” British officials noted how the RSS went, “out to fetch arms and ammunition,” ²³ and that by September 1947 a, “period of horror” had grasped the residents of Delhi, as, “Moslems were being systematically hunted down and butchered.” The specific nature of the atrocities are similar to the Gurhmekhtesar episode narrated above, though the scale was an order of magnitude greater; tens of thousands of Muslims were murdered, and hundreds of thousands expelled from their homes.²⁴
This attempted genocide against the Muslims of Delhi would likely have succeeded were it not for the intervention of Gandhi, whose arrival was compared, “to the arrival of the rains after a particularly long and harsh summer.” ²⁵ He soon entered into what would be his final fast, “on behalf of the Muslim minority of the Indion Union,” and would not relent until leaders from all parties agreed to, “protect the life, liberty, and faith of Muslims.” ²⁶
The response in Delhi was remarkable. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs ceased their attacks, and with, “contrition written on people’s faces, a stoop in their walk, tears in their eyes,” they joined Gandhi’s fast. South Indian troops, who traditionally have little affinity for Hindu Nationalism, were brought in to maintain order. Government and civil society leaders, including grudging representatives from the RSS and Hindu Mahasabha, signed on to Gandhi’s demands, and in January of 1948 the fast was ended. In a tragedy that shocked Indians to their core however, Gandhi was murdered only 12 days later.²⁷
Advance and Retreat
The culprit was Nathuram Godse, a Brahmin, and member of both the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. He had a long standing grievance against Gandhi’s, “appeasement towards the Muslims”, and as Godse put it, the, “last pro-Muslim fast, at last goaded me to the conclusion that the existence of Gandhi should be brought to an end immediately.” ²⁸
The Indian government moved quickly and arrested thousands of RSS officials. Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) led the charge, having bluntly stated, “The R.S.S. is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines.” ²⁹ The Central government soon put out a statement reading, “Undesirable and even dangerous activities have been carried on by members of the Sangh (RSS). It has been found that in several parts of the country individual members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have indulged in acts of violence involving arson, robbery, dacoity, and murder and have collected illicit arms and ammunition. They have been found circulating leaflets exhorting people to resort to terrorist methods…the cult of violence sponsored and inspired by the activities of the Sangh has claimed many victims. The latest and the most precious to fall was Gandhiji himself.” ³⁰
Even Deputy PM Vallabhbhai Patel, who was often sympathetic to the Hindutva program, could not hide his contempt. In a letter to the Hindu Mahasabha, he stated, “There is no doubt in my mind that the extreme section of the Hindu Mahasabha was involved in the conspiracy [to kill Gandhi]. The activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of Government and the State.” ³¹ In a separate message to Golwalkar, he noted, “Organising the Hindus and helping them is one thing but going in for revenge for its sufferings on innocent and helpless men, women and children is quite another thing…All their (RSS) speeches were full of communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison in order to enthuse the Hindus and organise for their protection. As a final result of the poison, the country had to suffer the sacrifice of the invaluable life of Gandhiji. Even an iota of the sympathy of the Government, or of the people, no more remained for the RSS. In fact opposition grew. Opposition turned more severe, when the RSS men expressed joy and distributed sweets after Gandhiji’s death.” ³²
By February 1948 the RSS had been banned in India. Patel spent the next year cajoling an imprisoned Golwalkar into accepting a reformed charter for the organization, and while various points were litigated, one particular issue bears especial scrutiny.
Congress leadership had drafted a constitution enshrining secular democracy as the founding principle of India. Hindu Nationalists however preferred an autocracy, “with a Hindu as a dictator”, whose rule was based on the controversial Hindu scripture Manusmriti. As the RSS outlet Organizer put it, “The worst about the new constitution of Bharat (India) is that there is nothing Bhartiya (Indian) about it… there is no trace of ancient Bhartiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it…Manu’s Laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.” Prominent figures like Savarkar agreed, the latter proclaiming, “Today Manusmriti is Hindu Law.” ³³
Its worth noting that like many ancient religious texts, the Manusmriti contains a number of problematic stipulations. On women it states, “In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent” and, “Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.” On low caste Hindus (Shudras), it declares, “If he arrogantly teaches Brahmanas (high castes) their duty, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and into his ears”, and that Brahmins can compel a Shudra, “to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent (Svayambhu) to be the slave of a Brahmana.” ³⁴ Its little wonder that B.R. Ambedkar, one of India’s founding fathers and leading social reformers, publicly burned the Manusmriti, in an event that is celebrated by low-caste Hindus to this day.³⁵
Eventually Golwalkar agreed to the Indian government’s demands in exchange for the reinstatement of the RSS, and by 1950 the ban had been lifted.³⁶ Various prominent Hindu Nationalists were also released from custody.
Hindu Nationalism is a far-right extremist ideology that is modelled after Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Its architects envisioned a Hindu supremacist state where minorities were offered the choice of serfdom or extermination. This Hindutva program was well underway until its adherents overstepped by killing Gandhi, which galvanized the Indian government into cracking down on the movement.
Removing a snake’s fangs is useless however, if the venom continues to spread. Following their reprimand, Hindu Nationalists spent the next 15 years propagating their ideology across India through various grassroots initiatives. By 1964 Nehru had passed away, and with him, the last remaining obstacle to a Hindutva resurgence. Shortly after, Hindu-Muslim “riots” began to increase, and Hindu Nationalists started to assert themselves politically. The Hindutva revival reached its culmination in 2014, when the BJP (RSS political branch) won control of the Indian government. My next piece will focus primarily on the rise of the BJP, and how its continuing the legacy of extremism that its revered forefathers began decades ago.
- Bombay High Court, NASIK CONSPIRACY CASE-1910
- Babli Sinha, South Asian Transnationalisms: Cultural Exchange in the Twentieth Century, Page 129
- V.S. Savarkar, Essentials of Hindutva, Pages 19, 33, 42
- Keith Meadowcroft, The Emergence, Crystallization, and Shattering of a Right-Wing Alternative to Congress Nationalism, Pages 10,11
- Marzia Casolari, Hindutva’s Foreign Tie-Up in the 1930s: Archival Evidence, excerpt from Moonje diary, Page 4
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from The Mahratta, Page 4
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from Moonje speech via NMML, Page 5
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from Preface to the Scheme of the Central Hindu Military Society and Its Military School, Page 5
- M.S. Golwalkar, We Our Nationhood Defined, Page 43
- M.S. Golwalkar, “…”, Pages 52, 55, 56
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from Press Note issued by the Hindu Mahasabha Office Bombay Branch, Page 7
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from Savarkar speech at Malegaon, Page 7
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from Savarkar speech at Thane, page 7
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from 21st Session of Hindu Mahasabha, page 8.
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from Hindu Mahasabha Spokesman, page 8.
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from Moonje letter to Khaparde page 10.
- Marzia, “…”, excerpt from report at Pune training camp, pages 10, 11
- Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition Violence, Nationalism and History in India, Pages 98, 99, 101, 106, 111
- Gyanendra Pandey, “…”, Page 110
- Gyanendra Pandey, “…”, Pages 109, 110, 114
- Rajeshwar Dyal, A Life of Our Times, Pages 93, 94
- Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi and The RSS: The Historical Record
- Ramachandra Guha, excerpts from Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914–1948
- Gyanendra Pandey, “…”, Pages 124, 128
- Gyanendra Pandey, “…”, Page 142
- Vinay Lal, Gandhi’s Last Fast, Pages 176, 182
- Gyanendra Pandey, “…”, Pages 141–146
- Excerpt from Nathuram Godse’s Statement
- National Herald India, excerpt from Nehru letter to Chief Ministers
- Teesta Setalvad, Beyond Doubt: A Dossier on Gandhi’s Assassination, Intro, Page 7
- Teesta Setalvad, “…”, An Open Letter to the RSS, Page 2
- Teesta Setalvad, “…”, Intro, Page 8
- Anand Teltumbde, Hindutva and Dalits: Perspectives for Understanding Communal Praxis, Page 7
- Manusmriti, Verses 5.148, 5.154, 8.272, and 8.413
- Times of India, Dalit activists set fire to Manusmriti
- The Hindu, Excerpts from Government communique dated 11 July, 1949 announcing the lifting of the ban on RSS