Rise of Hindtva


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On January 30, 1948, Nathuram Godse fired three shots into the chest of Mohatmas Gandhi as he walked to an evening prayer at a friend's house in New Delhi. This violent end brought to the life of India's national preacher of non-violent resistance shocked the nation while bringing the Hindu nationalist movement to the world's attention. While the backlash from the nation and the government seriously damaged the movement, the assassination of Gandhi symbolized the Hindu nationalist movement's shift from a grassroots, religious campaign to a violent, militant one.

Mohatmas Gandhi


With the rise of Hindu nationalist groups like the BJP, RSS, and VHP, Indian politics has been permeated with anti-secular viewpoints. Seeking an atavistic return to the Verdic Golden Age of the Hindu Lord Ram, these groups have pushed towards oppression of many religious minorities in the country. This popular movement has transferred the traditionally secular and tolerant Indian government into a militant and jingoistic regime characterized by its movement towards intolerance of Indian Muslims. The following paper discusses the history of the Hindu nationalist movement along with an analysis of the groups impetus, the movement's roots in Hindu religious tradition, and the Hindu nationalist's goals in India. It concludes with a brief survey of possible outcomes.


India has long been among a group of countries which Mark Juergensmeyer describes as "Western-style secular nationalists who subscribe at least nominally to the dominant religion of their country but stop short of proclaiming their country a religious state" (Juergensmeyer 78). This can be seen in the governments attempts to include all religions in the Hindu tradition of assimilating other religions into Hinduism. However, the concessions made to other religions provided impetus to the Hindu nationalist groups. The Hindu nationalist movement began around the turn of the century as a grassroots campaign to integrate traditional Hinduism with the secularized government under imperialist Britain. Originally, the movement took on a more nationalistic character arguing for an independent India. However, as the movement gained popularity, it took on a more militant and intolerant stance.

Origins of the Groups Involved

The rise of Hindu nationalism can be traced to the Arya Samaj in the late nineteenth century. Like many leaders of ethnic and religious solidarity movements, Arya Samaj's founder Swami Dayanda believed that Hinduism was being tainted by western influences. Though he accepted western social and scientific theory, he felt that Hinduism reached its peak during the Verdic Golden era. Like many South Asian movements, Dayanda refused to reject modernization completely. Instead he wanted to retain what he viewed as the positive elements of Western culture, but rejected those that did not contribute to Indian advancement. The people of the Verdic age were the chosen people before falling into a "decadent state characterized by the basest superstitions and idolatry" (Jaffrelot 16). Originally and ethnic-based identity movement, the group did not consider themselves Hindus, but rather called themselves Aryas. However, the Arya Samaj proposed ideas about Hinduism that would later be used as the rhetoric of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashitrya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the group which would change the movement from an ethnic-based to a religious-based identity movement during most of the twentieth century.

The Hindu Mahasabha began as an extremist wing of the Congress Party, and popularized the idea of an atavistic return to the Verdic Golden Age of the Hindu Lord Ram. It is from Mahasabha that the teachings of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar emerge. Savarkar can be seen as the father of the Hindu nationalist movement and his writing Hinduttva (Hinduness) has served as the authoritative text for following movements. Basically Hinduttva creates the idea that everyone in India is a Hindu and that India is therefore a Hindu nation. The Hindu nation is in danger, and the threat comes from 'threatening others,' who include all non-Hindus. Savarkar urged Indians to "consolidate and strengthen the Hindu nationality" and "to render it impossible for others to betray her or to subject her to unprovoked attack by any of those Pan-isms that are struggling forth from the continent" (RSS website). Though Savarkar's original Hinduttva was an ethnic identity based on geography, race and culture, the movement has since taken on a religious component largely due to the influence of the RSS. Although Mahasabha faded after expulsion from Congress in 1937, their ideas of Hinduttva and national unity were carried into prominence by the RSS and later movements (Jaffrelot 33).


It has been the RSS that has changed Hinduttva from an ethnic-based identity movement into the Hinduttva often described as a "new militant brand of Hinduism" (Triparthi 84). From the beginning, the RSS offered an alternative route opposed to the secular direction the country was taking under British control. Founded in 1925, the RSS has always been a highly organized, nationalist, chauvinistic, organization advocating the retention of a strong Hindu national identity. RSS encourages Hindu men to return to their roots and live in the Hindu tradition. Although RSS claims to be non-political, it has consistently gained support from Indians who feel traditional Hinduism is threatened by secular government and western culture, and has been actively involved in Indian national politics since its founding. In his writings, the founder of the RSS, P.P. Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewarji, creates the following mission statement dedicated to retaining a strong national identity based on Hindu religion:

RSS Founder P.P. Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewarji

"The Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindusthan [the Indian subcontinent ]. It is therefore clear that if Hindusthan is to be protected, we should first nourish the Hindu culture. If the Hindu culture perishes in Hindusthan itself, and if the Hindu society ceases to exist, it will hardly be appropriate to refer to the mere geographical entity that remains as Hindusthan. Mere geographical lumps do not make a nation." (RSS web)

Like the earlier groups, RSS goals have been characterized by an atavistic yearning for the Verdic Golden Age of India. Originally a men's only group, RSS has always supported the return to the patriarchal tradition in Hinduism where women are expected to dedicate their lives to serving their husbands. Though there is now a female branch of the RSS (also called the RSS), women are forbidden serious roles in the organization. RSS's original mission of encouraging "the undying vitality of Hindu manhood to assert itself so vigorously as to make Hindudom tremble." (Juergensmeyer 84) leaves little room for women's rights. RSS sees as enemies liberals who encourage a secular state, sympathizers to Muslim Pakistan, and Muslims and foreigners who were bringing the "perish of Hindustan itself" as proclaimed by Hedgewarji (RSS website). Though RSS leaders claims to be simply pro-Hindu, their acceptance of Muslims has serious limitations. One firm belief is that Indians are Hindus and that Indian Muslims were forced to convert and should return to their proper roots by converting from Islam back to Hinduism. In an essay about the RSS activism in Britain, Pragna Patel writes "The RSS claims to a be a cultural organization working mainly with boys and young men (and more recently women), but whose leaders in the past, have aspired to emulate German nationalism under Hitler, built on anti-Semitic and racist ideology. Its central objective is to forge a militant Hindu identity, by communalising the arenas of sports culture and other extra-parliamentary spaces." (Patel web)

As India moved towards independence from Britain, two dichotomous views about India's future developed. The first, which was advocated by India's Congress Party, encouraged national unity through diversity and were proponents of secular government in India. The RSS was the leading proponent of the opposing view, and its participation grew rapidly through their push for a Hindu nation. Despite much pressure from the Hindu nationalist camp, the Congress Party of India proved stronger, and Gandhi left Britain with an independent India on August 14, 1947. Frustrated by Gandhi's acquiescence to the British concerning an independent nation of Pakistan and his impartial and tolerant attitude toward Muslims, a group of Hindu nationalists planned the assassination of India's leader and national hero.

Gandhi's Assassination On The RSS

The RSS suffered a major blow after the Godse's assassination of Gandhi. Godse was actively involved with the RSS, and during his trial indicated that many of his views were shaped by the group. In addition, the mastermind of the murder plot, Naryan Apte, was also found to be a part of the RSS. Despite substantial evidence during the trial presented by Godse and Apte themselves, the RSS denies that the two were members. Their assertion is founded in the fact that they do not technically have membership, but rather people participate in the group without official recognition. Whether Godse was a member of RSS, the immediate reaction by the nation and government was anger directed at the Hindu nationalist movement. Hindu nationalist parties were banned for more than 10 years, and in the words of the RSS, they were "rudely shaken by Gandhi's killing and the Government's political exploitation of that national tragedy." The movement lost most of its credibility and the Hindu nationalists were not participants in the drafting of the secular constitution of 1950.


The Hindu nationalist movement wallowed in relative obscurity, but began a resurgence in the 1960s. An early indicator of the movements return was the formation of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). VHP was founded in 1964 by Hindu religious leaders reacting against Christian and Muslim proselytization of Hindus. The VHP soon joined forces with RSS to bring religion-based identity-politics back to India. The VHP's support drastically increased during the early 1980s in response to mass proselytizing and conversion of South Indian Hindus. Though not a popular organization, VHP is characterized by incredibly devoted and dedicated members and have proven to be militantly active in marches through Muslims areas and in their destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. As Patel writes:

"The VHP is a rabid Hindu revivalist organization that was mainly responsible for the organization that was mainly responsible for the Hindu yatras (marches) organized all over India in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its main objective is to forge a mass Hindu identity based on anti-Muslim hatred. The yatras were a particularly effective in stirring up communal riots because they were carefully orchestrated to take place in Muslim ghettos." (Patel website)

Congress Party

The significant rise of the Hindu nationalist movement was due not only to the popularity of the Hinduttva and religious rhetoric. India's oldest political party, Congress, also played a major role in the movement's resurgence. Lead by Mohatmas Gandhi, Congress "used both parliamentary and non-violent resistance and non-cooperation to achieve independence [from Britain in 1947]" (US State Department). Under the leadership of Jawarharlal Nehru, Congress took the reigns when India was handed over by the British. Since Nehru, Congress has controlled the Lok Sabha --India's lower parliament and the only real national governing body-- except for two short-lived periods (1977-80 and 1989-91) and 1996-present (KKJ 473). The first loss of power in 1977 was due to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's declaration of a state of emergency in 1975 and subsequent suspension of Indian democracy. However, she returned to power in 1980 and Congress retained power until 1989. The 1989 elections left the Janata Party --which is actually composed of several smaller parties-- in power. However, their term was short-lived due to their inability to form an effective coalition, and Congress returned to power in 1991 under Narasimha Rao.

Because of its historical domination of Indian governance, Congress had long been seen as India's most stable political force. However, during Rao's term "organizational and ideological disarray" (Ganguly 409) brought strength to regional and alternative national parties including the BJP. Although Rao's government was marked by many domestic and international achievements, it suffered from the numerous scandals towards the end of Rao's term. These scandals led to Congress's worst electoral showing since independence. The corruption scandals which plagued Congress in Spring 1996 played a substantial role in the popularity of the emerging Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).


The BJP began in 1980 as a fusion of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and the Janata party after the Janata led coalition fell apart in 1979. The BJP considers Syama Prasad Mookerjee its founder, although he actually only founded the BJS and died in 1953. From its founding, the BJP's mission has included making India a nationalist and Hindu state. Their website contains the mission statement of "[the BJP] has no doubt that we were and are a Hindu nation; that change of faith cannot mean change of nationality" (BJP Website). With close ties to the RSS, the BJP has long seen the secular Congress as its target.

Although BJP's message is more moderate than that of the RSS, it does advocate a state sponsored Hindu religion, and subscribes to the Hinduttva notion of a distinctly Hindu national ethnicity in India. Their website forwards their maxim of "Justice for all and appeasement of none" (BJP web), and their justice is a distinctly Hindu justice. In addition to Hinduttva, the party also subscribes to the philosophical teachings of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya from his 1965 lectures on 'Integral Humanism.' Upadhyaya saw the "basic cause of the problems facing Bharat (India) as the neglect of its national identity" (Upadhyaya BJP web). According to the BJP, the national identity necessary is a religious version of the Hinduttva created by Savarkar fused with a more assertive India. With official party philosophy based on Hinduttva and Integral Humanism the BJP has been seen as some in India and outside as a fascist party bent on crushing Indian Muslims and other religious minorities. Pragna Patel writes "The BJP is a political party whose primary focus is to gain electoral dominance on the back of Hindu communalism and fundamentalism" (Patel web).

As the entire Hindu nationalist movement gained popularity, the BJP's performance in national elections improved rapidly. In 1984, the BJP's first run for election, they returned with only two of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha. However, ethnic conflict between Muslims and Hindus in Assan state from 1980-86 killed 5,000 Indians and galvanized both sides of the Hindu nationalist movement. In 1989 the BJP grabbed 86 seats to become the 3rd largest party in parliament. Though the party originated in the North and still retains firm control in the region, their message has grown popular with the Hindu middle classes. By the 1991 election, the BJP was able to take 120 seats in the Lok Sabha. The movement had gained significant momentum and this gave popular support to the previously more obscure organizations like RSS and VHP. The most significant act in the movement's history came in 1992 in town of Ayodhya which is one of seven sacred cities of Hinduism.

The Destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya

The common goal of the Hindu nationalists is the return to the Golden Age of Ram. "In the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., northern India was unified under the Gupta Dynasty. During this period, known as India's Golden Age, Hindu culture and political administration reached new heights" (US State Department). Because of the importance of Lord Ram to the Hindu nationalists, the most significant holy place for the Hindu nationalists is a location in Ayodhya in the Northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The site is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram who ruled India during the Verdic Golden Age spoken of in RSS, VHP, and BJP texts. The reign of Lord Ram is important to the Hindu nationalists because "the mythical reign of Lord Rama [is] shorthand for a time when crime was nonexistent, peace reigned, and people were happy" (Triparthi 88)

Originally believed to be the site of a Hindu temple, it is widely believed that Muslims destroyed the temple in the 16th century. The Muslims then built the Babri Mosque which stood from the 16th century. In 1949 some idols of Ram were found in the mosque, and although widely believed to have been planted, to some the idols indicated that the location was clearly the birthplace of Ram. Since that time, the mosque has been a site of frequent contention, and on December 6, 1992, a group of Hindu nationalists stormed the mosque killing Muslims worshipping within and destroying the structure. Participants included members of the VHP and RSS which recognize the birthplace of Ram as the most holy place in India.

The BJP Descends to Power

After the storming of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, street riots left 2,000-4,000 Muslims in Ayodhya dead. The anger directed at innocent Muslims shows the militant and extremist measures that the groups involved are willing to take. While Congress could have used the anti-Muslim destruction of the Babri Mosque to galvanize the secular camp, it failed to condemn the violence. Congress lost a great amount of support from Indian Muslims who felt that Congress had a clear objective to protect the Muslims and their place of worship at Ayodhya. With the weakening of Congress and a strengthening of the Hindu nationalist movement, by May 1996, the BJP was able to become the plurality party in the Lok Sabha capturing 195 seats behind the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

As the plurality party, the BJP was asked to form and lead a coalition government which would be lead by Vajpayee as Prime Minister. However, due to its alienation of Muslims through the hard-line Hindu nationalist edge, the BJP was unable to find any coalition partners. After 13 days, a 14-party coalition known as the United Front took control of the government under Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. After an ineffective two year reign, Gowda's United Front coalition broke apart and new elections were called for by the President in March 1997. The next election was held in February 1998 and the BJP again won the most seats taking 182 of 545 seats. Given its second opportunity in two years, the BJP was able to form a loose 12-party coalition and took control of the government on March 20, 1998.

The ascension of the BJP to power could not have occurred without its alliance with the RSS. Part of the RSS's strength comes from its incredible organization and the dedication of its workers. As the RSS website indicates: "Strength, it should be remembered, comes only through organization. It is therefore the duty of every Hindu to do his best to consolidate the Hindu society. The Sanghis just carrying out this supreme task." (Besant, RSS website). The RSS's incredibly organized and hard-working pracharaks provided the BJP with enough dedicated campaigners to become the plurality party. However, the RSS and BJP union would later cause problems for the BJP which has often been criticized for its ties to the more extremist RSS.

Under Prime Minister Vajpayee and the BJP, the Indian government has shown itself to be more assertive, militaristic, and nationalistic. This is most evident by India's underground testing of nuclear weapons on May 11 and 13, 1998. As a country which achieved independence through non-violent resistance, the testing of nuclear weapons marks as a complete turnaround. Though India is a country containing many impoverished people who are hungry, diseased, and in need of basic necessities like shoes and shelter, the decision to test the weapons received great support from the population. The insistent testing despite disapproval from the US and most other developing nations is characteristic of the Hindu nationalist movement's notion of Hindu masculine assertiveness.


The nuclear testing in May indicated that the BJP plans to use foreign policy to unite Indians around the nationalist movement at home. As the only substantial nation of Hindu peoples in a region composed of militant Chinese and Muslims, the Hindu nationalist movement clearly capitalizes on the fear of cultural and military invasion by its neighbors. In addition, the nationalist movement has gained strength with their aggressive policies concerning the disputed lands in the northeast and northwest where India, China, and Pakistan offer different claims of sovereignty. The movement also comes as a reaction to perceived internal difficulties with Muslims and against Western society and secular viewpoints.

Like most other religious and identity based movements, the Hindu nationalists look yearningly into the past. The historical moment which is most looked to is the Verdic Golden Age of Lord Ram which occurred during the 4th and 5th centuries AD when the subcontinent was composed of hundreds of Hindu kingdoms. This time of feudalism is where the movement derives the legitimacy of violence since during this time Ksatryas (warrior caste members) were important to the maintenance of the smaller Hindu kingdoms. According to the RSS and VHP, this period of heightened spirituality was ended by Muslim conquerors who swept across the Indian subcontinent from the 5th to the 10th century. While Muslims occupied and governed much of the subcontinent, the southern portion remained under Hindu rule. "During this time, the two systems--the prevailing Hindu and Muslim--mingled, leaving lasting cultural influences on each other" (US state department).

Anti-Muslim Sentiment

Though the BJP and RSS claim to be pro-Hindu and deny fascist leanings, it is clear through their own rhetoric and actions that the Hindu nationalist movement is unequivocally anti-Muslim. RSS involvement in the destruction of the Babri Mosque is indicative of their anti-Muslim sentiment. As for the BJP, their inability to form a government in 1996 was directly linked to their anti-Muslim leanings; other parties would not join their coalition because these smaller parties felt that they would be alienating every Muslim who may have supported their election. One of the movement's most cited thinkers is Dr. Annie Besant who asks the questions: "If Hindus do not maintain Hinduism, who shall save it? If India's own children do not cling to her faith, who shall guard it? India alone can save India, and India and Hinduism are one" (RSS web).

The RSS and BJP are angered by what they see as Congress's "pseudo-secularism" of politics (Juergensmeyer 84). Criticism of Congress's pseudo-secularism comes from their attempt to accommodate all religions. Past court decisions have given protection to Muslim and Christian minorities by approving the ban of film, books, and other media which are seen as anti-Christian or anti-Muslim (Triparthi 85). The Hindu nationalist movement sees this as Congress's favoritism towards Muslims, and recent court cases have been brought by Indian Hindus asking for the same protection against anti-Hindu cultural elements. Freedom of speech and the press has been the victim, and this strain on liberties exacerbates the conflicts between minority religions and Hindus. In addition to these concessions to minority religions, the movement is a reaction against perceived unfair gains by Muslims from the governments liberal giving in social programs.

Though the constitution guarantees social welfare, the Hindu nationalists feel the programs are too favorable to minorities. While this is clearly unfounded, the mere perception is enough to anger some Indians and bring popularity to the movement. Much of the popularity for this common misconception comes from history. This liberal giving to Muslims brings back memories of the 5th century mythical "Muslim who invaded India centuries ago and transformed the Ram Rajya into a nation of paupers" (Tripari 89). As Triparthi writes, the Hindu nationalists "seek an outsider to blame for today's problems and finds a handy scapegoat [Indian Muslims] in the 'enemy within'" (89).

Further evidence that the Hindu nationalist movement thrives on anti-Muslim sentiments is the 1987-1989 television airing of the two great Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharat . The first to air was Ramayana which tells the story of the ideal Hindu man, Rama. Rama's wife is kidnapped by a demon and he must venture to Sri Lanka to retrieve her. It is from Rama that many of the ideas of Hinduttva and the ideal Hindu way of life are drawn. Mahabarata is more religiously charged; it tells the story of five Hindu princes who were cheated by Muslims out of their kingdoms. However, the princes later returned from banishment to fight a glorious holy war and are returned to their thrones. These historical epics contain many of the basic tenets of Hinduism, and were the most watched shows in Indian television history. The airing of the epics obviously angered Muslims in the country due to the program's depiction of Muslims as murderous invaders. The airing of these shows, according to Mark Juergensmeyer, "is credited with fueling the revival of religious politics [in India]" (85).

Capitalizing on the perceived 'enemy within,' the BJP has gained significant support by pushing for an anti-Muslim Uniform Civil Code (UCC). The Indian constitution is a federal system, and individual states are responsible for agriculture, education, and law (KKJ 465). Under current Indian law states and localities are allowed to have different personal laws to accommodate the various religions in the regions. The UCC is adamantly opposed by orthodox Muslims, and is also seen as a ploy to "secure the votes of segments of the Hindu community that believe Muslims have disproportionately benefited from the government's largesse" (Ganguly 148). In addition to the proposition of the UCC, the BJP has proposed an atavistic ban on Cow slaughter which is detested by conservative and Brahmin (priest or upper caste) Hindus who are traditionally vegetarians.

Although Muslims compose only 14% of Indian population, this is well over 100 million people and 1/2 of the subcontinent's Muslims live in India. In addition to perceived Muslim benefits from government favoritism, Muslims are seen by the Hindu nationalists as a Pakistani element in India. RSS and VHP see Indian Muslims as having been forcefully converted to Islam and ask for their return to Hinduism. The BJP claims "It has nothing against Muslim Indians - as distinguished from Muslim invaders... but it has no doubt that we were and are a Hindu nation; that change of faith cannot mean change of nationality." (BJP Website). According to the BJP, by creating a nation with Hindu based laws, "India is not being created, they argue, it is being reconstructed after centuries of pillage by outsiders" (Adhikari 407).

Failure of Congress and Secular West

As explained previously, the popularity of Hindu nationalist groups is due in large part to the failure of Congress during the 1980s and 1990s. As Mark Juergensmeyer indicates when he writes , "What is striking about these South and Southeast Asian cases of religious activism is how consistently they aim at political targets in order to solve religious problems or to bring about a consolidation of religious identities and values"(80): these movements are often reactions against ineffective or illegitimate government. Hinduism holds honor and morality highly, and the uncovering of Congress as corrupt and scandalous during the spring of 1996 allowed the BJP to claim to be the only major political party featuring classical Hindu morality embodied in its members. Capitalizing on Congress's moral transgressions, the BJP openly criticizes the Congress government's faults writing "opportunists with no principles reign in politics of our country. Parties and politicians have neither principles nor aims nor a standard code of conduct" (BJP Web). The intensely organized and conservative RSS, VHP and BJP can claim to be the moral leaders of the country by pointing to the moral failures of the leading opposition party.

Reactions against Congress's Western leanings are also evident. Under Rao the Indian government became more involved with international trade and became an active member of the UN. Like most communal religious movements, the Hindu nationalists see the West as a pervasive, culture destroying force, and the BJP attempts to harness this anti-Western sentiment. Unlike many other fundamentalist movements around the world, the Hindu nationalists do not completely reject western ideas. The BJP's official stance states: "Whereas western science is universal and must be absorbed by us if we wish to go forward, the same is not true about the western way of life and values. In fact thoughtless imitation of the West must be scrupulously discarded" (BJP website). The movement wants to retain the modernization characteristics without losing their own Hinduttva.

India's testing of nuclear weapons in May clearly indicates the BJP's intention to use outside enemies to galvanize support for their internal policies. The greatest external threats to India come from China and Pakistan. Conflict with Pakistan comes not only from the historical religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims, but also from differing views on the Indian state of Kashmir in the north. Seen as a major threat is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. Pakistan's own religious fundamentalist movement has gained strength paralleling the rise of Hindu nationalists in India. Because of this religious resurgence in Pakistani politics, the country is high on diplomat's lists of countries with prominent anti-western and anti-democracy movements. In addition to the Islamic movement in Pakistan, the country has also been historically conflicting with India over the fate of the Kashmir region.

Pakistan and Kashmir


When the British bifurcated the subcontinent into the independent nations of India and Pakistan, the fate of Kashmir was left to the Hindu Maharaja (prince) of Kashmir. In 1947, the Maharaja decided to remain a part of India despite the majority-Muslim population in the region. India bases its decision to keep Kashmir on the elections held since 1947 and the Maharaja's original decision to join India rather than form an independent nation or a union with Pakistan. Pakistan never recognized the Maharaja's authority to make the decision for Kashmir and relies on a UN resolution and an older Indian pledge in support of Kashmir's self-determination. This dispute triggered wars between the two countries in 1947, 1965, and 1971 (US State Dept. website). The disputed region is important to Pakistani's who feel that the regions large Muslim population is treated unfairly by the Indian government. They also point to the land's contiguity as geographical logic for a union with Pakistan. India's interest in the Kashmir state comes from a belief that a "Muslim-majority state could thrive under the aegis of a secular polity" (Ganguly, "Opportunity," 415). In 1997, India and Pakistan began talks which would attempt to find a peaceful solution to the Kashmir question. Both countries have an interest in avoiding further conflict over the region, and optimism runs high for the meetings. As a real indication that relations are improving between the two countries, bus service between New Delhi, India and Lahore, Pakistan began in November, 1998. This is the first time buses have connected the two countries in more than 30 years (New York Times).

China, the Sikhs, and others

In addition to disputes with Pakistan, India has also had a history of conflict with China. The BJP government's test of nuclear weapons shows the parties assertiveness and desire to be a military contender in the South and East Asian regions. While China represents a different culture and religion than India, the dispute with China has much less to do with identity than does India's dispute with Pakistan. Cold relations between India and China date back to their 1962 border war. When fighting ceased, China had occupied 11,500 square mile of previously Indian land in the Himalayas. Though still not a friendly relationship, both countries are moving towards normalizing relations. However, India's test of nuclear weapons may have a substantial effect on the relationship (US Department of State website).

Other internal and external tensions provide some fuel to the nationalist movement. In the early 1980s Sikhs--who compose less than two percent of India's population but approximately 50% of the northern state of Punjab-- pushed for their own independence movement. Seeing the independent nation of Pakistan and angered by the secular government's leanings toward Hinduism, Sikhs sought their independence from the government. While initially Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attempted to meet many of the Sikh's demands, Sikh leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale established an independent government in the Sikh's most holy place, Amristar's Golden Temple. Frustrated by the unwillingness of Bhindranwale, Gandhi ordered troops to storm the temple. More than 2,000 people were killed including Bhindranwale, and a storm of violence began. The conflict was ended in 1993 when the Sikh resistance movement had been crushed by the national military forces (Juergensmeyer 90-99). While of little lasting impact on the nation, the conflict with the Sikhs is indicative of the violent trends of the nationalist movements within the subcontinent. There is also infrequent violence directed at the countries other minority groups which include Christians, Buddhists, and Jain.


The major difficulty with determining if the movement is a legitimate extension of tradition is that the Hindu religion has evolved over 4,000 years and has no central hierarchy. Interpretation of Hinduism varies so widely that one can find support for almost any movement imaginable. There are four aims of life in Hinduism. The most important aim is Dharma, which requires a commitment to an ideal way of life. Dharma, like most of Hinduism, is highly personal. Since Hinduism believes in the transmigration of souls--the notion that one's soul passes from body to body until it achieves purity-- the ultimate goal is moksa (liberation), which is the end of the rebirth cycle.

Hinduism's History of Tolerance and Non-violence

The commitment of Hindu's to Dharma makes Hinduism a traditionally personal and unstructured religion. Because the religion recognizes no single basic text, prophet, or god, the Hindu tradition was to accommodate other religious beliefs by assimilating these beliefs into Hinduism. Thus, Hinduism has become incredibly diverse. Due to Hinduism's lack of hierarchy and emphasis on the individual, Hinduism is not a missionary religion. Many see the Hindu nationalist's goal of converting Indian Muslims as a break from classic Hindu toleration. As Robert Hardgrave writes "Hindu nationalists project a mythic Hindu majority that denies the diversity that makes Hinduism--and India--what it is" (website).

In addition to ending Hinduism's tradition of tolerance, the Hindu nationalists use of violence can be seen as a transgression of traditional Hinduism. The Sanatanadharma (general duties which all Hindus should strive to achieve) include honesty, service, faith, purity, self-control, and non-violence. The last Sanatanadharma was embodied in Congress's and Mohatmas Gandhi's non-violent struggle for Indian independence. Hardgrave writes "They have invented a muscular Hinduism that would, through a state, impose a conformity as oppressive to the individual Hindu as to the recalcitrant minority" (website).

Where the BJP, RSS, and VHP Find Legitimacy

Though the movement has no aims to create a Hindu theocracy due to Hinduism's lack of hierarchy, the Hindu nationalists push for official ties between Hinduism and the government. Though there is no specific Hindu doctrine, "in classical Hindu social thought, religious and political dimensions of life were linked" (Juergensmeyer 81). While the movement discounts the traditions of non-violence, they look to ancient history for legitimization of violence. When India was ruled by hundreds of small Hindu kingdoms, the Ksatriya (warrior/ruler class) was important in serving to protect the small kingdoms from foreign invaders. The violence towards Muslims depicted in the Hindu epic Ramayana shows a time when violence was an intricate part of Hindu survival. The Anti-western sentiment of the Hindu nationalists comes from two of the four aims of Hinduism kama (enjoyment of desire) and artha (material prosperity). These aims are seen as much lower than Dharma, and are viewed as characteristic of western nations. The tradition of tolerance can also be seen as a weak or nonexistent tradition. Hinduism's tendency to assimilate all other religions into itself is seen by Jurgensmeyer as "a stance that is, in fact, an ability to absorb an opposition and ultimately to dominate it" (82)


Fate and Goals of the BJP

Neither the RSS nor the BJP advocate a Hindu theocracy in India. Hinduism's lack of structure, leadership, and hierarchy makes this nearly impossible. However, the Hindu nationalist movement is not without extreme goals. An important figure in the RSS, Akhund Bharat, displays a map which shows India extending from Afghanistan to Burma. While this represents an extremist view held by the movement, reality will keep India from expansionist warfare. However, if Pakistan were to fall to the Islamic fundamentalists, a war with Pakistan is not out of the question. It must be noted that the BJP has never come close to an actual majority of seats in parliament, and polls indicate that their national support is much less than that needed to obtain a majority.

While the movement has substantial support in the North and with the middle classes, the lower castes are extremely skeptical to support for the Hindu nationalist movement because of the BJP's message of eliminating the caste system despite the party's composition which is mostly Brahmins. The BJP's failure to form a government in 1996 shows that their alienation of Muslims and moderate Hindus combined with their close ties to the RSS imposes serious limitations on their appeal. To truly become the ruling party in India, the BJP will have to moderate its message, but this seems unlikely since it would then lose its appeal to Hindu nationalists. Should BJP achieve full majority power, the Hindu nation of Nepal should be examined as a model for a Hindu government. However, that analysis is beyond the scope of this report.

Another possible outcome is that the movement will lose its appeal as other issues take precedence. Though the BJP showed strong in the spring national elections, rising vegetable prices have extremely damaged the party. In November state elections, the BJP lost power in Delhi and Rajasthan (Dugger, "Nationalists"). The loss of Rajasthan comes as a surprise since the state had previously been strongly in support of the BJP. The recent onion price crisis shows that the BJP's hard-line nationalist edge will not carry it through hard times; for the BJP to continue its success, it will need to prove that it can effectively run the Indian government. The BJP losses in state elections points to two aspects of Indian politics, the checks provided in a federal system of government and the reemergence of India's Congress Party.

Effects of Federalism and Diversity

The Indian constitution outlines substantial goals for government. The constitution requires that welfare and social justice cannot be ignored. The federal division of powers is also clearly designed: the federal government is responsible for national defense, foreign policy, spending, and economic planning while state cover agriculture, education, and law (KKJ 465). Politics on the subcontinent are strongly affected by region; the nation is divided by 35 languages (only 40% speak Hindi), each spoken by more than 1,000,000 people. In addition, caste differences are a deunifying force. The nations great diversity and the federal system allow the states to have much power in education and law. The BJP will have great difficulty incorporating its laws into states which it does not control. As Ganguly indicates, the country may be too diverse for the BJP to affect its Hinduttva laws such as the UCC. The only control they have is that states require federal funding for programs; grants can be given with strings attached. The federal government may attempt to use these incentives to further BJP laws, but this may lead to a backlash from state governments and voting populations.

Revival of Congress

The November defeat of the BJP in Delhi and Rajasthan as well as Madhya Pradesh indicates a revival of the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress Party. Though Congress only occupies 141 of the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, they have been the traditional rulers of India. Congress's fall from power began in the 1980s and was facilitated by their loss of Muslim support after the destruction of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya. In 1996, the party looked to be coming to an end. Ganguly writes: "its weak organization, crippled leadership, and incoherent ideological vision [leave Congress] in no position to withdraw its support and thus bring down the present [United Front-led] government" (Ganguly 410). One major problem for Congress was its lack of leadership. Traditionally Congress has been lead by members of a few families, but after the assassination of many of its most prominent figures, it was left without the family leadership it had relied on during the first 40 years of democratic India. However, with the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as its leader, Congress has returned to the family leadership it has usually known. The electoral success in the state elections and the population's growing discontent with BJP shortcomings prophesies future success for the Congress Party.

Congress preaches a very secular message. Their website boasts of achieving "Unity through Diversity." Since its founding, it has relied on the belief that all people living in India are Indians, not only those who are Hindu. As Congress fought for an independent India, it "embraced all peoples, cultures and communities into its fold in its fight for freedom" (Congress Website). Congress can now benefit as the BJP did, by not being the party in power. Seeing the BJP's shortcomings, Congress can point to BJP failure to achieve power. They also offer a diametrically opposed vision of India, which may gain appeal with Indians who prefer the classical tolerance of Hinduism. Congress may also be able to regain its popularity with Muslims as the Babri Mosque failure is forgotten and the BJP's anti-Muslim rhetoric frightens Muslims into voting for the party whose historical message has been "... I am an Indian and owe duty to my work and all my countrymen. Whether I am a Hindu or a Mohammedan, a Parsi, a Christian, or of any other creed, I am above all an Indian. Our country is India and our nationality is Indian." (Dadabhai Naoroji, Congress Website).



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Last updated: January 17, 2001 .