The rise of political and cultural Hindu assertiveness in India is connected more with notions of pride than any form of religiosity.
When supporters and activists of Hindu chauvinist organisations tore down the 16th-century Babri Masjid in the town of Ayodhya on 6 December 1992, the destruction was billed as an attempt to “restore Hindu pride”. This reference to pride clearly indicated that ´being Hindu´ to these people meant something quite different from what millions of Hindus have believed or practised as part of their daily lives for centuries.
There is no shortage of evidence to show that the sort of Hindutva being preached by organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is contrary to many of the liberal, humane, and even radical traditions contained within the broad category we call ´Hindu´. It is an inescapable fact, however, that as the twentieth century draws to a close it is precisely their kind of chauvinist Hindutva that is coming to define for many the meaning of being a Hindu.
For this reason, more than merely criticising Hindutva as “false religion”, we must try and understand the phenomenon. Especially if we agree that destroying mosques or inciting riots does not exemplify the meaning of being a Hindu, we need to know how such ideas have emerged in India. We need to identify the people and social groups who propagated these ideas, and explore the agenda that underlies modern Hindutva.
An interesting aspect of the history of modern Hindutva is that until the very recent intervention of the sadhus and mahants (heads of monastic orders) associated with the VHP, religious figures did not play a significant leadership role in modem politicised Hinduism. Rather, since back in the 1920s, it was laymen—predominantly the urban, middle class members of the RSS—who provided the cadres as well as the ideological and political leadership to the politics of Hindu assertiveness. Despite the high profile of the VHP in recent years, even the Parishad officials admit that it is the RSS leadership that retains supreme control over the Hindutva programme.
Even with the entry of high-profile religious figures of the VHP in the movement, however, matters of worship and devotion have seldom figured in the agenda. Rather, these sadhus and mahants have only added their voices to the rising chorus shouting for a revival of Hindu pride, and repeated the anti-Muslim prejudices that charac-terise the discourse of present-day Hindutva.
There is a history behind the apparent paradox of a movement that deploys religious symbols and claims a religious agenda, but has, in fact, very little to do with forms of worship, or devotion. This history can be traced back to the way early middle-class nationalists came to define the nation as they contested colonial rule. As many scholars have suggested, the late nineteenth-century middle class, which keenly felt the “oppression” of the British rulers, deployed religion in order to create a public identity that was separate from the British. This identity also helped them in generating self-respect in the arena of public sphere politics in colonial India.
While broad historical surveys are necessary in understanding the larger trends in the intellectual and political life of the Subcontinent, detailed locally based studies are helpful to explain exactly how being Hindu came to be associated with notions of “community pride”. In order to learn what went into these new ways of “being Hindu”, and what was left out when Hindu religiosity was brought into the political arena, I located my research in colonial Lucknow and, in particular, on one man.
Bishan Narain Dar was among Lucknow´s most prominent middle class activists in the late nineteenth century. A barrister trained in England, Dar was also a prominent member of the Indian National Congress, being elected its President in 1911. In 1893, Dar was called upon to defend a group of Hindu peasants in the eastern district of Azamgarh, about 200 miles east of Lucknow. These peasants had attacked Muslim property and killed scores of Muslims in order to prevent the slaughter of cows.
In his report on the Azamgarh disturbances, Dar mainly blamed the “meddlesomeness” of colonial authorities for the trouble between Hindus and Muslims. The very prosecution of Hindu rioters represented “religious persecution, pure and simple”, and the whole affair reflected an attitude which insulted Hindu religion and treated Hindu practices with “unconcealed scorn”. Wrote Dar: “Hindus have for years and years been treated like the proverbial dog whom any stick is good enough to beat with.”
Dar´s intervention highlights some important aspects of how religion was brought into the realm of public sphere politics in colonial India. The multiple meanings of ´Hindu-ness´ present among the Azamgarh peasantry were totally submerged in Dar´s report in favour of constructing a singular Hindu community that could be represented, perhaps mobilised, but most importantly, one whose ´rights´ could be defended by middle class activists like Dar.
A close reading of Dar´s report reveals that his concerns had nothing to do with religion, or the issue of cow protection. Instead, his rhetoric demonstrates the evocation of a modern Hindu religiosity by middle class activists in the public sphere, as part of their own efforts at seeking a more empowering self-image in colonial India. For instance, though he deprecated the violence that occurred in Azamgarh, Dar noted with pride the actions of the Hindu rioters, because they proved, “that the Hindus are not quite such a meek, unmanly, and contemptible race as they have been imagined”.
This way of abstracting religious identities from lived practice, and to relate it solely to notions of pride, was specifically a middle class project. While the Lucknow lawyer was clearly quite distanced from the “latent bar-bansm” (his words) of the illiterate peasants of Azamgarh, he also used the opportunity to celebrate “Hindu valour” which had defended “Hindu rights”, and to construct an idealised Hindu community.
Dar´s interpretation of “being Hindu” was devoid of any reference to actual devotional or ritual practices. Despite copious amounts of public writing that he left behind, much of it stating his firm belief in the importance of “religion”, Dar leaves no clue as to his own position on matters of devotional practice. His was an era in which there were fierce debates between orthodox Hindus and reformists, and, in fact, Dar himself had been at the centre of one such dispute when he and his family were ostracised by orthodox Kashmiri Brahmins for having travelled overseas. Yet, Dar´s writings never clarify whether, for instance, he advocated the orthodox varnaashram dharma (religion based on the four-fold caste hierarchy), or some reformed variant of Hinduism. In his writings, all one finds is condescending or derogatory reference to Hindu devotional practices.
Middle Class Empowerment
In the 1920s, possibly due to the increasing importance of numbers as a consequence of the growth of electoral politics, the sort of ´empty religiosity´ notable in Dar´s writings helped create an even more reified notion of being Hindu. There was a need for expanding the boundaries of the enumerated Hindu community.
Middle class politics in colonial Lucknow needed this sort of concretised notion of the Hindu simply because Hindu social organisation—to the extent that such a category existed—was based on principles of hierarchy rather than unity, on caste rather than community. It was only by constructing a Hindu-ness that was free of the divisions of caste, that these upper caste Hindu public sphere activists could, with any degree of legitimacy, claim to represent the rights of a Hindu community.
To successfully represent the ´rights´ of Hindus and create a stronger, more assertive Hindu self in colonial Lucknow, it was crucial to the project of Hindu publicists in the 1920s to construct, at least rhetorically, a single ´Hindu community´. To this end, Lucknow´s journals in the 1920s published some highly emotional articles in support of the rights of ´untouchables´ to enter Hindu temples.
One article in the journal Madhuri, for example, compared the situation of the ´untouchables´ with children prevented from embracing their father. Another complained that despite the fact that all the castes were originally part of the same “Divine Body”, the so-called religious authorities of Hindu temples did not let ´untouchables´ worship that divinity.
However, the deep-rooted upper caste prejudices by those advocating Hindu unity always sat uneasily with the calls to create a single Hindu community. While making impassioned pleas to allow ´untouchables´ into temples, Lucknow´s journals also warned against taking reformism too far. While it was important to recognise certain “Hindu birthrights”, argued Madhuri at one point, showing ´untouchables´ more compassion than was necessary would only divide Hindu society and harm the Hindu movement.
However much the editors of Madhuri or people like Bishen Narain Dar may have liked to believe otherwise, fault-lines based on caste and class limited the very project of creating a Hindu community.
The reason why devotional practices have had so little to do (until recently) with assertive Hinduism is thus explained by the fact that the ideology of Hindutva was part of the larger programme of upper caste, middle class empowerment. In fact, V.D. Savarkar, who first coined the term, claimed in his 1922 book Hindutva that the term had very little to do with “any particular theocratic or religious dogma or creed”. Indeed, his short mythico-historical account of the evolution of Hindutva revolves around the themes of Hindu valour, Hindu conquest, and Hindu pride.
Savarkar shared with the middle class activists of Lucknow the complete identification of Hindu-ness with a political community, and the desire to represent this community as virile and militaristic. There was overwhelming concern for self-respect, and a desire to assert a prouder, more commanding presence in the public sphere. It was these concerns, rather than forms of worship or devotion, that drove middle class politics to construct the modern Hindu persona. Thus, the fact that devotion or worship do not play a part in the construction of modern Hindu identities is not an anomaly; it merely reflects the ways in which the discourse of Hindutva entered the public arena.
Religion, anywhere, has been connected to ways of exercising power and authority, and middle class Hindu religiosity, though a modern phenomenon, nonetheless needs to be recognised as an important form of religious ideology. In the context of colonial India, the propagation of a modem, public-sphere Hindu religiosity became one way for middle class men to seek empowerment and authority.
This reconstituted Hindu religiosity which sought to transcend divisions of caste, however, revealed the limited social basis from which it emerged. The fact that one of the major political challenges to the Hindutva agenda even today comes from parties which seek to mobilise lower and backward castes in North India, points to the inherent limitations of this agenda.