Nationalism in Context: Hindutva and India's Ideological Shift to the Right
By Namrata Verghese
In India, on September 28, 2015, a 50-year-old man named Mohammed Akhlaq was preparing to go to bed when his night—and India’s political scene—was turned upside down by a feverish mob bursting into his house. People Akhlaq considered his friends and neighbors proceeded to drag him outside his home and beat both him and his 22-year-old son, Danish, brutally, with stones and bricks. By the time the police arrived on scene an hour later, Akhlaq was dead.
Akhlaq’s “crime,” and the reason for this bloody lynching? Eating beef.
Akhlaq, a Muslim, had allegedly been seen with a bag containing meat rumored to be from a missing calf. Hindus, the religious majority in India, do not eat beef, and have long frowned upon cow slaughter. Acts of vigilante justice in reaction to beef consumption have been occurring for years; however, in Akhlaq’s case, the lynching was more than an act of religious prejudice. It was backed and justified by the evolving nationalist policies of India.
In May 2014, the year of Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister of India, his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the Parliament. The world’s largest political party in terms of primary membership, the BJP is a right-wing party with intimate ideological ties to social conservatism and Hindu nationalist principles. It adopted “Hindutva,” an extreme, predominant form of Hindu nationalism that many have condemned as fascist in its adherence to cultural hegemony, as its official ideology in 1989. Since coming to power, the BJP imposed an almost draconian ban of beef consumption in many states in Northern India, including Uttar Pradesh, the place Akhlaq called home, and the cosmopolitan Maharashtra, which encompasses India’s most urban city, Mumbai. This intolerance towards dietary staples of other religions has been perceived as one of the many manifestations of Hindutva’s pervasive, destructive influence in India.
The concept of “Hindutva” has its roots in the 20th century, when activist Vinayak Damodar Sarvarkar coined the term and its three core tenets: a common nation, a common race, and a common culture of Hinduism. This movement gained traction as a reaction against the two-state partition that claimed Pakistan as a land for Muslims, implicitly creating a religious dichotomy that blatantly defied India’s history as a secular, pluralistic democracy. Since then, the ideology has been associated with acts of religious extremism, violence, and persecution, most infamously including Hindu revivalist Nathuram Godse’s assassination of India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi.
Akhlaq’s case highlights the underlying rift that Hindutva has created in India, and urges Indians to face the violence against minorities spawned by increasing nationalistic tendencies supported by the BJP. While liberal Indians, including many scholars and opposition politicians, rallied behind Akhlaq’s family and denounced the crime, the BJP and conservative Hindus sided with the murderous mob. BJP leader Nawab Singh Nagar dismissed the outcry against the lynching, and justified the murder by saying, “If anybody was consuming cow meat, then that is wrong.” The police case drags on, as officials note that they have yet to find any credible evidence of cow slaughter, and the eighteen mob instigators accused of murder have yet to be charged.
The public uproar about Akhlaq’s death kindled a nation-wide debate on the inherent intolerance of Hindutva, and brought to light new evidence about the danger associated with it; for example, the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that, within the last five years, India has witnessed over 3,400 violent incidents resulting in deaths and injuries that can be traced back to the Hindutva movement. Modi ran for Prime Minister on promises of making India “the” world power, and pushing a development agenda that falsely swore to bring back black money from abroad and deposit 15 lakhs into every Indian’s bank account. Amidst the glamor of his campaign, it was easy to forget his nationalist past—he has reiterated, time and time again, that India should be a “Hindu Rashtra,” or a nation composed solely of Hindus—and its implications for India’s future; however, this benign negligence has yielded to the militant, chauvinistic, violent Hindutva movement that Modi overtly advocates.
The recent uptick of nationalistic violence bodes ill for India’s future as a secular state, and Modi’s tendency to push his supporters’ fundamentalist leanings can no longer be discounted. Right-wing populism is rapidly spreading across the globe—we see its effects in the swift popularity Trump’s campaign has gained, as well as in the divisive aftermath of Brexit—and India is no exception to this trend. The continental shift to the right, a reactionary response to the era of globalization, can be seen in international efforts to close borders, promote nationalism, and reify myths of national exceptionalism. This political relic of the 20th century thrives on fear, and unless India’s leaders take firm steps towards reversing the damage Hindutva has inflicted on minorities, Gandhi’s India will inevitably devolve into Godse’s India.