Cover Story

The spectre of an ideological state

Print edition : January 28, 2022

The Dharam Sansad in Haridwar from December 16-19, 2021, where provocative speeches were made. Criticising the secular idea of India, the RSS has propagated that the secularism of Nehru and others is all about Muslim appeasement. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Statues (from right) of Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Indira Gandhi in Delhi. Every effort has been taken to portray the freedom movement as an ordinary affair, a mere cunning game of politics, quite akin to fighting the electoral politics of today. The idea of playing Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose against Gandhi and Nehru on the one hand, and Patel against Nehru on the other, is part of the same game. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

A Swachh Bharat (Clean India Mission) mural in Mumbai. Conditions are being created to present Gandhi to the coming generation as a placid semi-religious Hindu icon located within the Hindu phalanx rather than the mentor of the anti-colonial freedom movement. Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

RSS Volunteers taking out a march as part of ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ in Bhopal on January 1. The military doctrine that constituted the core of the RSS and the Maharashtra group of its enunciators such as Dr B.S. Moonje came to be associated with the demand of compulsory military service and conscription, alliance with Israel and the world’s most powerful country, the United States, and possession of a nuclear bomb. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

The proponents of Hindutva seek to replace India’s secular nationalism, which evolved through the freedom movement, with their version of Hindu cultural nationalism. With the state under their control now, they have unleashed a spate of violence against groups that are different, recalcitrant or do not want to abide by an attempted and forced assimilation to a monolithic construct.

IT HAS BEEN NOTICED BY MANY THAT THE Indian republic today is slipping into a perilously dangerous zone of losing its moorings. Scholars have seen this coming, with the constitutional soul of India being given a ‘thousand cuts'.i The arrival of an authoritarian dictatorship is also evident in the way its institutions are increasingly being rendered hollow.ii A more appropriate frame to understand this change is the emergence of an ideological state, as society and polity are rapidly being transformed into both sites of discursive and physical violence, shattering in the process the unique democratic arrangement envisioned by the founders of India’s democratic republic.iii A very violent Hindu communal ideology has rapidly been enthroned replacing secular nationalism as the guiding principle of the state.

Indian nationalism, as it evolved through the anti-colonial freedom movement, saw the coming together of diverse people of the Indian subcontinent into a nation, defined by an acceptance of their diversity into a shared foundation of secular and democratic principles and an acceptance of the telos of a ‘just and equal society’. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of Hindu communal ideology, however, never embraced this template.iv For the Sangh and its intellectual mentors, India (Bharat) had always existed as a ‘Hindu nation’, which was vanquished by foreign marauders, mostly Muslims, and the only duty left was to reestablish that Hindu nation once the British left India. The RSS and associated Hindu communal groups such as the Hindu Mahasabha used the open and democratic space available to them, even after their being under a cloud of suspicion for assassinating the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and actively propagated their ideas against the secular democratic character of the Indian polity. Literature, rumours and electoral rhetoric as well as their active role in fomenting communal riots have sustained communalisation of society on the one hand and allowed anti-democratic trends to be part of Indian politics on the other.v

Lacking in public affirmation of their ideology, however, the RSS trained its political formation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to capture the state and state apparatus to institutionalise the basic postulates of its communal ideas into an institutional and governing structure of the state. Whenever, therefore, the Sangh Parivar became part of state power either at the provincial or the Union levels in 1977, 1997 and 2014, they prioritised instilling the idea of a ‘Hindu nation’ as the normal template for Indian nationhood as against the idea of a secular state.

Also read: ‘Structurally, we have already arrived at a Hindu Rashtra’

However, modern Indian nationhood and a great part of nationalism and the republican sensibilities of contemporary Indians were a product of the way the freedom movement was fought and the ideas of citizenship, secularism, socialism, internationalism and constitutionalism became ingrained in common knowledge and sensibilities. Hence, Hindu communal formations also needed to delegitimise the repertoire of all such modern sensibilities, as the idea of a ‘Hindu nation’ did violence to these modern sensibilities. Thus, the Hindu communal ideology was to be anchored as the normal and natural template for India’s modern political, social and cultural sensibilities. The work involved twin processes, namely, delegitimisation of the modern democratic and secular nation on the one hand, while normalising and institutionalising a communal ideological template on the other. The first required an overall attack on all institutions, practices and personalities that embodied secular, democratic and universal sensibilities; the second required forcing its assertions to become the natural running template.

Delegitimising Indian nationalism and its sources

The Hindu communal propaganda since Independence has been focussed on delegitimising the freedom movement, its ideas and leadership. Mahatma Gandhi, who symbolised the core of the national movement, its popular and secular characters and its ennobling features, was assassinated by Nathuram Godse, who is quite often glorified to attack Gandhi and the national Not satisfied with the assassination, the complete obliteration of Gandhi’s place and memory in the popular psyche is consistently being worked out by separating him from his colleagues in the Congress and the national movement and projecting him as a non-political persona having increasingly lost his place in the final years of his political life owing to betrayal by his disciples, most notably Jawaharlal Nehru. If making his bespectacled face a symbol of the BJP government’s cleanliness drive (Swachhata Abhiyan) is any indication, conditions are being created to present him to the coming generation as a placid semi-religious Hindu icon located within the Hindu phalanx rather than the mentor of the anti-colonial freedom movement at the head of the Congress, whose constitution he changed in 1920 and whose movements for freedom he designed for close to 30 years.

Delegitimising the national movement also involved continuous spread of calumny regarding leaders in the public domain; in this sense Nehru has remained the most vilified, as his personal life, political leadership and international role have been regularly tarnished with untruth, false and opinionated statements by ideologues and leaders of the communal phalanx. Nehru, in more ways than one, was also the singularly strong pillar of the secular ethos of the movement and the post-Independence government, and therefore he is vilified and attacked almost incessantly.

The pattern involves propaganda by instilling in people a sense of victimhood, that is, making people believe in a new common sense that they were not the inheritors of the Independence in 1947 but were victims of it because of the machinations of the Congress Party, its leaders and, more particularly, Nehru and his followers, who were presented as agents of the British, who not only bartered the country through bad negotiation in accepting Partition but also misgoverned and, for instance, allowed China to grab land and also lost the war with it. They also allowed the enemy population, read Muslim, to increase in population, thereby threatening another demand for partition by Muslims in the future.

Also read: Betrayal of Indian nationalism

To delegitimise the idea and legacy of Independence, a heightened sense of victimhood has been entrenched by making Partition and the continued powerlessness of the Hindus a regular political issue. A new stage in the making of this victimhood permanent was reached when the BJP government announced August 14 as Partition Horror Memorial Day. This was to further emphasise how Independence was just a sideshow to the violence which Indians (meaning Hindus) had to weather.

Similarly, every effort has been taken to portray the freedom movement as an ordinary affair, a mere cunning game of politics, quite akin to fighting the electoral politics of today, that is, all against all. The idea of playing Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose against Gandhi and Nehru on the one hand, and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel against Nehru on the other, is part of the same game. The leading personalities were shown to be mere men of straw and weak characters against those unsung heroes who either existed before the freedom movement had taken a concrete national shape or who got martyred. Living leaders cannot match the martyred, and hence living and fighting the British has been relegated to a secondary position in this effort to minimise the importance of the leaders of the freedom movement. Such a template is what seems to have the background for the strangely named Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav launched to commemorate the 75th year of Independence.

Similar efforts to dilute the role and participation of many political parties and leaders in the movement while regularly bringing up V.D. Savarkar or Godse or other nondescript leaders of the Hindu communal pantheon as having participated in the freedom movement is to give them a facelift and constitute a new common knowledge. This helps to sanitise the role of Hindu communal leaders and intellectuals in either not participating or siding with the British during the anti-colonial movement.

An important pathway to delegitimise the basic spirit of the Indian national life and national movement is through an increasing militarisation of the common psyche through discursive and political engagements. The military doctrine that constituted the core of the RSS and the Maharashtra group of its enunciators such as Dr B.S. Moonje came to be associated with the demand of compulsory military service and conscription, alliance with Israel and the world’s most powerful country, the United States, and possession of a nuclear bomb. With such a heightened demand for military sensibilities to become a natural civic sensibility, a mythical history is invoked.

Also read: Soldiers of the Swastika

The history of India, particularly that of the medieval period, is shown to be an indication that the Indian state today needs to be on constant alert to avenge the defeats at the hands of foreigners such as Afghans, Turks and Mughals. Paradoxically, the past needs to be purged of all military defeats on the one hand and a rather glorious and victorious local, regional heroes installed in some sort of Hindu national pantheon on the other. Where there is a lag, the military and police feats are to be appropriated as the Hindu nation’s feat as a proxy. This has made Hindu communal groups to attack history and historical scholarship consistently and bring in mythical explanation of local and regional victories to become the new historical common sense.

This is made to go along with the enunciation of a new militarism to boost a kind of aggressive military nationalism. A new vocabulary of nationalism is now on the anvil, which privileges the idea of enemy, war, defeat and strike. Thus, a heightened sense of martyrdom is increasingly made to occupy the privileged position, which then comes back to dilute the importance of the sacrifices that people made during the freedom movement. Hindu communal groups seek to espouse power, valour and strength without being scrutinised for their absence in the freedom movement when common men and their leaders displayed these virtues.

Normalisation of the communal template

Three basic components of the normalisation of the template projected by communal formations are visible, garnered through the enormous resources of the media and other state institutions for constituting a new universe.

a. The Indian state as a ‘Hindu’ one has been propagated through a nationalising state. The world over, states have continued a nationalisation through state institutions. During the national movement, the Indian leadership understood that any nationalising effort could also easily be consumed by imperialist desires. After all, colonialism in many ways was an extension of nationalism as evolved in the 18th-19th century European context. Thus, there was an effort to prevent this national project of creating a common people from getting channelised into making people from different regions and religions look alike or follow the models of the demographically dominant population. The Constitution was the guarantee that such nationalising desires did not get into the imperial channels.

The movement to government transition in India in 1947, therefore, though smooth, was saddled with the new government trying hard to not let the state slip into the hands of those who in the name of nationalising would make it a Hindu state in the aftermath of Partition and the accompanying violence. It seems that the national movement was too long and too strong a cementing factor for Indians to be swayed by the sectarian definition of a state. Thus, it became a secular state even while Hindu communal attitudes also survived in many quarters.

Also read: Debating secularism

Muslim communalism, too, survived similarly, and helped legitimise Hindu communal organisations and their ideas. However, it was Hindu communal organisations that aimed at communalising the Indian state and making it an ideological state. The model of the state was, however, more akin to dictatorial states (against democratic state of the kind that the Constitution conceived of), which suited sections threatened by the new democratic experience and socialist ideas and vision of the Indian government and political parties. Thus, organisations such as the Swatantra Party or the Forum for Free Enterprises with strongly anti-socialist and pro-capitalist ideas found in the Hindu communal groups a natural affinity of sorts while they themselves had no such ideological commitment. Nehru and after him Indira Gandhi became hate icons for all such groups, and since 1948 onward the campaigns of calumny and conspiracies have been slowly propagated against Nehru. While the relationship between Nehru and the communists were fraught, the communal formations took every opportunity to launch tirades against the communists separately. Thus, Hindu communalism was organising itself on an anti-secular and anti-socialist plank. However, the core remained anti-Muslim, as historian Bipan Chandra has pointed out.vii

Today, however, the nationalising attempt is different—the Hindu communal idea is trying to replace Indian nationalism itself and install its own version of the nation as a ‘Hindu’ one. The communal definition of the nation and nationalism is fast assuming an imperial overtone as it entails creating a monolithic ‘Hindu Religion’ at the core of this ‘Hindu Nation’. In reality, since there is no monolithic Hinduism nor is there a single centralised Indian state that exists outside the discursive understanding, the state on the one hand and the Hindu communal groups on the other have unleashed a spate of violence, both discursive and physical, against groups that are different, recalcitrant or simply do not want to abide by such an attempted and forced assimilation into a monolithic construct.

What has been destroyed in the process is any shade of the secular template that intellectually and politically evolved during the 19th and 20th centuries to protect different religious, linguistic and cultural groups even when there was an attempt to create a united Indian people against colonial forces. Dalits, who have historically suffered suppression and discrimination, have been at the forefront of resistance against the resurgence of centuries-old ‘Brahmanical’ impositions and the ascription of a modern Hindu identity.

b. A new state of exception (a term coined by the German legal philosopher Carl Schmittin in the early twentieth century) is also being normalised by communal forces. Nationalism and the national movement in India, as elsewhere, opened an enormous range of intellectual and political voices that even opposed each other quite sharply. From Nehru’s socialism to Gandhi’s gram swaraj, or Ambedkar’s radical break with Hinduism to the communist mobilisation for radical reform, or Maoists’ invocation of rural revolution to (E.V. Ramasamy) Periyar’s quest for equality, nationalism in India presented a veritable storehouse of political programmes for a society that various people and groups wanted to fashion. The diversity of social vision is what provided the possibility of political action by the parties.

Also read: How hate is brewed in Hindutva’s laboratory

Given the absence of any positive political programme, Hindu communal formations, however, tries to project all other ideological platforms different from the Hindu communal one as an exception. This process is taken to dangerous limits where the so-called exceptional elements are seen to be inimical to not only the party or ideologies but also to the state and the nation itself. Criticism of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution or a simple Facebook comment critiquing the Prime Minister can now be termed anti-national. The state’s draconian power and the empowered vigilante have been normalised in this era of exception.

c. The third kind of normalisation is when the state of exception renders as completely dispensable a member of a community or an individual itself. The spate of lynching of Muslim men in broad daylight, the encounter of criminals and the idea that the state can dispense with people inimical to its exceptional character is increasingly made normal.

The continuous militarisation and securitisation also is helping it to normalise seeing the Muslim as an enemy, which has been at the core of the RSS and its affiliates’ world view.viii This enemy metaphor helps them organise their ideological repertoire. Criticising the secular idea of India, the RSS has propagated that the secularism of Nehru and others is all about Muslim appeasement.ix Thus, Muslims, Nehru and secularism became the trinity that the RSS and its political formation wanted to attack. A pattern was also set by Hindu communal groups that anyone showing any concern for secularism or for the Muslim minority was seen either as a hidden Muslim or of Muslim parentage or was husband or wife of an undeclared Muslim person. A common thread in all such discussions is that being Muslim is an inferior social fact. The caricaturing of Mamata Banerjee in the social media, projecting her as pro-Muslim or a converted Muslim, is a spin-off of this narrative.

The Jan Sangh launched a campaign in the 1970s for the Indianisation of Muslims, hinting at their extra-national allegiance.x There were strong rebuttals of the campaign by almost all political sections at that time in India. The global war on terror, which has often been channelised into rampant Islamophobia, has allowed for a shriller anti-Muslim narrative to become natural. Such portrayals have been vigorously propagated and instilled in sections of the Indian population that it is increasingly becoming a commonsensical idea.

Also read: ‘Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism’

Through the triple talaq and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the state policies and the state apparatus have refashioned this discourse along the template of modernisation and Indianisation. A new station in such attack has been reached in recent years when the Muslim community as a whole is put under a state of exception. While the Hindu communal knowledge is propagated as the new normal knowledge template, the Muslim is taken to the new exception. The state is shown to be continually controlling the effect of some sort of emergency—attacks by the enemy, terrorists, internal security—and even elections are turned into some sort of war. In all of them, the Muslim is either suspect or is eminently dispensable. The discourse is increasingly becoming part of a normalised discourse in which the state too takes part and expands the horizon of such a communal discourse. The danger, as history tells us, is that such normalised discourse has earlier led to situations of mass extermination of the exception. The recent rhetoric of newly empowered non-state groups indicates that this is within the realm of possibility.xi

It is in such perilous conditions that an interventionist agenda has to take shape which counters both the normalisation of a discourse that promotes violence and creates an exception. The way out is through history where the national movement for freedom notwithstanding, its blank spots still provides us the largest basket of sense and sensibilities to constitute an antidote to the spectre of an ideological state hovering around the horizon. Such a state, as we have seen, valorises violence and has come to acquire its public persona through the rejection of secular and democratic ethos to create a shared national vision. Bringing back the shared vision and legitimising it though our collective resolve remains our only hope.

Rakesh Batabyal is Associate Professor, Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of Communalism in Bengal, The Penguin Book of Modern Indian Speeches and JNU: The Making of a University.


i Tarunabh Khaitan, ‘Killing a Constitution with a Thousand Cuts: Executive Aggrandizement and Party-State Fusion in India’, Law and Ethics of Human Rights, May, 2020 ( lehr-2020-2009 accessed on 6.1. 2022)

ii Christophe Jaffrelot, Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy, Princeton university Press, NJ., 2021

iii Aakar Patel, Our Hindu Rastra: What It is. How We Got Here, Westland, Delhi, 2020; Price of The Modi Years, Westland, 2021

iv D.R. Goyal, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Radhakrishna Publications, Delhi, 1979; Walter K Anderson and Sridhar Damle, Brotherhood in Saffron, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindu Revivalism, Penguin, Delhi, 2019

v Asghar Ali Engineer, Communal Riots in Post-independence India. Published by Orient Blackswan, 1991; M.J. Akbar, Riots After Riots, Penguin Delhi, 1991; Paul Brass, Production of Hindu Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, OUP, Delhi, 2003.

vi Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan, RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project, Sage, Delhi, 2003

vii Bipan Chandra, Communalism in Modern India, Vikas Publishers, Delhi , 1984

viii Bipan Chandra, op.cit. Recently, journalist Aakar Patel also reaches the same conclusion. Aakar Patel, The Modi Years.

ix Walter Andersen and Shridhar Damle, op.cit.

x The Secular Democracy, Delhi, 1970.

xi Aakar Patel.op.cit.

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