ONLINE CONFERENCE

Unmasking Hindutva

Print edition : October 08, 2021

RSS cadres participate in a rally in support of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in Hyderabad on December 25, 2019. According to the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, since the 1990s, a transformation has happened, with the RSS expanding its organisational base tremendously beyond India. Photo: AFP

An international online conference elicits wide-ranging views on the global Hindutva movement and its vicious spread.

SOCIAL science academics associated with American and European universities organised a three-day online conference titled “Dismantling Global Hindutva” from September 10 to 12 with the stated aim of bringing together “scholars of South Asia specialising in gender, economics, political science, caste, religion, health care, and media in order to try to understand the complex and multifaceted phenomenon of Hindutva”. The conference was co-sponsored by academic units of more than 50 universities worldwide.

As soon as the announcement pertaining to the conference was made sometime in August, the organisers and the invited speakers were threatened, trolled and intimidated on social media. Hindu groups based in the United States such as the Hindu Mandir Executives Conference, which describes itself as an initiative of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad America, the Coalition of Hindus of North America and the Hindu American Foundation pressured participating universities to withdraw their support for the event. Niraj Antani, a Republican State Senator from Ohio, condemned the conference, terming it as “Hinduphobia”. In India, the event attracted massive opposition, with several media outlets taking the lead in campaigning against it.

The speakers acknowledged the “bravery” and “fortitude” of the organisers in staying the course and proceeding with the conference. The conference had nine thematic sessions with 45 speakers (including the moderators) presenting their ideas and analyses. While the participating scholars (the majority of them were of Indian heritage) were mainly from the U.S., there were speakers from the United Kingdom, France and Germany as well. A handful of Indian activists, who were subjected to virulent online attacks, including death threats, also spoke at the conference. The organisers deserve to be congratulated because it is hard to imagine an academic event that rigorously interrogates the idea of Hindutva taking place in India with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in government at the Centre.

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The historian Gyan Prakash, in his opening statement, said Hindutva, which he characterised as “anti-democratic and anti-intellectual”, was the “de facto ideology of the ruling regime in India” and that it “seeks to alter the constitutional order”. Prakash stated that the concerted attacks in the U.S. and India on the basis of “false characterisation of the conference as anti-Hindu” was because “the Hindutva ego is fragile”.

Paradox of global Hindutva

The first session was titled “What is Global Hindutva?”. The political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, the film-maker Anand Patwardhan and the poet and author Meena Kandaswamy spoke in this session. Jaffrelot sought to explain the paradox of a global Hindutva movement because Hindutva is linked to a “sacred territory” (the Indian subcontinent in this case) as expounded by V.D. Savarkar in his pamphlet Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Since the 1990s, Jaffrelot explained, a transformation has happened, with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) expanding its organisational base tremendously beyond India. The RSS invests heavily in the diaspora because of its “wealth”, “the concept of Western ethnic nationalisms of the early 20th century movements” and with the hope that it can act as an “ethnic lobby” the way Israel has done.

Patwardhan spoke about the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar and the “ahistorical, illogical and contradictory claims of Hindutva” to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism. He said: “Hindutva is as Hindu as the Ku Klux Klan is Christian.” Meena Kandaswamy opened her talk with the anguished information that death threats had been issued against her four-year-old child because she was taking part in this conference. For her, Hindutva was the expression of two fundamental inequalities: “oppression of caste and women”, and thus, it could be defeated through “caste annihilation and feminism”. In Meera Kandaswamy’s understanding, the “anti-minorityism of Hindutva is used as a polarising tactic to deflect attention from the struggle between the Brahmins and Dalit/Bahujans”.

The sociologist Jean Dreze, in his paper on the theme of “Political Economy of Hindutva” that was read out in the second session, argued that “the surge of Hindu nationalism in India can be seen as a revolt of the upper castes against the egalitarian demands of democracy. The Hindutva project is a lifeboat for the upper castes insofar as it promises to restore the Brahminical social order.” Pritam Singh, an economist, said in his presentation that “the farm laws have been brought by the Indian government to deepen agro-business capitalism and centralisation in India and through that, advance Hindutva’s political agenda”. The social geographer Jens Lerche also spoke on the farmers’ agitation. He observed that the BJP’s policies showed that “it was less interested in pro-poor policies than the previous Congress government, which has resulted in an increase in poverty”. This point was reiterated by the economist Vamsi Vakulabharanam as well, who presented his argument in the form of a puzzle: A vast majority of Indians have faced heightened economic distress and inequality since the BJP came to power in 2014. This was evident by 2019, so how did the BJP and its allies increase their vote share? Vakulabharanam offered a tentative economic explanation for the saffron party’s return to power. “There is a huge gap between the real economic content of the Hindutva project that is elitist and the rhetoric of this project, which is economic populism and nationalism, which appeals to the promise of upward mobility,” he said.

Benign Brahminism

Considering that caste is an intrinsic part of the Hindutva world view, a session was dedicated to the theme. Gajendran Ayyathurai presented his paper on “Systematic Blindnesses: Hindutva, Benign Brahminism and the Brick Wall of Caste/Hindu Identity”. In his argument, “benign Brahminism stands for how Brahmin-male claims of Hindu identity, Hindu culture and Hinduism have come to be legitimised in the Indian and Western academy’s theories, institutions and practices that superimpose and mask the latent and manifest forms of caste/casteism”. Bhanwar Meghwanshi, who quit the RSS as he became disgusted with its casteism, explained in Hindi that “Hindutva is not a religion or faith but is a communal political ideology that is based on brahminical Hinduism that wants to turn India from a secular nation into a Hindu rashtra”. Basing his argument on his own experience, Meghwanshi asserted that “the lower castes do not have any role in determining the strategies or politics of the RSS, instead, they are exploited and weaponised against religious minorities”. In her presentation, the philosopher Meena Dhanda said it was possible for caste “to be included in the legal definition of race under the [U.K.’s] Equality Act of 2010”.

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In a session on “Gender and Sexual Politics of Hindutva”, the film-maker Leena Manimekalai showed a clip from her incomplete film Rape Nation, which partially looks at the stories of survivors of sexual violence during the communal carnages that took place in Gujarat and Muzaffarnagar in 2002 and 2013 respectively. Arguing that sexual violence is at the core of Hindutva, Leena Manimekalai said: “Hindutva has redefined nationalism as a genocidal impulse to rape and murder non-Hindu women. It is a celebration of toxic masculinity.”

The transgender studies scholar Aniruddha Dutta showed in his presentation how the BJP’s rise had even affected the Hijra tradition where there has been a transformation from a “syncretic Indo-Islamic tradition to a more orthodox version of Hinduism”. The Dalit feminist P. Sivakami critiqued Hindutva as having “no vision for Hindu women except that it intends to prepare and reorient them against their imaginary enemy, i.e., the Muslim man, thus diverting her from her real struggles”. The feminist scholar Akanksha Mehta segued from this presentation, stating that “notions of gender and sexuality rooted in caste and race are crucial to the Hindutva project” even as she compared the analogous role of women among savarna (caste) Hindus and Zionists.

Hindutva and its relationship to nationalism was the theme of the session titled “Contours of the Nation”. The focus was on the operation of Hindutva in Kashmir, the north-eastern region and the Adivasi-inhabited areas of central India. The anthropologist Mohamad Junaid examined the “spectacle of domination” of the Hindutva state, characterising it as “primarily an anti-Muslim state”. He also spoke about the long history of Hindutva in Kashmir, tracing it to the land reforms of the 1950s, which were a challenge to “Hindu sovereignty”.

The anthropologist Arkotong Longkumer looked at the operation of Hindutva in the north-eastern States, arguing that “Hindutva’s spread is not restricted to the politics of the north-east but also extends to the cultural and social spheres of the region”. The sociologist Nandini Sundar’s presentation dwelt on four arenas through which the “supremacist projects of the RSS have received state support” in the Adivasi regions of central India; one of these arenas was the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashrams, which she discussed in detail. Yasmin Saikia, a historian of Assam, spoke about how millions of Muslims in Assam “are facing the threat of denationalisation and statelessness” because of the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. She stated: “The transformation of Muslims [in Assam] from migrants to immigrants to infiltrators to illegal Bangladeshis is the product of Hindutva, although the Congress party too enabled this process by its failure in developing a well-measured and humane minority policy.”

Ayurvedic and other native cures that were promoted by different departments of the Union government to treat COVID-19 came under the scanner at the panel discussion on “Hindutva Science and Healthcare”. Meera Nanda, science historian, made three points in her presentation: first, that the “[Narendra] Modi government promoted potentially dangerous ayurvedic remedies to fight COVID-19”; second, “fake history through which Ayurveda has claimed parity with modern science”; and third, that “the post-colonial critics of science have let us down by clamouring for alternative ways of knowing that can put modern science in its place”. The public health historian Kavita Sivaramakrishnan pointed out how “public health and science have become a vital pillar of Hindutva assertions”. The feminist science studies scholar Banu Subramaniam critiqued the Modi government by stating that “science and technology are being increasingly mobilised by an authoritarian state fuelling sectarian violence, crushing dissent, arresting writers, increasing surveillance and rousing the public in the false security of rampant rumours, disinformation, fake news and dangerous nostalgic visions of a Hindu prehistory”.

Capturing social media platforms

The BJP’s control over social media and the digital space has catalysed the party’s growth and has provided a steady channel for its propaganda. This was the theme of the next session. The journalist Cyril Sam spoke about the pioneering partnerships that the BJP had built with communication technology companies such as Facebook to spread its propaganda. “They [BJP] have captured most communication platforms which are used as a pipeline for radicalisation and recruitment,” said Sam. The digital culture scholar Dheepa Sundaram observed that the concept of secularism was systematically discredited through the digital ecosystem of Hindutva. The journalist and author Salil Tripathi analysing the BJP’s use of social media said: “The Internet has made it possible for people to believe that it is all right to be bigoted, to speak loudly and to heckle. The Internet makes bigotry more widespread than it originally was, makes it respectable and makes the fringe the centre and when the fringe becomes the centre, it is time to worry because it is when the centre cannot hold that things fall apart.”

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In the penultimate session, which was on “Hinduism and Hindutva”, the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna offered a range of possibilities on the theme under discussion: first, that Hinduism and Hindutva are the same; second, Hinduism and Hindutva are completely opposite; and third, that Hinduism and Hindutva are the same but this assertion came from a Bahujan perspective which even saw the conference as an attempt by “savarnas trying to save Hinduism”. The anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan commented on the critics of the conference. He said: “The main claim of the critics of this conference is that they are defending Hinduism. They do this by conflating Hindutva with Hinduism. but in reality, they are defending Hindutva by weaponising Hindu symbols—both literally and figuratively.”

Two scholars from the Feminist Critical Hindu Studies Collective, Shana Sippy and Sailaja Krishnamuti, asserted that “not all Hinduism is Hindutva but Hindutva is, in fact, Hinduism…. Hindutva is a powerful, vocal, insidious form of Hinduism.” In a powerful presentation, Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights, spoke about her engagement with a more casteless and inclusive form of Hinduism. Identifying herself as a practising Hindu who “loves Sita and Ram”, she decried how “Jai Shri Ram has become a murder slogan”. The geographer Brij Maharaj argued how the RSS and its ideology of Hindutva had found it difficult to pervade Indian diasporas in South Africa, Mauritius, Guyana and Fiji because of their origins as indentured labour.

In the last session, on “Islamophobia, Hindutva and White Supremacy”, the historians Anupama Rao and Anjali Arondekar and the media studies scholar Deepa Kumar shared their perspectives. Deepa Kumar commented on the shrinking academic space in Indian universities, quoting her own experience: In May 2021, her talk on Islamophobia at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education was cancelled following protests by Hindu right-wing activists. Deepa Kumar drew on her past work to show the commonality of “tactics, strategies and rhetoric” among white supremacists, Zionists and espousers of Hindutva.

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