The term ‘Hindu radicalism’ first surfaced in the 1980s and later gained prominence in the 2000s when a series of attacks by Hindu groups were carried out against members of Christian and Muslim communities in India. Hindu radicalism is, in a sense, unique because it is connected to Indian nationalism. Most of those considered to be Hindu radicals — people who have lynched non-Hindus on the grounds of religion, for instance — harbour no desire for Hindu expansion or theocracy in the world. They seek, instead, to reclaim India for Hindus, and stress India’s Hindu character or establish a Hindu state in India. Their ideology is neither rooted nor based on religion but, instead, on virulent revanchist communalism.
The Evolution of Hindu Radicalism
While Hindu radicalism has deep historical roots, it continues to be shaped by regional and global events. Hinduism over the centuries has been shaped by its ability to absorb external influences and traditions. India is probably the only country where almost 1,000 years of Muslim rule did not result in a Muslim-majority population. Neither did almost four centuries of European colonialism — both direct and indirect — succeed in converting the majority of the people to Christianity. However, these did result in creating large minority communities of Muslims and Christians alongside the Hindu majority. (India has the third largest Muslim population in the world in absolute terms.)
Hindus and Muslims together fought against British imperialism in 1857. However, as Muslim power in India gave way to British rule, revivalist movements like the Deobandi and Jamaat-e-Islami began. These movements stressed on Muslim separateness, and were puritanical and exclusivist in nature. The Hindu reaction to both European colonization and Islamic revivalism was manifested through numerous Hindu revivalist movements that sprung up such as the Arya Samaj, the Brahmo Samaj, among others. Later, in the 20th century, more politically-nuanced movements intent on preserving cultural ‘Hinduness’ or ‘Hindutva’ emerged in the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) movement.
The Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) Movement
The RSS movement emerged in 1924. Its emphasis was not so much on religion as it was on a Hindu cultural political identity: it identified a Hindu as someone from the soil of India. In this sense it included Indian Christians and Muslims as ‘Hindus’, arguing that most were converts from Hinduism. RSS’s mission statement says “Hindu culture is the life-breath of Hindusthan. 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 Hindu society ceases to exist, it will hardly be appropriate to refer to the mere geographical entity that remains as Hindusthan.”
Its avowed aim was to instil pride in Hindus about their culture and heritage, and unite them — divided as they were — along caste lines, so that they could realize their potential and bring India back to its ancient glory. Caste and disunity amongst Hindus — the argument went — had resulted in Hindu weakness and allowed India to be ruled by external forces for centuries.
Modelled on European Fascism
Numerous academic studies claim that in their bid to instil discipline and unity amongst Hindus, the RSS movement tried to model themselves along the lines of European fascism that emerged in the 1930s. Certainly some Indian activists working to end British rule, had sought to build alliances with countries like Germany and Japan, for the simple fact that they were opposed to the British. Italian researcher Marzia Casolari noted that between 1924 and 1935 the Marathi Kesari newspaper published “editorials and articles about Italy, fascism and Mussolini. What impressed the Marathi journalists was the socialist origin of fascism and the fact that the new regime seemed to have transformed Italy from a backward country to a first class power”.
A mentor to RSS ideologue B.S. Moonje had also travelled to Europe, including Italy where he met Mussolini. However, the extent European fascism influenced the RSS — if at all — is beyond the scope of this paper. The organisation’s mission statement says “The steady growth of the Sangh is in remarkable contrast with many a national or international movement or “ism” which, after an initial flurry, slowly died a natural death or degenerated and changed their form beyond recognition.”
However, the RSS did distinguish itself through its strict discipline. It was twice briefly banned by the Indian government of India. It has evolved over time, but most of all, it has mobilized people through its humanitarian work — whether during the 1962 war with China, or in the aftermath of the disastrous 2001 earthquake, or in education in some of India’s most rural places, winning praise from its rival the Indian National Congress and its secular leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister.
While making no claims to political power, the RSS has and continues to work relentlessly amongst India’s masses, providing education, physical training, scriptural lessons, and humanitarian service. Its disciplinary approach has enabled it to emerge as the largest NGO in the world.
How Partition Exacerbated Hindu Radicalism
British rule exacerbated the fault lines that existed between Hindus and Muslims which came to a head with the partition of India in 1947 into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Partition was bloody and violent — seven million people were uprooted, going down in modern history as the largest mass migration of people.
Territorially this affected eastern and northwest India, which is why Hindu radicals’ antipathy of Muslims is more pronounced in northern India than elsewhere. Since Pakistan was created on religious lines, the Hindu psyche perceived the assault in religious terms and an undercurrent of tension has defined Hindu-Muslim relations since. The RSS was against partition and a radical from the organisation, who parted ways with it, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace, in 1948 believing that Gandhi was giving away too much to Pakistan. This was the first criminal act of Hindu radicalism in independent India.
Perceptions of Injustice
While the constitution made India a secular country, Indian secularism did not mean a strict divorce between the state and religion, but the acceptance of different religions. In fact, the founding fathers of the constitution granted special privileges and rights to minority communities. For instance, minority institutions are autonomous and exempt from government control. Secular India allowed all communities to be governed by their personal laws related to marriage, divorce, and inheritance. The only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir was allowed special privileges not available to Indians from other states. Meanwhile, the Hindu community, alone, was subject to numerous reforms.
A particular point of friction was the issue of religious conversion. While Hinduism is a largely a non-proselytising religion, Christian and Muslim missionaries continued to engage in religious conversions of Hindus — mostly from marginalised classes. As a result, Hindu radicalism manifested itself as largely anti-Muslim and anti-Christian. Hindu radicals have never had a problem with India’s other non-proselytising minorities like the Zoroastrian or the Jewish communities. Neither have Hindu radicals engaged in any violence outside India. They are not particularly concerned with propagating their worldview outside of India’s borders. Hindu radicals have not tried to impose their idea of Hinduism on other Hindus either. When they have tried to impose their ideas it has been directed at only two groups — Christians and Muslims, reflected in the number of ‘reconversions’ to Hinduism. They argue that most Indian Christians and Muslims are converts, who were once Hindus, and should return to their original religion, shaking off the yoke of foreign bondage.
Hindu perceptions of injustice also led to the rise of groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and affiliated organisations which could mobilise people around it. It stressed on the Hindu character of India and the idea of reclaiming ‘Hindu spaces’. Its main objective was to counter conversions of Hindus to Islam or Christianity, and try to reconvert the already converted to Hinduism. The group also tried to garner public support around other ‘Hindu causes’ like bans on conversions, bans on cow slaughter (provided for in the Indian constitution), and the building of a Hindu temple at a controversial site.
With time, sundry groups of self-appointed guardians of Hindu morality and culture sprang up, engaging in violence against vulnerable members of Christian and Muslim communities. These groups would also go after members of the Hindu community who practiced ‘foreign traditions’ such as Valentine’s Day. This, again, has been witnessed mostly in western and northern India.
Radicalism in Other Communities
Hindu radicalism has also been stoked by radicalism in other communities. The first instance of a book ban in India was that of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ by the government in deference of Muslim sentiments. As a result, later the exhibitions of renowned painter M.F. Hussein were ransacked by groups of rowdy men claiming they had “hurt” Hindu sentiments and Hussein himself was slapped with numerous court cases. Such violence, sometimes, has led to political polarization helping local politicians.
Pakistan’s irredentist claims on Jammu and Kashmir based on religion — which has led to three wars with India, as well as numerous terrorist strikes inside the country — has further helped conflate Hinduism with nationalism. Radicals believe that security for Hindus lies in the safety of India’s borders. More recently, with globalization and internet penetration, Hindu radicalism has received a fillip from the global rise of both Islamism as well as of Islamophobia.
Hindu Cow Vigilantism
When the BJP, the political wing of the RSS, came to power in 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised inclusivity, and all the welfare schemes initiated by his government have not discriminated against any community. Instances of communal violence have also decreased since. However, a new kind of radicalism has emerged over the last couple of years. Individual groups of Hindu men have begun what has come to be known as ‘cow vigilantism’. The cow is an animal sacred in Hinduism and most Hindus do not consume beef. However, non-Hindus remain major consumers of beef and India is the world’s largest beef exporter. To curb this, many states have passed laws banning cow slaughter and consumption of beef. Cow protectionism has a long history in India, especially in northern India.
Self-appointed ‘cow vigilante’ militias have begun patrolling highways and policing people, extracting money on suspicions of cattle smuggling and beef eating and sometimes going to the extent of lynching suspects. Cow vigilantism has been predominant in states which have banned cow slaughter. Those transporting cattle through these states need special permission and sometimes even legitimate transporters have been intimidated. Though there is economic cunning behind many of these cases — India has a young population with increasing unemployment and this is a sort of extortion racket — they are couched in religious terms, and the sheer brutality of the crimes is reprehensible.
For instance, a man on the outskirts of the capital Delhi was lynched simply on suspicion that the meat in his refrigerator was beef. Lax law enforcement has further emboldened the vigilantes. In another instance, three people were thrashed by cow vigilantes on suspicion of carrying beef. While violence in the name of the cows took place under the previous government, there had been no associated deaths. Human Rights Watch has documented 44 deaths — 36 of them Muslims — between May 2015 and December 2018 across 12 Indian states. Social media and the internet have further helped spread hate and violence.
Vigilantes have also targeted Muslim men accused of seducing Hindu women. For most Hindus this is abhorrent as seen in the big protest rally that took place against cow vigilantism. It has also caused a loss for the economy. While authorities have spoken out strongly against this phenomenon, they have failed to follow up with stringent penal action against the culprits as law and order is a federal subject. In 2017, India’s Supreme Court asked the central and state government to take stern action to curb cow vigilantism. Recently, however, an Indian state passed a law against cow vigilantism which will ensure a jail term of six months to three years and a monetary fine for those who are convicted for committing violence in the name of the cow.
Hindu radicalism, thus, has less to do with Hindu faith, and more to do with extreme virulent revanchist communalism, resembling the far-right radicalism prevalent in Europe and the US now.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.