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Notions of a Nation: Hindutva and Christians in India

Prime Narendra Modi paying tributes to Veer Savarkar on his Punya Tithi in 2015

The rise of political Hinduism in the 1990s which led to an increase in anti-Christian violence owed much to the writings of two of the ideological founders of the Hindu Nationalist Movement, VD Sarvarkar and MS Golwarkar. Of particular significance is what they  In particular, what  espoused about the Indian secular state and religious minorities.

Vir Damodar Sarvarkar was a Maharashtrian Brahmin (but was a declared atheist) who was jailed for 27 years for his participation in an assassination attempt of Lord Curzon- Wyllie. It is during this time that he wrote his influential pamphlet Hindutva: Who is a Hindu where he articulates his idea of a nation.  His term in jail brought him in contact with Khilafats. These interactions are what led him to the conclusion that the real enemies of the nation were Muslims and not the British (the colonizing power and his captors). Christophe Jaffrelot points out that Sarvarkar’s primary assumption was that Hindus when compared to Muslims were weaker and less united as a community.

His definition of the nation seeks to address these two assumptions. It is much broader than just religion; it combines geographical unity, common culture and racial features. Therefore, for him, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists all are considered filled with Hindutva, since they consider India both their mother land (their birth place) and their holy land (where their loyalties lie). Despite Indian Muslim and Christians who share the same motherland and a common culture, they are considered foreign religions since their holy lands (Arabia and Palestine respectively) do not lie within the geographical boundaries between the Indus river and the Indian Ocean.

Sarvarkar says they “possess all essential qualifications of Hindutva but one, and that is that they do not look upon India as their Holy land.” Furthermore, he goes on to explain that as foreign religions, “their love is divided” and “their allegiance is more to their Holy Land than their Fatherland. Thus, they constitute a threat to the unity of the nation (Hindutva). In doing this, Sarvarkar’s notion of the nation was not inclusive. He defined who was a Hindu and who was ‘the other’.

Political scientist, Rudolph C. Heradia highlights the chauvinistic nature of Sarvarkar’s Hindutva calling it “a contemporary avatar of an old more chauvinistic Brahmanism.” He says, “Sarvarkar plays on the anxieties and insecurities of the traditional upper caste elite who were trying desperately to make the transition into a modern dominant class.” Sarvarkar’s articulation demonstrated a renewed attempt by Brahmins (who constitute less than ten per cent of India’s population) to maintain their prominence atop of the caste system and bolster the majority identity of Hindus and the minority status of Muslims and Christians.

While Sarvarkar defined ‘the other’, Golwalkar went a step further than Sarvarkar in creating an enemy of these two foreign religions. Golwalkar, another Maharashtrian Brahmin, was the second  Sarsanghchalak (supreme leader) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and is credited for giving the RSS it’s ideological bend in the three decades in which he headed the organization. In his book, A Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar dedicates a section to the three “Internal Threats” – Muslims, Christians and the Communists. He claimed that these “hostile elements within the country pose a far greater menace to national security than aggressors from outside.”

Golwalkar expanded on Sarvarkar’s definition of the nation to include five unities – geographical, racial, religious, cultural and linguistic. Each of these factors was equally integral to the nation. For him, a “loss or destruction of any of these destroys the nation as a whole.” He believed that missionary activities were a political tool exerted by Western powers to challenge the integrity of the nation. Golwalkar wrote, “In the name of God, Prophet and Religion, they [Christians] are only trying to further their political ambitions.”

Therefore, he viewed missionary activities as a threat to the integrity of the nation and simultaneously dismissing Christians as “anti-national”. He further writes: “So long as the Christians here indulge in such [missionary] activities and consider themselves as agents of the international movement for the spread of Christianity, and refuse to offer their first loyalty to the land of their birth and behave as true children of the heritage and culture of their ancestors, they will remain here as hostiles and will have to be treated as such.”

In this Hindu Rashtra (nation), religious minorities would have to pledge allegiance to Hindu symbols (which represents national identity) and religion would be relegated to the private sphere.

These notions of the nation stand in direct contrast to the idea of the Indian secular state which says (in article 25) that “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health.”

Indian secularism (which differs from its French and American counterparts) allows for all religions to be treated equally under law and for the state to remain equidistant from each religion. As the legal manifestation of the idea of pluralism, it’s intention is to serve as a protection for minorities against the will of the majority.

While Indian Secularism has seen challenges in the past, it now faces, by far, its greatest; as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embedded itself in the centre of Indian politics with a weakened opposition. The BJP which is the political wing of the Hindu Nationalist Movement has repeatedly tried to distance itself from the RSS (it’s ideological parent), has had several leaders who were also cadres of the RSS. These include deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, the former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee and the current prime minister Narendra Modi.

History has always been a battle of ideas and what we are seeing in India is just that. Christians and other religious and non-religious minorities are trapped in the middle, as these competing notions of the nation battle for prominence.

Image credit: CC by Sarvarkar/ Wikimedia Commons