National and International Issues

The Rise of Hindutva: A Global Perspective

The Department of International Relations conducted a two-day international conference, “Institutionalization of Hindutva in India – A Regional Security Perspective” at National Defence University, Islamabad from July 6-7, 2021. A panel of eminent foreign scholars participated in the conference to discuss the emerging wave of ultra-nationalistic Hindutva ideology, along with the surge in institutionalization of the said ideology in India. The international academic event was organized with a view to seek scholarly input on Hindutva, a phenomenon that is carving itself a pathway for structural violence against India’s own populace, more specifically the Muslim minority. Moreover, it is necessary to understand the current mechanisms of the Indian government as they have adopted a harsh rhetoric against Pakistan through the saffronisation of their state machinery. 
Following are the viewpoints of the foreign scholars on Hindutva and the threat it brings along with it as an ideology:


Since taking office, Modi’s government has demonstrated stronger capabilities in mobilizing the public than on governance, but its appeal to the Hindutva rhetoric helps to retain a solid vote base by attributing his governance failure to those who oppose the far right politics of Hindutva. 

Dr. Xie Chao, Assistant Professor at Institute of International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University, discussed the combination of Hindutva and populist mobilization in India. Dr. Chao said that a post-truth status was taking shape in India, when such rhetoric was increasingly being resonated among the public. He argued that many populist policies actually run against BJP’s own interests. Populist mobilization aims at generating opposing public opinions on salient issues, which in turn bring about a post-truth status in party competition. Post-truth means that objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. Moral judgment can further solidify the post-truth status. Since taking office, Modi’s government has demonstrated stronger capabilities in mobilizing the public than on governance, but its appeal to the Hindutva rhetoric helps to retain a solid vote base by attributing his governance failure to those who oppose the far right politics of Hindutva. A most recent case is its COVID-19 control failure, and with a strong populist mobilization the public attention on it was diverted and the failure was ascribed to the opposing force inside, which mainly includes the Congress, Establishment and the minority groups, with Muslims as a particular reference. It also finds opposing forces outside, with China as the main scapegoat, further rigidifying its security relations with China. Taking a high moral ground helps Modi’s government to get a favorable public response, which only further solidifies the post-truth status of right-wing politics in India.


Hindutva movement had connections with fascist and Nazi movements in Europe between the two World Wars... Dr. Kruglanski also quoted Bal Thackeray: “Islamic terrorism is growing and Hindu terrorism is the only way to counter it. We need suicide bomb squads to protect India and Hindus.” He argued that the narrative invokes both threat and glory and provides the means to regain significance by fighting and oppressing the Muslims and Christians in India.

Dr. Arie W. Kruglanski, Professor at the University of Maryland, USA, spoke on the phenomenon of violent extremism, arguing that it threatens the security and stability of nations.
He defined the psychological causes of Hindutva extremism or saffron terrorism, arguing that the social dynamic of Hindutva culture resembled the far right movement in the West. Within India, it was much broader, and incorporated all kinds of political extremism – on the left or on the right, ethnonationalism or religion, whether Islam, Christianity, Judaism or even Buddhism. 
Exploring the root cause of Hindutva in India, Dr. Kruglanski said that the Hindutva movement had connections with fascist and Nazi movements in Europe between the two World Wars. But, to understand how Hindutva took the course of extremism the way it did, was couched in the study of human psychology. He said a social movement like Hindutva or RSS required recruits.
He said that Hindu narrative contains ample promises of greatness and glory. This is the nationalistic past to a greater India contained in the idea of Akhand Bharat. It is something that links national glory to the size of the country, entailing the stretch from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Tibet and so forth. Quoting M. S. Golwalkar (1939, pp 104-5): 
“The foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e., of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen's rights” 
Dr. Kruglanski also quoted Bal Thackeray: “Islamic terrorism is growing and Hindu terrorism is the only way to counter it. We need suicide bomb squads to protect India and Hindus.” He argued that the narrative invokes both threat and glory and provides the means to regain significance by fighting and oppressing the Muslims and Christians in India.


The Hindutva discourse has three basic signifiers: land, race and Hindu culture. In Bollywood’s representation, the three signifiers are dissolved in the form of a charismatic godlike leader, Shivaji. A leader who is India himself and all Hindus must march in the ways of his ideals. Mr. Babelian said in addition to Islam, Hindutva is also strongly opposed to all other forms of religious pluralism.

Mr. Omid Babelian , Scientific and International expert at School of International Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs , Iran , explored the interrelationship between Hindutva and representation in Bollywood cinema. He emphasized that the land (Bharat) becomes the main signifier in Hindu discourse and is tied to Shivaji and its representation in the movies. Two main angles are being created in Bollywood cinema. First, that Muslims are dark and evil and that pure Hindus are completely moral and tormented by Muslims. India needs a God who should resemble Krishna or Ramayana or Shivaji – a leader who can bring security and independence to India.
Babelian said India witnesses the quest for identity. He defined who is a real Hindu in his book and laid the foundation of Hindutva. He gave three main signifiers in this regard: land, race and Hindu culture. These are the three pillars that dictate three important dimensions for the cinema. First, India is a land of purity. That is the most important signifier in Bollywood today, tied to the role of a charismatic leader. Second, Hindu culture is inherited from the ancestors and comprises great value. Third, the Hindu race is pure. These three pillars are strongly presented in Bollywood. As we all know, Hinduism – not Hindutva – is a culture that has been formed based on its own signifier. The most important Hindu signifier is Moksha (liberation or salvation). This salvation is of an individual kind. In order to reach Moksha, an individual must be free from sin in order to be free from reincarnation in a bodily form.
The discourse it seeks to create is that of a strong establishment, obedient to the leader in government structure, which is responsible for mobilizing forces in conflict areas. It tries to establish the ideological foundation based on Hindutva. What we see in Bollywood is a new form of charismatic leadership based on the representation of Shivaji. Shivaji is the main signifier of Hindutva – the land. The land and Shivaji become one. Mr. Babelian said that Modi has been building a charismatic image of himself as an authoritarian leader.
Overall, Muslims are described as extremely dark while Hindus are portrayed as pure. Muslims who have looted Islam, must be driven out with the help of a powerful leader. This is for the return of India to the golden age. The Hindutva discourse has three basic signifiers: land, race and Hindu culture. In Bollywood’s representation, the three signifiers are dissolved in the form of a charismatic godlike leader, Shivaji. A leader who is India himself and all Hindus must march in the ways of his ideals. Mr. Babelian said in addition to Islam, Hindutva is also strongly opposed to all other forms of religious pluralism. He stated that there was a need to become more active in the field of narration and reconstruct the image of Islam and representation of Muslims in Bollywood, an industry that is very important in India. What makes it even more important is that it represents authoritarian leaders such as Modi in the form of Shivaji and this makes Hindutva even stronger.


At the diplomatic level, Modi’s government has ratcheted up its Hindutva agenda, which has hurt its relations with the key neighbors... There are some notable geopolitical consequences of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. Moreover, the governments in South Asia are unhappy with the Indian nationalist policies. 

Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at Wilson Center, expressed that he intends to look at the regional impact of Hindu nationalism. One can analyze the impact at three levels: diplomatic, political, and security. To begin with, we need to realize that the impact of the Modi government’s Hindu nationalism is real and is discernible in neighboring countries. But we should not overstate the regional impact. At the diplomatic level, Modi’s government has ratcheted up its Hindutva agenda, which has hurt its relations with the key neighbors. One of the obvious cases is Pakistan. The revocation of Article 370 looms large here. In India, this decision is depicted as an internal administrative matter – removal of a constitutional clause that was temporarily added into the constitution. However, the revocation was a move driven in part by the Hindu nationalist considerations because many Indian leaders had expressed the desire to remove the article in the past. The Hindutva connection was rooted in the fact that removing the constitutional clause would clear the way for Indians from around the country to invest and acquire land in Kashmir. The repeal of Article 370 has plunged India-Pakistan relations to a new low. 
Bangladesh is another example of how Hindu nationalism has had a negative diplomatic implication for India, especially because unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh is a country with which India has had good relations in recent years. The impact of Hindu nationalism on India-Bangladesh relations is evident in terms of both rhetoric and policy. Indian Home Minister, Amit Shah, has upset many in the Bangladeshi government and Bangladesh overall when he referred to illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants in India as “termites”. He has also criticized Bangladesh for being a poor country and claims that impoverished migrants have no choice but to infiltrate India. This did not go well in Bangladesh. Dhaka was also unhappy about India’s Citizenship Law and its new national registry that accompanied it. It did not like the exclusion of non-Muslim religious minorities in Bangladesh facing discrimination from the citizenship law. Second, after the new citizenship law it was worried that New Delhi would declare Bengali Muslims in the Northeast of India, illegal and expel them as non-citizens. Therefore, Dhaka’s response was immediate after the passage of the citizenship law. A few senior leaders canceled meetings with their Indian counterparts to convey their response. 
Another important case in the region was Nepal, which struggled because of Hindu nationalism. Historically, relations between New Delhi and Kathmandu have been warm. But they sputtered in recent years for a few reasons. One is Nepal’s view that India interferes in Nepal’s internal matters by trying to assist the Madhesi, a marginalized community of Hindus originally from India. There are some notable geopolitical consequences of the rise of Hindu nationalism in India. Moreover, the governments in South Asia are unhappy with the Indian nationalist policies.


Modi is influential in the party, so he is vocal and active in managing external policies...But he is under immense criticism due to India’s failure in handling the COVID-19 crisis. Shortage of oxygen and vaccines, increasing death rates, lack of health facilities, and 400000 deaths have exposed the dismal state of Indian health system that Modi oversees. 

Dr. Nischal Nath Panday, Director of Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS), Kathmandu, stated that Modi is influential in the party, so he is vocal and active in managing external policies. He also benefits from support he has on social media. But he is under immense criticism due to India’s failure in handling the COVID-19 crisis. Shortage of oxygen and vaccines, increasing death rates, lack of health facilities, and 400000 deaths have exposed the dismal state of Indian health system that Modi oversees. At the same time, however, other key issues such as relations with Pakistan and plebiscite in Kashmir have been put on the back burner. Apparently, for now, the debate on India’s secularism has also lost traction. 
It is nonetheless important to understand what secularism means. In our region, secularism is seen as something anti-religion, which is not true. In Nepali, it is translated as “I have nothing to do with it” or neutral, though for people, it could mean “anti-religion”. How secularism is interpreted in India will have a substantial impact on the result of the next elections, especially in Uttar Pradesh because winning there will help the victorious party influence the course of national politics.


Since BJP won the elections again in 2014, a series of radical and conservative policies have led to the following results: One, further establishment of Hindu nationalism as the mainstream ideology in India. Two, assurance to advance the goals that the Hindutva forces started – to build Rama Temple in Ayodhya, to amend Article 370 (regarding the status of Kashmir) of the Constitution and to make a uniform civil code. And three, India's foreign policy is created in the osmosis and its impact on India’s relations with neighboring countries and even the whole international community... Since the 21st century, India has become more inclined towards Hinduism, and a strong and powerful Hindu state has become the policy choice of the Hindu nationalist government.

Professor Qiu Yonghui, Deputy Director in China Center for South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, highlighted that India being the Guru of the world is an idea expressed by Mr. A. B. Vajpayee, the first Prime Minister of India from Bharatiya Janata Party. Since BJP won the elections again in 2014, a series of radical and conservative policies have led to the following results: One, further establishment of Hindu nationalism as the mainstream ideology in India. Two, assurance to advance the goals that the Hindutva forces started – to build Rama Temple in Ayodhya, to amend Article 370 (regarding the status of Kashmir) of the Constitution and to make a uniform civil code. And three, India's foreign policy is created in the osmosis and its impact on India’s relations with neighboring countries and even the whole international community. Therefore, Hindu nationalism has become an important perspective and indispensable factor in observing India's diplomacy.
India's relations with its Eastern neighbor, Bangladesh, have been badly strained by the amendments to the citizenship law introduced by Narendra Modi's government on December 10 and 11, 2019. Amendments to the citizenship law of India were passed in the Lower House and Upper House of the Indian Parliament, and then signed into law by the President. The Amendment grants citizenship to illegal immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014, and six religions but only excludes Muslims. This move by India has caused dissatisfaction among some people in Bangladesh and is thus creating anegative impact in Bangladesh. Given that Bangladesh is overwhelmingly a Muslim majority and has ties to Northeastern Indian states such as Assam and West Bengal, the continued rise of Hindu nationalism in India has a direct impact on the Bangladeshi population and quickly sends pressure to the government of Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi ministers immediately cancelled a planned visit to India after the bill was passed. Bangladesh's opposition has pressed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to seek written assurances from Indian authorities that the so-called "illegal Muslim immigrants" from Bangladesh will not be repatriated after the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act. Given that Bangladesh is already hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, it is clear that Bangladesh has neither the will nor the capacity to accept Muslim refugees from India. This incident is bound to have a long-term impact on India-Bangladesh relations and would even lead to setbacks in bilateral relations. This partly explains the demonstrations in Dhaka, in the run-up to Mr. Modi's visit to Bangladesh on March 26. A border crisis with Nepal in 2020 has added tension to the relationship. The Indian government has also completely forgotten its "neighbors first" commitment in its maritime demarcation with Sri Lanka. Since the 21st century, India has become more inclined towards Hinduism, and a strong and powerful Hindu state has become the policy choice of the Hindu nationalist government.


There is a decisive departure from Gandhi’s tactics and modest policies of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Dr. Shanthikumar Hettiarachchi, Professor at the School of Religion and Philosophy, Minhaj University, Lahore, said that for now, we can talk about two possibilities. First, there is a possibility that the politics of southern Indian will change; states like Tamil Nadu may seek separation. Second is the Khalistan separatist agenda led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. In the past, Indira Gandhi made sure that Little Punjab remained a part of India by executing operation Blue Star under the command of Kuldip Singh who was a veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Kuldip was ultimately able to overwhelm Bhindranwale. There is a decisive departure from Gandhi’s tactics and modest policies of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Although previous India’s losses are unrecoverable, it can avoid similar ones in future.


Hindutva movement is centered on intolerance directed against the Muslims. Hindutva leaders and followers value their own self without having regard for others. 

Prof. Mohd Mizan bin Mohammad Aslam, Professor in Security Studies at the Maif Arab University for Security Sciences (NAUSS), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said that the Hindutva movement is centered on intolerance directed against the Muslims. Hindutva leaders and followers value their own self without having regard for others. Prof. Mizan argued that the Muslim ‘response’ towards Hindu intolerance makes it convenient for the latter to victimize and attack them. The dynamics of ‘political motivation’ is involved, aimed at issues that are being created to gain more votes and power.

Participation of renowned international scholars is a vivid indication of growing realization among global academic community of the threat posed by Hindutva to South Asian security. Western policy discourse, however, is still largely dismissive of the growing saffronization of the Indian state and society. For obvious geopolitical considerations, Western policymakers disproportionately focus on the “Islamist” threat, while they continue to turn a blind eye to triumphant Hindutva ideology in India.  Therefore, international organizations such as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have never included “non-Islamic” variants of violent extremism in their scope and agenda. Such an eventuality could put India under tremendous diplomatic pressure. Pakistan must play a leading role in collaboration with the Islamic world to push for a non-discriminatory approach to terrorism on all relevant international forums.


The writer is the Head of Department of International Relations at National Defence University, Islamabad. He holds a PhD in Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism from Macquarie University, Australia.
Email: [email protected]
 

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