“Nationalism” has gotten absolutized at the expense of Dharma, and now serves the Sangh and especially the BJP as a conduit towards secular nationalism, dropping any Hindu concerns altogether. – Dr Koenraad Elst
Down with “nationalism”
For once, the secularists have it right. The nationalism by which the Hindutva crowd swears, is a Western invention. Feelings for your home country are universal, and natives of India will need no prodding nor any foreign or native ideology to defend their country when necessary. Nationalism is just there, as a gut feeling, not in need of any promotion or defence. But as an ideology, it is the creation of the modern West, hardened in the fires of World War I. Of the secularists, we already knew that they always ape the West (or what they assume to be Western), but for champions of native civilization, it is worth noticing.
Long before I learned about India, I already knew that national provenance is not very useful as an explanation of anything in politics. I remember the TV news report ca. 1970 of a public speech by Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau. Suddenly he was interrupted by a bearded young man loudly scolding him. Trudeau singled him out for an improvised reply: “You have been swayed by those bogus progressist ideas from the US, from Chicago and Los Angeles. Get Canadian, man!” Similarly, the Flemish politician Eric Van Rompuy (younger brother of the later EU President, Herman Van Rompuy) criticized Leftist-inspired innovations as “counter to the Flemish national soul”. As if there can be anything Canadian or non-Canadian, anything Flemish or non-Flemish, about ideas.
Nationalism in a changing world
In the 1920s, because of the Freedom Struggle, loyalty to some form of Indian nationalism was the obvious choice for self-respecting people in India. And because of the British presence and influence on the curriculum, European ideological influence was larger than life. Just at that time, after World War I, nationalism was at its peak. When theorizing the national struggle, Hindu activists had little choice but to take inspiration from European thinkers like Giuseppe Mazzini, mastermind of Italian reunification and translated by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
The construction of Hindu concerns in terms of “Hindu nationalism” (effective meaning of “Hindutva”, a term launched by Savarkar) was understandable. So, it is not our aim to berate freedom fighters like Hindutva author Savarkar, Hindu Mahasabha co-founder Swami Shraddhananda or RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar.
However, they could have looked to Hindu history to see that one of the central concerns of all nationalists was completely lacking there: homogenization. India was the champion of diversity. States were rarely linguistically homogenous and rulers didn’t care to make them so. Loyalty was less to one’s state (which could easily change) but to a more lasting and more intimate identity: one’s caste. As B. R. Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, said: “Every caste a nation.” States had only limited power and were hardly present in the lives of their citizens. By contrast, modern nation-states sought to involve its citizens in the state project, e.g. by conscription, and to insinuate itself in their lives, see e.g. Otto von Bismarck’s creation of social security to cement Germany’s newfound unity.
If the Hindutva stalwarts per se wanted to look to “civilized” Europe, they could have taken inspiration from a number of multinational empires there. In Savarkar’s student days in London, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires still flourished and were characterized by a state religion (Orthodoxy c.q. Roman Catholicism), just as Hindutva stalwarts had in mind, whereas ethnic nationalism favoured secularism, e.g. German unification deliberately downplayed the Catholic/Lutheran dichotomy. Another example of how nationalism and religiosity are naturally antagonistic, was provided by Turkey: while Atatürk abolished the Ottoman empire’s religious bias, his secular-nationalist republic created the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. The old empires had a dominant language (Russian c.q. German), but along with a certain unequal tolerance to minority religions, they also left room for minority languages and made no attempt to impose a single language. This could be contrasted with the then purest example of nationalism, the French Third Republic (1871-1940) where the minority languages, still spoken by half the French population in the 19th century, were being destroyed and the state “religion” of secularism was aggressively promoted.
True, with World War I, the aforementioned empires disappeared, but another example even closer at hand survived: the United Kingdom. Few people realize how the specific status of each part of the UK differed: the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Wales etc., all had and still have a different relation with the British Crown. The Welsh and Gaelic languages were not supported by the state, but there was no active campaign to weed them out either. In spite of a rising level of tolerance, there was a state religion and all traditional customs and institutions were upheld. All while struggling for their sovereignty, perhaps Hindus could have learned something from their colonizers? (For starters, they could have realized that Britain was named after Brigid, the fire-clad goddess whose name is related to Bhrgu, the Vedic seer who introduced the fire sacrifice.)
Back to reality. The Hindutva pioneers opted for the then-prestigious model of the nation-state and tried to cram Hindu political aspirations into it. Rightly or wrongly, this is what happened, so let us start from there. The normal course for a political doctrine is to take in feedback from evolving reality, and to improve with the times. A speech by a Marxist leader today will sound very different from one by his predecessor a century ago. But in the case of Hindutva, the reverse development took place. It froze in its tracks.
This way, important international developments passed without registering on the RSS radar. Nationalism lost its lustre and even became a term of abuse. First there was the circumstance that the German and Japanese imperialists of World War II had sworn by stalwart nationalism (many of the Resistance fighters too, e.g. Charles de Gaulle, but that has been forgotten), whereas their Soviet enemies called themselves internationalists. This way, nationalism came to connote both evil and defeat. Secondly, the more recent wave of globalization turned nationalism into a nostalgic past-oriented attitude, something for village bumpkins who had missed the latest train of progress.
Yet, the Sangh Parivar remained blind to these developments and kept on swearing by interbellum nationalism. It continued to take inspiration from its first leaders, Hedgewar and his successor Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar. If you don’t know their voices and you listen to a tape-recorded speech by Hedgewar and one from his current successor Mohan Bhagwat nine decades later, you wouldn’t know who is who: the thoughts they express are interchangeable. That does not reflect on Hedgewar, who was a child of his time and contributed the best he could to the Hindu cause. But it reflects quite negatively on the course the Sangh Parivar has taken since then.
“Nationalism is Hinduism”
In one sense, the word “nationalism” is defensible from a Hindu viewpoint. For the overseeable past, Hinduism has been native to India, whereas Christianity and Islam are irrevocably of foreign origin, with their founding histories and sacred places located outside India. Other factors remaining the same, Hindus will always identify with India in a way that Christians and Muslims cannot.
On this reality, V. D. Savarkar based his definition of Hindu as “one who has India as both his Fatherland and his Holyland”. Applying this insight, M. S. Golwalkar came up with his oft-quoted suggestion that, if India was to be a Hindu state, Christians and Muslims could only stay there as guests, not as citizens. This deduction followed logically from the premise that India would be a state of the Hindus.
Golwalkar’s rhetoric was notoriously clumsy, but the point to retain is that he made a distinction between Hindus, howsoever broadly defined, and non-Hindus. Whether or not that distinction should have any juridical consequences, fact is that Hindus and non-Hindus were deemed different in respect of nationhood. That was a non-secular vision. In a secular state, religion wouldn’t matter, but Golwalkar opted for a state in which religion would determine citizenship.
A comparison with Israel comes to mind, where any Jew worldwide can claim citizenship. Some non-Jews are citizens because they already lived there before the creation of the Zionist state or because they are spouses of Jewish immigrants, but as a class they cannot claim citizenship. And indeed, both Savarkar and Golwalkar did invoke Zionism as an inspiring example.
To sum up, nationalism can be loaded differently from the religiously neutral meaning given to it by the Nehruvians. For now we should make abstraction of the anti-Hindu discriminations instituted by Jawaharlal Nehru and his partisans, and merely take them at their word when they dishonestly pontificate that in India, secularism means religious neutrality. That neutrality, at any rate, is not what Savarkar and Golwalkar had in mind.
As the decades went by, the Hindutva movement kept calling itself “nationalist”. In the 1940s, the emphasis came to lie on the unity and territorial integrity of India, against the Partition project designed by the MA Jinnah’s Muslim League. Advocates of the Partition were also called nationalists: “Muslim separatists”, in Congress parlance, but they saw themselves as “Muslim nationalists”. One man’s separatism is another man’s nationalism, and these men argued that the Indian Muslims had every attribute of a nation. They gave in somewhat to the then-fashionable trends of democracy (hence the importance of numbers, so that rule by 24% Muslims would not be legitimate) and nationalism. In this case, modern nationhood thinking could be made to continue seamlessly where Muslim theology had spoken of umma and recent Muslim (particularly Ottoman) history had thrown up millat, meaning “religious community”, as an equivalent of “nation”.
Lined up against them within the Muslim community were the so-called “nationalist Muslims”, meaning that minority among Muslims who rejected Partition because they wanted to gobble up the whole of India, not just a part of it. They were not impressed with the nationalist idea that the world should be divided in sovereign territorial units belonging to nations. At most these could be administrative units within the really sovereign unit, the caliphate, intended to comprise the whole world. Nor were they impressed with the modern fad of democracy. As Pakistan’s spiritual father Mohammed Iqbal said: “Democracy is a system in which heads are counted but not weighed.” So, like in the Middle Ages, Muslims should just emulate Mohammed and grab power any which way. Later, Muslim power could always see to it that Muslims become the majority. Since Gandhi and Nehru had always been called nationalists, Muslims who sided with them against Partition in order to keep their option of all-India conquest open, were also called nationalists, though what they really hoped for, was a reunification of the Muslims in a new caliphate where they would lord it over the unbelievers.
Do keep in mind that both parties had the same goal: Islamic world conquest. The wrongly called “nationalist Muslims” went straight for it, largely because the modern world was unfamiliar to them, while the separatists made temporary concessions to the new circumstances and first wanted to consolidate Muslim power in Pakistan. Initially they were even willing to settle for Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s proposal to exchange populations, so that no Muslim would stay behind in remainder-India. They couldn’t believe their luck when on this score, India’s hands were tied by Gandhi and Nehru, so that while the Paki Hindus had to flee, the Indian Muslims could stay where they were, thus forming a fifth column for the next phase of Islamic expansion.
Forty years later, ca. 1965, Deendayal Upadhyaya adopted the promising term “Integral Humanism“, in Hindi Ekatmata Manavavad or Ekatma Manavadarshan. This seemed to transcend the division of mankind in box-type nations. Moreover, unlike nationalism, it did not seem to have been borrowed from the West, in spite of appearances. In the 1930s, the French Catholic political thinker Jacques Maritain had launched the notion of “humanisme intégral”, the ideological core of what was to become the dominant post-war movement of Christian Democracy. But it is unlikely that that is where Upadhyaya had the term from: at that time, there was still a large barrier between the French and Indian public spheres, and the term had been used cursorily by Indian writers as well, being a rather evident concept.
Let us nonetheless note the parallel: in 1930s’ France, there was a militantly secular regime, the Third Republic, and an advancing threat of Communism, exactly like in 1960s’ India. Both were effectively atheist but called themselves “humanist”, which had the effective meaning of “non-theist”. Against these two arms of atheism, the core counter-insight from the religiously committed side was that “a humanism which denies man’s religious dimension, is not an integral humanism”. Materialism amputates the natural religious dimension from man, and this has to be restored.
So, in name, “integral humanism” had a touch of genius. It sounds so innocent and positive, something that nobody can object to. That is why, in spite of being the official ideology of RSS and BJP, in which every member is trained, it is never mentioned in textbooks by “experts” on Hindutva. Out of an unscholarly political activism, these “experts” prefer to push more negatively-sounding terms, of which “Hindu nationalist” is still the kindest. It is unthinkable to read a textbook on the Labour Party without coming across the word “socialism”, yet so noxious is the intellectual climate in both India and India-watching, that it is entirely the done thing to write expert introductions on the RSS-BJP without mentioning its actual ideology.
Alas, once Upadhyaya went beyond the basics, he relapsed into talk that can only be explained as nationalistic. The central concept in his system is chiti, the “national soul”. This notion had been dear to Johann Herder, the Romantic theorist of nationalism ca. 1780. Last winter in Pune and Mumbai, the heartland of Hindu nationalism, during Upadhyaya’s centenary, I noticed that this rather simplistic ideology went through a revival, with some convivial symposiums but few new ideas. It was again around this nationalist notion of chiti that the main churning took place.
The concept of a “national soul” could make sense as a purely descriptive attempt at encapsulating the statistical tendency of a “nation” towards a certain mentality. But even as a statistical average, it is susceptible to serious evolution.
One example. The ancient Romans were known for their organizing power, and this is what allowed them to defeat the fearless but less organized Gauls and Germans. But then Arminius, a German mercenary in the Roman army, learnt about these organizing skills, returned to his country, organized a German army, and defeated the Romans. It was the first time the Germans got associated with organizing skills, a great tradition of theirs ever since. By contrast, after holding out as great organizers for several more centuries, the Italians became proverbially chaotic, great artists but lousy strategists or politicians. The “national soul” is an entity subject to change. They know all about cuisine and amore, but you wouldn’t entrust any organizational task to them.
While not very precise as a descriptive term, chiti is even worse as a normative concept. The stereotype of “the drunken Irish” may have a grain of truth in it, but for Irish nationalists, it is hardly a value worth defending. I don’t know what the Hindu/Indian national soul is (the first European travellers in Asia, not colonialists yet, had stereotypes of “the violent Muslims”, “the indolent Buddhists”, “the perverse Chinese”, and yes, “the deceitful Hindus”), but I imagine it may also have some less desirable traits, not really worth upholding. In Upadhyaya’s day, Communism was a major concern, but it was not wrong because it failed to accord with the Indian chiti—it did not accord with the Russian or Chinese chiti either. Any serious critique of Communism or other challenging ideologies can perfectly be made without reference to the “National Soul”.
Here again, chiti serves as a secular-sounding escape route from a religious category. That, after all, was part of Upadhyaya’s agenda. Alright, his term “Integral Humanism” was bright, and the best possible secular-sounding approximation to a perfect translation of the Hindu term Dharma. What Upadhyaya was really getting at, was that Indians have a mentality in common that oozes out from Hinduism. The “idea of India” that secularists like Shashi Tharoor or Ramachandra Guha like to preach about, is but a secular nod to the unmentionable term Hinduism. However, rather than being proud of his Hinduism as the source of integral-humanist values, Upadhyaya, like most Sanghi ideologues ever since, was in the business of downplaying and hiding this Hinduism behind secular terms. His “integral humanism” ended up as the equivalent of the secularists’ “idea of India”. He pioneered what was to become “BJP secularism”.
During the Ayodhya controversy around 1990, the RSS-BJP professed loyalty to the “Indian hero” Rama and indignation about the “foreign invader” Babar. In reality, his geographical provenance had nothing to do with demolition of temples. The Greeks, Scythians, Kushanas and Huns had been foreign too, as were the British, yet they had not been in the business of temple-destruction. By contrast, Malik Kafur had been a native but as much of a temple-destroyer as Babar, after he had converted to Islam. So in reality, there had been a religious conflict between Hinduism and Islam, the religions of the “Hindu hero” Rama and the “Muslim invader” Babar, but Sangh Parivar escapists had tried to clothe it in nationalist language of “Indian” vs. “foreign”.
When Mohammed and Ali entered the Pagan pilgrimage site, the Ka’ba in Mecca, they were not foreign invaders. They were of the same gene pool, skin colour, language, food habits, literary tastes, and anything else that may define a nation, as the people from whom they were about to rob the temple. And then they broke the idols, just as the Muslim invaders did in Ayodhya and everywhere else in India—as well as in West and Central Asia and in the Mediterranean.
Conceptualizing Islamic iconoclasm in terms of “national” vs. “foreign” is completely mistaken. In the case of the contemporary Sangh Parivar, it has moreover become a wilful mistake, an act of escapism. It thinks it can escape the label of “religious fanaticism” and earn the hoped-for pat on the shoulder from the secularists by swearing it is not Hindu. It now claims to be wedded to secular “nationalism”, not realizing that this term also invites contempt, at least in the West and therefore also among the Westernized intelligentsia.
However, its continued loyalty to “nationalism” could be dismissed as only a publicity mistake. It seems to me that its ever more pronounced shame about its historical sobriquet “Hindu” is more serious. Though once calling themselves “Hindu nationalists”, and still called that by all media, they are now only nationalists, and they repeat this over and over again to secularist interviewers, thinking this will earn them their approval. “Nationalism” has gotten absolutized at the expense of Dharma, and now serves the Sangh and esp. the BJP as a conduit towards secular nationalism, dropping any Hindu concerns altogether.
We are currently witnessing the incumbency of “BJP secularism”. This non-ideology was already taking shape with the Nehru imitator A. B. Vajpayee’s increasing dominance in the later Jana Sangh and early BJP. It became evident in the Ayodhya events, which the BJP leadership eagerly distanced itself from after reaping the rewards in the 1991 elections. When Hindu activists defied the BJP leadership to demolish the disputed structure on 6 December 1992, BJP leader L. K. Advani called it “the blackest day in my life”, though in the larger scheme of things, this act greatly expedited a solution to the controversy, thus saving thousands of lives.
The Vajpayee government of 1998-2004 did strictly nothing about the list of Hindu priorities, not even the version laid down in the 40-point Hindu Agenda of another Sangh branch, the VHP. The late Pramod Mahajan realized (possibly purely as matter of electoral calculus) the untenability of the contrast between BJP programme and BJP performance: he wanted the BJP to raise certain of these demands. It they were to be vetoed by the allies, or defeated in the Lok Sabha, then they would form excellent stakes in the election debates; and if they were to pass, the BJP could take them as trophies to the campaign. But Vajpayee was adamant about going to the voters with a purely economic programme, and though India’s growth figures were then at its peak, he got soundly defeated.
The current BJP government is repeating this performance. The Supreme Court judgment against triple talaq (divorce through instant repudiation of a wife) was used as a fig-leaf somehow proving that the BJP was slowly inching towards the abolition of the separate Islamic family law system and towards a Common Civil Code, an old election promise. In reality, the case had been brought by a few Muslim women. That the BJP happened to be in power was merely a coincidence. The private bill proposing to abolish anti-Hindu discrimination in education is just that: private, emanating only from BJP MP Maheish Girri, not from party or government. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, like erstwhile RSS theorist Nana Deshmukh, like all the NGOs meddling in Indian affairs, like every capitalist or socialist materialist, the BJP swears exclusively by “development” (vikaas).
Not that it will ever receive the much hoped-for pat on the shoulder from the secularists. In their circles, the done thing is still to throw texts from the 1960s or 1920s full of Hindu rhetoric at the supposedly Hindu party, as if these could tell you what the party is about today. So long as this pat on the shoulder is an unreachable goal beckoning in the distance, the RSS-BJP will sacrifice anything including its professed ideology to get it. For in its universe, the secularists still lay down the norms that it tries to live up to.
Time and again I get to see how the nationalist paradigm distorts issues. Thus, the missionary challenge is no longer a matter of Western intrusion into India. Most missionaries are now Indian, and even the Evangelical sects teleguided from America will make sure to send a native to any inter-faith meeting or TV debate. Missionaries are not CIA agents plotting against India, they have their own agenda since centuries before the CIA or the colonial entreprise even existed, and their target is not some nation or state, it is all Pagan religions, in India principally Hinduism.
Two examples from my own experience. A Hindu who used to like me, turned his back on me after I uttered my scepticism of a certain guru called Gurunath who claimed that the enigmatic character Babaji described by Lahiri Mahasaya and Swami Yogananda as a Himalaya-based yogi of indeterminate age, is the same character as Gorakhnath who lived a thousand years ago. He found that I was unimpressed by his assurance that this Gurunath is “enlightened”. I happen to have met a big handful of people deemed “enlightened”, and I have concluded that their yogic power and knowledge, in itself superior to our humdrum lives, does not magically confer on them a superior knowledge of worldly matters. At that mundane level, their knowledge and opinions are no different from those of any other man from the same background and circumstances. Therefore, if he wants to make eccentric claims such as of a man living for millennia, then he has the same burden of proof on him as any ordinary man. After that, my Hindu friend cut off the debate and decided that I was insufferably attached to a “Western” prejudice. As if numerous Hindus don’t have a similar healthy scepticism of paranormal claims; and as if conversely, there aren’t equally gullible Westerners in great number.
In another discussion, Hindus were arguing that Partition was the doing not of the poor hapless Muslims, but of the British, who had it in for the Hindus, so much so that they even committed “genocide” on them. Well, “genocide” implies murderous intention, and Hindus only flatter themselves if they attribute this to the British, who merely wanted to make money and thus instituted economic policies with an enormous collateral damage, but didn’t care one way or the other whether the natives lived or starved. When the Muslim League launched the Partition project, the Brits initially rejected it and only came around when Muslim violence had made it seem inevitable and the beginning Cold War made them see its benefits. Moreover, while no Hindu says it openly, it is so obvious to any observer that they only want to play hero against the long-departed Brits because they have interiorized the fear that they might offend the Muslims, with whom they still have to deal. What S. R. Goel called “the business of blaming the British” is a trick of misdirection, popular among stage magicians, which only a buffoon would believe.
Anyway, during the discussion, I used the Indian word “tamasic” rather than the English equivalent “deluded” and “slothful”. Immediately, one of them flared up and warned all the Indians present that I was equating “Indian” with “tamasic”. And then all through a number of altercations, he went on with this line of deluded discourse. Political delusions are as common among Westerners as among Indians, and appeasement of Islam has become just as big in Europe as in India when the Muslim percentage became similar. Conversely, people who are sceptical of the faux-heroic attitude against long-dead colonialism as a cover for cowardly Muslim appeasement exist as much in India, starting with the late S. R. Goel, an impeccable patriot.
Falling back on the nationalist paradigm makes Hindus misunderstand issues. It is of course far easier to separate people by skin colour than by ideology, very appealing to the lazy, tamasic mind. But it is sure to make you mistake enemies for friends, and friends for enemies. If you think you can afford that on a battlefield, suit yourselves.
When you are on a battlefield, not because you choose to but because your enemies impose this confrontation on you, it is a matter of life and death to be supremely realistic. You simply cannot afford to misconstrue the reasons and stakes for the battle, nor the nature and motives of your enemies. It is but rare that the ideological stakes coincide with national ones, as they did in the Indo-Pak confrontation during the Bangladesh war.
A Hindu yoga master whom I know once made the effort of disabusing some European yoga aspirants from their fascination with India: “India is not that important, India will disappear one day.” India is not absolute, not sanatana, “eternal”. India is relatively important as the cradle of yoga, and secondarily as the cradle of many other cultural riches. But what is important is its culture, Sanatana Dharma. If a party of Hindu travellers get stuck on an uninhabitated island without the means to escape from there, they can still set up their Ram Rajya in this new territory. Maybe they won’t have coconuts and marigolds there to reproduce their rituals, but to those circumstances too they can adapt their Sanatana Dharma.
Finally, let me state that nationalism, not as a pompous ideology but as an intimate feeling, as what a better word calls patriotism, is just natural. Certain ideologies try to estrange you from it, but Hindu Dharma accepts and nurtures it. Every penny spent on RSS propaganda for nationalism is a penny wasted. Every effort to rewrite textbooks in a nationalist sense, is an effort misdirected. A feeling for your motherland is simply normal and doesn’t need any propaganda. For the Vedic seers, the Motherland was only the Saraswati basin in Haryana, king Bharat never heard of the subcontinent named after him, but for today’s Indians, that subcontinent is a lived reality. It is that expanse to which they are attached, and that we should uphold.
In the modern age, when the state is far more important than in the past, the Indian republic is a necessity to defend Hindu civilization. In that sense, it is only right to be an Indian patriot. But that national feeling goes without saying.
» Dr Koenraad Elst is an author, historian, political analyst and orientalist.