The prehistory of Hindu nationalism has two distinct strands. The Hindu Mahasabha, founded in 1915, led and influenced by V.D. Savarkar, believed that politics was a key element in the goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in 1925, believed that social and cultural transformation of Hindu society was the key to achieving its goal of founding a Hindu Rashtra. From 1947 onwards, the influence of the Hindu Mahasabha declined and Hindu nationalism came to be anchored around the RSS and its affiliates and “inspired” organisations — an alliance often called the sangh parivar.
After Gandhi’s assassination, the Hindu Mahasabha as well as the RSS came under a cloud and remained as mere ideological alternatives to the secular and democratic framework enshrined in independent India’s Constitution.
MS Golwalkar, the most influential of the RSS ideologues, described the relation of the Sangh to its affiliates as the same as Lord Krishna’s with the universe and all that exists as explained in the Gita: I am in all that exists and they are in me, but I am not them and they are not me.
The Jan Sangh worked in the political field in order to bring some pure ideals in practice and conduct itself in a manner that was above mutual jealousies and competition.
The Jan Sangh, Golwalkar insisted, existed in order to establish the primacy and importance of the Sangh in the political field. In fact, the Sangh would eventually be able to direct the entire process of governance through the Jan Sangh.
Golwalkar was clear that swayamsevaks “given” to the Jan Sangh were expected to conduct themselves in the same way as they did in the Sangh and as was expected of swayamsevaks. They ought not to delude themselves with the thought that they were free, he warned. They were not expected to beat their own drum, get a name for themselves and lead the rest of their lives in peace and prosperity.
Neither should swayamsevaks working in the Jan Sangh forget the parent organisation’s modes of worship. This meant that they had to regularly attend shakhas. In 1980, the Jana Sangh metamorphosed itself into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The decades of the eighties and the nineties saw the transformation of the BJP into a viable political alternative to the Congress. These decades also witnessed the BJP leading the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, which led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Some of the bloodiest communal riots in free India’s history followed the demolition.
After attempts at forming a government after the national elections in 1996, one that lasted for 13 days, the BJP and its allies came to power at the Centre in 1998. The years between 1998 and 2004 marked a phase of discomfort and confrontation between the BJP and the RSS.
Despite this short phase when relations between them soured, the BJP remains ideologically and directionally firmly anchored within the RSS’s sphere of influence. In its existence as an affiliate of the RSS, there is one piece of the RSS credo that the BJP has learned well.
While the RSS harps on being a cultural organisation with a well-defined ideological structure, it has only one real principle by which it functions in the real world. This is the principle of pragmatism. Its brand of pragmatism is amoral and only entertains the ethics of the here and now. The instrument that gives momentum to this brand of pragmatism is guerrilla warfare tactics gleaned from the time of Ramdas and Shivaji.
The whole idea is to create an immediate impact and hope that the consequences of the strike will eventually work in its favour.
On the question of ideology, Hindu nationalists have shared an inflexible and unwavering agenda from the 19th century onwards. They have sought to portray Hinduism as a unified, seamless and monochromatic faith.
Every single proponent of Hindu nationalism encouraged and promoted the idea of retaliatory violence, be it Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo or Savarkar, and this was done in the name of preserving righteousness and a fictional unbroken Hindu tradition of thousands of years.
All of them were ensnared by 19th century definitions of religion and attempted to mould their own faith, as they understood it, in ways that were alien to the many diverse strands of what cumulatively came to be known as Hinduism.
What binds Hindu nationalism together as a largely coherent whole are the crumbs of four fallacies held together by the dough of the Hindu Rashtra utopia. The first of these was appointing itself the sole guardian, protector and defender of what they called Hindu culture.
The second was to assume the mantle of the sole spokesperson for an undiluted and militant idea of nationalism, which, when translated into simple language, meant Hindu nationalism.
Thirdly, they took upon themselves, unilaterally and arbitrarily, the task of what they call Hindu consolidation.
Finally, the RSS believes that there is something called Hindu society out there, and it is only a matter of time that this Hindu society will be awakened, see the light of day, and run to the paternal embrace of the Sangh.
(The author is a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad)