The Colonial Roots Of Hindutva ‘Nationalism’

By Romila Thapar

For Indians of my age who grew up on the cusp of Independence, nationalism was in the air we breathed. Nat­ionalism was not something problematic. It was an identity with the nation and its society. The identity and consciousness of being Indian did not initially need to be defined. We understood nationalism to be Indian nationalism and not Hindu or Muslim or any other kind of religious or other nationalism, and a clear distinction was made between nationalism and other loyalties. Nationalism could only be Indian. And Indian meant that which was above all the smaller loyalties to religion, caste, ethnicity and region. Nationalism meant differentiating between the nat­ion and the state, and it was clear that no government could take upon itself the rights of a nation. Sovereignty resides with the nation and not with the government. A nation ref­erred to the people that inhabited a territory who saw themselves as an evolved community, one that was created by drawing upon the range of communities that existed prior to the nation. It was based on a shared history, interests and asp­irations frequen­tly expressed in a common culture that in turn drew from multiple cultures.

At the most visible level, a nation is identified with territory. For the Indian this was the territory of British India that the colony hoped to inherit on becoming a nation. This had to be bifurcated with Partition in 1947, and that was problematic when identified with the erstwhile territory of British India. So the territory of what constituted India had to be redefined.

Nevertheless, the subcontinent remained the framework when thinking about India in historical terms. We learnt from history that through the centuries there was a constant changing of boundaries and the coexistence of many political units within the subcontinent. This raised the question of whether a permanent boundary of a nation-state was feasible, but for the purposes of nationalism it was assumed to be as permanent as possible, with the caveat that it could change.

This also turned our attention to the real entity of nationalism and that was the people who inhabited the territory. This was meant literally and it included all the people, irrespective of their sub-identities of religion, caste, language, region and such like. There was an axiomatic belief that the pri­mary concern of nationalism was to ensure the welfare of the entire society, and of all its citizens. This was defined as establishing the equality of all citizens and their entitlement to human rights. National interest meant ensuring that every citizen lived with dignity. This req­uired both economic growth and social justice as fundamental to the establishing of a nation. These ess­entials of a nation were discussed exte­nsively, especially in universities and res­earch centres, in the first couple of decades after Independence.

Nationalism had, and has, much to do with understanding one’s society and finding one’s identity as a member of that society. It cannot be reduced merely to waving flags and shouting slogans and penalising people for not shouting slogans like ‘Bharat mata ki jai’. This smacks of a lack of confidence among those making the demand for slogans. Nationalism requires a far greater commitment to attending to the needs of the nation than mere sloganeering, and that too with slogans focusing on territory or ones that have a limited acceptability. As was recently said, it is indeed ironic that an Indian who refuses to shout this slogan is immediately dec­l­a­red as anti-national, but an Indian who has deliberately not paid his taxes or stashed away black money is not declared as such.

The question of what is national and what is anti-national does depend on what is understood by nationalism. A commitment to the nation if it encourages concern for and an ethical attitude towards other citizens of the same nation is always commended. However, this should not be expressed by vicious hostility tow­ards neighbouring nations. Hostility, in particular situations, has to be tempered with reason and this is one difference between good governance and bad. Nationalism, therefore, cannot be without its limits and the limits have to be carefully worked out.

Colonial histories claimed to apply the criteria of Enlightenment rationality, but was imposing a history not divorced from justifying dominance.

The question is sometimes asked whether there was nationalism in pre-modern times. Historians would think not. Internal distinctions are part of the stratification of every society. Yet, as an entity, a society differentiates itself from others. Societies in the past were more often known by the characteristics of their elite. An example is the defining of civilisations. Indian civilisat­ion was located in the territory of British India, its language was said to be Sanskrit and its religion Hindu. This definition was of course the contribution of colonial scholarship that we have duti­fully appropriated, without giving attention to other significant features that went into the making of the civilisation, or questioning whether this was all that was required for defining a civilisation. The culture of the elite went into defining civ­­ilisation. Non-elites and their cultural patterns, especially in rural areas, were hardly recognised. They had a circumscribed existence. Even within this very limited definition of civilisation, physical boundaries constantly changed, languages changed, religions mutated, as did the cultural identity and what was rec­orded as history. These again pertained more to the elites than to others.

Nationalism as it evolved historically was inclusive and drew on the idea of the unification of diverse groups to form a new community of citizens. Nevertheless, there were, and are, some ideologies that claim to be nationalisms but where the identity gives priority to only one group, and this acts as a force of divisiveness. This has led to identifying genuine nationalism as a form of unification. It does not require the cultural idiom of a specific community and often creates new idioms. More correctly, therefore, con­­cepts of nations based on a single exc­lusive identity—religious, linguistic, eth­­nic etc—are actually pseudo-nationalisms and should be precluded from being called a nationalism, without the accompanying qualifier of their identity.

Thus, in India, we distinguish between secular, anti-colonial nationalism that was the mainstay of the national freedom movement, and the other movements that called themselves nationalisms but were doubtful as such and were more correctly religious or communal nationalisms that drew their identity from individual religions, such as the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh nationalisms. Many historians would refrain from calling these nationalisms. The rise of such categories can, if one chooses to be charitable, be called subnationalisms, although some may hesitate to use any association with nationalism for such groups.

Historians see the nation as a modern concept and do not trace it to antiquity. It emerges at a specific point of time that dates to the post-Enlightenment period in Europe. It coincides with a major change, namely the emergence of societies out of the earlier feudal or similar systems into what became the interrelation of industrialisation with the growth of capitalism and an economy based on both capitalism and colonialism. As a universalising concept, it lent itself to asserting a new form of political power and that became the direction taken by most nationalisms.

The nation is different from the state and from government. The state can have different forms of government, as it did in the pre-modern past. The use of the term ‘nation-state’ qualifies the kind of state. Nationalism is a function of the nation. Conceptually, it consolidates aspects of the nation such as democracy, territory and power and endorses the value systems that ensure equal rights and justice. The nation is generally not centrally and dir­ectly ruled by a dynasty, it is the representatives of the people who govern it in a democratic system. In other words, ultimately, it is the people who determine the nation. Unfortunately, this definition is not appreciated by the many who think nationalism is only about shouting slogans and keeping the territory unchanged. The question of nationalism and anti-nationalism when it hovers over territory is not as central when compared to the other asp­ects of a nation that all its citizens share, even if territory does on occasion become the focus.

A few decades ago, there was much discussion on what goes into the making of nationalism. The discussion was varied, since nat­ionalism is an abstract concept. Benedict Anderson, the political scientist and historian, referred in his influential book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism to an imagined community as constructed by people who think of themselves as a community with common perceptions that unite them. The unity was more feasible in modern times than in earlier periods because of the spread of literacy with the assistance of the printing press and the reading of newspapers, etc. To this one could add, if so desired, the influence of television and the cinema as sustaining or even assisting in creating a national feeling.

In Nations and Nationalism (1983), Ernest Gellner, the British social anth­ropologist and a leading thinker on the subject of nationalism, linked it more closely to a new society that grew out of an earlier society and differed from it in various ways. It permitted the growth of an impersonal society where individuals were bonded through def­ining a shared culture and learning a shared history. Again, to this one could add that the observance of the same code of laws was also a binding factor.

The inclusiveness of the anti-colonial nationalism is discarded. In claiming legitimacy from the past, it is made into an assemblage of what’s most desired now.

Eric J. Hobsbawm, the British thi­nker and historian, made a connection in Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1990) between history and nationalism and explained how history is reconstructed in a way that suits the ideology of nationalism and is essential to the construction of nationalism. It is essential to the making of a state and this incorporates not just the elite but also the less privileged. Nat­ionalism may begin with ideas among the elite but its propagation involves having mass support. Initially, anti-colonial Indian nat­ionalism had a more limited role as compared to what it bec­ame when converted into a mass movement in the 20th century. History plays a crucial role in both creating the basis of the unity and for sustaining it. Hobsbawm compares the role of history to nationalism with that of the poppy to the heroin addict.

This is one explanation for why history in India has become the arena of struggle between the secular nationalists and those end­orsing varieties of religious or pseudo-nationalisms. Nationalist historical writing visualised history as supportive of the interlinking of the communities that constituted Indian soc­iety. Occasionally there were deviations from this when a particular religious community was given greater centrality than was appropriate to a nationalist perspective. Differences among historians arise when the pseudo-nationalisms exaggerate the importance of a single history of one religious community as being the pre-eminent history of the nation, and denigrate and distort the history of other communities. The public historical confrontations today are between secular historians and those who write history from the perspective of communal ‘nationalisms’. Needless to say, the discipline of history has moved well beyond this debate, but the latter are oblivious of this since they are grounded in their political agenda.

We have seen this clearly in the nationalist history written by historians who were part of the anti-colonial nationalist movement with their emphasis on understanding Indian society in terms of its continuity and common characteristics. As a contrast to this is the ‘history’ as written by the RSS and Hindutva ideologues for whom the past has only to do with Hindu history of the early period and the victimisation of Hindus under Muslim tyranny in the medieval period. They speak of Hindus being enslaved for a thousand years by Muslim rule, but do not pause for a moment to give thought to at least two facts.

One is that caste Hindus victimised the other castes, Dalits and adivasis for two thousand or more years, and most caste Hindus, with a few exceptions, regarded it as quite legitimate. Some continue to do so. Secondly, that some of the more powerful propagation of Hindu religious sects dates to the last thousand years—such as the Bhakti and Tantric traditions in northern India—and these characterise the kind of Hinduism that is practised by the larger number of people currently called Hindu in census reports.

The bhajans of Mira and Surdas and the poetry of Kabir and Tukaram, as well as the many renderings of the Ram­­ayana, such as by Tulsidasa and Krittivasa, were composed in this per­iod. Their popularity was so immense among various communities that phr­ases and verses from them became idioms in the languages of their com­­­­p­­osition such as Hindi, Bengali and Marathi. This was par­alleled in other languages of the subcontinent.

Furthermore, some of the most not­able achievements in knowledge of various kinds, from literature to mathematics, can be asc­­ribed to Hindu scholars during this period. Among these achievements were some singular traditions of Hindu culture as well as some highly creative interfacing with other religions and cultures. Far from being victimised, Hindu culture flourished along with other cultures in these centuries. This is demonstrated in texts such as Madhava’s Sar­va­d­a­rs­h­a­n­a­sangraha on the prevailing schools of philosophy and Sama­ya­su­ndara’s Arthar­at­navali on linguistic explorations and belief systems. Sayana wrote his renowned exposition of the Rigveda in the fourteenth century. Commentaries on, and digests of, earlier social codes and the Dharmashastras reflected new situations. Some incorporated discussions on the status of those converted to Islam. Others debated the status of the now greatly empowered temple priests who were performers of rituals as well as administrators in the many wealthy temples that became a part of the urban scene.

Intensely devotional poetry was written by poets, some of whom were in fact born Muslim but worshipped Hindu deities. One of the best known among them was Sayyad Ibrahim, popularly referred to as Raskhan, whose dohas and bhajans dedicated to the deity Krishna were widely recited in the sixteenth century and are still remembered by devotees of Krishna and others. The intermingling of cultures is also evident in the new kinds of classical music that was composed and sung at the courts of this period. Best known among these was the creation and evolution of Dhrupad, regarded by many as the finest form of Hindustani classical music. The Mughal court became the most impressive patron of the translation of many Sanskrit religious texts into Persian. Among these the Mahabharata (translated as the Razmnamah) and the Bhagavad Gita hold pride of place. Brahmana priests worked together with Persian scholars on these translations encouraged by Hindu and Muslim noblemen at the courts.

This was also the period when the gurus, pirs and sants wandered from place to place, preached their understanding of religion, founded sects and sometimes settled somewhere that became a place of pilgrimage. They were people of every possible religious background and their teachings were often a religious melange that defied identification with a particular religion. Some were localised and others spread across the subcontinent, like the Nathapantha. They ranged from informal religious sects to well-established formal sects with large bodies of followers. Such sects crossed religious and social barriers without a thought and none could stop them because their followings were so large. When they became well-­­established, even royal patrons received them cordially. They were the opinion-makers of their times.

This does not support the idea of victimised Hindus but rather of people of different cultures investigating their cultures in order to find points of integration or of disagreement. Nor should this be taken as an indication of complete harmony among the various cultures. Since there were inequalities, there would have been points of dislocation and confrontation, as indeed are only too evident in the pre-Islamic history of India. But to speak of victimisation is merely to try and impose a particular kind of image of the past onto our present perceptions so as to propagate communal hostility. The purpose of historical research is to try and understand the interface between the cultures of the past and explain the different kinds of relationships they may have had. But if history is subjected to fabrication in order to make it the excuse for agg­ression against another community in contemporary times, then we cannot expect it to provide an understanding and an explanation of what happened in the past and why.

Religious nationalism, or communalism as some prefer to call it, both Muslim and Hindu, was marginal to the mainstream of the anti-colonial movement. They did not confront the colonial power, focused as the two communalisms were on attacking each other in the int­erests of establishing an Islamic and a Hindu state. The catalyst in many anti-colonial nationalisms was the focus on removing the colonial power which was seen as exploiting the colony, acc­ompanied by the colonised wanting the rights of representation in what was ideally seen as a democratic system still to be established. Both were essential to how the middle class saw its role and this was prior to its own eventual success that led it on occasion to curb these rights.

What we take to be nationalism can be a positive force if it calls for the unification of communities, but it can be a divisive and negative force if it underlines exclusive rights for one community on the basis of a single identifying factor. We’ve seen a very severe example of negative nationalism in the case of Germany in the 1930s when the Nazis propagated the idea of the purity of the Aryan race and the origin of European Aryans. This was central to the Fascist understanding of European society and crucial to German Fascism and was not absent in Italian Fascism either.

The Aryans were said to be superior racially and culturally and were not only given priority of place in German society, but it was even argued that the purity of German society could be achieved by annihilating non-Aryans. The non-Aryans were the Jews and the Gypsies, who were not merely excluded but were physically annihilated. This began with segregating and abusing them and ended with taking them forcibly, trainload by trainload, to special camps where they were gassed and killed. This was done through the Holocaust and the literal decimation of the Jewish population in Germany, using up-to-date scientific techniques. Liberal thinkers and intellectuals were special targets of attack and many among them had to flee Germany, although many more were gassed in the concentration camps. The irony was that the Jews were so well integrated into German society that they were major contributors to German culture, science and int­ellectual life. Those that did manage to esc­ape became catalysts in the enri­chment of intellectual life in Europe and the US in the post-World War II period. The loss was that of the Fascist countries. I am referring to this because these kinds of sentiments of excluding minorities is what we often hear in our own society and in other societies, with reference to people who are, for obnoxious reasons, regarded as unwanted.

However, where nationalism has been inclusive, the effect has tended to be positive, at least ini­tially. For example, the kind of nationalism we seldom refer to but whose ideology is pertinent to the Indian situation—African nationalism—was based on the idea of what came to be called Negritude. This emerged as an ideology from the Caribbean countries in the 1930s and through contact with Africans in other places, and its immediate context was French colonialism. Aime Cesaire, Leopold Senghor and Leon Damas formulated the idea. This brought together an African consciousness that stretched from Africa to the Caribbean to North America. It was an inclusive nationalism of a very extraordinary kind and I think we would do well to study it some more.

The main thrust of Negritude was that it was an anti-colonial nationalism initially critiquing French colonialism as an example of European dominance. It celebrated black African identity and brought together black critics of imperialism. The derogatory term, negre (black), to mean black people, was deliberately turned on its head and given a positive meaning of black identity. This in a sense also caused it to challenge and oppose the popular ‘race science’ of the time in Europe and the notion that Africans are primitive and savage. Negritude became a major literary and philosophical movement among black writers, many of whom wrote from a secular perspective. Although the reinterpretation of religion was a subject of interest, culture was not defined as religion but as the articulation at many levels of the groups that constituted black societies in these various countries. As a precursor to decolonisation in Africa and the Caribbean, and because of its association with the anti-slavery movement in the US, it became crucial to black nationalism.

Religious nationalism wasn’t anti-colonial. They sought to use history as given by colonial scholarship to legitimise their political ideology.

In later years it, too, was critiqued when it was thought that the racial identity had become too singular in the definition. In areas where Negritude was influential, the population was not limited to Africans, especially in the Caribbean. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher who was appreciative of Negritude, referred to it as anti-racist racism. Later, some African writers were opp­osed to it because it accepted distinctive racial cultures and their characteristics. This was regarded as complicit with colonial thought. Other theories entered the discussion on Negritude, questioning whether it drew on biological or cultural roots in arguing for a difference. The point that I would like to make is that any term used in one historical context can be differently used in another. Therefore, the historical context is significant in discussing the term. Further, what goes by the name of nationalism can be used in various ways and it is necessary to seek out the historical context of each to grasp its political and cultural function in the society to which it refers.

But let me return to the Indian situation and the evolution of nationalist ideas in India. This was tied to colonialism. All of us in the Indian subcontinent, not to mention other ex-colonies, have faced the same questions of how to define ourselves as citizens of a new nation. This relates to the question of identity or identities. We in India thought the answer was simple—it was the single identity of being Indian. But the reality on the ground has turned it into a complex question without a simple answer because even a single identity can subsume others. The utopia that we had wished for has retreated in the face of identities in conflict.

History, as we were taught in school and even later, was a representation of the past based on information that we had gathered from the past. In the case of colonies such as India, colonial scholars claimed that they were writing the history of the colony since there was supposedly an absence of historical writing in the cultures of the colony. Therefore, a history had to be constructed for the region by colonial scholars and this they proceeded to do. But when this history was used to construct identities relevant only to the present but with claims of having roots in the past, it became necessary for more contemporary historians to unpack the past to discover the actual roots. In this process of unpacking, one realises that the past registers changes that could alter its representation. The past does not remain static.

In examining the construction of the past in the form in which we had inherited it from colonial scholarship, it was further seen that aspects of nationalist thinking had borrowed from this colonial legacy. The colonial reconstruction of the past in India was the poppy of which Hobsbawm speaks. Nationalism was built by coalescing many identities and aspiring to be inclusive of the entire society. It inevitably opposed the defining of the nation on the basis of a single identity projected as superior to the rest. For this claim to superiority, an imagined history is put forth endorsing the dominance of the supposedly superior group. Inc­lusiveness is undoubtedly problematic since every society since early times has overlooked the need for equality and has acquiesced in the dominance of some and the subordination of others. These frequently become the issues of conflict. Inequality is thus predictable and results in multiple identities competing for visibility. Yet the wish for an egalitarian society, or one relatively so, has been a feature in envisioning future utopias.

In our present post-colonial times in India, the multiple identities of the period contemporary with nationalism have surfaced and become visible. But the historical context is constantly changing. Each identity demands priority for itself and asks to be treated as exclusive, and this becomes an agency for mobilisation. The inclusiveness of the earlier anti-colonial nationalism is set aside. In claiming legitimacy from the past, that past itself is converted into an assemblage of what is most desired in the present. Separating what might actually have happened from the fantasies of political ideologues masquerading as specialists in religion makes it necessary to understand historical knowledge.

Among our current iden­tities in India, the more prominent ones go back to colonial times and were usually construc­ted with links to pre-­modern history. Examples of this are identities of race, language, caste, tribe and religion. Economic poverty and inequality of a new kind is the colonial heritage for large segments of the population. In the couple of centuries just prior to colonisation, India and China were leading economies. This changed with the coming of colonialism. The identities constructed by colonialism in the nineteenth century became the prisms through which Europe viewed the past of India. The history of the colony was of prime concern to the colonial ruler in order to govern its strange peoples and to exploit its wealth and, to some extent, to understand its culture, so alien to European eyes.

Some of this concern resulted in path-breaking work on deciphering scripts, revealing tangible history through excavations, and investigating language through philology—analysing its linguistic components. Much effort was made to collect data thr­ough archaeological excavations, linguistic surveys, and a sys­­­­tematic programme of collecting texts. The oral traditions of bardic compositions were also part of this effort. Ancient scripts, such as Brahmi, were deciphered so that inscriptions could now be read, thereby providing fresh information, not alw­­ays in conformity with the normative and sacred texts, and therefore presenting an interesting alternative picture of society. All this data had to be organised and interpreted. The organisation was efficient but the interpretation reinforced colonial theories. Nevertheless, as Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, stated, all this was “the necessary furniture of Empire”.

Three arguments were foundational to the colonial interpretation of Indian history. The first was periodisation. James Mill in The History of British India (1817-1826), almost two hundred years ago, argued for three periods, labelled in accordance with the religion of the rulers: Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period. The divisions were endorsed by the ass­umption that the units of Indian society have always been monolithic religious communities—primarily the Hindu and the Muslim—which were mutually hostile. Religion was believed to have superseded all other authority.

On the basis of their numbers in the Census of 1872 and subsequently, the Hindus came to be called the majority community, and the Muslims and others were the minority communities. It was argued that there was an absence of historical change in India, therefore all institutions were static until the coming of the colonial power. The only thing that changed was the religion of the ruling dynasties. This periodisation became axiomatic to the int­erpretation of Indian history. It also had a major political fallout effect in the twentieth century when the subcontinent was partitioned on the basis of the supposed two nations defined by religion. Although discarded by historians, those that still hold to the theory continue to support the required hostility between Hindus and Muslims.

The second assertion was that the pre-colonial political economy conformed to the model of what was called oriental despotism. This again ass­umed a static society, characterised by an absence of private property in land, despotic and oppressive rulers and, therefore, endemic poverty. This pattern, commonly applied to Asian societies, did not envisage any marked economic change. A static society also meant that it lacked a sense of history.

The third aspect was that Hindu soc­iety had always been divided into four main caste groupings—the varnas. This division, it was argued, was based on Indian society being a collection of segregated races, with caste as the mechanism that controlled segregation through a code of regulations that determined how it was to function. Therefore, it remained unchanging through history. Racial identity was at the forefront in discussions on society at that time with the prevalence of what was called ‘race science’ in Europe. This not­ion of caste was derived by colonial scholars largely from what they saw as the Aryan foundations of Indian civilisation, both as a race and a language. The earlier people were labelled as Dravidian because of its being another ancient language group with a distinct geographical loc­ation and substantial numbers of speakers. Dravidian became the counterpoint to the Aryan. Sanskrit was viewed as the dominant language of the Aryan civilisation; the hegemonic religion was Vedic Brahmanism. In all three descriptions, India was projected as the alien, the ‘Other’ of Europe. Europe had to be projected as unique and Asia as lacking in characteristics of European civilisation.

Colonial interpretations claimed to be applying the criteria of Enlightenment rationality to their interpretation of the history of the colony. But, in effect, they were imposing a history that was not divorced from justifying colonial dominance. These preconceptions, together with a focus on chronology and the narrative of dynasties, governed routine history. Colonial historians drew on texts encapsulating the elite-caste perspectives of Indian soc­iety and extended it to the whole of society. Indian historians writing on ancient India came from the newly emerged middle class and were of the privileged castes and therefore familiar with these texts. There may have been some hesitation in analysing their contents critically in the manner required by historical res­earch, as among the texts were those often regarded as sacred. The colonial routine continued.

Nevertheless, a debate did emerge, especially among historians influenced by nationalist ideas and opposed to some colonial preconceptions. The colonial periodisation was generally acc­epted. A few changed the nomenclature to Ancient, Medieval and Modern, borrowed from Europe and thought to be more secular, although the markers remained the same and there was no effective change. Oriental despotism as a theory that explained the pre-modern political economy of India had few takers. Nationalist Indian historians largely rejected it. However, alternative hyp­otheses on the early Indian political economy and society were limited. This would have meant critiquing the normative texts and giving greater credence to non-religious texts. Social history in standard works largely reiterated the description of the four varnas as given in the normative texts—the codes of caste society known as the Dharma­shastras—registering little recognition of deviations, leave alone explaining them. Even where there was a conflict between the sacred text and inscriptional evidence, the conflict was not analysed and the textual statements were taken as correct. That the system need not have worked precisely as described in theory was not generally envisaged. Other ways of looking at the past were not admitted to the forefront of historical writing.

The predominant form of nationalism, described as anti-colonial and secular, was beginning to be imprinted on Indian historical writing in the early 20th century. This was the nationalism of the majority of the Indian population. But parallel to this, and initially less apparent in historical writing, were emerging the two religious ‘nationalisms’—Hindu and Muslim—much encouraged by the colonial version of the Indian past. These were not essentially anti-colonial, since their agenda lay in their political ambition of establishing separate religion-based nation-states. They were less inter­ested in researching alternate paradigms and explanations of history and more in seeking to use history as given by colonial scholarship to legitimise their political ideology and the mobilisation that they sought. There was an even greater insistence that religious identity had always been the seminal identity in the past and continued to be so in the present. They argued that this identity of Hindu and Muslim would define the character of the nation-states in contemporary times, even if it meant establishing two separate nations. Religion for them was more important than democracy and human rights. In the case of Hindu nationalism, the religion referred to is the religion of the elite castes, and that in effect was the religion of the minority group within the count of those that called themselves Hindus.

From these two perspectives, the project of history was directed towards justifying what was to be the outcome of independence—the partition of India into two states, one upholding Islam and the other encapsulating the struggle between those wanting a secular democracy and those proposing a Hindu state. The colonial view of Indian history was being echoed in these ideas. The argument that if the one came, the other was inevitable was only held by those who accepted the colonial version of Indian history, as did the ‘religious’ nationalists, although they never admit to their sources. Post-colonial mainstream nationalism, as different from the religious nationalisms, still insisted that the state of India should be a secular democracy and that is essentially what Indian nationalists had fought for.


Where nationalism based on a specific religious, linguistic or ethnic identity has been successful in creating a nation-state, it is used to justify identity politics. The identities that fail to be dominant take on the characteristics of a kind of sub-­nationalism until such time as they too aspire to the making of yet another nation, or else fall by the wayside. Identity need not always be derived from religion. With Bangladesh it was language. More recent but unsuccessful demands for nationhood, such as that of Khalistan among the Sikhs, stemmed again from religion within the context of a larger nation that is multi-religious.

Secessionist movements are not unk­nown even to well-established nations—such as Scottish nationalism—but they need not be violent or identified with an extremist ideology, although Irish nationalism, for obvious reasons, was different. In India, there have been trends in that direction with language-based movements in the south and demands for regional autonomy. Mov­ements oriented more to ethnicity are known from the Northeast.

The colonial inheritance, where it remains unquestioned, persists, and religious nationalisms appropriate it and build on it. It dominates the thinking of those that regard themselves as def­ending all things Indian, by which they often mean Hindu, or else defending the religion they support and oppose the minority community from which non-compliance is feared. This is an exp­licit continuation of James Mill’s two-nation theory, with its insistence on the innate hostility between Hindus and Muslims, and the theory of the victimisation of Hindus by Muslim rulers. So, the counterpart to Pakistan has to be a Hindu India according to some, even if a secular India is more viable, given the nation’s history (and current reality) of multiple cultures and the plurality of religious beliefs.

The argument that a religion-based state, drawing on majority and minority religious communities as its units, militates against democracy is of little concern to such opinion. The undemocratic intentions of religion-­based nationalisms are brushed aside by them and more so now that we are enmeshed in a neoliberal market economy that reiterates hierarchies of inequality. Movements from below demanding equal rights are described as threats to the state. Muslim religious nat­ionalism demanded a separate state using the colonial argument of two nations and, according to some, such a state could have been the core of a rejuvenated Islamic world. Not all Muslim organisations in pre-Partition India supported this argument, and some opposed it; but it claimed, as religious nationalisms have to, that it had the majority’s sup­­port.

History as viewed by Hindu religious nationalism, in its inc­arnation as Hindutva, is a narrative of Hindus having been the original inhabitants of the land later known as British India, and thus the rightful inheritors of the past. It is said that the Hindus once had a great and glorious past that was destroyed by Muslim conquerors. Consequently, the creation of a Hindu state is projected as a legitimate return to a rightful inheritance. The unbroken descent of Hindu ancestry and rel­­i­­gion (pitribhumi and punyabhumi) from earliest times, according to this sch­ool of thought, legitimises the primacy of Hindus in the present. It combines with this the construction by F.M. Mueller, the Orientalist and philologist, of a superior Aryan culture and the Aryan foundations of Indian (read Hindu) civilisation.

Interestingly, it was the Theosophists, and in particular Colonel H.S. Olcott, the organisation’s co-founder, who were initially the major propagators of this theory in the nineteenth century. Olcott argued that the Aryans were indigenous to India and took civilisation from India to the West, an idea that is promoted by Hin­dutva, but with no reference to its colonial origins. The Theosophists were close to the Arya Samaj before they fell out.

The advantage of the Aryan theory of origins was that the elite castes claimed an Aryan descent and thereby also an unbroken lineage of dominance since the beginning of the establishment of civilisation. They also claimed close kinship with the British, who were geographically at the other end of the ‘Aryan’ spread across Eurasia. The existence of the Harappan civilisation, discovered in the 1920s, questions this narrative. But by maintaining that the Harappans were also Aryans, this questioning is disallowed. However, there is as yet no evidence for this argument. Both the two-nation theory and the theory of Aryan origins are rooted in the nineteenth-century colonial interpretation of Indian history. These theories become a form of nurturing and continuing colonial explanations of Indian history, while claiming them as indigenous Indian history.

Most historians have questioned these and other theories formulated, for instance, by the trilogy of Mill-Macaulay-Mueller, the authors of the more established colonial construction of the Indian past. (Thomas Babington Macaulay was a British politician and administrator and the author of the infamous 1835 Minute on Indian Education that dismissed the “whole native literature of India and Arabia” as worthless.) Ironically, the historians who have questioned these colonial theories are the ones who are accused by the Hindutva-vadis of being anti-national, the children of Macaulay, and ‘Marxist’. The contemporary historical moment is that of a post-colonial state, an independent nation, and the conflict is over the immense change in power relations this entails. The conflict is dressed up in the clothes of religion and the slogan is that the pre-eminence of Hindutva has to be established.

This story first appeared on Outlook Magazine, 11 July 2016

Related Posts

Stay Connected


Recent Stories