Hindu Nationalism

A Threat to the Indian Democracy?

Term Paper, 2011

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3



List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Fundamentals
2.1 Nationalism
2.2 Nation

3 Indian Democracy
3.1 Constitution
3.2 Congress System

4 Hindu Nationalism
4.1 Historical Development
4.2 The Ideological Fundamentals of the Hindu Right
4.2.1 Hindutva
4.2.2 Further Development
4.3 The Actors
4.3.1 Sangh Parivar Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

5 The Influence of Hindu Nationalism on the Indian Democracy

6 Conclusion


List of Abbreviations

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1 Introduction

This essay addresses the question whether Hindu nationalism is a threat to democracy or not and if so in what sense it has threatened democracy.

The question is why this topic is so relevant. Every now and then we hear about violent riots in India, read it in the papers or watch it in the TV news. Many times these riots are caused by different religious groups: on the one hand Hindus, on the other hand minorities, mostly Muslims, Sikhs or Christians. A reason for this is the rise of a Hindu right. The phenomenon of Hindu nationalism has already been discussed in research for some time, but only in the past few years it a discussion outside India has begun whether or not it might be a threat to the biggest democracy in the world. The public in the Western hemisphere is probably completely ignorant about this topic, especially as Islamism has threatened the Europeans and Americans a lot more. Another aspect is that a lot can be learnt about how religious nationalism can threaten democracy.1

So, why is Hindu nationalism such an interesting subject now? It is due to the fact that Hindu religion is such an important aspect, mainly the base, of this nationalism since common religion is admittedly many times part of a nation’s roots according to scholars but usually not defined as the boundary for what is inside. Additionally, the idea of a Hindu community is a perfect example of the European idea of nationalism brought to a (former) colony.

This essay is structured in the following way: First of all, the theoretical fundamentals are laid by explaining what “nationalism” and a “nation” is. It then proceeds by describing the Indian democracy based on its Constitution and the Congress System, both playing an important role in the rise of Hindu nationalism. The essay then refers to Hindu nationalism itself, portraying its historical development in the 20th century, illustrating the ideological basis with the concepts of Savarkar and Golwalkar on which it is based and the actors of Hindu nationalism on the level of the state. This is followed by an analysis of the influence of Hindu nationalism on the Indian democracy. The essay finishes with a conclusion.

2 Theoretical Fundamentals

When talking about nationalism, the most important thing to make clear is what is to be understood by the terms “nation” and “nationalism”.

2.1 Nationalism

Nationalism is a modern movement which came up in the late 18thcentury in Europe.2 One definition of nationalism is that it is a political concept which aims at a state having the same boundaries as the nation, a so-called nation-state.3 It is important to note that a state is the “major political subdivision of the globe”4 according to Connor, whereas the political aspect is to be stressed in this context. He also states that nationalism originally means “loyalty to the nation”5, although it is – as he perceives it – nowadays rather understood as “identification with the state”6. Nagel defines nationalism as “both a goal – to achieve statehood, and a belief – in collective commonality. Nationalists seek to accomplish both statehood and nationhood.”7 Gellner goes so far as to say that nationalism is the process of inventing a nation, Anderson, at the same time, would rather call it imagining or creation of a nation, with a more positive connotation.8

To summarise, nationalism is a modern European development which aims at achieving first nationhood by imagining it and then statehood. It is also understood as the loyalty to the nation or state.

2.2 Nation

The difficult question which remains now is: What is a nation? According to Ernest Renan, it “is a living soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the common poss- ession of a rich heritage of memories; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to preserve worthily the undivided inheritance which has been handed down. […] The nation, like the individual, is the outcome of a long past of efforts, and sacrifices, and devotion.”9 And also Max Weber is of the opinion that a nation is “a community of sentiment”10. He thinks that this sentiment is rather a feeling of common descent than a real relation by blood.11 This feeling of community is, according to Connor, “translated into more tangible form(s), such as differences of religion, customs, or dialect”12.

Anderson has coined the term of the imagined community. He defines a nation as “an imagined political community – […] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”13. Anderson states that one of the reasons of the rise of nationalism, meaning the imagining of nations, was the decline of religious communities which had incorporated people of all social levels and ethnic backgrounds.14

One can conclude that a nation is a community with a feeling of belonging. This sentiment of belonging is mostly caused by a common culture consisting of history, language and faith, as well as the belief in a common descent. This sentiment is imagined and the community is al- ways limited.

3 Indian Democracy

3.1 Constitution

Since its independence and the ratification of the Constitution in 1950, India has been con- stitutionally a secular state and therefore protected religious freedom. India is a parliamentary democracy having implemented the separation of powers. The Indian Constitution provides fundamental rights for all citizens and their equality. Additionally, the Supreme Court established in the Keshavananda Bharati case (1973) very early the doctrine of “essential features” of the Constitution which included the following: rule of law, secularism, federalism, free & fair elections, fundamental rights and judicial review. This implies the abolishment of hierarchy within the Indian society and therefore equality for every single citizen, no matter of which ethnic group, tribe, caste, religion, gender etc. The authors of the Constitution understood that the years of discrimination could only be changed by aggressive social measures. This is why the Constitution explicitly aims at implementing equality for previously subordinated groups. It was done by putting into practice quotas for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Yet, this caused an increase in politics along caste and tribe lines which had the opposite effect of what the authors of the Constitution had intended. Many regional and caste-based parties have been established, but on the national level there have been only few: the Indian National Congress (INC), the Communists and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which has just risen in the past 30 years. This development resulted in national elections in mere deal-making to form coalitions (coalition politics era). The aim has been rather to maintain personal power and not to implement the program and policy of a party. This phenomenon is probably caused by the divisive nature of the Constitution which contains the importance of federalism and the enhancement of lower castes. The Hindu right with their concept of one homogenous and uni- fied Hindu nation (see below, Ch. 4.2) tried to counteract this fragmentation.

A very special thing about the Indian Constitution is the so-called “religious personal law”. This signifies that the four most important religious communities (Muslim, Hindu, Parsi and Christian) have their own personal law concerning marriage, divorce, property and inheritance issues. Islamic law had already been codified for centuries, Hindu and Parsi law was codified by the British, Christian law was the one of the missioners’ origin. So the British encouraged the system of different personal laws which had been existing for centuries by codifying most of it. A reason for this might have been to prevent rebellion by not imposing a new legal system in the colony. Although already right after independence a Uniform Civil Code was demanded, it has not been implemented as there was a too strong opposition among the religious leaders. On the one hand, many Muslims were in favour of such a Uniform Civil Code, on the other hand, many feared that this would have resulted in a “Hindu Code”.

It is important to note that all laws concerning the personal law must pass parliament, even though they are only valid for a certain religious community.

This kind of law, though intended to serve secularism and religious freedom, has basically had the opposite effect: If a person is born, it is immediately grouped into a religious community in order to be able to settle personal issues. Now the problem is that this fact makes it almost impossible to become secular or change the membership of a certain religious community as this will have an impact especially on one’s inheritance and property. Indian people are so to speak “trapped” in their religious community (or they relinquish in parts their inheritance and/or property).

This legal framework also hampers constitutional fundamental right such as religious freedom, non-discrimination due to religion and women’s equality, as personal religious laws are more backward than the Constitution. The Supreme Court had ruled until 1999 that fundamental rights were not to be applied to personal laws (see Shah Bano and Roop Kanwar cases). This has led to legal and social chaos.

Additionally, it favours the demarcation along religious lines, especially because “male leaders in each religion tend to define their prestige in terms of how far they can resist changes in their religious tradition”15. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a rising support for a UCC – particularly among feminists after the Shah Bano and Roop Kanwar cases – until the right-wing party BJP joined in the call. This was the point, when many citizens became afraid of a “Hindu code” again as the BJP gained in importance and had indeed the plan of a UCC centred around Hindu ideals.16

All in all, one can say that many reasons for the rise of Hindu nationalism are based in the Constitution: the aid for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes followed by regionalism due to constitutional federalism which led to the fragmentation of politics guided by the distinguishing of politicians and their craving for power, the religious system of personal law.

3.2 Congress System

The INC was founded in 1885. It had the aim of providing a platform to pronounce an Indian opinion about governance.17 It played a crucial role in the Indian struggle for independence under its leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. The INC had a different idea about the state to be formed after independence than how it is described in European thinking. It wanted to implement a state with the geographical boundaries of the British colony, with a diversity of nations (understood as peoples) with different history, cultural traditions, languages etc. living side by side.18

In the first 30 years after independence, the Congress politics were shaped by Nehruvian statecraft rather than congressional ideas. Nehru stood for the parliamentary democracy, secularism, liberalism, democratic pluralism and socialist politics as he was concerned for the poor and underprivileged.19

As the INC started as an independence movement with the aim of speaking for the whole of the Indian population, incorporating all the diversity, and only later became a political party, it proved difficult to allow the existence of other parties apart, let alone the encouragement of founding them.20 At first, the domination of the INC in national politics impeded the rise of other parties, but provided the basis for opponents because of its failure to establish a multiparty democracy and fighting poverty in the rural areas.21 In order to integrate the whole diversity of the Indian population and the try to suit everybody, a network of alliances with regional, sometimes even Hindu nationalist parties – if it helped the maintenance of power – was established.22

During the rule of the INC, a system of accommodation and inclusion of local elites and the monopolisation of access to state resources was established. A corrupt elite had the control over agricultural cooperatives which dominated the banking sector and educational establishments, and formed the basis of INC hegemony and power.23 It is obvious that the electorate longed for an alternative to this system which had failed to accomplish its promises of development and had only left corrupt and power-hungry politicians. This development of the INC was a fertile soil to the rise of an alternative of right-wing party.

Another reason was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the state of emergency in 1975 in order to secure her power: Opponents were arrested, the parliament intimidated, and she implemented judges in the Supreme Court who ruled in her favour. The situation normalised again after Indira Gandhi had allowed free elections two years later and she was voted out of office. However, this was probably a starting point of the radicalisation of the right-wing opposition.24

Also, a socio-economic change on the countryside was occurring: educational opportunities had improved and more people worked in the service instead of the agricultural sector. This development provoked the fragmentation within the INC to which Indira Gandhi reacted in her second term (1980-1984) with a counterproductive centralisation because it increased the frustration of the members of the INC and its voters since regional politicians did not have a say anymore. It resulted in the rise of alternative parties.25

In conclusion, the dominance of the INC for decades in Indian politics and the associated corruption as well as the impossibility of really forming an opposition led to the formation of alternatives, especially the upsurge of a Hindu right-wing party. Another reason is probably the state of emergency Indira Gandhi had declared in 1975 and the centralisation she had ordered.


1 Nussbaum, Martha C.: The Clash Within: democracy, religious violence, and India’s future, Cambridge, Mass., 2008, p. 1.

2 Kohn, Hans: nationalism [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/405644/nationalism], (publication date: n. d., query date: 27 March 2011).

3 Gellner, Ernest: Nationalism, Oxford, 1983, p. 1.

4 Connor, Walker: Ethnonationalism, The quest for understanding, Princeton, 1994, p. 92.

5 Connor, Walker (1994): p. 91.

6 Connor, Walker (1994): p. 97.

7 Nagel, Joane: Masculinity and nationalism: gender and sexuality in the making of nations, in: Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1998, p. 115.

8 Anderson, Benedict: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, 1983, p. 49.

9 Renan, Ernest: What is a Nation? (1882), in: Ernest Renan, The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies, trans. William G. Hutchison, London, 1896, p. 174.

10 Nagel, Joane (1998): p. 115.

11 Nagel, Joane (1998): p. 115; Connor, Walker (1994): p. 93.

12 Connor, Walker (1994): p. 105.

13 Anderson, Benedict (1983): p. 49.

14 Anderson, Benedict (1983): p. 50 ff.

15 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008): p. 149.

16 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008): p. 122 ff. (Ch. 4: Democracy and Pluralism).

17 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008): p. 339.

18 Wolf, Siegfried O. und Schultens, René: Hindu-Nationalismus – (k)ein Ende in Sicht!, in: Der Bürger im Staat, Indien, Landeszentrale für politische Bildung, Baden-Württemberg, 3/4 – 2009, p. 166.

19 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008): p. 108 ff.

20 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008): p.138.

21 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008): p. 169.

22 Eckert, Julia: Partizipation und die Politik der Gewalt – Hindunationalismus und Demokratie in Indien, Baden-Baden, 2004, p. 99.

23 Eckert, Julia (2004): p. 195 ff.

24 Nussbaum, Martha C. (2008): p. 122 ff. (Ch. 4: Democracy and Pluralism).

25 Eckert, Julia (2004): p. 195 ff.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Hindu Nationalism
A Threat to the Indian Democracy?
University of Hannover  (Institut für Politische Wissenschaft)
Ethnicity, Nationalism, Racism - the problem and power of identities
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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hindu, nationalism, threat, democracy, india
Quote paper
Christine Löser (Author), 2011, Hindu Nationalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/171917


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