Contesting ‘India’; reaching unity in diversity versus the rise of Hindu nationalism

To some extent, Indian political history can be seen as a conflict between two rival nationalist traditions. Aditya Nath’s BJP stands for a particular strand of Indian nationalism, Hindutva, which deliberately politicises Hindu identity to impose a vision of Indian nationality defined by Hinduism. 


Saffron-clad and surrounded by armed police, Yogi Adityanath stepped onstage.  The firebrand priest-turned-politician, chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), was visiting the town of Ayodhya.  Here one finds the Ram Janmabhumi – the alleged birthplace of Lord Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu.  The visit was timely; it was the day following Diwali, where in Ayodhya Adityanath’s governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had organised celebrations.  After addressing immense crowds smattered with saffron, the colour of the BJP, Adityanath presided over a spectacle billed as ‘The Return of Treta Yuga’ (the mythological age in which the events associated with the Ramayana, the tales of Rama’s Life, took place).  Highlights included the arrival of the victorious Rama, and his ceremonious coronation by Adityanath.  ‘By celebrating a grand Diwali in Ayodhya, I have not started a new practice’, he declared.  ‘It is an age-old tradition here to celebrate the homecoming of Lord Rama’.

When it comes to Indian politics, all roads lead to UP.  With over 220,000,000 people, if it were a stand-alone sovereign state UP would be the fifth most populous in the world.  Because of its size – of the total 545 seats in India’s national parliament in New Delhi, 80 come from UP – no party can hope to rule the country without securing a chunk of the state’s seats.  Events in UP often presage what is to come in India more broadly.


To some extent, Indian political history can be seen as a conflict between two rival nationalist traditions. Aditya Nath’s BJP stands for a particular strand of Indian nationalism, Hindutva, which deliberately politicises Hindu identity to impose a vision of Indian nationality defined by Hinduism.  Since the founding of India, Hindutva has competed with a more pluralistic idea of India, one which placed Hinduism inter pares in the national community, rather than insisting on conformity.

Once on the political fringes, the BJP has enjoyed a meteoric rise over the last thirty years.  The party has gone from having just 85 MPs in the national parliament in 1989, to a majority of 282 in 2014.  Adityanath’s election to the heights of chief minister of UP speaks volumes about the ideology’s traction among India’s electorate.

To grasp the radicalism of Hindutva nationalism, it is worth comparing it to its rival which originated with India’s founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru.  By 1945, it seemed a matter of time until the end of British rule on the Indian subcontinent.  The Second World War provided an opportunity for the leading figures of India’s national liberation movement, Nehru and Gandhi, to demand swaraj (freedom) from Britain. However, the retraction of colonial power raised questions of what form an independent India would take, and what the basis of its state’s political legitimacy would be.  For Nehru, given India’s disparate caste, religious and ethnic groups, legitimacy would spring from democracy. ‘The ultimate decision’ made in any country, he had said publicly, ‘must be [made by] the will of the people of India.’  After all, only a political system which enabled all ethnic, religious and caste groups to govern collectively could achieve true national swaraj.

However, democracy posed its own problems. Events in Europe, the Holocaust and other acts of ethnic violence, had shown that plebiscitary democracy could pose risks to minority rights.  Democracy was a numbers game; whichever group gained the largest constituencies to form parliamentary majorities dictated the terms of coexistence with other groups.  For Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a member of the Indian National Congress and future Prime Minister of Pakistan, this was tyranny in a different guise. For the Muslims to accept their status as a minority in a united India would amount to a ‘confession of weakness, and an invitation to aggression’ from the Hindus.  Partition and the foundation of Pakistan, a state in which Muslims were assured of their rights, were, to an extent, borne out of such anxiety about the status of Muslim minorities.

Nehru needed to show the desirability for minority groups of living under a unitary state.  In a stroke of genius, he turned the problem of India’s diversity into an integral element of Indian nationality.  In his work The Discovery of India, written on the eve of independence in 1946, Nehru told the story of a civilisation animated by cultural permeation.  He observed the ‘divisions of Indian life, of classes, castes, religions, and races’, conceding that these ‘divisions’ represented autonomous constituencies.  These ‘divisions’ notwithstanding, there was a definite sense of ‘oneness’ in India, much as ‘oneness’ could be found in other multi-ethnic countries like America, Russia or China.   She was ‘some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed’, while ‘no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.’  For Nehru, India was a composite civilisation, and thus the very essence of “Indianness” was diversity.

Nehruvian nationalism thus demonstrated a commitment to diversity.  Practically, this meant embedding this commitment in the constitutional architecture of the state in the form of affirmative action.  The Indian Constitution stipulates that the state could make ‘special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens’. Groups like the ‘Untouchable’ castes or religious minorities, would have reserved seats in the national parliament, as well as in governmental and educational institutions.  Such constitutional arrangements were to realise Nehru’s vision of the Indian nation.


Competing with the Nehruvian tradition is an older genus of nationalism which originated with the lawyer and activist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.  Unlike Nehru, who had grounded Indian nationality in a holistic collection of disparate groups, Savarkar attempted to ground Indianness in one’s existence within cultural Hinduism. Savarkar was an atheist who considered Hinduism as a religious category insufficient solely to constitute Indian national identity.  After all, India was far too diverse to be strictly Hindu.  In his work Hindutva (1923), drawing inspiration from Italian nationalists such as Giuseppe Mazzini, Savarkar posited three criteria of Indian nationality: common language (Sanskrit), territory, and, more ominously, blood.  If one possessed these, Savarkar said, they possessed Hindutva – a neologism denoting ‘Hinduness’ (as opposed to Hinduism).  This marked a point of departure from ‘Hinduness’ as a religious category, transforming it into an ethnonationality.  For him, Indianness was by no means confined to Hindus, but extended to anyone who met these three criteria.  Savarkar’s Hindutva, in contrast to Nehru’s Discovery, held up India’s history of difference as an obstacle to nationality itself.


For the first forty years of India’s independence, Nehruvian nationalism dominated public life.  Nehru and the INC sidelined Hindutva nationalists, depicting them as dangerous radicals.  This label gained credence in 1948 when Nehru had a Hindu nationalist jailed for assassinating Gandhi.  India’s institutional arrangements were also such that the INC effectively ruled as the sole governing party throughout Nehru’s tenure as Prime Minister until 1964.

By the 1990s, Nehru’s legacy began to unravel as the effects of redistributive politics established by his generation of statesmen became pronounced.  Resentment towards affirmative action from upper-caste Hindus intensified in September 1990 with the publication of the Mandal Commission report which had stipulated that fifty percent of all government positions be reserved for ‘backward’ castes.  This resentment soon centred on the town of Ayodhya, where the Hindu nationalists claimed the mosque which stood there had been constructed on the birthplace of Lord Rama.  They stated that the mosque had been built by the Mughal ruler Babur in the sixteenth century following his defeat of the Hindus – an act of aggression which needed undoing.  In 1992, RSS members stormed and demolished the mosque, ‘liberating’ the site; the ensuing riots claimed over 2,000 lives, and the mosque has not been rebuilt since.


Adityanath embodies the Hindutva tradition.  In early 1992 he joined the Gorakhnath temple in UP whose leaders for over a century have been militant priest-politicians championing Hindu nationalism. Here, Adityanath joined the Ayodhya Ram temple movement.  Since being elected to parliament in 1996 for the BJP, he has stood on the central plank of ‘Hinduising’ India.  ‘I will not stop’, he declared to a rally in Etah, UP, in 2005, ‘until I turn UP and India into a Hindu rashtra [state]’.

Every aspect of life has been politicised in UP.  Adityanath has shut down slaughterhouses and butcher shops suspected of handling beef.  Squads hunt down ‘love jihadists’ – Muslim men purported to be acting in a concerted, predatory effort to entice Hindu women away from the faith.  ‘If they convert one Hindu girl’, he declared to a rally in 2014, ‘we will convert 100 Muslim girls.  If they kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men’.  He recently praised President Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ insisting that ‘similar action’ was needed ‘to contain terror activities in this country’.

These actions speak volumes about the kind of Indian nationalism to which Mr Adityanath subscribes – one that demonises minorities and insists on their conformity to the Hindutva norm.  If all roads lead to Uttar Pradesh, he may just get his way.


Further Reading:

J. Nehru, The Discovery of India, (1946)

V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1923)

P. Van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (1994)

C. Jaffrelot, The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s, (1996)

S. Khilnani, The Idea of India, (London, 2003)


Feature Image: Yogi Adityanath meeting featured on

Alex is a history graduate from the University of Cambridge. His interests include political philosophy as well as British and European history

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