Caste outs to centre stage

The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, 1925 to the 1990s
October 4, 1996

The demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya in India in December 1992 alerted the world to a complex of political forces devoted to propagating a distinctively Hindu nationalist outlook. In the national elections earlier this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party became the largest party in India, winning about 30 per cent of the seats although only 20 per cent of the popular vote. Indeed, for a few days, the BJP formed the government, before it had to give way to the present centre-left coalition, being unable to find enough allies to win a majority in parliament.

Hindu nationalism has clearly identifiable roots in the second half of the 19th century, and can be studied in terms of an ongoing ideological debate among the Indian elite during and after the colonial period. But its present manifestation is intimately related to the trajectory of the Indian political system in the past three decades. One of the many merits of Christophe Jaffrelot's important work is that it keeps the past and the present dimensions of Hindu nationalism in balance.

A specifically Hindu identity is, Jaffrelot argues, a product of the colonial period, and requires a distinctively modern xenology in which an "us" and a "them" can be more clearly distinguished than was possible in the precolonial period. This identity emerged as a result of a double process of stigmatisation and emulation, particularly with respect to the Muslim minority and the British rulers. As the recent work of Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj on 19th-century Bengali intellectual life has shown, the psychological processes at work are complicated and could lead in different ideological directions; but by the 1920s they had given birth to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), led by K. B. Hedgewar and his successors, notably M. S. Golwalkar.

Jaffrelot plots the emergence of two RSS strategies, the one based on long-term organisational or "sangathanist" activity, in which cadres of young men were recruited and sent to work either for the RSS or for one of its many associated organisations, including after 1951 the Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP; the other aiming at a more aggregative strategy in which local notables were recruited to lend respectability and to bring with them their clients and followers. Both strategies had their drawbacks, and Jaffrelot shows in fascinating detail, drawn especially from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, how the two strategies were combined to suit a particular situation.

Social and political factors all played a part. The BJP and RSS are generally perceived as upper-caste, middle-class and urban movements; perceptions which are confirmed by Jaffrelot's data on the social background of their national and state level leaders. Yet they have been able to attract support from other sections of the population. To some extent this has come from exploiting particular issues, such as price rises, or from long-term voluntary work in, say, remote so-called tribal areas, but it also reflects the ability of the BJP and its allies to exploit ambivalent attitudes towards the caste system and people's status within it. Hindu nationalism, with its emphasis on internal reform and renewal, can offer the opportunities for new self-definition within, rather than against the dominant set of values.

State and centre politics have increasingly accommodated the BJP and its predecessor. At independence in 1947, Nehru imposed an essentially western norm of secularism on the political system, not least because of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a one-time member of the RSS. But from the beginning there were conflicts within the ruling Congress party over issues such as the use of Hindi as a national language or the banning of cow slaughter. The commitment to secularism was gradually eroded, and Congress leaders began to exploit feelings of, as Jaffrelot puts it, Hindu vulnerability. In the short term, these could bring gains to Congress, as in the 1984 elections after Indira Gandhi's assassination, but in the long run they created space for the BJP. The political context also changed in that the opposition parties recognised the strong roots of the BJP among certain social groups, and from 1967 on they became willing to enter into electoral pacts or form government coalitions at state (ie provincial) level.

At the end of the 1980s the BJP decided to adopt a strategy of ethnoreligious mobilisation, with a very explicit stigmatisation of the Muslim minority employing the Ayodhya mosque as an emotive issue. Its demolition evoked a wave of enthusiasm for Hindu nationalism (at the cost of many hundreds of lives lost in rioting across north India and in Bombay), but it raised serious doubts in the minds of many ordinary voters over the consequences of the strategy pursued by the BJP and its allies. But the BJP leadership was also aware of the risks to its position from its supposed allies in organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The party has tried to broaden its appeal with a wider range of themes, especially in the field of economic policy, while not altogether rejecting the cultural dimension.

Two questions thus arise from Jaffrelot's work. The first relates to the prospects for the BJP. Despite its broad-based platform, designed to cross class and caste lines, and its willingness to ally itself with other parties, internal contradictions are likely to surface in the near future, for example between the essentially urban, middle-class desire for "discipline" and a meritocratic society, and the inchoate but powerful desire among some BJP supporters for a thoroughgoing redistribution of opportunities away from those who presently control them.

Second, how far can the BJP and the other components of the Hindu nationalist movement be compared to other apparently similar movements elsewhere either in Europe or in the postcolonial world? In India especially, the left often calls the BJP fascist, in the broad sense of that word. Golwalkar used 1930s Germany as an example of a unified society and Jaffrelot has usefully unearthed other German sources from which Golwalkar borrowed, but he also cautions against too facile a comparison, if only because the early RSS leaders were not interested in a quick seizure of power but rather in a moral transformation of Indian society through mental and physical training. Other writers have suggested comparisons with fundamentalist movements elsewhere in the world, but the strongly modernist thrust of the BJP at the present time, and its ability to function effectively within the parameters of the Indian political system make this a not particularly helpful comparison. To be useful, comparisons will need to be at a more systemic level.

The current notoriety of the Hindu nationalist movement has already led to a substantial literature and debate. Jaffrelot's work, which was originally published in French in 1993 but has been extensively revised and enlarged to cover the very recent period, is a major contribution.

David Taylor is senior lecturer in politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics, 1925 to the 1990s

Author - Christophe Jaffrelot
ISBN - 1 85065 301 1
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £19.50
Pages - 592

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