Since the 2014 election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India, the concept of ‘Hindutva’ or Hindu nationalism exemplified by his political party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has come increasingly under the international spotlight.
Like many nationalisms, this ideology has the potential to span across an ideological spectrum ranging from a relatively benign faith-based national pride, to a majoritarian far-right political discourse that can potentially morph into more extreme manifestations.
There has been particular concern about the role of Hindu nationalism in driving harassment and marginalisation towards minorities in India, the erosion of rights and democratic freedoms, and in its most extreme manifestation catalysing a religious supremacism that endorses and inspires violence.
In parallel, we have begun to see the impact of Hindu nationalism play out abroad, such as in the UK city of Leicester, where in 2022 international activists from both Hindu and Muslim communities used social and traditional media to take advantage of local pressure points to drive religio-political polarisation overseas.
But what is Hindutva, and how does it manifest today?
Hinduism, Hindi and Hindutva
Core to understanding the concept of Hindutva, is the complex relationship between Hinduism as a religion, Hindi as a language and ‘Hindustan’ as a geography. Hinduism is an amalgamation of multiple religions and philosophies— from strands of Buddhism and Jainism and spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, monism, and even atheism. Its theology is complex and depends upon particular traditions and philosophies. Hindi is a language of Indo-European origin spoken widely in India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries. While a Hindi can describe anyone connected with the land of ‘Hindustan’ irrelevant of religion and origins, a Hindu is a person who practices the Hindu religion or is born into a family that does.
The word Hindutva means ‘Hindu-ness’ and comes in two distinct forms: Hindu nationalism as a political ideology which asserts that Indian national identity and culture are inseparable from the religion of Hinduism; and Hindutva as a right-wing political movement advocating Hindu nationalism as the means to achieve a wholly Hindu state in India, reflecting a native belonging at the expense of other indigenous religions.
The creation of Hindutva should be understood in the context of centuries of colonial rule in India, including by the Mughals and the British Empire. Although Hinduism is commonly referred to as a religion, it is in fact a collection of many traditions and philosophies with roots and customs dating back more than 4,000 years. Hindutva has been expressed as the consequence of a post-colonial India re-asserting this collective identity through a political lens, and in more contemporary terms, explicitly as a resistance to British rule .
The Origins of Hindutva
The term “Hindutva” was coined in the 1920s by VD Savarkar, often considered the ideological father of the movement. His text ‘The Essentials of Hindutva’ argued that being a Hindu was not only about a shared history and cultural symbolism, but that India territorially belonged to Hindus. Because Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism also have their origins in India, the book posited they were simply variations of Hinduism. However, Islam and Christianity (monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths) were to be rejected because their origins lay outside India, a point of context that is important for understanding today’s ongoing religious tensions in India.
The 1947 Partition split British India into two new independent countries: India and Pakistan (and later Bangladesh from 1971). While India became a Hindu-majority nation, Pakistan was a majority Muslim country. Partition led to unprecedented levels of communal violence and its effects continue to be felt in the region and, to some extent, amongst Indian and Pakistani diaspora communities around the world.
Through the 1920s, Hindutva drew its influence first from the Fascism of Mussolini’s Italy and then from the rise of Nazism and the Third Reich in 1930s Germany. Both Italian and German officials forged relationships with Hindutva organisations that were keen to distance India from its colonial British past and who favoured National Socialism over British individualism.
Hindu nationalism has played a defining role in Indian politics since Partition, while Hindutva has evolved in similar fashion to Islamism, encompassing mainstream politics at one end to violent militancy at the other. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Hindutva organisations embarked on an enterprise of mainstreaming their ideology by publishing propaganda that explicitly aligned Hindu religious symbols with Hindutva ideology, while injecting it into social and cultural consciousness of the population.
In 2014, the Modi’s BJP came to power in a landslide victory. Much of this success can be attributed to the then new prime minister who presented himself as the underdog, courted populism and leaned heavily into religious symbolism, routinely wearing the saffron robes associated with Hinduism. Under BJP rule, and most acutely under Modi , Hindu nationalism has dominated the political landscape in India.
It is impossible to consider the BJP’s impact on Indian minorities, or the perception of Modi held by the Indian Muslim diaspora, without reflecting on the Gujarat (Indian state on the western coast of the country) riots of 2002 which erupted after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire. The cause of the fire is disputed; some reports concluded it to be an accident, while others framed it as an act of arson perpetrated by a large group of Muslims. Regardless of the cause, the tragedy resulted in three days of inter-communal violence led by Hindu groups, which, according to official figures, killed over a thousand people (consisting of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus), and injured 2,500 others. At that time Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat and although officially cleared of responsibility for the riots, he came under major criticism for failing to stop the violence, resulting in him becoming the first person to be denied a US visa based on violations of religious freedom.
Dominant Anti-Muslim Narratives
Muslims have continued to be on the receiving end of Hindutva violence and subjugation. The overriding animus of Hindutva hostility is directed at Islam and Muslims, in particular viewing organised programmes of evangelising and conversion as a threat to Hinduism (and therefore India) which underpins much of Hindutva’s anti-Muslim narratives.
After the election of Modi in 2014, there was a sharp rise in Hindu nationalist attacks on Muslims, with Muslim men being on the receiving end of dozens of public lynchings by mobs claiming to protect cows (considered sacred by Hindus). At the same time, attacks against Christians also began to rise dramatically, with anti-Christian hate crimes doubling since 2014, according to the Evangelical Fellowship of India. In 2021, reports from the New York Times disclosed how anti-Christian vigilantes were sweeping through villages, storming churches, burning Christian literature, attacking schools and assaulting worshipers. One group was reportedly organising online to plan raids on church services through a WhatsApp group with 5,000 members. A number of narratives have underpinned such violence.
A recent manifestation of anti-Muslim activism in India resulted following the 2023 release of The Kerala Story, a film that explores the lives of women who married ISIS fighters. It focuses on two Hindus and one Christian girl who are groomed, radicalised and converted to an extreme Islamist interpretation of Islam. The stories are true and indisputable. However, the film has been criticised for suggesting the numbers of girls groomed in this manner exceeds 32,000, a disputed number that would consist in the entirety of ISIS recruits – male and female – from across the world. The distributors of the film have since backtracked and removed this claim, but its initial inclusion is indicative of the moral panic surrounding alleged mass conversions of Hindu girls to Islam.
Such anti-Muslim sentiment is highly tied to the phenomenon of ‘Love Jihad’, a conspiracy theory which frames conversions of Hindu women to Islam as part of a strategic project to alter India’s demographic landscape. Hindu nationalist groups present ‘Love Jihad’ as an existential threat to Hindu national identity which should be prevented at all costs, with threats and physical violence often being used to separate interfaith couples. A 2023 India Today survey found a staggering 53% of respondents ‘believe Muslim men indulge in alleged ‘Love Jihad’.
Ghar wapsi, which translates as “homecoming”, is a term that Hindu nationalist groups use to describe conversion campaigns aimed primarily at Muslims and Christians in India, which claim to be ‘bringing home’ those who had strayed from the faith decades or even centuries ago. This is based in the Hindutva belief in India’s fundamentally Hindu character, which regards other faiths as aberration from the religious norm. Ghar wapsi is largely considered to be the brainchild of the enormous Hindu nationalist non-government organisations Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). These organisations are described as being committed to spreading the ideology of “Hindutva,” which believes in a Hindu-characterised Indian state.
Memes are circulated online depicting Muslim men as menacing, predatory faces leering at crying Hindu women. In one campaign on social media, the murder and burning of a Muslim migrant worker in India called Mohamed Afrazul was circulated via YouTube by one of the Hindu assailants. In the video, the victim is linked to the Love Jihad campaign, yet none of the viral campaign posts could be geolocated near to the scene of the murder. In other words, the online materials that radicalised the killer were constructed elsewhere, broadcast widely and indirectly inspired the horrific attack.
In 2020, Facebook banned the main pages of a group called Sanatam Sanstha for sharing hate speech and misinformation targeting India’s Muslim minority. However, reporting showed limited enforcement of this ban – with TIME magazine uncovering a network of more than 30 pages (with over 2.7 million followers) related to the group that were still running in April 2021. The group continues to maintain an active presence on Twitter, YouTube and Telegram.
Furthermore, the majority of anti-Muslim posts from high profile Hindu nationalist groups avoid direct references to Islam or Muslims by using coded language and imagery. They share allegations of violence by Muslims against Hindus, referring only to an alleged perpetrators name (in India, a name is usually indicative of a person’s religion and so avoids having to explicitly mention Islam). To avoid any ambiguity, the posts will sometimes use green font, a colour associated with Islam.
This online machinery often uses inauthentic tactics to spread propaganda. In 2019, EU DisinfoLab exposed a large network of fake local news sites disseminating right wing, pro-Modi and anti-Pakistan narratives.
The evolution of Hindutva in India has parallels with European ethnonationalism, particularly with its emphasis on race, religion, culture and language for defining and then justifying superiority over an ‘other’. As extremism scholar Eviane Leidig puts it, “by projecting individual fear of an unknown ‘foreign’ entity as a national fear, Hindutva and European right-wing extremism simultaneously formulate such threats, whether actual or perceived, as a danger to collective identity.” But while in Europe, right-wing extremism is largely confined to the political fringes, Hindutva has been more successfully mainstreamed by the BJP’s persistent nationalist agenda, both internally and on the international stage.
International Hindutva charities
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist politics of Benito Mussolini and established to perpetuate and maintain Hindutva ideology. Literally translating as National Volunteer Organisation, it is an inward-facing organisation that unifies Hindu religious, cultural and political identity across India’s political and civil society environments. Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) is widely believed to be the external operation for RSS; although this is often denied by HSS supporters. The role of HSS, a registered charity in the UK which has been active since the 1960s and with branches around the world, is to sustain Hindu nationalism in Hindu diasporas globally to preserve Hindu ideals and maintain Hindutva ideology.
A 2015 documentary showed an HSS teacher at a youth camp delivering a presentation and claiming that Christianity has a secret conspiracy ‘to destroy Hindu history’, and that the number of good Muslims “can be counted on fingers.” As a result, the Charity Commission opened an investigation into HSS and reported its findings in late 2016. After reviewing the charity’s accounts and governance, the Charity Commission concluded that there had been mismanagement by the trustees, who had failed to comply with their duties and responsibilities under charity law, advising the charity “take proactive steps to ensure RSS has no control or influence over the charity and its affairs.” A 2002 investigation by the British broadcaster Channel 4 found that HSS was providing financial support to a Hindu aid charity (SEWA International) which was closely connected to campaigns of RSS-linked communal violence in India, including the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Links to far-right groups
Internationally, concerns have also been expressed about Hindu nationalists building links with other far-right groups and targeting Muslims and Sikh diaspora communities around the world. Hindu nationalists have parroted far-right narratives by adopting an obsessive focus on so-called Muslim grooming gangs, and have appeared on the far-right Canadian channel Rebel Media.
During the Leicester unrest, far-right activist Tommy Robinson (whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) posted a video calling on football fans to march to Leicester to protect Hindus, claiming that Muslims involved in the violent flare-up were carrying guns— a claim dismissed by police. Robinson would later be interviewed by OpIndia, an RSS-linked media outlet that has been criticised by Stop Funding Hate for its anti-Muslim content and attacks on journalists. Another UK group, the National Council of Hindu Temples had previously invited Robinson to speak at a conference in 2016.
Christophe Jaffrelot, professor of Indian politics at King’s College London has argued that “it might seem like a strange alliance but it is strategic — they both share a common enemy… Islam.” According to Jaffrelot since the 1930s Hindu nationalists have admired nationalist experiments in Europe, with both Hindu and European nationalists sharing the belief that Muslims are attempting to conquer their respective nations. This is the core of the Great Replacement conspiracy theory which has underpinned dozens of violent attacks across North America, Europe and Australasia.
1 – Eviane Leidig (2020), ‘Hindutva as a Variant of Right-Wing Extremism’
This Explainer was uploaded on 21 June 2023.