Volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shout religious slogans at a conclave near Pune.  Photo: Danish Siddiqui, Reuters
Volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shout religious slogans at a conclave near Pune. Photo: Danish Siddiqui, Reuters

Hindu nationalism, the ideology of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its intellectual mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Association or RSS), is unleashing increased violence through the storm troopers of the RSS’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), in universities across the country.

It would seem that India’s ruling ideological formation, the hydra-headed Sangh Parivar (or “Sangh family”), is playing the nationalist card to reassure its core constituency among the Hindu electorate that it is committed to preventing alleged “anti-national” activities in universities, suppressing the freedom of expression guaranteed under the constitution of India.

In 2016, the ABVP unleashed violence against its enemy, the left-inclined student body in India’s premier Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. This was preceded by similar violence in the Central University of Hyderabad in south India, leading to the death of a radical and deprived scholar. This was masterminded by the ABVP.

On February 21 and 22, such ideological violence was witnessed again in the Ramjas College of the University of Delhi. A seminar by liberal students on “Cultures of Protest” was prevented by the ABVP, which objected to the participation of Umar Khalid, a JNU student who was alleged to be an “anti-national”. In the resulting violence, students and teachers were beaten up, hit with bricks, pulled by the hair and otherwise assaulted.

Some alleged that ABVP students themselves raised “anti-national” slogans to prepare the ground for violence.

Interestingly, a 20-year-old female student stood up against the ABVP activists, supporting the seminar. She said her father, who had been killed in the 1999 Indo-Pakistani Kargil war, had lost his life to war and not to Pakistan. Immediately, she became “anti-national” in the eyes of the ABVP, which resorted to social-media threats of rape and murder against her.

This objectionable behavior was not condemned by the junior home minister, who instead said the young female student was a victim of leftist indoctrination.

Opposition political parties demanded action against the ABVP activists.

Similar threats to freedom of expression were witnessed at Jainarayan Vyas University in Jodhpur in the state of Rajasthan and elsewhere.

However, increasing resistance to such unruly behavior by the Hindu-nationalist ABVP students is being witnessed. This is a lesson that the ABVP seems either reluctant or unwilling to learn.

In this context, it is necessary to explore the origin of Hindu nationalist violence and the ideology of Hindutva practiced by India’s ruling party. Are they indigenous to Indian culture?

The problem is addressed by Pankaj Mishra in his book Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017).

Mishra’s earlier book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia (Allen Lane, 2012) has been much appreciated by eminent global and Asian writers.

While the BJP leadership has ridiculed Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Indian National Congress, for her Italian background and Christian beliefs, Pankaj Mishra points to the irony that a major influence on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), the messianic Hindu thinker and activist who produced the concepts of Hindutva and Hindu militarism, was the eminent Italian ideologue Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72).

Savarkar’s immersion in Mazzini’s collected works, says Mishra, led him to conclude that Indians, like Italians, “were building humanity”.

Mazzini had the deepest and most enduring influence in India, where his reputation as a cult figure far exceeded that of any Western thinker. His books became best-sellers as early as the mid-19th century.

The conservative Hindu thinker Lala Lajpat Rai explicitly identified Mazzini as the “founder of a new religion, whose creeds of nationality, liberty and unity were to be practiced with blood and martyrdom”.

The “Indian Burke”, Surendranath Banerji, said: “It was Mazzini, the incarnation of the highest moral force in the political arena … that I presented to the youth of Bengal. Mazzini had taught Italian unity. We wanted Indian unity.”

Mazzini’s magnetic appeal made for an extraordinarily diverse fan base, notes Mishra, who says that a member of the Mazzini-inspired “Young Bosnia” assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand in 1914, triggering World War I.

A Chinese devotee, Liang Qichao, in his early career noted the “necessity of violence”.

By the late 19th century, the Indian disciples of Mazzini belonged to the first and second generations of upper-caste South Asians educated in Western-style institutions. Resentment abounded among them. Hindus had no power and were seen by their overlords as backward and effeminate. They reinvented and reconfigured tradition itself as part of an effort to create a Hindu nation.

They did not realize, as noted by the eminent leader B R Ambedkar, that it is not easy to create a nation out of a people divided into several thousands of castes.

Colonized by the British, India suffered more than Italy, the disadvantages of incomplete nationality. Radicalism of the right seemed appropriate for them. The idea of Hindutva as a form of political Hinduism that organizes and militarizes the Hindus was attractive.

“From these messianic figures arose the men who assassinated Gandhi and whose intellectual progeny now rule India,” says Mishra.

Savarkar, born in 1883, went to England at the age of 23 and spent the next four years in a “daze of Mazzini worship”. A true disciple of the Italian nationalist, he embraced a secular notion of salvation. He went further than Mazzini in making Hindu nationalism an ideology of hate and violent revenge. He developed a pathological hatred of foreigners.

Violence, for Savarkar, was a form of emancipation. He built a lurid narrative of Muslims humiliating Hindus. Trying to work up hatred as a categorical imperative, he found Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence “sinful”.

Savarkar was arrested in 1910 for his involvement in the murder of a British official in India and was condemned to 50 years of imprisonment, After just two months in a draconian prison, he wrote mercy petitions to the British – “an exercise in abject self-cancellation that came to light many decades later”.

Savarkar’s book Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (1928) comes closest to defining the ideology of modern Hindu nationalism. According to him, Hindutva embraced “all the department of thought and activity of the whole being of our Hindu race”. Closely imitating Mazzini, he writes, “India was the land of the Hindus, their culture was Aryan and their roots traced back to the Vedic times.”

Savarkar imparted clarity to his call to “Hinduize all politics and militarize Hindudom” and said such aims could be achieved by identifying Muslims as the enemy within.

Mazzini’s notion that “ideas ripen quickly when nourished by the blood of martyrs” led one of his/Savarkar’s upper-caste disciples in India to kill a British official. In 1909, Savarkar inspired a murderous assault on a British official in London.

In the late 1960s, an official commission of inquiry into Gandhi’s death in 1948 drew on testimony unavailable at the original trial, and found Savarkar guilty of leading the conspiracy to kill the Mahatma.

But Savarkar had already died in 1966.

His portrait, though, has been put up in the Indian Parliament by the country’s present rulers.

The two books by Pankaj Mishra referred to in this essay are a masterly contribution to Asian studies.

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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