Hindu Nationalism’s Effect on Indian Politics

Whether it’s a common nationality, religion, or ideal, a strong national identity is important for the success of a nation and the unity of its people. When India was founded under the ideals of secularism, socialism, democracy, and federalism, the country was filled with citizens of different religions, castes, and conflicting ideologies—but they were united by the promise the new country held. As time has progressed, however, the void created by the lack of a tangible factor to unify all of Indians has grown exponentially, distinctly stratifying different groups and pushing them further apart. In the same fashion that other western countries have reacted to a lack of unity and identity within their nations that have resulted from a growth in diversity and immigration, the void in India has gradually been filled with the growing prominence of nationalists rising to power—specifically Hindu nationalists. Just as American nationalism in the United States led to a wave of xenophobia and unrest for the country the rippled into every facet of politics and life, the rise of a divisive Hindu nationalist ideology has done and will continue to do the same for India by dividing the population to create social unrest and perpetuating existing structures of power and inequality, like the caste system for example, that hold back the country most.

Though India was founded under the idea of secularism— the idea that all religions were equal in law and in treatment— that claim never translated to policy or a long-lasting culture within India. Since the country was birthed from a partition of religion, the conflict between Hindus and Muslims is one that is deeply ingrained in the South Asian subcontinent and still affects the way these two kinds of Indian citizens co-exist. Though it can be debated whether this is a natural conflict or one exacerbated by the influence of British rule, it can be agreed on that stratification between the communities has affected political parties and their platforms.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which began as the Janata Party in 1977 in response to Indira Gandhi’s State of Emergency, is one of more socially conservative and nationalistic ideologies. With links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization with the goals of creating and promoting a Hindu state, the BJP is a natural opponent to the Nehru, Indira, and Congress’ left-wing ideas of socialism and secularism. It is ironic that the BJP’s rise to power correlates with the nation’s shift into a more capitalistic and globalized economy; as the country became richer through investment and cooperation with the West, the high caste and elites who gravitated toward the BJP thrived—despite the fact that the BJP was firmly against modernization and emulating the west (Corbridge and Harris, 174).

The effects of capitalism weakened the state institution that had previously had a strict hold on Indian society, and led to anyone being able to step up in place of the government and provide service and resources—eventually garnering public support and votes when it came time for elections. Hindu nationalist filled this role in society, running around 20,000 schools in India and essentially indoctrinating future Indian citizens on their beliefs of Hindu nationalism and raising more politically conservative generation (Corbridge and Harris, 180). With a more politically conservative generation comes the desire of homogeneity and a fear of different and “othered” groups.  Despite the immense diversity that the country holds, one of the things that conservatives in India can cling to for a semblance of sameness is religion. Much the population in India is Hindu, and although the Muslim population is also one of the biggest groups in the world, conservatives—and thus, nationalists—draw on this similarity as the ideology that can unify the country through any kind of political or economic instability. The world is aware that many parts of India are underdeveloped and thus, poverty is a major issue that the nation faces. However, the BJP has been in power now for nearly 30 years and though they campaign on the promise to help the poor throughout the nation, it’s often the lower caste communities that aren’t invested in, and because they don’t receive development or education, that disadvantaged population remains disadvantaged through each election cycle.

Along with that, though Hinduism and the caste systems aren’t interchangeable, the caste system remains a huge institutional force in India because of Hindu nationalists. For the rich, Hindu nationalism means keeping and reinforcing the existing rules of society that allow them to stay in power—but for lower caste individuals in India, Hindu nationalism is rooted in an idea of fearing the “other” and frustration at one’s own socioeconomic standing. In the words of the nationalist motto, the BJP hopes for India and Indians to be “fully and truly themselves” and not imitate the practices of Western nations (Colbridge and Harris, 174) The caste system has persevered since the beginning of Aryan invasion into India and is their primary tool of organization and discipline throughout the nation—but it also one of the most oppressive and detrimental customs of India that perpetuates poverty, lack of education, and lack of mobility. Through the caste system, certain privileged groups continue to get the most power and benefits in society—and although the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an untouchable who rose to led India, that does not change the institutional difficulties the rest of the untouchable/Dalit caste faces. Similar to what was seen in America with the election of Barack Obama, the election and representation of a minority group often does nothing to really benefit that group in society. Though many other leaders have begun to make strides in political representation, nationalism and pride in what makes India ‘Indian’ is rooted in the perpetuation of the caste system.

The solution for Hindu nationalism and hegemony is unclear. Nationalist movements have often resulted in social injustices to minority groups and general instability and tension for the nation at hand. India is participating in what seems to be a global trend toward conservatism and individualistic nationalism because of a globalized capitalistic economy. The first step to avoiding nationalistic regimes is the education of the people, and perhaps that’s where India could start. By expanding educational programs to more than just higher caste or elite and wealthy individuals, that education and knowledge can uplift the whole country after several generations. Though one might believe that voting your caste might be the way for untouchables to rain more power in society, that doesn’t seem like the case. As long as the institution is in power, and as long as there is a reason to keep the institution in power— like nationalism—only the untouchables that get elected to positions and directly have power are the ones that will benefit. Through unbiased education that focuses on the oppression of certain castes and minorities throughout history, a more progressive society may develop that chooses to reduce the dependence on a caste system in India—just as its influence has already started to decline slowly—and thus become a more equitable and less corrupt system. However, this is something that will take years and generations of Indians to fix, and has a fault key to all left-ist ideas in that it’s too idealistic. Because of that, the long approach of education, understanding, and empowerment will not work in eradicating Hindu nationalism and Hindutva from India—and perhaps we just have to wait for many Indians to overcome their connection to the allegorical and philosophical connection to the BJP and pick a new party offering them something different.



Works Cited

Corbridge, Stuart, and John Harriss. Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu Nationalism and Popular Democracy. Cambridge: Polity, 2008. Print.

Fradkin, Abigail. “Modi’s India: Caste, Inequality and the Rise of Hindu Nationalism.” Newsweek. N.p., 10 Apr. 2016. Web. 18 May 2017.

“India’s Narendra Modi and the Threat of Hindu Nationalism.” The Week – All You Need to Know about Everything That Matters. N.p., 16 May 2014. Web. 18 May 2017.


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