Hindu nationalism and why 'being a philosopher in India can get you killed'


India’s ruling nationalist Hindu party, the BJP, swept to power in 2014 after a landslide victory in parliamentary elections – the first time a single party had won an outright majority in the Indian parliament in 30 years, propelling Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. Joseph Confavreux turned to two young Indian philosophers, Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, for their analysis of what they call the “invention” of Hinduism, and why they argue that “being a philosopher in India can get you killed”.

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Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi are from among a new generation of Indian philosophers, and are the co-authors of Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, a study of the concepts of Mahatma Gandhi (published by Bloomsbury).

Mohan is a regular contributor to Indian academic journal The Economic and Political Weekly. Dwivedi is an assistant professor teaching philosophy and literature at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, and she is guest editor of the forthcoming edition of UNESCO’s  Women Philosophers’ Journal, entitled Women, Philosophers, Intellectuals in India: An Endangered Species?

In this interview together with Mediapart’s Joseph Confavreux, they offer their analysis of the history of Hindu nationalism in India, represented by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, the role of so-called ‘post-colonial’ thinking in the BJP’s project, and the role of he who they describe as “the father of post-colonial theory”, Mahatma Gandhi.


Mediapart: The current government in India appears to base itself around the valorisation, pushed to extremes, of Hinduism and its traditions.

Shaj Mohan: The history of the Hindu fascist movement in India is older than that of independent India. But it is younger than the idea of British India. The most powerful rightwing Hindu organisation ever, and the most powerful organisation after the state in India is the RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which can be translated as national self-service corps. It was formed in 1925.

Today, the Indian state propaganda and many Indian academics would say that Hinduism is the most ancient religion in the world. In fact, it is one of the most recent religions in the world. It is the most recently invented ancient religion in the world. This word, Hindu, didn’t exist as a religious category before the 19th century. The history of the word Hindu reveals to us the process of Hindu nationalism.

Divya Dwivedi: The Hindu religion was invented as a response to certain progressive legal measures introduced by the British Raj. In 1850, the British colonial administration brought a law called “Caste Disability Removal Act”. This law made it a crime to discriminate against people on the basis of caste for the first time in the subcontinent. Until the appearance of this law caste discrimination was the normal or the way of nature. This new law alarmed the upper caste population who, at that time, wouldn’t call themselves Hindu at all; instead they would call themselves Brahman, Kshatriya and so on, which are like the Genus concept of caste.

In 1871, the British Government initiated a pan-India census process. They found that when questions were asked like “what is your religion?”, people would say “Brahman”. And when asked “what is your caste?” the answer would be again “Brahman”. The word Hindu doesn’t appear to them to be the answer to these questions.

But when the combinations of the figures of populations came through, it was shocking that the upper caste population was a small minority. The findings of the censuses from 1871 to 1911 led the British administration to initiating another step, because now they had a practical problem. They couldn’t have hundreds of religious names and caste names. They needed a smaller number of categories in which all these people could be fitted together. So, they proposed the name Hindu for these hundreds of caste groups. Hindu was to be understood as a religious grouping that is separate from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Nobody knew what it meant to be in this new religion, except that if you went to the church on Sundays you were less likely to be a Hindu.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the United UN Vesak Day Conference in Sri Lanka, May 12th 2017. © Reuters Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the United UN Vesak Day Conference in Sri Lanka, May 12th 2017. © Reuters

S.M: When this name Hindu appeared as a category, many in the upper-caste groups found it really shocking because it is not an Indian word. It is actually an Arab word, derived from “Al-Hind”. The upper castes felt that it had an “untouchable” ring, “mlecha sabda”, to it.

But there was anxiety amongst the upper-caste population that if the census proves that they were a minority in the country, they will be in serious trouble. So they attempted to bring the lower castes also into this newly created Hindu religion. For the first time, the lower castes were given permission to visit certain temples, celebrate certain festivals. These concessions were themselves the effect of a census circular issued by the colonial administration which was trying to figure out who was Hindu and who was not. It asked the people questions like “are you allowed to visit the temple?” and “do you have access to Brahman priests for ceremonies in your families?”. So the upper castes initiated temple entries and other processes to merely fit the lower castes into the criteria set by the colonial administration for the term Hindu. The discriminatory caste-ist practices were left intact.

Mahatma Gandhi played a very important role in the creation of this religion, especially regarding temple entry movements. However, in those days Gandhi was opposed to intermarriage between the lower castes and the upper castes, and even to their eating a meal together. He would modify this position later due to the political challenges created by Dalit political leaders, especially Ambedkar.

The upper castes governed this religion, which was necessitated by the statistics. Keeping in mind the requirements of the British administration for this religion, they decided its gods, texts, and the degrees of participation each caste would have in the activities of this new religion. In fact, this power invested with the upper castes to decide the degree of participation of each individual in the society according to the caste order has not changed since ancient times. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP, which is the electoral organ of the RSS, is only the continuation of this history, of the determination by the upper castes of what India and Indians should be. Today the governance of this society is done by a caste group called Baniya, or the trader caste, and then the Brahmans.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), leader of the Dalits and anti-discrimination campaigner, who served as India’s law minister from 1947–51. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), leader of the Dalits and anti-discrimination campaigner, who served as India’s law minister from 1947–51.

There is this word “govern” that Foucault was very interested in. It is related to cybernetics. It comes from the ancient Greek word kubernao, which meant to steer a ship. So you can see the relation it has to governance; those who govern steer the social ship. There is a related old Sanskrit term called Kubera. Kubera is the mythic god of wealth. We know that wealth truly steers. So the Kubera group of businessmen and traders together steer India in the Hindu direction now.

Mediapart: Earlier you mentioned that the academics follow the state project of “Hindu” as the identity of Indian caste groups. Do the academic programmes have a role in the success of the BJP?

D.D: In fact, since the 1980s, through an academic programme named “post-colonial theory”, the relation between the State and society has also been transforming effectively. If we look at the ancient societies of the subcontinent, they have the form of a king being obedient to the social Law. The state is absent. This fact has been established by legendary historian of the ancient subcontinent, Romila Thapar. The greatest king is the one most obedient to the social code, which is essentially the caste order. The king god Rama is the exemplar of this obedient king. The form and the permissible variations of the social order were decided by Brahmans.

In the modern state of post-independent India, there was this crisis with the appearance of a constitution of the European type. India is a secular, socialist, democratic republic according to the constitution, but the reality of the society is something else altogether, which is ordered along caste lines. The caste that people are born into still decides their jobs and possibilities in life. For example, if you are a Dalit you cannot ride a horse in most parts of India, nor can you marry a non-Dalit.

Post-colonial theory emerged into the political scene in the late 1980’s as a solution to this conflict between modern institutions and the caste order. Some important events of that time became occasions to establish the post-colonialist perspective by justifying misogynist traditions and calling feminism and secularism “euro-centric”.

For example, in 1987 a young educated girl named Roop Kanwar was burnt alive on the funeral pyre of her dead husband, following the traditional practice called “Sati”, or widow burning. Traditionally a woman is regarded as pure only if her sexual activity and reproductive function are strictly held inside the marital relationship. If her husband dies before her, the only way for her to remain pure is to die soon after him. Of course, it is ritualistic murder. This was a practice that was prominent in many parts of India, especially in north-west India. The British colonial administration had brought in legislation to ban this practice, and this legislation raised a number of debates about the role of British administration in reshaping the culture and practices in India.

In 1987 the attack on the feminists who protested this ritualistic killing was led by a sociologist called Ashis Nandy. Nandy gave theoretical formulations to oppose the modern views of the feminists: that the feminists were themselves the products of western ideology and epistemology, that they were trying to look at Indian society in the modernist terms that were forged by the colonial administration, and that they were inimical to the cultural identity of the subcontinent. These arguments are in fact a paraphrase of Gandhi’s opposition to the annihilation of the caste system.

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