Written by Randeep Singh
With the likelihood that a Hindu-right led government will come to power in India in the current elections, it’s worth examining the foundations of Hindutva (‘Hindu-ness’), the ideology underlying the Hindu right.
The seminal text on Hindutva is “Essentials of Hindutva” written by Veer Savarkar around 1922.
According to Savarkar, “Hindutva” is a cultural and national (not a religious) idea underlined by a common nation (‘rashtra’), race (‘jati’) and culture (‘sanskriti’). To qualify as a “Hindu” (Indian), one must regard “Hindustan” (India) as one’s fatherland (‘pitrabhumi’), motherland (‘matrabhumi’) and holyland (‘punyabhumi’).
Those who do not regard Hindustan as their holyland – namely Muslims and Christians – lack the “cultural” element necessary to be a Hindu. They can only become Hindu if they choose to embrace Hindustan as their holyland as well.
The trouble with Hindutva begins with the term “Hindu.” The term “Hindu” is a term foreigners used in referring to the inhabitants of the subcontinent, a point Savarkar concedes noting that it was the ancient Persians who first used the term. The term “Hindu” is scarce found within Sanskrit literature and Hindus have traditionally referred to one another not by “Hindu” but by their respective caste names (e.g. Bania, Chamar, Brahmin etc.). Savarkar’s national “Hindu” moreover is essentially north-Indian, upper caste and Brahmanic in race and culture.
Second, Savarkar’s essay is not so much a work of political ideology as it is itihaasa, a work combining history, myth, legend and fantasy. Savarkar does not question whether Rama, Krishna or the Mahabharata are mythological figures, whether the Aryans originated from outside of India and and whether Sanskrit was a language restricted to upper-castes. Any such inquiry is drowned out in an epic call for “Hindu” unity.
Third, Savarkar’s basic failure to define the term “nation” results in ambiguity and contradiction in his defining a Hindu. To say that a Muslim is not a Hindu (Indian) because Islam’s holyland is Saudi Arabia, is tantamount to saying that a Catholic in Spain cannot regard himself as Spanish because Christianity’s holyland is Palestine. It is also interesting that while Savarkar disqualifies Muslims as Indians because they lack the essential prerequisite of culture (i.e. viewing India as their holyland), he qualifies as Hindu those Caucasians who convert to Hinduism despite their lacking his otherwise essential criteria of race.
Savarkar’s “Essentials of Hindutva” is a yearning for unity. One can understand its appeal to millions in India, particularly those of a religion as diverse as Hinduism. That yearning is perhaps necessary to the idea of India; but any imagined unity like Hindutva’s imagines its others too as Ayodhya and Godhra have demonstrated. The coming election will help determine Hindutva’s place in India’s imagination tomorrow.