India’s Prime Minister Modi pursues politics of Hindu nationalism – what does that mean?

Almost immediately after winning a second term in office on May 23, India’s Prime Minister Modi gave a speech making light of parties and individuals who had espoused secularism over the past five years.

During the five years while the Indian government has been led by Modi and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party – or BJP – several Muslims were lynched on allegations of eating beef or even just transporting cattle for slaughter. As the number of attacks on Muslims grew, Modi mostly remained silent.

The consumption of beef in India has long been a divisive issue because many Hindus believe that the cow is a sacred animal. Cow slaughter and consumption of beef have long been banned in 24 out of 29 states across India.

Despite this concession to orthodox Hindu sentiments, India has a constitutional commitment to secularism. Unlike in the West, where secularism calls for a strict separation of church and state, Indian secularism is based on the premise of respect toward all faiths.

However, Modi and the political party he represents are adherents of Hindutva. What exactly is Hindutva and how is it different from the beliefs and practices of Hinduism?

Colonial roots

Hindutva is an ideology that states that India is the homeland of the Hindus. According to believers, those who profess other faiths can live in the country only at the sufferance of Hindus.

As a scholar of contemporary Indian politics, I find this proposition to be profoundly disturbing and deeply antithetical to the the central tenets of Hinduism.

The roots of this ideology can, in considerable part, be traced to the growth of Hindu anxieties in colonial India. In 1906, a Muslim political party – the All-India Muslim League – was created. Later, a charismatic politician, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, became its standard-bearer and subsequently the first governor-general of the state of Pakistan following the British partition of India in 1947. Partition led to the division of the former British India into the two independent states of India and Pakistan.

The creation of the All-India Muslim League caused some serious misgivings on the part of some segments of the Hindu population, leading to their political mobilization along religious lines, pitting Hindus against Muslims. In 1921, an organization emerged in northern India called the Hindu Mahasabha.

It brought together people who opposed the secular outlook of the major political party at the time, the Indian National Congress, led by Mahatma Gandhi and others. The Mahasabha’s ideology espoused the education and uplift of Hindus and also the conversion of Muslims to Hinduism.