Issue 23

Uniting Hindus or Masking Brahminism –  Hindutva’s Narrowing Scope

Events in the country over the last month have really put to test the idea of India — from the violence erupting on the occasion of Ram Navami, to the hijab ban in certain schools and colleges, to the meat ban during Navaratri and the violence accompanying it. Even as activists and scholars ring alarm bells over the despairing condition of minorities in the country, the silence of the ruling party is deafening. While the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu ideology has never been a secret, there is something to be said about the scope and implications of this particular brand of communal violence. The ban on meat and meat shops, the roisterous ‘Jai Shree Ram’ chants, and the timing of these ‘clashes’ during certain Hindu festivals is telling of a very narrow conception of Hindu majoritarianism — Brahminical Hinduism, to be precise. 

This assessment, however, is directly in contradiction with a long list of political analysts whose line of argument in defense of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology is that it has managed to ‘unite’ Hindus across caste lines. The very definition of Hindutva is as an amorphous Hindu ‘culture’ and a way of life, as opposed to as a religion, according to one of its progenitors V.D. Savarkar – himself a Marathi Brahmin. The primary evidence for this argument of Hindutva unity comes from the BJP’s seemingly caste-blind electoral mobilization, propelled by support from its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Caste in Indian politics often crops up only as an electoral issue, and even then it is criticized for being used as a ‘vote-bank’ by political parties. The sweeping majorities garnered by the BJP and its vehemently Hindu majoritarian doctrine have led many scholars, such as Vinay Sitapati, to comment on the ‘new’ idea of Hinduism fostered by the party. According to Sitapati, the RSS was ‘radical’ in its construction of a ‘unified’ Hindu identity that rested on electoral politics – he calls it the ‘Hindu fevicol’ phenomenon. 

More colloquial arguments for Hindutva’s unifying factor are made by BJP leaders themselves during electoral rallies, who pat themselves on the back for moving India towards ‘casteless’ elections. Regardless of these spurious assertions and the tokenistic meals at Dalit households before elections that all politicians (including BJP) partake in, the truth of the matter is that the essence of Hindutva is Brahminical. It was conceptualized and pursued by a party whose leaders were predominantly Brahmins, such as Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, and Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Moreover, the Hindu ‘culture’ that the RSS and BJP emphasize is but a slightly masked version of Brahminical culture. 

The argument about BJP’s attempted unity across Hindus might hold true in terms of electoral mobilization — the BJP has made inroads into caste vote-banks and managed electoral wins but they are just that. They’re not indicative of a shift in Hindutva’s caste inclusivity, but a facade of nationalistic unity propped up by the BJP in the name of uniting against an ‘other’, in this case, a communal other i.e. Muslims. This farcical unity though has not brought about any changes within Hinduism’s own hierarchical structures, and the BJP should not be credited for that. The present spate of violence has shown what has always lied at the core of the Hindutva narrative, which is an exclusionary upper-caste notion of Hinduism and its principles of purity and pollution. 

Renowned academic Kancha Ilaiah’s book Why I Am Not A Hindu succinctly explains how the popularised ideas of Hinduism are largely upper-caste, and how Dalit conceptualizations of Hindu culture and practices are much more diverse and inclusive. He mentions (and statistics supplement) how vegetarianism is a restrictive practice only followed by a minority in the country, and especially only upper-castes in Hinduism. Even the worship of Lord Ram is not unanimously prevalent across the country’s social communities, and Ilaiah talks about his Dalit-Bahujan community and the various other gods they worship like Virappa and Pochamma. Even their rituals involved pouring alcohol and sacrificing animals, which aren’t seen as conventional Hindu practices according to Brahmins. 

The BJP and the RSS may try to peddle the idea of Hindutva as a ‘way of life’ to its voters, but the actions perpetrated by and in the name of Hindutva reinforce the upper-caste origins of the ideology. Even if we were to accept the RSS’s argument about Hindutva’s focus on Hindu culture rather than Hindu religion, logic would force us to reckon with the fact that the RSS’s idea of Hindu culture is limited, and derived from the religion itself. As for Hindu religion, historical experience and facts cannot deny that it is a deeply undemocratic religion. How then can we ever hope to run a democratic country on its basis? 

Akanksha Mishra is a third-year undergraduate student of political science and media studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 20

Hindutva Beyond Politics: The Rise of an Alternate Pop-Culture in India

The rise of Hindutva, especially in the past seven years, has proved that it is not only a political or electoral phenomenon. The ideology of Hindutva, a blend of creating a purely Hindu nation-state while othering non-Hindus, has today penetrated all levels of our social systems and democratic setup. It has infused exclusionary values of religious nationalism in our bureaucratic institutions, bent large parts of the judicial system in its favour, has completely encapsulated the media ecosystem to propagate its ideology, and is working towards saffronising Indian academia. However, nothing represents Hindutva’s deep dive into shaking the foundations of an imagined liberal and secular India more than the evolution of popular culture in the past seven years. 

The vandalisation of the sets of Padmaavat, protests against the release of the film Sexy Durga and its eventual ban, protests against the film PK, are only a few examples of the intolerant and reactionary attitude of Hindutva organisations towards art and artists. However, the attempt to influence popular culture has gone beyond mere mob reactions. There is a concerted effort to demand a nationalistic and often Hindutva narrative from the cultural industries. 

For instance, the number of nationalistic movies that were released in the years 2018 and 2019 is insightful, especially given that was the election year and the BJP government was at the peak of its popularity. Aiyaary, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran, Satyameva Jayate, Kesari, Uri – The Surgical Strike, Bharat, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi are the most notable ones. Each of these movies either portrays the Indian army’s valour or represent a version of India’s past that espoused religious nationalistic pride. 

Whether or not these films had any impact on the results of the 2019 General Elections, where BJP expanded its majority in the parliament, is debatable. But the fact that there was an overflow of superhit nationalistic movies in 2018 and 2019, reflects that Bollywood producers are seeing opportunity in the film market where there is commercial benefit in making nationalistic films. Furthermore, the rise of actors like Kangana Ranaut, who minces no words in expressing her love for Hindutva, has to be seen in the context of the expanding influence of Hindutva in the cultural industry. Both these phenomenons; a rise in the number of nationalistic movies, and the emergence of Hindutva superstars, indicate the extent to which the ideology has been infused in our cultural trends and media discourse. To top this all, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has declared that a film city will be created in Noida, possibly a sign that Hindutva is willing to challenge Bollywood’s hegemony over Indian culture.

Hindutva’s ascendance in popular culture is also visible in the most prominent cultural wars that have emerged in the past few years. Take for example the entire debate on nepotism and the alleged drug mafia in Bollywood. A debate that emerged in the backdrop of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, this debate soon transformed into a slugfest of targeting specific superstars who may have been perceived to be against Hindutva. Similarly, the arrest of Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan, can also be understood in the same context. It is not only its attempt to shape the narrative of popular culture, but Hindutva has also succeeded in creating a civil society in its favour that is willing to aid them in manufacturing cultural wars on the pretext of cultural issues, such as the nepotism debate. While it is indeed true that Bollywood as an industry remains extremely inaccessible to most of the country, and the art it produces continues to lack diversity, it is also important to note that Bollywood’s failure itself offers an opportunity for Hindutva to expand its cultural agenda.

Hindutva civil society is also moving towards the production of an alternate popular culture that is committed to its ideology. Consider the rising popularity of Hindutva pop music for instance. Laxmi Dubey is a singer from Madhya Pradesh whose songs have lyrics that espouse Hindu nationalist ideas. Some of her most popular songs are titled Fir Modi Ko Lana Hai, Har Ghar Bhagwa Chhayega, Yogi Aditya Nath Gatha. Each of these songs amassed at least 2 million views on YouTube. Another singer, Sanjay Faizabadi, is equally popular, with some of his most popular songs on YouTube being; Pakistan Hila Denge (16 million views), Har Hindustani Chahe Pure Pakistan Ko (10 million views), Lehrayenge Tiranga Lahore Mein (4.5 million views). The videos of their songs are filled with visual effects of saffron pride, the Indian army bombing its enemies, and often feature BJP leaders like Modi, Shah, and Adityanath. Apart from artists like Dubey and Faizabadi, there are numerous lesser-known artists and content creators who produce music, videos, and memes, in relatively low quality but follow a firm pattern of propagating Hindutva ideas. The scale of production of such xenophobic, bigoted, and chauvinistic music or art, and the popularity it has gained is unprecedented. 

That there is a concerted attempt by Hindu nationalist organisations to take over popular culture is amply clear. However, the disconcerting fact is the pace at which the production of an alternate popular culture is emerging. While an industry like Bollywood is relatively inaccessible for artists and production companies prioritise profit over any ideology, platforms such as YouTube and Spotify give artists like Dubey and Faizabadi an opportunity to share their music and gain a following, not to mention the inordinate amount of Hindutva content that is produced in Instagram and Facebook daily by other Hindu nationalists accounts. 

In India, however, cultural clout has a catch named diversity. The sheer diversity in our country, and internal diversity in each state, render an attempt to homogenise and dominate culture almost impossible. Cultural identities are so ingrained in every Indian community or social group, that it is hard to imagine Hindutva pop-culture dominating national culture on its own. Unlike Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Russia’s success in dominating culture through propaganda, similar projects in India may yet again be saved by the sheer strength of our cultural diversity. 

While Bollywood has largely surrendered itself to the pressures of a Hindu nationalist government, film and music industries of other languages across different states may provide suitable resistance to Hindutva. The solution to such an onslaught on popular culture is in diversifying the output in our popular culture. After all, culture persists only when it connects to people.

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes a keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media, art and culture. 

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We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).