Between the Vedas and Mazzini: Hindu-Muslim tensions and the birth of an ideology

It is quite evident that there is particularly little awareness in Western countries (and especially in Italy) regarding the political and social situation in India. It is indeed likely that many heard of this incredible country in recent times solely due to the dreadful effect of the pandemic on the Indian healthcare system, with all its shortages. Nevertheless, this specific piece has another purpose, namely to analyze a key issue in the current Indian political debate, one that preceded the pandemic.

In December of 2019, the Indian Parliament amended the Citizenship Act, triggering an immense public debate, and rapidly evolving into violent and bloody protests. The content of the amendment (officially named “The Citizenship Amendment Act”, or “CAA”) confers Indian citizenship by naturalization to those persons who entered India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan before the 31st of December 2014, so long as they belong to any major religious community other than Islam.

This intentional exclusion, widely considered to be discriminatory, was one of  several recent attacks against India’s Muslim community at a governmental level. Only four months earlier came the revocation of the special status of autonomy given to Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state of the Republic of India. However, the CAA was a prominent element of the Hindu nationalist political agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (often translated as the “Indian People’s Party”), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which saw a major political victory in the general elections of 2019.

Several justifications of this exclusion were provided, and Modi himself gave a strident defense of the parliament’s decision, fully backing the adoption of the Act and accusing the protestors of spreading lies about the malicious intentions of the government.

Due to the pandemic’s toll on the country and new riots triggered by the enactment of the so-called Farm Bills (which have been recently scrapped), protests against the CAA calmed down and the Act has not yet been fully implemented yet. Although it is likely to be a merely temporary truce, a full understanding of the issue must address its most important element: why the bitterness against the Muslim community, and how has it reached such levels in recent times? Arguably, it is not possible to truly analyze this modern conflict without understanding what can be seen as its possible origin within the birth of a Hindu national identity.

In the following lines, a possible explanation to the first question will be provided, examining some of the relevant events and characters through the historical birth of the ideology of Hindu nationalism between the 1870s and the 1920s.

The first trace of the emergence of such a national identity can be traced back to 1875, when several socio-religious movements guided by high-caste Hindus, such as the Arya Samaj and the Hindu Mahasabha, were founded. The former was conceived as a reaction against British colonial rule and Christian Missions, with the aim of preserving the basic elements of traditional Hindu culture. Indeed, these institutions showed a particularly fierce aversion to Hinduism, denigrating its practices and beliefs such as polytheism and the caste system, and undertaking legislative reforms aimed at abolishing certain Hindu customs, such as the ban on Sati, the burning of widows on the funeral pyre of their husbands. The Arya Samaj, in this sense, adopted a strategy of stigmatization of the so-called Threatening Others, insofar as their ideas gained traction in the Subcontinent. From a certain point, they tried to defend and rescue certain pillars of traditional Hindu culture, such as the hierarchical organization of society, as this movement was composed mainly by high-castes elements. On the other hand, they began to imitate certain traits of the European colonizers. This was arguably a consequence of the usage of Christian conversion techniques on those upper caste Hindus in close contact with many Europeans.

But the main point of this double-faced strategy was the invention of a long-gone Golden Age to create an ethnic unity and pride in a population composed of numerous diverse traditions in order to assume the superiority and prestige necessary to more effectively resist  Western opponents. In this presumed historical period, the Aryans, a chosen people to whom “the formless God revealed the perfect knowledge of the Veda”, inhabited the region of Northern India, bringing Sanskrit to the indigenous population, the “mother of all languages”, before falling into an era of decline. The topos of a glorious past Golden Age, however, will often be a constant motif in many other authors while developing their idea of Hindu nationalism.

The threat of the others, however, can be perceived from certain aspects as an inferiority complex coupled with a feeling of vulnerability. As sustained later in those years by B.S. Moonje, president of the Hindu Mahasabha, the Hindus were in fact divided in many compartments, each one having a social culture and life of its own, that made any association of them as a united community impossible. This division was, in fact, seen as a weak point in relation to the cohesion of those who became another menace: the Muslims. Although such cohesion might be considered as exaggerated at that time, it could be useful to understand that particular historical context.

In 1909, after several negotiations between a delegation of notable Muslims and the British authorities, the constitutional reforms proposed by the viceroy of that time were enacted, and directly elective legislative assemblies were established with the creation of separate electorates for Muslims. Moreover, in 1919, after the peace negotiations following the First World War, several eminent Muslims launched the Khilafat Movement against the British, in order to restore the Caliphate of the dissolved Ottoman Empire, seen then as a major political authority. This huge mobilization, though, degenerated several times into anti-Hindu riots, which increased the Hindu stigma against Muslims.

As a consequence of the perceived threat of Muslim separatism and the necessity to preserve Hindu traditions in the face of European colonialism, the ideology of Hindu nationalism was then codified in the 1920s by V.D. Savarkar, a former head of a terrorist group and then president of the Hindu Mahasabha. In 1922, while in prison, he wrote and published his work “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?”. It is in this piece that one finds for the first time the word Hindutva, officially translated as “Hinduness”. According to Savarkar, Hindutva must not be identified with religion (he was not, indeed, a believer), but with something slightly more complex: Hinduism was to be only one of the attributes of Hindutva. The latter is something more like a proper national identity, based on three essential features: geographical unity, racial features (although not being related to any biological kind), and a common culture. In this way, he tried to achieve the creation of a homogeneous community of Hindus, whereas a huge differentiation within Hindu society was present due to the existence of different traditions often conflicting one another.  In this sense, the criterion of common culture is of paramount importance in order to understand the stigmatization of Muslims. According to Savarkar, Indian Muslims (along with Christians) are not part of the nation, not because of their racial or territorial differences from Hindus, but due to their cultural differences:

“Mohammedans or Christians communities possess all the essential qualifications of the Hindutva, but one and all that is that they do not look upon India as their holy land. […] Their holy land is far off in Arabia and Palestine.” 

Although the concept of Hindutva gained major importance from those years onward, along with its peculiarities, some particulars should be underpinned in what then became the idea of a proper “ethnic nationalism”. Savarkar, as a result of the aforementioned process of emulation of the Threatening Others, got in touch during his youth with the Western ideas of nationalism while studying nationalist movements in Europe. As a matter of fact, he studied the writings of Giuseppe Mazzini, along with his biography (which he also translated into Marathi and sent to India for publication), and modeled his secret society founded in 1904 on Mazzini’s Giovine Italia. Such admiration for Italian nationalists could be seen even in his work Hindutva, where much emphasis is given for Mazzini’s patriotic ideals.

As a conclusion to this brief analysis, it is possible to determine the historical period in which a resentment of the Muslim community of India arose, along with the birth of the ideology of Hindu nationalism. In this sense, some of the aforementioned points can be considered as one of the underpinning reasons behind a conflict among communities who lived together peacefully for centuries, a conflict that is currently leading to a degenerating social stigmatization and communal hatred, still present in the rhetoric of the Hindu Nationalist political agenda, as has been shown with the recent amendment to the Citizenship Act.   

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