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In 1925, the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was founded. The main aim of the RSS was to make India into a nation state defined according to Hindu cultural and religious values, which in the RSS version reflected a distinct high-caste outlook. Internal enemies, namely Muslims, Christians, and Marxists, had no place in such a state. This ideology goes under the name Hindutva, which can be translated as Hinduness. Due to the large-scale and religiously based violence experienced in the final stages of its freedom struggle, independent India adopted democracy and secularism as its foundational values. Hindu nationalist parties were present, but never influential in the first decades after independence. This circumstance was about to change in the 1980s, as the newly founded Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with strong links to the RSS, decided to mobilize on the Ayodhya issue. According to the BJP, the Ayodhya temple had been demolished by the Muslim ruler, Babur, and replaced with a mosque. The time had come to rebuild the temple. This campaign catapulted the BJP onto the political scene in India. The strategy, however, was not without its flaws, and the weaknesses connected to the BJP’s Ayodhya campaign summed up the party’s main challenges. It has been difficult for the BJP to promote the existence of a nationwide Hindu identity in heterogeneous India, characterized by religious pluralism, different regional political cultures, and caste divisions. Particularly caste has proved difficult for the BJP, since the party is associated with high-caste values. Moreover, the way in which the BJP has utilized anti-Muslim rhetoric and campaigns has alienated potential alliance partners. The BJP has managed to overcome most of these challenges and was elected to power at the national level in 1998 and then again in 2014. In addition, the party governs many different states. During several national election campaigns, the BJP has actually chosen to background the most contentious issues in order to attract alliance partners. Instead, the party has conveyed its message of Hindu cultural unity in more subtle ways, most prominently through educational reforms. The BJP has also managed to adapt to regional variations and conveys its ideology in different ways throughout India. The landslide victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP in the 2014 elections represents a new phase in the history of the party. With a majority of its own, one could expect that the BJP would implement its Hindu nationalist agenda. For the most part, Modi has kept some degree of distance from Hindutva. However, through a division of labor, it appears that Modi has left the Hindutva agenda to the states governed by the BJP as well to the well-organized and influential Hindu nationalist movement.

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Rina Verma Williams and Sayam Moktan

With over one billion adherents worldwide and 15% of the world’s population, Hinduism is the fourth largest, and among the oldest, of the major world religions, with important political aspects that reverberate well beyond South Asia. Yet it is perhaps the least studied of the major world religions. Hinduism is also one of the most geographically concentrated religions of the world. The majority of Hindus are concentrated in two South Asian countries, Nepal and India, where Hindus constitute 80% or more of the population. Small but politically influential diasporic communities of Hindus are found throughout Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada. Key characteristics of Hinduism that set it apart from Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), especially politically, include its polytheistic nature and lack of one single authoritative text; the tremendous variation in its practice across locality and caste; and its frequently informal practice beyond the confines of official institutions such as temples. Hinduism has been compatible with a range of regime types over time in India and Nepal, including empire, monarchy, and democracy. Both India and Nepal are officially secular countries, but the status of secularism in both countries is contested by the forces of Hindu nationalism, a movement that seeks to institutionalize the political, social, and cultural predominance of Hinduism. Religious conversion is expressly prohibited in Nepal; in India, it is increasingly under legislative attack. The politics of caste are an important political aspect of Hinduism in both India and Nepal. While politics in both countries remain dominated by upper castes, important lower-caste political mobilization has appeared in India, but has yet to take hold in Nepal. A better understanding of Hinduism’s political aspects has enormous potential to enhance knowledge of religion and politics more broadly.