The rise of Hindu fundamentalism
The Hindu fundamentalism or Hindutva has important implications for India and global mission.
17 MAY 2019 · 13:50 CET
There has been increasing concern around the world for some years about the rise of Hindu fundamentalism or Hindutva.i
The political party in India which embodies Hindutva is the BJP, which first came to power at national level in 1996 for just 13 days, then for some 13 months in 1998–1999, and for the third time from 1999 to 2004.
On each occasion, BJP led a coalition government. In the 2014 national elections, the BJP won an absolute parliamentary majority.
The current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has been a lifelong enthusiast for the main Hindutvanii organization, the RSS, which focuses on imposing its own particular understanding of dharma (the right behaviour, right economics and right social order) on the whole of India.
As Dr BR Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution put it, Hindutva is a ‘menace to liberty, equality and fraternity . . . incompatible with democracy’,iii primarily because Hindutvans do not hesitate to use lies and violence to attain their ends.
HINDUTVA—WHAT IS IT?
The political ideology of Hindutva is, according to its followers, an assertion of ‘Indian identity’ and ‘Indian nationhood’.
Hindutva claims to be cultural, civilizational, and nonreligious, working for the well-being of all Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Ayyavazhis, Jains, and Lingayats, as well as those Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who accept India as their ‘fatherland’iv and their ‘holy land’.v
Hindutva promotes the Gita—which, historically, has been a holy text only for some Hindu sects.
Although the Gita is accepted as inspirational by many Hindus, particularly since the end of the nineteenth century, the texts that are accepted as sacred by all Hindus are, rather, the different and millennia-old Vedas.
Hindutvans promote ‘Hindu values’, the ‘Hindu way of life’, a ‘common history’, ‘common ancestry’ and ‘common Indian culture’ as well as a ‘common Civil Code’vi and economic growth that accords with ‘native ethics and morals’.
However, the BJP and RSS refuse to define these terms. For example, it is not clear if they include:
- the caste system;
- getting up before dawn for a ritual bath so that one can pray to idols;
- arranged marriage;
- the traditional ‘joint family’vii system;
- eating only vegetarian food;
- being ‘anti-Western’ (eg not wearing jeans if you’re a man, and not wearing slacks or skirts if you’re a woman);
- speaking, reading and writing only in Sanskrit.
That is why many Indians see Hindutvans as representing only themselves, trying to gain political power in order to benefit mainly the community of businesspeople who support and are in turn patronized by them.
Despite such vagueness and self-interest, Hindutva has grown for two reasons:
1. Hindutva presents itself as clean and dedicated to building up the nation, in contrast to the greed and selfishness of the generations of political leaders that followed the idealists who led India to independence.
2. The RSS and BJP have been able to find backers to fund the training into a disciplined cadre of those who are cut off from the immense privileges of the top castes.
Since Modi’s election in 2014, as part of a strategy to channel foreign-origin funds only to Hindutvan organizations, over 20,000 non-Hindutvan civil society organizations have had their registration cancelled.
Others such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, the Ford Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been harassed and their funds blocked.
Furthermore, threats are increasingly used to intimidate ordinary people, with marauding bands hired for physical attacks on all who disagree with Hindutva—especially if they are Hindus.
The BJP-run state apparatus has even been implicated in the killing of police officers and judges who adhere to the Constitution and therefore refuse to align with the anti-democratic wishes of the BJP/ RSS.
Hindu terrorism against non-Hindutvan Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Dalitbahuhans, and other groups, which has gradually increased since the 1980s, has received a massive boost as violence now has official support.
India’s refugee and citizenship policies have also changed radically. For example, citizenship laws have been amended to make it easier to strip Indian Muslims of citizenship and to confer Indian citizenship on Hindu refugees from Bangladesh.
Meanwhile, in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir (India’s only Muslim-majority state), the BJP’s anti-Muslim policies have turned an increasing number of Kashmiris against the Indian government.
The next national elections are scheduled to be held at the latest by May this year. Only a few months ago, despite Modi’s political missteps, it would have been a very brave or foolish person who predicted anything other than a consolidation of his position, perhaps even such an overwhelming majority as to enable him to change the Constitution (the BJP’s aim).
However, there has been a growing feeling that Modi’s government has made too many claims and promises and delivered very little, except to its cronies. The rebuff delivered to the BJP in the five recent State elections may be a harbinger of defeat in May.
At present, there appear to be six possible scenarios for the immediate future:
1. RSS creates such pre-election internal chaos as to enable Modi to take over complete power indefinitely by declaring a national emergency and so suspending the Constitution.
2. Modi holds the election and wins an increased mandate or at least the same number of seats as now.
3. Modi wins by a reduced majority but still enough to be an effective ruler.
4. Modi returns to power but only in an alliance with other parties.
5. Modi is removed as leader by the BJP and scenarios 2-4 play out under another leader.
6. BJP loses so badly as to be forced to return to the Opposition benches, whether led by Modi or by someone else.
However, what happens now is less important than the long-term future.
Hindutva has no real answers for the country. Harking back to an imagined glorious past is not going to help India face its enormous challenges today. It is therefore inevitable that there will be widespread disillusionment with Hindutva.
That will provide an opportunity: we can finally move from trying to reach the poor and marginalized as individuals to addressing also national challengesviii and influencing both the masses and the leaders of our country.
Mission, therefore, now needs to be directed not just to the materially poorest (as is currently the case) but to the vast mass of those who will be (and are already beginning to be) disillusioned with Hindutva.
That needs to be done, not with traditional approaches, but with new ones that take seriously the desire of Indians to solve our very real national problems so that we can hold our heads high in the world—not on the basis of illusions but on the basis of the gospel that enables our people to be liberated from ancient and modern structures that result in bondage, ignorance, disease, and exploitation.
Reallocate resources in theological education as well as in frontline work to focus on national challenges, specifically for the educated elite in the key cities: the national and state capitals, the IT-leading cities (Bengaluru, Pune, Noida/Gurgaon), small and medium-sized business owners, young professionals, journalists, writers, broadcasters, thinkers, and those who are active on social media.
Wherever Hindutva has invested the most are exactly the areas and groups that will become most responsive once disillusionment sets in.
Specifically, focus on developing and communicating a biblical perspective on topics such as national development, eliminating corruption,ix education, family, love, suffering, health, and technology.
Abandon the unbiblical mindset which focuses on best returns on financial investment. Basing support on earthly ‘results’ is a huge incentive to malpractice and blatant lying—using wrong methods to make illusory converts and then using those faked numbers to raise funds.
While the rise of Hindutva has made non-Indian sponsorship of mission work harder, that is no bad thing: externally funded chaff is falling away, and genuine spiritual life will shine all the brighter.
However, Hindutvans attack not only on lives but also livelihoods, so the capacity of Indian believers to earn money needs to be increased by awarding scholarships for higher studies in professional and academic fields other than theology and by partnering in business.
Individual Indian followers of Jesus
We need to be prepared to suffer persecution, marginalization, and even death in order to continue to be faithful witnesses to him who has transformed us.
We also need to focus on working in the public square to ensure the saltiness of the Constitution, the legal system, medicine, health, education, roads, railways, mapping, engineering, accountancy, technology, etc. so that the whole nation will acknowledge the debt in all these that is owed to Christ.
Indian and other believers
Some Christians unintelligently pray for Modi to lose these elections. Is it not possible that someone worse may replace him? So how should we pray? As Scripture instructs us, we should pray:
- right now, against wrong-headed policies and practices and for Modi and other leaders to be led by the Lord, even unconsciously;
- for the elections to raise up the best possible leaders;
- and after the election of new leaders (whoever they are), for them to become better and wiser as they experience the challenges of leading the development of our nation.
We all need to make clear that individuals may oppose or support any political party (including the BJP) but our primary commitment as a body is good governance so that all Indians (and not just a few) may flourish.
Sadly, in general, the global church has moved in the direction of extracting from the Scriptures just enough truth to make a sort of aspirin for individuals to feel comforted.
Doing that leaves out what makes God’s Word a whip and a hammer for social and political structures. The Bible is intended by God to be a fire by which whole nations or indeed the whole globe can be kept alight.
While there have been several good contributions towards developing a biblical view of globalization, there have been very few efforts at exploring a biblical view of nations, specifically in view of the rise of nationalisms. For example:
- Iran has Shia Muslim nationalism.
- India has Hindutvan nationalism.
- Sri Lanka has Buddhist nationalism.
- China has Xi-inspired Maoist nationalism.
- Russia has Putin-inspired Eastern Orthodox nationalism.
All nationalisms have certain elements in common, but each also has several unique ingredients. So, while a global theology of nations needs to be developed, what is also needed is a biblical view of each particular nation, given its own peculiar history and characteristics.
Finally, that individual theology of the particular nation needs to be communicated to ordinary believers in that country so that they can express it in relation to their families, neighbourhoods, professional challenges, and—most importantly—national debates in the mainstream media.
In other words, the discipling of believers needs to be taken much more seriously. Even if we had many more evangelists, they cannot exercise their gifts in public where nationalisms become dominant.
That is why, in an age of rising nationalisms, the primary requirement for the global church is more believers embodying and communicating the gospel in their neighbourhoods and places of work.
The author of this article is now in his 70s and has taught at Indian and foreign universities.
This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of the Lausanne Global Analysis and is published here with permission. Learn more about this flagship publication from the Lausanne Movement at www.lausanne.org/lga.
i Editor’s Note: See article by Tehmina Arora, entitled, ‘Religious Identity, Nationalism, and Violence’, in May 2018 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2018-05/religious-identity-nationalism-and-violence.
ii Or ‘Hindutvavaadi’—although that is a North Indian linguistic construction. South Indian languages would tend to produce a word something like ‘Hindutvan’. Although the BJP and RSS have tried to establish themselves in South India, the tenets and practices they follow are basically North Indian.
iii Dr B. R. Ambedkar, Thoughts on Pakistan (Writings and Speeches, Vol 8, p 358).
iv In most Indian languages, including Sanskrit, the land is considered female. It is a peculiarity of BJP/ RSS that, in search of muscularity, and particularly under the influence of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, they prefer to refer to India as ‘fatherland’ rather than ‘motherland’.
v ‘Holy land’ in the same sense as Jews regard Israel, or Muslims regard Saudi Arabia.
vi The Indian Constitution recognizes different family laws for Hindus, Muslims, etc. Hindutvans would like every Indian to be under a Civil Code that is aligned with the Hindutvan view.
vii That is, an extended family, consisting of at least three generations and their spouses, living together as a single household.
viii Editor’s Note: See article by Ken Gnanakan and Atul Aghamkar, entitled, ‘India’s Water Crisis’, in March 2018 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2018-03/indias-water-crisis.
ix Editor’s Note: See article by Arpit Waghmare, entitled, ‘Choosing to be Salt & Light’, in November 2012 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2012-11/choosing-to-be-salt-light-can-the-church-in-india-become-a-model-in-the-fight-for-anti-corruption.