By Surajkumar Thube
Neo-Hindutva: Evolving Forms, Spaces, and Expressions of Hindu Nationalism
Eds. Arkotong Longkumer, Edward Anderson, Routledge, 2020
Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism
Banu Suramaniam, University of Washington Press, 2020
India is alight with protest after the recent introduction of the draconian Citizen Amendment Act. Seeking to exclude persecuted Muslims from neighbouring countries from claiming citizenship, the Act was instantly met with student opposition when it was passed on 11 December 2019. Resistance efforts took the form of creative ownership of public spaces using dissenting placards, posters, poetry and other forms of performative politics. Crucially, the Act has brought into focus the inherently divisive mobilising tactics of Hindu nationalism. Its insidious influence over policy and everyday life has become a major cause for concern for India’s youth.
Historically, the phenomenon of Hindu nationalism has broadly been understood as majoritarian. It espouses the cultural superiority of the Hindu majority over the minority Muslim community and seeks to combine the various strands of Hinduism into a homogenised entity, a concept known as Hindutva. This movement is embodied in India by the Bharatiya Janat Party (BJP), led by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Wildly popular among large sections of Indian society, Modi’s cult of personality was part of the reason that BJP saw a landslide victory in the country’s 2019 general election.
Two recent works, Holy Science and Hindutva and Dalits, attempt to move beyond personality and party politics to understand the everyday contours of Hindutva. These volumes offer useful insights into the presence of majoritarian nationalism in various aspects of quotidian life. Their most radical innovation is to go beyond a large body of existing literature which has been wedded to such deterministic lenses as ‘categorisation’ and ‘rigid classifications’. As Thomas Blom Hansen, one of the leading anthropologists working on Hindu nationalism, has argued, ‘Hindu nationalism emerged not from political system or religious field but from a broader realm called public culture’.
It is this public culture into which Neo-Hindutva dives, achieving a depth of analysis hitherto unseen in academic circles. By locating Hindutva’s rise in areas like the Internet, diaspora culture and yoga, the book connects seemingly disparate elements to map the subtle extension of Hindu Nationalism into everyday spaces. Co-Editor Edward Anderson builds on his earlier work exploring the concept of the ‘Neo-Hindutva’, which he defines as ‘idiosyncratic expressions of Hindu nationalism which operate outside (or on the peripheries) of the institutional and ideological framework of the Sangh Parivar [the umbrella term for a collection of Hindu nationalist organisations]’. This form of nationalism is not a fixed entity but rather, is constantly adjusting its core values and real-world practices in line with local cultural specificities.
This strain of Hindu nationalism helps us understand the distinction between Hard and Soft Neo-Hindutva. Groups aligned with the former—like the Hindu Yuva Vahini and Voice of India—accept their connection with Hindu nationalism but have significant underlying tensions with the Sangh Parivar style of practice. Soft Neo-Hindutva, on the other hand, avoids explicit connection with Hindu nationalism but acts as the principle representative and arbiter of the Hindu community at a global level.
In two insightful chapters by Bhuvi Gupta and Jacob Copeman, the hegemonic deployment of yoga is characterised as representative of Hindu nationalism’s subtle interjections into everyday existence. According to them, Hindutva provides a particular prescription and practice of yoga. Importantly, it weaves in the ‘health of the nation’ narrative that seeks to flatten out religious and cultural differences by focusing on the supposedly universalist thrust of science. This is rooted in yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s expansive cultural empire of Patanjali Trusts, which disseminates political pamphlets and scientific publications alongside health guides and yoga manuals. Gupta and Copeman then go on to demonstrate how yoga, at the site of the individual body, becomes an act of national transformation, creating a nationalist activist subject. Joseph Alter’s concept of ‘somatic nationalism’ is central to this: the body is here seen to be the primary object of discipline and reform.
Arkotong Longkumer develops the idea of ‘somatic nationalism’ in his essay on the rise of the Patanjali Trust. Attending a yoga meeting at the Trust, the writer gives us an insight into how dharma (the eternal and inherent nature of reality, regarded in Hinduism as a cosmic law underlying right behaviour and social order) is deployed through yogic practices as a lifestyle rather than a religious principle. He goes on to note its far-reaching effects: in the labelling of everyday products like food and medicine, Hindutva has successfully forged links between the concept of Swadeshi (‘made in India’) and patriotism.
The cultural dynamics of Hindu nationalism are further explored in a chapter on authority, ethics and selfless service (or seva). Drawing attention to how elite political activists translate the language of service into a religious language of somatic representation, writer Ketan Alder takes the indigenous Adivasis tribes as a case in point. He explains how Mahua flowers are being bottled into chutneys as a means of disincentivising the Adivasis from turning them into alcohol. Interestingly, by connecting the notion of service to temperance, prayschit, or atonemenet, is achieved not through birth but through daily acts. This creates a smokescreen of female empowerment by turning women into active agents in their villages. As the larger narrative shifts to reducing corruption from ‘illicit’ alcohol habits, it infuses a sense of false pride among women within the community.
The book asks us, then, to consider how Hindu nationalism’s Janus-faced nature is contributing to the establishment of an ethnic democracy. This is captured by what is termed the ‘banalisation’ of Hindutva in everyday life, and is perhaps nowhere more amplified than in the realm of social media. In an interview with two Hindu nationalist Twitter activists, Sahana Udupa discusses how the online world mediates politics without always being driven by any fixed ideological core. This is made especially apparent when one of the interviewees claims that ‘Hindutva is more of a spectrum and not an ideological point of conversion’. It is a profound statement from someone whose nuance so often gets lost amid the totalising narratives which dictate that online trolls are mere products of intensive brainwashing. Udupa goes one step further to suggest that, in failing to interfere in these online networks beyond a point, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sang (a Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organisation, commonly known as the RSS) allow online activists to have autonomy.
Deepa Reddy’s postscript, which calls our attention to the apolitical forms that politics can take, effectively connects the dots between Udupa’s piece and other essays. Instead of limiting the apolitical to a less ingenious observation of ‘veiled politics’, she makes a case for the consideration of the ever-increasing manifestations that far-right nationalism can appear as. This narrative of apolitics—an activity that deliberately conceals any active political posturing by permeating its message in everyday life—is also the subject of our second book.
Banu Subramaniam’s Holy Science seeks to broaden our horizons beyond the scientised and liberal topological approach. She expands first and foremost on the question of biopolitics, which can be roughly defined as the mechanism through which human life processes are managed by regimes of authority. Subramniam’s primary focus is to untangle the intricate links between science and religion in everyday life through the concept of bio-nationalism. She describes this as ‘a transformation of traditional ethnic nationalism, primarily of blood and group affiliation, into a biopolitical construct grounded in the biological and the scientific’.
According to Subramaniam, science and religion have contributed to the renewed glory of the Hindutva past. She asks us to eschew constricting binaries like human and non-human, natural and material, sacred and profane. In doing so, she is able to bring together various strands—including the revival of ancient Hindu science, architecture and medicines—to argue that India is a site of both ‘scientised’ religion and ‘religionised’ science. She highlights the importance of juxtaposing ‘experimental humanities’ with natural sciences in order to examine the role of scientific narratives in the usurpation of political power. As her primary mode of enquiry employs ‘narratives’ to explain present-day politics, she uses creative, imaginative stories inspired by mythology to realise alternative sites of modernity and enlightenment. These stories not only provide a hopeful a priori vision of a utopian bliss, but also draw our attention to the need to jettison singular, hegemonic narratives.
Subramaniam begins by exploring the increasingly scientised versions of the religious practice of Vaastu shastra, the traditional Indian system of architecture. She uses various case studies to show how the language of purifying newly built houses from bad omens has become secularised by the hollowing out of its overtly religious registers. This is followed by a discussion of the proposed Setusamudaram Shipping Canal Project, or what is known in popular Hinduism as Ram-Setu. Both the religious and environmentalist groups are ultimately successful in protecting the canal; in doing so they expose the tenuous nature of the relation between environmentalism and nativism. In problematising the converging narratives of environmental activism and cultural supremacy, the difficulties inherent in separating local narratives from those propounded by religious orthodoxy are difficult to ignore.
Throughout Holy Science, Subramaniam seamlessly weaves together the languages of mythology and bioscience. The author builds on Foucault’s idea of biopolitics by focusing on how voluntary submissions to regimes of control occur through both scientific moralism and aspirational consumerism. This intersection of natural and social sciences is further exemplified by the author’s engagement with the moral debates on ‘unnatural sex’. In one case, this is argued by showing an intriguing injection of Victorian sexual morality into plant biology. In another, the womb is viewed as a site of politics: the interface of science and religion is here demonstrated by that idea that eugenics is supported as a means of reviving Vedic [an early form of Sanskrit] gestational sciences through techno-scientific surrogacy. Subramaniam’s examples reinforce the idea of a family with heterosexual, cisgender parents, and thereby feeds into the hegemonic, singular narrative of Hindu Nationalism.
Even if the book does effectively seek out mythology and creative imaginations as antidotes to Hindu nationalism, there are some flaws in Subramaniam’s approach. In the urge to refrain from ceding the religion of Hinduism to Hindu nationalist forces, how far can one forego a direct critical scrutiny of Hinduism itself? The celebration of Hinduism’s plurality might here be taken with a pinch of salt. Moreover, must a non-Hindutva-centric paradigm emphasise Hinduism’s plurality in order to espouse progressive narratives? Although the writer does make mention of various counter mythologies, the primary focus remains on ‘new’ liberatory and imaginative possibilities rather than building on the ‘existing’ counter narratives of those relegated to the margins of society.
With the present-day context in India suffocated by majoritarian and authoritarian narratives, both Holy Science and Hindutva and Dalits ask us to be mindful of the spread of exclusionary politics in everyday domains, and to think hard about new alternatives. At a critical juncture in Indian politics, they are two books that contribute significantly to an otherwise-ossified understanding of Hindutva.
SURAJKUMAR THUBE is reading for a DPhil in Modern Indian history at St Antony's College. He is mulling over starting a tea stall in Cornmarket street. All contributions are welcome!
Artwork by Abigail Hodges