Hindu Nationalist Parties

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HINDU NATIONALIST PARTIES Hindu social and political consciousness in India, articulated by revivalist movements and charismatic reformers, predates the twentieth century. The Hindu Mahasabha (HM), founded in 1915, was an expression of this consciousness. It was also a reaction to the political activism of the Muslim clergy and sought to represent Hindu interests, though within the established Indian National Congress fold, espousing a pan-Indian nationalism, derived from Hindu cultural roots. The indifference of the HM to land reforms allowed it to cooperate with British India's landed Muslim elite, whose principal concern was any threat to their own position as landlords.

In 1925 Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a member of the HM, and a group of his associates established the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS was a militant grassroots organization established to defend Hindus in the aftermath of the Khilafat movement to restore the Caliphate and the subsequent communal riots, which had resulted in many deaths and forced conversions to Islam. The RSS began functioning in an atmosphere of growing religious division in the 1920s, as Hindus and Muslims jockeyed to position themselves to succeed the British in India. Significantly, the RSS proudly recorded its intervention in the religious riots that overtook the central Indian city of Nagpur in 1927 as one of its first successful acts on behalf of Hindus.

The RSS disagreed with the political strategy of the Indian National Congress, which remained secular in its political support of Muslims as well as other minorities of India. The RSS gained support from the Hindu Mahasabha's ties with wealthy Hindu elites, but distanced itself from the HM once it was well established. The latter declined in influence, especially after its expulsion from the Congress in the late 1930s, despite being led by Veer Savarkar, a major architect of Hindu-first nationalist politics. It succumbed to greater conservatism after Indian independence, leading to the departure of its leader, Shyama Prasad Mookherji, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The RSS wanted to actively address what they perceived as the religious, political, socioeconomic, and cultural challenges facing Hinduism, combating a general lack of Hindu awareness by teaching Indians about their ancient Vedic traditions and historic achievements. The RSS claimed to be the inheritors of the hallowed traditions of an earlier generation of religious and social reformers such as Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda. Such a narrow conception of multicultural India inevitably meant a rejection of India's Islamic past. The British conquest of Bengal had also been welcomed as liberation from the Mughal imperial yoke.

The subsequent evolution and perceptions of the RSS were colored by the experience of partition, for which they blamed Muslims. RSS loyalists harbored even greater suspicion of Muslims, based on the creation of Pakistan and India's wars with that nation. Ultimately, the RSS appeared motivated by patriotism, inspired by Italian nationalists Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Critics, however, have compared the RSS to the nationalist perversion in Nazi Germany.

The RSS asserts that Hindutva (Hindu-first extremist values) is merely the ancient and eternal culture of India, which Muslims must accept if they remain in India. Their insistence that most Indian Muslims had Hindu ancestors fails to resolve the dilemma posed for Muslims by the glorification of Hindu rulers like Maharashtra's hero, Shivaji, who successfully assailed the Mughal rulers. The RSS expresses fervent admiration, however, for Muslim nationalist leaders of India, admiring men like the current Muslim president of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the father of India's ballistic missile defense program.

The RSS was banned for a year in 1948, after a former RSS Hindu extremist, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. For several decades following, the RSS remained outside the mainstream of Indian public life, which was dominated by the secular ideals of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The RSS was viewed with undisguised dismay and hostility by an influential section of India's English-speaking elite. Many among India's Westernized leaders believed that the RSS and its affiliates represented a pernicious variant of fascism, though millions of Hindus in small towns and villages continue to have faith in it.

The RSS demands the imposition of a uniform civil code throughout India to end Muslim personal law. It also demands a national ban on cow slaughter and the termination of the autonomous constitutional status accorded to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. Critics argue that the implacable hostility of the RSS and its affiliates to religious conversion, especially as a result of the missionary activities of the newer Christian churches, has become a recipe for intimidation and violence.

The RSS is organized as an organic unit of power, the Shakha, which meets daily. By 2004 there were more than 2.5 million members, in over 25,000 Shakhas, throughout India and abroad. The Shakha is responsible for ideological indoctrination ("man-making") and provides the organizational basis for its various activities, running numerous schools and engaging in voluntary social service.

In 1951 the supreme leader of the RSS, Guru Golwalkar, reluctantly agreed to allow members to enter the electoral fray. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh was then formed, succeeded in 1980 by the BJP. The RSS is the parent organization to members of the Sangh Parivar (family of Hindu-first organizations), including the Bharatiya Janata Party (one of the largest parties in Parliament) the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (its trade union affiliate), and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidiyarathi Parishad (student union). It remains the largest organization of its type in the world, with the exception of the Communist Party of China. The RSS itself was led by upper caste Hindu Brahmans through much of its history, like virtually all of India's political parties (until the recent rise of political parties composed of and led by Dalits, former "untouchables").

The RSS uncritically imbibed many of the commonplace collectivist economic certitudes of Indian political life until 1991, when economic liberalization and globalization were ushered in by the Congress and were later accepted by the BJP. The intensification of the campaign to build a Ram temple over the destroyed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Pakistan's struggles against India, with its violent spillovers for Hindu–Muslim relations, and the dramatic mobilization of India's deprived communities all test the sagacity of the RSS. The question posed by evolving circumstances is whether the RSS is capable of sustaining the wider interests of the Indian society and polity, instead of giving priority to its narrow Hindu-first imperatives.

Gautam Sen

See alsoBharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ; Hindu Nationalism ; Hindutva and Politics ; Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)


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