Thomas Blom Hansen on “Modi and The Rise of Hindu Nationalism”

February 17, 2015
Modi and the rise of Hindu Nationalism: A view from Bombay

Modi and the rise of Hindu Nationalism: A view from Bombay

by: Dr. Thomas B. Hansen

Series: Habib University SSE Public Lectures

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20150216_191149_Richtone(HDR)Dr. Thomas B. Hansen spoke at Habib University's public lectures series on Monday, 16th January 2015. The public lecture series is initiated by institution's School of Science and Engineering as an interactive platform for academia and public relationship. It is meant to contribute to society in a meaningful way for development and evolution of constructive thinking. The topic of the lecture was Modi and the rise of Hindu Nationalism: A view from Bombay and was followed by an interview session with Dr. Aaron Mulvany.

A bit about the speaker first:
Thomas Blom Hansen is the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies, Professor in Anthropology and the Director of Stanford’s Center for South Asia. He has broad interests spanning South Asia and Southern Africa, several cities and multiple theoretical and disciplinary interests from political theory and continental philosophy to psychoanalysis, comparative religion and contemporary urbanism. Author of The Saffron Wave. Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton 1999) and Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay (Princeton 2001).

He is the co-editor (with Christophe Jaffrelot) of BJP and the Compulsions of Politics (OUP 1998), States of Imagination. Ethnographic Explorations of the postcolonial state (with F. Stepputat) (Duke, 2001), Sovereign Bodies. Citizens, Migrants and States in the postcolonial world (with F. Stepputat), (Princeton 2005). He is also the author of many articles, book chapters and special issues. During the last decade, Thomas Hansen has pursued a detailed study of religious revival, racial conflict and transformation of domestic and intimate life from the 1950’s to the present in a formerly Indian township in Durban, South Africa. This round of work resulted in a book entitled Melancholia of Freedom: Social Life in an Indian Township in South Africa (Princeton University Press, 2012)


After the initial introductory note by the dean, Dr. Hansen was invited to speak and he did so by introducing himself and his work in India where he closely observed the religious atmosphere, researched on Indian politics and met various leaders of both liberal and religious categories.

20150216_180724Dr. Hansen drew comparison between two quotes, one by Jinnah and the other by M.S. Golwalkar. Where Jinnah's quote highlighted the differences between the followers of the two faiths (Hindu and Muslims), Golwalkar's quote indicated the absurdity of distinction on the basis of religion. He clearly stressed that changing the way of worship doesn't make a person alien to the land that would result in division of the nation. This was RSS and its nationalist mindset that produced individuals such as Modi who is now the Prime Minister of India. This movement, which caused rise of Modi, has its roots in pre-independence India and that is both an advantage as well as inherent limitation of the movement.

20150216_180934When one looks at the history of RSS, it is hard to ignore the fact the current form of Hinduism came into being in the late 19th and early 20th century as religious scriptures were made more organized and religious teachings more formal. The RSS came into being in 1925 at Nagpur and gained popularity during 1940s as demand for British expulsion gained momentum and armed resistance broke out at several places in India. It's the same RSS whose former member, Naturam Godse, assassinated Gandhi. Godse had left RSS, considering it "not militant enough" and his action resulted in ban on RSS which was soon lifted. Lower caste Hindus had begun to convert to Christianity in large numbers which was countered by creation of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organization that soon spread internationally and massively funded RSS during 1980s. The growth of RSS made it so strong that it initiated Ram Janum Bhoomi campaign that raised Babri Mosque to the ground in 1992. RSS remained coalition partner of BJP during "Shining India" campaign, from 1998 to 2003, which was a colossal failure since it was seen as an elitist and anti-poor campaign, resulting in election defeat of BJP.

20150216_181156The RSS, with its recruits wearing a uniform not unlike that of colonial police, inculcated martial ideas and teachings into its belives and borrowed several concepts from European fascist regimes and British ideas of manliness. The upper class Hindus, who were mostly into business and politics, were not martial enough and as a result were dismissed by the RSS from joining its ranks. The need for such organized military force was to counter the manly and brutal outsiders, the Muslim Conquerors, and save Mother India. The representation of Mother India as a feminine being in need of protection developed stronger nationalistic sentiments of "Son of the soil", a physically strong true male son who would defend the mother and be worthy of her love.

20150216_181935The organization was not restricted to recruits and militant training, it spread to the religious and cultural teachings as well. There was no formal unity in the prayers or mass display of religious fervor. As a result new cultural and religious traditions took birth to emulate Islam's unity in mass prayers, organizational strength and masculine brotherhood. Maha Arti, or grand prayer, began as mass prayer to counter Friday sermons of the Muslims and Ganpati Festival began as counter to Moharram procession. Deities, which used to be depicted as peace loving Gods and Goddesses, were now depicted with greater martial prowess and in more aggressive visuals.

20150216_182519RSS find its roots in the lower class Hindus and both middle class and elites are not in its favor. The same translates to the political processes of India where elites and middle class are not much in favor of democracy while the poor, who would curse the politician for being corrupt and inept, would not only caste vote but fight for its right till the end. These poor, forming terrifyingly large majority, decide for the policies of the nation and privileges of the well off. Upper Class Hindus, even those who belonged to families with rich history of power and politics, found themselves increasingly shunned from the corridors of power. Where sons of such families in colonial days could walk in and get the government job based on family background and education, their percentage in both electoral politics and bureaucracy consistently fell as quotas for lower castes and backward classes was raised over the years. In some states the quota was as high as 80%, making it highly competitive proposition for elites and middle class.

20150216_184644The anti-Muslim rhetoric of RSS has remained unchanged throughout its life. The words  that were used to describe Muslims and Islam 100 years ago are still used the same way. The primary purpose for this is to keep presenting the enemy to the people and maintain high moral, however that in itself is not the complete picture. Underlying that is a feeling of being beleaguered and endangered majority of the country, a majority that can break apart anytime if not motivated to stay united and as one. This, as a result, has officially resulted in unprecedented marginalization of Indian Muslims and made them poorest and most excluded community in the country.

  Pictures of the slides and university are below:

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