Meghnad Desai explains the fallacies in the idea of Hindu nationalism

In a new essay, the economics professor from the LSE highlights the flaws in this version of history.

The following propositions are at the core of the Hindu nationalist doctrine:

- India has always been a single nation since prehistoric times as Bharatavarsha or Aryabhoomi.

- India got enslaved when Muslim invaders came from the North-west from the eighth century onwards – Mohammad Bin Qaseem and then Mahmud Ghazni followed by the Delhi Sultanate and then the Mughal Empire. Muslims are foreigners. The corollary of this xenophobia is to deny that the Aryans came to India from elsewhere. There is a tension about reconciling the Indus Valley culture with the story of Aryan incursions. The Hindu nationalists deny point-blank that Aryans were foreigners.

- The British did not create a single Indian entity. It was always there. The education which Macaulay introduced created the elite – Macaulay-putras – who behave and think like foreigners.

- In 1947, 1,200 years of slavery came to an end. (Narendra Modi said as much during his first speech in the Central Hall of Parliament after his election.) India was at last free to assert its true identity as a Hindu nation.

- Congress secularists, however, went on privileging Muslims whose loyalty is always to be doubted as their nation is Pakistan.

The stuff of bogus history

These propositions raise several conceptual and historical issues. Let’s examine them.

First, there is the issue of the native versus the foreigner. The British were clearly foreigners. They came when they had a job to do and never settled in India or “colonised” it as they did Rhodesia or Australia. Muslims emperors, on the other hand, did not go back and made India their home.

This creates a problem for the Hindu nationalist. For him, the fact that they have been here for 1,200 years does not make them natives of India. They shall forever remain alien. This is a strange doctrine because India was the receptacle for many “foreign” tribes throughout its history – the Shakas, the Huns, the Scythians and many other “races”, all of whom converted to Hinduism. But, then, 1,200 years are not enough. What about the Aryans? Did the Aryans also not come from central Europe or the Arctic, as Tilak argued?

To say that the Aryans are foreigners would make Hinduism a foreign religion. The aborigines – tribals – would then be the only true natives, as some Dalit scholars have argued. That is why Hindu nationalists deny foreign origin of the Aryans. The Aryans have to be primordially native to suit the Hindu nationalist narrative which imagines a time when somehow instantaneously Hinduism was established across all of India thanks to the Vedas and the Brahmins performing sacrifices, etc. Sanskrit has to have the prime place as lingua franca of Hindu India for that reason.

This is the stuff of bogus history. The religion which Hindus practise has only a marginal relationship to the Vedas. The Vedic gods are no longer worshipped. Vishnu, Shiva and Kali appear in the Hindu pantheon at least 1,000 years after the Vedas. The slow spread of Brahmanism (as the religion should be properly called) from its Punjab heartland to Delhi region and then on to UP and Bihar has been well charted. The importance of Pali and Ardhamagadhi in the propagation of Ajivikas, Jainism and Buddhism from the sixth century BCE onwards is also known.

It took a thousand-year struggle between Buddhism and Brahmanism before the latter could declare a complete victory. India became a Hindu nation about the time the Adi Shankaracharya debated and defeated the Buddhists. If the chronology of Hindu nationalists is taken seriously, however, it should be soon after India became “slave” to Muslims.

The Hindu nationalist strategy is to deny any conflict between Buddhism and Brahmanism and claim that Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu. This assertion is not found till the seventh century CE in the Puranas, by which time Buddhism was on its way out. Hinduism is not enough to define India as a Hindu nation throughout its history.

Savarkar tried to square this circle in his essay on Hindutva. He was a modernist and not a devotee of religion. His idea of nation is derived from the then fashionable ideas of nationhood espoused by the newly born nations of Europe, many of them parts of the Habsburg Empire which broke up in 1918 – Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia. Nationhood depended on territory and those born in the territory were members of the nation.

His Hindutva is not tied to Hinduism. It says that anyone born in the land of the Indus – Sindhu – is a Hindu and part of Hindutva. There is a subtext that Hindus are more so than Muslims. But Muslims can belong to Hindutva if they are loyal to the land of their birth. Subsequent Hindu nationalists have adopted the notion of Hindutva but not Savarkar’s secular doctrine.

Spurious idea of slavery

As a history of India, the Hindu nationalist story is as partial as the story that the Nehruvian vision has created. Of course, they are both north India–biased stories. They take Delhi and its rulers to be all of India. Muslim raiders may have come in the eighth century to Sind and Saurashtra and in the twelfth century established the Delhi Sultanate. But they never penetrated south of the Vindhyas.

South India has a very different history about Muslim immigrants from that of north India. Nor did it “suffer” from Muslim rule till very late when Aurangzeb went to the south in the late seventeenth century. Hindu kingdoms were coexistent with Muslim ones in the south but that happened only in the middle of the second millennium. The whole idea of “1,200 years of slavery” is spurious. Assam was never conquered by any Muslim power.

But ultimately there will never be “true objective” history. There never is in any nation. Debates and reinterpretations go on forever. Patronage to academia can be used to commission histories to buttress the official line. The sanctity of dispassionate research can never be guaranteed if the funding is public. India, however, does not have the tradition of private philanthropy for research. The government guards all the doors to higher education, thanks to the statist bias of the Congress which ruled for the first thirty years uninterruptedly. This bias has permeated the BJP as well.

It is not the idea of Hindu nationalism that is worrying. It is that the government will be the propagator of this particular view.

Meghnad Desai is emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics and author of The Rediscovery of India and Development and Nationhood.

Excerpted with permission from “India as a Hindu Nation – and Other Ideas of India”, Meghnad Desai, from Making Sense of Modi’s India, HarperCollins India.

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