At the core of Hindu nationalism is an exclusionary idea of India as “one nation, one culture, one people”. For VD Savarkar, who proposed the term Hindutva or the essence of Hindu nationalism as early as 1923, a Hindu is one who identifies Bharatvarsha, the land from the Indus to the Seas as both his fatherland and his holy land. This definition neatly includes Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains in the Hindu fold, while excluding Muslims and Christians.

But Hindu nationalism, the movement founded by Savarkar, Golwalkar and Hegdewar, is hardly a united house. While Hindutvavadis are constantly urging that Muslims should be banished to Pakistan and coining slogans like “Hindu jaago, Christi bhagao” (Hindus awaken, Christians flee), other prominent Hindu nationalists have conceded that Muslims are nothing but Mohammadiya Hindus, just as Christians are Christi Hindus.

Despite ideological quibbles, Hindu nationalists of various stripes have worked for a century to make India Hindu. The Hindutva project has had its relatively quieter periods, as well as incendiary moments. By and large, the quieter periods are the long decades of Indian history when power has proven elusive. This includes the time from Independence to the 1980s, as also 2004 to 2014. Incendiary moments are when power has been within reach, or has actually been attained. Power in this case is not just political, but also the power to influence culture and society beyond Hindutva’s core.

Incendiary moments

When it is business as usual, Hindu nationalists may continue with their decades-old groundwork of cadre building, social service, and dharamjagran (religious awakening) and matantar (conversion) among vulnerable constituencies. Or as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader put it in an interview to me, “We work with SCs, STs and the poor to build unity.” Of course, this unity is paternal, and reproduces the hierarchies and inequalities of class and caste, as evidenced by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently calling Muslims and Christians “apna maal” – my goods or property.

But it is at incendiary moments such as the current conjuncture that the supremacist claims of Hindu nationalism are most pronounced. Demonstrations of muscle can come from the very top, as we see in attempts of the central government to dilute the Christmas holiday by ordaining December 25, 2014, as Good Governance Day. However, cadres of myriad affiliates – the somewhat misleadingly termed “fringe elements” – can also assert their might, with or without centralised coordination.

Today, much as in another incendiary moment of 1998 when the National Democratic Alliance government came to power, Hindu nationalists are celebrating hamaari sarkar, our government. That “now our government is in power, we can do what we want” was very much the refrain of the people who removed a fence surrounding a property of the St Xavier’s Social Service Trust in Ahmedabad in 1998, and put up a board announcing a Hindu temple.

The culture of impunity in 2014, or indeed circa 1998, is about showing Muslims and Christians their place in Hindu rashtra. This involves an attack on the personnel, institutions and cultural symbols of these communities. As history is usually a precursor to the present, some of the horrors of the late 1990s include the rape of nuns at the Priti Sharan mission in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, in 1998, and the burning alive of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his young sons in Keonjhar, Orissa, in 1999. Bajrang Dal member Dara Singh and 12 others were convicted of Staines’s murder.

Inflictions of violence

There was repeated violence against Christian schools and churches in Gujarat in the summer of 1998. For instance, the Shantiniketan High School run by the Loyola Trust in Zankhvav village, Surat district, was broken into. A tractor was driven through the premises and the playground was ploughed up. Copies of the Bible were burnt at the IP Mission School in Rajkot. The familiar claim was that the school authorities were trying to forcibly convert students to Christianity. Further, activists of the Hindu Jagran Manch burnt churches in villages Singana, Lahan, Kadmad and Bhapkal in Dangs district.

There was another spurt of assaults on Christians in Dangs in November-December 1998. In November, there was a gharwapasi or “homecoming”, aka conversion programme, for Adivasis in Dahunia village. Those who did not participate were barred from drawing water from the village well or grazing their cattle on the common pasture. Clearly, the force involved in conversions across the religious spectrum, need not be physical. It can be psychological, social, and as is often the case, economic.

In December 1998, the Hindu Jagran Manch obtained the local administration’s permission to hold a rally on Christmas Day in Ahwa, the capital of Dangs. Over 4,000 people participated in the rally and shouted anti-Christian slogans. This was followed by a series of attacks. For instance, on the night of December 25, around 120 rally participants vandalised Deep Darshan High School.

But Hindu rashtra cannot be built on hatred and vitiated air alone. Underlying the power politics of debasing haramzada, others are good, old-fashioned electoral concerns. In the words of an RSS leader I interviewed in south Gujarat:
… organisations like the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad tell STs you are part of Hindu society, and missionaries are anti-national. This is how national feeling is created. This area is mostly tribal. VKP works here. Ultimately, the Congress, which was always getting elected from these constituencies, was defeated… This is real development. Before 1990, there were 15-20 minority MLAs. They used to be assembly speakers, ministers, they used to influence the administration. From 1990, even the Congress does not dare to put up minorities as candidates. People, Hindus, need not even like the BJP. But to prevent minority rule, they give votes to the BJP.

Merry Christmas everyone, and happy Good Governance Day too. Be unified and disciplined, do your Sanskrit homework, and who knows, Sant Kailash and his Ashwamedh reindeers may just stop by your house this year.

The author is an Associate Professor at the University of Oxford.