The Hindu Right began to materialise as a distinct presence on the internet in the 1990s, following the invention of the World Wide Web, the first so-called “killer app” that transformed the internet into something as ubiquitous as electricity. The small fraction of Indians online at that time was peopled significantly, if not exclusively, by adherents of Hindutva ideology. In comparison to the vast majority of Indians, the individuals who made up this group, including and beyond those who espoused Hindu nationalism, were highly privileged in terms of their educational qualifications, access to technology, and social influence.

The world of Indians online in the early 1990s also crossed national borders, drawing support from diasporic Indians. Interestingly, and perhaps curiously, in contrast to the transnational community of Hindu nationalists online, who wore their political hearts on their sleeves, there were no India-based or global communities that correspondingly self-identified as secular in keeping with the normative self-image of the independent Indian state.

Though there were several civil society and human rights initiatives, whether websites or listservs, that defined themselves as Indian or South Asian in an inclusive and pluralistic manner, they did not match the presence of the Hindu Right online in their spread, reach and comprehensiveness. Similarly, there was no easily identifiable meaningful presence of a Congress support base online as a counterpoint to the visible presence of those who professed support for the BJP.

One reason for this has to do with the idea of community in the contemporary global landscape, which reflects the rise of social movements and rights initiatives grounded in the idea of difference. While particular conceptions of identity – gendered, cultural, national, class, racial – were essential to the political movements of the earlier part of the twentieth century, whether these were anti-colonial struggles for sovereignty and independence, movements for women’s rights, or civil rights struggles, these initiatives also strongly emphasised the principle of universality. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights may itself be seen as an exemplar and apotheosis of such a statement of universality.

In contrast, the political struggles of more recent times, such as, for instance, progressive movements for LGBTQ rights and Dalit rights or assertions of majoritarian identity in Britain or Poland, have strongly emphasised the notion of difference and uniqueness. While the critique of universality in both the practice and theory of identity-based movements, especially as formulated by the more progressive and reflexive of such political initiatives, has been immensely valuable, it has also been a double-edged sword in that it has authorised, and even valorised, essentialist and often simplistic notions of cultural identity as the basis for community.

In a globalised world, additionally, there is relentless pressure for each group or community to identify what is unique or special about it lest it appear indistinguishable from other groups or communities. As a result, every group runs a constant risk of slipping into an ideological position that inevitably demands the exclusion of those perceived as not qualifying for inclusion.

The point here is that the incentives to describe oneself as Hindu, Muslim, or Indian in a way that emphasises what is different about them from other groups are much more powerful than the need to articulate these identities in terms of what is common and shared with other identities. Along with its other attractions, the Hindutva model of identity offers Hindus a template that is predicated on absolute difference from other Indians.

The Nehruvian model of composite Indian identity may well be guilty of overemphasising the syncretic character of Indian identity to the point of romanticising it. But the Hindutva model more than overcompensates for any such excesses.

By conflating Hindu identity with Indian identity itself, it designates the Muslim and Christian as the “Other” vis-à-vis the Hindu and thus inassimilable within the umbrella of Indian identity. In its spurious version of universalism, Hindutva offers Christians and Muslims a chance to either convert back to Hinduism or to accept that they are culturally Hindu. But, of course, this prescriptive and profoundly unequal idea of cultural identity militates against the inclusive imperative that should ideally inform any model of universal belonging.

In Hindutva’s bogus promise of universalism, Hindus – and caste Hindus at that – occupy the highest position in a cultural-national hierarchy while other communities, including Muslims and Christians reclaimed back into the Hindu fold, are placed lower down.

The logic of separateness – whose value one can clearly see in arguments that refuse, for instance, to reduce women to a variant of bourgeoisie men or to measure LGBTQ identity against a heterosexual norm – is not entirely a positive virtue when it comes to cultural, national, or ethnic identity. In the realm of the latter, it can easily take the form of a homogeneous and monolithic majoritarian identity that in emphasising its own uniqueness cannot or will not recognise other forms of difference.

The vocabularies of identity politics that continue to productively energise several academic disciplines and radical activist groups today are also used by white nationalists, far-right movements, and ethno-cultural chauvinists over the world to make exceptionalist claims and demand special rights for themselves. The march of White nationalists, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, in the state of Virginia in the USA, is an almost perfect example of this phenomenon.

In Britain, the muddled defence of honour killings among South Asian communities by self-identified liberals or the suspension of principles of free speech when it comes to criticism, satire, or mockery of the Prophet Muhammad, in the name of a multiculturalism that defends such exceptions on grounds on cultural relativism, are another instance of a warped consequence of the critique of universalism based on identity politics.

Although the BJP defines the creed of “integral humanism” as its core philosophy, its commitment to the core ideology of Hindutva and its place in the pantheon of Sangh organisations is not in doubt. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, the architect of “integral humanism” was himself steeped deeply in the ideology of Hindutva. On the website of the BJP, the section “About the Party” proudly affirms the pride of place the party holds in the Sangh family:

The Bharatiya Janata Party is today the most prominent member of the family of organisations known as the “Sangh Parivar” and nurtured by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Like the RSS, the BJP is wedded to India’s unity and integrity, its intrinsic identity and the social strength, individual character and cultural uniqueness that have been the hallmark of this great country and its people for millennia.

The statement then notes, equally categorically, that the RSS, the parent organisation of the BJP, “has no doubt about Hindu identity and culture being the mainstay of the Indian nation and of Indian society”.

During the early phase of an “Indian” internet, if one may call it that, any website that promoted any tenet of Hindu nationalist ideology in any form, whether officially affiliated with the RSS or BJP or not, wound up benefiting the BJP, whether inadvertently or by design.

However, there was no similar network of websites dedicated to the alternate conception of Indian identity, whether it was one that took Nehruvian secularism as its core ideological principle or one that emphasised a civilisational model of South Asia as a paradigm for understanding Indian identity. Other than scattered initiatives that proposed otherwise, in an interesting echo of the core claim of Hindutva itself, the presence of India online overlapped largely with the presence of a conservative vision of Hinduism in cyberspace as the material, historical, intellectual, and spiritual foundation of Indian identity and, consequently, as the basis of Indian civilisational identity.

If the model of Nehruvian secularism, whether fully practised in reality or not, was hegemonic in print media, it did not enjoy that position of privilege in cyberspace. In fact, there was no existing archive or body of materials in cyberspace to which the Congress could hitch its bandwagon or through which it could affirm its professed ideological principles or its vision of India. This fact, sensed and exploited fruitfully both by leaders and rank-and-file foot soldiers of the Hindu Right, would be central to the establishment of a right-wing Indian media ecosystem, starting with the internet and social media.

Excerpted with permission from The Virtual Hindu Rashtra: Saffron Nationalism And New Media, Rohit Chopra, HarperCollins India.