As Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari this week gave his unsolicited advice on opening religious places closed amid the pandemic, he accused Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray of turning “secular”. He reminded Thackeray, a Shiv Sena leader, of his Hindutva credentials, which include visiting the “Ram temple” at Ayodhya. He exhorted the chief minister to reopen places of worship as soon as possible.

The letter was dashed off in response to an announcement made by Thackeray on October 11, that the government would not open religious places because of the risk of Covid-19. Maharashtra has over 1.5 million cases and 40,000 deaths – both tallies are the highest in the country. The state government has reasoned that restrictions on places of worship had to be extended to avoid crowding ahead of religious festivals.

Koshyari’s letter undermines the constitutional office of the governor in several ways. First, that the governor should think it fit to interfere in the government’s strategy on a public health matter. As the constitutional figurehead of the state, he is to act on the advice of the council ministers and not the other way round.

Second, the blatantly partisan tone of the letter – Koshyari’s missive is in tandem with an aggressive campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party to reopen places of worship. It has already led to a political spat between the BJP and the Sena and its allies. Thackeray retorted that he did not need certificates of Hindutva from the governor as Devendra Fadnavis, former chief Maharashtra minister and BJP leader, rose to Koshyari’s defence. Meanwhile, National Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar wrote to the prime minister objecting to the language of the letter. Pawar also pointed out it was curious that the official letter should have been leaked to the public. It was an action calculated to create a public spectacle and set the stage for political drama.

The BJP appointing governors willing to speak its language is old hat by now. In several non-BJP states – West Bengal and Kerala, most recently – governors have taken on the mantle of the opposition. What was striking in Koshyari’s letter was how the words “Hindutva” and “secular” had changed places.

The arrival of Hindutva

Hindutva, to be pedantic about it, is the political term popularised by rightwing ideologue Veer Savarkar in 1923. Savarkar used it to define a universal and essential Hindu identity, and to assert India’s character as a Hindu nation. It is distinguished from the loose collection of religious traditions known as Hinduism and recognised as a political and cultural force. The Hindu nation theorised by Savarkar defines itself by declaring other religions and traditions, especially Islam, as “foreign”.

This idea of nationhood was rejected when India became a secular republic that treated all religions equally. Hindutva became the penumbra of the Indian state, the darker urges it sought to conquer through constitutional language. It was associated with acts of majoritarian violence, with religious fundamentalism and intolerance. Till a few years ago, parties in the political mainstream would be wary of being identified with it. Even parties of the Hindu Right usually operated with a tacit, rather than outright, acknowledgment of their Hindutva credentials.

Both Koshyari and Thackeray were quite comfortable owning the word this week. The governor described the Shiv Sena leader’s religiosity as Hindutva; Thackeray made no attempt to disavow it. Hindutva, it seems, has finally arrived in mainstream political discourse.

Suspecting the secular

For decades in the life of the republic, secularism was a value to aspire to, even though the BJP struggled to make it fit with its Hindu nationalist ideology. The party came to power at the Centre by insisting the Congress’s practice of secularism was a perversion of the original idea. “Sickulars” and “pseudo-secularists”, the BJP argued, thrived on minority appeasement and votebank politics. This politics had only left a majority under siege from minorities, it told an approving support base.

But the BJP’s discomfort with the idea of secularism soon began to show. In the early years of the National Democratic Alliance II, as the government tried to push through beef bans, Union cabinet minister Rajnath Singh made a linguistic point. In the Indian context, he argued, secularism should not be translated as “dharm nirpeksh” (religion neutral) but as “panth nirpeksh” (sect neutral).

From there it was a short journey to persuading the public that secularism was a pathology introduced by the Congress. In 2017, the BJP made a push to drop it from the Constitution altogether – the word had only been introduced by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s and was not part of the original text. It ignored lengthy Constituent Assembly debates and the consensus that the Indian state should maintain equal respect for and principled distance from all religions. If the word was not explicitly used, it was because this idea of secularism was woven into the very fabric of the Constitution.

Today, the BJP – and its allies – feel confident enough to wield the word as an accusation. No prefixes or distortions are needed. “Have you suddenly turned ‘secular’ yourselves, the term you hated?” Koshyari asked in his letter. The quotation marks seemed to gesture to years of second guessing, Congress bashing and sophistry.

While the holder of a constitutional office reinvented Hindutva as a public virtue, online bullies forced the withdrawal of an advertisement showing communal harmony. Indians made some dark choices this week about the kind of republic they want.