The roots of Hindu nationalism


The front cover and the title of the book are a little misleading. They suggest that the sole author of Awakening Bharat Mata — The Political Beliefs of the Indian Right  is Swapan Dasgupta, a well-known newspaper columnist and a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha since 2016. Mr Dasgupta has indeed written three important chapters in this book — one providing the political context of how he sees Hindu nationalism growing its roots in India, the other dwelling on the intricacies of the ideas of motherland, religion and community, and another largely focusing on the brand of politics practised by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last couple of decades and how it has influenced the narrative on Hindu nationalism.


These chapters are undoubtedly integral to the book and help expand its central idea of the growing influence of Hindu nationalism. But they account for less than a third of the book. The remaining two-thirds of the book include 24 essays, written by eminent thinkers and writers in the last century or so. Mr Dasgupta has included them in this book as he rightly believes that they will provide readers different perspectives on how Hindu nationalism expanded its footprint in the country.


It is a mystery why the presence of these pieces on Hindu nationalism — many of them invaluable and not easily accessible — was played down and the book was promoted largely as Mr Dasgupta’s take on the beliefs of the Indian Right. It is also ironic, because it is these essays that make the book an important document in today’s India. There aren’t too many books that have compiled essays on this issue from such a wide range of writers. In a book on Hindu nationalism, admittedly written from a sympathetic point of view, the collection of these essays in one volume is a plus.


There are three essays from Sister Nivedita and two each from Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, R C Majumdar and Nirad C Chaudhuri. Other notable authors whose essays find a place in this compendium include Sri Aurobindo, Jadunath Sarkar, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Vallabhbhai Patel, Ramananda Chatterjee, M G Ranade, R G Bhandarkar and N C Chatterjee.  In addition, there are contributions from political activists, writers with a bias in favour of the BJP and religious leaders such as Vinayak Savarkar, Sita Ram Goel, Lal Krishna Advani, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, V S Naipaul, S Gurumurthy and Girilal Jain.


The choice of the writers in this section is in itself a reflection of Mr Dasgupta’s stated and well-known position on Hindu nationalism. The author also makes no pretence as to why he chose these writers. “This collection is an attempt to showcase the phenomenon of Hindu nationalism from a sympathetic position,” he writes in the preface.


Yet, different perspectives do emerge even from these essays. For instance, at one point, the author writes that Narendra Modi was seen as “the modern-day Shivaji, an image that was bolstered by the feeling that he stood by the Hindus of Gujarat in the aftermath of the 2002 communal riots.” But Jadunath Sarkar in his essay on Shivaji presents the Maratha leader as one who not only “extended the royal patronage to the truly pious men of all creeds (Muslims no less than Hindus)”, but also as one who “had a number of Muhammadan officers in the highest positions.” Sarkar later points out that Shivaji “gave legal recognition to the Muslim qazis in his dominions”.


One of the central purposes behind the writing of the book stems from Mr Dasgupta’s belief that many of the concerns driving “the Indian Right are located in the country’s nationalist culture, particularly at a time it was not politically incorrect to use the expression Hindu”. For instance, he argues, there is an “accusation that Hindu nationalism is singularly detached from the freedom struggle”.  While he cites many instances and arguments to prove his thesis, he also notes how Gandhi countered Hindu nationalism by taking the freedom struggle away from such forces and made it succeed on the strength of a more broad-based movement. 


It is a book that does not evaluate the many beliefs and theories that counter the idea of a grand Hindu nationalism that pervaded the country during the freedom struggle and continues to expand its influence with the help of the BJP and its affiliates. Nor does it address the well-regarded views held by many historians that India’s Hindu nationalism had many shades and differences in the way these ideas were approached by different outfits. It is a book for the committed Hindu nationalist and for those who wish to study what propels such devoted Hindu nationalists. There is no critical assessment of such motives.


There is, however, a sense of realism in Mr Dasgupta’s evaluation of the likely pace at which Hindu nationalistic forces could spread themselves. “The forces of Hindu nationalism will need much more time, elbow room and even a greater show of political imagination before India can acquire an alternative common sense…The outcome of the 2019 general election will indicate whether the process will be halting or uninterrupted.”


The book was written and published a few months before the April-May 2019 general elections were held. Now that the poll results have given the BJP an even bigger majority in the Lok Sabha, it will be interesting to know what Mr Dasgupta believes will be the pace and direction of Hindu nationalism.

Awakening Bharat Mata: The Political Beliefs of the 
Indian Right 
Swapan Dasgupta
Penguin Random House. 
Pages: 428+XVI; Price: Rs 699

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