Hindu Nationalism and the Politics of Cultural Citizenship

By Dayal Paleri (Indian Institute of Technology Madras/University of Edinburgh)

Violent confrontations between the Hindus and Muslims in Leicester since late August have opened up new questions about the future of multiculturalism in the United Kingdom. This also underlines the global implications of the rise of religious and cultural nationalist ideologies in South Asia. In this respect, two points are noteworthy. First, one may observe a stark resemblance between the sequence of incidents in Leicester and instances of sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, or what is frequently referred to as the phenomenon of “communalism”.[1] Like many typical communal incidents in India, the tensions in Leicester started over an India- Pakistan cricket match that led to organised marches, provocative sloganeering, burning of religious flags and desecration of worship sites. More strikingly, as is quite prevalent in contemporary India, the Leicester row led to the emergence of a new discourse around the term “Hinduphobia”.[2] Shockingly, it was the opposition leader from Labour, Keir Starmer, who made a public appeal to “resist Hinduphobia”—a statement that not only echoed but legitimised the Hindu nationalist version of the events in Leicester as a one-sided attack on the Hindus.

This idea of “Hinduphobia” that implies the existence of systematic hatred against Hindus and thereby evokes perpetual victimhood of Hindus is central to the ideology of Hindu nationalism, or what is commonly known as Hindutva (Hinduness). Despite being an overwhelming majority in India, this is often used to legitimise anti-Muslim violence in contempoary India. Does the Labour leader’s invocation of “Hinduphobia” indicate growing acceptance of the ideas and vocabulary of Hindu nationalism in the diasporic and global contexts? This may still be an open question but it surely prompts us to think of the Leicester incident, not as isolated and/or spontaneous, but a consequence of the global rise of Hindu nationalism and its umbilical relationship with violence. Inevitably, we need to understand the fundamental tenets of Hindu nationalism in order to make sense of the intricacies of the recent events in Leicester.

A man rides his bicycle past volunteers of the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) taking part in the “Path-Sanchalan”, or Route March during celebrations to mark the Vijaya Dashmi or Dussehra in Mumbai, India October 11, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

Hindu Nationalism: The Politics of the “Other” and the “Self”

Like other similar supremacist ideologies, Hindu nationalism is rather one-dimensional and does not provide much room for complexity. To put it simply, it is a cultural nationalist ideology that perceives India as a civilisation that has existed since time immemorial but has undergone frequent colonisation over the years. An individual is accorded citizenship of this imagined Hindu nation not through conventional criterion such as their place of birth but based on the origins of their religion, or in other words, what they consider as their “holy land”. Obviously, this idea, therefore, places  the citizenship of religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians, under perpetual doubt as their holy lands are outside India. In this framework, equal citizenship and coexistence between Hindus and non-Hindus is impossible. In Hindu nationalist terms, the religious minorities are advised to keep their religious practices within the private sphere and to constantly proclaim their affinity to the perceived cultural whole of Hindutva. The idea of Hindu nationalism found its most coherent expression in the writings of V D Savarkar and took its organisational form through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that was formed in 1925.[3]

The independence movement of India grappled with the politics of Hindu nationalism and its assertion of cultural citizenship but it remained a marginal force throughout this period. In the decades after independence, India emerged as a democratic republic based on the idea of secular citizenship. However, the politics of Hindutva found its initial success during the 1980s and 1990s, often characterised as the era of Mandir (temple), Mandal and Market.[4] The year 2014 marked the rise to dominance of the ideology of Hindu nationalism, not just in politics but even within the civil society, and socio-cultural life in general. Since then, India has witnessed the phenomenon of everyday violence against minorities in the name of cow vigilantism, and “Love Jihad”.[5] One of the fundamental ideas of Hindu nationalism, that of unequal citizenship, was operationalised through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA Act), 2019 that introduced a new, religious criterion for citizenship and excluded only Muslim refugees from the neighbouring countries in South Asia from acquiring the citizenship of India.[6] The post-CAA period has perhaps inaugurated a new era of “legitimate violence” against minorities through successive legislative interventions such as the ban on Hijab, prohibition of religious conversion and bulldozing of “illegal” Muslim settlements. The mobs that perpetrate such instances of everyday violence now seem to enjoy sheer legal impunity. In sum, the ascendance of Hindu nationalists to power in India has systematically resulted in the use of violence as a form of enacting its idea of cultural citizenship, which inherently establishes an unequal form of citizenship between the “Hindus” and “non-Hindus”.

Scholars of Hindu nationalism have documented the long history of its involvement in anti-minority, particularly anti-Muslim, violence in India. That the Hindu nationalist vision of India, at its very core, is against peaceful coexistence with the “other” is part of the academic commonsense on Hindu nationalism. Many scholars have also pointed out the historical non-existence and contemporary impossibility of the Hindu nationalist idea of India as cultural/civilisational whole, due to its essentially diverse, plural and multiethnic nature[7]. The argument was that the Hindus have always been strictly divided on the basis of sectarian, linguistic, regional, and, most significantly, caste identities. With growing appeal of Hindu nationalist politics across regional and linguistic barriers, it appears that this faith in the innate diversity of Indian society acting as an antidote to Hindutva was perhaps inflated. A fuller understanding of Hindu nationalism demands an understanding not just of its “other” but also of its relationship with itself—the “Hindu nationalist self”. Hindutva is often defined in the Hindutva discourse as “a way of life”, then the question to ask is “whose way of life”?

If there is no pre-existing cultural unity, how does Hindu nationalist politics become so appealing across geographical terrains of India? One of the social thinkers who grappled with the question of cultural unity is Dr BR Ambedkar, and his writings provide us essential cues to understand the intricacies of Hindu nationalist perception of cultural unity. Ambedkar, in one of his early writings, points out the indubitable cultural unity that India possesses, which is bound by the system of caste[8]. For Ambedkar, “caste is a parcelling into bits of this larger cultural unit”, and any attempt to understand the cultural unity requires an understanding of the system of caste that binds it.[9] Ambedkar explained caste as a system of graded inequality in which all “Hindus” are necessarily divided into different caste communities that are placed in vertical series, one above the other, based on the principle of gradation and rank. This aspect of graded inequality is a feature of all spheres of life in India—social, political, religious and economic. Therefore, in Ambedkar’s conception, the internal structure of the “cultural unity” of India is the system of caste, in which different castes are placed in a hierarchical system based on the principle of graded inequality. Given this, how is the Hindu nationalist engaged in the making of a “Hindu nationalist self”?

To make sense of this, one should move beyond the Hindu nationalist politics of violence vis-a-vis the minorities and should look at the hydra-headed organisational network of the Hindu nationalist under the leadership of the RSS. The story of the growth of Hindu nationalism is very similar to the growth of the caste system that Ambedkar observed—from the Brahmins at the top of the system of graded inequality to the non-Brahmin castes. The RSS, during its inception in 1925, was predominantly an organisation of the Brahmins and, over the years, it has spread down vertically to all other castes. However, even after a century of its formation and after its massive growth across castes, the positions of power in the top decision-making bodies of the RSS remain in the hands of upper castes, predominantly Brahmins, the class that Ambedkar described as the “father of institution of caste”.[10]

The Hindu nationalist project of creating cultural citizenship, then, certainly is not anti-caste but built on caste.[11] Contrary to what many of the critics of Hindu nationalists assert, the project of creating cultural unity is not out of a vacuum but is built on the existing cultural whole that is structured by caste. The Hindu nationalist self is one belonging to a caste, at the same time with an extra-caste affinity and aspiration to the larger cultural citizenship. Therefore, this overarching Hindu nationalist cultural citizenship and its idea of self is not a negation of the system of graded inequality or the caste-self, but concealing of that by representing it as internal cultural diversity within “Hindus”.[12]

Volunteers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organisation, take part in a drill during a training camp in Bhopal June 7, 2014. REUTERS/Raj Patidar

Constructing Cultural Citizenship through Organisational network

However, the graded inequality of caste remains intact, and it necessarily produces tensions in constructing the Hindu nationalist self, which is resolved and reconciled through protracted and hydra-headed organisational activities. The organisational structure of the RSS is not comparable to any political party in India. The BJP, the political wing that rules the country is just one of the numerous cadre-based organisations that work as part of the family of the RSS. The Hindu nationalists have organisations for every possible social group, such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing founded in 1949; Saraswati Shishu Mandir, the educational network founded in 1952, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram formed in 1952 to work among the tribals; the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the trade union founded in 1955; the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the peasant organisation founded in 1979; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad started in 1964 to work in the religious domain, its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, founded in 1984 and so on. It also has organisations for specific causes such as temple protection, spirituality, social service, science, arts, etc. The vastness of this Hindu nationalist network is not accidental but derives from its ideological commitment to construct a Hindu nationalist self that is continuous across the caste hierarchies. These organisational activities involve providing social service provisions to lower caste communities, educating them of “Hindu culture” using a set of institutions, and constructing Hindu nationalist subjects, which are not anti-caste, but extra-caste through investing in individuals from across caste lines. Therefore, the construction of the Hindu nationalist self is a process of “inclusion” of all caste-self into an overarching idea of cultural citizenship without challenging the cultural unity based on the system of graded inequality.

Many have noticed that the Hindu nationalists possess a distinct organisational structure from that of other political movements in India, but rarely asked why? Why is the Hindu nationalist movement a network of horizontal organisations rather than a vertical one? Extant scholarship has often attempted to explore Hindu nationalism by focusing on their individual, organisational nodes. Recent scholarship, on ther hand, has highlighted the failure of existing frameworks to understand Hindu nationalism, and emphasised its nature as a network of different organisational nodes.[13] One should understand that, unlike other political movements, for the Hindu nationalists, organisations are not mere means or instruments to attain their political goals. Organisations for them is both the means and the end in itself. The Hindu nationalists, through their organisational labour, seek to reshape the entire society into the image of their organisational network. Therefore, they adopt a continuous, all-pervasive form of network that keeps forming new organisational nodes as they expand. In sum, the cultural citizenship of Hindu nationalism is a superimposition of the cultural unity of the caste-system through the means of extended, pervasive organisational networks and activities.

Cultural Citizenship and anti-Muslim Violence

The recurring violence against Minorities, especially Muslims, should be contextualised in this broader continuing process of constructing a continuous Hindu nationalist self across caste hierarchies. Constructing a Hindu nationalist self necessarily produces tensions, as the Hindu nationalists seek not to disrupt the existing caste hierarchies. They seek to address this tension through protracted and continuous organisational means. One of the significant organisational activities to create a sense of coherent, unified Hindu nationalist sensibility is to systematically produce a common “other”. As some scholars have pointed out, within the Hindu nationalist politics, there exists an inherent relation between the making of the “self” and the making of the “other” through the means of organised violence. This process has been described as the “externalisation” or “displacement” of caste conflicts into communal conflicts where the social tensions and anger emerging due to changing caste relations were successfully redirected against Muslims by purposefully created discourses that depicted Muslims as the common threat to this “cultural unity”.[14] This commitment to a dual and simultaneous process of making the “self” and “other” is reflected in the organisational network of the Hindu nationalists as well. While many organisations are involved in routine, non-violent and persistent activities that seek to create extra-caste cultural nationalist sensibilities across caste lines, few other organisations dedicate themselves to mobilising violence against Muslims. Therefore, Hindu nationalist politics significantly benefit from what Javeed Alam identified as the politics of alibis: an ostensible autonomy which offers the constituents of the Hindu nationalist network great manoeuvring flexibility to intervene in different spheres of society so that the network can selectively take up or deny the acts of allied organisations depending on the circumstances.[15]

In this context, the Leicester incident could be understood not as a sporadic instance of violence between Hindus and Muslims but as a part of the construction of the Hindu nationalist self in the diasporic context. The growth of Hindu nationalism is similar to what Ambedkar said about the growth of caste. He writes, “if Hindus migrate to other regions on earth, Indian caste would become a world problem”.[16] Given the inextricable connection between Hindu nationalism and caste, the growth of Hindutva in the diasporic context also proclaims the need to pay attention to the caste configurations in the diasporic context. To conclude, the Hindu nationalist involvement in violence against Muslims, in both India and outside, could not be confined to the Hindu-Muslim problem. It is part of a larger politics of constructing cultural citizenship, in which violence only forms a part of a plethora of activities enabled by an extensive organisational network.



 Ambedkar, B. R., & Rege, S. (2013). Against the madness of Manu: BR Ambedkar’s writings on Brahmanical patriarchy.

Banaji, S. (2018). Vigilante publics: Orientalism, modernity and Hindutva fascism in India. Javnost-The Public, 25(4), 333-350.

Chandra, B. (2008). Communalism in modern India. Har Anand Publications.

Chandrachud, A. (2020). Secularism and the Citizenship Amendment Act. Indian Law Review, 4(2), 138-162.

Corbridge, S., & Harriss, J. (2000). Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu nationalism and popular democracy. John Wiley & Sons.

Harriss, J., Jeffrey, C., & Corbridge, S. (2017). Is India becoming the Hindu Rashtra Sought by Hindu Nationalists. Simons Papers in Security and Development, 60.

Menon, D (2006). The Blindness of Insight: Essays on Caste in Modern India, Pondicherry: Navayana Publications.

Narayan, B. (2009). Fascinating Hindutva: saffron politics and Dalit mobilisation. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Natrajan, B. (2008). Letter to a Progressive Hindu. South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection, 28.

Natrajan, B. (2011). The culturalization of caste in India: Identity and inequality in a multicultural age. Routledge.

Pai, S. (2019). Changing Political Preferences Among Dalits in Uttar Pradesh in the 2000s: Shift from Social Justice to Aspiration. Journal of Social Inclusion Studies, 5(1), 33-43.

Pal, F. (2022). The shape of the Sangh: rethinking Hindu nationalist organizational ties. Contemporary South Asia, 1-11.

Palshikar, S., & Deshpande, S. (2019). Sectarian violence in india: Hindu-Muslim conflict, 1966-2015. Orient BlackSwan.

Pandey, G. (2006). The construction of communalism in colonial North India.

Piliavsky, A. (2022). India’s Little Political Tradition. Political Theology, 1-7. Chicago

Prakash Sing, A (2019) Subaltern Hindutva. Seminar Magazine.

Roopesh, O. B. (2021). Educating ‘Temple Cultures’ Heterogeneous Worship and Hindutva Politics in Kerala. Sociological Bulletin, 70(4), 485-501.

Sharma, J. (2011). Hindutva: Exploring the idea of Hindu nationalism. Penguin Books India.

Shani, O (2007). Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism; The Violence in Gujarat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



[1] Communalism is the term that is widely used to denote Hindu-Muslim Violence in South Asia. For a conventional analytical use of the term ‘communalism’, see Chandra (1984), and Pandey (2006). For a recent collection of writings on Hindu-Muslim Violence in postcolonial India, see Palshikar and Deshpande (2019)

[2] The term Hinduphobia has its origin in the diasporic Hindu nationalist discourse. For a brief critical discussion on the genesis and politics of ‘Hinduphobia’, see Natrajan (2008)

[3] The earliest coherent articulation of Hindutva comes from VD Savarkar’s Essentials of Hindutva. For a book-length critical discussion of various strands of Hindu nationalist thought before and after Savarkar, See Sharma (2003)

[4] The decades of 1980s and 1990s is a period of great political churning in India in terms of the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement through the campaign to demolish Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (Mandir), the lower-caste assertion and mobilisation for Backward Class reservation (Mandal) and the liberalisation of the Indian economy (Market). For an account of the rise of Hindu nationalism during this period of political churning, see Corbridge and Harris (2000)

[5] See Harris, Jeffrey and Corbridge (2017) and Banaji et al. (2018) on the rise of anti-Muslim Violence in recent times.

[6] The parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019. It amended the Citizenship act of 1955 and introduced religion as an overt category in providing citizenship status to refugees from select neighbouring countries. For a critical discussion on CAA, see Chandrachud (2019)

[7] For a recent affirmation of this view, see Piliavsky (2022). According to her, “However hard Hindu nationalists try to consolidate the myriad little gods into the few great ones, however many temples to Ram and statues of Hanuman they may erect, everyday Hinduism retains the centripetal force of its localising pragmatism, remaining distant from doctrinaire totalising, from universal, all-purpose beliefs – from turning, in other words, into an ideology” (p.5)

[8] Ambedkar introduces this idea in his seminal work “Castes in India: Their mechanism, genesis and development” first published in Indian Antiquity (May 1917). For an annotated version of this essay, see Against the Madness of Manu: B R Ambedkar’s writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy (77-107), selected and introduced by Sharmila Rege (2013)

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid (p.95)

[11] While the ‘Upper-caste core’ of the Hindu nationalist politics is often acknowledged in the scholarship, the current ascendancy of Hindu nationalist appeal across caste groups gave rise to the notion of a ‘shift’ in Hindu nationalist politics from their “upper-caste core”. This has been variably described as “Subaltern Hindutva” by few. See Pai (2019), Prakash Singh (2019). However, ethnographic works on Hindutva and caste clearly shows that while the Hindu nationalists are flexible in engaging with lower caste groups, their religiosity, myth, and rituals, their engagement often is mediated by the process of legitimation of caste identities through the language of diversity within “Hinduism”. See Natrajan (2011), Roopesh (2021), Narayan (2009)

[12] Natrajan (2011) calls this process the “culturalisation of caste”

[13] Pal (2022)

[14] Menon (2006), Shani (2007)

[15] Alam (2004)

[16] Ambedkar (1917)