October 29, 2015

India: How Hindutva agents are more colonial than Left-liberals [Book excerpt] (The Public intellectual in India; by Romila Thapar et al)

Daily O - 19 October 2015

How Hindutva agents are more colonial than Left-liberals
[Book excerpt] Religious nationalism for all its espousal of the indigenous, clings with greater determination to its colonial roots.

Romila Thapar

Nations have to be built on an inclusive identity. When the colonial power is removed and the nation comes into being, then in a society of multiple identities - ethnic, religious, language, caste - there is a competition amongst these identities for dominance. Anti-colonial nationalism in India was reasonably secular but coming close on its heels were the two religious nationalisms, Muslim and Hindu.

Colonial views on Indian history and society encouraged the emergence of religious nationalism. Muslim religious nationalism succeeded in creating Pakistan. Its counterpart, Hindu religious nationalism, is now making a bid for creating its equivalent in a Hindu Rashtra. Some of the current violence and demands for banning this and that to assuage the hurt to religious sentiments, are in effect tied to this ambition and have little to do with Hinduism as a religion.


The colonial inheritance, where it remains unquestioned, persists, and religious nationalisms appropriate it and build on it. It dominates the thinking of those that regard themselves as defending all things Indian, by which they often mean Hindu, or else defending the religion they support. This is an implicit, if not explicit, continuation of James Mill's two-nation theory with its insistence on the innate hostility between Hindus and Muslims. So the counterpart to Pakistan has to be a Hindu India according to some, even if a secular India is ultimately more viable, given the history of multiple cultures and the plurality of religious beliefs. The argument that a religion-based state drawing on majority and minority religious communities as its units, militates against democracy is of little concern to such opinion.

Let me return to the nature of religious nationalism. Muslim religious nationalism demanded a separate state using the colonial argument of Muslims and Hindus being separate nations forced to live in the same territory and, according to some, such a state could be the core of a rejuvenated Islamic world. Not all Muslim organisations in pre-Partition India supported this argument, and some opposed it; nevertheless it claimed to have had the support of the majority.

History, as viewed by religious nationalism, is a simple narrative of Hindus having once had a great and glorious past, which was destroyed by Muslim conquerors. Consequently, the creation of a Hindu state is projected as a legitimate objective. The unbroken descent of Hindu ancestry and religion from earliest times, according to this school of thought, legitimises the primacy of Hindus in the present, and takes up from Max Mueller's construction of a superior Aryan culture and the Aryan foundations of Indian (read Hindu) civilisation. Interestingly, it was the Theosophists, and in particular Colonel Olcott, who first propagated this theory in the late nineteenth century. Olcott argued that the Aryans were indigenous to India and took civilisation from India to the West. This theory is now being promoted by Hindutva, but with no reference to the colonial view where the origins lie.

Religious nationalism for all its espousal of the indigenous, clings with greater determination to its colonial roots. This is not surprising since the colonial context in the interpretation of Indian culture is foundational to the religious nationalisms of India.


The basic reading of Indian history as constructed by Hindu and Islamic religious nationalism - the two-nation theory - is a colonial theory. The same applies to the focus on the Aryans as the root of Indian civilisation to the exclusion of other factors. Both are creations of particular nineteenth-century European readings of the Indian past. Ironically, those of us [historians] who have questioned the formulations of the trilogy of Mill-Macaulay-Muller as the authors of a colonial construction of the Indian past that should be subjected to critical enquiry are the ones who are accused of being anti-Hindu culture and religion, therefore anti-national, and who are one and all, dismissed as "Marxists".

It could be said that in not perceiving the colonial disjuncture and recognising its implications, the result has been a reading of Indian society and culture that prevents a shaking off of the colonial framework of thinking. But by now there is also an ambition to mould Indian society in a particular way. That ambition is facilitated by access to political power and the control that it provides. When pared down to essentials, the confrontation is not invariably over religious belief and practice, however insistently this claim may be made, but over other fears of the loss of social control that cannot be openly declared.

The upholding of patriarchy for instance, or a resistance to the erosion of caste rules, is slowly becoming more visible. It is expressed in violence against women and Dalits, a violence that is not new but seems to be more vehement now. The conflict may be described as a threat to religion, or to the even more ambiguous notion of "tradition". It can involve defending patriarchy or not contesting the suppression of the lower castes by arguing that the conflict is over religious belief or practice. The intention ultimate is to retain or to acquire authority.

The historical moment is that of a post-colonial state - an independent nation - and the conflict tis over the immense change in power relations that this entails.

The Public intellectual in India; by Romila Thapar et al, Aleph Book Company, Rs 499.

Excerpt from Introduction [Pages xix - xxiii].