The rightward shift in the Indian polity is unmistakable. While this process has been underway for decades, its clear manifestation has been visible only after the pivotal elections of 2014. It is not an exaggeration to say that, for the first time, a strong Hindu-oriented government is ruling from Delhi.
This government is the product of the century-long movement of the Hindu Right and its vision to “reclaim and rebuild” the Indian civilisational-State. Unlike simplistic assumptions, the Hindu Right movement has not been a single unified movement but an amalgamation of different strands with distinctive regional variations. Of these, three strands stand apart due to their large votaries and socio-political influence.
The first is the Ratnagiri line of radical Hindutva of VD Savarkar, which envisions a modern industrial Hindu nation and advocates end of the caste-system and rapid social transformation. Hindutva was a radical break in the Hindu thought itself — anti-caste, reformist, modernist and futuristic. The second is the conservative approach of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which in principle agrees with the social changes advocated by the Hindutva, but distrusts disruption. It supports social equality, widow-remarriage, inter-caste marriages, LGBTQ rights, but believes that society must chart its way instead of forcing it.
And the third strand is social-orthodoxy, which believes in the continuation of the old jati-varna system and romanticises the old feudal-agrarian village life as the essence of India. This strand is best exemplified by the now largely forgotten Ram Rajya Parishad. I would argue that it was also reflected in the social and economic views of MK Gandhi, who vehemently opposed industrialisation and modernisation and was, at least, in his initial years, comfortable with the entrenched hierarchy determined by the caste system.
The clash within the Hindu Right has been the clash between these three broad strands, with the Ratnagiri line and RSS being on the same page, disagreeing only on the extent and pace at a given time. But who had more relative influence depended on the wider socio-economic context. The anti-modern view of the Gandhi had wide appeal and Ram Rajya Parishad was a power to reckon with till the late 1960s. This was because these views appealed to the largely rural population, especially a large section of the upper-castes.
The glorification of the old social order, village life and opposition to the modern economy were also in part due to the opposition to the colonial rule. A section of the anti-imperialists indeed responded by arguing for the superiority of the “timeless spiritual India based on jati-varna order” over the moral and social decadence of the western modernity and materialism. But it was a defence of the collapsing feudal-agrarian order against the emergent modern-capitalist world, which was couched as a defence of Hinduism against the forces out to destroy the “Hindu way of life”. The confusion prevails to this day, and it is not uncommon to hear such views from within the Hindu Right even today.
The strength of the social orthodoxy also played a role
in the RSS adopting a conservative approach. The RSS had to wage an uphill
struggle to mainstream Hindutva and its growth was arrested for so long not
because of some magical powers of the Nehruvian secularism, but because it too
faced the unsurmountable walls of the caste in its quest to create Hindu unity.
But things began to change as economic reforms accelerated the breakdown of the
feudal-caste order by giving an impetus to the capitalist modernisation and
urbanisation. This created a new middle and neo-middle urban class from
different castes, which increasingly shares the same space and similar
As old parochial identities wane, there is a consolidation of the Hindu identity in this new urban class, which also includes second and third-tier cities.
This new scenario is more conducive to the growth of Hindutva, and indeed, we now see a weakening of the social-orthodoxy. Inter-caste marriages are becoming more common. Untouchability has largely disappeared from the public space. There is a greater intermingling of castes and upward mobility for the OBC and Dalit castes, albeit limited. Women are freer than ever. This is a new social base that has a stronger consciousness of common Hindu identity and has been pivotal in the right-ward shift of Indian politics. But it also yearns for modernity. India truly is a land of million mutinies today. The fascination with the timeless “real India” is fading. It is being replaced by the dream of a job in the modern sector, automated homes in urban utopia and global connectivity. With these fast-changing economic realities, the space for social-orthodoxy is rapidly shrinking.
It is only now that the RSS advocacy of “one well, one temple, one crematorium” has begun to find an audience. There is a growing acceptance of Hindutva, an argument for modernity but one rooted in the Hindu civilisation, rather than westernisation.
And as the economic transformation of the India proceeds, the radical line of Savarkar will become more prominent. But it also means that the Hindu Right needs a new intellectual movement.
The debates and cliches of the 20th century debates will no longer suffice. It must realise that it is the ruling ideology today and the direction in which the debate within the Hindu-right settles will have far-reaching consequences for India and the world.