How ‘Hindutva’ recast multi-faith India as the Hindu homeland



‘Hindutva,’ explained Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1923, is ‘not a word, but a history.’ It was introduced in a lengthy pamphlet, Essentials of Hindutva, which Savarkar wrote on the walls of his prison cell, and re-published in 1928 under the new title Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? ‘A Hindu,’ Savarkar declared, ‘means a person who regards this land of Bharat Varsha’– a name for ancient India used in the Puranas, a set of foundational Hindu texts – ‘as his Fatherland as well as his Holy-Land, that is the cradle land of his religion.’

The term ‘Hindutva’, which Savarkar coined by adding the Sanskrit suffix ‘-tva’ (equivalent to the English ‘-ness’) to the adjective ‘Hindu’, rebranded Hinduism – ‘Hindu-ness’ – as a nationalist ideology, a political groundswell formulated along ethnic lines. Savarkar wrote: ‘The Hindus are not merely the citizens of the Indian state because they are united not only by the bonds of the love they bear to a common motherland but also by the bonds of a common blood. They are not only a Nation but also a race (jati).’ ‘Hindutva’ recast multi-faith India as the Hindu homeland, giving Hindus a unique claim to the country.

As a 20-something law student living in England, Savarkar was charged with plotting against the British monarchy after aiding in the assassination of a British civil servant. Extradited back to India in 1911, Savarkar received two life terms. Through a series of confinements – beginning in the Andaman Islands, home to a brutal penal colony, then in a port city prison near the Arabian Sea in Maharashtra – Savarkar plotted his political manifesto. It is difficult to imagine that the pain of colonial incarceration did not shape the fervour of his tract, which laid out a long, historically fanciful rationale for Hindu supremacy. Hindutva represented a hardline form of Hindu nationalism, in which Muslims appeared as bellicose invaders. ‘Nations and civilisations fell in heaps before the sword of Islam of Peace!!’ writes Savarkar. ‘But here India alone had to face Arabs, Persians, Pathans, Baluchis, Tartars, Turks, Moguls – a veritable human Sahara whirling and columning up bodily in a furious world storm!’

As anti-colonial movements gained ground during the last decades of British rule in India, Hindu nationalism became the default expression of reclaimed political power. Indian Muslims, who made up a third of the country before the creation of Pakistan in 1947, saw themselves as sidelined from independence movements, leading to the 1906 creation of the Muslim League, a separate political party that would later advocate for an independent Muslim state. Unlike future leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, who made a point of Muslim inclusion, proponents of Hindutva disapproved of non-Hindu outreach, a process known in India as ‘appeasement’. (Such was Savarkar’s aversion to Gandhi’s approach that he was implicated in his assassination in 1948.)

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