Hindu Fascism 101: What is Hindutva?

Hindutva, or Hindu fascism, is a majoritarian political ideology and far-right ethnonationalist movement that uses religion as a justification for atrocities against Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Ravidassias, and Buddhists. Hindutva uses the claim of faith to distract from its economic agenda to concentrate power, land, and resources in the hands of the upper oppressor castes.

Hindu fascists believe in the racial and cultural superiority of Hindus, claim to represent all other Hindus, and believe that they are an oppressed group that is under attack. Their power over India’s institutions contradicts this narrative of victimhood. They combine their cultural and political power with violence to oppress minorities, quash dissent and subvert Indian democracy.

How long has Hindutva been around? What is its history?

Hindutva has transformed Indian domestic politics and foreign policy since the early 1980s, but Hindutva as an ideology and movement has almost a century of history behind it.

The term “Hindutva” comes from V.D. Sarvarkar, a Maharastrian Brahmin who would later become president of the ethnonationalist Hindu Mahasabha (1937–1942). Sarvarkar’s 1923 book, Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?, argued that ancient “Aryans” who settled in India formed a nation now known as Hindus. Sarvarkar argued that Hindutva, or, nationalist “Hinduness,” stems from 1) geographical unity, 2) racial features, and 3) a common culture, all of which combine to unite Hindus against all “others.” Sarvarkar’s book was a strong influence on the founders and leaders of today’s Hindu fascist organizations.

What is fascism and why are we calling this “Hindu fascism?”

Fascism is an anti-democratic and authoritarian form of far-right nationalism that suppresses opposition by force and concentrates power in a one-party dictatorship. Fascist movements first emerged in early 20th century Europe — particularly, Italy in World War I — before spreading to other parts of Europe, most notably in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and Italy under Mussolini.

Fascists promote national ‘regeneration’ or ‘resurgence’ by claiming the superiority of the majority and using an “us vs them” racist rhetoric to demonize and deny the humanity of minorities. Their rhetoric paves the way for state-backed violence to violently subordinate or eliminate their opponents. Hindutva’s leaders and followers use the same strategies and tactics as the Nazis and Italian fascists of the 1930s and 1940s, and the neo-Nazis and white supremacists of the United States and Europe today. They deem India’s religious and cultural minorities — including but not limited to caste-oppressed Dalits and Adivasis (India’s indigenous people), Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs and Ravidassias — ”foreigners” or “anti-nationals” who must be violently subdued, assimilated or eliminated to bring back “a glorious race” and nation. They also target journalists, media activists, and their political opponents with violence.

What do Hindu fascists believe and how do they operate? Why is this important?

Hindu fascists want to make India a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation) and refer to India’s territory as ‘Bharat’ (a Sanskrit name with references in the Puranas), which they claim is their “motherland” and “holy land,” or a spiritual homeland for Hindus. They claim to be the land’s “original” inhabitants and they demonize India’s religious and cultural minorities as “others” and “foreigners” excluded from belonging to their Hindu nation.

Hindutva’s proponents uphold their racist domination through an oppressive caste system. Hindutva promotes a “common culture” of Sanskriti rooted in Brahminical traditions that present a hierarchy of castes and upper caste domination as “natural.” The emphasis on Hindu dharma as the moral code asserts caste duties and roles as governing India’s society and economy, and is used to exert control over Dalit Bahujan lives and labor. This rationale also requires minorities to assimilate as unequal subordinates in Hindu society. In this way, Hindu fascists use the cover of religion and culture to consolidate their hold on land, wealth and other resources to secure political and economic power for oppressor upper caste Hindus. Casteism is at the root of Hindu fascism.

Hindu fascists use organized violence against non-Hindus to assert their domination in the name of religion. For decades, they have committed heinous acts of violence against Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Ravidassias, and Buddhists. These are not spontaneous acts of mass violence, as ethnonationalists often claim: : They are planned attacks that involve coordination with participating law enforcement and Hindu militias who have been whipped into violence by leaders who see political gain in such acts of terror. Local and international human rights groups have documented these atrocities which include: Extra-judicial killings and lynchings of Muslims and Dalits; attacking and sometimes killing anyone who eats or sells beef in the name of “cow protection”; using coercion and force to convert caste-oppressed Christians, Muslims and Buddhists to Hinduism in a practice they call ghar wapsi; and launching violent campaigns against Hindu-Muslim relationships which have been framed as “love jihad,” or a conspiracy by Muslim men to lure Hindu women away from their faith and convert them to Islam.

They are anti-democratic: Hindu fascists have killed activists and journalists who dissent by speaking out to oppose their ideology and their violent grasp on power. The 2017 murder of Gauri Lankesh, a journalist and editor who was targeted by Hindu fascists for her critical reporting, is one prominent example of a rising tide of censorship and violence that threatens media freedom and Indian democracy. There has been no accountability for these murders because Hindutva leaders and ideologues hold influence throughout Indian politics and government.

Hindutva’s proponents have captured power at the state and national levels, and they run India’s national government: India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and its President, Sushma Swaraj, are leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a political party that is well known to have close ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh(RSS) and is largely considered the mainstream political face of the Hindutva movement.

They use their control of the state to accumulate soft power by rewriting India’s history — and how it’s taught. Soon after he came to power, PM Modi appointed Y.S. Rao as the chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR). Rao was the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, an RSS subsidiary that seeks to rewrite history from a Hindu nationalist viewpoint, and he quickly recruited three RSS officers to the Council. Hindutva leaders are now being invited by the government to “reform” India’s educational policy and school curricula. Their fight extends to the US, where upper-caste Hindu nationalist lobbies pressured California’s Department of Education to approve negative and discriminatory portrayals of Muslims, and erase references to caste oppression and the histories of Buddhists, Dalits, Sikhs and other South Asian communities.