Paint it saffron. “You can write it down” decreed Narendra Modi in Serampore, West Bengal, “After May 16th, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed!”. Hinting at the mass deportation of Bangladeshi-Muslim migrants in India’s border states, similar incitements to communal violence have been issued by a range of figures associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s premier Hindu nationalist political party. Modi’s alleged partner in crime Amit Shah, for example, speaking near the recently riot torn region of Muzaffarnagar proclaimed that the election “is about revenge and protecting honour”, and Ashok Sahu, the Party’s candidate for Kandhamal – the location of anti-Christian pogroms in 2008 – was arrested after issuing a particularly virulent glorification of the killings.
And you don’t need to obsessively follow the vast ocean of blogs, Arnab Goswami’s (‘What the Nation Wants to Know’ made human) hyperactive interrogations and 24 hour live as it happens its happening now rolling TV coverage to be attuned to the fact that India’s 2014 election is likely to bring the BJP to power. Neither do you need to possess (as I do) an unhealthy series of obsessive neurosis about Indian politics to realise that this could have implications for those positioned as Other to Modi’s Hindu Rashtra: Muslims, Christians, queers and trangressive women, those opposed to Modi’s authoritarian neo-liberal project, Kashmiris, Bangladeshi migrants, ‘pseudo secularists’, and I could go on…
But, and this is important, we need to look beyond the trishul (‘trident’) and the tamasha (‘spectacle’/ ‘performance’). Tune away from NDTV. Delete the Hindustan Times phone app. Stop having those thoughts about thousands of people walking down the road wearing those oddball Modi masks. Why? Because the election’s importance in terms of Hindu nationalism is overstated. In fact, to fully grasp the contemporary expansion and development of Hindu nationalism we need to look beyond the carnival of the election. We need to develop accounts of the formative power of Hindu nationalism which reach beyond simply pointing at Modi’s association with communal violence and rhetoric.
Indeed, we must be careful: despite the otherwise insightful contemporary commentary, it is unlikely that these elections will ultimately decide the successes of either the Hindu nationalist movement, India’s approach to secularism, or interrelated issues such as neo-liberalism and authoritarian governance. I am questioning here then the overriding significance of the explicitly political and communal in terms of accounting for the expanded circulation of Hindu nationalist identities. To understand this point we need to think Hindu nationalism differently.
Take a glance at the table below which illustrates the organisations of the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu nationalist ‘Family of Associations’ which are inspired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) (RSS). You will quickly notice that of the plethora of organisations it is a relative minority which we would associate with either the realm of organised politics or mass campaigns of ethno-religious mobilisation. And yet, it is these organisations and their respective current electioneering and activism which are overwhelmingly presented as driving towards a defining moment in the futures of Hindu nationalism and Indian politics more widely. But what happens to Hindu nationalism and our attempts to account for the circulation of its identities when we attempt to shine the spotlight on these other, often overlooked arenas of the Sangh Parivar which largely operate outside of high politics and communal violence? What does this tell us about the Indian elections and efficacy of these wider shapes of Hindu nationalism?
To answer this question I would draw attention to the circulation of Hindu nationalist practices in arenas outside of Modi’s trishul and the tamasha. It is here that the constitutive power of Hindu nationalism can further be found. In 2012 I conducted field research inside the lifeworlds of the Vanavasi Kalyan Kendra (Tribal Welfare Centre) (VKK), an RSS affiliated association organised around Hindu activist traditions of seva (selfless service). The VKK operate in over 1387 locales in the central Indian state of Jharkhand, reaching approximately 80,000 people through its rural development (gram vikas), formal education (shikshak) and ‘one teacher’ schools (ekal vidyalaya), and health (aroyga) projects. To many of the volunteers and participants in the projects the Hindu nationalism associated with the quotes I opened this post with would be largely foreign.
Indeed, to members of the VKK’s rural development centres Hindu nationalist practices relate very little to communalising migration in West Bengal. Instead, activist traditions of seva are interpellated with Hindu nationalist meanings: selfless service is related to a conservative and sangathanist (‘unify Hindu society’) approach to development, seen as linked to a project of moral reform.
So, VKK members in the rural development centres – of which there are 767, reaching 8,000 people — collect the local mahua flower, transform its properties into chutney, and then sell it on local markets. This is advanced as an alternative by its members to using the flower to make, sell and drink a rudimentary alcoholic moonshine – a key barrier to development according to the organisation. Hindu nationalism here then is located outside of high politics and spectacular violence and rhetoric, and instead emphasises the regulation of one’s daily ethical sensibilities – of being ‘a good Hindu’ in your everyday actions.
In the organisation’s schools too we can witness the significant development of Hindu nationalism outside of appeals to ‘revenge’, honour’ and the celebration of violence. Instead, for the VKK’s 16,000 students, daily practices of bhajan mandalis (devotional hymns) and mantras (sacred Hindu sounds) are ‘re-ritualised’ and structured so as to organise experiences of Hinduism as naturally predisposed to hierarchy, discipline, and Hindu unity.
Further daily practices which stand outside of political activism could be witnessed to invoke Hindu nationalist meanings. Daily personal hygiene of predominantly lower caste and tribal children was stressed as a conservative approach to incorporating those at Hinduism’s boundaries into its fold. During the weekends students were transported to local towns where they would scrub down bus stands and collect and sort litter.
These practices continue the rich history of Hindu nationalist interventions into debates surrounding the organisation of Hindu society through stressing amelioration through ritual and physical ‘cleanliness’ as opposed to the structural reorganisation of Hinduism. Such actions mediated through traditions of selfless serviced were approached as a vital form of active citizenship, and thus local acts outside of political activism and communal mobilisations informed by Hindu traditions of seva are produced as central to the ‘health of the Hindu nation’.
Why is this important? After all, surely abstinence from alcohol, bhajans and mantras, acts of private and public hygiene are irrelevant to the ‘real and important’ question of whether the BJP come to form national government and its resulting implications. Yet, I’m not convinced of this argument anymore. We need to pay attention to the manners in which Hindu nationalist identities can be witnessed circulating outside of spheres of political activism and communal aggression. Seva projects provide a real example of this – where Hindu nationalism develops not as political ideology, but as a practical and applied daily activity that is integrated into daily life and is left largely untouched by riots and elections.
So, while it is important to focus upon the trishuls and the breast beating of ‘he-of-56-inch-chest-nationalism’ and its potential implications for minorities, this should not distract us from the somewhat less tamasha inspired but equally significant entrenchment of Hindu nationalism in alternative arenas. We need then to explore wider than those commentaries which assess Hindu nationalism with regard to electoral successes and ethno-communal mobilisations. It is a necessity to recognise the diverse locations such as seva projects within which Hindu nationalism comes to be entrenched and so mediate an array of practices. Achieving this task means thinking Hindu nationalism differently, beyond the trishul and tamasha so as to better grasp the discourse’s continuing formative power. After all, NaMo or nahi NaMo, come May 16th differing spaces such as the VKK’s associational arenas will continue to contribute to the circulation and consolidation of Hindu nationalist identities.
Ketan Alder is a lecturer in Politics and Religions at Lancaster University. He recently submitted his PhD thesis on associational arenas of service and the development of the Hindu nationalist subject in contemporary India. He spends his free time running and following Indian cricket. Both cause him a great deal of pain. He welcomes feedback.