The Hindutva Rhetoric: History, Memory and Learnings

   The Bharatiya Janata Party has done it again. Led by the popularity of Narendra Modi, it has once again won a majority in the Indian general elections and formed the government. Hindutva as the dominant political ideology is here to stay for another five years. At this crucial juncture, it becomes important to pause and take stock of how the Hindutva wave has taken over the country. The Hindutva rhetoric, propounded by the BJP and its allied parties, has a long history. From the demolition of the Babri Masjid to Yogi Adityanath’s hate speech, it has taken violent forms as well. Most importantly, it has persuaded people to believe in it. Unpacking some of its claims by analysing them through popular rhetorical techniques gives us some ideas, as we shall now see.

India, Bharat and Hindustan

Successful rhetoric is hardly ever built on facts or emotion alone. Aristotle’s Rhetoric identified this long ago. In the book, he formulates three modes of persuasion, namely logos, pathos and ethos. The term logic is derived from logos, so quite clearly, logos is the use of reason and facts. On the other hand, pathos is an appeal to the emotions of the audience. Finally, ethos is the credibility of the speaker. A persuasive argument usually employs some combination of the three. While constructing their appeals along these three lines, good rhetors also make use of other rhetorical devices and techniques. One of them is dissociation, which is the essentially the separation of a unitary subject according to convenience. It works primarily as a pacifier trying to ease the tension in certain situations. In his seminal work, Sourcebook On Rhetoric, James Jasinski explains that “dissociative arguments divide the source of tension into two incompatible parts”. Thinking of something that “works in theory, but not in practice” is an example of dissociation. Another example is the current debate in the art world about separating the art from the artist. Many argue that the problematic, private lives of artists should not affect the way we view their art. However, separating the art from the artist is an exercise in dissociation, since it tries to resolve the tension by asking us to place the two in separate worlds, while in reality, they exist in the same. The Hindutva rhetoric has also benefited from this technique, as we shall see now.

Mohan Bhagwat has been the chief of the RSS since 2009. The organisation has not been shy about its dream of a “Hindu rashtra” and has often lamented the rapid westernization of the country. In January 2013, Bhagwat addressed a meeting in Silchar where, among other things, he talked about the increasing crimes against women. Referring to sexual violence, he said that “such crimes happen in India, not Bharat”. The comment was met with mostly negative reaction from the public and the press, with many calling Bhagwat out for his callous rhetoric. Leaving public opinion aside, the statement is an interesting entry point to understanding both Hindutva and dissociation, encapsulating some of the crucial beliefs of the Hindu right in India.

The very first article of the Constitution of India states that  “India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states”. This short sentence confirms that legally, ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’ are equivalent names for the country (“Hindustan” is used commonly, but is not recognized for official use). While the name ‘Bharat’ has contentious origins in Hindu mythology, ‘India’ is derived from the Sindhu (or Indus river), on the banks of which the Indus Valley civilization was formed. The Constituent Assembly was mindful of this, keeping both the names in official use, conflating them into the singular entity that is the country. Bhagwat, however, faces a problem. Sexual violence against women is prevalent in the country, which acts as the source of tension that he is engaging with in his speech. To ease it, he employs the power of dissociation. To say that the problem exists only in ‘India’, not ‘Bharat’, is to dissociate the country into two. Bhagwat’s comments have been understood to point towards ‘India’ as the urban sections and ‘Bharat’ as the rural parts. The former, according to him, has given in to the West, which is the reason for the spread of crimes against women in the country. The latter, implicitly, is the flag-bearer of Hindu traditions and values, due to which it is unaffected by the above.

Analysing it in terms of Aristotle’s three modes also produces interesting results. In terms of reason and facts, the statement is pure conjecture, as the findings of National Crime Records Bureau show no significant difference in terms of crimes against women in rural and urban areas. Logos, then, is largely absent. Bhagwat is a well-known public figure, and the RSS is a popular organization, commonly known as the ideological mentor of the BJP, the incumbent ruling party of the country. This gives him good credibility and a willing audience, accentuating the ethos of his statement. The statement works primarily because of pathos, the emotion that comes attached with it. A survey conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation in 2018 ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, ahead of Afghanistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Most parties ride the election wave on promises of safety measures to combat this serious problem in the country. The RSS sprinkles this with their Hindutva rhetoric, attaching the mythological connotations of ‘Bharat’ with the model for the future of India. The result is a powerful rhetoric delivered in a few simple words at a large scale. Such is the impact of the Hindutva narrative. The divides it creates are many. In times of crumbling secularism, it becomes important to now focus on the most important divide created in contemporary India – religion.

Enemy of the State

The third book of the Torah and the Old Testament is called The Book of Leviticus. After several chapters on the laws of sacrifice and priesthood, the sixteenth chapter of the book talks about the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. The story goes that two goats are selected on the holy day – one for sacrifice, and one on whose head the sins of Israel are symbolically put, which is then ritualistically driven out.

Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering.

But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat. (Leviticus 16:9-10)

The second goat above lends its name to the rhetorical technique called “scapegoating”. As might be apparent from above, the idea of scapegoating is deeply linked to the idea of social redemption. We look for ways to place blame on others in order to feel better about ourselves. When we choose a figurehead on whom to place all of society’s problems and sins, we are “scapegoating” them. The concept was studied at length by literary theorist Kenneth Burke, first appearing in his 1935 book Permanence and Change. He noted that scapegoating creates a divide in society, and “an ‘us versus them’ antithesis is established”. After identification, the scapegoat is ostracized, “otherized”, and “in some cases (most notably, the Jews in Hitler’s Germany), the scapegoat is literally exterminated”. In India, Hindu nationalist rhetoric is deeply imbued with scapegoating on religious lines with the sole aim of the obliteration of this “other”, as we shall see now.

The Bajrang Dal is the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, both of whom have been identified as “religious militant organizations” by the Central Investigative Agency (CIA) in 2018. Its founder-president, Vinay Katiyar, is an incumbent Member of Parliament, running on a BJP ticket. On 7 February 2018, Katiyar said that “Muslims should not stay in this country [as] [t]hey have partitioned the country on the basis of population”. The statement echoes a sentiment that has found widespread acceptance in Hindu nationalist political circles. Roy (2004) studied several editorials of Saamana, the Marathi newspaper owned by the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena, to see how anti-Muslim propaganda has been used to construct them as a national enemy. One of his observations is that “Shiv Sena claims that although the ‘fundamentalist anti-national Muslims’ live in India, their loyalty lies with Pakistan”. He also notes that “Shiv Sena discourse claims that Indian Muslims, like the Jews in Nazi propaganda, are a privileged community”. The anti-Muslim rhetoric has continued in the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Amit Shah, the President of the BJP, addressed a rally in West Bengal in April 2019 and talked about the issue of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The purpose of the NRC has been to identify illegal immigrants in the north-eastern state of Assam who crossed over after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Shah said that if the BJP were to come to power again, it would implement NRC in the entire country and “remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs”. The significant omission in his statement clearly points which community is the scapegoat.

The opinions of Shiv Sena, Katiyar, and Shah above give us a glimpse of the vilification of Muslims by the Hindu nationalist movement. For them, Islam is the scapegoat. The corrective measure suggested is similar to the one prescribed in the Book of Leviticus – the scapegoat must be driven away. The Indian Muslim, thus, is shown the way to Pakistan. With them, they will symbolically carry all the sins of the land and help atone the country. This is possible due to the sharp polarization exhibited by the Hindu rhetors. Roy asserts as well that “when Hindu men feel powerless and disillusioned by the economic and social problems that they encounter, they look for an external cause, namely, Muslims, to blame instead of blaming themselves for the malaise”. Apart from creating an “other”, creating a divide also helps in defining the “we”. Jasinski notes that “polarizing discourse seeks to create a strong sense of unity or identification within one segment of a larger social collective […] by way of opposition to a discursively constructed enemy.” The scapegoating of Muslims then provides the Hindutva narrative with a double-edged sword – it vilifies the Muslims and strengthens the Hindus, both existing as distinct monoliths. The narrative itself is fluid, moving from rallies to television screens with ease. The words it says are as significant to study as the visuals it relies on. The latter will be illustrated in the next section.

Ways of Seeing

English art critic John Berger once wrote that seeing comes before words. In the beginning, we observe the world through our eyes, taking it in visually. We form opinions even before we know how to articulate them. The visual medium thus has immense value in enhancing our learnings and shaping our judgements. Visual rhetoric is the use of these facts in order to be more persuasive. This, of course, has found abundant use in politics as well. For starters, political parties are identified by their symbols. The symbol of the Aam Aadmi Party, for instance, is the broom. The party had come into being on the rising tide of the India Against Corruption movement in 2011, demanding an anti-corruption bill be introduced in the country. The broom was chosen to “symbolise dignity of labour”, with the party hoping “to clean the filth which has permeated our government and our legislature”. On the other hand, the BJP’s symbol is that of a lotus, which is the national flower of India. This could perhaps be an indication towards the strong nationalist tendencies of the party and its ethos of cultural nationalism. This sentiment reached its peak in October 1990, at the time of the “Ram Janmabhoomi” movement, when a certain politician named Lal Krishna Advani proceeded to showcase the party’s philosophy in a grand fashion.

To begin, the term “rath yatra” in the Hindu religion “generically refers to processions with chariots (rath) that punctuate the life of all sacred places”.  In September 1990, L.K. Advani, the President of the BJP at that time, announced his plans to go on a rath yatra to Ayodhya. The motive was understood to be both political and religious – garnering support for the Sangh Parivar, as well as gaining traction for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In preparation for this event, visual propaganda began to appear everywhere –

“The Rath yatra was preceded by a sustained ideological propaganda through print and visual media to implant the image of an angry Ram in popular mind. In contrast to his traditional tranquil, compassionate and benevolent image, the posters and books circulated by the sang parivar depicted Rama riding a Rath and ‘pulling his bow string, the arrow poised to annihilate’. In some pictures he was even carrying a trishul, a sword, and an axe. The suggestion inherent in this transformation is quite clear: ‘Rama is ‘responding to the specific moment, the loss of the janmabhoomi and involved in a fight to retain it’.” 

The actual “rath” was, in fact, merely a Toyota car. This did not stop the roadshow from gaining intense religious fervour. In Ahmedabad, “a young Hindu nationalist placed a tilak (religious mark indicating what sect the devotee belongs to) on Advani’s forehead made of his own blood”. Historian Ramachandra Guha noted that “the march’s imagery was ‘religious, militant, masculine, and anti-Muslim’” (pg. 606). This was a bloody, powerful, massive display of the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the BJP. What followed was widespread communal riots and the destruction of the Babri Masjid. From winning merely two seats in the 1984 general elections, the BJP, in 2014, became the first non-Congress party to win a majority, winning 282 seats. The impact of the rath yatra is seen even today, with the BJP giving election tickets to women who have openly proclaimed their “pride” at being part of the demolition of the Masjid.

The Hindutva narrative has sold a dream to the Indian nation. Along the way, it has employed several elements from the world of rhetoric, as we have seen above, in quest of what is perhaps the most quintessential concept in desire and politics – power. Power hunger has ruined countless people and laid waste to vast stretches of land. It has caused genocides, oppression, and dehumanization. Democracy was envisioned as an antidote. It came bearing dreams of egalitarian societies and justice. Universal adult suffrage promised that only the people’s choice of representatives would be allowed to make decisions for them. The job for the power-seekers became tough. In a diverse nation like India, it reached unimaginable complexities. How do you sell one dream to a billion people? Answer: you alter the collective public memory.

Malleable Beings

In 2015, certain edits were made to Jawaharlal Nehru’s Wikipedia page, claiming that his grandfather was Muslim. Nehru was the first Prime Minister of independent India, and a Kashmiri Pandit by birth. However, he was an atheist and espoused for a secular state. His family, known now as the Nehru-Gandhi family, has continued to be at the helm of the Indian National Congress, with Rahul Gandhi, his great grandson, serving as its current President. Nehru’s grandfather was Gangadhar Nehru, but edits on Wikipedia stated that “Gangadhar was born as a Muslim by the name of Ghiasuddin Ghazi but changed his name to a Hindu Ganga Dhar to escape British clutches.” The edits were done from an IP address provided by the government-owned National Informatics Centre. Even though they were removed in minutes, they spawned many articles on other websites that claimed bogus history as facts. The aim of the exercise was simple – by changing an isolated fact about the Nehru ancestry, the perpetrators were trying to tie the Indian National Congress with direct Muslim inheritance. One does not have to think too far to conclude which political parties would benefit from an anti-Congress, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Memory has always been a malleable thing in the political gamble.

Public memory is different from personal memory, both in scale and imagination. To get an entire people to remember something requires constant internalization. Public memory, then, is linked to repetition. Jasinski noted that “public memory is the product of political institutions and institutionalized practices” and is constructed through social interaction. Memory, however, is not rigid and changes with time. This is because when there are gaps in our memory, we replace facts with our own experiences. In many cases, this leads to inaccuracy, and eventually, falsification of facts (something which is also known as confabulation). When this is done intentionally, it becomes a rhetorical and political tool. Memory becomes a part of who we are. When we dream similarly, we are told that we are the same. In a country that thrives on identity politics, the Hindutva narrative has benefited from the idea that “public memory contributes substantially to the constitution of collective identity”. In the five years of the BJP government, there have been multiple ways in which this has been used for political gains.

The first is misinformation, or ‘fake news’. In the run-up for the 2019 election, WhatsApp became the preferred choice of online medium for campaigning. The Atlantic reported in April that “Indians are bombarded with fake news and divisive propaganda on a near-constant basis” to the extent that it might affect the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections. A report on research conducted the BBC showed that “right-wing networks are much more organised than on the left, pushing nationalistic fake stories further” and “there was also an overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. The aim of this exercise is the creation of new memories. The second way is the erasure of old, “Muslim” memories. In 2018, the BJP government agreed to rename twenty-five places in India. Even a casual glance at the alterations reveals a very deliberate pattern. In Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, Faizabad became Ayodhya and Allahabad became Prayagraj. Ayodhya, as has been discussed, is considered the birthplace of the Hindu deity, Ram, and is the site of the Babri Masjid dispute. Prayagraj is a centre for Hindu worship as well, as it is the site where three holy rivers confluence. Both Faizabad and Allahabad were Islamic names given to places hundreds of years ago by India’s then Muslim rulers. The idea, then, is to erase over three hundred years of the Mughal Empire, to forget that Muslims ever ruled this country.

Many efforts have been made to counter this memory-modification process. WhatsApp launched a “tip line where they can send in messages, pictures or videos they want fact-checked [and]  [a] ‘verification center’ will respond to the user, indicating whether the information is true, false, misleading or disputed.” Alt News and Boom are two organizations that have launched in the times of the Modi government with the aim of fact-checking and calling out fake news. With the truth requiring just a little more digging, the question to be asked is this – even when presented by facts and reason, why do we not change our beliefs? One explanation is confirmation bias, the tendency we human beings have to seek out information that confirms our previously held beliefs and to reject information that does not support them. In times of fake news, “alternative facts”, and detailed propaganda, this has become astonishingly simple. Our social media feeds are tailored according to our preferences and biases, never really challenging what we perceive as true. A 1975 study by researchers at Stanford concluded that “once formed, […] impressions are remarkably perseverant”, noting that even after evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs.” If reason itself fails, what does the future hold for us?

Looking Forward

The Congress has formed the ruling government in the country ten times – six times as a result of a majority and four times as the leaders of a coalition. For almost fifty years, it shaped and governed independent India. In contrast, the first time a non-Congress force lasted a full term in office was the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the turn of the millenium. The rise of the BJP to form a majority government in 2014 confirmed the massive shift in power in the political sphere. An openly pro-Hindu party ruled secular India. This begets the question – with increasing globalization leading to widespread protectionism, was secularism always doomed to fail in a diverse country like India? Critics such as Ashis Nandy and T N Madan “reject secularism as radically alien to Indian culture and tradition and advocate a retum to genuine religion and the indigenous traditions of religious tolerance as the best means to preserve and maintain a pluralist and multi-religious Indian society”. It is interesting to note, however, that this critique is built on a return to principles of religious morality and tolerance and is not an advocacy for the formation of theocratic states. As we have seen above, the Hindutva narrative in India has shown little regard for tolerance. From violent “otherization” of Muslims to vulgar displays of power, the Indian nation-state is slowly becoming the antithesis of the Nehruvian model. The 2019 Lok Sabha election was also fought on religious lines. A simple choice was presented – either you are Hindu, or you are anti-national. The Narendra Modi government is once again in the position of absolute power. The Hindutva narrative has come a long way, and from the looks of it, it has persuaded a nation of a billion.


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Roy, Abhik. “The construction and scapegoating of Muslims as the “other” in Hindu nationalist rhetoric”, Southern Communication Journal, 69:4, 320-332. 2004. DOI: 10.1080/10417940409373303

Tharamangalam, Joseph. “Indian Social Scientists and Critique of Secularism.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 30, no. 9, 1995, pp. 457–461. JSTOR.

Shubham Gupta is currently a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University.

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