Francis Gonsalves – « Populism and Religious Nationalism in India »

Francis Gonsalves

« Populism and Religious Nationalism in India »

Thierry-Marie Courau, Susan Abraham, Mile Babić

Concilium 2019-2. Populismus und Religion
Concilium 2019-2. Populism and religion
Concilium 2019-2. Religiones y populismo
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religione
Concilium 2019-2. Religions et populisme
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religião


Five decades ago, Ionescu and Gellner wrote: “A spectre is haunting the world today: populism”.[1] Today, this spectre of populism—directed by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and driven by militant Hindutva—poses serious threats to Indian democracy. Aided by alliances of the Hindu Right, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar and led by the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),[2] Modi assumed power in May 2014 after a landslide victory of his Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which boasts about performing even better at the 2019 polls.

In his ‘What is Populism?’ Müller proposes that, for one to be labelled ‘populist’ one must: (a) be critical of elites; (b) be anti-pluralist; (c) claim to be distinctly moral while trying to prove one’s competitors as corrupt; and (d) play exclusionary forms of identity-politics. Moreover, populist governments usually: (i) attempt to hijack the state apparatus, (ii) strive for ‘mass clientelism’ and (iii) suppress civil society.[3] Based on these criteria, this article will analyze the politics and policies of Narendra Modi and allies to disclose the nature of Hindutva populism and to assess its success. It will also strive to show how the democratic structures which have been built over centuries by all Indians are steadily being subverted by rightwing nationalists today. 

1. Historiography in India: Waging War for a Pristine Past

Historiography is a useful weapon to prove antiquity and legitimacy to subjugate others. In his ‘The History of British India’ James Mill’s naïve periodization of India in terms of Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period, long helped Hindu fanatics to hold that the Muslims and the British (Christians) are guilty of destroying an ancient, monolithic, golden, Hindu epoch. This sense of hurt and loss was intensified when a Brahmin, Keshav Baliram Hegdewar, founded the RSS in 1925. Brahminic ideologues V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar further fanned RSS flames with an exclusivist Hindutva ideology, with its own Constitution to restore lost Hindu pride and saffron flag distinct from the Indian tricolor.[4] Citing its concern solely about sociocultural issues, the RSS distanced itself from the unified Quit-India nonviolent movement directed against the colonial powers. Moreover, its members were antagonistic to anyone working for a united, pluralistic India. This led embittered Godse to assassinate M.K. Gandhi in January 1948, for Gandhi’s idea of India—respecting all creeds and upholding equality of all communities—firmly critiqued its Hindutva counterpart. 

Contrary to the exclusivist and Hindu-hegemonic history, eminent historians like Thapar have argued that community configurations and cohesion in the Indian subcontinent were determined by location, language, occupation and caste, none of which were necessarily bound together by a common religious identity.[5] The battle against the colonial powers was undoubtedly a united, concerted one, involving all believers and unbelievers alike, who collaboratively built Independent India. B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit (former untouchable), was the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, which guaranteed ‘reservations’ (affirmative action) for disadvantaged sections of society like the Dalits and Adivasis (tribals), as well as ‘minority rights’ for communities that could become victims of majoritarian agenda. Thus, ‘religious minorities’ like the Muslims and Christians were guaranteed Constitutional rights to freely practise and propagate their religion. 

To ensure the continued success of the Hindutva historical project, public passions have been kept aflame by persistent efforts to mythicize history and historicize myths. The contributions of freedom-fighters like M.K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, J. Nehru and Maulana Azad, who spearheaded India’s independence struggle and proposed projects for a unified, progressive, post-independence India, are at best eclipsed, and, at worst, these patriots are depicted as anti-national, pseudo-secularists, directionless, elitist or pro-Muslim (thus, anti-Hindu). By contrast, Hindutva ideologues like Savarkar and Golwalkar are extolled for their glorious visions of a Hindu Rashtra. Furthermore, obscurantist historians like Dina Nath Batra have been deputed to produce textbooks mixing history and myth, claiming that Ancient Bharat was unparalleled in every field of science, aeronautics and surgery in Vedic times long before the West even dreamt of airplanes or plastic surgery.[6] Historians dismiss these narratives as fictitious, regressive and harmful for India’s future.

2. Symbolisms in the Construction and Destruction of India

Turning myth into history and history into myth is possible through clever use of symbols. Symbols are potent means to either construct or destroy community. Unlike texts and narratives that require verbal explanations to clarify issues, symbols unfailingly achieve their aim not only by moulding public opinion, but also by evoking strong feelings of attraction or revulsion—causing publics to run riot during communal conflicts.[7] The Sangh Parivar has carefully crafted some symbols to catalyze the Hindu nationalist cause. Among the most potent of these symbols are idyllic images of the Hindu Rashtra, Lord Ram’s janmabhoomi (birthplace), holy cows, ‘Jai Sri Ram’ salutations, and attempts at universalizing the Bhagavat Gita, Gayatri Mantra and Yoga. 

The December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid—also claimed to be Ram’s janmabhoomi in Ayodhya, UP—is arguably the most volatile confrontation that polarizes Hindus versus Muslims till today. With both sides unrelenting, the Indian Courts seem clueless on how to break this deadlock and arrive at a mutually-acceptable ruling. The Ayodhya rioting was followed by the Gujarat pogrom of hundreds of Muslims in February 2002, with Chief Minister Modi emerging as undisputed champion among Hindutva hardliners and the BJP staking claims to be trusted custodians of Hindu heritage and all Hindus, at large. The BJP’s electoral successes in Gujarat were replicated in UP when in March 2017 Yogi Adityanath, Mahant (head priest) of the Gorakhnath Math, was installed as Chief Minister of UP. Known for his vitriolic tirades against Muslims and Christians, cow politics and gharvapasi (homecoming) controversies abounded.

Cow protection is a most contentious issue pitting the so-called ‘upper-caste’ Hindus who hold that cows must be protected at all costs, against many others of the so-called ‘low castes’ and creeds who not only eat beef but also subsist on the meat market: cow-slaughter, selling beef, export-import trading and leather industry. The ban on cow-slaughter gave reason to gau-rakshaks (cow protectors) to take law into their hands and lynch Muslims on mere suspicion of their possessing beef. Moreover, the major offensive of Hindu hardliners against Christians under BJP rule was in 1998-1999 in Gujarat’s Dangs District, when Christian institutions, chapels and Adivasis were attacked allegedly for ‘forcibly converting’ Hindus to Christianity. In UP and Gujarat, many of those who converted to Christianity were forced to undergo purificatory rituals called gharvapasi (literally, homecoming), presuming, of course, that India’s religious ‘home’ is Hinduism. In this regard, Hindutva maintains that, for enjoying full citizens’ rights in the Hindu Rashtra, one must love the nation not only as one’s birthplace (janmabhoomi) but also as one’s ‘holy land’ (punyabhoomi or pitrubhoomi). With this caveat, Muslims and Christians are automatically denied equal citizenship with Hindus.

Modi himself is a larger-than-life symbol—quintessential Purusha of the emergent Hindu Rashtra: brave bachelor who has sacrificed all for the Rashtra, messiah of a wounded Hinduism, smalltime tea-vendor who rose to fame by hard work, singularly focused on development, invincible at the polls, tough on terrorists, and unrepentant for destroying ‘enemies’ of the Rashtra. On Indian platforms, Modi’s shrewd rhetoric, grandiose gestures, catchy slogans and emotive appeals mesmerize the masses. And, on his fifty-eight foreign trips from May 2014 till October 2018, he has greeted Presidents Obama and Trump, and Prime Minister Netanyahu not simply with protocolled handshakes, but with what seem like hugs between close friends, unapologetically gifting them copies of the Bhagavat Gita. Modi’s élan makes many Indians proud and hopeful—awaiting those aache din (good days), which Modi always promises, yet, never produces in reality.

3. To Define or Be Defined? Issues of Identity

While the Western mind prefers precision with ‘either-or’ categorization, Eastern mindsets are comfortable with ‘both-and’ descriptions. Consequently, given the diversity that characterizes India as regards culture, caste, creed and class, Indians feel at ease with myriad identity-markers. Not long ago, many Indian Christians would not object to being labelled ‘Hindu-Christian’—i.e., Hindu by culture and Christian by religion. However, increasingly aware of the processes of assimilation and alienation that surreptitiously seek division and demarcation of who is Hindu/Indian and who is not, the religious minorities fear for their own identity and now desire to assert their right to decide ‘who’ they are, rather than submit to the ‘tyranny of labels’ and permit the powerful to decide ‘who’ they should be.[8]

Hindutva holds five ‘Ms’—Marxism, Macaulayism, Missionaries, Materialism and Muslim extremism—[9] to be enemies of the Hindu Rashtra, each providing scope for labelling foes. Thus, historians like Thapar who propose pluralistic, progressive histories of India are dubbed ‘Marxist’. Christians are projected as ‘missionaries’ who forcibly convert Hindus to Christianity, while Christianity itself is linked to ‘Macaulayism’ on account of the colonialists mostly being Christian and since Indian Christians manage many English-medium educational institutions. Likewise, Muslims are randomly regarded as ‘terrorists’ or ‘extremists’ since it is held impossible for any Hindu to be a terrorist—despite members of Hindu organizations like the Sanatan Sanstha being arrested for murders, bombings and possession of explosives. Given that Muslims and Christians account for just 14.2 and 2.3 percent of the Indian population, respectively, while Hindus account for 79.8 percent,[10] one wonders why Hindus are made to feel insecure and why efforts are underway to ghettoize the minorities. The Justice Sachar Report of 2006 even showed that the Muslims are among the poorest and most backward of communities in India.[11] So, all talk of Muslims surpassing Hindus not only numerically but also economically is pure eyewash. 

Among the many identity-markers that continue being foisted upon those who allegedly threaten Hindutva populism are tags like antinational, unpatriotic, sickular, pseudo-secularists, Marxists, Maoists, Naxalites, jihadis, foreigners, proselytizers, extremists, terrorists, and so on. Other appellations that subtly seek to deprive India’s indigenous peoples their rights of affirmative action and land-entitlement are ‘vanvasis’ (literally, forest-dwellers) rather than ‘Adivasis’ (original-inhabitants). Finally, media persons who express differences of opinion with Hindutva hardliners are called ‘presstitutes’ (media-prostitutes) to show that their views are perverse, unoriginal and abhorrent to rightminded citizens who respect governmental authority and obey orders.  

4. Censoring Press, Stifling Dissent and Deifying the Leader

Today, Indian democracy faces grave threats to freedom of expression with the stifling of democratic dissent. Many local newspapers and TV channels in Indian languages have long been publicizing what is produced and peddled by the government. Yet, by contrast, many English news channels and media houses had retained their autonomy, respected democratic space and allowed viewpoints that differed from their own. This trend has changed, and an atmosphere of fear has paralyzed the Indian media. Eminent TV anchors like Prannoy Roy, Barkha Dutt, Karan Thapar and Ravish Kumar who have disagreed with government policies, have either been trolled online or abused and threatened with dire consequences, even death. Attempts have been made to penalize popular channels like NDTV. Globally-acclaimed award-winning authors like Arundhati Roy, too, have not been spared, being branded antinational, rebel, Pakistani and Maoist. Rationalists like M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, as well as courageous journalist Gauri Lankesh, were shot dead for being critical of Hindutva politics.

One of the most recent and blatant cases of intimidating organic intellectuals was a crackdown on five so-labelled ‘Urban Naxals’ suspected of having links with the ultra-left subversives of the state. Along with these, an 82-year old Jesuit priest, Stan Swamy, working with dispossessed Adivasis in the state of Jharkhand, was also arrested and cases under the draconian ‘Unlawful Activities Prevention Act’ (UAPA) were drawn up against them. All these accused are committed lawyers, writers and social activists who have the interests of India’s poorest and most exploited sections of society close at heart. A saffron-clad Hindu social activist, Swami Agnivesh, too, was manhandled, had his robes torn and ribs broken simply because he speaks of abolition of caste, the equality among all Indians, and fights for the rights of the rural poor and landless labourers.   

While stifling of dissent is one side of the populist strategy, the other side is the support given to select presspersons and TV channels to air majoritarian and governmental views. Arnab Goswami, probably the highest paid TV anchor in India, and his ‘Republic Channel’ are regarded as mouthpieces of governmental and majoritarian viewpoints. Besides shouting down ideological opponents during primetime debates, Goswami’s Republic Channel also launched a witch-hunt, vainly trying to prove that the Vatican, colluding with Indian bishops was conspiring to subvert the Hindu revival in India. Pastoral letters of three Catholic archbishops of Delhi, Gandhinagar and Goa, asking the faithful to pray for the country, were interpreted as church strategy to defame Modi’s good governance and pressurize Christians to defeat the BJP. 

Notably, today, with the InfoTech revolution and the pervasive spread of social media, public opinion ‘for’ or ‘against’ anything or anyone can be effectively engineered. India’s last general elections in 2014 were said to be ‘India’s first social media elections’. Modi and the BJP flooded social media—depicting the contest as a bout between two opposing ‘political brands’: commoner chaiwallah (tea-vendor), Narendra Modi versus elitist shehzada (prince), Rahul Gandhi of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty; good governance versus endemic corruption; decisiveness versus tentativeness; discipline versus chaos; respect for religion versus pseudo-secularism; etc. There were allegedly brilliant computer-whizzes handsomely paid to manage the election campaign. Modi’s BJP obtained an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) with 282 seats out of a total of 543, while the Indian National Congress—ruling for 55 out of the 69 years of India’s independence—won just 44 seats as compared to the 206 seats it won in 2009. Electoral successes apart, Modi is one of the most widely tracked persons on Twitter attracting some 43 million followers worldwide. Surprisingly, Modi has never appeared in any TV interview or public debate. He is a one-way communicator; others listen and obey. 

5. Unholy Trinity of Neoliberalism, Religious Nationalism and Militant Might 

Amidst rapid changes that India is undergoing and against the rising tide of cynicism about the state of affairs in the country, one might ask: Why is this populist brand of religious nationalism still acceptable—even if not fully agreeable—to large masses of the Indian public? The answer seems to lie in the religious character of India and the psyche of most Indians, which has never really changed despite claims of India surging ahead as a global superpower. Though there has been a ‘democratization of religion’ with many more members of the so-called ‘lower castes’ assuming positions of power, the so-called ‘upper castes’ do not accept such changes, for they inevitably lead to loss of sociopolitical power as well as weakened economic status. The elitism permanently ingrained in the caste system persists; and problems seem destined to continue. 

Roy rightly observes, “India’s freedom struggle, though magnificent, was by no means revolutionary. The Indian elite stepped easily and elegantly into the shoes of the British imperialists.”[12] With the overthrow of the ‘big enemy’, Britain, the anomalies of India’s caste system and the inequalities of the rural-urban divide remained unresolved. Post-Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of a prosperous, modern India—with ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ eventually added on to the Constitution—propelled urban Indians upward, selfishly striving for the welfare of their own family, clan, caste or community. This was possible under the leadership of strong leaders of the Congress. However, M.K. Gandhi’s reminder to Indians that “the soul of India lives in its villages,” and B.R. Ambedkar’s persistent demands for the “abolition of caste” were forgotten in the struggle to satisfy personal desires.

The parties that have long opposed the Nehru-Congress brand of politics—namely, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) from 1951 to 1977 and the BJP from 1980 onwards till date—were perceptive in forging a loose unity of the lower castes, along with those looking for some succour in religious revivalism. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, with the Congress dabbling in ‘soft Hindutva’ and opening out India’s doors to neoliberal capitalists, many Indians were beginning to be disillusioned with the empty promises of the Congress. Meanwhile, the BJP sensed that its poll prospects lay in driving a wedge between the so-publicized ‘elites’ and ‘commoners’, reviving Hindutva agenda, and posing itself as the protector of the majority Hindu religion against the ‘pseudo-secularists’ shown as appeasing the religious minorities. Gujarat became the ‘laboratory of Hindutva’ and the ‘Gujarat model of development’—with generous subsidies to foreign investors and Indian corporates, with sops thrown in for local players—became exemplar of the new, strong India.   

Today, neoliberal capitalists have joined hands with religious chauvinists; and with aggression from the military and protection by the police, they keep alive a state of siege and tension, thereby retaining a stranglehold over the poor. The unholy nexus of Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas—priests, warriors, and merchants, who perennially have pooled resources to perpetuate their powerful reigns—seems to profit once again from sociopolitical and religio-cultural systems. This time, two more factors are additionally in their favour: (a) the Dalits and Adivasis who were mostly opposed to upper caste/caste dominance are now being subsumed into the system as and when deemed convenient, and, (b) the electronic and social media is providing unstinted support to transmit fake news, foster doublespeak, fudge facts and figures, and deify the populist leader. This explains, to a large extent, the success of Hindutva populism.


During pre-election speeches in 2014, Modi melodramatically pleaded with the masses not to elect him as minister but merely as a chowkidar, watchdog, to confront the corrupt, Congress culprits who had robbed the nation for long. He swore to right historical wrongs and to set India on the fast-track of progress. Such rhetoric led to winning many state and local elections. However, the BJP suffered a colossal electoral loss in the February 2015 Delhi Assembly elections to the ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ (AAP, meaning, Common Man’s Party) headed by Arvind Kejriwal. The main reason was that people had seen through Modi’s empty rhetoric and failure to translate promises into concrete projects benefitting everyone. While the BJP engaged in negative tactics of pointing out the lacunae of AAP, Kejriwal and his supporters, spoke a language of the commoner, had the broom as its electoral symbol, and promised concrete welfare measures like cheap electricity, safe drinking water, better roads, speedy redress of woes, etc.—what India needs at present. He won.

The current anti-democratic, populist wave can only be countered by raising the consciousness of the public. Commoners as chowkidars must show, first, that despite all populist propaganda of aache din, no ‘good days’ have come; the common wo/man still suffers poverty, hunger, threats, eviction from home and land, etc. Second, although Modi and his allies constantly attack the Congress for being elitist, the BJP leaders are no less elitist—mostly belonging to the upper castes and classes, with minimal Muslim representation. Third, while Modi boasts about being unsullied by corruption, BJP ministers are guilty of land scams, money laundering, shady arms’ acquisition deals, unpunished rapes, lynching, besides having criminal backgrounds. Modi himself was banned from entering the UK till 2012 and the USA till 2014 for his alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat genocide. But, his current post provides him with the immunity to freely travel worldwide. Fourth, the unholy trinity of neoliberal capitalists, religious fanatics and military-police musclemen must be exposed for what they are: self-serving exploiters of the poor and powerless. Fifth, organic intellectuals—authors, philosophers, journalists, poets, theologians, media-persons, semioticians, filmmakers—must strive to expose the doublespeak, evolve new symbols, reclaim the democratic space which is constantly shrinking. All this will only bear fruit if the common wo/man’s concerns are highlighted in public life and sociopolitical debates.

India has had many populist movements both, at the national and local levels. After Independence, at the national level, one can think of Indira Gandhi who reigned supreme over India with a much-publicized ‘Indira is India, and India is Indira’ slogan. Riding a populist wave, and keen on singlehandedly usurping political power, she manipulated the declaration of a state of Emergency spanning June 1975 to March 1977, which eventually led to her downfall. Hindutva populism is today being animated by one man, Narendra Modi, who has been building up his image with great support from the corporate world, the media and the many nationalist associations who seek the resuscitation of an imagined, glorious Hindu Rashtra. So far, the processes of mythicization of history and historicization of myths, as well as symbolizations, identity-politics and the forging of alliances among the so-called ‘lower castes’ have borne rich harvests. It’s often said, “Indians do not cast their vote; but vote their caste!” Be that as it may, one hopes that, ultimately, all castes will cast their votes in favour of democracy, not narrow religious nationalism, which alone seems to be the finest option for all.


[1] G. Ionescu and E. Gellner eds., “Introduction,” Populism: Its Meaning and National Characteristics (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969), 1.

[2] Hinduism is not synonymous with Hindutva, which is an exclusivist, militant offshoot of Hinduism propagated by fanatic Hindus seeking to build a theocratic ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Nation). The Sangh Parivar—meaning, ‘Family of Organizations’—refers to the conglomerate of Hindu nationalist organizations started by members of the RSS, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh, meaning, ‘National Volunteers’ Corps’. Each wing of the Sangh Parivar has its own policies and activities within the broad Hindutva ideology. For example, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is the political wing, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is the religious wing, Akhil Bhartiya Vidhyarti Parishad (ABVP) is the youth association, etc. For details see V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva (Bombay: Veer Savarkar Prakashan, 1969); also, J. Sharma, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2011).

[3] See J.-W. Müller, What is Populism? (UK: Penguin Random House, 2017), 2-4.

[4] See M.S. Golwalkar, We, or, Our Nationhood Defined (Nagpur: Bharat Prakashan, 1947); and, Bunch of Thoughts, 3rd ed. (Bangalore: Sahitya Sindhu Prakashana, 1996). 

[5] R. Thapar, “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity,” Modern Asian Studies 23/2 (1989): 209-231.

[6], accessed on 10 October 2018. Batra is an RSS ideologue-historian who has stoked many controversies by proposing many fanciful theories—for example, that plastic surgery was probably known in ancient India since Lord Ganesh had an elephant’s head implanted upon a human body.

[7] A.P. Cohen, The Symbolic Construction of Community (Chichester: Ellis Horwood Limited and London & New York: Tavistock Publications, 1985), 11-38, argues that community is constructed not so much by geographical proximity of members as much as it is by symbolic fields that either unify or divide people. See P. Bourdieu, Language & Symbolic Power (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), 163-170.  

[8] R. Thapar, “The Tyranny of Labels”, K.N. Panikkar ed., The Concerned Indian’s Guide to Communalism (New Delhi: Viking, 1999), 1-31, warns against naively labelling religious communities and setting them in opposition to each other since religion was not as important in ancient India as it is today made out to be.

[9] See S. Roy, “On Hindutva and the ‘Five Ms’ that Pose a Threat to it”, 2 December 2014,, accessed 10/10/18.

[10], accessed on 12 October 2018.

[11] See for additional details on the plight of Indian Muslims, today: O. Anas, “Indian Muslims between Exclusion and Political Populism,” Al Jazeera Centre for Studies’ Report of 30 November 2016. 

[xii] A. Roy, Public Power in the Age of Empire (New York:  Seven Stories Press, 2004), 6. 


Francis Gonsalves is an Indian Jesuit, professor of theology, journalist and social activist. Formerly Dean at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi, currently Dean of Theology at the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV), Pune, he is the Executive Secretary of the Catholic Conference of Bishops of India (CCBI) for Theology and Doctrine. He has authored seven books among which are ‘God of Our Soil: Towards Subaltern Trinitarian Theology’ (2010), ‘Body Broken for Body Building: Christic Living in a Broken Global Village’ (2013), ‘Feet Rooted, Hearts Radiant, Minds Raised: Living Sacraments in India’ (2015).

Address:  Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth – Ramwadi, Nagar Road, Pune – 411014 (India).