Since I was a little girl, I’ve spent the winter holidays at my grandmother’s house in Kerala, India. I treasured the early morning walks with my father to the neighborhood ambalam, or temple, breathing in the balmy air as the city slowly begins to wake. The ambalam, reminiscent of a Japanese pagoda, has loomed above my family’s house for generations. My grandfather used to shuttle his five children to the temple every morning, with my father, the youngest, usually trailing behind. Even when I was barely tall enough to see over the awning, and certainly far too young to know what being Hindu even meant, the ambalam was special to me. A place of calm and serenity. A place of love.
This past December, I was stirred awake from a jetlagged-induced nap by a booming noise outside. I noticed people outside of my window and fire? I rushed out onto the verandah to get a closer look: crowds of men marching, torches in hand shouting past the ambalam. I’d never seen anything like it. Pressing my aunt for more, she passively replied, “Oh that’s just the RSS. They march out here everyday now.”
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the RSS, is an Indian right-wing nationalist militia belonging to the larger Sangh Parivar, a body of organizations that has now ingrained itself into every facet of Indian society. The Sangh Parivar has even reached the highest office in the land through its political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP, and its leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The RSS is the progenitor of this movement and helped popularize the Hindutva philosophy now proudly touted by Prime Minister Modi in national and even international venues. Hindutva can be translated as “Hindu-ness.” This term was once understood as defining a place for the Hindu community in a newly independent, secular India. Hindutva has now become an “imminent threat to freedom, equality and democracy.”
The theological component of Hindutva was not a part of its original conception, and intolerance is even more recent. The Sangh Parivar has appropriated Hindutva to advance a divine mission: to protect the “Hindu nation” and its interests at all costs.
You might ask, how exactly has the BJP and its co-conspirators “protected” said interests? They have passed amendments to the national citizenship laws aimed at discriminating against Muslims; removed autonomy provisions granted in the 1950s to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir; perpetrated “vigilante” attacks on selling or consuming beef and enforced policies to restrict marriages between Hindus and Muslims. And they’re only getting started.
Hindus have a clear majority in the country — 80% of the population, compared to 15% of Muslims. Yet, the Sangh Parivar remains threatened, and continues its shows of power across the country from local ambalams to the Supreme Court of India. One thing remains clear: “[t]he rise of Hindu majoritarian politics and the government’s willingness to trample Muslim-minority interests has cast a shadow on India’s reputation as a liberal, secular democracy.”
I’m a Hindu, but I’m not a Hindu nationalist. I will never forget my 90-year-old grandmother proudly proclaiming to a BJP candidate at her doorstep: “I have never voted for the BJP in my life and I never will.” She even bellowed at the protestors this past winter to keep it down so as to not interrupt her television serials. And she’s not the only one. Kerala doesn’t have a single BJP representative in India’s parliament, and the state has been largely governed by leftist coalitions since the late 1970s. That doesn’t change the fact that throughout the country, Hindu nationalism has become an unstoppable force, and the Sangh Parivar will not be silenced or deterred.
In a sense, I’ve been able to regard the rise of Hindutva from a pinnacle of privilege. I’m a part of the religious majority and I live abroad, free of the harsh realities faced by my Muslim counterparts in India every single day. But, as an Indian and as a Hindu, witnessing this oppression in the name of Hinduism shakes me to my core. It goes against everything I’ve learnt and believe. I was always taught that Hinduism advocated for ahimsa, or nonviolence; it is a faith that at its core believes in not just tolerance, but acceptance.
Hindu nationalism is decisively destroying that vision. It is seeping into the politics and people of the world’s largest democracy, the land of my ancestors. It has corrupted a centuries-old tradition of peace and permissiveness. It has turned my places of love into places of hate.