Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures during a rally last year in Ahmedabad, India.
The controversial social pioneer and founder of peace research, Johan Galtung, was one of the first to describe how cultural symbols may be appropriated by a nation to justify subjugation of a rival ethnic or religious group.
An elite group who deifies their own predominant cultural symbols while desacralizing those of a more vulnerable group of “others” would constitute an example.
Among specific cases in the world today, one of the most blatant may be the ideology adopted by India’s ruling coalition, which touts the homogenization of the Indian cultural landscape as a national good and seeks to promote it by actively suppressing the cultural and religious identity of other communities.
The Indian government under Modi has adopted Hindu nationalism, and specifically, the narrow Hindutva variety which advocates absolute supremacy of the elite Brahmin caste over all other castes and creeds. Ideology of exclusion, mainstreamed via party politics as state policy, has met with wide success.
Wide acceptance of “cultural otherness” has resulted so deftly as to nearly asphyxiate Indian values of pluralism. Concurrently, the party’s push for “integration” of the cultural and religious others now functions as justification for a ruthless assimilation process for the autonomous region of Jammu and Kashmir into Modi’s India.
India’s journey from Gandhi to Modi has taken seven decades. However, the seeds of violent nationalism were sown already when the partition of the Subcontinent was construed as “the vivisection of mother India” by the right-wing Hindu cadres of the Mahasabha – a political party formed after the institution of separate Hindu and Muslim electorates in India – and its creation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), translated as the National Volunteer Society.
The RSS was a youth mobilization organization, which promoted Hindu nationalism as the best anecdote to the former threats of colonialism and foreign rule. Both entities were openly contemptuous of Nehru’s secularism; ironically, the very glue that held India together at that time.
The presence of greater numbers of educated Indian diaspora within influential world fora and think tanks has contributed to a rather limited image of Hinduism outside the Subcontinent, as a pacifist religious creed that adheres to a cyclical notion of multiple life incarnations over time. Simplified as, “good deeds are rewarded by a noble birth whereas bad deeds result in an ignoble birth,” creates a false notion of justice. On the contrary, human inequality is inbuilt within a system of social beliefs that justifies exploitation and persecution of lower status groups as having been religiously ordained.
In contrast to the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Hinduism believes in an immanent god that manifests itself in temporal forms. The highest caste, the Brahmins, are a manifestation of that immanence and therefore, above the rest; particularly, the lower castes whose birth within the hierarchy has determined their lifetime of servitude.
Hinduism does not, however, follow one, standardized set of rituals due to its indefinable iconography. A common culture, therefore, is equated with religion. This indefiniteness, within the structural context of foreign rule, gave rise in the 17th century to the militant Hindu nationalism exemplified by the legendary exploits of Maharaja Shivaji against Mughal rule, which stresses solidarity through the sharing of culture instead of participation in common rituals.
Thus, Hindutva culture, according to the founders of Hindu nationalism, essentially means common heroes, common mythology, common attire, common dietary habits, common acceptance of a social system based on caste and common agreement on threats to the community. The term further signifies a deeper concept of adopting a way of life that is culturally Hindu. Anyone that does not follow the Hindutva creed in its most narrow sense is seen as to have apostatized his or her Indian roots.
Though the Hindu Mahasabha remained a fringe party politically after partition, as compared to the secular Congress party, it eventually fostered militancy within the RSS as the precursor of the current BJP-led Hindu leadership.
Unlike other, pre-partition political parties, the RSS already had avowed extremist aims to fight minority groups and not colonialism when it was established in 1925. That is why the RSS never actively participated in struggle for independence, nor did it engage in advocacy for peace between Hindus and Muslims. It, therefore, follows that the man, who cut his political teeth under the exclusionist RSS ideology over three, long decades before becoming prime minister is an unlikely portent for regional peace.
Today, the Indian minorities that together constitute only 20 percent of India’s total population continue to suffer discrimination in access to decent work, healthcare and education. Minorities in nearly every state of India score lowest on Human Development Index metrics because of an institutionalized deprivation.
Cultural revisionism through falsification of old historical facts and commissioning of superstitious research projects, such as searching for the origins of the Ganges river at a mythical place called Kailash, instead of its actual place at Gangotri, in the Greater Himalayan Range, further indicate an agenda bent on erasing the cultural imprint of other civilizations.
The attempts to fictionalize the age of the Vedas at 6,000 BC, a full 4,500 years earlier than historical evidence indicates, is meant to prove that Hindu civilization predated the Indus Valley civilization and constitutes another act that smacks of cultural violence.
It is time that the international community took cognizance of the perils stalking the land of the Buddha and Gandhi, both of whom suffered in their attempts to shield the hapless populations of their times from the strangulating grip of cultural violence.