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Opinion In India, right-wing Hindu groups are recycling Britain’s colonial ideas about religion

Members of a Hindu organization demand the ban on the Bollywood film “Padmaavat” in Mumbai on Jan. 20. The film has opened to thin crowds after months of often violent pre-release protests, including death threats for the lead actress amid rumors that the film depicted a relationship between a Hindu queen and a Muslim sultan. (Rajanish Kakade/AP)

Shivani Radhakrishnan is a social philosophy PhD candidate at Columbia University, where she works on ideology critique.

In late November, a state-level media coordinator from India’s ruling party, the BJP, offered a bounty of 10 crore rupees (about $1.5 million) for the beheadings of a Bollywood actress and a director of the feature film “Padmaavat,” which opened Jan. 25.  The movie (originally “Padmavati”) depicts the life of legendary 14th-century queen Padmini and has sparked right-wing Hindu groups to denounce the would-be blockbuster, citing an alleged romance between the Hindu queen and a Muslim king. Last week, Delhi schoolchildren crouched on the floor as a mob threw rocks at their bus in Gurgaon in protest of the movie. Since Indian filmgoers are only now seeing the film, originally slated to release last year, much of the outrage has been based on the film’s speculated contents. While threats of violence have been rightfully denounced by other BJP leaders, chief ministers of a number of states — including Madhya Pradesh and Punjab — have demanded controversial scenes be removed before the film is screened.

The “Padmaavat” affair provides us with good reason to reconsider the growing influence of the right-wing Hindu groups.

In October, several politicians from the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which accepts Hindutva (“Hinduness”) as part of its platform, argued that the Taj Mahal had no place in the country’s heritage because it was built by a Muslim. Meanwhile, vigilante mob attacks on people accused of selling or smuggling beef — most often Muslims — have spiked since 2015, with a data journalism organization called IndiaSpend reporting that vigilantes killed at least 28 people since 2015.

Yet, while recent events have sparked debate, one thing has too often been overlooked: Right-wing Hindu groups are recycling old colonial thinking. While Hindu communities of thought and practice have existed on the Indian subcontinent for millennia, the concept of “Hinduism” as a world religion, one with unified beliefs and rituals akin to “Christianity” or “Islam,” can be traced to the 18th-century colonial context. Although religious people thought of themselves more in terms of their region, family lineage or language, British Christian missionaries in India took aim at the “idolatry” and “savagery” of what they thought were unified “Hindoo” beliefs and practices. Orientalist scholars such as William Jones later countered these missionaries with defenses of the wisdom in Sanskrit texts.

Now, when right-wing Hindus emphasize that all Hindus share a common culture, history, and ancestry, they take a particular vision of “Hindu-ness” to be universal — appealing to a unified version created when India was still under the British. Regions in India traditionally venerate different gods or goddesses, but attempts at creating a pan-Hindu nationalism often paint over these strong regional, caste and cultural variances. For instance, Ram Navami, a festival that celebrates the birth of the Hindu god Ram, has never been central to regions such as Kerala and Bengal. Yet, last April, right-wing Hindu groups organized Ram Navami celebrations in both states with increasing intensity. It’s also easy to forget, when talking about cow-vigilantism and vegetarianism, that a vast majority of Hindus worldwide eat meat. According to Suhag Shukla of the Hindu America Foundation, that number is about 70 percent.

In allowing the Hindu right to define what forms of life count as properly Hindu, the victims most affected are those already overlooked. That includes people from regions outside of the BJP’s base in the Hindi-speaking heartland — Bengalis, Malayalis and Assamese among them. In trying to make Hinduism a unified religion, what was and continues to be left out of the picture are forms of worship and practice that don’t fit the model: rituals and practices common to women and lower-caste Hindus, tantra, Bhakti and the influence of Indian Sufism on Hindu ways of thought.

The attempt to get people to fit into created categories has colonial roots in India as well. As British civil servants gathered data on their Indian subjects, they separated people into discrete groups. But unlike the flexibility of communities and clans, census responses required Indian subjects to identify as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or untouchable. This served the purpose of British governance then. Now it serves a new function: to rally Hindus against imagined others.

Of course, this didn’t happen entirely without Indian participation: “Hindus” came to see and organize themselves in terms of the created categories. This helped Indians promote British translations of ancient texts, resist missionary polemics in the 18th and 19th centuries, and later, mobilize the independence movement.

When anti-colonial movements gained traction toward the end of British rule in India in 1947, Hindu nationalism became the default way of reclaiming political power. Appealing to blood-and-soil nationality was a way for Indians to stand against colonizers, namely the British. Now, this anti-colonial rhetoric that was first marshaled against the British is being repurposed, with Muslims branded as the colonizers. The BJP website, for instance, speaks about India as a great civilization that weathered the storms of invaders from the “the Shakas to the Islamic armies of Turks and Afghans. It fought and resisted external oppression and its essential civilization and culture survived great challenges and attempts at effacement.”

None of this, though, means that India should abandon Hindu nationalism in favor of “secular values” such as rationalism and private belief. That model, as scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty has long argued, of treating religion as a purely individual matter doesn’t fit the Indian context.

What all this suggests is that the form of Hindu life being rallied around isn’t as deeply rooted in India as some have made it out to be. And that is politically important. As the 2019 general election looms closer, both Indians and the Indian diaspora — who in large part welcomed Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in 2014 — must be more critical of what vision of Hinduism is on offer. This will mean demanding more than what is currently being presented: a narrow vision of Hinduism and an even narrower vision of India.