The only figure who did more to reshape Hinduism than the Hindutva founders was Mahatma Gandhi. His vision of the faith was, in many ways, the absolute inverse of Hindutva: He cared nothing about branding, and a great deal about belief. It was an ideal so familiar today that one can easily forget what a break from the past it represented. Gandhi’s radical embrace of nonviolence drew not only from Hindu tradition, but, as he famously said, also from the Sermon on the Mount, from Buddhist texts, and even from Leo Tolstoy. After a member of Savarkar’s group assassinated Gandhi in 1948, the entire Hindutva movement was discredited for a generation.
Fast-forward to 2019: Gandhi’s murderer has been praised as a “patriot” by a candidate running on Narendra Modi’s ticket, and while the prime minister has said he disagrees with the remark, he did not withdraw his party’s backing. (The candidate won.)
Varanasi was not always a Hindutva stronghold. Instead, it was long held by Congress, the party of Gandhi and India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. When Modi ran for the seat five years ago, he hedged his bets by simultaneously contesting from a safer constituency in his native state of Gujarat (you can do that in India’s parliamentary system). Although he was a lifelong RSS member, Modi explicitly refrained from running on a Hindutva platform, using the slogan “Toilets, not temples” to emphasize his commitment to an earnest, technocratic, getting-things-done attitude.
But getting things done requires … getting things done. Modi has instituted some economic reforms, but after an initial spurt, the economy’s growth rate has slowed. New investments have fallen since Modi took office, and his promise of extensive job creation remains largely unfulfilled. His signature demonetization effort (taking the vast majority of banknotes out of circulation) made many families’ life savings valueless and caused hardship to almost everyone.
To compensate, Modi and his followers ramped up the Hindutva pitch. First came the “love jihad”—false accusations that Muslim men were wooing and impregnating Hindu women to change India’s demographic balance (Muslims make up about 14 percent of the population, Hindus about 80 percent). Next came the “cow protection” lynchings in BJP-controlled states such as Uttar Pradesh (UP): Gangs of Hindu men killed Muslims whom they falsely accused of eating beef. Cow slaughter has been banned in several Indian states by non-BJP governments, but it had never led to widespread attacks egged on by government officials.
Perhaps most ominously, in 2017 Modi appointed the radical priest Yogi Adityanath as chief minister of UP, India’s largest state. Adityanath’s militancy makes Modi seem almost moderate—and Adityanath openly covets his patron’s office. To top it all off, over the past half year, Modi has engaged in the most serious armed combat with Muslim-majority Pakistan in two decades. Pakistan prompted the action, but Modi’s changing his Twitter handle to Chowkidar (“Watchman”), and encouraging his supporters to do likewise, was purely his own choice.
This is Hindutva. But it is not Hinduism. The stakes here are not faith or practice—nobody is threatening to stop Varanasi’s pandits from making their Ganga Aarti. Instead, the issues are those of identity: We’re being outbred by minorities. We’re being laughed at by the world. We’re overrun with immigrants—and you know what kind. We’re second-class citizens in our own nation. Make India Great Again.