Amit R. Baishya — Passions of the Political (Review of Anustup Basu’s Hindutva as Political Monotheism)

Hindutva as Political Monotheism
Anustup Basu, Hindutva as Political Monotheism (Duke, 2020)

a review of Anustup Basu, Hindutva as Political Monotheism (Duke, 2020)

by Amit R. Baishya

This article was peer-reviewed by the boundary 2 Editorial Collective.

“In studying its (Hindutva as political monotheism) long genesis, my objective is not to advance toward a prognostic reading of the present…My purpose will instead be to explore, with some degree of speculation, the ground of the present.”

(Anustup Basu, Hindutva as Political Monotheism, 10)

The sentences above are crucial for approaching the novelty of Anustup Basu’s approach in his monograph Hindutva as Political Monotheism. Studies of Hindutva usually focus on its historical geneses, its sociological impact, and its anthropological dimensions.[1] Basu’s monograph is a path-breaking attempt to trace its genealogy as a political monotheism. This effort, he says, is not “a presentist elaboration of what we are witnessing now, but a deep search of its (Hindutva’s) historical origins” (2). The key analytical optic he deploys to understand Hindutva as a political monotheism, as an ideology that seeks a “unifying ethnocultural consistency rather than a theological unity,” and as “a monotheme of religiosity rather than religion itself” are the works of the hard-right thinker and one-time Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (5). Schmitt’s theses on the concept of the political assists Basu in drawing out a “tacit monotheistic imperative in European organic theories of religious and ethnocentric nationhood” that he explores in detail in his first chapter (5). This monotheistic impulse utilizes the colonial epistemological category of “Hinduism” to invent it as a “jealous” political and national identity that eventually colonizes the apparatus of the post-colonial state. In an introduction and four subsequent chapters, Basu traces the development of this monotheistic impulse as a literary and cultural project in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to its eventual replacement by “Hindutva 2.0”—an advertised and informational experience of urban modernity—in the contemporary period. Basu does not conduct this inquiry by presenting a chronological narrative of the development of core Hindutva ideas; rather, the word “speculation” in the epigraph above signals his eclectic and creative juxtaposition of multiple primary sources to trace a genealogy of Hindutva as a political monotheism.

Hindutva as Political Monotheism (henceforth Hindutva) locates the search for a fully developed political monotheism in India in relation to two dimensions of inquiry. The first is the colonial epistemological invention of “Hinduism,” the larger arcs of modernity in India, and the drafting and implementation of post-colonial India’s constitution in 1950. The second places the contemporary rise of Hindutva within the broader global crisis of liberalism and the concomitant rise of ethic-national chauvinisms. Two conceptual terms serve as touchstones in the four chapters. The first is axiomatic that is derived from William Connolly’s work on American evangelical-capitalism in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style (2008). The axiomatic, Basu writes, is a “singular religious passion that does not necessarily depend on theological consistency” (5). This observation connects with his argument broached earlier that Hindutva is more about religiosity than about religion per se. He further specifies that the axiomatic is “a techno-social regime of governmentality than simply a theologico-pastoral formation” (5). The second term is parabasis, which he draws from Gayatri Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999). This term emerges from classical Greek theater and refers to the duration in the play when the actors leave the stage, and the chorus addresses the audience. Basu deploys parabasis to explore the “historical roots of a relatively recent voice of a wider urban consensus beyond usual suspects such as the ardent disciple of (M.S.) Golwalkar or the angry foot soldier of (Narendra) Modi” (9).[2] This urban consensual voice, while constituted by dissonant timbres, converges in crucial aspects to consolidate and sustain “the increasing metropolitan revision of regional eccentricities and the fervor for security and techno-financial growth” (10). The genealogical precedents and rise to prominence of this “electronic Hindu political monotheism,” which surpasses the older impasses of print capitalism, is the central knowledge-object Basu focuses on in Hindutva.

Chapter One—“Questions Concerning the Hindu Political”—lays the theoretical foundations by elaborating some key concepts from Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political (2007) and Political Theology (2006). The key extension that he makes to Schmitt’s vitalistic conceptualization of the political as the realm defined by the friend-enemy antagonism is by reading it as a “fundamentally monotheistic calling” and not via the German thinker’s observation that all secular concepts are at their base sublimated religious ones (14). This austere notion of the political is a “mythopoetic automaton” that enables the imagination of a unified people and the state only after having “categorically distinguished the believer from the infidel” (14). This “passion” is monotheistic by “secular transposition, because it has to be a singular impelling of devotion to the nation and the state” (14). In the colonial/post-colonial Indian context, this monotheism is conceived by the Hindu right as constitutively Hindu, an axiomatic that is then opposed to rival monotheistic axiomatics like Islam and, to a lesser extent, Christianity. A fiction of a primordial, prepolitical Hindu India is, thus, disseminated which has supposedly survived and persisted despite Islamic, and later, British colonization of what is now a nation-state.

Basu states that he isn’t interested in an “instrumental” reading of the Indian context in Schmittian terms (23). Schmitt’s theorizations are not used as a mechanical explanatory model applied to the Indian context; rather, his “sparse” invocation is useful in highlighting three important themes of particular pertinence to nation-thinking and imaginaries of sovereignty: “the modern understanding of religion, the romance of the past, and the concomitant monotheistic imperative of political theology” (14).  Basu is interested in mining the connection between Schmitt’s notion of the political and Hindutva for three specific reasons. First, there has been a consistent monotheistic impulse in the discursive invention of “Hinduism” from the nineteenth century onwards. The Abrahamic cast endowed to Hinduism from that period paves the way for its consolidation as a political and nationalist identity that desires the state form. Second, Hindu nationalism is thoroughly Eurocentric and Orientalist at its core, a fact underscored rather risibly, as reported in the news portal The Wire (2021), in a recent revision to the history curriculum of Delhi University where the Mughal emperor Babur’s entry into India is termed “invasion” while the East India Company’s rule is couched under the more benign term “territorial expansion.” Third, when Hindu nationalism became institutionalized as a political movement in the 1920s and 30s, it was directly influenced by European fascisms and Herderian romantic-organicist formulations (17). But what makes Schmitt particularly relevant to Basu’s project is his identification of the passion of “jealousy” as the core of the monotheistic distinction between friend and enemy in the realm of the political. This passion facilitates the imagination of a Hindu India as “an organic whole rather than an associational pact” and is often summoned to judge the contrarian pressures of regionalism or to condemn secularism and federalism in the Indian context (151).

Let us tarry with some of the distinctive features of Basu’s reading of the passion of “jealousy” in Schmitt awhile. In The Concept of the Political, Schmitt argues that the friend-enemy distinction is the central antagonism in the political sphere. Given Basu’s focus on “grounds,” it is crucial to note the way he distinguishes Schmitt’s friend-enemy antagonism and its relation to sovereign decisionism from the Hobbesian model of decisionism. Hobbes begins from the contractualist fiction and not the primordial time-space that precedes the contract. In contrast, for Schmitt, this primordial is the settlement of the question of friend and enemy. Thus, the friend-enemy antagonism and its settlement prior to social contracts or associations constitutes the very grounds of the political. Basu writes:

The political is decided by a primal pathology prior to self-conscious peopleness; it…has to be an already-there organic unity. It cannot be associational or contractual precisely because it must express a singular and undivided will before reason and talk can proceed. Schmitt’s political theology therefore necessarily defines the bearer of the political as a monotheistic congregation, jealous of any apostates, pagans or heretics in its midst. (18)

The passion of jealousy points us towards the chilling imperative that a war for extermination between both parties is possible at any time. The purpose of the state is to respond to this fear at every step. When the juridical resources of the state cannot fulfil this expectation, a “secular miracle” is called for—the exception.[3] This sovereign decision can either be a war against “internal” enemies or a “perpetual civil war as an index of relentless determination or purification” (18). The chilling imperatives of Hindutva as political monotheism, which can be conducted both as a war on internal enemies and a permanent civil war, echo these Schmittian postulations.

Chapter Two (“The Hindu Nation as Organism”) is the core of Hindutva. This chapter juxtaposes philosopher Bimal Krishna Matilal’s work on Indic “little traditions” with modern Hindutva’s organismic invented “grand” tradition that attempts to subsume a massive plurality of identities via a “unifying ethnocultural consistency rather than a theological unity” (5). Basu deploys Aamir Mufti’s Enlightenment in the Colony (2007) to caution that there is no “pristine truth of pluralism” to contrast with the pristine truth of monotheism—both desires are sullied by the colonial modern. They gesture to a lost excess beyond the organizing frames of colonial taxonomies. But what is missing, Basu writes, in Hindutva discourses is the “critical admission of irony and amnesiac mourning—an understanding of the bygone as necessary fiction with a phantom aspect…” (34). This differentiates Hindutva’s monotheistic search for lost origins from the double consciousness that marks scholars like Matilal, Mufti, and, indeed, works like Hindutva itself.

In contrast to Hindutva’s modernist desire for a theistic unity and consistency in line with the Abrahamic traditions, Matilal’s works on “little traditions” show that while the numerous South Asian scriptural traditions have “involved themselves with logic and epistemology, religious duties and rituals, metaphysics and soteriology,” they have hardly ever “furnished a constitutive moral worldview” (38). This seeming lack of a constitutive, coherent moral worldview and a massive polyphony of voices within what is called the Hindu tradition has led many Western thinkers to posit that “Indian religion was inseparable from Indian mythology” (Hegel) or that there was “no concept of morality in Sanskrit” (Max Weber) (39-41). To make Hinduism “necessarily Brahminical and resolutely monolingual,” as Hindutva attempts to do, would involve the negation of the dynamic osmosis among the tremendous babble of “little traditions” into a “manufactured and jealous ‘Epic of Traditions’…in order to institute a masculine, Savarna national morality robbed of all errant and queering energies” (41). This is a project still in the making, but one which has become more prominent and public in recent times.

The other insuperable bottleneck that Hindutva faces is that of caste. While Hindutva discourse insists on the “original Varna as a recognition of merit over birth,” the questions of Jati and Varna are always complicated by plural traditions that are “artisanal, ecological, and based on everyday customs and pieties” (44-6). The problem here lies in Hindutva’s uncritical adoption of the Western anthropological category of religion itself. As Basu says, quoting Matilal: “‘The social reality [called] religion did not exist in ancient or classical India’—at least in a core, etymological root sense of the word, as reliq, or that which binds and relegates” (47). Responding to this absence, Hinduism is invented as a monotheism and as resolutely monolingual by Hindutva. The valorization of Brahminical theodicy in this monolingual reformulation is a manifestation of the desperate desire of Hindutva historicism to respond to and rectify the purported lack posited by the Orientalizing gaze of the big colonizing Other.

The tour de force in this chapter is Basu’s analysis of the “pieties” of Hindutva discourse and the problems it encounters in endowing the nation an organismic cast. For Hindutva thinkers like MS Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, the Hindu nation in its essence is paradoxically predicated on “terrestrial homogeneity as well as cosmogonic inequity” (32). Once this promised Hindu punyabhumi (consecrated land) is achieved via the revival of Hindu virtue:

…this nation, in its perfection, will be marked by a balanced metabolism of natural caste patrimony and a principled docility of the lower orders. Citizenship shall be defined by selfless service and sacrifice, not by individual rights and interests. The state here can only be an organic expression of an originary Brahminical peace; it may not be a profane artifice to ward off a natural state of (caste) war. (32)

This invocation of Brahminical peace and caste war leads directly to Basu’s fascinating consideration of Hindutva’s “primal origin myth” and evocation of “deep time” that he conducts via an elaboration of four themes: “Time and Origins,” “Race and Law,” “Territory, Imaginative Geography, Identity,” and “Language, Countermemory, and Culture.” I won’t go into the details of each theme but will explicate Basu’s theorization of Hindutva “deep time” through a contrast with an interesting moment in a well-known South Asian fictional text. Nirmal, a central character in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2006), tries to explain how he will attempt to communicate the vastness of geological timescales to a group of rural children in Bengal:

It’s not just the goddesses—there’s a lot more in common between myth and geology. Look at the size of their heroes, how immense they are—heavenly deities on the one hand, and on the other the titanic stirrings of the earth itself—both equally otherworldly, equally remote from us…And then, of course, there is the scale of time—yugas and epochs, Kaliyug and the Quaternary. And yet—mind this!—in both, these vast durations are telescoped in such a way as to permit the telling of a story. (150)

Nirmal’s homology between myth and geology shows how the vastness of geological time is conceptualized by different epistemological formations in varied yet comparable ways. As the medievalist Jeffrey J. Cohen (2015) writes—“Every historical period works with the conceptual tools it inherits but is never bound by that heritage to the replication of that which is already known” (83). Nirmal seems to intuitively understand the connection between such different epistemological attempts at comprehending the vastness of temporal scales. He uses this understanding and tries to channel it creatively towards a pedagogical goal—how to make his students grasp the vastness of the temporal scales of geohistory.

Is the Hindutva homology, or rather the erasure of the gap between myth and history the same as what Nirmal institutes between myth and geology? Time, as Basu says, in its Hindu-Aryan naissance “is geological” (49). Basu succinctly distinguishes imaginaries of temporal scale in Puranic cosmologies and the way Hindutva banalizes them for statist ends. Deep time in Puranic texts is not quantifiable in literal terms, and function as “pure magnitudes to invoke fear, shame and reverence…” (51). Such pure magnitudes create an “existential distance between humans of the present and the Dharmic exemplum” (52). Time-reckoning in the ancient era could simultaneously exist as cyclical in terms of cosmology and linear in terms of the moment of the here and now. The problem with Hindutva thinking lies in “making the two identical, and then vectorizing the whole thing in terms of statist mythography” (52). The complexities of the temporal imaginaries that so invigorate Nirmal to help his students encounter questions of geological scale is rerouted via colonial historiography by Hindutva discourse into “coarse positivisms of rise and fall” (53).  Invocations of deep time in Hindutva discourse is not a contention with different timescales, but a negation of timeliness and metric history, as for example in Golwalkar’s rhetorical flourish that Hindus ruled India for ten thousand years before a “foreigner” set foot in it (54-5). Metric time and history are conceptualized as a form of rupture. The original period of Hindu glory cannot be located within temporal frameworks; instead, history begins with a curving towards Kaliyuga (end times). Secular history is a fall from a myth of origins, while the myth of the golden Hindu past exists in a time before time.

This conceptualization of deep time before historical time proper is also imagined as a period of Brahminical peace. The invocation of a mythic past in terms of Varna is necessary for Hindutva because it is predicated “in the form of a Jati revenge against Islam, not Jati parity within Hinduism” (56). The monotheme of a jealous Hindu identity ranged against rival axiomatics can only be consolidated by “foreclosing the emergence of countermemories and competing fictions of Jati identity” (56). Deploying Michel Foucault’s ideas on race war from Society must be Defended (2003), Basu argues that for this Hindu monotheme to emerge and to anticipate a possible future when this essence is restored, the link between history and caste-war must be actively denied or forgotten:

No matter how far back one goes, profane historical knowledge does not present nature, right, order, or peace for Hindutva. Hindutva’s historicism is therefore founded on an idealism that knowledge and truth belong to the order of Brahminical peace; that they cannot belong to the side of violence, miscegenation, and relentless caste war. (62)

Besides the potential extermination of the enemy and forgetting of caste war, this narrative of Hindu redemption is predicated on the concurrent remembering of an ideal Hindu subject that is “apparently different from the profane, modern one, yet one that is lost in an ever-receding past that in itself cannot be viewed other than through the prism of the modern” (86). This ideal Hindu subject, simultaneously ancient and modern, must be reinstated as sovereign among the plurality of identities in the subcontinent. This is one of the core elements of the Hindutva project.

Chapter Three—“The Indian Monotheism”—moves away from Hindutva discourse to an analysis of “normative Hinduism,” a secularized, albeit Hinduized, sensus communis that has been the bedrock of the post-colonial nation-state. This discourse of “soft” Hinduness ranges across a spectrum from “benign to sharp.” It also oscillates between a patronizing benevolence towards Islam and a paranoid hauteur directed towards the jealous monotheism of Hindutva (124). In recent decades, Basu writes, this “apparently benign Hinduness has increased its powers as a psychological parabasis for a majoritarian nation” (88).  Chapter Three looks at “discursive antecedents” in the “broader nineteenth-century Indological identification of ‘Hinduism’ and the discourses of Hindu reform, Hindu anthropology, jurisprudence, and history” (7). This “benign” discursive trajectory of a Hindu monotheme has increasingly been replaced with “ritualized pathological expressions” (88). The fact that benign Hinduness and ritualized pathological Hindutva are often substitutable with each other reveal that they are secret sharers drawing from the same wellspring of the Hindu monotheme.

In terms of specifics, “The Indian Monotheism” considers a broad “constellation of moments”—the Vedantic reform of Raja Rammohan Roy, the literary moment of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s universalization of the caste question, and the “pacific paternalism” of M.K. Gandhi (146).  Crucial to this discursive project of a “monothematic Hindu becoming in anticipation of the nation-state” is the furnishing of “imagined communities and personages with a subjectivity and a historical agency pertinent to the overall invention of a Hindu past” (147). This occurred in several ways—the elevation of neo-Vedantic monism as a counter to the messy facts of polytheism in Hindu practices (evident, for instance, in the literary interventions of Roy), the institutionalization of the Bhagawad Gita as the holy book of the Hindu people (a reading very prominent in Bankim), and the portrayal of figures like Rama and Krishna as prophetic personages greater than Christ or the Buddha. In each case, the development of the Hindu monotheme necessitated arguments with colonial Reason and the subsumption of ambiguous and scattered elements within the ambit of “antiquarian or monumental” histories that corresponded to nationalistic desires (147). All these moments of argumentation had major differences with Hindutva—for instance, Rammohan Roy’s Hindu monism as universal religion bypassed the passion of jealousy altogether, while Radhakrishnan’s pragmatic defense of Varna differs from the theologico-cosmogonic cast that Hindutva ideologues like Golwalkar posited. What unites them though is the deep desire for a quintessentially Hindu-Indian axiomatic.

The discussion of the trajectory from Roy to Radhakrishnan is bookended by Hegel’s philosophical critique of the Gita on the one hand and B.R. Ambedkar’s critique of Hinduism on the other. Hegel’s 1827 civilizational diagnosis that the “absence of a monotheistic esprit de corps” in the Gita compromises the nation’s “security in a world of lordship and bondage,” serves as a foil for the intellectual ripostes by Rammohan Roy and Bankim (101). Much more interesting though is Basu’s discussion of Ambedkar’s Jacobin critique of Hinduism. I will highlight one aspect of Ambedkar’s radical critique of Hindu monotheism through a contrast with Radhakrishnan. For Radhakrishnan, caste became a means to contain race conflict in India. The genius of the Indian caste system, for Radhakrishnan, was the prevention and containment of race war (which was supposedly common in all societies) via a process of harmonization rather than the alternatives of enslavement or extermination (129). Caste, thus, is presented as not ontologically unique to Indian society. According to Radhakrishnan, it is a feature of all societies. It is just that it happened to be a practical and harmonious way to stave off race war perfected in the Indian context.  This universalization of the caste question and its specific flowering in Indian climes produced a “democracy of spirit,” although it was not amenable to the accumulation of wealth or political power (129).

Ambedkar, Basu says, rejects the “naturalistic, race-based exoneration” of caste in the Gandhi-Radhakrishnan trajectory of Hindu reformism. The caste imaginary’s strict adherence to notions of purity and endogamous marriage went against a phenomenology of biological race—a fair-skinned lower caste person would still be ostracized while a dark-skinned Brahmin would not (136). From a political economic perspective, caste was not division of labor, but “a calibrated division of laborers” that could not be encompassed by economism alone (137). The essence of caste does not depend on a naturalistic explanation but is a “sublimation in time” (137). It shifts and mutates in a historical field “pertaining to shifts in custom, culture, production, theology, or the aesthetics of self-making” (137). Caste discrimination was a disciplinary framework that combines “a libidinal economy of desire with a political one of interest” (140). This notion of disciplining the caste other is fundamentally inimical to the idea of democracy that Ambedkar draws from his teacher John Dewey—“…a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (142). The problem with Indian nationalism, suffused by reformism of the Gandhi-Radhakrishnan type, is that it short-circuited social revolution in favor of a political one (143). In doing so, “soft” Hinduism suffused with the “lure of temperate Brahminism” became the raison d’etre of the post-colonial state. This constituted the “parabasis of the new Hindu normal” whose affective power rendered the “Indian constitutional revolution passive by foreclosing a constitutional morality” (145). Hegemonic Indian nationalism viewed the spiritual work of the nation as already complete millennia ago—all that was necessary was reform and revival (149). Rare exceptions like Ambedkar and Rabindranath Tagore, whom Basu considers briefly at the end of this chapter, went against the grain of this Hindu-normative common sense.

Chapter Four—“Hindutva 2.0 as Advertised Monotheism”—considers Hindutva monotheism from the other end of the temporal spectrum: “in terms of millennial mutations in the era of information and globalization” (7). This chapter is a return to familiar turf for readers familiar with Basu’s earlier work on film and media cultures. The two key conceptual terms in this chapter—“Hindutva 2.0” and “advertised modernization”—fuses the analysis of contemporary media ecologies with considerations of affect. Thus, the assemblage of Hindutva 2.0 presumes a “neuropolis of populations” and sustains itself on “industrialized instincts of jealousy and anxiety” (166). As a mediatized phenomenon, predicated on the rapid proliferation of cellphones, the internet and digital technology, it does not depend on some of the established avenues of modernity like newspapers, books or university spaces. It is not dependent on “traditional” orders like shakhas or temples either. Instead, it works “primarily by way of loose, fungible distributions of affect, spectacle and…the substance of the advertised” (158). In an age of Whatsapp forwards, or what is colloquially called the “Whatsapp University,” it hollows out historical consciousness and reduces it to the syncopated form of a meme or a short message that can be forwarded virally. Hindutva 2.0 also establishes new synergies between “being Hindu and neoliberalism, one taking place on a plane of marketable desires and terrors” (158). In doing so, it spreads both soft and hard versions of the Hindu normal across the entire digital spectrum.

The other key term—advertised modernization—draws on trajectories of affect studies that point towards “a neuropolitics of the twenty-first century in which multidirectional stimulations, attention spans, diversions, ennui, or boredom become potent political factors” (180). “Advertised” is a conceptual metaphor which goes beyond questions of truth and falsehood; instead, it renders “an innocuous ‘take away,’ a ‘feel good’ sensation, or in some cases, a consumable fear” (180). In such an advertised scenario, which is also necessarily majoritarian, there is “no narrative obligation to truth or closure”; rather, it is the affect it evokes and the sense of belonging it creates to a particular brand that counts (180). Probably its most well-known global manifestation in recent times is the “pure gesture” of the Trumpian lie. As is obvious, most of what Trump (or Modi) utter in public can be debunked with minimal fact-checking; yet, for the devout Trump or Modi follower, they operate as “pure gestures advertising a new covenant between tradition and modernity, rather than as dialectical matters of an Aristotleian politics aimed at virtue…” (181). The Trumpian statement itself may be outrageously false, but it comes straight from the heart for legions of acolytes.

The Trump-Modi performatives also thrive in a changed scenario of the advertisement. The older model of the fifteen to thirty second advertisement emerging from “vertical models of mass culture” is passé. What has taken its place is an “order of convergence marked by nondirectional flows between platforms, instant audience migrations, and corporate cooperation” (181). In this changed scenario, political campaigning itself becomes interactive and is constituted by feedback loops and the processing of data that occur 24/7—consider here, for instance, the use of holograms and selfies during Modi’s 2014 campaign. The political personality becomes a brand that proliferates across a wide mediaverse circumnavigating a multidirectional circuit of affect. Branding, in Basu’s words, “becomes a matter of controlled chaos, leveraged in order to achieve critical densities of affect, recall value, or regularities of reference” (182). In this altered mediascape, the monotheme of Hindutva does not operate through a straightforward invocation of jealousy against the infidel; instead, congregations of believers coalesce in “virtual affinity spaces” that cut across older divides of city and country.

Basu also provides a contrast between two different historical constellations to outline the specificity of Hindutva 2.0. This contrast is set up through his discussion of the journalist Akshaya Mukul’s book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India (2015) at the beginning of the chapter. Mukul’s fascinating book received a fillip when he came across the “Poddar papers,” a massive archive of correspondence, pamphlets and manuscripts by, on or written to Hanuman Prasad Poddar, who along with Jaydayal Goyandka founded the Gita Press in Gorakhpur in 1923. Mukul writes:

As Gita Press stands within striking distance of a century, the only organization that may be said to parallel its success is the Bible Society. No other publishing house in India has marketed religion so successfully. (430)

Through cheap editions of Hindu religious texts in multiple languages, its Hindi monthly Kalyan (first published in 1927) and its English avatar Kalyana-Kalpataru (first published in 1934), Gita Press made deep inroads throughout India, even into Hindu homes that wouldn’t identify necessarily with Hindutva. Espousing conservative upper caste-Hindu values and functioning as a foot-soldier of the Sangh Parivar, despite its claims that it maintains a safe distance from politics, Gita Press also managed to get a wide spectrum of notable figures of varying ideological proclivities, ranging from Golwalkar to Gandhi, to write for Kalyan. The notable absentee unsurprisingly was Ambedkar, a figure Kalyan was scathingly critical of.  Often deploying what Basu calls a “paranoid style” (155), Gita Press at various times has also effectively deployed the language of hate and insular religious identity.

While Gita Press is still influential, Basu extensively discusses Mukul’s book to show how Hindutva 2.0 is a massive shift in amplitude in the era of new media forms and the neoliberal order. This is especially evident with the rise of Narendra Modi as a media phenomenon—a process that demonstrated “the advertised realignment of tradition and modernity” for a “virtual Hindu congregation” (182). In this new distributional matrix of information, the divergent energies constituting the virtual Hindu congregation could touch the “Brahminical sensible” [a term Basu reworks from Jacques Ranciere’s idea of the distribution of the sensible from Dissensus (2015)] at various points without being subsumed within a monolingual Hindutva discourse. Basu concretizes the difference between Hindutva 2.0 and the older model of print capitalism thus:

That older revivalist discourse, as have seen in the case of Gita Press…struggled to subsume the modern disciplines and the physical sciences into an apex Hindu vision. It had to world the caste question afresh in an altered universe of rights, freedoms and irreverent democratic tempers. It attempted, at every turn, to reconcile mythology with history, science and realism, or theodicy with justice. Such discursive efforts—rarely sublime, often ludicrous—have had a long history and continue to this day. However, in this new ecology, they acquire fresh powers of particularization and shooting through. (183)

The neuropolitical dimension in this new informational ecology enables the collapse of traditional distinctions between city and country and epistemologies like Vedic cosmogony and astrophysics. The public this ecology subsumes can react in a variety of ways within the frame of this Hindu normativity—ranging from indulgence to outright dismissal, from neurosis to humor. But the key difference between this moment and the “traditional” print capitalist one, as Basu says, is that “it can bravely ‘touch upon,’ without obligation, many matters that traditional Hindu nationalist discourse has either avoided or approached gingerly” (183).

In a broader spectrum of culture, advertised modernity is also evident in the shifts in the fantasy machine of Bollywood in the era of neoliberalization. Basu’s earlier work on the “geo-televisual aesthetic” (2010) is particularly relevant here in mapping these shifts.[4] On the one hand, post-1990 Bollywood films are marked by the gradual disappearance of the rural sphere, the poor, Dalit or Muslim character, and an obliteration of what film scholar Ranjani Mazumdar (2007) calls, the presence of the street; on the other hand, we notice the gradual rise to prominence of what Mazumdar calls the “lifestyle mythology” of the urban elite (143). Basu argues in Hindutva that advertised modernization operates at “the level of colors, saturations, textures, magical transportations, luminosities, and sonorous resonances” by which the “new, urban Hindu elite…[presents]…its life and aspirations as artwork” (191-2).  Vedic and Puranic cosmologies exist side by side with a muscular patriotism and an open (and opulent) celebration of right-wing mythologies as in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s controversial film Padmavat (2018).

The underside of this glossy normative Hindu advertised fantasy is the proliferation of gritty, stylish films usually about Bombay’s underbelly. The “encounter” film—which revels in vigilante justice and extrajudicial killing meted out to characters from the underworld—has become a sub-genre in its own right. Basu reads it as a symptom of a persisting fascination with sovereign decisionism and of vigilante violence (especially against Muslims and Dalits, phenomena that spill from reel to real life) in the Indian context. A good example here would be Shimit Amin’s 2004 noir film Ab Tak Chappan (Till Now Fifty-six), which valorizes the life of the “encounter specialist” of the Mumbai Police Force, Daya Nayak. The title refers to the “encounter score” of fifty-six extrajudicial killings that Nayak purportedly participated in.

This acceptance of extrajudicial violence, of course, is not a new phenomenon in Indian public life as the long and controversial histories of legal instruments like the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act) easily illustrates. What the contemporary “encounter” film does though is to stage the majoritarian desire for sovereign decisionism with a “cool” dressing of the gritty, seductive style of noir. At the level of cultural fantasy, the proliferation of such films signals two things. First, it “presents a metropolitan caste Hindu existence as the only form of life worth living” (199). Islam enters this cultural fantasy only when assimilated into “an overall civic religiosity of the (Hinduized) market” as in the celebration of figures like former President APJ Abdul Kalam or the three superstar Khans—Shahrukh, Aamir and Salman—of Bollywood (199). Otherwise, the Muslim is completely othered. Second, such fantasies also present the “urban caste Hindu existence as the only secure form of life worth living” (200). In this variation of the fantasy, the Muslim becomes the security threat against which society must be defended. As Basu writes, this “perception of Islam as an absolutist ethics is important for the cult of the encounter because it authorizes the state to respond with fearful symmetry and an instant theodicy of its own” (200). The bleed between reel and real could not be more chilling than this.

No account of the urban Indian fascination with sovereign decisionism can be complete without reference to the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one respect, Modi represents the open vocalization of certain desires that lay immanent before 2014: the fascination with a strong leader, alternative history scenarios where Vallabhbhai Patel or Subhash Chandra Bose led India instead of the “soft” Nehru, and the long-standing admiration for Hitler’s works in many middle-class Indian homes. Basu’s focus, however, is only incrementally with the personality of Modi and more with the images projected of Modi as a media phenomenon. What interests Basu is how the new “congregational plane” of advertised modernization “animated by instantaneous and wide dissemination” effectively negated an old truism about India as a coalition at the altar of Modi’s charismatic aura. At another level, this proliferating form of advertised modernization also brought together two elite urban population categories that had hitherto remained apart. Basu calls these two population subsets the Gentoo (the colonial term for “Hindu” that draws on the Portuguese gentio—pagan) and the Dehat (the Hindi term for rustic). The Gentoo is the technocratic elite enamored with neoliberal development. Within this category there is a spectrum of possibilities: the Gentoo wedded to hard Hindutva, the Gentoo who imagined the metropolitan good life as indistinguishable from Hinduness, and finally, the secular-neoliberal who conditionally supported Modi’s economic “reform” persona without going the whole hog with his cultural nationalist project. The Dehat, on the other hand, was the vernacular elite that emerged from the rich farming and privileged caste groups.

Before 2014, at best only a provisional and uneasy Gentoo-Dehat coalition could be imagined. The media phenomenon that Modi became from around 2006 onwards with the celebration of the mythologized “Gujarat model of development” brought these two subsets together on the congregational plane. For the Gentoo especially, “Modi was a Dehat who could talk the talk of the Chicago boys and talk it well” (173). The public personality of Modi that was projected coalesced the images of the neoliberal messiah who would turbocharge the Gentoo model of development, the “strong” and decisive Hindu leader who would not compromise on national security against internal and external enemies, and the “saintly” man of sewa (service) who rose above petty politicking and remained untouched by the profanity of corruption. This could not have happened without the new media ecology that was “marked by speedy informational flows and feedback loops independent of traditional institutions of news and veracity” and where “one could freely disperse affects and expressions without disciplinary enunciation or narrative form” (170). In short, Hindutva 2.0 as advertised monotheism.

Hindutva is an eclectic and multidimensional work that makes major interventions in multiple knowledge-fields like media and cinema studies, religious studies, postcolonial studies, South Asian studies, studies of nationalism and affect studies. Readers of Carl Schmitt can also deploy Basu’s reading of “jealousy” to read the mutation of the German thinker’s later work such as his theorization of the “absolute enemy” in The Theory of the Partisan (2007). Schmitt’s work, written in the wake of guerrilla movements and anticolonial revolutions during the Cold War period, prefigures how the contemporary juridical category of the “terrorist” envisaged as a figure relegated outside the sphere of the law, follows the tracks of earlier legal categorizations like “pirate” or “guerrilla.” Schmitt’s underlying argument that the contemporary partisan (or “terrorist”) is no longer an enemy, but a “satanic pursuer” who attempts to create ex nihilo (quoted in Ulmen 2007, xviii), would be useful to analyze via Basu’s categories of the passion of jealousy and its relation to the primordial settlement of the political.

Moreover, while anchored strongly in the Indian context, Hindutva also has global relevance. While analyses of phenomena like the Trumpian lie clearly illustrates the broad reach of Basu’s work, his conclusion clearly shows how the insights of Hindutva can be utilized to contend with our current global conjuncture. I highlight one passage from the conclusion as an illustration:

In a world dominated by a cartel of international banks, a transnational plutocracy, and North Atlantic military powers and their constable states, the nation is no longer the seat of those two immense themes of the liberal tradition: self-determination and the rights of the people. Yet paradoxically, and perhaps precisely because of this, the nation has to be defined as a progressively more insular cosmology of justice. It has to be relentlessly purified and made to close in upon itself; the country has to be at once achieved and repeatedly taken back. (206)

This paradoxical movement of simultaneous achievement and the repeated taking back of the spectral nation is not limited to Hindutva 2.0 and the rise of Narendra Modi alone. With proper contextualization, these insights can also apply to Trumpian America, Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Duterte’s Philippines, Orban’s Hungary, Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey among others. Indeed, as Basu writes, twenty-first century “fascism is about focalizing…intense localisms and threading them into a nationalist politics of rage and revenge banks” (206). The strongman (and it is usually a man, with Marine Le Pen one of the exceptions) is he who cuts through the patina of incessant talk (what Schmitt in an earlier Fascist conjuncture criticized about procedural liberalism) by monopolizing widespread public skepticism about corruption and about information culture. He promises to replenish the masculinity of the nation by simplifying discourse and identifying the enemy clearly.

That said, I advance one critique of Hindutva from my own location as a scholar of the borderland region of Northeast India. While I grant that Northeast India isn’t the focus of Hindutva, there is a missed opportunity here for framing a more complicated account of the political in the South Asian context. In the first chapter, Basu writes that the specter of the concentration camp “hovers around the National Register of Citizens (NRC) project that the present Hindu nationalist government in India has reactivated in the Indian northeastern state of Assam” (19). I do not disagree that the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has weaponized the NRC as a pan-Indian phenomenon, and that detention centers are a grim reality in Assam today. But the word “reactivated” above, to use Basu’s own terms against himself, seems to make Hindutva the only player in town in Assam (204). The BJP is a relative late entrant into the NRC process. The genealogy of the NRC predates the BJP becoming a major player in this borderland state and has to be located in the complex politics of what the political essayist Sanjib Baruah in In the Name of the Nation (2020) calls a “settlement frontier” of the erstwhile colonial state (47-75). As Ornit Shani (2018) writes in her book on the creation of independent India’s first set of electoral rolls:

In Assam…ethno nationalist attitudes manifested particularly towards the non-Assamese ‘floating population,’ many of whom are Bengali speaking Hindus from East Pakistan. Local authorities expressed a view of membership from a state that was defined by a descent group and delimited to ‘children of the soil,’ who were eligible to have full rights. Thus, ethno nationalist conceptions were not necessarily on the basis of religion. (72)

This long history shapes the institutionalization of the NRC as a discriminatory citizenship regime. These facts show that the grounds of the political in such borderland contexts are not exclusively determined by religious binaries and its attendant passion of jealousy familiar to scholars of mainland South Asia.

To be sure, there have been synergies between ethnonationalism and Hindutva in recent times. But the completion of the NRC process also reveals the faultlines between Hindutva and ethnonationalist politics. When the NRC was published in 2019, for instance, the BJP was disappointed that many Hindus were included in the list. They have recently promised a new, updated NRC. This faultline between Hindutva and ethnonationalism has hardened with the implementation of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) in December 2019 which proposes to give citizenship to Hindu refugees, even though the BJP went on to win a majority in the state elections in 2021. None of these complexities are however mentioned in Basu’s account. In fact, in footnote twenty-five of Chapter One, the only source Basu cites about the NRC is an NPR report. He also writes in that same footnote that after “lying dormant for decades, it (the NRC) became politically relevant once more after Modi came to power” (213). Anyone familiar with Assam’s political scenario would be quick to point out that this discourse has not been dormant in the region at all, and that while Modi’s coming to power may have made it visible to mainstream Indian political discourse, the Northeastern borderlands have long been wrestling with this issue prior to 2014. In comparison to the eclectic historical and theoretical sketch of Hindutva, one is left wishing for a more complex rendering of the political in a borderland space such as Assam in this portion of Basu’s book.

By way of a conclusion and drawing further from my own location in Northeast Indian studies, I initiate a brief conversation between Basu’s book and another major book on Hindutva that was published recently: Arkotong Longkumer’s ethnographic study The Greater India Experiment (2021). Hindutva is essentially correct, I think, in drawing a genealogy of an urban Hindu normativity. But what about Hindutva’s spread in locales beyond the Gentoo-Dehat urbanscape, especially in places that have been to a large extent inimical to the idea of India such as the borderland Northeastern region?  In his fascinating discussion of Hindutva worldings in the Northeastern region, Longkumer shows how within the larger monotheme of Hindu religiosity that Basu identifies, actual Hindutva practices are defined by shape-shifting and flexible positionalities as it tries to draw the divergent cosmologies of “tribal” religions within its fold. Of particular interest here is how Hindutva actors in Northeast India deploy the language of global indigeneity, polytheism and paganism to show connections between indigenous religions in the region and Hinduism. For instance, Longkumer writes that a 2005 BJP party document titled “Evolution of the BJP,” draws on the works of anthropologists on local and global aspects of indigeneity to argue that:

…paganism relates, crucially, to local gods and ancestors of the land based on ideas of polytheism…In summing up the basic overlap between paganism and Hinduism, the BJP text says: ‘In a sense at the basic level Hinduism is a pagan religion. As Paganism allows for evolution Hinduism too allows for evolution. Since Paganism is belief in many Gods there is generally no fight over Gods. This is the greatest virtue of Polytheism…Once Hinduism is expressed along these lines, then, it has the potential to relate with other native traditions that are intimately connected to land. (115-16)

While Hindutva proselytization in Northeast India is still an ongoing and contested process, such sentiments about polytheism are often invoked by Hindutva activists on the field to contest the animosity that monotheistic faiths like Christianity display against “pagan” and animist belief systems. An urban Hindu monotheme that has become dominant with advertised modernity and a flexible deployment of polytheism as a proselytizing strategy in the borderlands—these are two torn halves that do not constitute a whole, but gesture towards a larger and still developing story of why Hindutva has become the dominant political discourse in India today.


Amit R. Baishya is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of Contemporary Literature from Northeast India: Deathworlds, Terror and Survival (Routledge, 2018) and the co-editor of Northeast India: A Place of Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2017), Postcolonial Animalities (Routledge, 2019), and a special issue of the journal Postcolonial Studies titled “Planetary Solidarities: Postcolonial Theory, the Anthropocene and the Nonhuman” (2021-22).

Back to the essay



[1] For examples, see Jaffrelot (1995); Hansen (1999); Vanaik (2017).

[2] M.S. Golwalkar (1906-73) was a prominent early ideologue of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the apex body in what is called the “Sangh Parivar.”

[3] Schmitt’s views on the connection between exception and miracles comes out most clearly in his reading of Chapter 37 of Hobbes’ Leviathan in The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes (1996). Schmitt says—“A miracle is what the sovereign state authority commands its subjects to believe to be a miracle; but also—and here the irony is especially acute—the reverse: Miracles cease when the state forbids them” (55).

[4] Basu defines the geo-televisual as a cinematic idiom that emerged from the mid-90s onwards and which cannibalized and combined heterogenous elements (MTV, video games, international travel, spiritualism et al) in a “fungible yet sensuous style—one that begins to operate at the level of the tissue and the nerve” (7). We notice an early intimation of the neuropolitical here.


Works Cited

  • Amin, Shimit. 2004. Ab Tak Chappan. Mumbai: K Sera Sera, Varma Productions.
  • Baruah, Sanjib. 2020. In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Basu, Anustup. 2010. Bollywood in the Age of New Media: The Geo-Televisual Aesthetic. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Bhansali, Sanjay Leela. 2018. Padmaavat. Mumbai: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures.
  • Cohen, Jeffrey J. 2015. Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. Minneapolis: University of      Minnesota Press.
  • Connolly, William E. 2008. Christianity and Capitalism, American Style. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Foucault, Michel. 2003. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. Translated David Macey. New York: Picador.
  • Author. 2010. “Title” In Editor, ed. Title. Volume: Issue (Month). Place: Publisher. Pages.
  • Ghosh, Amitav. 2006. The Hungry Tide: A Novel. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.
  • Hansen, Thomas Blom. 1999. The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Hobbes, Thomas. 1997. Leviathan. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
  • Jaffrelot, Christophe. 1995. The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Longkumer, Arkotong. 2021. The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Mazumdar, Ranjani. 2007. Bombay Cinema: An Archive of the City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mufti, Aamir R. 2007. Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Mukul, Akshaya. 2015. Gita Press and the Making of Modern India. New Delhi: Harper Collins.
  • Ranciere, Jacques. 2015. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Translated Steve Corcoran. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Schmitt, Carl. 2005. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty.     Translated George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • —.2007. The Concept of the Political (Expanded Edition). Translated George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • —. 1996. The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol. Translated George Schwab. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  • —. 2007. The Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the    Political. Translated George Ulmen. New York: Telos Press.
  • Shani, Ornit. 2018. How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the UniversalnFranchise. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Spivak, Gayatri C. 1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
  • “UGC’s New Draft History Syllabus Plays Up Mythology, Faces Allegations of Saffronisation.” The Wire, March 23, 2021.
  • Ulmen, G.L. 2007. “Translator’s Introduction.” The Theory of the Partisan: Intermediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political. New York: Telos Press, ix-xxi.
  • Vanaik, Achin. 2017. The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism: Secular Claims, Communal Realities. London: Verso.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here