Professor Vinay Lal on the Rise of Hindu Nationalism

Vinay Lal is a cultural critic, writer, blogger, and Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). His intellectual and research interests include South Asian history, comparative colonial histories, the politics of knowledge systems, cinema, cultures of sexuality, the global histories of nonviolence, and the thought of Mohandas Gandhi. His twenty some authored and edited books include the two-volume Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City (2013); Empire of Knowledge: Culture and Plurality in the Global Economy (Pluto Press, 2002); Political Hinduism (Oxford, 2009); Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi (Penguin, 2005); The History of History (Oxford, 2003); The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus (Pan Macmillan 2020); and, most recently, The Colonial State and Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Primus, 2022) and Insurgency and the Artist: The Art of the Freedom Struggle in India (Roli Books, 2022). He blogs for ABP, India’s largest media network, and at, and he has an academic YouTube channel:
Enya Kamadolli '26 interviewed Dr. Vinay Lal on December 10, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Vinay Lal.

What do you consider to be the birth of modern Indian nationalism? Why?

There is no straightforward answer to that if you're a scholar, because there are different ways of thinking about it. Some scholars will say that the nation precedes nationalism, and others will say that nationalism creates the nation. That begs the question - was India really a singular nation at any point in time? Arguably, India is composed of many nations - the Gujaratis, the Tamilians, the Bengalis, the Telugu-speaking peoples, and hundreds of others. Bearing that in mind, the starting date for Indian nationalism is often viewed as 1885, when the Indian National Congress was founded. The organization still exists as a political party today, but as a mere shadow of what it was in the 1900s. In 1885, it was founded as a very small organization comprised of six to seven dozen elites. These elites were well educated, largely trained as lawyers, and belonged to the upper echelon of Indian society. They founded this organization to seek some Indian representation in Indian administration—at that time India was under British rule. Indians had essentially no say in the governance of their own country. The organization’s ambitions were very modest. The other common answer to this question on the origins of Indian nationalism is the one supplied by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a historian who wrote a book called the First War of Indian Independence. In it, he argued that Indian nationalism originated with the rebellion of 1857-58, what used to be called the Sepoy Mutiny, the first true sign on more than a local or even regional scale of Indians agitating against the British usurpation and colonization of India. Most scholars would dispute that anti-colonialism and nationalism are really the same, as one can be anti-colonial and not really be a nationalist, and vice versa. The third possible answer is the early 20th century, when nationalism became a potent living force that involved the masses of India, with the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal in 1905 and the beginning of the Gandhi era around 1919-20 that truly spread nationalism across India. 

Given that you’ve established that the beginnings of Indian nationalism were very intertwined with anti-colonialist movements, what catalyzed the national shift towards Hindu nationalism? How has Hindu nationalism evolved over time and come to the forefront of Indian society?

The origins of Hindu nationalism really begin in the 1920s, although many consider the late 1980s controversy over the Babri Masjid to truly be the event that brought about the present moment. In the 1920s, organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS began to emerge. The RSS continues to survive today, and many people holding the highest political offices in the country are members of the RSS, including the Prime Minister and the current Defense Minister, Rajnath Singh. These organizations began to quarrel with, and differentiate themselves from, the National Congress, a secular organization that spoke for all Indians. The ideology of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha was one that aimed to speak to, and for, the Hindus specifically, appealing to their pride in their history. When the British eventually leave India, who will assume power? What will be the nature of the relationships between existing Indian communities, specifically the balance of power between Hindus and the Muslims? These are the questions at the forefront of public thought in the 1920s. During this time, there was also an emergence of organizations that sought to bring those who had converted to Islam back into the fold of Hinduism (what is called parivartan, or, in modern parlance, ghar-wapsi, a “return to the home”), a period and form of proselytization that is exceedingly rare in Hinduism.  Shortly after India’s independence in 1947, these early Hindu nationalist organizations recede and somewhat disappear from the public view—not from choice, I might add, nor remotely from the sense that with the attainment of independence their work was already done. Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, had very close links to Hindu supremacist organizations, and thus, very soon after independence, the government effectively dispersed these organizations into the wilderness since they were viewed as being implicated in the murder of the ‘Father of the Nation’ and poisoning the country’s public sphere. The atmosphere of the country under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was largely secular. These organizations did not effectively resurface until the late 1980s, during the dispute over the Babri Masjid in the city of Ayodhya. The Indian National Congress was starting to lose popularity. The dream of independence had turned sour, as India had been free for almost four decades, and the country had seemingly not made any real strides. There were acute shortages of most basic supplies, and even middle-class families had to go to ration shops. This discontent with the status quo began to drive people towards parties and organizations other than the Congress party, such as the re-emerging Hindu Nationalist organizations. These organizations mobilized around the issue of the Babri Mosque. The highly contested mosque was hypothesized by ideologues of Hindu nationalism and their many supporters in the public sphere to have been built over the birthplace of the Hindu deity, Lord Rama. The Hindu Nationalists claimed that the Muslims had destroyed a sacred temple that had been built to mark the birthplace of Rama in order to build the mosque and they demanded its removal. They destroyed the mosque on 6 December 1992.

How did the BJP, the Bharatiya Janata Party, come to be? How has it shaped Indian politics?

The BJP is the dominant political party today, holding an absolute majority in the Indian parliament. This is something to be gravely concerned about. At no point in the previous three decades have we had a political party so powerful that there was virtually no opposition to it in the country. You cannot have a free democratic polity without a strong opposition, and India is currently lacking such a political opposition in Parliament. In the 2014 general elections, the opposition was mostly wiped out; in 2019, they were eviscerated. The BJP also poses a fundamental ideological danger to Indian governance. The present government of India, contrary to the rhetoric of its leaders, does not stand for all Indians. That is not just to point out that only 40% of the electorate actually voted for the BJP, as India operates on a winner-takes-all system. Rather the party, and thus the present government, stands for a Hindu Raashtra – a Hindu nation. This automatically disadvantages the large number of minority groups that exist in India: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and many others. As evidenced by the last ten years that this party has been in power, the BJP will stop at nothing to promote and advance the interests of the Hindus. It is imperative to note that a party of this kind cannot really prevail unless it has the wide support of certain segments of the Indian society. While it only received 40% of the popular vote, it has the support of the vast majority of the educated, urban Hindu middle class. This constituency widely believes that until the beginning of BJP rule, India was fundamentally enslaved under the rule of foreigners for 1200 years – under Muslim rule, British rule, and then the rule of elite urban Indian secularists who do not speak for the middle or lower classes. Hindu nationalism today rides on two horses. One is the state. The other is civil society. Both have, working in tandem, strangulated Indian democracy—though it must be said that there are elements of Indian civil society that have put also put up resistance.

Do you think there's any chance that we see a shift towards a different kind of Hindu nationalism in the future that is not so centered on the BJP and Hindu supremacy?

To speculate in an informed manner, we must first analyze why Modi is so immensely popular. If you look at the data –the Freedom Index, the Democracy Index, the Global Hunger Index–indeed, on every front, India is doing very badly. It is an indisputable fact that India has regressed in the past decade. Just before the 2019 election, India’s NSS [National Sample Survey] released data that showed extremely high unemployment figures – the Modi government has not been able to generate jobs. The government directed that this data be repressed, or withdrawn from the public sphere, and we have since seen enormous manipulation of statistical data by the Indian state. Although foreign direct investment has been high, most of that money is going towards sectors that generate relatively small amounts of jobs. But this sort of data, ultimately, does not matter to most of Modi’s base, a fact which the left continues to overlook. Every opinion poll shows that his popularity is at a minimum 75%. How does Modi have such high ratings for the past nine and a half years, when almost nothing has been achieved? Modi’s secret is that he is still able to feed off the Hindu resentment and Hindu pride, purporting that his government is doing something to restore their lost dignity. However, he cannot thrive on that narrative forever. In my opinion, he will have one more run for another five years. After that, I think we will begin to see a real divergence from, and exhaustion with, this kind of Hindu nationalism. By then, I think people will have come to the awareness that a narrative of lost Hindu pride does not feed people. What would a new Hindu nationalism look like? I don't think it will disappear, but I think it will be softer. If you are from my generation, you understand what has been lost to Hindu nationalism – the conception of an Indian civilization that is a pluralistic civilization. There is virtually no place in the world with that kind of enormous plurality. Four religions were born in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Christianity has been present in India since the first century of the Common Era; Islam has been present since about 700 CE. India is one of the five or six linguistically most diverse countries in the world, and its twenty some major languages each have millions of speakers. Plurality is always a source of democratic sentiments. That does not mean hierarchies will not exist -- there will likely always be hierarchies. While I think the current xenophobic Hindu nationalism will soften, I don't see it disappearing because all around the world, we are seeing a revival of nationalist sentiment. 

What role has the South Asian diaspora in the United States played in defining and shaping Hindu nationalism over the past few decades?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a large number of Hindus in the US supported the Ram Janmabhoomi movement – the movement that arose around the Babri Masjid dispute. The movement took out ads in newspapers such as India West, speaking in a language similar to today about the restoration of Hindu pride. Long-distance nationalism is quite a common phenomenon. One of the more well-known examples is the Irish nationalists, who were heavily funded by Irish radicals in the US. When you are sitting at a distance, you have got nothing to lose. If you have stakes in the country that you actively reside in, you are in the midst of turmoil. There is opposition. Thousands of miles away, you can advocate for the most extreme forms of nationalism and generally pay no price for doing so. To some extent, this was the position of the Hindu nationalists who were advocating for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The Hindu nationalists in the diaspora created what I call a kind of Vedic post-industrial civilization. Several young male Indian PhD students –engineers and computer scientists– took to the internet and began to carve out new spaces for Hindu histories in the 1990s. There used to be this massive website in the early days of the internet called GHEN, which stands for Global Hindu Electronic Network. It consisted of hundreds of web pages, where they're essentially creating new histories of Hindu martial valor and Hindu masculinity, and using those pages to critique Islam. Those tendencies have continued down to the present day. Even though Indian Americans used to vote largely Democratic, that does not mean that they did not and do not support Hindu nationalism back in India. Many Indian Americans will say, “we're minorities in this country. Like all other minorities, we need some protection. We need representation. We don't have a voice.”  Many Indian Americans, while claiming minority status here, remain oblivious to the minorities back in India. The Muslims clearly are a minority in India, as are the Sikhs and the Christians are a minority in India. The Hindus are the overwhelming majority. How can we claim minority status in the United State but hesitate to advocate for minority rights in India? These are the kinds of things that we would have to take into consideration when we're thinking about the role of the Hindu diaspora and the possible power Indian Americans hold to shape not only their future in the US but the future of India itself.

Enya Kamadolli '26Student Journalist

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