On February 19th, India’s government celebrated a Nazi sympathizer who called to replicate Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, but in India – and this time, targeting Muslims.
As several Hindu nationalist leaders, and ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, hailed the government’s decision, India's Culture Ministry paid tributes to him, calling him a "great thinker, scholar, and remarkable leader" whose thoughts would continue to inspire and guide future generations.
For many critical voices in India, though, it was a sign of how the far fringe has become mainstream over the past decade or so. M.S. Golwalkar, whose 115th birth anniversary was being celebrated, was the second Sarsanghchalak (or supreme head) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (known as the RSS), from 1940 to 1973.
Why was this particular Nazi devotee being celebrated with so much official pomp by the Modi government? Because he was one of the key founding ideologues of Hindu nationalism – a particularly strident, toxic form at that.
As a former Culture Secretary Jawhar Sircar declared, "I hang my head in shame to see RSS chief Golwalkar being falsely praised" by India’s government, a fierce criticism shared by other left-liberal figures including actor and social activist Swara Bhasker, who called Golwalkar a "sick, evil man."
Deflecting the criticism, a Culture Ministry official declared that the government doesn’t believe in "silencing any ideologies."
The RSS, a Hindu right-wing group founded in 1925, drew on contemporary European fascist movements for its ideas.
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A longtime leader of the RSS, Golwalkar was an avid supporter of Adolf Hitler, not least for his antisemitic views.
When Hitler sought to "purge" Jews and Jewish culture from Germany and the countries it occupied, Golwalkar declared: "Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by."
Golwalkar exhibited instinctive antipathy towards Muslims and aspired for a majoritarian Hindu India. He was a firm believer that religious minorities would have to be second-class citizens in India.
The RSS espouses a Hindu Rashtra (a Hindu theocratic state) as against the secular nation guaranteed by India's constitution. And to this end, Golwalkar argued India must have five unifying factors: country, race, religion, culture, and language. He mocked democracy and emphasized nationalism based on race.
V. D. Savarkar, another Hindu nationalist idealogue and a contemporary of Golwalkar, termed both by his ardent supporters and his critics the "father of Hindu nationalism," popularized the term Hindutva (Hindu-ness) as a national identity.
To become part of the Indian nation, Savarkar said it was essential for religious minorities like Muslims, Christians and Jews to accept Hindu culture. In 1939 Savarkar, identified Indian Muslims as potential traitors not to be trusted, "like the Jews in Germany."
Even as Hindu nationalists tacitly endorsed the antisemitism and fascist ideas of the early 20th century, the RSS was considered a fringe group whose extremist Hindutva ideas were rejected by the majority of Indians. However, in the past two decades, India has displayed a strong appetite for aspects of fascism.
With growing public acceptance, the RSS is becoming mainstream. Its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is currently ruling India. Narendra Modi, who has retained a lifelong association with the RSS since volunteering with their youth wing when he was only eight years old, is now the prime minister of 1.3 billion Indians.
In his 1939 book "We or Our Nationhood Defined," Golwalkar writes: "The Race Spirit has been awakening. The lion was not dead, only sleeping. He is rousing himself up again, and the world has to see the might of the regenerated Hindu Nation strike down the enemy’s hosts with its mighty arm."
Golwalkar was the subject of a hagiographic chapter entitled "A Guru Worthy of Worship" in a book written by Modi himself in 2008, in which he praised Golwalkar for having "inspired nationalism" and for "devoting his life" to his principles. It’s clear that Golwalkar’s insistence on uniformity and suspicion of diversity also had a profound influence over India’s prime minister.
BJP apologists for Golwakar assert that the RSS supreme leader was a freedom fighter: by awakening cultural nationalism he had challenged British imperialism. But that whitewashes Golwakar’s core mission, which was a Hindu supremacy based on demonizing Indian Muslims. The antisemitism of the Nazis was, for him and his peers, an essential playbook.
India’s history is mired in communal conflicts, but attacks on religious minorities have spiked during the Modi regime, principally against Muslims, who constitute 14 percent of the country’s population.
Christians were an early target, too. In 1999, Graham Stuart Staines, an Australian missionary, was burnt to death along with his two sons, Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6) by activists from the Bajrang Dal Hindu nationalist group.
In 2002, in Gujarat, when Modi was the state’s Chief Minister, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in religious riots often called "pogroms." Modi has consistently refused to express regret for the deaths. Allegations that he tacitly supported Hindu extremists during the riots led to the U.S. imposing an entry ban on him in 2005.
Since Modi’s BJP came into power in 2014, India’s Muslims have been under constant attack from Hindu nationalists. Much of the hate has been sponsored by groups or individuals close to the Modi government.
Last year’s deadly communal violence in New Delhi raged while former U.S. President Donald Trump was visiting India. 53 people, two-thirds of them Muslims, were killed. Ashutosh Varshney, a Brown University professor, believes the violence bore some of the hallmarks of an organized pogrom.
The most vulnerable Muslim populations are in BJP-ruled states, which have witnessed attacks from right-wing Hindu nationalists with no effective intervention by the police.
In January, it was reported that 40 Muslim families in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with a population of 200 million, had to flee their village after being subject to a campaign of terror by a Hindu nationalist group.
That was followed by attacks in another BJP-ruled state, Madhya Pradesh, on Muslim houses and an attempt to destroy a mosque. This time, the perpetrators were rightwing Hindu activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad group, an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP.
Driving Muslims further to the margins, the Modi government introduced series of discriminatory laws geared to dispossess the Muslims of their rights and dignity.
The South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020 says India has become a "dangerous and violent space for Muslim minorities" ever since the Modi government introduced amendments to the Citizenship Act in 2019.
The report says the amendment in the Citizenship Act opened a pathway for a category of illegal immigrants to legalize their status and become Indian citizens, but it specifically excluded Muslims.
In the run-up to the legislation, Home Minister Amit Shah revealed that the government planned to create a National Register of Indian Citizens, which critics say would have the potential to render many Muslims stateless. And then Modi revoked the limited autonomy and other constitutional safeguards of India’s only Muslim majority state, Kashmir, creating fears of demographic change in the region.
Golwakar’s "vision" of a Hindu supremacist India, based on the forced subjugation of non-Hindu minorities inspired by the Nazi worldview, seems to be gaining traction in India, and not just theoretically but on the ground.
Hate crimes against minorities are rising, taking the form of mob lynches and other violence against Muslims, Christians, and Dalits. In several BJP-ruled states, local governments have passed laws have been passed, criminalizing marriage between Hindus and Muslims, an echo of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws prohibiting Jews from marrying or having intimate relations with persons of "German or related blood."
The latest campaign by the BJP, fueled by Hindu nationalists, is to enact a Uniform Civil Code. That would standardize laws regarding marriage, divorce, custody, adoption and inheritance, and would inevitably be based on majoritarian Hindu culture, forcing religious minorities to relinquish their limited autonomy over personal status issues.
In this gradual process of the subjugation of its minorities, and their intimidation by bigotry and violent assault, India is consolidating its formal abandonment of the secular and pluralist ethos that has, since independence, been rooted in the world's largest democracy.
Samaan Lateef is an India-based journalist currently writing for the UK’s Daily Telegraph. He grew up in India-administered Kashmir. He has written extensively on South Asia politics, human rights, minorities, and border conflicts between India, China, and Pakistan. Twitter: @Samaanlateef