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‘Political Hinduism’, ‘Politics of Hinduism’, Hindutva Politics, and Hindutva: –

A Review of Hindol Sengupta’s Soul and Sword: The History of Political Hinduism (Penguin Vintage, 2023)


– Sreejit Datta

Hindol Sengupta’s Soul and Sword: The History of Political Hinduism (Penguin Vintage, 2023) attempts to narrate the history of a sociopolitical phenomenon in India — a phenomenon which the author has decided to call ‘political Hinduism’. A careful perusal of the material narrativised in this book makes it amply clear that Sengupta has, in fact, made a historical exploration of Hindutva as a political ideology — as opposed to Hindutva considered as a holistic system which integrates within its purview all possible aspects: sociocultural, political-economic, and religious-moral. While reading the book, it also becomes clear that the author, for some reason, has decided to dub the subject of his exploration ‘political Hinduism’ — a term he persistently uses throughout the book, and one that also appears on the book’s title. This particular decision of the author calls for an investigation into the possible meanings or implications of the expression ‘political Hinduism’, as well as its previous appearances in the works of others.

The expression ‘political Hinduism’ comes across as problematic for several reasons, not least because the author does not make any palpable attempt to define it in precise terms; nor does he offer any analysis by situating this expression in relation to other analogous expressions, like ‘Hindutva politics’ or ‘Hindu nationalism’. It is important to note that, in English academic and media discourses, the occurrence of the term ‘political Hinduism’ is pretty rare. Also, its coinage itself is quite recent. Thus, Sengupta had a golden opportunity in this book to deliver nuanced analyses on the elaboration, unpacking and even re-packaging of the term. Instead, he ended up treating the term ‘political Hinduism’ in his book as if it were an established concept and a fairly common terminology entry, proceeding straightaway to trace its intellectual history, and to offer his views on its future prospects.

Here, a question arises: Is Sengupta implying that the phrase ‘political Hinduism’, ubiquitously present in his book, can be (or should be) used interchangeably, that is, synonymously, with more well-known and more frequently-used terms like ‘Hindutva politics’ or ‘Hindu nationalism’? His usage of the term ‘political Hinduism’, as well as his treatment of the historical material that the book draws on, definitely creates such an impression as would answer that question in the affirmative. However, the term ‘political Hinduism’, far from being an established idea or terminology, requires not a few caveats before it can be employed as an alternative to more common terms like ‘Hindutva politics’ and ‘Hindu nationalism’. Sengupta’s efforts in this book — especially his persistent use of the expression ‘political Hinduism’ — seem invested in popularising this neologic term in English-language discourses.

Emphasising, at the very beginning of his book, that “it is a history not of Hinduism, the faith, but of the politics of Hinduism”, (p. vii) Sengupta dives headlong into his historical narrative. This cursory remark, wherein the author confesses that he intended his efforts in this book to be focused on writing a history of the “politics of Hinduism” rather than the Hindu religion per se, makes us wonder if by ‘political Hinduism’ he means “the politics of Hinduism”.

However, our problem does not end there — it only gets complicated further. This is so because, what Sengupta casually calls “the politics of Hinduism” may imply a whole range of things: such as politics done in the name of Hinduism, that is, politicising the sacred symbols, figures or themes of the Hindu religion to secure secular gains, as in elections or social status; or, it may imply the various political theories constructed by ethnic Hindu thinkers, ancient and modern; and it may even indicate the political ideas, ideals and ideologies (not necessarily of a Hindu origin) espoused by a significant number of devout Hindus asserting themselves as an identity group. “The politics of Hinduism” may, for that matter, also indicate a proselytizing zeal, real or imaginary, imputed to Hinduism the faith — because, after all, all proselytizing is political. Sengupta does not provide sufficient clarity on whether he does or does not suggest any or all of these possible notions inherent in his preferred expression, namely, ‘political Hinduism’.

This criticism of Sengupta’s book may at first sight appear a hair-splitting exercise in semantics. It might as well be such a thing, but that doesn’t make it a futile exercise. It is necessary to examine the implications of the expression ‘political Hinduism’ — all the more so, because Sengupta’s book purports to be “The” history of ‘political Hinduism’, so far as the book’s title is concerned; although inside the book Sengupta adopts a humbler tone, describing his work as simply “a” history of “the politics of Hinduism” (p. vii, “Introduction: Hinduness”). It is only fair to expect that any book-length account of an idea or phenomenon, political or otherwise, would aim for exhaustive coverage of the same — including nuanced analysis of the name(s) given to that idea/phenomenon, especially if the account claims to be a definitive one. But, in his book, Sengupta neither offers an exhaustive coverage of Hindutva as a political ideology, nor does he provide any analysis or justification for his adoption of the term ‘political Hinduism’. Thus, his adoption of the term appears to be a rather random choice, albeit with disastrous consequences for Hindutva and Hindus.

Interestingly, Sengupta gives the title “Introduction: Hinduness” to his introductory chapter. In this chapter, while mentioning Veer Savarkar’s iconic pamphlet (Sengupta characterises it as a monograph) Hindutva — Who Is a Hindu?, Sengupta translates the word ‘Hindutva’ as ‘Hinduness’. That is a faithful translation, semantically speaking, because the Sanskrit suffix ‘tva’ (frequently used in Modern Indian Languages such as Bengali, Marathi and Hindi) is employed to signify the essential nature/state of a thing or an idea. The classic example of such word formation can be found in the Indian system of logic of the Nyāya Darśana, where we find the term ‘ghaṭatva’ (meaning, the quality of being a ghaṭa or pot; in short, ‘pot-ness’). As such, the literal meaning of the word ‘Hindutva’ would be: ‘what it means or feels like to be a Hindu, or to do things the Hindu way’. The word has a fairly long history, first occurring in Ananda Math (1882), the magnum opus of Bengali novelist and critic Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (1838–1894). Sengupta acknowledges this first occurrence. But he errs when he asserts:

“[E]ven though Bankim is known to have increasingly worked on Hindu identity in his writing in this period, he never really returned to explore this word in detail, preferring instead to talk in terms of dharma, or the Hindu term for the moral law of the universe. His treatise on the subject published in 1888 is called Dharmatattva, which seeks to answer questions on the fundamentals of Hindu ethics.” (p. 6).

Sengupta’s claims in this regard are not factual, for Bankim does re-use the term ‘Hindutva’ in Dharma Tattva: Anushilan (1888), which is his seminal work on the nature and contours of the Hindu religion and worldview. There, through an incisive comparative analysis of Hindu Dharma and several other world philosophies and religions, Bankim presents a holistic picture of Hindutva in all its aspects: religious, moral, ethical, political, social, and cultural. For Bankim, the words ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduani’ were synonymous, and he employed both terms interchangeably to express the integral nature of Hindu thought across all spheres of human activity — physical, intellectual, enterprising, and aesthetic (the fourfold division of human faculties that Bankim offers and uses throughout his Dharma Tattva: Anushilan).

Let us return to Sengupta’s Soul and Sword. The book’s lack of analysis of the term ‘political Hinduism’ seems connected with the author’s decision to uncritically eschew the word ‘Hindutva’. It becomes apparent when the author uses a more frequently used expression like ‘Hindu nationalism’ interchangeably with his preferred expression ‘political Hinduism’: “This new mainstreaming of political Hinduism or Hindu nationalism has raised the question of how successful Congress’s balancing act really was…” (p. xiv) Ironically, the author indirectly acknowledges the fact of higher recognition for the term ‘Hindu nationalism’ by providing multiple references to publication titles and headlines containing it.

The author’s decision to use the term ‘political Hinduism’, instead of ‘Hindu nationalism’ or ‘Hindutva’, also results in some peculiar usages that produce a hilarious effect; such as, “political Hinduism followers”, “political Hinduism supporters” (p. xvi), “political Hinduism pantheon”, “political Hinduism perspective” (p. 44), or “political Hinduism views” (p. 57). Not only do these usages sound laboured and clumsy and funny, they are meaningless for all practical purposes. Therefore, instead of throwing light on the subject, these peculiar usages simply add to the prevailing confusions that surround the little-understood phenomenon of Hindutva politics or Hindu nationalism. It would have been far more natural-sounding and meaningful, and far less conceptually confounding, had the author simply used the terms ‘Hindutva politics’ or ‘Hindu nationalism’; resulting in saner compound phrases like ‘supporters of Hindutva politics’, ‘followers of Hindutva politics’, or, simply ‘Hindu nationalists’, and ‘Hindu nationalist perspective’. Not only would this have produced a pleasant reading experience, it would have provided a much-needed sense of clarity on Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva as a political ideology.

On a more serious note, the author either fails to appreciate or ignores the angle that his preferred term can be used, and has indeed been used, pejoratively in the recent past, often as a negation of supposedly positive ideas, such as ‘secularism’. This is the case with a 2009 academic publication that employs the rarely-used term ‘political Hinduism’. The publication in question is an anthology of scholarly and polemical essays, titled Political Hinduism: The Religious Imagination in Public Spheres (2009), published by the Oxford University Press and edited by the UCLA history professor Vinay Lal. In that anthology, the editor justifies the coinage ‘political Hinduism’ by invoking a felt need to question why Islam alone has to bear the qualifier ‘political’ — thereby suggesting that Hinduism must have an equal share in the blame for the “designs and political ambitions of extremists”. Let me quote Lal in full here for more clarity:

“One does not routinely encounter the term ‘Political Hinduism’ and to most people it will not resonate as strongly as ‘Political Islam’. The only warrant required for the term, one might well argue, is that there is an ethical charge to assist in questioning the sinister singularity in which one speaks of ‘Political Islam’. Some of the more aggressive critics of Hindu nationalism, the majority of the secular and left-leaning scholars, have long felt that the atrocities committed in the name of defending Hinduism are inadequately condemned in India and overseas alike, and ‘Political Hinduism’ perhaps has the virtue of bringing some awareness of the fact that Hinduism is just as susceptible as any other religion to the designs and political ambitions of extremists.” (Lal 2009, p. 25)

By defending the term ‘political Hinduism’ in this way, Lal shows that his project is to reconstruct Hinduism in the image of ‘Political Islam’. He, therefore, draws a direct parallel between ‘political Hinduism’ and ‘political Islam’, thus imputing to the former the ideas, images and agenda associated with the latter — projecting the whole baggage and loaded-ness implied by the term ‘political Islam’ onto the recent coinage ‘political Hinduism’.

Without getting into a comparative analysis of how many acts of extremism and violence have actually been committed in the name of ‘political Hinduism’ and ‘political Islam’, respectively, it is sufficient for the present purpose to question Sengupta’s preference for the expression ‘political Hinduism’, given the above theorisation around it by Lal. Wittingly or unwittingly, doesn’t Sengupta’s choice of terminology in Soul and Sword perform precisely the task of assisting “in questioning the sinister singularity in which one speaks of ‘Political Islam’”, as solicited by Lal — and doesn’t Sengupta’s choice thus reaffirm, after Lal, that “Hinduism is just as susceptible as any other religion to the designs and political ambitions of extremists”?

As an author, Sengupta certainly has the right to freely choose any new coinage or terminology he prefers in order to describe or explain a historical phenomenon or an idea; but, at the same time, as an author he cannot exempt himself from the crucial responsibility of explaining — if not justifying — such a choice.

The lack of such explanation shall inevitably bring up precisely that sort of semantic and conceptual parallels as may appear superficially viable, but would in effect constitute a false equivalence. For example, Sengupta’s preferred phrase ‘political Hinduism’ immediately brings to one’s mind a correspondence with similar-sounding concepts or systems associated with certain other world religions, such as ‘political Islam’ — irrespective of one’s familiarity or unfamiliarity with Vinay Lal’s work. Unlike ‘political Hinduism’, the expression ‘political Islam’ is a widely used term in mainstream media and academic discourses, as can be seen in Ali Mirsepassi’s 2010 monograph Political Islam, Iran, and the Enlightenment: Philosophies of Hope and Despair. The negative connotations often associated with the notion of ‘political Islam’ might, one fears, be consciously or unconsciously attached to the phrase ‘political Hinduism’ as well, due to the sheer similarity in the construction of these phrases. Vinay Lal, for example, does it consciously. Others may do it unconsciously or even subconsciously. This here is the most serious of all problems inherent in the term ‘political Hinduism’ that Sengupta has adopted for his intellectual history. Sengupta might argue that, since as an author he has thoroughly washed his hands off any affection or disaffection towards the phenomenon in his introductory chapter, he couldn’t care less about the eventuality that ‘political Hinduism’ may come across as a negatively loaded term to many of his readers. But, one wonders, would he still feign indifference towards this problem if his preferred term leads more people to treat ‘Hindu nationalism’ or ‘political Hinduism’ (interchangeably used) with condescension and suspicion, than there already are?

One feels disappointed even when they consider the far-fetched possibility if Sengupta were deliberately using the term ‘political Hinduism’ in order to ‘cleanse’ the term of its unsettling parallelism with ‘political Islam’ — by persistently using it in place of Hindu nationalism/Hindutva politics, and hoping that doing so would somehow force people to accept it as a positive — or at least a neutral — synonym of these popular terms. Such disappointment springs from a disturbing observation: Sengupta seems to have a penchant for using problematic terminology uncritically. Just as he persistently uses the pejorative ‘political Hinduism’ in place of Hindu nationalism/Hindutva politics in his book, he brings in another pejorative, fairly critiqued by discerning scholars, namely, “neo-Vedantin”, while describing “a revival of Hindu ideas and ideals” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (p. 77). Sengupta also uses the term ‘South Asia’ uncritically in his book (p. 269), alluding neither to the history of the term’s relatively recent invention and subsequent popularisation by area studies departments in the US, nor to the critiques of how they had deployed the term to obfuscate the civilisational Indian identity of the region which it proposes to describe. 

Either Sengupta is oblivious of the issues attached to these pejoratives, or he simply lacks a critical lens to process such politically loaded terms, or, perhaps, he is a little too idealistic when it comes to estimating his own ability to single-handedly sanitise these manifestly tendentious expressions. Scholars Bagchi and Adluri (2013) and Madaio (2017) have critically examined how and why writers like Paul Hacker and Sengaku Mayeda had coined some of these problematic neologisms, including ‘neo-Vedanta’ and ‘neo-Hinduism’. Because some problematic frameworks, rooted in these neologisms created by Hacker, Lal et al, tend to have a robust existence in Western and Indian academia — and because such frameworks and neologic expressions tend to enjoy wide acceptance in the mainstream media too, they cannot simply be wished away. Therefore, any writer who uses these frameworks, or the terminology associated therewith, or both, should at least be willing and prepared to apply a layer of critical perspective on them. This would help the reader appreciate such terms and frameworks in their proper context. Failing to apply the proper critical filters on problematic frameworks and expressions, such as ‘political Hinduism’ and ‘neo-Vedantin’, only results in further demonisation of not just Hindu nationalism or Hindutva politics, but of Hindutva or Hinduism as a whole.

In this case, Sengupta’s decision to uncritically use these pejoratives throughout his book has now provided an additional layer of legitimacy to these loaded terms — especially to the term ‘political Hinduism’ which corresponds with ‘political Islam’ in more ways than one — because this time around the writer is an Indian, and, apparently a Hindu.

Essentially, ‘Hindutva’ is nothing distinct from ‘Hinduism’, either in theory or in practice. But because Hinduism has been literally and metaphorically disarmed, both by the depletion of self-knowledge of the Hindus (and Indians in general), as well as by various legal injunctions decreed by foreign colonial powers depriving Hindus (and Indians in general) the right to bear arms, many present-day Hindus (as well as non-Hindus) like to interpret ‘Hindutva’ as a term that signifies the idea and process of rearming Hindus (and Indians in general), metaphorically as well as literally. This has led to the attaching of political connotations to the term ‘Hindutva’ in our contemporary academic and media parlances. This reality should be borne in mind by everybody trying to understand or explicate Hindutva politics, especially those who write popular books or academic monographs/research articles on the subject.

Does Sengupta’s commentary reflect the above? Let us find out. In the otherwise superbly crafted second chapter of his book, titled “The Victory-Seekers”, Sengupta uses the phrase “politics in the name of Hinduism” — a phrase that has a sinister ring to it. If that is what Sengupta understands and implies by his preferred term ‘political Hinduism’, used throughout the book, then it is unfortunately no different from how others like Vinay Lal have interpreted the expression ‘political Hinduism’.

To be clear, the full sentence where Sengupta uses this phrase, reads:

“Vijayanagara and its ruins are significant in the history of politics in the name of Hinduism not only because of what was destroyed in an old war but the way the memory of what has been destroyed has been narrated and what it represents — a certain forceful resistance to iconoclasm, and not just in India.” (p. 42)

And then, right in the next paragraph, Sengupta tells us: “Thus, the fall of the Vijayanagara empire is epoch-making in the story of political Hinduism…” (p. 43). This is not the only instance where Sengupta’s pen glides smoothly from one phrase (“politics in the name of Hinduism”, “politics of Hinduism”) to another (“political Hinduism”). This practice creates the impression that our author is using these various phrases interchangeably, that is, as synonymous terms. If so, it reflects poorly on both the author as well as the copy editor of the book, for both come across as careless with their use of words — unless, of course, the synonymous deployment of those various terms is deliberate. The other phrase, “politics of Hinduism”, which Sengupta has used elsewhere in his book, has still got an air of non-partisanship, due to its inherent ambiguity of meaning. But the phrase “politics in the name of Hinduism”, intentionally or unintentionally, damages Sengupta’s claim of non-partisanship towards the subject of his book, something he seems so anxious to assert in the Introduction.

This is not to say that no politics is being done at present — or, has ever been done in the past — in the name of Hinduism. As a matter of fact, many politicians and activists of various ideological hues and opinions practice politics in the name of Hinduism, such as those who indulge in the sometimes-hilarious optics of ‘temple run’ every time the elections knock on their door. That is just one example of what “politics in the name of Hinduism” actually implies. And, let it be noted that, this sort of politics is ubiquitous in every religion and every culture under the sun. It is that special variety of cynical politics where a whole religion or culture is reduced to a bait — or worse, a scapegoat — to provoke its adherents into becoming collectively reactive. It is the politics of groupthink. Religion, culture, race, colour, gender, sexual orientation — virtually everything that can be used as an identifier, has been exploited in this special variety of postmodern identity politics.

But to suggest that such a cynical variety of politics is generally equivalent to Hindutva politics / Hindu nationalism / Hindu politics is a gross misunderstanding as well as a misinterpretation of each of these ideas and phenomena.

Now to another point of import. I have already suggested that Sengupta’s coverage of the intellectual history of Hindutva as a political ideology is inadequate. Let’s find out why. Following those who have previously authored English works chronicling the political philosophy of Hindutva, Sengupta has discussed at some length the key figures of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Chandranath Basu, Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Veer Savarkar, as regards their lasting influence on Hindutva as a political ideology. But, unfortunately, he gives little or no attention to some of the most important thinkers and leaders associated with this story. For example, Sengupta does not at all discuss the enormous influence of Swami Dayanand Saraswati’s writings and actions on Hindutva as a religious, social and political phenomenon. He merely mentions Dayanand’s name in passing, on two separate occasions: once while discussing some of the impacts and remarks of Dayanand’s disciples, namely, Swami Shraddhanand and R.B. Lal Chand, respectively, (p. 78) and in another instance while indicating the reformative character of the works of Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Dayanand, Shraddhanand, and Savarkar in general — wrapping up the matter in a single sentence. (p. 81)

Then again, astonishingly, Sengupta provides no discussion at all on Raja Rammohun Roy, save a single line tucked away somewhere in the book’s faultily numbered endnotes. The Raja had almost single-handedly brought in a first-of-its-kind revolution in the Hindu society of his times through his copious writings, endless translations, bold political representations and efficient organisation-building activities. In the early decades of the 19th century, the Raja pioneered several intellectual, religious, socio-cultural and political changes in the Hindu society through his writings and activism, setting in motion the forces that gave rise to important cultural and political developments in the latter half of the same century. It is, in fact, the Raja who had coined the term ‘Hinduism’ to denote the religious and socio-cultural distinction of the Hindus. Sengupta fails to recognise these rich intellectual, political and religious lineages in his book.

Similarly, Sengupta fails to account for the enormous influences that writers, thinkers and orators like Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, Panchkari Bandyopadhyay, Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya, Brahmabadhab Upadhyay, and Bipin Chandra Pal exercised on the shaping of Hindutva as a political ideology. Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya’s path-breaking essay “Swaraj in Ideas” (1928), which lays down and emphasises the idea of attaining Swaraj in both political as well as intellectual spheres simultaneously, features prominently on the list of selected readings on nationalism in the BJP e-library — a fact that speaks for Bhattacharya’s influence on Hindutva as a political ideology. Nor does Sengupta mention the popular orator Shashadhar Tarkachuramani, who yielded considerable influence on the more conservative or orthodox sections of the Hindu society during the final decades of the 19th century, as opposed to the scientifically-minded nationalist thinkers like Bankim and Bhudev. Thankfully, Sengupta brings into the picture the sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar and his writings on the legacy of Hindu political thinking. However, his omissions seem to greatly outweigh the inclusions in this context, because one would expect as thorough, as inclusive and as exhaustive a survey as possible in a book claiming to capture the intellectual history of what Sengupta calls “the defining force of India’s present” (p. vii).

In addition to essentialising and mischaracterising Rabindranath Tagore as a “pacifist” (p. 50), Sengupta leaves out an important part of the legacy of early thought on Hindutva. This is a legacy we inherit from Tagore the philosopher. After Bankim and Chandranath, it was none other than Tagore who began employing the term ‘Hindutva’ frequently and prominently in several of his Bengali essays, many of which he wrote in the years leading to the eruption of the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, as well as afterwards. In these essays, Tagore presented the idea of Hindutva in its many facets and contexts: as an expression of political resistance to invasion and iconoclasm, as a body politic, as a sociocultural system, as a national consciousness, and also as a set of sublime religious and moral idea and ideals. In fact, to one of these essays, Tagore had originally given the title “Hindutva” at the time of its first publication in 1901 in the Banga Darshan (navaparyaya or new phase) — a journal that Bankim had started and was Tagore had revived — although later on the title of that particular essay got changed to “Bhāratavarshiya Samāj” when the essay was included in the anthology Atmashakti (1905). Those who are familiar with Tagore’s works would know that the poet has used the word ‘Hindutva’, as well as the concept of Hindutva, more frequently and in more varied writings than any of his contemporaries, including Bankim and Chandranath. As a matter of fact, Tagore has used the word ‘Hindutva’ no less than twenty-two times, spread across seven different Bengali essays he wrote on Indian history, society, religion, and politics. He wrote multiple essays theorising the Hindu nation and nationhood, and specifically commented on the cultural, social, and theological characteristics of the Hindu nation (vide “Nation Kī”, “Hindutva/Bhāratavarshiya Samāj” “Hindu-digerJatīyo Choritro O Svadhīnatā”, “Bhāratavarsher Itihās” etc.). But, in Sengupta’s book, except for Tagore’s poems on Chhatrapati Shivaji, there is no recognition of Tagore’s deep and detailed reflections on the idea of Hindutva in its political as well as non-political contexts. This renders another large gap in the intellectual history that Sengupta attempted to write.

Sengupta dubs Tagore a “pacifist”. But was he one? In Abanindranath Tagore’s memoir Gharoa, collected and transcribed by Rani Chanda, Rabindranath Tagore is quoted as saying: “What a strong enthusiasm there was in the air during that Swadeshi era, the movement against the Bengal partition [1905]! …It feels amazing to think of those days now, of how fearlessly and recklessly I used to act…it is only there that I was whole and complete. People do not know my whole persona — they have cast their lens at me from different directions and broken me up into various parts.” (Tagore and Chanda 1970, translated from Bengali by the present reviewer) In this account, Tagore can be found admiring his own fearless younger self, by reminiscing his Swadeshi-era activities, which included mobilising young men (among whom were his nephews Surendranath, Gaganendranath, and Abanindranath) to sell Swadeshi goods and to resist police atrocities on Swadeshi activists. He mentions his close association and collaboration in this work with the Swadeshi revolutionary nationalist and firebrand orator Bipin Chandra Pal of the Lal-Bal-Pal triumvirate. It is also well-known how Rabindranath, in his final years, had publicly endorsed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s brand of revolutionary nationalist politics as a “sacred vow of injecting fresh life into the heart of our country” undertaken by Netaji Subhash, while dedicating his famous play Tasher Desh (‘The Land of Cards’) to the latter (Tagore 1938). Merely two years before his passing, Tagore had hailed Netaji Subhash as the leader of the nation in a public gathering in Calcutta. In view of all this (and more), one is prompted to ask: by what stretch of imagination does this career sound like that of a pacifist? It should be noted that, elsewhere, while referring to the characterisation of figures like Nehru and Veer Savarkar respectively as “emblem of pluralism” and “parochial and divisive”, Sengupta rightly provides the caveat “[b]ut that is an oversimplification of the complex lives of these men” (p. 60) in the immediate next line. One wonders how he forgot to add a similar caveat while essentialising Tagore as a “pacifist”.

Come to think of it, Sengupta’s book has zero mention of Abanindranath Tagore’s iconic painting of Bharat Mata, the first-ever visual-artistic portrayal of India as the Mother Goddess. How can a book claim to have sufficiently captured the intellectual history of Hindutva politics, without even once alluding to this particular painting, or to the nationalist artistic movement known as the Bengal School of Art, which this painting epitomises and which movement brought in a veritable revolution in the sphere of Indian art and design? The Bengal School of Art was, after all, the ‘official’ artistic front of the Swadeshi movement. It sought to create a distinct nationalist style based on traditional Indian symbols, tropes, and motifs — much of which was Hindu in character and origin — thus rescuing Indian culture from the imminent threat of getting overwhelmed by the all-pervasive cultural dominance of Western artistic influences, which were being actively patronised by the British colonial administration through government colleges of art and crafts set up across the country. This was a unique movement where nationalist politics merged with art, and created some of the greatest and most well-known works of modern Indian art. No story of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva politics can be complete without analysing or at least referring to this artistic movement. Sengupta’s book fails to do that. Neither does Sengupta’s book offer a single mention of Sister Nivedita, Swami Vivekananda’s Irish disciple and a friend of Rabindranath Tagore, who not only played a vital role in inspiring and supporting the key artists (including Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose) to initiate this nationalist artistic movement, but also galvanised a significant amount of revolutionary nationalist political thought and planning into action. Sengupta’s book disappoints us in this regard as well.

Then there is the problem of incorporeality that Sengupta appears to have imputed to the idea of ‘political Hinduism’. What do I mean by incorporeality? It is the illusion that the credo of an ideology — in this case ‘political Hinduism’ as represented in Sengupta’s book — does not require real personages to embody it. In reality, however, no ideology, whether political or religious, can emerge in/from a vacuum, nor can it ever claim a distinct identity without first attaching itself to specific historical/legendary figures — be they thinkers, prophets, avatars, savants or sages. One way or another, such figures — let us call them ‘thought leaders’ — shape ideologies. Carlyle said, “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the Great Men who have worked here.” Following him, it could be said that intellectual history, the history of what man has accomplished in the world of ideas and ideals, is at bottom the history of the Great Thinkers who have thought here.

However, in Soul and Sword, Sengupta personifies the very idea/phenomenon which he has decided to call by the name of ‘political Hinduism’, attributing human agency, even emotive characteristics to it in statements like “[t]he other Mughal king who is particularly detested by political Hinduism is the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur” (p. 32); or “political Hinduism emphasizes the forgotten history” (p. 28). The result is almost amusing.

Sengupta also seems to have a penchant for applying grossly informal — even derogatory — words in describing important figures from time to time. One example of this sort of cavalier attitude to language stands out rather jarringly when Sengupta characterises Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan as a “peacenik” (p. 168)

To be fair, the author does provide five or six such names elsewhere in the book as would fit the description and characteristics of thought leaders for his ‘political Hinduism’, going by how he has treated his material. These names are: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sri Aurobindo, M. S. Golwalkar and Deendayal Upadhyay. But several of the examples, which Sengupta draws to make his point about the “victory-seeking” tendency of ‘political Hinduism’, are presented as sub-narratives without a definite or real narrator. To cite an example, Sengupta shares an anecdote on Sangramaraja, the 11th-century Kashmiri Hindu King of the Lohara dynasty, who had thwarted multiple attempts by Mahmud Ghaznavi to invade Kashmir. In connection with this historical anecdote, Sengupta tells us that “political Hinduism emphasizes the forgotten history” and that “Ghazni and his loot of Somnath is well-known, but his defeat at the hands of Sangramaraja is hardly mentioned — this is something that political Hinduism is seeking to correct” (p. 28). However, he does not inform us who or what made Sangramaraja resurface in the cultural memory of modern Hindus, or in the narrative scheme of what he calls ‘political Hinduism’. Which author or filmmaker is retelling the story of Sangramaraja? Who is seeking to correct the wilful suppression or distortion of the historical narrative of the Hindu nation? Is it a politician making a mention of it in one of his speeches, or is it the author himself, or perhaps both? The author mentions a “pantheon of resistance”, which is apparently being constructed by highlighting near-forgotten heroes and heroines of Hindu resistance to invasion and colonialism, “through the lenses of political Hinduism”. (p. 29) But who casts these lenses? Not providing a specific answer to that question, the author ends up conjuring an illusion of incorporeality around Hindutva politics. To put his point in this regard on solid ground, the author ought to have identified and mentioned the writers, historians, storytellers, and filmmakers who have rigorously and/or creatively used print and digital media to create a “pantheon of resistance”. Failure to do so amounts to a failure to humanise the ideology of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva politics — and such failures dish out more ammunition to those who would want to demonise the ideology. Or, perhaps Sengupta is suggesting that ‘political Hinduism’ is a different beast altogether, with little humane side to it?

One is compelled to ask: what exactly are the modes of storytelling or narrativizing, in what Sengupta calls, using yet another of his laboured phrases, “political Hinduism storytelling”? (p. 29) Sengupta cites examples of some films made by/proposed by/starring the Bollywood stars Kangana Ranaut and Akshay Kumar. But that is all. Sengupta doesn’t venture into the terrain of analysing those Indian films or TV series that have, over the last eight decades, championed the preservation and proliferation of Indianness/Hinduness through cinematic depictions of, among other things, India’s great epics, or the lives of those who resisted invasions, or that of Indian freedom fighters, or of common Indians struggling to assert their timeless values despite all kinds of challenges. Sengupta’s mention of a handful of film stars or the passing references to the TV series Ramayan and Mahabharat in his book does not provide much help in this regard— except for making the reader wonder where such mentions ultimately lead him in the project of understanding the intellectual history of Hindutva politics. Thus, the important task of clarifying the relationship between the media and the narrativising of Hindutva politics continues to languish in neglect, suffering from the superficial treatment it receives in this work, as well as from the vilification done to it by unsympathetic, biased scholarship in the works of others.

In conclusion, let me highlight the danger inherent in superficial accounts of Hindutva politics or Hindu nationalism, by referring to Sengupta’s uncritical use of orientalist frameworks and third-wave feminist theories.

In the third chapter of his book, Sengupta brings up the Oxford political philosopher John Plamenatz, who offered two distinct visions of nationalism: the Western kind and the Eastern kind. According to this essentialist dichotomy, Western countries are certain of their cultural apparatus and identity, and, thus, they possess a sure-footed sense of nationalism, despite the present-day decline of some of these countries. The same dichotomy describes Eastern countries from Asia and Africa as less certain of their cultural apparatus and identity, due to the cultural intermixing and recent foreign encounters, thus possessing an anxiety over the foundations of their sense of nationalism, making them perpetually feel culturally inadequate.

Sengupta applies this framework to interpret Indian nationalism as expressed in the writings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Veer Savarkar. He rushes to characterise the common elements in the Nehruvian and Savarkarite visions of Indian nationalism in terms of Plamenatz’s formulation of “Eastern nationalism” (p. 63) Sengupta reads into the writings of both these nationalist leaders/thinkers a “feeling of cultural inadequacy”. Ironically, however, the quotes he shares in order to establish this point, do little to support his hypothesis. If anything, his quoted writings from both Nehru and Savarkar reveal a natural and confident nationalist tendency to offer the insider/emic view of Indian history, one wherein India is described, just as the sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar would have preferred, in a language stripped of orientalist stereotypes and essentialisms (‘spiritualist’, ‘meditative’ “plunged in thought” despite being “devastated and sacked by hordes of barbarians” etc.). Both Nehru and Savarkar sought to correct, at least in the passages that Sengupta has quoted, the orientalist and colonial versions of a passive, world-weary India. Unlike Sengupta’s hasty conclusions, such attempts by the duo reveal a strong sense of confidence in their respective nationalist visions of an India that resists when attacked, like any other living nation in the world.

But Sengupta does not stop at (mis)interpreting Nehruvian and Savarkarite visions of an alive and resistant Indian nation as merely symptomatic of “a feeling of cultural inadequacy”. He takes a step further to characterise such attempts by Nehru and Savarkar, especially the latter, as displaying an urgency to paint India with “strong undertones of masculinity” due to “this feeling of insufficiency”. (p. 65) Using the feminist formulations offered by Charu Gupta’s 2011 essay “Anxious Hindu masculinities in colonial North India: Shuddhi and Sangathan Movements”, Sengupta portrays Nehru as someone anxious to disprove the allegations of softness in Congress’s non-violence political philosophy, and Savarkar as someone who embraced and projected “a more aggressive ideology and displays an ‘anxious Hindu masculinity’” (p. 65). In doing so, Sengupta borrows Gupta’s expression “anxious Hindu masculinity” verbatim, and then uses it to uncritically essentialise varied versions of Indian/Hindu nationalism as products of a deeply insecure male psyche — glossing over both Nehru’s and (especially) Savarkar’s not infrequent references to India as a ‘Motherland’ and a ‘Mother Goddess’ (“Bharat Mata”), one who not only nurtures and protects her children, but also boldly resists when they are under attack. It is difficult to understand why, except for a probable anxiety on the author’s part to give his book a veneer of postmodern scholarly rigour, Sengupta is so eager and so hasty in uncritically applying problematic theoretical frameworks on the many visions of Indian/Hindu nationalism. In connection with Nehru’s and Savarkar’s formulation of the nationhood of India and the factors contributing to India’s nation-making, Sengupta evokes Benedict Anderson’s notion of “imagined communities”, with no reference to the plentiful critiques of Anderson’s theory of nation and nationalism. (p. 62) He doesn’t seem bothered in the least to discuss whether or not, or to what extent, Anderson’s theory is relevant to the Indian historical and cultural landscapes. It seems equally inexplicable as to why Sengupta would emphasise Julius Lipner’s translation of Bankim’s Anandamath as “one of the best-known” available, when in fact the translations by Basanta Koomar Roy (1941, Dawn over India), Nares Chandra Sengupta (1906, Abbey of Bliss) and by Sri Aurobindo and his brother Barindra Kumar Ghosh (1909) are far more well known in this country. Lipner’s translation came out rather recently in 2005. It is difficult to imagine that this new translation has already been able to eclipse the pre-existing ones, in terms of sheer popularity. This makes one wonder whether Sengupta has written his intellectual history keeping in mind more of a global audience than Indian.

The result of hastily and uncritically smattering such problematic theoretical formulations and terms throughout a book, which claims to capture the intellectual history of Hindutva politics, is detrimental to Hindutva as a whole — precisely because such works go on to create more negative perceptions about Hindutva than there already exists, in the mind of a general audience. Not everyone in the general reading public can be expected to possess the critical apparatus or acumen to cut through the fog of postmodern theories and pejorative terms. Therefore, the work of Indian writers writing on Hindutva in the popular history genre becomes that much more challenging, because. Only oikophobic authors can be expected to shirk this great responsibility.

While reading this book, one can perhaps choose to ignore Sengupta’s faulty translations (e.g., he translates “Patit Pavan” as “degenerate” — while the word actually means “Redeemer of the Fallen”), or the lack of an eye for detail (such as in delineating the history of occurrences of the word ‘Hindutva’ or in correctly identifying the Hindu College); one might even choose to overlook the garbled twaddle about how the so-called global-minded woke generation of today’s India can be won over by downplaying India’s conflicted past and by foregrounding ‘pluralism’ in the concluding chapter; but it becomes difficult to ignore the book’s sheer superficiality, as reflected in its multiple instances of randomly picking sundry theories and terminology, and then applying them without providing adequate critical perspective, or even a bare minimum cultural context, on either the origins of those theories/terminology or their applicability vis-à-vis India and Hindutva. The rest of the three chapters, as well as the short chapter called “Conclusion: The Age of Ram”, read more or less like a history of the BJS, the BJP and the RSS, rather than Hindutva politics as a whole, wherein thinkers/scholars/writers like Hirendranath Dutta, Ramananda Chatterjee, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Ram Swarup, V.S. Naipaul, Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, Girilal Jain, Tathagata Roy, Meenakshi Jain, Kapil Kapoor, Swapan Dasgupta or J Sai Deepak find either passing or no mention at all. In view of this, it can be safely asserted that a definitive work on the intellectual history of Hindutva, either in its political aspect alone, or in its holistic, integral view, is yet to be written.


[Author bio: Sreejit Datta is an educator, researcher, and social commentator, who writes on subjects critical to rekindling the Indic consciousness in a postmodern and neoliberal world. Views are personal.]

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