April 14, 2021

With the death of Prince Philip last week the Queen is now one of the last public figures with clear adult memories of the 1947 Partition of India. And yet the shadow of the British Raj persists down to the present in the cultural conflicts in the Indian subcontinent, now that the post-colonial era in India and Pakistan is finally receding.

The last of the post-partition generations are passing on, to be replaced by an indigenous leadership class more parochial and rooted in the subcontinent. The modern Indian culture war is a reflection of the decline of a once-secure, outward-looking cosmopolitan Western elite in the face of a rising Hindu nationalist movement, one that is relatively insular and inward looking. India is maturing, becoming culturally more self-confident, and shedding its post-colonial skin.

In 1835 Thomas Macaulay had argued in his famous essay Minute on Education that “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.” 

Macaulay was arguing that British Government should spend money on educating those it found under its rule. So it came to be as Britain ruled over the most heavily-populated and most valued part of its empire for another century.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister who led India to independence from Britain, studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and at the Inner Temple, and was closely connected to the Fabian Society. Nehru’s rival, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, studied law at the Lincoln’s Inn, and was strongly influenced by English utilitarianism and French positivism. Nehru was an agnostic who requested a secular burial (this was denied him), while Jinnah was a gin-drinker whose religious attachments were more a matter of identity than belief.

Nehru and Jinnah led India and Pakistan to independence as the brown-skinned Westerners Thomas Macaulay had envisioned a century earlier. South Asian in appearance and pedigree, the leaders of these two nations nevertheless personified a fundamental truth about the Western orientation of the new Asian states. Pakistan was aligned with the United States, while socialist India was nominally non-aligned but clearly tilted toward the Soviet bloc. Though the populace of these nations were mostly illiterate, poor and detached from the cosmopolitan currents of the world, their elites were integrated among the English-speaking peoples. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, attended Somerville College, Oxford. His great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, whose mother is Italian, studied at Harvard and Trinity College.

India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in contrast, sports a third class degree from the University of Delhi. While Rahul Gandhi boasts of his Brahmin ancestry, Modi is from a lower caste. Though he had an arranged child marriage, Modi never consumated it, and devoted his energies to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A Right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation, the RSS was Modi’s true university, where he made his deepest early connections. He was Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 communal riots when over 1,000 died. Despite a period of international censure and ostracism, Modi made a political comeback on his populist appeal to the Indian voter, winning the election in 2014, and again in 2019.

How was it that Modi could withstand being shunned by Western governments, including the United States? The answer is that Modi, and Hindu nationalists, do not rely on the West in the way their predecessors did. There are 1.4 billion Indians, of whom 80% are Hindu. Though over 100 million Indians speak English, 90% do not. The overwhelming majority obtain arranged marriages and marry within their jati, or endogamous community. The Oxbridge-educated milieu of Nehru, and the gin-drinking inclinations of Jinnah were in the subcontinent, but not truly of it. The English-speaking intelligentsia of India, which produces novelists such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, is the face of elite India most prominent to the rest of the world, but this is not the only India. And it is no longer the dominant India.

At the time of Indian independence, less than 20% of the population was literate; only four years earlier, millions had died in a famine. Like many recently independent countries, it had the external simulacra of being a Westphalian nation-state, but while the post-colonial leadership took their seats at the United Nations, and traveled abroad, their populace at home was nothing like the active citizenry of Western republics, or even the mobilised proletariat of the Eastern bloc.

The citizens of India in 1947 were focused on survival, and were grateful that Nehru and his colleagues in the Congress Party had shepherded the country to independence. For generations Indians voted for the Congress Party because of this old loyalty, not because they agreed with its Fabian socialism or international connections. But those generations are now passing away, and the India of 2021 is not the India of 1947. The people no longer want to be led by elites who are quite so different from them.

Today 700 million Indians are on the internet, talking, arguing and debating. Though it is still a poor nation, there are now pockets of development, and a prosperous indigenous middle class has rooted itself.

But contrary to Macaulay’s expectations these are not simply brown-skinned Westerners. They are often Hindus of a very traditionalist bent, untouched by Nehru’s theosophical inclinations and cosmopolitan experiences. Just as Salafism and Islamic fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity and development, so Hindu nationalism is less an atavism than a new movement that emerges from a synthesis of traditional Indian religion with the modern world and its demands. As the old village life recedes and collapses, so the Hinduism habituated to that mode of production also recedes. In its place has emerged something more muscular, universal and monochrome.

While Hinduism is a religion, Hindutva is an identity. Though the origins of Hindutva are diverse, its foremost early expositer and formulater, Vinayak Sarvakar, was an atheist. So while the vast majority of Hindutva adherents are religious Hindus, being a religious Hindu is not a necessary precondition.

Rather, Hindutva may best be thought of as an personal identity with India and Indian culture, and a mass movement attempting to unite the diverse strands of native Indian identity into one. Like many 21st century ideologies, including Islamic and Protestant fundamentalism, Hindutva’s origins date back to the rise of European colonial hegemony in the 19th century.

While Nehru and Jinnah were inspired in their anti-colonial politics by the very traditions of liberty and self-determination pregnant within Western nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, Chinese and Japanese nationalism, and Hindutva, all fuse deep-rooted indigenous identities with the modern yearning toward self-determination. Hindutva cannot be understood except in the context of its reaction to the West, and to Islam, but it asserts its deep continuity with the native traditions of the subcontinent.

It is in its attitude toward Islam that contemporary Hindu nationalists are most striking in their dissent from the orthodoxies of the post-colonial Indian secular elites. Though Nehru and his successors all averred a civilisational Hindu identity, they also asserted that in contradiction to Pakistan their project was not confessional, but religiously pluralistic. They argued that Indian nationalism by necessity and choice was a multi-religious project, and that Pakistan’s establishment was predicated on a misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between Muslims and Hindus, which had been defined by a certain level of amity before the British. Nehruvian socialists and India’s secular English-speaking elite aimed to establish in India a society and culture which rebuked Pakistan’s descent into religious sectarianism.

This project was fundamentally post-colonial, attempting to paper over divisions which had ripened during the British Raj, ultimately fracturing the subcontinent into two states. The early Hindu nationalists had a different vision, one where India’s Hindu identity became central to its self-conception, in the same manner that Pakistan’s Islamic identity was etched into its founding DNA. Rather than Hindu-Muslim unity fractured by the British, the historiography favored by Hindu nationalists argues for two colonialisms, first by Muslims, then by the British. Proponents of Hindutva see in India a wounded civilisation which must be healed, revived, and allowed to take its place vigorously in the congress of nations.

Whatever legitimacy Hindu nationalists had at the founding of India was obliterated by the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, an activist in the RSS. It took them generations to rehabilitate themselves. This let independent India’s 20th century political and cultural elite have a free hand in shaping Western perceptions. Though the vast majority of Indians were conservative Hindus, Hindu nationalism was long a stillborn political movement hamstrung by its connection to the killing of the beloved Gandhi.

The election and popularity of Modi, and the reorientation of much of Indian popular culture toward Hindutva, means that the 20th century cultural monopoly of the secular Left is now firmly in the rearview mirror. The new reality can be illustrated by the complex dance of Priyanka Chopra, an internationally-renowned Bollywood actress married to a white American pop singer, who nonetheless has good relations with Hindutva cultural elites. Chopra has attempted to depict herself as a progressive, supporting Black Lives Matter. Whatever her personal beliefs, Chopra is clearly attempting to navigate the reality that to be acceptable in the Indian market she cannot be seen as oppositional to the dominant political and cultural ethos, while in the American context she cannot be seen to be reactionary

Yet more broadly the global Left is not positively inclined toward Modi and his Hindutva government, despite the reality that it has not enacted the neoliberal reform they oppose. The Indian novelist, Arundhati Roy, who is fundamentally a global Leftist activist, is deeply opposed to Hindu nationalism. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the former American adult film actress Mia Khalifa tweeting in support of farmers in Punjab only makes sense in light of the fact that they are protesting in opposition to the Modi government. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalists have been courting allies against their Leftist antagonists, which sometimes results in strange connections to Western white nationalists. Whatever its economics, Hindutva’s plainly anti-Islamic stance falls afoul of the de facto global Left popular front, and wins strange admirers in Europe.

As we proceed in the 21st century India and the world will confront two simultaneous dynamics: modernisation of the nation-state and the rise of indigenous non-Western cultural and political movements, and further international global connections and coalitions. Instead of a homogeneous world dominated by Western “Davos Man,” what we will see is a world with difficult to define texture and protean affinities which might seem ideologically nonsensical.

The rise of Hindu nationalism and its political dominance in India seems here to stay. This will result in a native cultural ascendancy, and will lead to a negative response from the global Left, which has a substantial presence in the English-speaking middle and upper-class of the subcontinent. None of this speaks to the substance of what Hindu nationalism is. It simply speaks to the natural reaction of those with power who no longer have it.

Instead of the great mass of the population being Westernised by the brown-skinned Englishmen, the great mass have thrown up their own leadership class, which has marginalised the Macaulay men. And the responding rage of the secular class has been heard round the world.