How Hindu Nationalists Redefined Decolonization in India

They rue that in the aftermath of the British Raj, the country continued to be ruled by a tiny Westernized elite

How Hindu Nationalists Redefined Decolonization in India
Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering his Independence Day speech in 2019. (Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A day after Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014, the Indian election received a certificate of decolonization from an unexpected quarter. An editorial in the British daily The Guardian titled “India: Another Tryst With Destiny,” declared that the day “may well go down in history as the day when Britain finally left India.” The headline was borrowed from one of the most popular political speeches of the 20th century, titled “Tryst with Destiny,” delivered by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, shortly before midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, when India gained independence from the U.K.

The 2014 election was a change of direction for India for several reasons — the foremost being that it was the first time that the right-wing Hindu nationalists could form a government with an absolute majority in the Indian parliament. The Bharatiya Janata Party had won 282 out of 543 seats. The editorial recognized this as a fundamental departure from independent India’s postcolonial trajectory, marking the end of an era in which India was governed by structures of power that were not very different from those during the British Raj.

“India under the Congress Party was in many ways a continuation of the British Raj by other means,” it said, a sentiment echoed strongly by the Hindu nationalists themselves.

They rue that in the aftermath of British colonialism, India continued to be ruled by a tiny Westernized elite, epitomized by Nehru, whose worldview, lifestyles and political and social aspirations were closer to the erstwhile colonial rulers than to those they ruled. It is only since 2014, they say, that political power has passed to those who truly represent the social and cultural ethos of India. This new Hindu nationalist elite claims that India is now being fundamentally decolonized in a departure from the seven decades that preceded Modi’s rule.

Formally, decolonization refers to that period when several countries across Asia and Africa gained political independence from European colonial rule in the mid-20th century and emerged as sovereign nation-states. But over the decades it has come to signify that political liberation alone cannot shed the continued legacies of colonialism that manifest in the political, social and cultural psyches of the colonized, including the lingering belief that Western civilization is the pinnacle of human history and progress.

Around the world, particularly in the intellectual and academic circles of the West, this idea of decolonization has gained a new currency over the past few years. The movement’s demands have included changing Eurocentric syllabuses in university classrooms; reparations for slavery, genocide and plunder in erstwhile colonies; and returning looted artifacts that adorn the grand museums of Europe. Statues of imperialists have been toppled. From the continuing devastating effects on the physical health of the colonized to the colonial roots of climate change, newer generations are coming to terms with colonization’s lingering effects and increasingly attempting to decolonize different aspects of life affected by colonial rule.

In the West decolonization has mostly been a project undertaken by the liberal and radical left, while in contemporary India it is the right-wing Hindu nationalists who have become the ideological and political force aggressively pushing the decolonization agenda into the mainstream.

From Indians’ frazzling obsession with the English language to a legal and administrative regime grounded in colonial law and from an education system rooted in Eurocentrism to the ongoing consequences of geographical boundaries produced by the cartographic adventures of the British, colonial hangover in India has many faces. From Pythagoras to Shakespeare, the works of great white men are passed off as universal and separable from culture, while myriad Indian intellectual sources face apathy or exoticization. Even the multibillion-dollar Hindi film industry, tellingly called “Bollywood” — a portmanteau of “Bombay” (the former name of Mumbai where the Hindi film industry is located) and “Hollywood” — has been beguiled by western Europe. The snow-capped peaks of Switzerland and the bustling streets of London, where Hindi film heroes and heroines ecstatically danced to hammy, over-the-top love songs, set the aspirations for a good life for one, perhaps two, generations of Indians.

For decades, this ubiquitous colonial hangover has been the reason for the quiet collective humiliation and alienation of a large number of Indians, who have felt inadequate and inferior for not being sufficiently Westernized. This has now become a raison d’etre of sorts for Hindu nationalism, which claims to restore Indian pride by rejecting this colonial hangover — one symbolic step at a time.

As soon as Modi came to power, starting with his very first address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2014, he changed the practice of speaking in English to other foreign leaders and in international forums, even though he is reasonably conversant in the language. In 2017, his government banned the use of the infamous colonial-era red beacon on the cars of politicians and government officials, which allowed them not only to jump traffic lights but represented a tightly guarded elite political culture, resented and aspired to in equal measure by ordinary Indians.

In 2019, the finance minister stopped the practice of carrying the annual budget to the Parliament in a briefcase — another colonial-era practice — and instead carried a “bahi khata,” a traditional red cloth ledger of accounts, with the national emblem emblazoned on it. The chief economic adviser to the government called this a sign of departure from slavery to Western thought. Last year, the government also changed the name of the iconic boulevard from Rajpath (King’s Way) to Kartavya Path (Path of Duty). Over a century old, the ceremonial boulevard stretches from Rashtrapati Bhawan (the Presidential Palace) to India Gate, an arched memorial to Indian soldiers who died during World War I, and ends at the historic Mughal-era Red Fort. The prime minister said this move would bring “freedom from yet another symbol of slavery of the British Raj.”

He also installed a giant statue of Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose under the grand canopy of India Gate, which had housed King George V’s statue until the mid-1960s. Last year, during Independence Day celebrations — when the prime minister addresses the nation from the Red Fort in Old Delhi every year — Modi asked Indians to take a vow to remove all traces of a colonial mindset. Indian media was flooded with dozens of news articles, op-eds and videos lauding him for decolonizing India. Even France’s state-owned TV network ran a news report with the headline: “Nationalism in India: PM Narendra Modi on decolonization mission.”

In May this year, in what became his most symbolically significant step in this direction, Modi gifted himself a brand new seat of power by inaugurating a sprawling new Parliament building as a replacement for the British-era Old Parliament House. According to reports, the building cost the government almost $120 million. It is the centerpiece of the Modi government’s grand and controversial Central Vista project, which aims to overhaul the British-era administrative center, popularly known as Lutyens’ Delhi. Designed by architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker when Delhi was established as the capital of British India, it continued to be the power center of the postcolonial Indian state. It includes the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the Parliament building, the north and the south blocks that house offices of key ministries and palatial bungalows with giant manicured lawns reserved for ministers, bureaucrats, judges, politicians and defense personnel, spread over 2,800 acres. Such is the symbolism of this area in the country’s political life that it is often said that India is governed by the “Lutyens consensus.”

Modi has not only presented himself as an outsider to the political culture of Lutyens’ Delhi but also as someone who would fundamentally change it. For millions of his supporters, the inauguration of a new Parliament was a physical manifestation of this intention. In the inauguration speech, Modi said that there was a time when India was one of the most prosperous and developed lands in the world. Its magnificent cities, dams, palaces and temples bedazzled travelers. But “hundreds of years of slavery” shattered Indian pride. “Now India of the 21st century is leaving behind the years of slavishness and returning to its ancient glory. The new Parliament is a living symbol of that effort,” he said.

Even China — with which the Modi government has had particularly fraught relations in the past three years, including lethal skirmishes on the border — praised India for its putative efforts toward decolonization. When the new parliament building was inaugurated, an editorial in the Chinese Communist Party-owned Global Times said, “In recent years, the Modi government has devoted itself to presenting an image of a rising India that engages in decolonization and emphasizes independent confidence.”

Beyond the symbolism, there have been far-reaching policy decisions too. In 2020, the government came up with a new education policy, which brought about significant changes in order to “Indianize” the education system. One of the most controversial changes has been the emphasis on replacing English with regional Indian languages as the medium of instruction in schools until a certain age. In India, despite the emotive and political significance of vernacular language education, quality education, which is a ticket to upward social mobility, continues to happen in English.

This is not accidental. In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British politician, circulated the Minute of Education, a treatise that set the ball rolling for education in the English language and European sciences in British India.

“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 color, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,” he infamously said. This particular excerpt from Macaulay’s minutes has had a life of its own in postcolonial India. For years, it has been memorized by school-going children so as to never let a generation of Indians forget the humiliation wrought by colonialism. While speaking about the new education policy, Home Minister Amit Shah said that it was rooted in “Bharatiyata” (Indianness) and was “an antidote to Macaulay’s system of education designed to colonize our minds.”

In the past few years, the Indian government has also taken several steps to “decolonize” India’s health system by trying to integrate modern Western medicine with ayurveda, a traditional system of medicine in the subcontinent. It is even considering the idea of allowing ayurvedic practitioners to perform surgery. So far, modern medicine in India is only taught in English, a language spoken by an estimated 10% of the population. But now, several state governments ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are beginning to offer medical courses in Hindi and other regional languages.

Last week, in a revamp of India’s criminal laws, Shah introduced three new bills in Parliament to replace the British-era laws that were still used to govern the country. The English names of the laws — the Indian Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Evidence Act — were changed into Hindi. Shah said, “We will remove all signs of ghulami (slavery).” 

The Modi government and dozens of other Hindu nationalist organizations in India, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), their ideological fountainhead, want decolonization to be a part of the collective consciousness of the country.

From what Indians eat to how they dress, the songs they sing to the sciences they study, the Hindu nationalist agenda of decolonization has been wide and far-reaching.

“In India, nobody spoke of decolonization before the right wing,” rues Shaurya Doval, director of India Foundation, a prominent right-wing think tank. “We probably did not understand what colonization meant. … The right wing sees colonization and decolonization as an identity issue and says we do not need validation from the West for how we are or should be,” he says. In India, everyone grows up listening to tales of colonial indignities — the notorious plaques outside the all-white British-era clubs saying “dogs and Indians not allowed” have lived on in the collective memory of Indians for decades. This humiliation, felt vaguely but profoundly, has remained unaddressed for too long, and many probably considered it unavoidable — but not Hindu nationalists. A major reason why they have increasingly been able to turn a hitherto esoteric and academic idea of decolonization into a mainstream political issue is because they have been able to tap into this unaddressed feeling of colonial humiliation, carried by Indians for generations.

There is a twist, however. For the right wing, colonization in India did not begin with the British Empire in the 18th century. Instead, it began with the arrival of Muslim rulers or “invaders” to the subcontinent in the eighth century. The Mughals, the Khiljis, the Tughlaqs, the Lodis — the different and unrelated Muslim dynasties which ruled parts of India during the 1,000-year period from the eighth century up to the 18th — all constitute the “Islamic colonization” or invasion of India, according to the Hindu nationalist understanding.

In his first speech to the Indian Parliament in 2014, Modi echoed this understanding of colonization. “The slave mentality of 1,200 years is troubling us. Often, when we meet a person of high stature, we fail to muster strength to speak up,” he said, immediately rekindling the debate over what constitutes the colonization of India. Even in his recent address to a joint session of Congress in the United States, Modi said that last year, India had celebrated 75 years of freedom after “1,000 years of foreign rule in one form or the other.”

According to this view, Indian history can be neatly divided into three distinct periods — the ancient Hindu period until the eighth century (or by some accounts, the 11th century), the medieval Muslim period until the 18th century and the modern British period until the mid-20th century, after which India finally attained independence in 1947 after 1,200 years of “colonial rule.” The ancient era is seen as the golden period in Indian history, when indigenous forms of art and science flourished, and India was the leader of the world. It is this ancient glory that Hindu nationalists want to re-create in the 21st century by becoming the “vishwa guru” (global teacher) once again. The medieval period, on the other hand, is synonymous with civilizational decay, when the beleaguered “indigenous” Hindu population sought to resist Islamic invasions and despotic rule.

In an editorial published in the Organiser, the RSS mouthpiece, editor Prafulla Kelkar argued that the periods of rule by both Muslim dynasties and the British constituted colonization, as their aims were “identical” even though their instruments differed.

“The earlier invaders (Muslim rulers) desecrated and destroyed the places of pilgrimage with the intent of attacking the dignity, unity, soul and sacredness of Mother Bharat,” he wrote. “The British continued that process more clinically through laws, education and other instruments of servitude.”

For Hindu nationalists, therefore, decolonization is as much about erasing the legacies of the “Islamic conquests” of India as it is about erasing those of the British Empire. According to this worldview, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by Hindu nationalists, who claimed that the 16th-century mosque was built by the Mughal ruler Babur at the exact birthplace of Lord Rama, one of the most important Hindu gods, was one of the biggest acts of “decolonization” in modern Indian history.

Earlier this year, the government removed chapters on Mughal history from school textbooks. Across the country, a flurry of legal petitions have been made to probe whether Indo-Islamic heritage sites and places of worship, including the Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar, were built by destroying Hindu temples, as the Hindu nationalists believe that many Indo-Islamic heritage sites were built by destroying Hindu temples. An etymological war to change the names of several “Muslim-sounding” cities to their “original,” “Hindu-sounding” ones is also underway. Allahabad and Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh are now Prayagraj and Ayodhya; Aurangabad and Osmanabad in Maharashtra are now Chhatrapati Sambhaji Nagar and Dharashiv. There is a wish list of several other cities’ names: Ahmedabad to Karnavati, Hyderabad to Bhagyanagar, Aligarh to Harigarh, Bakhtiyarpur to Nitish Nagar. High-ranking BJP leaders, including sitting chief and deputy chief ministers, have referred to Indian Muslims as the children of Mughal rulers Babur and Aurangzeb — a dog whistle to establish their “foreign” ancestry.

Last year, a few months before elections took place in the southern state of Karnataka, Tipu Express, a popular train, was renamed “Wodeyar Express,” after the Wodeyars, an erstwhile Hindu royal family in the region. Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore who fervently fought the British advance across southern India, was once considered an anticolonial hero. But for Hindu nationalists, his reign symbolizes a period of terror, torture and forced religious conversions. In the recent elections, the ghost of Tipu loomed large. Several BJP leaders, including Shah, repeatedly invoked him as a symbol of “anti-Hindu” politics. The BJP reportedly conjured up two Hindu chieftains and claimed that they had killed Tipu. But historians have pointed out that the chieftains never existed, and historical records clearly show that Tipu died fighting the British.

Across India, the BJP has been invoking several such “forgotten” Hindu figures who purportedly fought against Muslim tyrants, thus putting together a confrontational, social media-friendly version of Indian history. Even Bollywood, arguably the biggest creator of aspiration, myth and collective consciousness in the country, seems to have taken heed. Once the go-to place for left-leaning progressive Urdu writers, who came to Bombay to find work as scriptwriters and lyricists, Bollywood appears to be erasing the syncretic Indo-Persian culture it patronized for decades. Over the last few years, the industry has instead been rapidly churning out historical dramas celebrating “forgotten” and “unsung” Hindu warriors and kings who ostensibly resisted “tyrannical” Islamic invasions. “Padmaavat,” “Panipat: The Great Betrayal,” “Tanhaji: The Unsung Hero,” “Manikarnika” and “Samrat Prithviraj” are some examples.

Akshay Kumar, a big film star who featured in “Samrat Prithviraj,” based on the life of a 12th-century Rajput king who is often described as “the last great Hindu emperor,” echoed quintessential Hindu nationalist concerns during the release of the film, asking why history textbooks teach students only about Mughal rulers and not “our kings.”

However, postcolonial scholars argue that this division of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods is a direct product of British colonial historiography. Convinced that Muslims were despots and religious invaders, British historians of the 19th century sought to break down and organize the complex, fuzzy and pluralistic history of the subcontinent along religious lines that they could easily discern. An army of British historians of the time sought to write the most definitive historical accounts of India, which could make the land — and its strange people, unruly histories and bizarre cultures — intelligible to them. Their accounts went on to become the official history of India. The question of origins — who belongs to India, who came from “outside,” when did the “outsiders” arrive — became central to defining Indianness.

For instance, in “Medieval India Under Mohammedan Rule” (1903), the Orientalist Stanley Lane-Poole wrote that the medieval period in the subcontinent begins when “the immemorial systems, rule, and customs of Ancient India were invaded, subdued, and modified by a succession of foreign conquerors who imposed a new rule. … These conquerors were Muslims.” From the 11th century, for a period of 800 years, India remained under Muslim rule, he wrote. Edward Law Ellenborough, a governor-general of the East India Company, claimed that the British had “avenged” the “insult of eight hundred years” for the Hindus by conquering the princely state of Sindh (in present-day Pakistan) in 1843.

Through official histories, census reports, journals and travelogs, the categories of “Hindu” and “Muslim” were naturalized, made to seem impermeable, primordial and ubiquitous. Cities, languages, medical practices, arts and sciences all came to be marked as “Hindu” or “Muslim.” For instance, political scientist Hilal Ahmed, the author of “Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation,” writes that in the early 20th century, attempts began to organize India’s architectural heritage into three categories — “Hindu-ancient,” “Muslim-medieval” and “British-modern.” They were were then used to symbolize the nativeness or foreignness of the structures. Architecture that had anything to do with Islam became a symbol of foreign tyranny. Excavators and archaeologists were deployed to find out if grand mosques had been built atop ruins of Hindu temples.

“The Hindutva idea of decolonization is a colonial one,” argues Manan Ahmed, historian at Columbia University and author of “The Loss of Hindustan.”

“The British colonial perspective was that the real ‘colonizers’ were the foreign Muslim invaders with the British playing the role of ‘liberators’ from the ‘yoke of slavery of 800 years,’” Ahmed told New Lines. “This colonial idea hinges on anti-Muslim sentiment, framing Islam and Muslims as outsiders to the subcontinent. This is precisely the politics of Hindutva and thus a smooth transference. Again, one can see how frequently colonial authors and scholarship are cited as ‘evidence’ of Muslim tyranny.”

Despite the colonial roots of their ideas of decolonization, for many Indians today, Hindu nationalists are the only ideological group interested in rejecting colonial legacies. Their ideological opponents, especially the Indian National Congress party and those who flourished during its long rule, are seen as a manifestation of Eurocentric secularism, dynastic feudalism and disdainful elitism — all colonial vestiges that 21st-century Indians apparently have no time for.

The elite from the Congress Party era could very well be blamed for these perceptions. For decades after independence, a large section of the ruling elite in India came to see their fellow Indians as inferior for supposedly being unruly, excessively religious, irrational and illiterate — or simply put, not ones to be easily Europeanized. As pointed out by political activist Yogendra Yadav, this was an elite that had unthinkingly embraced a flat idea of Western modernity — unmindful of cultural colonialism and the humiliation it festers. Not only was it unfamiliar with Indian cultural and political sources of knowledge, but it also marginalized leaders who offered nuanced critiques of colonialism, the English language or Western-style politics.

“They vacated this ground (of decolonization), and the Hindu nationalists successfully came and occupied it with their chauvinistic version,” Yadav says.

Where does this leave the future of decolonization in India? The fact that the Hindu nationalists and the BJP have been compelled to use the rhetoric of decolonization underscores the importance of the idea, says Manan, putting even more pressure on those who wish to articulate an ethical version.

As the country turns 76, for the first time in its post-independence history, decolonization has become a mainstream political and identity issue, firmly ensconced in the culture war raging in the country. Refusing to engage with it, politically or intellectually, may no longer be an option.

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