In 2014, India got a new Prime Minister, the leader of a right-wing nationalist party Bharatiya Janta Party or the BJP. They also won the very next set of elections held in 2019 by a landslide securing their place as the face of India for another 5 years. Now you might be wondering, what does this have to do with religious identity? In fact, at a cursory glance, PM Modi seems to stay out of Hindu versus Muslim religious bouts, fights which have been a part of the Indian society since British colonization. It was the deliberate divide and rule scheme implemented for over 200 years that enabled this. That said, if you take a moment to dig deeper, you’d notice how politics and religious identity are no longer separate elements of a nation. This is made possible in part to social media.
Bhakts a word that is being used to identify Indian Hindu Nationals, especially those who deem themselves as hardcore Modi supporters, are often Hindus that have a rather extremist point of view in religious matters. This demeanor was true for plenty of people when the India-Pakistan partition was taking place, but social media has brought a completely new power-up feature for bhakts on-to the table. Validation of extremist ideology that leans on a religious superiority. I have written about circles of toxicity before. These are circles where people with the same ideas, thoughts, and ideologies congregate to form a pseudo-cult where even hate-speech, as long as it aligns with the ideas of the group, is encouraged. What does all of this have to do with religious identity? I’m glad you asked. When a party like the BJP and a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization – the RSS, become a unit to spread the message of ‘Hindutva‘, a concept I’ll delve into later in this piece, it transforms what it means to have a religious identity.
For some time now, several people across India have been examining what religion has meant for them. The issue with really understanding Hinduism as one religion is that it is not just one religion. Not only is does it vary in terms of beliefs and philosophy, but it also changes with tradition, practice, and location across the Indian subcontinent. There is no one way to practice Hinduism.
Some history that would help understand the Hindu religious identity
Before the colonization of India, the nation was divided into smaller states which were ruled or governed by different authoritative figures. During this time India enjoyed true secularism where people practiced similar, if not the same, traditions as part of their religion. While Hindus and Muslims have always had differences with regards to prophets and God, the proximity to each other as well as a religiously diverse list of rulers over several decades made up for most differences. The ideologies, as well as traditional practices, were shared for a long period in Indian history.
Then came the British. Under the pretense of better governance and promise of self-rule, they took over the regions that today can be recognized as India, Pakistan, Bengal, Tibet, Afghanistan, and Burma. These regions altogether make-up what was then, a complete India under foreign rule. Although the most controversial split occurred between India and Pakistan, India as a British colony faced problems galore. One of the defining factors of British rule was their policy of divide and conquer. They actively created messages that convinced people of the Hindu-Muslim separation, widening the divide. This helped the British to pose themselves as allies to the Indian populous while making Indians subjects, not citizens of their own nation.
This was made possible by the introduction of discreet religious identities. British claimed that Muslims and Hindus could not be separate religions if their traditions overlapped this much. This messaging became a wildly popular one during the British rule and became a defining moment for what can be recognized in the modern-day as a religious identity. Instead of making religion about the teachings and morality, it became about not becoming the other. This divide can still be seen and felt amongst the populous. If you really want to understand the impact of what this divide brought onto the country – I ask that you see this Wikipedia page. India became a British colony starting in 1858 and a vast majority of riots since then take the form of a Hindu-Muslim fight.
Bhakts, Hindutva, and Social Media
I promised I’d delve into the concept of Hindutva, so here it is. According to BJP, Hindutva is about favoring the Indian culture over westernization. The recent ban on Chinese application – albeit of an Asian element, is a good example showcasing the application of this form of Hindutva. That said, BJP is also famously deep-rooted within the RSS and vice versa. RSS’ idea of Hindutva is closer to being a Hindu than it is about the Indian culture. This kind of a convoluted thought process is what makes the combination of BJP and the RSS a dangerous one. While both of these organizations have Hindutva as a core principle and are working together to achieve it, they don’t entirely agree on what Hindutva is. This makes people prone to making errors that the nation cannot afford.
Read more about culture and how it changes here – The Fluidity of Culture
This mixed-messaging on Hindutva has put Bhakts in a mess. While they would all like to believe the same thing, many believe in the superiority of Hindus, and others believe in shedding the western culture. What they do agree on, is that they believe in Hindutva. Now in the presence of twitter where ideas come to rub on each other, they have managed to form groups of Hindu nationalists while ignoring their core problem – what it means follow Hindutva. Like I mentioned before, these groups rapidly become circles of toxicity, and the more extreme the idea, the more it gets encouraged. I would like to believe that this happens because having strong opinions offers people a chance to act. While mistrust in the system is completely understandable after 2 centuries of foreign oppression, it also becomes a festering locale for people who lean towards violence and don’t listen to what other people have to say. This collective force of people agreeing with extremist ideas has led to a people-pleasing leadership that propagates this even further.
Leadership and Religious Identity
Here, I want to take a moment to recognize that Hindus come in all shapes and forms, and not every Hindu is a bhakt. There are many who fight for equal religious tolerance and acceptance on a daily. Unfortunately, these Hindus are not a part of forming a religious identity. They form their own identities and become content with the way they practice religion. What has happened, is that the leadership that has emerged lately confirms the RSS ideology and that paints Hindus in a recessive light. So the religious identity itself for many people is formed by their own volition but when it comes down to presenting a united front to the world and describe what Hindus are like, it’s the bhakts on twitter that paint the picture. When it comes down to preaching religion, although it’s the family who brings it into the lives of the young – in the presence of social media, the young can directly see and approach the token leaders.
Even though Hinduism can be broadly generalized into a pick-your-morals and find your sect form of religion, a bad, yet approachable leadership has become a living example of what a Hindu must do. This does not bode well for a generation that learns from more than just their parents.