Krishna Sundarram

Understanding Hindutva

Understanding Hindutva

Hindutva (or Hindu-ness) is a book written by Vinayak Savarkar, one of the founders of the Hindu nationalist movement in India. He opposed British Rule in the Indian subcontinent and for this, he was rewarded with free room and board in a jail in the Andaman Islands. After release, he argued publicly for the creation of a Hindu Rashtra (nation). In later years he was charged as one of nine co-conspirators in the assassination of Gandhi, but was acquitted for lack of evidence.

This book, written in 1923 covers several subjects:

  1. An attempt at presenting a historical perspective, but stilted, biased and lacking in historical foundation.
  2. What is Hindutva, the essence that makes a Hindu a Hindu?
  3. Citizenship in India.
  4. A blueprint for the Hindu nationalist movement.

The first of these can be safely ignored. I could nitpick each of the many instances where the author claims things that are factually incorrect, but it’s not worth my time to write or yours to read. For example, he claims that the Vedas predate the Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations. They don’t. The Vedas were composed around 1000BC. The Babylonians were developing trigonometry 500 years before that. The Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed 1000 years before that. I’m content to ignore these claims, like I ignore fact-free forwards on family WhatsApp groups.

Instead I want to focus on the next three, because these views have become influential in India.

What Makes a Hindu a Hindu?

Savarkar is very specific.

  1. One राष्ट्र (nation) - To a Hindu, the land that extends from Sindhu to Sindhu (Indus to the seas) is the maatrubhoomi (motherland) and pitrbhoomi (fatherland).
  2. One संस्कृति (culture) - A Hindu considers this land his Holy Land, or punyabhoomi.
  3. One जाति (race) - A Hindu is a descendent of Hindu parents, claims to have the blood of the ancient Sindhus and the race that sprang from them in his veins.

I’ve tried to use his exact words. In my opinion, these criteria appear quite inclusive. So inclusive, that they include people (like Sikhs and Jains) who don’t consider themselves Hindu at all despite fulfilling all 3 criteria.

Savarkar acknowledges this issue and spends an entire chapter arguing that Sikhs are, in fact, Hindu. Even if they reject the authority of the Vedas, he says, they are still Hindus because Hindutva is not to be determined by theological texts. Only by the three criteria outlined above.

To someone reading this a hundred years later, it appears absurd. Why not define Hindutva the way we define religion today - allowing people to say what they follow? And more pertinently, how does this even matter? Isn’t religion a private matter nowadays? Well, the author thinks religion should be tied to citizenship.

Citizenship in India

Hindus being the people whose past, present and future are most closely bound with the soil of Hindustan, they constitute the foundation, the bedrock, the reserved forces of the Indian state.

Sikhs and Jains are of course included in that. And conversely, Muslims and Christians are not Hindus because they consider their Holy Land to be outside the subcontinent. Their loyalties are divided, the author claims.

Look at the Muslims. Mecca to them is a sterner reality than Delhi or Agra. Some of them do not make any secret of being bound to sacrifice all Indians if that be to the glory of Islam or could save the city of their Prophet.

He never explicitly mentions the word citizenship, but he does speak of this Hindu Rashtra as being homogenously comprised of Hindus, to maximise national solidarity, cohesion and greatness. The author cites America as an example where diversity leads to weakness (the “Negroes” aren’t patriotic enough) while the racial homogeneity of China is praised as a strength.

This is the core of Hindu nationalism, as defined by the founder of the Hindu nationalist movement. Foster unity among all Hindu-ish people and achieve homogeneity or hegemony in a Hindu Rashtra.

He does not say how a country with tens of millions (then) or hundreds of millions (now) of Muslims and Christians would become so homogenous. It is left to the reader to speculate. There are only three methods I know of to engineer such large scale demographic change:

  1. Changing the criteria of citizenship to include religion and race. Ask people who belong to “non-Hindu” religions to prove their Indian-ness. Ask for documentation that is difficult to provide, such as proof that the person’s ancestors lived in India 50 years ago. If they fail to provide it, strip them of citizenship and the right to vote. Then gradually increase the requirements. Change 50 years to 70 years, or 100. The affected minorities would either emigrate or continue to live as second class citizens in India. Either way, a Hindu Rashtra has been created. This is Apartheid.
  2. Use carrots and sticks to convince Muslims and Christians they’re better off being Hindu. For example, require them to pay a tax. Or make it harder for them to get employment. Restrict housing. Provide benefits exclusively to Hindus. If necessary, force them into the fold of Hinduism so they can “come back home” (ghar wapsi).
  3. Savarkar claims that Armenian Christians betrayed Muslim majority Turkey during WWI (they didn’t) while speaking about the dangers of diversity. I consider this ominous because of the atrocities that were committed on the Armenian population between 1915 and 1917. The Turkish state killed a million people. The English language needed a new word to describe the horrors perpetrated on the Armenians - Genocide.

No one wants to think that either Apartheid or Genocide are possible in India. I, like most Indians, hope none of these things happen. However, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 changes the criteria for Indian citizenship. For the first time in Independent India’s history, citizenship will be tied to religion. Further, India completed the construction of the first “detention camp” for “illegal” migrants in February 2020.

Most of the laws described in the first two strategies would be Unconstitutional under the current interpretation of the Constitution. But the Constitution can be amended, or the people in charge of interpreting the Constitution can be convinced to see things in a different way. Thus, homogeneity can be achieved.

But an obsession with homogeneity is not the only lasting influence the author has had on the movement.

Hindutva as a blueprint

Savarkar understood the difficulties of creating a common Hindu consciousness across the vast subcontinent. One where people didn’t speak a common language and worshipped in myriad different ways. Everyone was Hindu, but it wasn’t at the forefront of their identities. They might define themselves by the region they lived in, the languages they spoke, the caste they were born into, before their religion. This explains why the Hindu nationalists struggled to get people to vote for them for decades after Independence. Until they followed the advice given in this book:

everything that is common in us with our enemies weakened our power of opposing them. The foe that has nothing in common with us is the foe likely to be most bitterly resisted by us, just as a friend that has almost everything in him which set admire and prize in ourselves is likely to be the friend we love most. The necessity of creating a bitter sense of wrong and invoking a power of undying resistance especially in India that under the opiates of Universalism and Non-violence lost the faculty even of resisting sin and crime and aggression, could best be accomplished by cutting of even a semblance of common worship. (emphasis mine)

Between 1987 and 1992, they managed just this. They created a bitter sense of wrong around a mosque that had been built centuries before. A nonissue suddenly became the most pressing issue facing the country. Coincidentally, some people destroyed that mosque in 1992, leading to violence and death across the country.

Such bloodletting fulfils a key objective mentioned by the author, which is reducing what we have in common with our “enemies”. Usually after pogroms in mixed neighbourhoods, minorities are forced to move out, creating segregated communities. People no longer live near people from other religions, achieving the author’s objective. A landmark study showed the effectiveness of this approach - segregated cities in India suffer much more religion based violence than mixed cities (video).

Once cities are segregated and such violence becomes endemic, it becomes easier to convince people that Hindu khatre mein hain (Hindus are in danger). Voters who are convinced of this start to think of themselves as Hindus first and flock to the party that puts Hindu interests first. So far following Savarkar’s blueprint has led to unbridled electoral success.


This book can be difficult to complete because the author rambles and is sometimes incoherent. It’s hard to ignore the wanton disregard for facts. But as I hope I’ve shown, it’s importance and influence is immense. Reading this book is necessary to understand the Hindu nationalist movement.