Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India

Review: Gould, William. Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India. Cambridge University Press, 2004. xv, 302 pp. $75.00 (cloth).

The book analyses the nature and dynamics of Hindu Nationalism as a major strand of Indian politics and, by doing so, raises important questions for the understanding of South Asian history. In this context, the book is no mere addition to the growing literature on this subject in recent years. Rather, it provides a fresh insight and is, therefore, of major interest.

Indian modern history is largely understood in terms of Indian nationalism and its agent, the Indian National Congress. From this perspective, the rise of Hindu Nationalism is mostly related to parties such as Hindu Mahasabha and Bharatiya Janata Party and explained in the context of the political developments of the 1990s. The book, on the contrary, claims that the Congress and its agents ”identified with forms of ‘Hindu’ politics and ideas of the ‘Hindu’ nation” (p.1) and that Hindu Nationalism had already occupied a prominent place in Indian politics at least in the politics of the most politically important provinces of India – the United Provinces or Uttar Pradesh (UP) during the 1930s and 1940s.

The introduction presents the author’s conceptual understanding and states that the UP Congress used a ”notion of secularism as a form of ‘tolerance’, which related to Indian traditions” (p.5) and in which ”a sense of ‘Hindu unity’ was part of a foundation myth” (p. 87). Therefore, a ”looser form of Hindu nationalism” developed in the UP Congress. According to Gould, this nationalism differed, on the one hand, to ”the harder exclusivist Hindu nationalism” (p.7) of the other Hindu organisations mentioned above. On the other hand, the ”language, political symbolism, imagery” of both forms of nationalism were similar or rather ”overlapped” and, as a result, ”served to reinforce notions of separate Muslim political arenas” (pp. 66-7).

The book illustrates this symbolism and presents numerous examples of this dynamic relationship. It starts with a description of Congress’s presence among the community of Hindu holy men spreading the nationalist message in temples and during (Hindu) religious festivals. (pp.47-67) Their rhetoric was ”highly emotive” (p. 68) deifying India’s leaders, their message and the political struggle. In this context, a ”new kind of national mythology (was invented)” (p.68) with the reference to the ’Goddess of Freedom’ or to Bharat Mata (Mother India). Also, protection of the cow was ”a common theme” (p. 78). The book describes how Congress’s civil disobedience was ”laced with religious rhetoric” (p.  88) and became increasingly connected to communal politics. For example, the untouchable campaign appeared to be making Hinduism more powerful (p. 123). Gould works out the institutional connections between the UP Congress and the more agressive forms of Hindu nationalism of the Arya Samaj and other Hindu radical organisations in this process (pp. 131-159, 192-199). Also, the work of the Congress Minister Sampurnanand illustrates that socialist ideas based on the ”philosophy of Vedanta and Indian traditions  … could cut across other ideological differences” (pp. 174, 179). Chapter six shows how the dynamics of this symbolic depiction of the Indian nation further alienated Muslim masses from the Congress after the 1937 elections.  Under these circumstances, Congress’s Muslim mass contact campaign was doomed to fail (pp. 223-232) and the success of the Muslim League’s Pakistan appeal seemed inevitable (pp. 234ff.). The Pakistan campaign of the Muslim League, in turn, placed the Congress ”into the position of the protector of Hindu interests” (p. 261) leading eventually to the partition of India at independence in 1947.

This book is novel while also presenting established information. The strength of the book lies undoubtably in the ability of the author to present Congress’s theoretical model for the Indian nation, as well as its practical consequences, as major drawback for sustaining an all-embracing Indian nationhood. By 1947, this model failed inasmuch as it did not prevent the creation of a separate Muslim identity and state. The author is able to underline his thesis from various angles. At some points, however, he fails as he tries to fill gaps in the available evidence with speculation. (see p. 159 and 174) Also, the role that the British colonial state played in this process seems to be underrated by the author, with only occasionally hints at this topic (p. 24-6). Further, one could argue with Gould’s classification. Authors like Jaffrelot and Rothermund prefer to use the term of Hindu traditionalism rather than nationalism. On the other hand, one is inclined to give weight to the author’s argumentation since the results of the Congress’s policies cannot easily be dismissed. One can only endorse, moreover, Gould’s approach of ”detailed studies in provincial development” already demanded by R. J. Moore. In this respect, the histories of provinces such as Sindh and Punjab may produce similar findings. Indeed, together with authors such as Page and Dalmia, Gould’s book may hail a ”time for plain speaking” in understanding India, as Adhikari suggests in ”The Times Of India” in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992.

In: The Journal of Asian Studies / Volume 64 / Issue 03 / August 2005 pp 778-779


Adhikar, Gautam. Understanding India: Time For Plain Speaking. In: The Times Of India. New Delhi, 22.12.1992, p. 8

Dalmia, Vasudha. The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions. Bharatendu Harischandra and Nineteenth-century Banaras. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics. 1925 to the 1990s: Strategies of Identity-Building. Implantation and Mobilisation (with special reference to Central India). New Delhi: Vikas, 1996, pp. 83, 203

Moore, Robin James. Churchill, Cripps and India. 1939-1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. p. viii

Page, David. Prelude to Partition: The Indian Muslims and the Imperial System of Control, 1920-1932. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982

Rothermund, Dietmar. Traditionalism and National Solidarity in India. In: Moore, Robin James (ed.). Tradition and Politics in South Asia. New Delhi: Vikas, 1979, p. 194

Schied, Michael. G.M. Syed and the reconstruction of a history for Sindh. (unpublished paper presented at the 16th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, Edinburgh, September 2000)


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