Hinduism and Islam in politics as ideology and concept

The close interaction between religion and politics is not new and, as a matter of fact, quite common in South Asia. The paper, however, argues that a different situation emerges when religion is interpreted as an ideology.

Savarkar and the All-India Hindu Mahasabha

The 1920s were decisive for India’s political development. The country was modernised, the public sphere, politics and political parties becoming established features of its political system, and it witnessed non-violent mass mobilisation. Following the Government of India Act (1919), the administration assumed more responsibility towards the electorate. Since the cultural group functioned as the ‘parameter for participating in the public sphere’, gaps between the imagined communities in society also widened (Reetz 2001: 68). During this process, distinctly religious-political parties emerged, such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jamaat-i Islami, both linked to sections of the urban middle-classes.

Hindu political discourse developed along several different lines and organisational forms. The Mahasabha (founded in 1915) regarded the separation of the electorate between Hindus and Muslims and the subsequent granting of constitutional powers to the Muslims as a direct challenge to the numerical position of the Hindus and to its power-base. It questioned in this context Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and mass politics. Savarkar (1883–1966), president of the Hindu Mahasabha from 1937 to 1943, became one of Gandhi’s major rivals, opposing his concept of non-violence. Influenced by the nationalist thinking of the Italian Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72), among others, Savarkar’s position on the issue of violence became a turning point in his understanding of Hinduism.

Savarkar’s new understanding of Hinduism was set out in a comprehensive manner in his 1923 pamphlet Hindutva. This can be understood as a response to Gandhi’s influence in Indian politics and to the growing electoral power of the Muslims. In these writings, Savarkar re-interpreted the meaning of the term ‘Hindu’ (‘Indian’), stating that ‘Hindutva is not vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism. By an “ism” is generally meant a theory or a code more or less based on spiritual dogma or system’ (Savarkar 1942: 4). He explained further that ‘Hindu’, or rather Hindutva, ‘embraces all the departments of thought and activity of the whole Being of our Hindu race’ (ibid). Therefore, the aim was ‘to transform that [Hindu] Society into a homogenous whole’ (Prakash 1942: 5–6). With this in mind, Savarkar imagined a continuous history of the Hindus spanning 5,000 years, starting in a Golden Age with one state (rasthra), one race (jati) and one culture (sanskriti) (Savarkar 1942: 65–74). Moreover, Hindutva was seen as ‘the firmest and yet dearest bond that can effect a real, lasting and powerful union of our people’ (ibid: 104), because Hindus considered India to be their ‘fatherland [and] holy land’ (ibid: 91). Savarkar, further, argued that the Hindus ‘constitute[d] the foundation, the bedrock, the reserved forces of the Indian state’ (ibid: 116).

On the basis of this religious-cultural understanding of India and Hindu identity, Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha went on to oppose the policies of the INC, claiming that ‘according to the Congress School of thought, Hindusthan, [was] not the land of the Hindus, but the land of the Indians’ (Prakash 1942: 41). In this context, Savarkar questioned terms such as ‘India’ and ‘Indians’, given that he considered the Muslims’ loyalty towards the state to be highly questionable.[i] This view had consequences both for the anti-colonial and for the national struggle. It sidelined Savarkar as his energies were directed towards opposing the Muslim League and INC rather than challenging the British colonial government. This kind of thinking also contributed towards the partition of India in 1947, since Savarkar did not recognise a viable unity between Hindus and Muslims as a necessary condition for an independent India.

Bharatiya Jana Sangh/ Bharatiya Janata Party and the Integral Humanism

The term Hindutva took on religious as well as racial, cultural and political meanings. When elaborating on these meanings, Savarkar introduced the term ‘One Organic Social Being’ (Savarkar 1942: 116). By the mid-1960s, a time when India was caught up in political crises of growing separatism within India and rivalry with Pakistan, Savarkar’s idea of oneness was re-appropriated by Upadhyaya as the concept of an ‘integrated whole’ (Upadhyaya 1979: 17, 18). Upadhyaya (1916–68), who was by then president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh party (BJS),[ii] imagined Indian Hindu culture and society as ‘cooperative and complementary’ (Nene 1988: 11), with individual, family, community, society, nation, mankind, universe and the Almighty encompassed within ‘an ever-expanding spiral’ of constant harmony (Thengadi, cited in Upadhyaya 1979: 110). In other words, ‘“Whole” and “Part” were not [understood as] in mutual conflict and the social system was in a state of dynamic balance’ (Bharatiya Janata Party 1985: 18).

Upadhyaya’s philosophy, known as Integral Humanism, built on Savarkar’s Hindutva but was a more flexible concept. Upadhyaya developed it as a criticism of Western concepts such as nationalism, democracy and socialism (1979: 8, 16). Later, Integral Humanism was also explained as ‘Modernisation without Westernisation’ (Thengadi 1983) and as a ‘philosophy for the 21st century’ (Joshi 1987: 5). As such, it was intended to express a universal message and to appeal to different social strata. Because Integral Humanism used terms such as ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ both synonymously and alternately, it appears as less Hindu- and history-fixated and more inclusive than Savarkar’s Hindutva.

On the other hand, Integral Humanism remained true to its ideological foundation. Upadhyaya saw his philosophy as founded on and providing a contemporary interpretation of the Hindu religious concept dharma (‘(caste) order’). Dharma was said to bring about balance and stability in state and society because it held supreme authority and absolute sovereignty (Bharatiya Jana Sangh 1973: 8). Provided that dharma was imagined as autonomous, ‘it [was] Dharma alone which [could] decide’ what constituted a good for the people, and not man himself (Upadhyaya 1979: 56). In substantial contrast to Mahatma Gandhi’s interpretation of Dharma, Upadhyaya thus denied man the possibility of exploring truth in a creative way – ‘a person [only] derive[d] the right to proceed according to Dharma’ (ibid). Politically speaking, dharma was therefore ‘not necessarily with the majority or with the people’ (ibid); it was ‘duty-orientated’ rather than ‘rights-orientated’ (Bharatiya Jana Sangh 1973: 8). As such, Upadhyaya’s ideology can be understood within the context of state- and nation-building, where the individual is conceived as owing duties rather than possessing rights.

Mawdudi and the Jamaat-i Islami

Muslim political discourse developed along similar substantive lines, since its electoral constituents were placed under similar social conditions. Here the ideological views of Mawlana Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903–79) and his party, Jamaat-i Islami, were particularly significant. Like Savarkar’s Hindutva, Mawdudi’s ideas developed against a backdrop of growing tension related to the developments in electoral politics during the 1920s, and as a strategy to unite and strengthen the Indian Muslims. Mawdudi conceived of Islam as a complete and ‘fully-fledged system covering all aspects of life of man’ (Mawdudi 2000: 27) – politics, law, economy and culture. In this context, he maintained that ‘the sharia shapes Islamic society . . . in an organic whole’, and consequently only Islam had the capacity to maintain social order (Mawdudi 1969: 47–8). Mawdudi explained the relationship between individual and society in terms of man being under ‘complete submission and obedience to Allah’ (Mawdudi 2000: 5). As such, God prescribed ‘unalterable laws’ and a ‘complete code of life’ and man ‘[had] to sacrifice many of his personal rights’ (ibid: 5, 46, 81). Due to his principled opposition to nationalism, Mawdudi at first did not support the movement for Pakistan to become a separate nation-state, but wanted Muslims to constitute a strong community in India. With the formation of the nation state of Pakistan, however, he accepted it and developed the concept of an Islamic state. He now argued that Muslims must live under an Islamic state because the sharia contains laws in the strict sense of the term, and ‘[legal] punishments and principles had to be enforced by the State’ (Mawdudi 1969: 158). Thereby he ignored the medieval sharia rulings declaring that Muslims can live in non-Islamic states, and that if they do so, such sharia rules as concern law in the stricter sense are not incumbent upon them. Thus Mawdudi rejected traditional Islamic scholarship and rulings whenever it contradicted his definition of Islam as a complete programme for modern government and law.

Given this Islamic programme, Mawdudi rejected all kinds of modern ‘-isms’ and political models – nationalism, as mentioned, and also secularism and democracy. He rejected modernity on the basis that ‘the principles on which the whole system of life in modern civilisation are founded are thoroughly rotten, corrupt and wrong’ (1989a: 11). For him, however, Islam was not an antiquated religion but one that provided the solution to contemporary issues. He stated categorically that ‘it is God and not Man whose will is the Source of Law’, and therefore the entire legal system must be derived through the principles of sharia, rather than from ‘secular’ sources and reason (1969: 45). Mawdudi therefore also opposed ‘the principle of unrestricted sovereignty of the masses’, i.e. majority rule (1989a: 36). In this context, he developed the idea of Islamisation in the fields of the constitution, law, education and the media, describing rules on prayers and fasting as well as on punishments for adultery, theft and the uncovering of women’s heads as ‘signposts . . . that [man] is proceeding along the right path’ towards the Islamic order (1969: 65).

Although Mawdudi in theory rejected the authority of the Muslim scholars (ulama) to represent Islam, in practice his attitude towards them was ambiguous, as he sought their support. Consequently, he tried to present his ideology more in terms of a comprehensive way of life than as an interpretation of religious teachings, claiming that his ideas should be seen ‘in the light of changing conditions’ (1989b: 16). His ideology appeared as supplementing religion rather than substituting it. However, conflicts with some ulama were inevitable, since Mawdudi considered Islam to be a complete order for the entire life of society and individuals, and he sometimes stated that the ulama had lost the true spirit of Islam (ibid). Consequently, while he idealised the period of the prophet Muhammad as the source of guidance for contemporary Muslims (1998b: 4), he accused the ulama of being obsessed with the Islamic traditions of the past (ibid: 16). Moreover, while on the one hand he considered Islam to be the world’s natural order and religion, and in that sense believed that everyone was a Muslim, on the other hand he distinguished between ‘legal’ and ‘real’ Islam as well as between ‘partial’ and ‘real’ Muslims. Mawdudi argued that outward appearance and modes of conduct were not sufficient markers of real Muslims, maintaining that they had to follow certain rules; suicide, divorce, birth control, adultery, alcohol, drugs, gambling, profiteering, egoism, jealousy, fraud and interest rates were all detrimental to the image of the true Muslim. For Mawdudi, ‘a perfect Muslim [submits] his entire self to the will of Allah’ (2000: 6). Thus he sought to re-form the Muslim community, just as he eventually sought to form the newly- founded Pakistan into a ‘real’ Islamic state.

Savarkar, Upadhyaya and Mawdudi all shared the significant idea that adherence to dharma or sharia was decisive for the nation’s or community’s destiny, and that this in turn required religion to prevail in society and state. According to both ideologies, the world was one, and everything and everyone was bound to dharma or sharia by the principle of Oneness. All aspects of life in society or state were governed by a complete system, and man had to follow dharmas or God’s unalterable rules in order to achieve social harmony. Moreover, they also shared the view that only those who embraced their ideology were ‘real’ Hindus or Muslims.

In this context, the term ‘religious fundamentalism’ can be invoked. Both movements believed that the three systems – legal, political and ethical – should be based on religious principles, and that this was the only way to save the nation or community from perishing under the onslaught of modern secularism, individualism and thinking on civil rights. This belief was not negotiable. It appears this fundamentalist ideology emerged because of changes in the system of electoral politics in the 1920s, and subsequent responses to this. This explains the ideology’s complex approach to the notion of the individual. On the one hand, because the ideology reflected the interests of certain sections of the South Asian urban middle-classes, the notion of individuality was at its core;[iii] on the other hand, the individual was subordinated to the community and the state, and acquired rights only as a member of a religious nation – and such rights were first and foremost religious duties. In their ideal typical form, these ideologies therefore opposed the modern individualism that laid the ground for democracy and nationalism.


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[i] ‘[Muslims] cannot be called Hindus because they are not bound . . . by the tie of a common homage we pay to our great civilisation – our Hindu culture’ (Savarkar 1942: 74); ‘Their holy land is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of foreign origin. Their love is divided’ (ibid: 92).

[ii] Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) ‘Indian people’s union’. Bharatiya is a Sanskrit word, and by using it the BJS conveyed the message that it was in touch with the cultural and traditional roots of the country; thus the term also translates as ‘original Indian’. The same applies to BJS’s successor party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ‘Indian people’s party’.

[iii] ‘Our arrangement . . . is an ever expanding spiral. It begins with the individual but goes on enlarging to family, family to society, society to nation, nation to humanity and ultimately to the universe of Srishti without ever delinking with the centre i.e. the individual’ (Thengadi, cited in Upadhyaya 1979: 110).


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