Decoding the abstract debate of “Hinduism” Vs “Hindutva”

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‘Hindutva’ word was first used by Chandra Nath Basu in 1892. Later the term was popularised by V.D. Savarkar in 1923. Hindutva ideology is spread through Hindu organizations like RSS (Founded by KB Hedgewar), VHP, and BJP or collectively called – “Sangh Parivar.” Hindutva is a concept of “Indian cultural identity” that combines a geographically based religious, cultural, and national identity into one form. The main theme of Hindutva is to create ‘civic nationalism’ to revive the ‘glory of the past’ by rejecting all attempts which break Indian society in the name of caste and religion.

The third surge of Hindutva

The first surge of Hindutva was witnessed when it was coined in 1892 by Basu. The second surge happened when V.D. Savarkar popularize this conception in the first and second decade of the 20th century. From independence till the 1990s, Hindutva was dormant after the allegation of Mahatma Gandhi’s murder on ‘Hindu Mahasabha’.

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But the post-1990, third surge became more imperative because – First, Prof. Abhinav Prakash claimed that economic reforms accelerated the breakdown of the feudal-caste order which removed the barriers of the caste which divided Indian society. Second, Post 1990s, capitalist modernization and urbanization created a new middle urban class from different castes which share the same space and similar experiences.

Third, the Mobilized masses during the J.P. movement were leaderless post-defeat of congress in 1977. This opportunity was capitalized to bring the grand narrative of ‘Hindutva’ again. Fourth, the Weakening of the social orthodoxy created a new social base for Hindutva: Inter-caste marriages, growth of OBC and Dalit in politics, and freer women than ever.

Tharoor misreads Savarkar’s conception

Shashi Tharoor in his book “Why I am a Hindu?” sketched communal politics during the last 3-4 decades of the Indian National Movement. On the one hand, he puts INC and its followers as inclusive and democratic believers. On the other hand, he draws two parallel lines for Md. Ali Jinnah and V.D. Savarkar whose conception of the nation was based on religion. He explained Jinnah and Savarkar in two phases where in the first phase both fought national movement but in the second phase both became communal.

I have taken the proposition of Mr. Tharoor as an example because he shares the same scheme of things as others who differentiate ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’ with similar arguments. In fact, Tharoor contradicts himself when he differentiates ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’ on the notion of ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ respectively on the one hand and sketching Jinnah and Savarkar on the notion of ‘religion’ on the other hand.

However, Vinay Sitapati’s book “Jugalbandi: The BJP before Modi” confirms his first diagnosis of seeing ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindutva’ on the notion of ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ respectively but his explanation is biased and politically motivated. Sitapati explains Savarkar’s ‘Hindutva’ on the line of electoral democracy.

Savarkar was basically concerned with the establishment of the Muslim league in 1906 with the help of Britishers, followed by the Muslim appeasement by the British government through the government of India act 1909 which provided a ‘separate electorate’ to Muslims. It created relative deprivation as well as political consciousness in Savarkar to get electoral benefits for the Hindu population which led to the creation of Hindu Mahasabha in 1915.

Shashi Tharoor sees Savarkar’s conception of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ from the prism of a theocratic state and as the ‘Mirror image of Pakistan’ which is also not true. Savarkar’s conception of Hindu Rashtra is not a theocratic state like Saudi Arabia but a democratic country based on the constitution as a social contract instead of any religious scripture. It rejects political equations based on castes which weakens ‘cultural nationalism.’ Simultaneously, it rejects Ashrafi’s conception of Islamic orthodoxy that subscribes to ‘Ottoman civilization’ instead of ‘Indian civilization.’ Hindutva was a radical break in the Hindu thought itself – anti-caste, reformist, modernist, and futuristic.

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Even the ideas of Hinduism are inculcated in the Indian state machinery itself since independence irrespective of the party in power. For example, the motto of R&AW is “Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah” (If you protect Dharma i.e. duty, then Dharma will protect you) taken from Mahabharata and Manusmriti. Similarly, the Motto of the IAS is “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam” (Proficiency in action is Yoga) taken from Bhagwat Geeta. Such as ‘Secularism’ was implicit in the Indian constitution without explicit mentioning, the conception of Hindu Rashtra is also implicit in the Indian system. It is neither needed nor desirable to explicitly mention it in the Indian constitution.

Hindutva’s Realism is seen even in Indian foreign policy – First, It focuses on aggrandizing national power through the material (hard power) and spiritual (domestic social cohesion) means. Second, It also exercises brinkmanship i.e., greater reliance on coercive signaling. E.g., Balacot strikes and Doklam-Galwan standoff. Third, Balancing behavior is re-energized by Hindutva realism in which unlike Nehruvian NAM balances externally, Hindutva realism balances more internally i.e., through military modernization and banning Chinese apps. Fourth, it stresses upon the problem-solving mindset and puts forth their stands clearly before the world (S Jaishankar).

Hinduism and Hindutva: Are they different?

I disagree with the arguments of the right who says that there is no difference. I believe two different words deserve different definitions. But I also don’t agree with the explanation given by left-liberals who distinguish the two terms. Diagnosis is true that ‘Hinduism’ is based on spiritual and religious ideas and ‘Hindutva’ is based on electoral and political ideas. But explaining ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hinduism’ as mutually exclusive to each other is not true. Instead, they are mutually inclusive to each other. ‘Hinduism’ is based on spiritual ideas based on idealistic principles flourishing for 5000 years but ‘Hindutva’ is the realistic conception of Hinduism to realize the contemporary world.

‘Hindu Mahasabha’ was formed in 1915 as ‘political power of Hindus’ and ‘RSS’ was formed in 1925 as ‘cultural-identity of Hindus’. As BJP sees all Muslims as ‘one entity’ irrespective of caste and sectarian differences (Hilal Ahmed in his book “Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India“), similarly, left-liberals also see ‘BJP-RSS-Hindu Mahasabha’ as ‘one entity’ which propagates ‘Hindutva.’ But, in 1946 election, RSS didn’t support ‘Hindu Mahasabha’ which created a rift between them. Consequently, Hindu Mahasabha got 0 seats in the election, and the Muslim League won 113 seats out of 119 in Bengal, 54 out of 64 Muslim seats in the United Provinces, and 34 of Bihar’s 40 Muslim seats.

You may rarely find any idol in RSS offices. They are more related to territorial conception “Bharat Mata”. Even within the Hindutva, Prof Abhinav Prakash explains three strands of Hindu Right which are in conflict: First, Ratnagiri line of Hindutva of Savarkar: It envisions a modern industrial Hindu nation and advocates the end of the caste-system. Second, the Conservative approach: It agrees with the social changes, as per Savarkar’s Hindutva, but distrusts disruption. It supports social equality, widow-remarriage, inter-caste marriages, and LGBTQ rights. Third, Social-orthodoxy: It romanticizes the old feudal-agrarian village life as the essence of India i.e. Ram Rajya Parishad of Swami Karpatri. RSS has a mix of all three with a tilt toward a conservative approach.

Hindutva is still evolving concept. Some elements of Mahatma Gandhi are also reflected in the conception of Hindutva. For example, Mahatma Gandhi is against the conception of westernization but supports modernization which serves humanity. This concept is similar to Deen Dayal Upadhayay’s concept of integral humanism. He advocated for the Sanatana Dharma as an Indian way of life that integrates mind, soul, intellect, and body. He gave the example of Japan, which has modernized without adopting western culture. Narendra Modi reiterated the same in 2013 – “We need modernization, not westernization.”

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Political explanation of differences

Tharoor makes a strong statement like ‘Hinduism believes in tolerance but Hindutva is not’ which is also not true. In reality, Hindutva doesn’t believe in ‘unjustified tolerance’ which is a realist perspective of Hinduism. Ajit Doval at ‘21st Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture‘ says “If someone provokes, you are partly responsible. Your weakness includes ‘unjustified tolerance’ that is you are not able to exercise the power that you possess. Power is not as much as you have it but power is as much as you can exercise it. There is no point of having Rs 50,000 in your pocket and die of starvation if I decide not to spend it.”

The notion of exclusiveness is often confused through Savarkar’s conception of citizenship where he gave three conditions – “Matrabhoomi”, “Pitrabhoomi” and “Punyabhoomi.” A major point of disagreement with the “Punyabhoomi” which excludes ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslims.’ But we should not forget about the time and space in which it was given. Today, the notion of “Punyabhoomi” is not even entertained by the RSS because of different social realities. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat says – everyone born in India is a Hindu, even Muslims are ‘Hindus by nationality.’ It indicates uniting all communities of India for civic nationalism.

It is also accused that ‘Hindutva’ doesn’t believe in democracy. It is also not true because the origin of ‘Hindutva’ lies in gaining electoral benefits for Hindu communities and has a long tradition of deliberative democracy as explained by Amartya Sen in his book “Argumentative Indians: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity“. This is also a paradox in Indian politics where unity among minorities and asserting their fundamental rights are seen as ’empowerment’ and ‘assertion of rights’ since it carries the idea of ‘state nation’ instead of ‘nation-state.’ But the same assertions by the majority community are seen as ‘Majoritarianism’ and ‘Tyranny of the majority.’

Liav Orgad in his book “The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights” has rightly established that majoritarian rights are equally important to minority rights because fundamental rights have more to do with individuals and not society. In fact, everyone’s rights matter.

Old wine in a new bottle

This phenomenon has been prevailing in Indian politics across the spectrum since independence. First, Shashi Tharoor in a debate with Vikram Sampath at the India Today conclave claims that ‘history writing has been part of national building.’ Thus, it is obvious that history will be twisted for a utopian idea to create a win-win situation for all instead of writing actual history as it is. Probably, that’s why invasion during the medieval period is projected ‘land acquisition issue’ without the context of religion in spite of knowing the fact of Jizya and vandalization of temples.

Secondly, Affirmative action is done just after independence to correct historical injustice in the context of the caste system which was indeed the need of the hour. But, historical injustices done on the majoritarian community have been ignored with respect to core temples where it is believed in common masses that God has taken birth over there. Thirdly, India adopted Fabian socialism since independence. From 1950 to 1980, the low rate of growth was blamed on Hindus and called as “Hindu rate of growth” instead of confessing the failure of the socialist mode of production and excessive state control.

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Fourth, In fact, poor-performing states (low HDI, low literacy, and high population) have been clubbed together with the name “Cow belt region” because the intellectuals like Ashish Bose see cow as a reason for these problems since it is considered sacred in Hindu religion. Fifth, Even Shashi Tharoor shared a tweet by endorsing the statement of Badri Raina who claims that “Muslims have a greater claim to the Matrabhoomi than Hindus because Muslim’s flesh and bones are interred in the soil of India while Hindu’s ashes are poured into rivers that flow into the sea.” Tharoor has written a book named “Why I am a Hindu” but forgets the basic fact that Hindu’s remains are mixed with Panchtatva i.e, land, air, water, sky, and fire.

In fact, this very notion of Tharoor is exclusivist in nature. Sixth, A similar kind of statement was made by Dr. Manmohan Singh when he said “Muslims must have the first claim on resources in particular.” Seventh, Due to the same appeasement policy, Nazma Heptullah in 2014 claimed that the “Ministry of minority affairs has been reduced to the Ministry of Muslim affairs.”  These appeasements (ONLY for elites) were possible because the majority community was divided into caste lines with innovative keywords like “democratic upsurge” (Yogendra Yadav) and “assertions of XYZ castes” with attractive acronyms like ‘Bhura Bal (Bhumihar-Rajput-Brahmin-Lala) etc.

Differentiating ‘good Hindu’ and ‘bad Hindu’ on the notion of Hinduism and Hindutva is nothing but the old wine in a new bottle. Today’s narratives like ‘dismantling global Hindutva‘ and ‘South India is the final frontier against Hindutva’ appears in the same series.

In conclusion

It doesn’t mean that ‘Hindutva’ is free from all limits. We have to keep one thing in mind that ‘Hindutva’ should not be reduced to communal outbidding of majoritarianism because it necessarily ends with violence and an unstable society. It would not be entertained at any cost if it goes against the basic principles of the constitution i.e., inclusivity, fairness, democracy, unity and integrity, fraternity, and secularism.

In conclusion, just as ‘Realism’ is a grand idea in the west, ‘Defensive realism’ (Kenneth Waltz) and ‘Offensive realism’ (John Mearsheimer) are two components of realism. Similarly, ‘Sanatan Dharma’ (As explained by Sri Aurobindo) is a grand idea in which Hinduism is an idealistic conception and Hindutva is the realistic conception of the Sanatan system.


  1. DNA | Hindutva before Savarkar: Chandranath Basu’s contribution, 2017
  2. Book | Why I Am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor, 2018
  3. Book | Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi by Vinay Sitapati, 2020
  4. Book | Siyasi Muslims: A Story of Political Islams in India by Hilal Ahmed, 2019
  5. Lecture | 21st Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture by Mr. Ajit Doval, 2016
  6. India Today | Everyone born in India is a Hindu: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, 2017
  7. Book | The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by Amartya Sen, 2006
  8. Book | The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights by Liav Orgard, 2017 
  9. The Diplomat | Hindutva’s Realism in Modi’s Foreign Policy
  10. India Today Conclave | Shashi Tharoor, and historian Vikram Sampath discuss ‘Idea of India’
  11. The Wire | My Shock Recognition About Claims to the Matrubhoomi
  12. Times of India | Muslims must have the first claim on resources: PM
  13. Times of India | Muslims are not minorities, Parsis are: Najma Heptullah
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