Hindu Reform Movements and the Origins of Religious Nationalism in India

Aditi Shirodkar, University of Chicago

Why does the nationalist movement in India come in a religious guise? Political scientists have examined the rise of Hindu nationalism primarily through the lens of postcolonial political parties. Within these frames, the Hindu Right is a majoritarian response to the failings of the socialist promises of the Indian National Congress and to the ascent of neoliberalism. These studies, however, cannot explain the particular religious content of the challenge to Indian liberal democracy – that is, they neglect the Hinduism in Hindu Nationalism. I propose that the current dominance and form of popular religious intolerance in India has pre-Independence roots – in particular, in the Hindu reform movements of the late 19th century. These socio-religious movements culminated in elite struggles over redefining “Hindu Personal Law,” leading to the enshrinement of religious concepts within the juridical framework of the secular state and the popularization of political Hinduism. In this paper, I analyze how Hindu elites translated religious values, and local norms and institutions into the logic of the state. In doing so, I determine the modes by which the Indian legislature and judiciary assumed the prerogative of interpreting religious doctrine, inextricably linking secularism in India with specific understandings of Hinduism. Thus, I demonstrate how the fervent religious populism of Modi’s India is an outgrowth of an elite religious agitation that profoundly shaped the legal-political culture of the country.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 43. Religion, Nationalism, and Populism