Dark Hour of Secularism: Hindu Fundamentalism and Colonial Liberalism in India

[Appeared in Making sense of the Secular: Critical perspecitves from Europe to Asia (Ed. Ranjan Ghosh), Routledge, 2013, pp 111-130]

The relation between religion and politics remains one of the important issues of our time. The discussions on this relation swing between two extremes: religious fundamentalism and liberal secularism. These are regarded as opposites. As the liberal perspective sees it, the secular state and its principles of neutrality and toleration are antidotes to religious fundamentalism[1]. Recently, this view has been challenged. Several authors point out that fundamentalism and secularism are not self-contained opposites, but are intertwined in significant ways[2].

India offers a fascinating case in point. In the 1980s, Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan suggested a causal link between the elitist and statist imposition of secularism and the rise of the Hindu right[3]. Originally greeted with horror by secularists everywhere, this claim has grown in popularity, even though the objections it faces are many[4]. The alleged link between secularism and fundamentalism has not been adequately clarified. Its plausibility depends largely upon two beliefs: (a) secular statecraft is responsible for the escalation of religious strife in Indian society; and (b) the marginalization of religion inevitably generates a backlash.

Neither conceptually nor historically has satisfactory evidence been provided for the claim that secularism and fundamentalism are two faces of the same coin. The rising Hindu-Muslim conflict in India could have many other causes, independent of the workings of the liberal secular state. It may as well be blamed on the failure of the Indian state to be truly secular  and  neutral [5]. The  marginalization hypothesis projects psychological  notions of repression  onto  the  social dynamics of religion, but it  is  doubtful  that these  can  be understood in terms that apply to individual psychologies.

The question is far too important, however, to leave the argument unexamined. If one can demonstrate that the secular state gave rise to the Hindu right in India, then our understanding of  the  relation  between  secularism and  fundamentalism  may be due for revision.  Some  evidence  is  available for  such  a  link. It  has  been  argued that Hindu nationalists appropriated the colonial state’s view of the Hindu traditions as a unified religion and its notion of Indian history as a struggle between Hinduism and Islam[6].  Our question is: what has been the historical relation between the secular state and religious fundamentalism in India?


The problem of Hindu fundamentalism is different than it is in Christianity or Islam. Before the nineteenth century, militant traditions existed within the Hindu fold[7], but these did not aspire to found Indian society on a set of Hindu doctrines or principles. Moreover, no text, teaching, or body of law was considered central to all Hindu traditions. While it has been argued that the notion of a monolithic Hindu religion itself is a colonial construction[8],  this has been challenged by other scholars[9].

Wherever the truth lies, the early modern encounters between Europe and India present a striking fact: when Christian travelers, merchants and missionaries denounced the native traditions as “false religion,” and preached conversion to “true religion,” the Indians reacted with incomprehension. They failed to grasp how one religion could be true and others false, and how different religions could be considered as rivals[10]. To charges of falsity and idolatry, they replied that their ancestral traditions were very old and could not therefore be false[11].  Before the late eighteenth century, Hindus did not defend their traditions in terms of doctrinal truth or texts: the tendency to provide a foundation for ancestral practices in “true” scriptures was largely absent[12].

The history of the Hindu right, on the contrary, reads as a quest for a common set of teachings and principles, around which all Hindus should unite. Moreover, its advocates argue that Muslim and Christian minorities should also accept these. This movement, then, is Hindu fundamentalist in the sense that it aspires to establish Indian society on the foundation of supposedly Hindu principles. The content of the principles has varied over time and this tendency is but one strand within Hindu nationalism. Still, we can isolate certain properties that characterize this movement.

The first  property  lies in the pursuit  of a discrete  core  that  unites  followers of indigenous Indian traditions (Hindutva or “Hindu-ness” includes Buddhist, Sikh, Jain and the tribal traditions). The main ideologue of the movement, V.D. Savarkar, identified this core in his Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? (1923)[13].  As he put it in his 1937 presidential speech for the Hindu Mahasabha, an early Hindu nationalist organization: “Hindudom is bound and marked out as a people and a nation by themselves not only by the tie of a common Holy Land in which their religion took birth but by the ties of a common culture, a common language, a common history and essentially a common fatherland as well.”[14]

As  a  second  property,  this “Hindudom”  was  taken  to  give followers  of  these traditions  a common  identity  and  interests, which separate  them  from  Muslims and Christians. The latter were “excluded from claiming themselves as Hindus,”[15]  since they had extra-territorial loyalties and lacked the true Hindu spirit. However, this is not an ancient opposition. Medieval Sanskrit texts, for instance, do not identify Muslims along religious lines[16]. Even today, traditions that combine both Hindu and Muslim practices continue to exist throughout the Indian subcontinent[17].  Yet the drive of Hindu fundamentalism is to create an identity that separates Hindus from others. Religion becomes the marker of the “religious brotherhood” of truly loyal Indians[18],  as opposed to Christians and Muslims.

This identity has proved difficult to find: no practice or doctrine is shared by all Hindus. Many of their attitudes are common also among Indian Muslims and Christians. Hindu fundamentalism is unique in the sense that it cannot draw upon any dogma or holy book. Throughout its history, it has nevertheless tried to do so[19]. Noting the Christian call for religious revival, a Hindu nationalist leader, B.S. Moonje, argued in 1944 that Hindus must develop  the  boldness to strive for the  revival  of  their religion,  and  that  “the constitution of Hindustan, the land of the Hindus, should be based upon the Vedas as the constitutions of the lands of…Christianity and Islam are to be based on the revival of these religions.”[20] Paradoxically, Hindu fundamentalism tries to distinguish Hindu identity from that of Muslims and Christians, while it models itself upon Islam and Christianity.

The third property is even more paradoxical. The lack of dogmas shared by Hindus gives rise to the claim that they hold principles of tolerance in common. In words spoken at a Hindu Mahasabha meeting in 1939, “Hindus, by religion and culture, are tolerant of the presence in their midst of people of other faiths.”[21] The principles are variously called as “Hindu tolerance,” “positive secularism,” or “equality of religions.”[22] These are traced to Sanskrit aphorisms, which became the “doctrines” of Hindutva[23]. These are then invoked to contrast Hindu identity to the fanatic theocratic nature of its rivals, Islam and Christianity[24].

Subsequently, these principles are imposed on Muslims and Christians: “In Indian thought, identity of underlying reality permits variety of surface custom or even philosophical  view. But the difference or diversity or variety should not oppose the underlying reality. Difference should realise its common root in the identity.”[25] Therefore, religions can be accepted only in so far as they conform to this underlying identity. This inspires legal measures against proselytization, a practice regarded as a violation of religious equality. It is argued that Muslims should rewrite the Koran to accommodate the equality of religions  and  that  Christians  should  “Indianize”  their churches[26].  Made  into a sacred principle,  “Hindu  tolerance”  becomes a ground for intolerance  towards  Islam  and Christianity.

A  historical  explanation  of  Hindu  fundamentalism  needs to account  for  the emergence of this paradox. Why and when did the inclination to found Hindu traditions and their practices in a common core of principles come into being? Why did followers of these traditions begin to perceive Islam and Christianity as rival religions with incompatible doctrines, if this experience was largely absent before the late eighteenth century? These are the puzzles we will set out to solve.

We will outline the genesis of Hindu fundamentalism in terms of four historical and conceptual  moments.  The  first  is  a  moment  of  radical  transformation:  the attempt  to transform the Hindu traditions and their variety of practices, attitudes and stories into a set of scripturally sanctioned doctrines. We argue that the colonial state and its principles of toleration and neutrality were the forces behind this transformation. The second moment involves  the responses  of Indian public intellectuals:  there we see an altered pattern of agreement  and  dissent  emerge.  The  third  moment  conceptually  traces  the  resultant distortions when this pattern took root in the Indian public life. In the fourth moment, we suggest that a normative disjunction occurred in the Indian social life that narrowed the options open to the Indian society and state.


The first moment has its focus in the policy decisions that had to be made when the East India Company became a governing power in Bengal. What should be the stance of the colonial state towards native beliefs and practices? In 1793, it was decided that the laws of the Koran and the “Shaster” would be preserved in civil and religious usages[27]. Time and again, colonial officials stated “that it is a fundamental principle of the British government, to allow the most complete  toleration  in matters of religion, to all classes of its native subjects.”[28] In this sense, British colonialism established a liberal state in India, which repeatedly reaffirmed “its ancient policy of perfect neutrality in matters affecting the religion of the people of India.”[29]

When the Bengal government faced shocking practices such as child sacrifice and widow burning, its first step was to decide whether or not such practices were “founded in the religious opinions of the Hindoos” and “grounded in any precept of their law.”[30] The pundits or Hindu scholars employed at the colonial courts had to give judgment on such issues. If they came to the conclusion that a practice had scriptural foundations, then the colonial state had to tolerate it.

For  instance,  a  Bengal  court  case  concerned  a  Muslim  who  buried  his  leprous mother-in-law alive, after she had requested him to burn her. The court stated that, while this Muslim had to be convicted, in the case of a Hindu indicted for a similar offence, the judgment of the pundits showed “that the prisoner was justified by the ordinances of the Hindoo faith in assisting at the suicide of a leper.” As a judge had remarked in an earlier case: “I am assured, that in the case of Hindoos it is countenanced and enjoined by their religion.” The Hindu pundits quoted the “Brahma Poorana” to show that the act was indeed “sanctioned by the Shaster.”[31] Consequently, the state ought to allow it among Hindus.

Perhaps the most shocking custom was that “of offering human sacrifice to the Ganges, where they are devoured by the sharks.” A similar debate ensued here. One decided that the practice could not be stopped among the aged and infirm, since it was considered by Hindus “instrumental to their happiness in a future state of existence” and “sanctioned by express tenets in their most sacred books.” Where it concerned children, however, officials found that the custom “stands not either on the prescriptive laws of antiquity, or on any tenet of the Shanscrit.” Consequently, a law was enacted in March 1802, which declared any person guilty of murder, who assisted in forcing “any individual  to be a victim of this superstition.”[32] Of female infanticide, it was similarly concluded that it has “not the sanction of any religion, or of any law” and could therefore be abolished[33].

However, in the case of a widow, who was “at her own request, buried alive with her deceased husband,” the judgment was different: “It appearing from the answer of the pundits…that the practice in question is authorized by the Shasters, I am directed to communicate  to you the opinion  of the court that no prosecution  should be instituted against  the  persons  who  may  have  been  concerned  in  the  interment  of the  woman…; provided however, of course, that those persons are of the Hindoo persuasion, and not otherwise.”[34] Thus, the decision was negative for women of the “joogee cast who have buried themselves alive with their husbands,” because “from the answer of the pundit of this court on the subject,” it appeared that this sacrifice “is not tolerated by the Shaster.”[35]

The debate on the toleration of sati or widow-burning revolved around the same issue of scriptural sanctions[36]. Later in the century, the same question would be raised about other customs, such as hook-swinging, which was abolished given the absence of textual justifications[37].

This policy of the colonial state introduced the tendency to found practices in scriptures and doctrines. It involved almost a coercive mechanism to this effect. Indians were informed by the government that their practices would be allowed, if they could prove that these had doctrinal foundations.  Hence, not only the pundits in the courts but also Hindus  in society  set out on a mission  to find scriptural  sanctions  for any number  of practices. This turned into a systematic strategy to defend the validity of ancestral traditions.


How to make sense of the colonial policy of religious toleration? One approach would be to attribute certain motives to the British: e.g., to avoid rebellion, they wanted to appease the native religious inclinations. However, colonial toleration was a macro-policy, a cooperative result of the activities of multiple agents. One cannot impute intentions and multiple contradictory motives to account for such a macro-policy, as though it expressed the beliefs of  individual  agents.  Moreover,  a  series  of  different  “motives”  for  toleration  can  be discerned  in  colonial  writings:  from  a  prudential  fear  of  alienating  native  subjects  to principles of religious liberty. This generates a thorny question: which of these was the “true intention” or “real motive” for the toleration policy?

A scientific answer to this question is not forthcoming: we lack a clear understanding of the relation between an agent and his/her motive, let alone possessing a social psychology of collective agencies. In the absence of such knowledge, if one explains the policies of the colonial state as though it had “motives,” one commits category mistakes: one ascribes a common-sense  conception  of the relation  between  motive  and act (attributable  only to individuals) to collective or supra-individual agencies.

We would like to suggest an alternative approach to make sense of colonial toleration as a reasonable macro-policy. If the colonial state and its officials consistently acted in a specific way, then we need to describe this as a collective act of reasonable agents. We use the term “reasonable” in two minimal senses here. Firstly, the notion is context-dependent: what is reasonable in one context might not be reasonable in another. Secondly, it is proposed as a condition for cognitive consistency. That is to say, one should attempt to show that the policy plausibly follows from cognitive assumptions that we expect a people in a period to share in common. How can this be done?

Through historical and textual research, one can provide evidence that people from a given period could be plausibly expected to share certain cognitive assumptions. This “plausibility” is our plausibility: we frame our expectations in the light of historical research and we look for evidence to confirm or refute the hypothesis that we form about the cognitive assumptions of earlier generations. Subsequently, we can try and demonstrate that a macro-policy is a plausible conclusion from the set of cognitive assumptions that we expect the earlier generations to have. By deriving the macro-policy from these assumptions, we show that a collective agency acts in a reasonable way.

Any such explanation is hypothetical: not only because this is how we make sense of macro-policies  from the past, but also because we do not know how to develop causal explanations  for  human  behavior  as  yet.  However,  this  does  not  make  the  hypothesis arbitrary, because it is held in check by two other conceptual conditions: (a) there must be empirical  evidence  that enables  us to hypothesize  about  a set of cognitive  assumptions shared by the earlier generations; (b) dislodging the hypothesis requires another hypothesis, which does a better job at accounting for the relevant evidence.

Consequently, the question that confronts us is this: why would it be reasonable to act as though a practice deserved toleration, if and only if it had scriptural sanctions? How does the cognitive framework of the colonial agents render such a stance reasonable for us?

The popular answer, which is the rival hypothesis that we want to challenge, suggests that the colonial state intended to appease the Indians by allowing them to practice their religious practices and that the British assumed that Hindu traditions were the analogues of Christianity[38]. Though valid to some extent, neither claim is satisfactory. Firstly, the colonial state should have allowed all practices held dearly by the population and not only those that were scripturally sanctioned, if its goal was to appease the native population. Secondly, this fails to tell us why the colonial state approached local traditions as structural equivalents of Christianity. The British were aware that these traditions were dissimilar from their own religion. Why did they nevertheless start looking for scriptural foundations and tolerate only practices that had such a sanction?

When they landed in India, the British knew they would find “false religion.” This implied that the natives would be aware of the existence of the biblical God and would want to obey His law. However, the British also thought that the Devil and his minions would have deceived the believers into a false understanding of this law: evil priests would have imposed their own fabrications as though these were God’s will[39]. The Indians would be following these principles as sacred law. To understand Indian society, one had to identify those texts which the Hindus mistook for God’s revelation. One had to find their “ancient law  giver”—the  equivalent  of  Moses  and  Mohammed.  This  would  become  the  key  to decipher the Hindu religion and society[40].

At the same time, colonials were convinced that one ought not to interfere in Hindu practices sanctioned by this “sacred scripture.” The rationale suggested that religion was a domain where the biblical God alone had authority. No human being could impose his or her own understanding of God’s will on others. Therefore, the Hindus had to be left free to live according to the principles which they wrongly believed to be divine law. Hence, the implication  was  reasonable  to  Protestant  Christians  and Deists:  if  a  practice  had  its foundations in “Hindu sacred law,” no secular authority ought to interfere, because to do so would be to arrogate to civil powers that authority which God alone possessed.

The  cognitive  framework  of  the  colonial  state  construed  Hindu  traditions  as structural equivalents of Christianity in the sense that it viewed them as embodiments of a series of fundamental laws and doctrines, professing to be God’s revelation. The neutrality and toleration of the state depended on this equivalence. If Hinduism, Christianity and Islam embodied different religious doctrines and laws, then a liberal state simply ought to take a neutral  position  towards  their  conflicting  truth  claims  and  tolerate  the  practices  that embodied these.

However, in the case of traditions that do not look at ancestral practices as embodiments of doctrines, the resulting policy generated a mechanism that compelled these traditions  to  refashion  themselves  according  to  this  model:  the  Indian  subjects  quickly learned that they needed to give evidence of scriptural foundations to continue practicing their traditions under colonial rule. This is how Hindu fundamentalism first manifested itself: as a child born from the liberal policies of the colonial state. The moment of transformation occurred because the colonial state operated within a theological framework that approached all traditions as variations on the biblical model of religion.


This  transformation  altered  the  pattern  of  dissent  and  agreement  within  the  Hindu traditions. The impact of this second moment is perhaps clearest in the writings of Raja Rammohun Roy and his opponents. A rich Brahmin with a Persian and Arabic education, Roy is still glorified as the father of the modern Indian Renaissance[41]. In fact, we suggest that he took crucial conceptual steps towards the creation of Hindu fundamentalism. Wholeheartedly, he accepted the view that traditional practices ought to be founded on holy scriptures: “The validity of theological controversy, chiefly depends upon Scriptural authority.”[42]

Influenced by Islam and Christianity, Roy intended to revive the Hindu traditions by transforming them into a religion along the biblical model. In many of his texts, he spoke of the Vedas as though they were the Bible, of the Shastras as though they were church law, and of Manu as though he was Moses, the law giver of a people. He wanted to demonstrate that truth was to be found in Vedic religion, rather than in its rivals Islam or Christianity[43].

Convinced that “the whole body of the Hindoo Theology, Law, and Literature is contained in the Vedas,” Roy denounced Hindu rituals as idolatrous fabrications and tried to convince his countrymen “of the true meaning of our sacred books.”[44]  He did all this “for the purpose of diffusing Hindu scriptural knowledge among the adherents of that religion.”[45]

These scriptures, he thought, acknowledged that only the one true God ought to be worshipped, but self-interested Brahmin priests had led the believers into “the temple of idolatry” and into immorality[46]. Now, the aim was to reform Hindu practices according to scriptural sanctions.

When the government decided to tolerate sati, Roy produced tract after tract arguing that it had no scriptural foundation, since neither the Vedas nor Manu recognized it[47]. This inspired some conservative Hindus of Calcutta to argue that he was wrong: scriptural foundations  did exist for sati[48].   Thus, this reformer transmitted  the religious model that sought to justify Hindu practices in terms of textual doctrines. While the liberal colonial state had initiated the genesis of Hindu fundamentalism  among its pundits, a thinker like Roy disseminated it among the public.

From this debate emerged a group that claimed to represent “the orthodox Hindu community of Calcutta.” In its petition against the abolition of sati, this group submitted that “the Hindoo religion is founded, like all religions, on usage as well as precept, and one when immemorial  is  held  equally  sacred  with  the  other.”  Therefore,  “the  sacrifice  of  self-immolation called suttee, which is not merely a sacred duty but a high privilege to her who sincerely believes in the doctrines of their religion,” ought not to be interfered with. The group combined the old attitude towards practices as age-old ancestral traditions with the tendency to provide them with doctrinal foundations[49].

In  this  way,  the  colonial  toleration  policy  instigated  a  restructuring  of  Hindu traditions, which soon acquired an institutional shape. In 1830, the group appealed to “the orthodox Hindus” about the necessity of establishing a Dharma Sabha, which would “devise means for protecting our religion and our excellent customs and usages.”[50] This association met in the summer of 1830 to protest against the abolition of sati. Accordingly as Roy and his followers opposed its attempts, the Dharma Sabha was even more convinced that local traditions needed aggressive protection against “their opponents who wish the overthrow of religion.”[51]

This dynamic continued throughout the nineteenth century: the colonial intervention triggered the rise of Hindu reform movements. In their turn, these movements provoked traditional Hindus to organize themselves and defend a conservative interpretation of the “teachings of Hindu religion,” which sanctioned existing practices. The orthodox Hindu associations opposed the reform movement, but accepted its model of religion-as-doctrine.

This fueled the growing conviction in India that Hinduism, Islam and Christianity were rival religions with competing truth claims. Both reform movements and orthodox associations intended to defend Hinduism against the measures of the colonial state and the assaults of Christian missionaries. They were also hostile to Indian Muslims, who were seen as representatives of an aggressive religion and a colonial rule that had earlier attempted to destroy their traditions.

The chief agency of reform in this period was the Arya Samaj. In his autobiography, its founder Swami Dayanand Saraswati recounts how he came to the conviction that Hindu traditions were in need of reform. After an orthodox Sanskrit and ritual education, he had left home  dissatisfied.  After wandering  through  North  India,  he told of the “profound ignorance or ridiculous superstition” and temples “full of idols and priests” that he witnessed everywhere[52].

The movement established by Dayanand disseminated the colonial model of religion. A teacher had convinced him that religious truth was contained in the four Vedas and the Shastras. Earlier, these texts had been important only to limited strands within the Hindu traditions[53]. After the colonial state identified them as the Hindu scriptures and legal codes, however, reformers began to preach the same as gospel truth. Dayanand regarded them “as infallible and as authority by their very nature.” In fact, “they are self-authoritative and do not stand in need of any other book to uphold their authority.”[54] The Vedas and Shastras embodied religious truth. Like Roy, he insisted that the texts revealed a monotheistic Hinduism, similar and superior to Christianity and Islam.

Dayanand composed the foundational text of the Arya Samaj, the Sathyarth Prakash or Light of Truth (1875), which took a form analogous to Protestant catechisms. It claimed to contain the one correct interpretation of Vedas and Shastras, while all puranas and traditional Indian stories were denounced as “forged books.” The true confession of faith followed: “We believe that the Vedas alone are the supreme authority in the ascertainment of true religion—the true conduct of life. Whatever is enjoined by the Vedas we hold to be right; whilst whatever is condemned by them we believe to be wrong…All men, especially the Aryas, should believe in the Vedas and thereby cultivate unity in religion.”[55]

The Arya Samaj mimicked Protestant fundamentalism in yet other ways. As Roy had, so did Dayanand accept the characterization of Brahmins as selfish “popes,” who fabricated false teachings and kept true revelation from the laity. He imagined a history of religious degeneration, which mirrored the Protestant historiography of the Roman Catholic Church: “As in Europe, so in India the popery appeared in a thousand different forms, and cast its net of hypocrisy and fraud, in other words, the Indian popes have kept the rulers and the ruled from acquiring learning and associating with the good.”[56]

This reproduced the colonial version of Indian religious history. Like certain strands within the Reformation, this historiography invented a primitive and true Hindu religion, which had been corrupted by human additions over time. Now one had to return to the pure and primitive core: “I believe in a religion based on universal and all-embracing principles which have always been accepted as true by mankind, and will continue to command the allegiance of mankind in the ages to come. Hence it is that the religion in question is called the primeval eternal religion, which means that it is above the hostility of all human creeds whatsoever.”[57]

This restructuring of Hindu traditions introduced universal truth claims for a set of doctrines: “The educated Hindus have now learned that the religion of their forefathers is founded on solid rock of truth.”[58]   It also entailed the launch of a missionary movement, which had been alien to Hindu traditions. As one of the Samaj publications put it, funds were required so “That our missionaries may be able to preach the Vedic religion even in the far distant nooks of the land and save the inhabitants thereof by taking them up, as it were, from the dark abyss of ignorance in which they are struggling.”[59] The newly converted threw their idols into the river or publicly smashed them in local markets.

Thus, this reform movement gradually spread elements of the colonial framework in Indian  society.  In  his  excellent  work  on  the  Arya  Samaj  in  nineteenth-century Punjab, Kenneth Jones describes its impact on society. More and more, Christianity and Islam were viewed as rival religions, whose falsity had to be supplanted by Vedic truth. The Arya Samaj also attacked Sikhism as a degenerate rival. Consequently, several traditions in the urban Punjab of the 1880s entered into a strife over religious truth: “In the years that followed, the streets of Lahore became dotted with preachers—Christian, Arya, Brahmo, Sikh, Muslim— each extolling his particular cause and condemning all others.”[60]

The  Arya  Samaj  also  initiated  stinging  attacks  on  traditional  pundits,  who  were chided for hardly knowing Sanskrit and the Vedas. Rather than realizing that these texts were marginal to many Hindu traditions, this ignorance was viewed as another confirmation of the corruption of popular religion in India. Hence, the Arya Samaj began to reform all traditions “in strict accordance to Vedic principles.”[61]

Such moves also gave rise to opposition from traditional Hindus, but again the latter adopted the new framework. They invoked scriptural foundations to claim the opposite of Arya Samaj doctrines. One of the first to do so was Pandit Din Dayal, who in a lecture “is said to have proved by quotations from the Vedas, Puranas and the Smritis, that the worship of idols alone is the means of finding God.”[62] By the mid 1890s, traditional Hindus united in Sanatan Dharma Sabhas in order to propound the “eternal religion.” In their meetings also, “the correct meaning” of the Vedas was presented as “the basic scripture” of this religion. Here, the tenets of “unity in diversity” and “the Truth is only One,” but “different persons call it by different names” were formulated as Hindu religious teachings. Along with this message of Hindu tolerance, there was an emphasis on the national pride and unity of Aryan Hindus—a combination that remains popular among advocates of Hindutva today[63].

Similar reform movements, such as the Prarthana Samaj in Bombay, were started in other parts of the subcontinent, with analogous social effects. From this moment of dissemination grew a generation of intellectuals and politicians in India. Mahadev G. Ranade, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal and many others had all been involved  in,  or  opposed  to,  these  movements  at  some  point.  All  of  them  would  play significant roles in the development of Hindu nationalism[64].


We shall now jump to the twentieth century, since the next two moments are conceptual rather than historical in nature. The first is the moment of distortion. On the one hand, Hindu nationalists adopted the liberal framework and language of the colonial state, but distorted its meaning. On the other, the appropriation of this framework began to distort the experience and self-understanding of the Indian traditions.

As  we  have  seen,  the  principle  of  toleration  initiated  this  distortion  by  making Hindus  defend  their traditional  practices  as sacred  doctrines.  Along  with toleration  and neutrality,  the right to religious  freedom  was a basic tenet  of British  colonialism:  “The Government  of India,  as between  its subjects  and itself,  does not  assume  the truth or falsehood  of any religion. It allows perfect freedom and liberty to the professors  of all creeds.”[65]

To  understand  the  impact  of this  principle,  we  need  to  turn  to the  theological framework that informed modern notions of religious liberty. In Christianity, religion was regarded as the domain of the biblical God’s law. Consequently, it became a sacrosanct realm of divine truth. As long as basic justice was respected, secular political powers could not interfere in this realm. If believers considered some practice as a part of this domain, then the belief was that the state generally ought not to meddle. To do so would be equivalent to trying to subordinate divine authority to human powers. Throughout the nineteenth century, the right to religious freedom was invoked in Europe and America by various confessions in order to safeguard certain beliefs and practices as a part of this inviolable realm.

In India, on the contrary, it had typically been the case that political authorities managed many traditional practices in financial and other ways[66]. They were expected to do so.  Hence,  in  its  early  phase,  the  British  colonial  government  took  part  in  temple management, imposed pilgrim taxes and involved itself in festivals and ceremonies[67].  Given this custom of government regulation of traditional practices, “freedom of religion” could never be absolute here.

These  colonial  policies  were  soon  disapproved  of.  Dispatches  were  sent  from London to Bengal “relating to the Withdrawal of Interference with the Religious Ceremonies of the Natives of India.” The management of all temples and religious activities had to be “resigned  into the hands  of the natives.”[68]  Such measures  were in part inspired  by the “revolting” image of a Christian state providing patronage to idolatry. But the principle of religious  freedom  also  played  a crucial  role. As a dispatch  stated,  “you  will make  such arrangements as may appear to you to be necessary for relieving all our servants, whether Christians, Mahomedans, or Hindoos, from the compulsory performance of any acts which you may consider to be justly liable to objections on the ground of religious scruples.”[69] After the 1857 rebellion, supposedly provoked by the infringement of Hindu and Muslim sensitivities[70],  the British government became extremely cautious about violating the religious freedom of its subjects.

Indians soon showed great prowess at invoking this notion of religious liberty. In the 1830s, the group that claimed to represent “the orthodox Hindu community of Calcutta” had already argued that the abolition of sati was “an unjust and intolerant dictation in matters of conscience.”[71] Later in the nineteenth century, B.G. Tilak and others appealed to “the liberties of the people” in the anti-cow-killing movement and in controversies about Hindu processions[72]. In the twentieth  century,  this tendency  reached  new heights when Hindu nationalists lamented that “Hindu rights” were violated in order to placate the Muslims[73].

This  appropriation  distorted  the  concept  of  religious  freedom.  In  Europe,  it  had referred to the right of each citizen to profess and practice any religious belief, without interference from the state. As an individual right, it was called upon to protect dissenters from  church  orthodoxy.  Hindu  nationalists,  however,  adopted  the principle  of religious liberty in terms of their notion of a sacred core of Hindu-ness. Thus, the “Hindu nation” became the bearer of rights here. “Religious freedom” became a means to convince the followers  of  indigenous  Indian  traditions  that  they  were  one  Hindu  community  with common interests expressed in their inviolable “rights.”

The rights language was typically invoked in inflammatory sites of conflict such as the problem of Hindu ritual processions passing nearby mosques. Muslims often reacted aggressively in such cases, because music and conch blowing in the processions disturbed the mandatory silence around mosques. Local authorities regularly interfered in the processions to prevent conflicts. Yet, in the first half of the twentieth century, Hindu nationalists began to  insist  on  their  sacred  right  to  decide  the  procession routes.  In  1941,  Savarkar congratulated the Hindus of Nellore “on the boldness in asserting their civic and religious rights” when they refused to give in to the governmental ban on a ritual procession. Later, he sent a telegram to support them in their suffering for “the cause of civic and religious liberty.”[74]

In his speeches of the same period, Savarkar rebuked the “policy of forcing the Hindus to forgo their legitimate and peaceful religious, civic and political rights to placate fanatical Moslem goondaism.”[75]  The rights concept proved ever more popular, when one could convince Hindus that their “rights” were being trampled upon. When the government refused to allow a Hindu Mahasabha meeting that was to take place on Bakr’ Id, an important Muslim holiday, Savarkar spoke of “the furious struggle raging…to  assert the legitimate rights of Hindudom.” He stressed “the fact that the struggle was fought out in defence of Hindu Rights as Hindu Rights and under the unalloyed Hindu Colours.”[76]

According to contemporary observers like Lala Lajpat Rai, the introduction by the British colonials of the principle of religious liberty was responsible for growing conflict. It would be foolish, he wrote, to assert the right of a Hindu to take his procession along mosques in a Muslim dominated village or to insist on the Muslim’s right of sacrificing cows in a place like Mathura.

Unhappily the British rule has encouraged both Hindus and Muhammadans to assert such rights and to fight if they are denied. The philosophy of individualism and the idea of absolute religious freedom,…which in India are at the present time directly traceable to British rule, have taken such a firm root in the minds of Indians that they  are playing  havoc  in all phases  of  our national  life…The  sum total of my reasoning is this, that one of the causes of the present tension between Hindus and Muhammadans has been the unfortunate revival of the idea of absolute freedom in the matter of religious observances.[77]

This assessment reflected the old belief that political authority should interfere in traditional practices  where  necessary.  However,  the  rights  language  and  the principle  of  religious freedom of the colonial state inspired each Indian community to regard traditional practices as an untouchable sacrosanct sphere. Thus, they modeled the self-understanding of their traditions upon the notion of religion as the realm of God’s law.

This suited the program of Hindu fundamentalism, which was fed by colonial liberalism in yet another way. Its proponents began to defend religious liberty as a right to engage in traditional practices, even where this provoked violence. This firebrand advocacy of religious freedom intensified Hindu-Muslim  conflicts, rather than preventing them. It became worse when the principle began to refer to “Hindu rights” as the supposed interests of a community. The colonial legal system inspired, if not compelled, its subjects to adopt its language. In the process, Hindu fundamentalism distorted the concepts to fit in with the sensitivities it intended to cultivate among the population.


Neutrality, toleration and religious liberty were seen as the norms that ought to direct state policies  regarding  the  religious  realm.  They  constituted  the  normative  framework  of  the colonial state which shaped its perception of Indian society. From this perspective, each factual situation was understood as a deficiency vis-à-vis the liberal framework and its principles. This is the moment of normative disjunction, which reduced the options open to the Indian state and society: either liberal secularism or its normative negation, religious fundamentalism.

When the British arrived in India, as we have said earlier, many “knew” in advance what the basic structure of her native traditions would be. As instances of false religion, these would consist of priestly hierarchies and fabricated laws, which led the believers into idolatry[78]. This view was structured by a generic Protestant framework, which had spiritual liberty as its normative focus and construed its rivals as religious tyrannies, the equivalents of the “popish hierarchy.” From the seventeenth century onwards, the descriptions were unequivocal:  Indian  religion  had  taken  the  form  of  a  tyranny  of  priests,  who  were incidentally called “Brahmins” here. Like their Catholic counterparts, the Hindu priests had kept “the religious books” and “the sacred language” to themselves so as to protect their worldly interests[79].

A key mechanism is at work here. Generally, from the perspective of a normative framework, factual situations are experienced as, or transformed into, deficiencies vis-à-vis the  framework.  The  conceptual  framework  of the  British  helped  them  construe  Indian traditions as negations of their own norms. Whereas this framework revolved around principles of religious liberty and equality, the native religions of India could only embody their opposites. In the colonial eyes, Hinduism and “Brahmanism”  became the quintessence of religious tyranny[80]. As opposed to their own norms, British scholars and officials perceived religious fanaticism and theocratic despotism throughout Indian history and society[81].

In   his   textbook   history   of   India,   Talboys   Wheeler   contrasted   the   “Hindu despotisms” of the seventeenth century to the “British liberties” brought by colonial rule[82]. According to Valentine Chirol in his classic Indian Unrest (1910), the trouble in India was Brahmanism, which “as a system represents the antipodes of all that British rule must stand for in India, and Brahmanism has from times immemorial dominated Hindu society— dominated it, according to the Hindu Nationalists, for its salvation.” This included “a theocratic State,” where “both spiritual and secular authority were consecrated in the hands of  the  Brahmans.”  Indian  unrest  in  general  had as  “its  mainspring…a  deep-rooted antagonism  to all the principles upon which Western society, especially  in a democratic country like England, has been built up.”[83] Or as Sir Alfred Lyall said in his introduction to the same work, while the British were “relying upon secular education and absolute religious neutrality  to  control  the unruly  affections  of  sinful  men,”  Indian  agitators  combined “primitive superstition”  with modern politics: “The mixture of religion with politics has always produced a highly explosive compound, especially in Asia.”[84]

This was not an “othering of the other” or not even primarily a justification of colonial  rule,  as  contemporary  critics  of  Orientalism  might  suggest[85]. Rather,  it  was an epistemic consequence of the normative framework that constrained the colonial reasoning on religion, state and society. This carved up the universe of political possibilities in terms of a normative disjunction: either one pursued a liberal secular state or one ended up in religious oppression.

The colonial project presupposed that western civilization embodied the pursuit of the  norms  of  liberty,  equality  and  toleration.  Propelled  by  this  normative  goal, the progressive West viewed itself as far superior to the “unchanged and stationary” Asia, stuck in despotism and theocracy[86]. In short: “To India British rule has brought security, justice, religious freedom, and the repression of all religious conflicts, together with a vast material progress made possible by the substitution of law and order for the medieval anarchy that preceded it.”[87]

In other words, the British believed they had demonstrated that the immoral structure of Indian society had to be replaced by their own moral laws. In reality, they were begging the question. First, they presupposed the validity of the liberal framework. Next, they viewed and described Indian society through this framework and transformed it into a deficiency vis-à- vis its norms. From this, they concluded liberalism had to be implemented here as elsewhere. The framework through which they viewed India had the same belief as its presupposition and as its conclusion: Indian society embodied the failure to live up to the norms of western civilization.

The western-educated Indian intelligentsia of colonial India adopted this mode of reasoning. Hence, while the freedom fighters desired to end colonial rule, it had become self- evident to many that a free India would also have to create a secular liberal state, or it would end up in religious despotism. This normative disjunction was perhaps clearest in the mind of  Jawaharlal  Nehru,  India’s  first  Prime  Minister  after  Independence.  His  perspective allowed for two potential forms of political organization only: either a secular state or a religious theocracy. As he wrote in a letter to a Muslim aristocrat: “If Pakistan insists on being what is called an Islamic State it will be backward, narrow-minded and unprogressive just  as  India,  if  its  seeks  to  be  a  Hindu  State,  would  be  similarly  backward  and unprogressive.”[88]

Throughout his writings, this conceptual restriction on Nehru’s thought is striking: either a country is a progressive  civilized secular nation-state  or it becomes a backward narrow-minded theocracy. In a 1947 speech, he asserted: “As long as I am at the helm of affairs India will not become a Hindu State…The very idea of a theocratic state is not only medieval but also stupid. In modern times the people may have their religion but not the State.”[89]  This two-pronged view compelled him to conceive of violence in the Indian society as religious fundamentalism or “communalism.” Just as all peaceful pluralism was equivalent to the separation of politics and religion in Nehru’s mind, the violence between different communities was the consequence of mixing the political and the religious.

As the title of another speech said, the alternatives were either “Toleration or Ruin”: “Toleration alone will lead India to peace and prosperity. I warn you that the manner in which this killing is going on will lead the country to nothing but ruin.”[90]  Were one to define “toleration”  as “the absence of violent conflict,”  such an approach would amount to a truism. But Nehru did not have this tautology in mind. Toleration meant “a democratic secular State which neither favours nor discriminates against any particular religion” and this was the only conceivable aim for a civilized country[91].

The Nehruvian secularism of post-Independence  India reproduced the normative disjunction introduced by the colonial state. Civilization was equated to “the liberal secular state.” All opposition was conceived as “religious fundamentalism.” This framework allowed for only one form of opposition, namely, the normative negation of itself: the pursuit of a Hindu nation-state founded in principles of Hindutva. The clash between liberal secularism and Hindu fundamentalism in India, then, is a grand colonial struggle. It is a confrontation between a normative framework and the mirror image it has produced.


In  conclusion,  we  can  return  to  our  original  questions:  What  explains  the  Hindutva movement’s quixotic pursuit of a set of beliefs common to all Hindus, upon which it desires to found Indian society? Why do modern Hindus perceive Islam and Christianity as rival religions, incompatible with Hindu doctrines, when this experience was more or less absent before the eighteenth century?

Hindu fundamentalism emerged from the intervention of the liberal colonial state.This  state  operated  within  a  particular  theological  framework,  which  construed  the indigenous traditions of India as variants of the same phenomenon as Islam and Christianity. Colonial  policies  of toleration  and neutrality  induced  the Hindu  traditions to transform themselves according to this model. They were induced to identify scriptural foundations for their practices, in order to survive under the rule of the Raj.

This inspired a series of movements in nineteenth-century  India to embark on a quest for “the true teachings and principles of Hindu religion.” Originally, they turned to the Vedas and Shastras. Given the lack of consensus and the diversity of traditions, however, the core of Hindu principles could not but become less precise. No set of scriptures or specificdogmas  would  be accepted  by all Hindu  traditions.  Eventually,  the Hindutva  movement located its unity in notions of “Hindu tolerance.”

In other words, Hindu nationalists are not “decolonizing the Hindu mind,”[92]  but rather sustain and reproduce the colonial transformation of Indian traditions. As the colonial model of religion locates Hindu identity in a shared set of principles and beliefs, Islam and Christianity are now inevitably viewed as rivals with incompatible doctrines. Accordingly as Hindutva focused on principles of tolerance, Islamic and Christian intolerance towards other religions were identified as the central flaws of these minorities. From this perspective, in order to coexist with the Hindu nation, Indian Islam and Christianity  have to conform themselves to its fundamental principles.

In this sense, liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism in India are two faces of the same coin. They are two mutually reinforcing moments of a mechanism that transforms the native traditions of India into variants of the religions of the Book. If the two forces are not opposites in this one case, then we will have to rethink their mutual relationship in general. More importantly, it is high time for the intellectuals to move beyond the normative disjunction between liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism. There have been calls to draw on the Indian traditions  as alternative  sources of vibrant pluralism,  which may improve  upon  the  dominant  liberal model[93]. Instead  of  dismissing  such  attempts  as revivalism or indigenism, we might consider the possibility that liberal secularism is not the one true political salvation for humanity.


1 See the five volumes resulting from the Fundamentalism project coordinated and edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, The Fundamentalism Project (Chicago, 1991-1995) and R. Scott Appleby and Martin E. Marty, “Fundamentalism,” Foreign Policy, no. 128(2002): 16-22. Several articles in these volumes discuss the difficulty of applying the term “fundamentalism” to a variety of movements worldwide. It will soon become clear why we speak of a phenomenon of “Hindu fundamentalism.”

2 Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular : Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, 2003); S. N. Balagangadhara and Jakob De Roover, “The Secular State and Religious Conflict: Liberal Neutrality and the Indian Case of Pluralism,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 15, no.1(2007): 67-92; Nikkie R. Keddie, “Secularism and the State: Towards Clarity and Global Comparison,” New Left Review 226(November-December 1997): 21-40. The term “secular fundamentalism” has also been coined, see Daniel O. Conkle, “Secular Fundamentalism, Religious Fundamentalism, and the Search for Truth in Contemporary America,” Journal of Law and Religion 12, no. 2(1995-1996): 337-370.

3 T. N. Madan, “Secularism in Its Place,” The Journal of Asian Studies, 46, no. 4(1987), 747-59; Ashis Nandy, “An Anti-secularist Manifesto,” Seminar 314(October 1985): 14-24. The “Hindu right” refers to the Sangh Parivar, the group of organizations that advocate the ideology of Hindutva or “Hindu-ness” and intend to make India into a Hindu nation-state.

4 See two important collections of articles on the Indian secularism debate: Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (New Delhi, 1998) and The Crisis of Secularism in India, eds. Anuradha Dingwaney Needham and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (Durham and London, 2007).

5 This is a common argument in the literature. See Paul R. Brass, “Secularism Out of Its Place,” in Tradition, Pluralism and Identity, eds. Veena Das, Dipankar Gupta and Patricia Uberoi (New Delhi, 1999), 359-380, 370-1, 375; Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, India After Independence, 1947-2000 (New Delhi, 1999), 438-9; P.C. Chatterji, Secular Values for Secular India (New Delhi: Manohar, 1995), ix; Stanley Tambiah, “The Crisis of Secularism in India,” in Secularism and Its Critics, 418-453, 427. The argument is shared by the Hindutva thinkers who accuse the Congress party and the secularists of being “pseudo-secularists” because of the failure to be neutral between Hindus and Muslims.

6 Partha Chatterjee, “History and the Nationalization of Hinduism,” Social Research 59, no. 1(1992): 111-149; Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (New Delhi, 1990); Romila Thapar, “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity,” Modern Asian Studies, 23(1989): 209-231; Thapar, “Secularism, History and Contemporary Politics in India,” in The Crisis of Secularism in India, 191-207.

7 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Before the Leviathan: Sectarian Violence and the State in Pre- Colonial India,” in Unravelling the Nation: Sectarian Conflict and India’s Secular Identity, eds. Kaushik Basu and Sanjay Subrahmanyam (New Delhi, 1996), 44-80.

8 Vasudha Dalmia and Heinrich Von Stietencron, Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Traditions and National Identity (New Delhi, 1995); Robert E. Frykenberg, “Constructions of Hinduism at the Nexus of History and Religion,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 3(1993): 523-550; Richard King, “Orientalism and the Modern Myth of ‘Hinduism’,” Numen 46, no. 2(1999): 146-185; Geoffrey A. Oddie, Imagined Hinduism: British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900 (New Delhi, 2006).

9 David N. Lorenzen, “Who Invented Hinduism?” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no.4(1999):630-659; Brian Pennington, Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians and the Colonial Construction of Religion (New York, 2005).

10 François Bernier,  A Continuation of the Memoires of Monsieur Bernier concerning the Empire of the Great Mogol, Tome III & IV (London, 1671), 149-150; Quintin Craufurd, Sketches Chiefly Relating to the History, Religion, Learning, and Manners of the Hindoos (London, 1790), 131-132; Sir William Jones, “On the Gods of Greece, Italy and India,” in Asiatick Researches, vol. 1 (Calcutta, 1798), 274; Anonymous, “The History of British India,” in The Asiatic Annual Register…For the Year 1799 (London, 1800), 6; William H. Tone, “Illustrations of Some Institutions of the Mahratta People,” in The Asiatic Annual Register…For the Year 1799, 127-128; and excerpts in Richard Fox Young, Resistant Hinduism: Sanskrit Sources on Anti-Christian Apologetics in Early Nineteenth-Century India (Vienna, 1981).

11 Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg, Thirty Four Conferences Between the Danish Missionaries and the Malabarian Bramans…in the East Indies, Concerning the Truth of the Christian Religion (London, 1719), 5, 15.

12 For a theoretical analysis, see S. N. Balagangadhara, “The Heathen in His Blindness…”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion (Leiden, 1994).

13 V. D. Savarkar, Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (Bombay, 1969).

14 V. D. Savarkar, Hindu Rashtra Darshan (Bombay, 1984), 8.

15 Ibid., 9.

16 Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, Representing the Other? Sanskrit Sources and the Muslims (Eighth to Fourteenth Century) (New Delhi, 1998).

17 E.g., J. J. Roy Burman, Hindu-Muslim Syncretic Shrines and Communities (New Delhi, 2002) and several essays in Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, eds. David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence (Gainesville, 2000).

18 Savarkar, Hindu Rasthra Darshan, 9.

19 See B. D. Graham, Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics: The Origins and Development of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Cambridge, 1990), 94-95; Jyotirmaya Sharma, Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism (New Delhi, 2003), 5-9.

20 Sobhag Mathur, Hindu Revivalism and the Indian National Movement: A Documentary Study of the Ideals and Policies of the Hindu Mahasabha, 1939-45 (Jodhpur, 1996), 217-218.

21 Ibid., 65.

22 Balraj Madhok, “Secularism: Genesis and Development,” in Secularism in India: Dilemmas and Challenges, ed. M. M. Sankhdher (New Delhi, 1995), 110-122; Graham, Hindu Nationalism and Indian Politics, 50; Constitution and Rules, Bharatiya Janata Party, As Amended by the National Council on 6tFebruary 2004 (See url: <http://www.bjp.org/today/Constitution.htm>, consulted April 2, 2007).

23 Two favourites are “Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava” and “Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti,” translated as “equal respect for all religions” and “truth is one; the sages call it by many names” respectively. See M. S. Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts (Bangalore, 1966), 101-106.

24 See M. G. Chitkara, Hindutva (New Delhi, 1997), 1; Mathur, Hindu Revivalism, 113, 131; Savarkar, Hindu Rashtra Darshan, 14-15, 41, 49.

25 The statement was made by the Karnataka Jana Sangh President, M. A. Venkata Rao, “Jana Sangh, Islam & Humayun Kabir,” Organiser (1 August 1960), 6. The Jana Sangh was the precursor of the current BJP, the main political party inspired by Hindutva.

26 M. A. Venkata Rao, “Introduction,” in Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, i-xxxiv, xxix. The statement about the need to “Indianize” Christian churches was made several times in 2000-2001 by K. S. Sudarshan, the RSS chief.

27 See Sir John W. Kaye, Christianity in India: An Historical Narrative (London, 1859), 366-396. The term “Shaster” was used by the British to refer to what they considered to be the body of “Hindu sacred scriptures.”

28 From a letter to the register of the nizamat adalat (provincial court), dated December 5, 1812, signed by G. Dowdeswell, chief secretary to the Bengal government, British Parliamentary Papers (BPP) 1821, Vol. 18, 31.

29 The quote is from a despatch by Lord Ellenborough endorsed by Lord Stanley in the House of Commons on 30 July 1858, in Eugene Stock, The History of the Church Missionary Society: Its Environment, Its Men and Its Work, Vol. 2 (London, 1899), 251-252. From its beginning, the colonial state was explicitly viewed in terms of religious toleration. From 1857, both colonial officials and malcontent missionaries described the state’s principle and policy as religious neutrality. E.g., J.N. Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements in India (New York, 1915), 11; Kaye, Christianity in India; George F. Laclear, The Christian Statesman and Our Indian Empire (Cambridge, 1859); Stock, History of the Church Missionary Society, 157, 235-280; Charles L. Tupper, Our Indian Protectorate: An Introduction to the Study of the Relations Between the British Government and Its Indian Feudatories (London, 1893), 311-312.

30 “Extract Bengal Judicial Consultations, 7th February 1805,” in BPP 1821, Vol. 18, 24.

31 “Extract from the Report of the Criminal Cases adjudged by the Court of Nizamut Adawlut, in the year 1810,” in BPP 1821, Vol. 18, 25-26.

32 Anonymous, “Peculiar Customs of the Hindus,” in The Asiatic Annual Register…For the Year 1803, Vol. 5 (London, 1804), 29-30.

33 “Minute of Mr. G. L. Prendergast,” in BPP 1821, Vol. 18, 246-247. See Sir John Malcolm, The Government of India (London, 1833), 32.

34 BPP 1821, Vol. 18, 38-39.

35 “Letter from Searman Bird, senior judge and J. Rattray, 2d judge at Dacca to M. H. Turnbull, esq. Register to the Nizamut Adawlut, Fort William, dated 19th  August 1816,” in BPP 1821, Vol. 18, 101.

36 Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1998); Andrea Major, Pious Flames: European Encounters with Sati 1500-1830 (New Delhi, 2006).

37 Geoffrey A. Oddie, Popular Religion, Elites and Reform: Hook-Swinging and Its Prohibition in Colonial India, 1800-1894 (New Delhi, 1995), 77-78, 86.

38 The best example is Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions. Similar claims are found in Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Delhi, 1997), 57-75; Nicholas B. Dirks, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Cambridge, MA, 2006), 209-224; Lynn Zastoupil and Martin Moir, eds., “Introduction,” in The Great Indian Education Debate: Documents Relating to the Orientalist-Anglicist Controversy, 1781-1843 (Richmond, 1999), 1-72.

39 Raf Gelders and Willem Derde, “Mantras of Anti-Brahmanism: Colonial Experience of Indian Intellectuals,” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 43(2003): 4611-4617.

40 From the start, the British embarked on an obsessive quest for this Hindu sacred law and its textual manifestations. They retrieved all kinds of textual fragments, until they decided that the Manusmrti or the “Code of Manu” was the text that contained the original laws mistaken by the Hindus for the biblical God’s revelation. See Henry Lord, A Discoverie of the Banian Religion (London, 1630), 40-45; Nathaniel B. Halhed, A Code of Gentoo Laws or, Ordinations of the Pundits, ed. Michael J. Franklin (1776, repr. ed., London and New York, 2000), xiii; Sir William Jones, Institutes of Hindu Law or, the Ordinances of Menu, ed. Michael J. Franklin (1798, repr. ed., London and New York, 2000), xvi.

41 Shashi Ahluwalia and Meenakshi Ahluwalia, Raja Rammohun Roy and the Indian Renaissance (New Delhi, 1991); A.F. Salahuddin Ahmed, Social Ideas and Social Change in Bengal 1818-1835 (Leiden, 1965); D. P. Chattopadhyaya, “Raja Rammohun Roy: A New Appraisal,” in 19th Century Thought in Bengal, eds. Kalyan Sengupta and Tirthanath Bandyopadhyay (Calcutta, 1998), 7-24; Amiya P. Sen, Hindu Revivalism in Bengal, 1872-1905: Some Essays in Interpretation (New Delhi, 1993).

42 Raja Rammohun Roy, The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, vol. 1, ed. Jogendra Chunder Ghose (1885, sec. ed. New Delhi, 1982), 113.

43 Rammohun Roy started The Brahmunical Magazine or The Missionary and the Brahmun, being a vindication of the Hindoo Religion against the attacks of Christian missionaries in 1821 and produced a series of issues, all of which defended the truth of Hinduism against Christian theological arguments.

44 Rammohun Roy, The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, vol. 1, 3.

45 Ibid., 45.

46 Ibid., 69, 21.

47 E.g.: “Translation of a Conference between an Advocate for, and an Opponent of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive,” “A Second Conference between an Advocate for, and an Opponent of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive,” “Abstract of the Arguments regarding the Burning of Widows, considered as a Religious Rite,” and “Address to Lord William Bentinck,” in The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, vol. 1.

48 See the excellent collection of primary sources in J. K. Majumdar, ed., Raja Rammohun Roy and Progressive Movements in India (Calcutta, 1983), 97-156. See also Salahuddin Ahmad, Social Ideas and Social Change in Bengal, 1818-1835, 26-51, which reproduces the image of a liberal secular enlightened West as opposed to the “tradition-ridden society with strong religious and social prejudices” of India.

49 “The Petition of the orthodox Hindu community of Calcutta against the Suttee regulation (January 14, 1830),” in  Raja Rammohun Roy and Progressive Movements in India, 156-163.

50 “An appeal to the orthodox Hindus on the necessity of establishing the Dhurma Subha (February 6, 1830),” in Raja Rammohun Roy, 163-165.

51 These words are from a lamentation on the rejection of the sati appeal in the Samachar Chandrika, the journal of the Dharma Sabha, in Raja Rammohun Roy, 205-207.

52 Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Autobiography of Dayanand Saraswati (New Delhi, 1978), 39.

53 This is still the case today. A fieldwork project by Kuvempu University in Karnataka, South India shows that most “Hindus” have never heard of the Vedas or the Shastras, let alone know their content. Some colonial authors were aware of this problem. E.g., Walter Ewer stated in 1818 that “it is well known that not one man in a thousand knows anything of the contents of the Shasters…,” in BPP 1821, Vol. 18, 229. Or: “If a religion be a creed with certain distinctive tenets, the Hinduism of the mass of people is not a religion at all. Their religion is in no way represented by the sacred books of Sanskrit literature. The sanctity of the Vedas is an accepted article of faith among Hindus who have heard of their existence, but they have nothing to do with the existing popular beliefs. The Puranas, and other comparatively late works, which Elphinstone says may be called the scriptures of modern Hinduism, have no practical connection with the religion of the great majority of the population.” Sir John Strachey, India: Its Administration & Progress (London, 1911), 317.

54 Dayanand Saraswati, Autobiography, 82-83.

55  Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Light of Truth or an English Translation of the Satyarth Prakash, trans. Chiranjiva Bharadwaja (New Delhi, 1994), 74-75.

56 Ibid., 336.

57 Ibid., 772.

58 Arya Patrika, April 13, 1886, 5. Cited in Kenneth W. Jones, Arya Dharm: Hindu Consciousness in 19th-Century Punjab (Berkeley, 1976), 144.

59 Arya Patrika, August 31, 1886, 7. Cited in Jones, Arya Dharm, 123.

60 Ibid., 47. On the aggressive rivalry between the Arya Samaj and Islam, see also Koenraad Elst, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind: Ideological Development of Hindu Revivalism (New Delhi, 2001), 110-111.

61 Ibid., 96-97.

62 From the Arya Patrika, December 27, 1887, pp. 3-4, cited in Jones, Arya Dharm, 109. In 1915, Farquhar noted that Din Dayal’s association, the Bharata Dharma Mahamandala, even though it claimed to defend orthodox Hinduism, found “itself driven to set forth the Hindu system as the religion for all mankind. To defend a religion which is but the religion of the Hindus is felt to be impossible for the modern mind.” He noted with satisfaction: “Clearly, the freedom as well as the universality of Christianity is working with irresistible force within the very citadel of Hinduism.” Farquhar, Modern Religious Movements, 321-322.

63 The quotes are from a lecture delivered in 1896 by Swami Rama Tirtha at the Sanatan Dharma Sabha of Sialkot, now in Pakistan. Swami Rama Tirtha, On Sanatan Dharma (Lucknow, n.d.), 2, 10-34. See also Kenneth W. Jones, “Two Sanatan Dharm Leaders and Swami Vivekananda: A Comparison,” in Swami Vivekananda and the Modernization of Hinduism, ed. William Radice (New Delhi, 1998), 224-243.

64 As William Gould shows, a softer variant of Hindu nationalism developed within the Indian National Congress in the early twentieth century: Gould, Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India (Cambridge, 2004).

65 Sir Henry Cotton, New India or India in Transition (London, 1907), 265.

66 Partha Chatterjee, “Secularism and Tolerance,” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Bhargava, 345-379.

67 See the debates in the British Parliamentary Papers about this situation: BPP, 1839, Vol. 39, 39; 1841, Vol. 17, 1-4; 1844, Vol. 36, 1-2; 1845, Vol. 34, 1-43. See also David O. Allen, India: Ancient and Modern (Boston, 1856), 331-338.

68 BPP, 1839, Vol. 39, 39

69 Ibid.

70 The typical colonial explanation of the 1857 “Sepoy Mutiny” referred to suspicion among native soldiers about the use of animal fat on gun cartridges. Rajat Kanta Ray, “Race, Religion and Realm: The Political Theory of ‘The Reigning Crusade’, 1857,” in India’s Colonial Encounter: Essays in Memory of Eric Stokes, eds. Mushirul Hasan and Narayani Gupta (New Delhi, 2004), 205-254.

71 “The Petition of the orthodox Hindu community of Calcutta” in  Raja Rammohun Roy and Progressive Movements in India, 156-163.

72  Valentine Chirol, Indian Unrest (London, 1910), 43-45. The concern about the slaughter of cows by Muslims became a major bone of contention in Maharashtra, Bihar and Punjab. It is was seen as a platform on which Hindus could unite. The same period also saw the rising glorification of the Maratha king Shivaji as the national hero of the Hindu nationalists in Maharashtra. Chirol’s allegations against Tilak as the instigator of fanaticism and violence inspired  the  latter  to  take  Chirol  to  court.  See  the  Selected  Documents  of  Lokamanya  Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1880-1920), 3 Vols., ed. Ravindra Kumar (New Delhi, 1992). On the cow- protection movement, see Dharampal and T. M. Mukundan, The British Origin of Cow-Slaughter in India: With Some British Documents on the Anti-Kine-Killing Movement 1880-1894 (Mussoorie, 2002).

73 V. D. Savarkar, Historic Statements (Prophetic Warnings): Statements, Telegrams & Letters, 1941 to 1965 (Bombay, 1992), 30.

74 Ibid., 2, 7.

75 Ibid., 18.

76 Ibid., 20.

77 Lala Lajpat Rai, “The Hindu-Muslim Problem,” in Writings and Speeches, Vol. 2: 1920-1928, ed. Vijaya Chandra Joshi (Delhi, 1966), 170-222, 180-181; italics added.

78 Balagangadhara, “The Heathen In His Blindness…”, chapters 3 and 4; Raf Gelders and Willem Derde, “Mantras of Anti-Brahmanism: Colonial Experience of Indian Intellectuals,” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 43(2003): 4611-4617; Mani, Contentious Traditions, 29-39.

79   E.g. Henry Lord, A Discoverie of the Sect of the Banians (London, 1630), 43-95; John Z. Holwell, Interesting Historical Events Relative to the Provinces of Bengal and the Empire of Indostan, Part I and II, ed. Michael J. Franklin (1765-67, repr. ed. London, 2000), 16-17; Anonymous, “The History of British India,” 3-5; Charles Grant, “Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain,” in British Parliamentary Papers—Colonies East India, Vol. 5, 1831-1832 (Shannon, 1970), 34-35; James Mill, The History of British India, Vol. 1 (1817, repr. ed. New Delhi, 1990), 48; J. Talboys Wheeler, College History of India: Asiatic and European (London, 1888), 13, 21; Monier Monier-Williams, Brahmanism and Hinduism (London, 1891), 352; Chirol, Indian Unrest, 33; Strachey, India: Its Administration & Progress, 318-319.

80 Wheeler, College History of India, 21; Henry Whitehead, Indian Problems in Religion, Education, Politics (London, 1924), 38-39.

81 Pandey, Construction of Communalism, 23-65; Strachey, India, 336-341.

82 Wheeler, College History of India, 107-108, 148. Wheeler also suggests that the British rule established law, liberty, and order in Bengal.” See also Whitehead, Indian Problems, 3.

83 Chirol, Indian Unrest 32, 37, 5.

84 Sir Alfred C. Lyall, “Introduction,” in Chirol, Indian Unrest, xv.

85 See Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London, 1978); Ronald Inden, Imagining India (Oxford, 1990); Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, eds., Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia (Philadelphia, 1993).

86 Lyall, “Introduction,” in Chirol, Indian Unrest, ix, xvi, xiii.

87 The World’s Work, Vol 35: November, 1917, to April, 1918: A History of Our Time (Garden City, NY, 1918), 35.

88  “Letter to the Nawab of Bhopal,” New Delhi, 9 July 1948, in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 7, ed. S. Gopal (New Delhi, 1988), 8.

89  “India Will not be a Hindu State,” Address to mill workers and labourers in Delhi, 30 September 1947, in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 4, ed. S. Gopal (New Delhi, 1986) 107-109.

90  “Toleration or Ruin,” Speech at New Delhi, 27 September 1947, in Selected Works, Second Series, Vol. 4, 101-2.

91    The  quotes  are  from  “A  Uniform  Refugee  Policy,”  Note  to  Cabinet  Ministers,  12 September 1947, in Selected Works, Second Series, Vol. 4, 62-66; italics added.

92 Elst, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind.

93 Balagangadhara and De Roover, “The Secular State and Religious Conflict,” 88-90; Ashis Nandy, “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (New Delhi, 1998), 321-344.

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