Last December, a saffron-robed crowd of India’s most notorious Hindu extremist leaders descended on the North Indian city of Haridwar for a “Dharma Sansad,” or religious assembly. The list of attendees was a who’s who of the Hindu nationalist movement. Speakers at the gathering included Prabhodanand Giri, a former leader in the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Yati Narsinghanand, who has called for a “final war” against Muslims and banned them from the temple that he leads, and Pooja Shakun Pandey, who made headlines in 2019 for shooting and burning an effigy of Mahatma Gandhi. In addition to these leaders, the event was also attended by Ashwini Upadhyay and Udita Tyagi, two junior leaders in the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently governs India.
For those still unconvinced by the extremist credentials of the attendees themselves, the comments they made at the Haridwar conclave will not disappoint. One after another, speakers took the stage and issued explicit calls for genocidal violence against India’s Muslim minority—one speaker called for a “safai abhiyan (cleanliness drive)” against Muslims in the model of Myanmar’s Rohingya genocide, while another proclaimed that Hindus must “be ready to kill and be ready to go to jail” if they “want to eliminate [the Muslim] population.” One speaker, a far-right media personality named Suresh Chavhanke, led the crowd in an oath to “fight, die and kill” in order to “make this country a Hindu nation.”
Shocking though it may be in its sheer brazenness, the blatantly genocidal hate speech deployed at Haridwar is in fact emblematic of the basic principles underpinning Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism—the far-right, ethnonationalist ideology that forms the governing ethos of India’s current regime under Narendra Modi. At its core, Hindutva holds that India must be the exclusive national homeland of Hindus, and emphasizes as its main goal the establishment of a majoritarian “Hindu Rashtra,” or Hindu nation, in which the Hindu majority is dominant, while minorities—namely Muslims, but also Christians and other minority communities—are treated as second-class citizens.
Hindutva ideology has its roots in the philosophical writings of two 20th-century thinkers: V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar, who are revered by adherents today as the ideological fathers of the Hindu nationalist movement. While incarcerated by the British in the early 1920s for agitation against colonial rule, Savarkar wrote a pamphlet entitled Essentials of Hindutva, in which he outlined a monolithic vision of Hindu national identity that was defined along the lines of “a common nation (Rashtra) a common race (Jati) and a common civilization (Sanskriti)” and explicitly excluded Muslims from its construction. After his release from Ratnagiri jail, Savarkar went on to become a prominent leader in the early Hindu nationalist movement, and would later be charged (though never convicted) in the conspiracy to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi.
In 1939, the second key text in the Hindutva canon was published under the title We, or Our Nationhood Defined by Golwalkar, an early devotee of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary group that to this day forms the backbone of the Hindu nationalist movement. In his book, Golwalkar outlined his own vision of Hindu identity and the “Hindu Rashtra,” which was even more extreme in its ethnic supremacy than the vision presented by Savarkar. “The foreign races in Hindusthan,” he wrote, “must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverance [sic] Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture… and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race,” or else “may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment—not even citizen’s rights.”
Following the death of RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar in 1940, Golwalkar took over the organization and ran it for over thirty years. He has been credited by admirers with overseeing its expansion into the largest volunteer organization in the world. With over 70,000 chapters, more than 5 million members, and a vast global network of affiliated organizations known as the Sangh Parivar, the RSS today constitutes what one historian has called the world’s “longest running fascist movement.”
To call the RSS a “fascist movement”—and by extension, the broader Hindu nationalist ecosystem and Hindutva ideology itself—is hardly an exaggeration. Golwalkar, for example, was an infamous Nazi sympathizer, writing in We, or Our Nationhood Defined that “to keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here… a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by.” And, as Italian scholar Marzia Casolari has documented, not only did the founders of the RSS visit Mussolini’s Italy and meet with its leaders, but they also drew direct inspiration from the structure, organization, and aesthetics of the Italian fascist movement. To this day, the militaristic drills, identical uniforms, and strict disciplinarian ethos of the RSS carry disturbing echoes of 1930s-era paramilitaries whose black-and-white photos fill history textbooks in classrooms around the world.
Given the decidedly fascist background and leanings of the RSS and its affiliated organizations, it may come as a surprise that on February 6th, several weeks after the Haridwar conclave, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat gave a lecture in Nagpur where the leader of the nation’s largest Hindu nationalist organization proclaimed that the hate speeches delivered in Haridwar were “not Hindu words” and “not Hindutva,” and told attendees that “the RSS or those following Hindutva do not believe in this.” This is not the first time that the RSS has indicated an apparent move away from its extremist roots. In 2018, for example, Bhagwat told a crowd in Delhi that “all people living in India are Hindu in terms of identity and nationality”—apparently including even Muslims in this equation—and earlier this year the organization adopted the internal position that all Indians, religious minorities included, can be categorized as one of four types of Hindus, echoing Bhagwat’s 2009 assertion that Hinduism “is not a religion, but a way of life.”
This position is, of course, a far cry from Golwalkar’s view of Muslims as constituting the supreme internal enemy of the Hindu nation. Indeed, the RSS has in recent years even sought to distance itself from the controversial views of its former leader—in 2006, the organization disowned We as a guiding text of the movement, going so far as to claim that the book was not even authored by Golwalkar himself, but was rather Golwalkar’s abridged translation of another author’s work (an erroneous claim that has been thoroughly debunked). Similarly, in 2018, Bhagwat announced that the views expressed in Bunch of Thoughts, a collection of Golwalkar’s speeches containing yet more hateful statements, were “not eternal,” and that the text would be republished in a new edition with the offending remarks removed.
To those unfamiliar with the calculated machinations of the Hindu right, all of this may indicate that, after over a century of incendiary rhetoric, paramilitary mobilization, and communal violence in service of its hardline Hindutva ideology, the Hindu nationalist movement may finally be attempting to distance itself from the extreme politics of its past. At a superficial level of analysis, this makes sense—as the Hindu right has moved from the fringes of Indian politics into the mainstream over the past few decades and has cemented its place in India’s political order with the BJP’s rise to power and resounding reelection under Modi’s leadership, it logically follows that the movement would seek to moderate its radical message in order to win over swing voters and broaden its appeal for the masses. This is, after all, the strategy that first brought Modi to power in 2014, despite his own history of fomenting violence during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom: downplay cultural nationalism and focus instead on other platforms, such as economic renewal, that are less likely to court controversy. (Of course, when Modi’s economic promises failed to materialize, the BJP’s strategy for the 2019 elections quickly reverted to good old-fashioned Hindutva.)
Unfortunately, these ostensible indicators of the Hindu right’s move away from supremacist politics are, in fact, anything but—rather, they are nothing more than small elements of a much larger political strategy for the Hindu right, which has a vested interest in portraying itself as politically reasonable and electorally legitimate on the surface, even as it actively pursues a divisive and hateful agenda. They represent a tactical politics of plausible deniability, in which the BJP-RSS political machine is able to reap the benefits of mobilizing the Hindu majority through hateful rhetoric and violent attacks carried out in the name of their shared Hindutva ideology, while still maintaining a comfortable distance from the controversies that inevitably ensue.
The same deniability politics lie at the heart of the BJP’s telling response (or rather, non-response) to last December’s Haridwar conclave. More than four months since the gathering, neither Modi nor any other BJP leader has spoken out in any sort of direct acknowledgement or denunciation. In the party’s only official communication about the event to date, a spokesperson, when asked about Haridwar at a press conference, curtly told reporters that, “You should ask people behind Dharma Sansad about this.” This deafening silence comes despite the fact that the event was attended by junior BJP leaders, and that many of its most controversial speakers have a history of close proximity to BJP politicians. (For his part, Upadhyay’s response to the event took a similar tone as that of the party spokesperson—he told the Indian Express that he only attended the event for around half an hour, and that, “What others said before and after me, I am not responsible for it”—echoing the arguments made by his defense team in 2021, when he was arrested for raising anti-Muslim slogans at a demonstration in Delhi.)
In all of these cagey non-responses, one message shines through loud and clear: we’re not responsible for those who shared the stage with us and shook our hands, even if they expressed the same shared beliefs that political expediency forbids us from espousing ourselves. For Modi and his counterparts in the upper echelons of the party, this politics of plausible deniability goes one step further—rather than issuing even a lukewarm condemnation, they have chosen to simply not address the controversy at all.
This is far from the first time that Modi and those in his inner circle have responded to controversy with sealed lips. On the contrary, strategic silence is a well-documented and integral part of the prime minister’s overall communications strategy, allowing him to wait out news cycles without wading into the fray and having to answer potentially uncomfortable questions about why, for example, members of his party are allowed to take a literal front-row seat to open calls for genocide. The fact that nearly four months have passed without Modi having to take a public position on the Haridwar assembly is a testament to the efficacy of this strategy, which we have seen yet again in the wake of horrific communal violence and the bulldozing of Muslim homes by local BJP governments in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh.
What makes this strategy especially effective, however, is the unique political ecosystem of the Hindu right, which can be best understood as a pattern of concentric circles. At the center lie Modi and his counterparts in the BJP leadership, while the outermost ring consists of individual religious leaders and private citizens. Falling in between these two layers, closer to the political leaders at the center, is the RSS itself, of which Modi and many other BJP leaders are lifelong members. In the outer layers lie smaller groups such as the Bajrang Dal, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, and the Hindu Yuva Vahini (to name just a few) who make up the rest of the Hindutva ecosystem.
Each layer constitutes an additional degree of separation, insulating the inner circles from backlash against the actions of the outermost rings. The latter’s explicit hate speech and overt hate violence transgress the political sensibilities that, at least to some extent, constrain the politicians at the center. When such actions generate outcry, this ecosystem’s many degrees of separation mean that those with the most to lose politically are able to conveniently fall back on paper-thin claims of deniability.
The power of both this political structure and the deniability politics it enables were put on full display during the February 2020 Delhi riots, which occurred in response to ongoing protests against the Modi regime’s anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). As a 2021 investigation by Indian news magazine The Caravan highlights, Modi’s inflammatory rhetoric and thinly veiled dogwhistles played a key role in fomenting the violence. For example, during the first wave of anti-CAA protests, the prime minister infamously remarked that those committing violence “can be identified by their clothes”—a not-so-subtle reference to Muslims.
Moreover, his characterization of the protests as a “conspiracy against the country” and of the protesters as “conspirators” or “Pakistanis” in numerous speeches “formed the template” for the Hindu mob that attacked Muslims in the Maujpur area. The Caravan article’s author notes that, “As was evident from conversations with numerous members of the Maujpur mob, Modi’s statements had emboldened them to take matters into their own hands.”
At no point, however, did Modi directly incite violence or encourage mobs to take to the streets—that distinction goes to Kapil Mishra, a local BJP politician who delivered a speech on February 23rd in which he told his supporters to take action and clear out anti-CAA protesters. This incitement by Mishra—who had lost a local election just weeks before—has been blamed for sparking the riots, and rightfully so. Modi himself, however, largely managed to evade having to answer for his own role in enabling the violence, simply issuing a tepid call for “peace and brotherhood” and moving on—a far cry from the backlash to the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, for which Modi has been widely held at fault.
The Delhi riots typify the politics of plausible deniability. As a relatively small fish in the BJP ocean, Mishra falls decidedly on one of the outer circles of the Hindu right’s ecosystem. As such, he is not only the one who directly incites the mob, but is also the one who faces the inevitable backlash. Meanwhile, the inner circle—in this case, Modi himself—is insulated from having to bear any substantive responsibility, despite the critical role that this inner circle plays in enabling the violence in the first place.
Beyond shielding Modi and the BJP from backlash, however, the politics of plausible deniability also creates a tacitly permissive atmosphere for the saffron-clad mobs and fanatical sadhus who have become Hindutva ideology’s primary enforcers—in particular, the “freelance” vigilantes who operate outside the official Sangh Parivar network, but nevertheless declare allegiance to the same Hindutva ideology. Whether forming “cow protection” militias or attacking Muslim youth accused of committing “love jihad” because they fell in love with a Hindu girl, these private citizens violently impose Hindutva’s repugnant views on the rest of Indian society so that the official organs of the state and ruling party don’t have to get their hands dirty.
In Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India, political scientist and South Asia expert Christophe Jaffrelot argues that such violent enforcement by Hindu vigilantes—as opposed to state actors—allows the government to remain “‘clean’, exterior to illegal forms of cultural policing of society” that are “in tune with its ideology,” while the Sangh Parivar is able to “resort to its favourite modus operandi for disciplining society, at the grassroots level, without fearing state intervention.”
The politics of plausible deniability allows this “cultural policing” to take place. In conjunction with a growing culture of impunity, each strategic silence and delayed condemnation from the “official” political organs of Hindu nationalism signals, with a wink and a nod, to these vigilantes and the religious leaders who enable them that they are free to engage in their violent rhetoric and activities without consequence.
The Hindu right’s insidious deniability politics is straight out of the authoritarian playbook, with echoes of the racist dog-whistles and incitements of violence employed by former U.S. president throughout his term in office. What makes it especially concerning, however, is the fact that this strategy has allowed the Hindu nationalist movement to seize and retain power in the world’s largest democratic political system. It is precisely this strategy which has pulled the wool over the eyes of so many in India and abroad, misleading them with false promises of economic revitalization and anti-corruption measures while drawing attention away from the increasingly sinister realities on the ground.
For too long, well-meaning people have been taken in by the Hindu right’s politics of plausible deniability. Now, as hate speech and violence move into the mainstream and India creeps ever closer to the unspeakable, it is imperative that the world wakes up and repudiate this politics for the deplorable smokescreen that it is—before the point of no return. ♦
Pranay Somayajula is a writer and human rights advocate based in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator for Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based nonprofit that mobilizes progressive Hindus to speak out against hate and fascism in South Asia and North America.