Hindu nationalists' strategy of ‘othering’

Soumi Banerjee describes how Hindu nationalists are using ‘othering’ and ‘identity signifiers’ to appeal to a broad section of India's fractured population. This, she argues, lies at the root of current religious tensions

The bearded ‘other’

For a long time, we’ve been waiting to smash the nest of these weaver birds, to raze the city of these Muslim foreigners and throw it into the river – to burn the enclosure of these swine and purify Mother Earth again!

from the 1882 novel anandamath, by bankim chandra Chattopadhyay

Muslim foreigners – ‘bearded degenerates’ in Chattopadhyay’s celebrated novel Anandamath (The Abbey of Bliss) – came to India to make the Muslim community demons and enemies. This might sound fantastical, but Hindu nationalists consider it received wisdom. Indeed, Chattopadhyay’s book depicts India as a mother (Bharat Mata), representing a unified community embodying Hindu values and beliefs.

The progenitors and most eloquent theoreticians of Hindu nationalism – Hindutva – have formulated a theory of radical retribution in response to historical Muslim aggressions. It is a theory which has laid the foundations for a militant Hindutva force.

Hindutva ‘footsoldiers’ are entrenched in Indian society. Their ideology of binary oppositions is non-negotiable. It stretches from monopolisation of the Hindu space to the notion of Hindutva as a singular self against an ill-defined ‘other’.

India is built on a shared history of myths and memories, and Hindutva defines the ‘other’ through nationalism. This dominant concept of ‘othering’, therefore, is based on the gendered spatial imaginations of the past. It also revolves around the past’s relationship with community- and identity-based conflicts of the present. Moreover, it addresses an imagined fear of uncertainty; the so-called ontological insecurities in India's current populist political rhetoric.

The phenomenon of ‘othering’

I understand now that nothing but 'otherness' killed Jews, and it began with naming them by reducing them to the other. Then everything became possible. Even the worst atrocities, like concentration camps or the slaughtering of civilians in Croatia or Bosnia

croatian journalist and essayist Slavenka Drakulić, 1992

In The Sociology of Religion, Max Weber wrote about the ‘origins of civilisation'. He presupposed that a ‘historical divide’ was responsible for transforming social behaviour. Indeed, his historiographical origin of the insecurities and indignities carved out of the binaries between ‘West’ and ‘non-West’. It (re)affirmed yet further the combination of religion and nationalism as powerful signifiers in identity construction.

Around the world, a variety of external conditions are constantly re-formulating identity groups. These include power relations, institutions, political or cultural entrepreneurs, as well as individual and psychological interpretations.

Zygmunt Bauman thought identity was the ‘loudest talk in town, the burning issue on everybody’s mind and tongue’. Moreover, Bauman believed the modern era was experiencing a ‘crisis of belonging’. The ontological insecurity between local communities, he argued, is competing with other global-alternative identities, creating stereotyping, humiliating, dehumanising, and stigmatising identities.

Certainly, scholars across the spectrum of philosophical traditions have theorised the concepts and meanings of identity relations in terms of othering. Othering denies others similar qualities as the self, irrespective of the realm of identity in which it occurs.

From Freud to Said

Sigmund Freud defined otherings as a product of ‘narcissism of minor differences’. Otherings, he argued, are an intrinsic feature of human socio-cultural and political communications through the centuries, in symbolic and physical juxtaposition.

Young Hegelians, on the other hand, interpret the ‘logic’ of ‘othering’ as a reductive action in an intersubjective structure. They postulate that othering differentiates self from other from the perspective of a dialectical understanding.

Critical Marxist theorists often describe ‘other’ in opposition to any form of pluralist interactions. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak demonstrates this in the context of colonial understandings of India. For her, the notion of othering becomes an (un)conscious construction of human thought, navigating from dialectic to dichotomy.

Similarly, Edward Said described othering as part of a larger identity formation in terms of division between Orient and Occident. Said argued that it devalues natives as undignified, savage, inhumane or illegitimate.

So, othering portrays anything ‘non-self’ as (an)other – a subject or a community with an inherently primaeval body of thoughts fundamentally at odds with the modern global consciousness of sameness and difference. This is a phenomenon Drakulić perceived to have begun with 'naming them, by reducing them to the other’. And this has broader implications for the ontology of the community.

Hindu nationalists' awakening

My ashes may be sunk in the Holy Sindhu river when she will again flow freely under the aegis of the flag of Hindustan … Preserve the ashes till then

Nathuram Vinayak Godse, shortly before his execution, 1949

Mahatma Gandhi's killer Nathuram Godse was a member of the Hindu nationalist volunteer paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In his 1949 statement to the Punjab High Court, Why I Killed Gandhi, Godse describes how right-wing forces cling strongly to the philosophy of a unified Hindu Rastra (nation).

The 2002 Gujarat riots were a postcolonial encounter between the self and the other. They show clearly the stronghold of Hindutva philosophy in independent India.

Recent years have seen many examples of Hindu nationalists' xenophobic hostility towards minorities. The scrapping of Article 370 in 2019 revoked Kashmir's unique autonomy. Also in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of returning land on which formerly stood a mosque to the government of India, for the building of a temple dedicated to Hindu deity Rama. There were violent clashes on the streets of Delhi between Hindus and Muslims in spring 2022. The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in 2019, popularly known as the ‘anti-Muslim’ law, prohibits illegal migrants from becoming Indian citizens. And just this month, chapters on Mughal history and the Gujarat riots have been deleted from children's history textbooks.

Hindu nationalists have striven to regenerate a single monolithic religion. To this end, twenty-two Indian states have banned the eating of beef. Five states have passed laws prohibiting religious conversion from Hinduism. Meanwhile, the Ghar Wapsi (homecoming) movement is urging Muslims, Christians, and followers of other religions, to convert to Hinduism.

Militant Hindu nationalism has carefully deconstructed the (extra)ordinariness of Hinduism's founding ideologies. It has twisted these ideologies into a violent majoritarian nationalist worldview.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Soumi Banerjee
Soumi Banerjee
PhD Candidate, School of Social Work, Lund University

Soumi's doctoral study explores civil society legitimacy, resilience, and resistance and investigates the state-civil society relationship in countries experiencing democratic backsliding.

She is the author of Quintessential Other: The construction of self and other in the narratives of the partition of India (2018), and The History of Perpetual War: Indo-Pak Relations (2016)

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