Men can join the Bajrang Dal

Your Struggle - How Fascist is Indian Hindu Nationalism?

of Tobias Delfs

After its rapid rise in India in the 1980s, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian National People's Party) took over government responsibility in 1998 and 1999 as the strongest force with around a quarter of the vote. In 2004, her ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance, with a large number of regional parties, was voted out again. The secular INC (Indian National Congress) has since led a coalition government without Hindu nationalist participation.

Observers see a reason for the deselection of the BJP coalition in the violent, above all anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002. The state government, which is shaped by Hindu nationalism, has demonstrably hardly acted against the violence with up to 2,000 dead and 150,000 refugees. On the contrary, through cynical comments she had stoked the fire even further. Like parts of the police, she was even accused of involvement. The government in Delhi could have declared a state of emergency again, but did not.

Movement with party

In the processes, elements can be discovered that are seen as characteristic of fascism: Hindu nationalism, for example, organizes itself as a violent movement with a political party. He has a nationalist ideology geared towards a leader with clear images of the enemy, special myths, rites and rituals that emphasize masculinity and youthfulness. He relies in part on hierarchy and militaristic uniformity, on the mobilization of the masses and apparently also on street fights planned 'from above' but presented as a spontaneous, defensive reaction against the aggression of the 'others'.

The Hindu nationalist movement groups itself as the "Family of the Sangh" (Sangh Parivar, SP) around the "National Volunteer Association" (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS) with its estimated five to six million members. The deselection of the BJP coalition in 2004 caused conflict within the movement. While the moderate ones appeared too moderate for the radical forces, the radicals behaved too radical for the moderate ones. In the case of violent unrest, in addition to the well-organized RSS, the loosely formed »World Hindu Council« (Vishva Hindu Parishad, VHP) and its youth department, the Bajrang Dal (»Army of Hanuman«, BD) are always noticed.1

This happened particularly in 1992, when Hindu nationalists stormed the Babri Mosque of Ayodhya after a campaign used by the BJP in the election campaign in order to build a temple on the supposed birthplace of the deity Rama. In 2008 there were attacks on Christian communities in what is now the state of Odisha. Under the impression of such excesses of violence, observers regularly try to make comparisons with fascism and National Socialism. For example, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy speaks of "Hindu fascism" in connection with the Sangh Parivar

It is precisely the seemingly military, hierarchically staggered Shakhas ("subgroups") of the RSS, in which mostly uniformed participants perform physical and ideological exercises under supervision in front of the Hindu nationalist saffron flag, lead to such associations. The same applies to the organizational power of the Sangh Parivar, which pervades almost all of society. These include schools, a publisher, India's largest trade union, charities or a student organization. In this way, individuals can be reached in their everyday lives. Although there is a separate women's organization and a female equivalent to Bajrang Dal (see iz3w 333), women play a subordinate role. Most of them are reduced to the role of housewives, albeit with national significance. Since the 1990s, their field of activity has expanded to include involvement in acts of violence.

The debates over textbooks point to the practice of Hindu nationalist influence on education systems. In 2004, for example, textbooks from the Hindu-nationalist Gujarat were reported in which Hitler's "achievements" were dealt with in detail. However, there is only one sentence about the Holocaust.3 The violent actions of the Bajrang Dal, who martially pretends to be the 'defender' of the entire Hindu nation and after all has around 100,000 members, led the political scientist Paul Brass to a comparison with the National Socialist fighting alliances. The BD is a "somewhat pathetic, but nevertheless dangerous version of the Nazi SA." 4 The Indian lawyer A. G. Noorani also assumes a fascism-like "division of labor" between the party and the militant movement

Some Hindu nationalists promote such comparisons. Bal Thackeray stood out in particular for his provocative play with Nazi comparisons. He led the Shiv Sena regional party in the state of Maharashtra from its founding in 1966 until his death in 2012. This was part of the BJP coalition at the federal level until 2004 and had previously formed a coalition with the BJP in Maharashtra.6 However, Thackeray's statements are not discernible whether behind his expressed admiration for Hitler is conviction or a fundamental opposition to the secular INC and its allegations of fascism used against Hindu nationalism. There are also some distances to be found in Thackeray, for example on the persecution of the Jews. Overall, none of the well-known Hindu nationalists referred to or called themselves a fascist.

Because he fought against the British colonial rulers, Hitler is not only viewed with more positive images in the Hindu-nationalist sections of the population than is generally the case in Europe. The high sales figures for “Mein Kampf” indicate a certain admiration for the “Führer”. In 2012, an Indian fashion store was named after Hitler. Only after protests did the owner stop using it. 7

An important reason for the fascism allegation is the policy of Hindu nationalism towards minorities. This is derived from the concept of Hindutva ("Hindutum") and sees itself in contrast to the secular politics of the INC. This is accused of "appeasing" and "pampering" the minorities.8 One embodies true secularism by not giving preference to anyone. Central is the assumption, coined by the thought leader V. D. Savarkar in his work »Hindutva« (1923), that the Indian Muslims only worshiped their 'Holy Lands' outside of India, but not the Indian fatherland. For the Hindus, however, both are identical. This view had its origin in the failed cooperation against the British in 1923, who in turn tried to play individual groups off against each other.

Mussolini or Hitler?

Hindu nationalism was always about strengthening the Hindus, perceived as weak and unmanly, especially vis-à-vis Muslims, be it physically, militarily or numerically. One was influenced by all possible approaches, which could be indigenous, British, but also fascist or National Socialist origins. B. S. Moonje, president of the now insignificant Hindu Mahasabha party ("Great Hindu Association"), met with Mussolini in 1931. Moonje saw fascist German and Italian, but also military British organizations as a model for the RSS, which was founded in 1925. Its Shakhas existed for five years in 1931 and were probably worn by British and indigenous models. At least, however, the European experiences of Moonje, who became a major RSS sponsor, strengthened the paramilitary Shakha system.

The years 1937-39 can be regarded as particularly important for the influence of the NS. While previously militarism and Italian fascism were emphasized, the leadership of Hindu nationalism now took up Nazi ideas. Savarkar's speeches as president of the Hindu Mahasabha drew more frequent analogies between the Indian "Muslim question" and Nazi "Jewish policy". He also resolutely defended the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland. Both were compatible with the Hindutva concept and contrary to the line of the INC leadership. Hindu nationalists even sought direct contact with Germany and referred to allegedly related similarities such as swastika and Arier, which in Germany was, however, rather reserved.

In 1939 another standard work of Hindu nationalism was created with "We, or our nationhood defined", the author of which is considered to be the later RSS leader (Sarsanghchalak) M. S. Golwalkar. The book is probably based on a writing by Savarkar's brother, but the fact that Golwalkar was behind the contents is proven by the self-chosen indication of his authorship. This work in particular is often quoted when it comes to allegations of fascism. In view of Golwalkar's explicit comparisons with National Socialism and the advocacy of Nazi »Jewish policy«, this should not come as a surprise: the latter should be taken as an example in India. The German example shows how impossible it is to form races with deeply rooted differences into a unity.

Golwalkar urged the minorities to assimilate into Hindu culture. Otherwise the "non-Hindus" as "enemies of the national cause" 9 would have no civil rights. Despite his admiring statements about Nazi politics, he, like Savarkar, mixed cultural and biological racism, as was not uncommon in Western countries - that is, the idea of ​​an 'educated' with that of an 'innate race'. So one was closer to British racism and Italian fascism than to National Socialism and was able to assign desired groups of the Indian population to the Hindu nation or race.

Instrumental charge of fascism

The extent to which today's Hindu nationalism can be described as fascism depends on the interpretive focus of the observers. In any case, an assignment is made more difficult by the fact that there is no universally recognized definition of fascism. Is it conceived in a narrow or a broad sense? Is it appropriate to include today's movements as neo-fascisms? Isn't there a risk of just finding what you're looking for? In addition, the question of Eurocentrism arises: Could not fascist movements with their own elements have emerged outside of Europe that cannot simply be integrated into European theories of fascism?

A further complicating factor in Hindu nationalism is that the charge of fascism is often used for political purposes. The end of European fascisms meant that even extreme Hindu nationalists hardly lean on it today. Prohibition procedures also contributed. However, one still does not distance oneself from Golwalkar's writing or from Savarkar's statements. Both are still revered.

Direct contacts and admiring references by leading representatives of Hindu nationalism to fascism and National Socialism in the interwar period can be clearly demonstrated. The same applies to the selective adoption of certain elements and some structural or ideological similarities. The militaristic-disciplining formation of the Shakhas still stands out today. The rhetoric of strength, honor, struggle, sacrifice, masculinity, the rebirth of the nation and the emphasis on an organicistic image of the nation as well. At least Moonje and Savarkar were also fascinated by the fascist leader cult, which was preserved in the person of the Sarsanghchalak determined by the predecessor, i.e. not elected, but could also have Indian roots. With communism there is a common enemy image. Violence against minorities and mass mobilization is in some cases just as central as with fascist movements. Because of these - albeit not always causal - influences one can certainly speak of an early fascist coloring that continues to this day.

However, there was definitely rejection within the movement. Even Golwalkar later made negative comments about fascism, while Savarkar still referred positively to Hitler in 1961. Some ideological borrowings that were made in the 'West' or with Stalinism also speak for a certain opportunism of early Hindu nationalism: What seemed promising was adopted.

The danger is acute

One was also moved by the broad anti-liberal zeitgeist of the 1930s. Secular Indian nationalists and other movements, such as Muslims, were also influenced by fascism in questions of social and economic policy or paramilitary youth organizations. Even Gandhi - despite all his skepticism - was fascinated at times. The Indian independence fighter Subhas Chandra Bose (see iz3w 291 and 312) is still revered as a freedom fighter despite his collaboration with National Socialism. The turn to fascist elements was partly ideologically diffuse and not just a phenomenon reserved for Hindu nationalism - however, elements have remained in it to this day.

The BJP's six-year participation in government, which is believed to have a voter potential of 25 to 30 percent, has not led to the abolition of democracy. She had to take into account the electorate, coalition partners and realpolitical constraints. The continuing excesses of violence against Muslim and Christian minorities indicate that the danger remains acute. However, the voting out of the BJP in 2004 and its further losses in 2009 showed that Indian democracy and society are defensible.


  1. Bajrang Dal: The militant face of the saffron family? Times of India, 08/30/2008
  2. A. Roy: The halting rise of Hindu fascism, in: Project Syndicate, April 2nd, 2003:
  3. Modi's Gujarat, Hitler is a textbook hero. Times of India, 09/30/2004
  4. P. R. Brass: Theft of an Idol. Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, Princeton 1997, p. 17
  5. A. G. Noorani: The RSS and the BJP. A Division of Labor, New Delhi 2001
  6. Bal Thackeray: The firebrand who renamed Bombay. Hindustan Times, 11/17/2012
  7. Indien-warum-ein-geschaeftsmann-seinen-laden-hitler-nnte-a-852918.html
  8. H. V. Seshadri: The Way. New Delhi 1992, p. 22
  9. M. S. Golwalkar: We or our Nationhood defined. First edition reprinted by T. Delfs: Hindu Nationalism and European Fascism


  • Tobias Delfs: Hindu Nationalism and European Fascism. Comparison, transfer and relationship history, Hamburg 2008
  • Maria Framke: Delhi - Rome - Berlin. The Indian Perception of Fascism and National Socialism 1922-1939, Darmstadt 2013
  • Christophe Jaffrelot: The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, New York 1996
  • Martha C. Nussbaum: The Clash Within. Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, Cambridge 2007
  • Benjamin Zachariah: Rethinking (the Absence of) Fascism in India, c. 1922-45, in: S. Bose, K. Manjapra (eds.): Cosmopolitan Thought Zones. South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas, Houndmills 2010, 178-213

Tobias Delfs works in the history seminar at the University of Kiel and is currently doing her doctorate in the URPP Asia and Europe at the University of Zurich.