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Of myths and fundamentalism. Contradictory India

29.09.2020    Ronald Lutz

India is a country of contrasts, contradictions and unimaginable diversity. Nothing in this subcontinent is set in stone. Everything always seems somehow open and in motion. Any attempt to write something about this rich universe of stories, traditions, myths and cultures is just an excerpt. It is a snapshot actually doomed to failure, a facet attempting to capture something that, when read, immediately eludes this access. In my view, the Indian Anglicist Pankaj Mishra, in his much acclaimed work "From the Ruins of the Empire", whose theses always resonate in the background of my reflections, emphatically described that India cannot be reduced to one concept (Mishra 2013).

My brief reflection of the disturbing religious fundamentalism currently being noted and the nationalist populism apparently associated with it cannot in the slightest do justice to India as a whole. Nevertheless, it is important to point out these aspects, these parts of the present, as they seem to contradict India's openness at first glance; but perhaps, it is precisely because of this antagonism, that they also belong directly to it. To put my observations into perspective, I would like to present three personal "encounters". They will show the context in which I deal with the problem. At the same time, I am aware of the fact that these are not really reflected. I only provide fragments for further discussion and arguments.


My first experience with India was marked by the "longing" of an entire generation for a different life, beyond the bourgeois and capitalist distortions. The social criticism of the student movement at the end of the 1968s also reached my tranquil protestant grammar school in Vogelsberg, Oberhessen, with a little delay. Here I received an excellent general education, but was also confronted with the "truths" of the Bible carved in stone. At the beginning of the final year, which was to lead us to the A-levels, three of my classmates disappeared. They were suddenly gone, as if swallowed up by the ground; everyone, including parents and teachers, was facing a mystery. Embarrassing questioning of the police authority did not yield any result.

Then the rumour appeared that they had travelled via the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, hitchhiking as far as India. There they lived in a tranquil village, in harmony with the farmers and the unspoilt nature. When hearing this, we shuddered and began to have similar dreams. We persuaded our geography teacher to tell us more about India. We heard about independence in 1947; we learned that India was a democracy; we had to understand that cows were sacred, which was a bit strange for us rural children. We were highly interested in the other religion, which seemed to be peaceful and humane, which knew no book of irrefutable truths, no punishing God. Instead, a great abundance of them, which at times seemed lovable and open to life. There were also no Ten Commandments and no exclusion of dissidents, but openness and tolerance seemed to prevail. We finally learned about Gandhi and his philosophy of peace and non-violent resistance in the anti-colonial movements. While we could not gather enough information about this great thinker and leader of the former "Third World", but also about his deep religiousness, we did not want to hear about the extreme poverty in India. A country that was connected with Gandhi and the fight against colonialism, that had produced a peaceful religion, could only be a beautiful, rich and good country. These images remained deeply rooted in me for a long time.

Then they returned, the three classmates. They had actually been to India. In the assembly hall of the school that we had occupied for this purpose, they told us about "their journey", as they called it. Wearing long hair, white robes and constantly smoking they sat before us. They told us a lot, also about India. Everything was different there: the people still living very close to nature, not being ashamed of their poverty, neither being addicted to capitalist consumption nor restricted by bourgeois morals. It was a good life, they concluded, making you feel satisfied and leading to relaxation. Asked why they had come back, they told us in a sound of deep conviction that they had found themselves on "their journey". They had "purified" their minds, they now knew that they would have to graduate from high school to study philosophy and then "heal" our sick society. India could serve as a model here. Although this was not convincing, it was nevertheless consistent. I too graduated from high school, India as a place of longing faded away.

At the end of the 1990s, a colleague asked me whether I wanted to prepare and conduct a student excursion to India together with him. He himself had "travelled" through India for almost a year before becoming a professor. There it was again: the "journey". He had set out in search of the myth of the late sixties, but found a completely different country nevertheless fascinating him. Now it was back, the place of longing. I felt the old dream emerging for moments and spontaneously agreed. Perhaps, I hoped, I could now convince myself of what the three schoolmates had told. Afterwards, however, my colleague talked about a country that was absolutely unequal and contradictory in its economic and social structure. He reported of great poverty, of working and begging children and people dying in the streets. He described the absolutely unhygienic conditions in slums, spoke of the many diseases and a desolate health system. He drastically illustrated the exploitative working conditions and unacceptable working standards, he told of domineering elites, of a rigid caste system and of people being excluded because they did not belong to any caste.

His motivation for travelling there was the probable benefit for Western students of social work to experience and reflect on the lives of people in a "Third World country". He was absolutely right. And so we travelled to India. I always drifted between longing and interest. It was finally an exhausting journey, full of doubts and contradictions, full of chaos. Nothing went as we had planned, and yet it was in perfect order, because everything somehow fitted together and we saw and heard what we hoped for. On this journey we were also accompanied by the fear of diseases, of bacteria and viruses, which were hidden everywhere in our minds. Actually, we subjectively experienced at that time, as western socialized individuals in another country, what has now become part of our everyday life in the times of corona. And this leads to another encounter that needs to be described.

Before that it should be mentioned that I organized two more excursions to India. Many colleagues and students from India came to Erfurt and we still keep up successful academic contacts today. I observed the development of the country from a distance, although I am not a specialist for India. I could see how poverty was reduced, how the country opened up, how a broad middle class was formed, which, although also oriented towards Western ideas, still felt committed to its own traditions. Then something else emerged. My interest in India lasts to this day, as this text is intended to document.

As corona spread around the world this spring, confronting states with almost insurmountable problems, I was dismayed to read reports about India. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also initially imposed a curfew of several weeks throughout India, which was continuously extended. As a result, millions lost their jobs and therefore their homes. They could not really comply with the regulation. These people have no financial cushion whatsoever; they were on the verge of personal ruin the day after the regulation. So they left, fleeing New Delhi (and other cities). A tremendous flow of people could be seen fighting for last places in the last buses, or just walking. Stranded in the crisis and uprooted by the curfew they just wanted to get home to their villages, hoping for shelter and support there.

It was and is a path full of hardship and without certainties. The risk of getting stranded somewhere is immense in such a situation. They did not want to and could not stay in the shut-down metropolises. The army of day labourers from all over India, the cheapest workers there, living from day to day, that’s what they were. And suddenly they were not even that. Their future was uncertain.

The example of India shows, and this must be mentioned, that this crisis is a social catastrophe hitting especially the most vulnerable people hard, poverty and misery can become immeasurable. Charity organizations such as Brot für die Welt or Misereor point out that possibly more people will die from the consequences of the curfew than from the virus itself, which is now spreading in the slums and favelas. Precisely these "homes" in the Global South are not prepared for the things to come. Everything is missing here: clean water, infrastructure and medical care.

These news reports on the pandemic once again confronted me with the "images" of India that I have been carrying with me. I now felt even more compelled to deal with the religious fundamentalism that also exists in India and which has now even entered governmental practice there. I should underline: Hindu fundamentalism, as it is called, initially contradicted the myths of a religion of peace, which I had been storing up unreflectively since the year I graduated from high school. Neither had my trips to India affected it so far. I had, of course, previously encountered the policies of Narendra Modi and his radicalization of a national Hinduism that was mainly anti-Islamic and called for the persecution of Muslims. At least I had submitted the idea for these reflections some time ago, but the images of the pandemic motivated me even more. Somehow I wanted to understand more about this frightening facet of a large and immensely diverse country.

In my view, the descriptions so far show how contradictory India can be perceived. But this also intended to put the following into perspective. If I now take a closer look at Hindu fundamentalism, it must be emphasised once again that this too represents only a small part of the history, culture and politics of a country, but it cannot even begin to represent it (Rothermund & Kulke 2018). It is just one facet, but it must be considered in light of its topicality.

This Hindu fundamentalism is one of the much discussed developments. The demagogic and fundamentalist connotations in politics and society associated with it are considered by many authors, including myself, to be a threatening challenge to Indian democracy?[1]. The associated violent riots against religious minorities, especially against Muslims who have long since been part of India and have played a major role in shaping its culture and history, frighten the viewer. They give rise to fears that constitutional principles such as secularism and the emphasis on the coexistence of diversity will be increasingly undermined by radical and nationalist demands which seek to transform the state of India, similar to other fundamentalist governments, into a pure "nation of Hindus".

The Indian cosmos, which has always emphasised diversity and peaceful coexistence, currently seems to be being challenged by the ruling policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). In the political landscape of this diverse country, a new political force, the BJP, has firmly established itself as a popular party in recent years. It, like many other movements, intends to fundamentally transform the country: the Hindu fundamentalism (Hindutva). Obviously the Hindunationals are addressing the wishes, fears and hopes of many people, which have become virulent in the country's contradictions, especially in its economic development of a neoliberal capitalism. To discuss and understand this, I will first explain what is meant by fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism and Nationalism

There is a great attraction in religious fundamentalism, usually being associated with evangelical Christianity or radical Islam (Lutz 2016; Lutz 2018). This is seen in the clarity of the messages, which suggest unambiguity. Fundamentalists convey their ideas as a complete or absolute solution for all questions of life. The insistence on firm principles, a clear and delimitable ideology or fixed convictions and values, does not allow for discussion. There seems to be "complete clarity" in the constructed worlds of ideas, which thereby suggest to guarantee a clear order; it is more than mere orthodoxy. In its radical form, fundamentalism is no longer open to any kind of argumentation; critical thinking or reflective capacity is banned or branded as heretical. The fundamentalist is right and sees himself in the rights.

In his practice, and especially in his involvement in politics, he tends to divide the world into two spheres. Thus creating a dualistic concept of decline or salvation. Fundamentalism explicitly stands for salvation from the decline that has already occurred. Accordingly, pluralism, relativism, tolerance, liberality as well as manifold different forms of life are presented as degenerated and weak, as they are inevitably doomed to decline. This is contrasted with a clear and orderly world narrative according to fundamentalist ideals and conceptions, based on the respective religious foundations, especially the "holy books", and securing salvation through authority and submission.

Consequently, fundamentalists see themselves as representatives of the "true and good" and become active, publicly as well as politically, to put a stop to "bad and evil". The formulated claim to establish the “Better of the Worlds” is often linked to activities that are also presented with a high degree of verbal aggressiveness and can be radically put into practice, sometimes resulting in acts of terrorism. Fundamentalist movements can now be found in almost all world religions, including Hinduism; this religious fundamentalism is often combined with nationalism and populism.

Nationalism is to be understood as a concept starting at the unity of a mostly ethnically defined people, seeks to evoke it and restore it even where it seems to have been "lost" or marginalised. In this, the respective dominant religion of the dominant people can play a major role in activating people for a nationalist ideology. The unity propagated can only consolidate in its own nation, its own state, which distinguishes itself from others ensuring that its own integrity remains intact. It is also about the "purity" of the respective religion, which at the same time is used as a means to restore unity as purity. In this respect, all those not belonging to this entity, either ethnically or religiously, are marginalised and sometimes persecuted.

At present, it can be observed all over the world how states are once again setting boundaries and focusing on themselves. This can be observed not only in religious fundamentalist states like Saudi Arabia or Iran. The famous slogan "America First", which Donald Trump adopted, is probably the best known example of nationalism in a democratic and secular state. But a closer look at Trump reveals an evangelical fundamentalist movement with a long tradition that helped him win the elections. This could also be seen in the election of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency in Brazil. But the "brexit" revealed how nations retreat into self-contained states and clearly set themselves apart from others.

In the early days of the pandemic, it was also astonishing to see how quickly borders were closed in Europe and around the world and citizens were brought back home. The individual nations were initially concerned only with themselves and tried to contain the spread of the virus within their own national borders. Politics is only now gradually returning to the power of international relations and solidarity.

The resurgence of nationalism is always accompanied by populism. It is a choice of topics and rhetoric linked to political intentions and aimed at popular sentiment. Populists are interested on the one hand in generating certain moods, and on the other in exploiting and reinforcing existing moods for their own political interests. It often manifests itself in a specific political style serving as a strategy for gaining power. Right-wing populism, which seems to be establishing itself in many states, has currently acquired a special significance. It appears to be an authoritarian state putting its own nation and its protection in the foreground. It fights its opponents with various means, ranging from defamation to the elimination of parliaments.

The real enemy of right-wing populism is often the enlightened and liberal Western modernism that has spread everywhere with ideas such as secularisation, women's emancipation, liberalism, equality of different ways of life, autonomy, diversity or openness. But it also refers to developments such as the cultural industry, neoliberal capitalism, infinite growth, destruction of nature, climate change, or radical self-realization. Thus right-wing populism is close to fundamentalist thinking!

Authoritarian patterns of rule and right-wing populism often go hand in hand with religious fundamentalism. This explosive mixture is unfolding in many regions of the world, ranging from the USA, Poland, Russia and Turkey to Iran, Saudi Arabia and India. With the reference to "God's word and power" activated therein, nationalism takes on a special meaning: The connection between politics and fundamentalism goes back far beyond the "hated modernity", wants to reactivate roots (foundations) that lie in the past in order to create a future that will be a completely different world, in which the respective nation will be given the greatness it deserves, in which the "truth" of the respective religion will be fully valid again and thus ensuring the "salvation" of the believers and their welfare.

This also reveals the fundamental self-interest of authoritarian politics: Repeatedly, political rulers have tried to base their own power on the omnipotence of the Creator in order to legitimise it. This often served the purpose of staging political authority and the interest in removing one's own power from any secular control; one's own omnipotence, an unconditional, absolute and unlimited power, turns into an internal concretion of divine power and is thus eternally legitimised. The world is as it is because it corresponds to the will of God or the Gods; a kind of God's grace. Change and modernisation are excluded.

Fundamentalism in India

The declared aim of the Hindu Nationals in India has for some time (Walzer 2018) been to create a common Hindu religious-cultural identity that pursues social change in favour of a Hindu state where people's hopes are served (Gottschlich 2018, 2019). With reference to the supposed essence of Hinduism, the "Hindutva", a restructuring is to take place to establish a religious and cultural identity. To analyse this religious fundamentalism in India, it is necessary to ask what it actually means in a country where people of many religions have lived together for centuries, and where it refers to.

Hindutva – Religious bases

The fundamental element to which Hindu fundamentalism refers is "Hindutva", the pure faith, which, however, is interpreted in a specific way (Jürgenmeyer 1998; Walzer 2018). The geographical territory populated by Hindus is considered to be an essential place of origin for human creation: in the greater India area a world of gods valid for all has its actual home.

The Hindu fundamentalists extract three elements from the diverse and also contradictory Hindutva concept, which are intended to have an identity-building effect on Hindus: a common nation, a common racial heritage and a common civilisation (Jürgenmeyer 1998, Walzer 2018). The concrete implementation takes place by activating the awareness of a shared history, the enforcement of a common and uniform language (Hindi) and the definition and design of common laws and rituals, which are necessary to preserve the integrity of a Hindu state. From this results the radical defence of the Hindu faith against other religions as well as the defence of the Hindu territory against external and internal influences which are not Hindu.

In Hindu fundamentalism, besides "Hindutva", the religious concept of "Dharma" is also of great importance: it is understood as an extrinsic and therefore divine order, not to be influenced by the individual human being, his actions are in fact always involved and dependent on it (Jürgenmeyer 1998; Walzer 2018). By means of this ordering principle, Hindu fundamentalism claims a universal significance that is future-oriented for the entire earth and thus for all people. A "good Hindu" is then a trustworthy person being committed to the traditions and acts correctly. In its practice Hindu fundamentalism rests on righteous Hindus or wants to support them.

This reading of religious concepts is used to create a cultural identity by which Hindu fundamentalism seeks to address social change while at the same time setting itself apart from other religions, particularly Islam (Schied 2008; Gottschlich 2019). The objective is to create a homogeneous Hindu community. A strong Hindu state is the only way to achieve this, and it must clearly distance itself from the influences of the former colonialists, the British Empire and Western modernity, and emphasise that the Hindu tradition and culture is better for India (Mishra 2017). This includes the suppression of other religions that have been present in the country for a long time, such as Christianity and Islam.

In its interpretation of "Hindutva" and "Dharma" Hindu fundamentalism is in line with other religious fundamentalisms (Lutz 2018). Likewise, it postulates the uniqueness of the "Indian earth" and the unshakable faith as absolute truth from which there can be no deviation. Linked to this is a radical interpretation of Hinduism, which is combined with an uncompromising attitude towards those of other religions. According to this exclusionary position, which assigns to one's own what is true and good, but to the other what is untrue and evil, the regions (nations) inhabited by Hindus, namely India, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, but also Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are seen as altogether "Holy Land", which has a very special meaning for the history of the world and thus for other regions.

Hindu fundamentalism, however, sees life and thus also animals, plants and nature as such, as an integral unity. (Jürgenmeyer 1998; Schied 2008). Here it also sets apart from Western modernism, which had led India and the whole of humanity into an intolerable state of turning away from divine creation, the eternal cycle of life and faith. Instead, there is now chaos, impiety and a world that no longer has a predetermined direction losing itself in consumption, individualism and secularity. This "modernism" needs to be resolutely opposed, as it is harmful to the "salvation" of Hindus. Consequently, a Hindu fundamentalist "anti-modernism" must be conceived and implemented.

However, the criticism of modernism is ambiguous and controversial. On one hand, it always fascinated people who felt a certain uneasiness in civilisation and went in search of other ways, as my schoolmates did at that time and in a certain way me too. On the other, it calls for a radical rejection of modernism and the foreign influences within it, in order to recall the power of one's own culture and faith, as can be found in many movements against modernism. Hindu fundamentalism thus joins the diverse movements of anti-modernism that can be found in some countries of the Global South. With an emphasis on the unquestionable self, everything else is rejected. The idea and the act of radically implementing this reflection against everything foreign and different, of discriminating or even persecuting them, which does not shy away from violence and terrorism, can also unfold in this context (Walzer 2018). Religious fundamentalism finally coagulates into the legitimising basis of nationalism, which appears populist.

In reportings, fundamentalist Hindu nationalism is repeatedly mentioned in connection with attacks on Christian churches (Meurath 2007; Mishra 2017). But the Hindu fear is much more directed against Muslims, as this population group is growing faster. The reason for an attack by Hindu fundamentalists is often the allegation of having built a mosque or church on the site of a former temple. Since Indian Muslims are not so easily discriminated against and oppressed, they resist and fight back, also by means of demonstrations and violence. This repeatedly leads to explosive conflict situations (Gottschlich 2019).

Fundamentalist Hindu nationalism is characterised in practise by a sense of threat, the idea or real experience of becoming a minority in one's own country and being dominated by strangers. (Mishra 2013; 2017). This refers both to historical Muslim leaders and to the later colonisers of the British Empire, who played an important role in India's history. This threat is accompanied by a deep fear that the one and only Hindu culture could be lost and that one would become a stranger to oneself. This permeates the speeches, writings and deeds of the Hindu nationalists like a trauma. They are constantly calling for people to arm themselves against the external and internal enemies, to become strong, to organise themselves and to rally behind the Hindu nationalist movement.

The desired national unity of the Hindus on the basis of a fundamentalist understanding of religion is not understood as something to be built from scratch. Rather, it is understood in the sense of fundamentalist thinking as the recovery of an originally existing but marginalised Hinduism. From now on a just order (Dharma) should be established, which aims at overcoming the crisis of the present with its cultural and social distortions by creating a true and good Hindu culture on the basis of a recollection of Hindu ethics.

The BJP as the people's party, currently holding the post of Prime Minister with Modi and governing the country with repeated strong votes, has taken up this sentiment shaping it into an ideology and policy in the sense of nationalist and religious-fundamentalist orientation, aiming to unite the Hindus and exclude the Muslims (Gottschlich 2019). It goes back to a long-existing, radical and fundamentalist Hinduism, which since the Hindutva script of Vinayak Savarkar in 1923 also belonged to the cosmos of diversity (Walzer 2018). This Hindu fundamentalism was first organised in the militant movement of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), eventually leading to the rise of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), founded in 1951, which gave rise to the BJP in 1980.

With the BJP, nationalist Hindu fundamentalism disposes of a political arm shaping India's politics since the election of Narendra Modi. The efforts of the Hindu-nationalist movement, which initially represented only one of the many facets of the Indian cosmos, thus evolved from one movement among many to a feasible concept that was to be implemented politically for the entire nation of India. In doing so, material achievements and institutions of modernity such as digitalisation, state administrative patterns, bureaucracies and a neo-liberal economic system are adopted. At the same time, though, it radically rejects the values and standards associated with it. This can also be found in other religious fundamentalist states: it is obviously an essential element of fundamentalism as anti-modernity to receive the developments of modernity where it has advantages, but otherwise to reject and condemn them.

The related state action is to be considered in some scenarios of Indian politics. The emerging militancy can be seen as a typically fundamentalist defence strategy arising from the fear of weakness and is designed as an aggressive actor to overcome it (Walzer 2018).

Political scenarios


The country's politicians attached great importance to building a pluralistic, secular system after the independence from Britain in 1947. This was intended to prevent the domination of one ethnic group or one religion over the many others in the multi-ethnic state (Rothermund & Kulke 2018). But since then there have been repeated offensive discussions and calls for Hinduism to be given a special role. For a long time, India was still seen from the outside, and also from within, as a country with a high degree of religious tolerance. This has changed gradually and profoundly since 1998-2004 with the first BJP coalition government under Atal Vajpayee and even more so since May 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party - the "Indian People's Party" - came to power. Finally, in the parliamentary elections of 2019, this proved to be the clearest expression until now: the BJP and its coalition partners won more than 60 percent of the parliamentary seats. Since the 2014 elections, the BJP has obviously been able to take advantage of ethnocentric tendencies in the Hindu population by addressing and channeling fears and threats.

From then on, the identity policy of the time was developed more strongly in order to implement the concept of what was supposedly "authentically Indian". With his majority, Prime Minister Modi was able to tackle extensive changes to India's political system. His policies have certainly contributed much to the country's economy. The living standard of the Indian middle classes has improved considerably. The country's economic growth is now among the fastest in the world. But at the same time, the already contradictory society has become even more divided. 

Since Modi and his BJP have been in power, reports of attacks by Hindus, who are a majority in the country, on members of other religions have increased. Churches and mosques have been and continue to be set on fire and Christians and Muslims have been violently attacked. A Hindu priest closed down all slaughterhouses in Lucknow without facing any political resistance, citing lack of operating licences as a reason.

These attacks join the official position of the BJP, which repeatedly emphasises the special sacredness of the cow for Hindus. Beef should under no circumstances end up on Indian plates, slaughterhouses would insult the religiousness of the Hindu majority population. In many parts of the country alleged cow smugglers or Muslim farmers who are alleged to have slaughtered cattle are repeatedly attacked. In some cases the victims were even slain. These "cow protectors" feel downright invited by the policy of Modi and the BJP.

Recently, more and more often, followers of religious minorities in India have also been attacked by Hindu nationalists. The prime minister does not seem to be concerned about this. On the contrary: his policies are playing into the hands of the fundamentalists. This was demonstrated by the establishment of a new citizenship law in 2020. It facilitated all non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries to acquire Indian nationality. In this way, the BJP was implementing an election promise. Prime Minister Modi justified the law by the need to protect persecuted Hindu minorities, particularly from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. After the adoption, Modi called it a historic day for India's national ethos of compassion and brotherhood.

This law only granted Indian citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants. All they had to do was "prove" that they were persecuted in predominantly Muslim countries because of their religion. Since this law explicitly does not apply to Muslims, it discriminates against them. As a result, there were many protests, also at Muslim universities. These protests were partly quelled by state violence, several people were killed. Many critics regard the law as anti-Muslim and unconstitutional.

The BJP government also seeks to introduce a "National Citizens Register" for the whole of India, which only exists in Assam at present. This is intended to distinguish legal residents from alleged "intruders", primarily to prevent immigration from neighbouring and predominantly Muslim Bangladesh. Critical observers worry such a process could plunge many people, especially ethnic and religious minorities, into great uncertainty and fear. The new citizenship law and the National Citizenship Register are elements to determine India's political system to the dominance of a majority group. As a result, civil rights can then be judged unequally between population groups.

Another policy area that the BJP tackled, and one of its election promises, was the "resolution" of the Kashmir conflict for the benefit of the Hindus living there. For decades, the nuclear powers India and Pakistan have been irreconcilable in Jammu and Kashmir; this area is perhaps the most dangerous black box on earth. The conflict arose, inter alia, after the independence of Pakistan and India in 1947, caused by the demarcation of the British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten. He assigned the region, two-thirds of which was predominantly Muslim, to Hindu India because of its Hindu Maharajah. A transnational region of Kashmir was created and has been a bone of contention between the two countries ever since. As a result, there were many armed conflicts, with terrorist attacks, in which Muslims in particular either wanted to enter Pakistan or demanded a completely separate state.

It is probably the oldest conflict in the world of modern states, trying to control by force and oppression. At times, up to 350,000 soldiers, police and other security forces crowd the 100,000 square kilometres in the high mountains. The Indian army imposed an almost complete blockade of the area for a while. There is no internet, no mobile phone connection, even the landline is down. Meetings of four or more persons in public are prohibited.

Until recently, the area had, for historical reasons, a certain special status with forms of autonomy. The Modi government deleted these special rights from the constitution, divided Kashmir into two parts and turned them into Indian territories, which were thus placed under direct administration by the central government in Delhi. As a result, the Indian part of Kashmir lost its autonomy rights with its own constitution and a regional government, which had given it a status similar to other Indian states. But this also restricts the right of self-determination of the majority Muslim population, in fact it even abolishes it. They are now regarded as Indians; this can have far-reaching consequences for them and further exacerbate existing conflicts. The fundamentalist core of the Hindu movement has thus achieved a victory over the Muslims in Kashmir.

In the course of these various attacks against non-Hindus, forced conversions of Christians, Muslims and members of other minorities can now be observed with great regularity. Hundreds of people are gathered, lured with false promises, threatened. Finally, in a purification ceremony they are forced to convert to Hinduism, the "only true" religion in the Hindu state of India. These practices are the most obvious examples of the consequences of Modi's and his BJP's nationalist and fundamentalist policies.

The BJP adherents base their actions, from violent assaults to forced conversion, on the radicalised form of Hindutva ideology described above, in which state and religion must form a unity that has to be enforced by violence if necessary. Accordingly, every Indian must be a Hindu at the same time, which is reflected in the current policies of Modi and the BJP. They definitely rely on discrimination: Hindus are first-class citizens, whereas Muslims, Christians and Communists are stylised as enemies of the nation and the predominant religion. In other words: If people want to stay in the country, they must accept being second-class citizens.

Radical and fundamentalist Hindus obviously feel strengthened by Modi's policies. Although the Prime Minister and his Hindu nationalist BJP are officially completely neutral, they emphasise in public speeches the special character of the country, which represents pluralism and diversity. But unofficially, they grant the fanatical Hindu movement RSS in particular, of which the prime minister himself used to be a member of the volunteer corps, considerable leeway in their racist attacks.

The politics of Modi and his BJP must be understood as Hindu-nationalist; weaving into it at the same time a reference to a religious Hindu fundamentalism, which in its genesis is linked to the images and ideas of a particular reading of "Hindutva", a way of thinking that uses the means of religion to plead for Hindu dominance in India and refers to religious traditions of Hinduism. This concept of "Hindutva" is used repeatedly by Narendra Modi and the BJP. In the policy based on this, the government is clearly acting in accordance with religious fundamentalism, yet not explicitly expressing it. This religious fundamentalism is also encouraged by the fact that the government does not directly oppose violent excesses like acts of terrorism or the violent persecution (pogroms) of Muslims, tolerates them and thus actually legitimises them.


The dialectic of modernisation, which did not stop at India, also revives myth and tradition in this cosmos, which, initially devalued, now develop a new strength (Rothermund & Kulke 2018). Fundamentalist Hindu nationalism is to be seen as a movement which, triggered by this process, turns against it and sees itself as a renewal of the past (Gottschlich 2019). As such, it aims at returning to the roots, thus preparing itself for a glorious future. But as fundamentalism Hindu nationalism is not a genuine creature of the Indian universe, as a reaction to modernity, it also adopts its other side, which is manifested in fundamentalism, in the return to "roots" before modernity. (Lutz 2018). In this respect, Hindu nationalism as fundamentalism is actually a copy of the Western and European model. Furthermore, it does not represent a uniform entity; it is pervaded by internal tensions, contradictions and conflicts, coming also to light again and again in daily politics.

Hinduism itself has never been homogeneous in terms of tradition and history; it has always been characterised by diversity (Jürgenmeyer 1998; Mishra 2013). There is neither a basic text like the Bible, the Torah or the Koran, nor is there a collection of scripts that is binding for all; nor is there a deity that is superior to all things, but an immense abundance of them. In this respect, Hinduism is diverse and corresponds to the image of the Indian cosmos as incomprehensible, the still present diversity, the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous and heterogeneity. There are numerous ways to reach the divine through tradition, so there is no "right" or "wrong". Fundamentalist Hinduism is, seen in this way, only one variant of many, which actually does not represent a unity of Hinduism, as this never existed. However, as one movement among many, it has gained political power and can thus present its particular reading of Hinduism as all-encompassing. This is a statement, although contradicting the tradition of Hinduism, that there can only be one true type of faith.

The propagated Brave New World offers opportunities, prosperity and a good life, but not for everyone, actually only for those who feel addressed as Hindus. Many are excluded. The world of Hindu fundamentalism is not only beautiful. India's social reality, which is characterised by great social inequality, increased in the corona pandemic, cannot be equalled by conjuring up a unity of Hindu nationalism. The careful observer in India can still perceive the social question and the misery and suffering associated with it every day. The images transported by the media during the pandemic have once again clearly reminded us of this.

For secular-minded Indians who want to live in a cosmopolitan and pluralistic state, the current development is difficult to bear (Mishra 2017, Roy 2018). For them, Modi's current policy is an affront to the "soul of the country", as it reinforces the supremacy of a supposedly particularly privileged religion. The Indian constitution did not want a religion to be the deciding factor; moreover, it never intended ethnicity to play a role. But this exactly happens right now: India is turning into a country that is identified by its rulers and their voters with a special religion.

The Hindu nationalist policies pursued by Modi and his government are putting pressure on many aspects of democracy in India, which are still constitutional: freedom of thought and speech, freedom of religion, freedom of culture and much more. In particular, many, including Arundhati Roy, fear that the pluralistic foundations of the multi-ethnic state will be shaken (Roy 2012; Roy 2018; Roy 2020). The still recognisable caste society, also opposed to Western modernism and its ideas of equality and justice, is experiencing a new upswing. (Gottschlich 2018). This could lead to the widening of social inequalities under the surface of an apparently common Hindu state and consolidate them. The consequences of the pandemic, leading to more poverty, must be seen as a further stimulus for social inequality.

In the guise of fundamentalism, and even more intensified by the consequences of the pandemic, India is creating its own capitalism, as Roy repeatedly emphasises (Roy 2020). This in turn reveals, the exploitative economic system is not bound to democratic societies and modes of government in the West, as is already clearly evident in China, but also in other religious fundamentalist states such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.

And where remains the longing?

Whoever deals with India is repeatedly facing the danger of succumbing to the almost infinite power of manifold "images and myths". It is far too easy to associate this with one's own longing to trace paths from Western modernism. But it does not correspond to the Indian universe, being merely the transfer of an own "longing". This goes along with what cultural scientists like Gayatri Spivak (Spivak 2007) understand as "othering" emerging in postcolonial discourses. It means shifting one's own, sometimes unreflected images of good or evil, true or false, onto others in order to condemn or love them in these images. The long examination of the myths of Orientalism has fundamentally analysed and revealed this (Said 1979; Lutz & Stauss 2016).

Pankaj Mishra reminded us of this in his books; he pointed out that the propagated cosmos of diversity is perhaps just a product of those who, originating in the West, do not like themselves, are ashamed of their colonial deeds and even criticize them massively(Mishra 2013; Mishra 2017). In this process those others having been exploited for the wealth of the West are turned into a projection screen. Since they were and still are victims, like yourself, capitalism being an outward appearance, they can only stand for the good and the other. This, however, has its origins in our Western modernity and is thus ultimately the result of our interpretations.

It leads to an exaggeration and at the same time expropriation of the traditions of other cultures, being no more than a reflection of Western longings. The victims of colonialism are thus being exploited twice: we "Westerners" delight in images that we impute to others; in this way, after economic exploitation, we destroy them culturally as well by "illegally" appropriating their cultural patterns and properties. As a result, they become coveted (and commercial) objects of our imperial way of life, in which we can easier equip ourselves with these yearning images.

One of the intentions of my reflections when using the fundamentalism described, was to point out, that India, beyond desire, is a country torn apart by colonialism and social contradictions, where poverty is on the rise again. But the aftermath of the British Empire and Western imperialist lifestyles is also evident in the fact that a dangerous situation can unfold politically and ideologically. In which above all the demands of the elites and the rich, with questionable reference to a religious-fundamentalist concept, are served. According to Roy, India is a class society promoting radical capitalism (Roy 2020).

But where is the longing then? Perhaps we "Westerners" need to take a closer look at ourselves again in order to find in us, in our traditions, histories, religions and cultures, the grounds for a better orientation in our own lives. If I myself learn something from my encounters with India and the view on fundamentalist tendencies, then this is more about me than about India. Above all I wonder why fundamentalism both deters and attracts me. In doing so, I inevitably come across my religious socialisation, that took place in the family and at a Christian grammar school in certain evangelical paths, which I cannot deny. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, it was important to write this text, taking India away from the myth a little and at the same time creating a new one, my own.

This takes me back to the beginning. No country gives us as many mysteries as India; holiness and banality, rich and poor are closer than anywhere else. Moreover, the Indian world and society have so far disproved all predictions of doom. The country obviously has inscrutable mechanisms of self-regulation, which have repeatedly succeeded in overcoming extremist excesses and leaving room for diversity. This universe, the fascination of heterogeneity, always being unity as well, will never fully reveal itself to us in the West. And this is a good thing.


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Prof. Dr. phil. Ronald Lutz
University of Applied Sciences Erfurt
Faculty of Applied Social Sciences
International Social Work
Sociology and Social Politics
Altonaer Str. 25
D-99085 Erfurt
fon: 0049 (0) 361 6700-510/701


[1] I have listed only a few of the abundance of literature for this article in the bibliography. My selection was based on the consistency of the respective analysis.

[2] This passage provides a dense description of the diverse media reporting on India in the recent past. Therefore, individual aspects are not directly verified.

Cite this publication
Lutz, Ronald, 2020. Of myths and fundamentalism. Contradictory India. In: socialnet International [online]. 29.09.2020 [Date of citation: 02.07.2022]. ISSN 2627-6348. Available from Internet: