Conservative activism has a long history in India. It underpins the centuries-old caste system that divides Indian society and the patriarchal norms that still prescribe dress codes for women, in line with the ideas of the earliest Hindu thinkers.1 In the twentieth century, it was conditioned by the national freedom movement led by Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, the original Hindu party that pitted itself against the Muslim League. These circumstances produced a more conservative Hindu nationalist force, the Hindu Mahasabha. It had ideologues who looked up to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, involving notable Brahmins from the upper-caste Hindu fold.
Later on, the new incarnations of the Hindu Mahasabha—the right-wing Jan Sangh, in the period between 1960s and early 1980s, and its successor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—captured the popular imagination, leading to a revival of religious and cultural nationalism. This movement was spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, translated as the National Volunteer Organization),2 the cultural front of the ideology, formed in 1925, which also produced several dozen similarly conservative organizations. The RSS was also the first conservative organization to enter the civil society space. The conservatives’ joint battle with progressive political and civil activists against the political emergency in the late 1970s gave the RSS immense credibility as a civil liberties and political rights organization—despite their militaristic ideology and the semi-armed training they hold for cadres in religious spaces. Thrice banned in post-independent India, the RSS and its numerous sister organizations started growing in strength in the 1970s, and built itself strongly in the late 1980s and early 1990s through the Ram Janm Bhoomi movement (an effort to assert the supposed birthplace of Lord Ram). Affiliates of the RSS, like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the Bajrang Dal, flourished through communal propaganda and active violence.3
In recent years, India’s conservative civil society has gained popularity. Campaigns, mobilization activities, and propaganda have all helped the rise and institutionalization of conservative civil society in India. What has most intensified the growth and legitimization of these forces in the past few years is the ascent to power of the BJP government and the macho imagery of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “56-inch chest,”4 coupled with an election campaign that implied prejudice against certain communities, especially the Muslims. The BJP has a male chauvinistic, patriarchal mindset, which along with provocative public campaigns have empowered the cadres to indulge in Dalit beatings, attacks against minorities and rationalists, attacks against women resisting caste and religious hegemony, physical assault on rights-based activists and lawyers, and other acts of violence and intimidation.
This state of affairs has an important implication for India: conservative civil society has been aided and abetted by the rise to power of conservative political forces, and vice versa. Conservative civil society and politicians, assisted by some members of academia, work in a coordinated way in both online and offline campaigns. Right-wing civil society organizations often rush to rescue the government and the party in power if they feel that it is under threat. This relationship is evident in the steep rise of provocative and communal hate speeches that take place prior to national or regional elections by conservative elements of society, leading to religious polarization and the electoral success of the BJP. The linkage is so deep-rooted that the RSS even provides grassroots workers for the BJP during times of prolonged electioneering in key states.
In light of the frequently used tools of the conservative camp, India’s situation is somewhat similar to that in other countries, with some notable highlights:
- campaigns around nationalism, where soldiers become icons of nationalistic value systems;
- frequent blaming of Pakistan for everything that has gone wrong in India, equating it with terrorism and Islam on the one hand and the subjugation of people from Jammu and Kashmir on the other;
- belief that love of one’s country takes precedence over human rights and peace,5 meaning that even killings and rapes are justified on patriotic grounds6;
- appropriation of national symbols and national leaders from history, like the national anthem, the tricolor flag, and the imagery of “Mother India” along with selective mention of revolutionary leaders from the national movement against British imperialism;
- selective use of economic arguments, as in the push to boycott Chinese goods when India and China were in a standoff on the Doklam border plateau in 20177;
- open support for authoritarianism and dictatorship, citing that India cannot become strong without a strong leader;
- social media messaging encouraging people to trust and obey the leader, who knows what is good for the country—especially in response to people who criticize Prime Minister Modi’s Mann Ki Baat (meaning “straight from the heart”) talk show;
- disregard for democratic institutions and public debates, symbolized by efforts to fill judicial posts with government loyalists;
- disregard for the constitution and constitutional values like secularism, ridiculing it as “sickularism”8;
- contempt for political opposition and dissenting voices,9 especially in the form of personalized attacks on leaders of opposition and progressive civil society10;
- contempt for progressive values, such as women’s freedom and equality,11 and the rights of sex worker and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) communities12; and
- efforts to ban films, books, plays, and other media that do not endorse the ideology of the RSS—coordinated through online vilification, abuse, and legal witch-hunting of authors, actors, filmmakers, and other creators.
The steadily growing support for the RSS and its affiliated organizations also grew out of conservative social campaigns, including disaster management and community support for relief, community weddings, funerals of army personnel killed in action, and so on. As a social movement, the RSS has used elements from Indian culture to attract popular support and increase its public visibility.
Beyond these general features, several more specific strands of India’s rising conservative activism can be identified.
Cow Protection (Gau Raksha) Movement
A cow protection campaign has existed in India for several decades, initiated by M. S. Golwarkar, an RSS founding member and longtime head, but recently it has grown in strength. By equating the traditional Hindu belief of “mother cow” (gau mata) with the “mother of the Hindu nation,” the Hindutva forces initiated intensive and violent protection campaigns in 2015. This push followed Modi’s campaign trail speeches in 2014, where he described India’s rising meat exports as a “pink revolution” that would destroy India’s cattle population and dry up its rivers of milk. Among the early violent incidents that garnered national attention was one that took place in Una, Gujarat, in July 2016, where four Dalit boys were tied to a car and brutally assaulted with sticks and iron rods by self-styled cow vigilante campaigners—all upper-caste men. The assailants alleged that their victims had killed cows.13
The incident, the weak response of the BJP-led state administration, and the silence of the prime minister on the issue led to much social outrage, polarizing Indian civil society and public opinion. Jignesh Mewani, a Dalit leader and later a member of the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, was joined by more than 20,000 Dalit men and women in pledging that they would not engage in the traditional job of removing cow carcasses—stating that the upper castes were free to bury the dead animals. However, the responses did not stop the violent cow vigilantes. On the contrary, cow protection armies spread in every northern Indian state, and the number of incidents increased. Many incidents were reported in 2016 and 2017, where Dalit or Muslim men were either killed or violently assaulted by cow vigilante groups. A national convention on the problem held in New Delhi in March 2018, noted that more than 150 such assaults have taken place since 2014, leading to the brutal lynching of twenty-eight people and close to 130 getting seriously injured.
This vigilantism intensifies around local and state elections, because of their nexus with conservative political parties. The creation of conservative civil society platforms like the Gau Rakshak Dal (meaning Cow Protection Forum) is linked to the government’s need to secure the majority community’s votes. This activism continues despite the huge economic cost it entails; India is among the largest exporters of dairy as well as leather, and over 5 million workers are employed in the sector.
The term “love jihad” was first recorded in September 2009, as a moral panic involving the threat that Muslim boys were converting Hindu girls to Islam, in an organized way, through love and marriage. Although the modern Love Jihad conspiracy has roots in the history of the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent,14 love jihad or “Romeo jihad” found its way into national debate through the years 2009–2011. The initial references came from the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, where families had reported some complaints of organized conversions through marriages. Some Christian and Hindu religious organizations leveled these allegations against Muslim groups. Although the police strongly denied any organized activity of that sort, the public space of debate, often through electronic channels and social media, was soon flooded with stories, rumors, fake videos, and so forth about the supposed practice. A controversial reference to love jihad by the communist chief minister of Kerala helped ignite conservative civil society campaigns on the subject.15
Violence then ensued in the name of protecting the honor of Hindu girls. In January 2015, the Durga Vahini,16 the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, used famous actress Kareena Kapoor’s burqa-clad morphed image in their magazine with a title “conversion of nationality through religious conversion.”17 This was meant to provoke and incite violence even against a certain individual or individuals for having joined the “enemy camp” and having left Hindu society—in Kapoor’s case, after marrying Muslim actor Saif Ali Khan in 2012.
The popularity of this conservative campaign denied the reality that India had witnessed a surge in love marriages since 2008–2009, when social media became popular and young people had new platforms to interact. The controversy around love jihad started dying down only after the Supreme Court of India finally gave its verdict on the now-famous Hadiya case on March 8, 2018.18 Hadiya Jahan (formerly Akhila Ashokan), from Kerala, had fallen in love with a Muslim man, married him against her father’s wishes, and was kept in parental custody against her own wishes; she was finally set free by the court. The court ruled this was purely a matter of personal choice and that there was no forcible conversion. This decision overruled the High Court of Kerala, which had earlier ruled that Hadiya be kept in parental custody—bowing to pressure from a conservative civil society campaign.
All the same, some media took a more extreme view of the “love jihad” panic, and alleged that Muslims were using these marriages to recruit Hindu girls for the so-called Islamic State.19 In early 2018, a Hindu girl from Mudigere, Karnataka, committed suicide, leaving a note reporting the harassment she had faced from some members of the local Hindutva outfit who did not want her to befriend Muslims. The day before her death, five men had barged into her house and threatened her and her mother for her “love [of] Muslims.”20 A BJP youth wing leader was arrested within hours of the police filing the case, based on the girl’s father’s complaint. In general, however, Hindutva groups are rarely punished for any act of vandalism or even outright violence. The BJP and the prime minister’s office have run several overt and covert campaigns supporting the need to protect Hindu girls’ honor.
Murder of Activists and Rationalists
Conservative groups have killed some of the most prominent activist and rationalist critics of their philosophies, including journalist Gauri Lankesh (September 2017), scholar M. M. Kalburgi (September 2015), political ideologue Govind Pansare (February 2014), and doctor and author Narendra Dabholkar (August 2013). Sanatan Sanstha,21 the organization allegedly involved in these killings, has vowed to eliminate more individuals. Even though the entire nation mourned the death of Gauri Lankesh, neither the representatives of conservative civil society nor the leaders of the BJP felt that it was important to at least condemn her assassination—a fact that appears to contradict their claims that her murder had nothing to do with conservative campaigns or mobilizations.
So why are the rationalists being targeted? What did Gauri or Govind Pansare do that other activists or left-wing practitioners did not do? Primarily, the rationalists have challenged the agency of Hindutva. Gauri Lankesh fought against the notion of the Hindu identity and existence, by her claims that the Lingayats were never Hindus,22 should be accorded minority status, and should not be considered part of the Hindu community in the next Indian census.23 This position hurt the caste Hindu sentiments deeply and collided with the RSS’s agenda of creating a homogeneous Hindu religious identity.
Since February 9, 2016, Jawaharlal Nehru University has been the target of an extensive conservative civil society campaign. More than 6,000 students and their teachers faced allegations of “anti-nationalism,” and the local population in neighboring areas was mobilized through social media campaigns to threaten and attack the vibrant, democratic university space to surrender to the conservative political ideology. Yet rather than defend the university, the government chose to jail the president of the university’s student union, along with some other students. It is evident that the ruling interests wanted to exert control over the university’s intellectual space, and other educational spaces have experienced similar political conflicts, albeit to a lesser degree.24
Intolerance Against the Arts
“As discussed with you, this is to specifically clarify that there is no romantic dream sequence or any objectionable/romantic scene between Rani Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji,” reads the first paragraph of the letter signed by celebrated Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, written to “all the social organizations headquartered” at Sri Rajput Sabha, the upper-caste Hindu civil society of the Rajput community in Rajasthan state.25 This apology and truce-seeking letter followed two attacks on the film maker, crew, and sets of the film, originally titled Padmavati and later renamed Padmavat, which featured a historical romance between a Hindu queen and a Muslim king.26
Despite this surrender of artistic freedom to such violence-prone mass social organizations, the film had to wait for many months to be released, and its final approval involved hefty ransom payments made to several agencies. A particularly uncivil organization, the Sri Rajput Karni Sena, was behind much of the violent protests and attacks. Four state governments banned the film and the Supreme Court of India had to step in to protect the constitutional rights of the filmmaker to release a censor-board-certified film in India and abroad. But the film’s release was secured only after the director changed the title of the film, deleted several scenes, and apologized to several conservative civil society organizations, who had threatened to kill him and the lead actress of the film, Deepika Padukone, who played Padmavati.
The fact that popular vernacular authors like Perumal Murugan have given up writing in protest of similar persecution, witch hunts, and harassment reflects the intensity of such campaigns and the long-lasting impact they will have on India’s polity, society, and culture.27 The number of writers and theater people who have been engaged in farcical criminal defamation suits across the country also reflects the reach of conservative civil society organizations.
The above case studies are important in order to understand the links between these conservative campaigns and their electoral patrons. Each of these campaigns have helped the government mobilize and polarize the polity in order to win elections—including in the biggest state in India, Uttar Pradesh, which is currently ruled by the BJP and has a controversial Hindu priest as the chief minister.
Other popular campaigns of RSS-linked groups include Valentine’s Day vandalism against couples in public spaces; attacks against sex workers and the LGBT community by moral-policing agencies of the conservative Hindutva civil society; violent campaigns initiated against Muslim refugees like the Rohingyas and Bangladeshi migrants in border states like Assam (currently ruled by a BJP government); and physical assaults on student leaders, eminent lawyers, and activists.
Of late, India has seen a series of agitations against the government, akin to the wave of popular protests in 2012–2013. However, in recent months, these protests have turned against the conservative political and religious ideology. One notable protest sprang up in response to the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim shepherd girl, Asifa, by members of the majority community who committed not just a sexual crime but a planned and organized hate crime against the victim’s community. The fact that conservative civil society organizations supported and defended Asifa’s rapists and murderers struck the conscience of many Indians, and led to mass outrage against the silence of the ruling party on the issue as well. Online campaigns like #NotInMyName and #JusticeforAsifa reflected this public support. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Modi was faced with a large mobilization on the streets of London that used the social media tag #ModiGoBack.28 However, it is too early to say whether such a turn of events will translate into any loss of popularity for the Modi government and the conservative civil society organizations that back it, especially with India’s general elections less than a year away.
1 The Manusmriti, or the book of laws of Manu, is attributed to the early days of the formation of the Brahmanical Hindu religion and prescribes social codes for all classes to follow.
2 Although K. B. Hedgewar was the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, V. D. Savarkar and M. S. Golwarkar went on to build the RSS and the larger Sangh Parivar or the family of the many organizations of Hindutva orientation. RSS claims to have a support base of close to 5 million members, with more than 50,000 branches around the world. A prominent online Hindi Dictionary, the Shabdkosh, defines RSS as an all-male organization begun in 1925 to foster nationalism in India's Hindus (https://shabdkosh.raftaar.in/Meaning-of-Rashtriya%20Swayamsevak%20Sangh-in-English).
3 Many Hindus believe that the birthplace of Lord Ram is in Ayodhya, where the invading Muslim ruler Babur built a mosque over the existing temple. Although there is no legal jurisprudence over this claim, the Hindutva-based organizations led a national campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s to demolish the Babri Masjid and build the Ram Temple. Vishwa Hindu Parishad stands for the World Hindu Organization, while Bajrang Dal consists of members who believe and hail Hanuman, the most trusted disciple of Lord Ram.
4 During an election rally in Gorakhpur region of Uttar Pradesh State, it was the then Gujarat chief minister Modi who challenged the state’s former chief minister, Mulayam S. Yadav, to make Uttar Pradesh into a prosperous Gujarat—and added mockingly that it requires a 56-inch chest. It was meant clearly to invoke the imagery of a powerful man, and since then Modi’s macho attitude is often attributed to his 56-inch chest.
5 Vidya Ram, “India Has Always Been Selective in Human Rights Discussions, Says Secretary General of Amnesty International,” Hindu, April 11, 2018, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/india-has-always-been-selective-in-human-rights-discussions/article23495531.ece.
6 “Kathua Rape: Attended Rally on State Party Chief’s Order, Says BJP Leader,” Times of India, April 14, 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/kathua-rape-attended-rally-on-partys-order-says-bjp-leader/articleshow/63765714.cms; and Meena Kandasamy, “To Be an Indian Patriot,” Al Jazeera, August 8, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/08/indian-nationalism-jnu-tank-170808075908997.html.
7 “Timeline: The Story of the Doklam Stand-Off,” Hindu, August 28, 2017, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/timeline-the-story-of-the-doklam-stand-off/article19576380.ece.
8 See Twitter search results at https://twitter.com/hashtag/sickularism.
9 Subodh Ghildiyal, “Congress Hits Out at BJP for ‘Anti-national’ Remark,” Times of India, November 19, 2016, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Congress-hits-out-at-BJP-for-anti-national-remark/articleshow/55505691.cms.
10 “Modi Calls Kejriwal, AAP Anti-national Pakistani Agents,” First Post, March 26, 2014, https://www.firstpost.com/politics/modi-calls-kejriwal-aap-anti-national-pakistani-agents-1451273.html; and Krishnadas Rajagopal, “Guard Against 5-Stars Activists,” Hindu, April 5, 2015, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/modi-chief-justices-conference-judiciary/article7070485.ece.
11 Inderpal Grewal and Shirin M. Rai, “Narendra Modi’s BJP: Fake Feminism and ‘Love Jihad’ Rumors,” Huffington Post, October 7, 2014, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/inderpal-grewal/narendra-modis-bjp-fake-f_b_5940276.html.
12 “Being Gay Is Against Hindutva, It Needs a Cure: BJP MP Subramanian Swamy,” Times of India, July 10, 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/being-gay-is-against-hindutva-it-needs-a-cure-bjp-mp-subramanian-swamy/articleshow/64927333.cms.
13 The Una incident has become a key incident in the history of Hindutva assertion in India, with its clear attempt at sending a message to the lower-caste Dalit community and the minority Muslim community to desist from engaging in cattle slaughter, the leather trade, and similar professions. Many believe that the real reason for this assertion is a purely economic agenda of keeping the Dalit and Muslim communities in permanent poverty. See, for instance, “4 Dalits Stripped, Beaten Up for Skinning Dead Cow,” Times of India, July 13, 2016, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/rajkot/4-Dalits-stripped-beaten-up-for-skinning-dead-cow/articleshow/53184266.cms.
14 Siddhartha Mahanta, “India’s Fake ‘Love Jihad,’” Foreign Policy, September 4, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/09/04/indias-fake-love-jihad/.
15 “Kerala CM Reignites ‘Love Jihad’ Theory,” Times of India, July 26, 2010, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Kerala-CM-reignites-love-jihad-theory/articleshow/6216779.cms.
16 The Durga Vahini is one of the rare women’s organizations that is part of the Sangh Parivar. See Smita Gupta, “Durga Vahini, the ‘Moral Police,’” Hindu, February 5, 2013, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/durga-vahini-the-moral-police/article4379616.ece.
17 “Kareena Kapoor Is Poster Girl in Durga Vahini’s Campaign Against ‘Love Jihad,’” Deccan Chronicle, published January 5, 2015, modified February 23, 2016, https://www.deccanchronicle.com/150108/entertainment-bollywood/article/kareena-kapoor-poster-girl-durga-vahinis-campaign-against?page=1.
18 The Hadiya court case is seen as a litmus test for individual liberty, amid the high stakes of communal agendas. See “India Supreme Court Restores ‘Love Jihad’ Marriage,” BBC, March 8, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-43327380.
19 “Love Jihad Campaign Treats Women as if They Are Foolish: Charu Gupta,” Business Standard, September 6, 2014, http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/love-jihad-campaign-treats-women-as-if-they-are-foolish-charu-gupta-114090600699_1.html.
20 “Karnataka Woman Driven to Suicide, Harassed for Friendship With Man From Different Community,” News Minute, January 8, 2018, https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/karnataka-woman-driven-suicide-harassed-friendship-man-different-community-74390.
21 “Sanatan Sanstha: Whose Members Were Arrested for Dabholkar’s Murder,” News18, August 22, 2018, https://www.news18.com/news/ivideos/sanatan-sanstha-whose-members-were-arrested-for-dabholkars-murder-1853207.html.
22 The Lingayats are the disciples of Karnataka’s renowned social reformer, Basavanna, who strongly advocated for freedom from the clutches of a Brahmanical and caste-ist Hindu religion. They do not agree with the popular perception that they are Veershaivas, a sect of Hinduism.
23 Gauri Lankesh, “Making Sense of the Lingayat vs Veerashaiva Debate,” Wire, September 5, 2017, https://thewire.in/history/karnataka-lingayat-veerashaive-debate.
24 RSS-allied organizations have attacked the Allahabad University, Jamia Milia Islamia University, Film & Television Institute of India, and Hyderabad Central University.
25 “Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Padmavati: Vandalism Pained Me, Rajput Leaders Have Agreed to Cooperate,” Indian Express, March 27, 2017, https://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/bollywood/sanjay-leela-bhansali-on-padmavati-vandalism-pained-me-rajput-leaders-have-agreed-to-cooperate-4587248/.
26 One of the most expensive films ever made in Bollywood (US$33 million), the film was based on the romantic relationship between the Rajput Hindu queen Padmavati and a Muslim emperor of the day, Allauddin Khilji. See “Padmaavat: India Clashes as Controversial Film Opens,” BBC, January 25, 2018,
27 Perumal Murugan is a popular Tamil novelist from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. In 2014, conservative campaigns targeted the religious content of his latest book, which led him to declare that he was giving up writing. B. Kolappan, “Perumal Murugan Quits Writing,” Hindu, January 14, 2015, http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/perumal-murugan-quits-writing/article6786990.ece.
28 “Despite Indian Media Blackout, ‘Modi Go Back’ Protests in London Have Major Impact,” Citizen, November 15, 2015, http://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/newsdetail/index/2/5824/despite-indian-media-blackout-modi-go-back-protests-in-london-have-major-imapact.