Hindu fundamentalism -- why we are concerned

By Paul Crofts and Anjona Roy

Searchlight Magazine, January 2003 original

Over recent years there has been a growth in "fundamentalism" of all kinds within major religions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu) and a rise in neo-fascism and extreme right-wing politics and nationalism in many countries in Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle and Far East and Africa, and in the United States. These narrow and sectarian nationalisms, fundamentalisms and extremisms pose an increasing threat to internal peace and stability in many countries, and also in some cases to world peace.

While it might be tempting to try and "unpick" cause and effect between them, what is undoubtedly true is that such fundamentalisms feed off one another in an increasing cycle of blame, recrimination, violence and sometimes outright war. We only have to look at recent history to see the devastation and human misery that such conflicts have caused, for example in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, communal riots in India, the spiralling crisis between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people, increasing antisemitism in Europe, attacks on Christians in Indonesia, the attack on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on 11 September 2001, and continuing sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. In France Jean-Marie Le Pen polled 20% of the popular vote and in the UK the British National Party won three council seats in Burnley. In Denmark, Austria and Italy neo-fascists have entered government.

In Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, where we live and work, we have plotted the "temperature" of extremism, neo-nazi groups and fundamentalism in a local community. The local Racial Equality Council, and other local organisations, continue to be vigilant and are working on strategies to undermine and roll back racism and injustice at all levels of Wellingborough society. Since 11 September there has been renewed national interest and concern about Muslim fundamentalism, but there has been less focus on other fundamentalisms, sometimes much closer to home.

While this article looks at specific issues of Hindu fundamentalism, we would not want readers to think we are unconcerned about other fundamentalisms, although locally these have been of less concern to us, as the largest minority ethnic/ religious group is that of Gujarati Hindus. Arun Kundnani, in a recent article in Race & Class, looks at both Muslim and Hindu fundamentalism in the UK. We would endorse his conclusion that "One practice that needs to be challenged is the tendency of 'multiculturalist' policies to take an unthinking, and often tokenistic, approach to 'minority' representation ... leaders of communalist groups can easily become accepted as authentic representatives of Asian 'culture' ... as a result the most reactionary elements within our communities are being given undue influence."

During the Hindu Navratri festival in September 2001 a letter was circulated quite extensively within the Hindu community which appeared to come from an extreme Muslim group threatening to target Hindu and Sikh girls for conversion to Islam. On closer inspection, however, it was clear that this letter was not from any Muslim group, but was intended to stir up anti-Muslim feeling within the Hindu and Sikh communities.

What was surprising was how easily members of the local Hindu community accepted the letter as genuine, without critical examination or scepticism. The bogus letter was therefore very successful in achieving its objectives. There were also serious community conflicts between Sikhs and Muslims in Derby and other parts of the UK following circulation of the same letter. The good news was that the leaders of both the Hindu and Muslim communities in Wellingborough, the local REC and a leading Hindu councillor issued a joint statement strongly condemning the letter and pointing out its bogus nature.

This easy acceptance of anti-Muslim propaganda reflects a wider set of concerns - the growth of Hindu fundamentalist, nationalist and anti-Muslim ideas within the Hindu community of Wellingborough, and indeed wider afield, where such ideas have become almost "common sense". Since the attack on the Twin Towers and the subsequent American led "war on terrorism", anti-Muslim sentiment and prejudice has grown significantly across all communities, both in the UK and abroad, and is certainly not confined to the Hindu community, although Hindu fundamentalist groups now have more credibility for their long-standing anti-Muslim views that predate recent events.

There has also been evidence of overt Hindu fundamentalist groups organising, raising funds and, for the first time to our knowledge, fully participating in mainstream Hindu Association activities, such as the celebration of India Republic day, the advertising of their activities in the Hindu Association newsletter (Dharshan) and formal meetings held at the Hindu Centre and at other community venues.

It is our view that most Hindus in Wellingborough are tolerant, law-abiding, family centred and devout. Their Hinduism is not predicated on opposing any other religions or beliefs, but comes from an inner strength and quiet confidence in their own faith. However, they are slowly and mostly unwittingly being co-opted into a project which has its heart in the Indian politics of hatred, communalism and fundamentalism of which they are mainly unaware and would be shocked to be part. The community's devotion to Hinduism is therefore being deliberately and consciously manipulated to support sinister longer-term political ends in India.

This article is therefore intended to provide some information about the nature of such "Hindu" fundamentalist groups that are operating within the community, both in Wellingborough and other parts of the UK, their history and ideology and their "project" for India. We hope such information will engender a wider understanding of such groups and their activities, not only within the Hindu community but in society more generally (especially, education, police, public authorities and political leaders), which is also largely unaware of their activities, their potential to promote community conflict, and/or is misled by them posing as merely "Hindu" groups, like any other mainstream religious organisation.

The "Sangh Parivar"

The Sangh Parivar, or "family of organisations", is an umbrella term used to describe the range of social, educational and political organisations and groups that have been formed by the Indian Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) since the 1950s. However, the ideas that the Sangh promotes have existed, in one form or another, for over 150 years. They generally have a series of common ideological or political objectives, with different emphases at different times. These can be broadly summarised as follows:

  • India has been in the past, and should be in the future, a Hindu-only country. Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are accepted as being within the Hindu "community" (whether they like it or not!).
  • Hinduism is a unified religion and civilisation (without conflicts of sect, caste, region, "theology", even when such conflicts clearly exist) which goes back thousands of years. Hindus need to be re-educated and be proud of their historical destiny.
  • Hindus constitute a "race" - the Vedic-Aryans.
  • Hindus have been traditionally tolerant, which has been interpreted as "weakness". Tjos has resulted in India being conquered by others over the centuries, including Muslims and the British. Hindus now need to become strong ideologically, in their faith, politically and in health (through exercise and mental preparation) in preparation for the struggle to form a Hindu nation (Hindu Rastra) based on Hindutva - blood belonging, religious identity and territorial nationhood.
  • People of other religions in India have either been forced to convert (and in essence therefore remain Hindus) or are "foreigners" in India and should be expelled or forced to live within a Hindu society and according to Hindu defined laws. The Muslims of India have been the special focus of attention, but others, such as Christians, have also been stigmatised as the non-Indian "other" and targeted for attacks or forcible reconversion back to Hinduism.
  • Hindus are discriminated against in their "own" country and have been divided by others (the "secularists", communists, Congress Party) on the basis of caste, class, regional identities or politics. Such "secularists" should also be targets and are labelled "neo-secularists" by the Sangh (who claim they are the true secularists!).
  • The only legitimate languages of India should be those derived from Sanskrit, the ancient language of north Indian, high-caste Brahmins, as written in Hindu holy texts

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS)

The RSS (or National Volunteer Force) was founded in 1924 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar. It remains the most important Hindu fundamentalist organisation in India. In the UK and United States the RSS formed, in 1966, an overseas organisation called the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS). The HSS(UK), which openly claims allegiance to the RSS, has its headquarters in Leicester.

The RSS/HSS remains true to its founding fathers' organisational principles in that it is a militant, undemocratic, paramilitary organisation with a highly centralised structure and authority. It drew its inspiration from western military and boy scout organisations (and later European fascist organisational structures) and is based on the recruitment and training of young, ideally pre-pubescent, boys for service to "Hindutva". Its activities are to build "character" to prepare members mentally and physically to fight for Hindutva and to protect the "Hindu nation" from foreign influences.

During the 1940s the RSS's new leader, Madhev Golwalkar, following the death of Hedgewar, sympathised both with German Nazism and Italian fascism.

In 1939 Golwalkar said: "German race pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic races - the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifest here. Germany has shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit by." (Golwalkar [1939] in We, or Our Nationhood, Defined.

There has been no explicit and unconditional disavowal of Nazi-like doctrines by the RSS/HSS or a repudiation of Golwakar's ideas. Indeed, Golwalkar is held up as an example and spiritual leader for young RSS/HSS Swayamsevaks (members) and affectionately referred to as "Guruji".

Following Mahatma Gandhi's assassination by a former RSS member, Nathuram Godse, the RSS was banned by the Indian government from 1948 to 1949. After the ban was reversed the RSS, while claiming to devote itself solely to cultural activities, created several offshoot organisations, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, in 1964, the Jana Sangh political party in 1951, which was the precursor to the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and numerous other organisations.

There are about 10 HSS related organisations that form the UK Sangh Parivar. In addition to the HSS itself and the VHP(UK), formed in 1972, there are the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP), Sewa International (the UK branch of the RSS's International "charity"), Friends of India Society International (FISI), the Rashtra Sevika Samiti (the RSS's women's organisation) the National Hindu Students' Federation (NHSF), the main Hindu students' body in the UK, the Rashtriya Singh Sangat (its Sikh offshoot) and several others.

The Bharatiya Janata Party

The BJP is now the leading party of government in India. However, its more extreme Hindutva agenda is often constrained by its coalition partners. Most leading BJP leaders are also RSS members. The electoral victories of the BJP in recent years have led to increasing "Hinduisation" of Indian society at all levels (e.g. the history curriculum in schools), increasing tensions between India and Pakistan and increasing internal communal conflicts. However, there is some evidence that support for the BJP may be waning following recent regional elections. Gujarat is the "jewel in the crown" for the BJP and the state it most needs to win in future elections. It is also the Indian State where the theories of Hindutva are being pursued most vigorously. This may go some way to explain why recent communal tension is centred in Gujarat.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad

The VHP (or World Council of Hindus) claims to represent the entire Hindu world, propounds a Hindutva world view, asserts Hindu collective power and aims to unite all Hindus in opposition to Islam. When originally formed, it intended to bring all Hindu sects within the orbit of its overarching umbrella. In India it has formed a number of related organisations including Bajrang Dal (its militant wing) and Hindu Jagran Manch, both of which have been involved in spectacular forms of violence against religious minorities.

In recent years the main focus of the VHP in the UK has been (1) to present itself as the sole representative voice of all Hindus in official structures (local and national government) and to advise on Hinduism in the context of multicultural and inter-faith matters; (2) to provide educational and cultural activities for Hindu young people (in particular dance classes) and (3) to raise money and mobilise support for VHP activities in India, such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in Ayodhya in order to construct a new Ram temple on the same site.

In February 2002 even the BJP-led government of India issued a call for the VHP to call off its all-India mobilisation (of "Ram Sevaks") at Ayodhya to start construction of the Ram temple. However, the VHP leadership rebuffed the call. The VHP mobilisation led to an attack on a train, and the murder of Ram Sevaks, at Godhra (Gujarat). The subsequent communal riots resulted in thousands of deaths in what was effectively a pogrom against Muslims, although it must be said that many Hindus also died during the conflict that erupted. The situation in Gujarat remains tense (as of September 2002) with hundreds of thousands of Muslims in refugee camps, displaced from their homes, with little assistance from the BJP-controlled Gujarat state government to enable them to return home.

In 1996 the VHP(UK) published, in conjunction with Moral Education Press, an innocent-sounding guide, Explaining Hindu Dharma: A Guide for Teachers, which was widely circulated to schools and local education authorities to influence the teaching of Hinduism as part of RE or other areas of the curriculum. The stated aim of the publication was to provide an "authoritative and comprehensive" text. The sub-text, hardly perceptible to those not versed in the politics of India and the VHP, is that the VHP is the only legitimate voice of Hinduism in the classroom. Following challenges to the publication by some RE teachers, the Moral Education Press agreed not to republish the book. However, it has recently been republished by the VHP itself.

Those concerned with RE teaching, need to be aware of the inter-relationship between Hinduism and politics in India and be particularly vigilant that they are not unwittingly contributing to a distorted view of Hinduism and communal conflict, and aiding Hindu fundamentalism.

Hindu fundamentalism = fascism?

There has been a tendency by some to label Hindu fundamentalist groups such as the Sangh, RSS, VHP etc., as "fascist". Whilst this may be understandable within an Indian context, it would be very dangerous to extend this label to such groups in the UK. Asian communalist groups in the UK are mostly reactive, distorted, responses to a racist society by which they feel threatened. In the final analysis they are aiming towards "separation" from, rather than subordination of, other minority groups and consolidation of support for their views within their own community. This is not the same as fascist organisations in the UK, such as the British National Party, which want to subordinate or eliminate minority groups. However, those who support fundamentalist and communalist groups in the UK should be in no doubt as to the effects of such support in other countries, where subordination and oppression, based on fundamentalist interpretations of religion, is the aim.

Sewa International

Sewa international is the fund-raising ("charitable") arm of the RSS/HSS. Over recent years it has raised millions of pounds in the UK, which is sent to the Indian organisations Sewa Bharati, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram (which works against Christians in tribal areas), the Kalyan Ashram Trust (KAT) and the Hindu Vivek Kendra (HVK), all of which are part of the Indian Sangh Parivar. As with other Sangh Parivar activities in the UK, Sewa International presents itself as "merely" a charitable group raising funds for "good causes". In its publications and website, no reference is made to its links with the RSS or HSS, or that they are in any way related.

After the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, the Wellingborough Hindu Association raised considerable amounts of money both from within the Hindu community and wider sections of Wellingborough society. What is less well known is the funds raised were subsequently given to Sewa International. This situation was repeated all over the UK, Europe and in the USA (Sewa's sister organisation in the US is called the India Development and Relief Fund).

Across the UK Sewa International raised thousands of pounds, often attracting sponsorship for fundraising events from mayors, MPs and well known figures in the arts and media. A range of local groups, including schools and youth groups, also raised funds. Since the recent communal conflict in Gujarat it is very illuminating that Sewa International has not launched a special fund to help the victims (who are overwhelmingly Muslim). Normally Sewa uses every opportunity to raise funds following disasters in India, or indeed in other parts of the world. For example it launched a special fund after the events of 11 September in the US.

In India the activities of Sewa international have come under criticism by other aid organisations and NGOs for being sectarian in its aid distribution programmes and in essentially providing funding for the RSS, and other Sangh Parivar organisations, to strengthen their political position in areas affected by the earthquake. This does not mean that the funds raised have not been used for relief purposes, but is a criticism of the way the aid is used selectively and as part of a longer term political project.

One of our main criticisms of Sewa International, however, is that it is not transparent in respect of to whom it owes clear allegiance (the RSS/HSS) thus enabling potential donors to be fully aware of to whom they are giving their money and the wider political agenda into which they are being unwittingly co-opted.


The vision of a strong, united, and exclusive Hindu India, cultivated by the Sangh Parivar, has found systematic and organised expression in the UK and in other parts of the world outside India. There are now few Hindu organisations in the UK that are not at least strongly influenced by the Sangh Parivar, particularly the VHP and the HSS. The fundraising activities of Sewa International are considerable. In addition, many of the devotional Hindu priests that visit the UK (dharmachanaryas, pujaris, swamis and sadhus) are also influenced by the Sangh. We hope that by this article on the Sangh both Hindus and non-Hindus might be better informed, and thus able to make clearer judgements, when it comes to the activities of its constituent organisations.

We also hope this briefing will empower those in all communities to oppose "fundamentalisms" of all kinds that set families against families, communities against communities and religions against religions. If humanity is to progress, such fundamentalisms need to be defeated both in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

Further information and reading

Ethnic and Racial Studies, Volume 23, No 3 [May 2000] - the whole issue is devoted to an examination and critique of Hindu fundamentalism in the UK and USA.

Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies and Modern Myths. Chetan Bhatt. Berg [2002].

An Unholy Alliance? Racism, religion and communalism. Arun Kundnani, Race and Class Vol 44(2) [October 2002].

Khaki Shorts Saffron Flags. Tracts for Our Times/1. Tapan Basu et al. Orient Longman. [1993].

The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics 1925-1990s. Christophe Jaffrelot. Penguin Books India [1999].

The Concerned Indian's Guide to Communalism. K N Panikar (ed). Penguin Books India [1999].

Hindu Offensive Social Roots: Characterisation. R R Puniyani, at:

Sewa International website:

Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (UK) website:

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (UK) website:

HinduNet website:

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