Lala Lajpat Rai's Ideas of Hindu Nationalism Cannot Be Conflated With Savarkar's

Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav's book argues against intellectual reductionism and the pigeonholing of all of Lajpat Rai’s ideas into either Hindutva or a moderate variety of Hindu nationalism, or indeed secular Indian nationalism.

Excerpted from the introduction of Being Hindu, Being Indian: Lala Lajpat Rai’s Ideas of Nationhood (Penguin Random House India, 2024).

In popular imagination, Lajpat Rai, one of the giants of the anti-colonial struggle, is always linked to Bhagat Singh. It was to avenge his death that Bhagat Singh assassinated Saunders, an act for which he was hanged. Lajpat Rai is almost always remembered as a great leader who sacrificed his life for the nation… But Lajpat Rai is also known in another avatar: as an ideological ancestor of Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist ideology first elaborated properly by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his 1923 tract Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Proponents of Hindutva today make a clear and assertive claim on Lajpat Rai as one of their own…. Interestingly, this Hindu nationalist claim on Lajpat Rai as their icon is confirmed by dominant interpretations of the man in historical scholarship…

Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav
Being Hindu, Being Indian: Lala Lajpat Rai’s Ideas of Nationhood
Penguin Random House India, 2024

This interpretation of Lajpat Rai ends up leaving out much nuance and complexity… The absence of a comprehensive study of Lajpat Rai’s nationalist thought has facilitated his evaluation as a predecessor of Savarkar… This book undertakes precisely such an examination of the nationalist thought of Lajpat Rai… In doing so, it contests dominant interpretations that iron out the intellectual shifts, fluidity and complexity in Lajpat Rai’s thought to evaluate him as Savarkar’s precursor, either sharing deep ideological affinities with Hindutva or even representing some nascent, softer variety of it…

One of this book’s central aims is to show that even when Lajpat Rai articulated his most robust ‘Hindu nationalism’ in the first decade of the twentieth century, it diverged from Savarkar’s Hindutva in important ways. Lajpat Rai viewed Hindus and Muslims as separate ‘nationalities’ and converged with Savarkarite Hindutva when he took ‘Hindu culture’ to constitute the core of the Hindu nation. Lajpat Rai’s ‘Hindu nationalism’ also shared Hindutva’s view that the Hindu nation was crystallized in Hindu historical resistance against the foreign Muslim enemy. Yet, even then, Lajpat Rai stood at quite a distance from Hindutva. He envisioned a friction-ridden yet cooperative relationship between the Hindu and Muslim ‘nationalities’ within a common state. His ability to see the Muslim nation existing robustly alongside the Hindu nation was vastly different from Savarkar’s demand that to become part of the Hindu nation, Indian Muslims and Christians must abandon all marks of their religion and culture and assimilate into ‘Hindu culture’. Lajpat Rai’s Hindu nationalism lacked Savarkarite Hindutva’s desire for Hindu cultural supremacy and its aversion to religio-cultural diversity…

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By 1915, when Lajpat Rai committed himself to using the term ‘nation’ to signify only one large cultural community which needed to express itself in an independent state, he elaborated a richly textured nationalist narrative firmly grounded in the notion that Hindus and Muslims constituted a single ‘Indian nation’. He went to great lengths to prove their common Indian nationhood by constructing for them a shared hybrid ancestry and a pluralist culture, and by rewriting India’s ‘Muslim’ history. By unearthing this narrative, my research shows that whether or not Hindutva further developed the ‘Hindu national’ ideas articulated earlier by Lajpat Rai, his own ‘Hindu nationalism’ gave way to a rich, distinctive Indian nationalist narrative. Indeed, his new conceptualization of nationhood led him to support the Pan-Islamic Khilafat movement led by Gandhi and a section of the Indian Muslim leadership from 1919 to 1921. Contrary to what may be assumed about a supposed forefather of Hindutva, during the Khilafat movement, rather than expressing a Hindu nationalism fearful of Muslim religiosity and suspicious about their ‘extraterritorial loyalties’, Lajpat Rai’s Indian nationalism urged Hindus to respect Muslim religious sentiments and sympathies towards the Ottoman caliphate and the Muslim world. It also strove to promote trust between India’s Hindus and Muslims. In proffering reasons for why Hindus must support this ‘Muslim’ cause, Lajpat Rai, much like Gandhi, stressed that ‘Hindu–Muslim unity’ was crucial for both Indian national identity and Indian self-government. As we can see, pigeonholing Lajpat Rai’s entire thought as ‘Hindu nationalism’ obscured a historical–intellectual juncture when a Hindu political figure like him enthusiastically supported Pan-Islamism as necessary for Indian nationalism.

This book further seeks to challenge historical scholarship which assumes that when, in the chaotic and violent aftermath of the Khilafat movement, Lajpat Rai joined and led the Hindu Mahasabha, he elaborated a Hindu ‘communalism’ that was equivalent to ‘Hindu nationalism’. It shows that in the mid-1920s, in response to changed political contexts, Lajpat Rai elaborated yet another new and distinct ‘Indian’ nationalist narrative. The militant Hindu politics he sought to engineer through the Mahasabha aimed at establishing a radically ‘secular’ state and politics—free of all markers of religion—which he now considered a crucial precondition for the foundation of a united Indian nation. From the more trust-based and other-embracing secular Indian nationalism he articulated during the Khilafat movement, Lajpat Rai moved to a more distrustful and hard-line secular Indian nationalism that was explicitly hostile to community-based politics. His vehement opposition to the politics of the Muslim community meant that a move from ‘Hindu nationalism’ to a ‘secular’ Indian nationalist conception does not always involve a move towards a politics more accommodative towards Muslim demands. Even so, like his militant Hindu politics, his secular Indian nationalism had integrity and meaning. Grounded in moral and political values, it was not just a ploy to institute Hindu majority domination. As a Mahasabha leader, he also remained willing to relinquish his radically ‘secular’ vision of state and politics to concede reservations to the Muslim ‘minority’ if this was required for Indian national unity…

Also read: A Brief History of the Radically Different Nationalisms Vying To Shape the Indian Republic

This book argues against intellectual reductionism and the pigeonholing of all of Lajpat Rai’s ideas into either Hindutva or a moderate variety of Hindu nationalism, or indeed secular Indian nationalism. Doing this has prevented us from noticing the subtleties, nuances and distinctiveness of Rai’s thought at particular junctures. They have prevented us from recognizing the distinctive texture and nature of the ‘Hindu nationalism’ he regularly articulated before 1915, and its difference from Hindutva. They have also prevented us from noticing shifts and changes in his thought across time. We failed to heed Lajpat Rai’s distinct ‘Indian nationalist’ narratives during the Khilafat movement and even his Hindu Mahasabha phase. The internal complexity, fluidity and dynamism of Lajpat Rai’s nationalist thought make it resistant to easy overall categorization. If one has to make such an evaluation, one can only say—rather vaguely—that taken collectively, the distinct and internally complex narratives that Lajpat Rai articulated in his political life, remain an intellectual position distinct from Hindutva, the moderate varieties of ‘Hindu nationalism’, and the Congress’s official ideology of ‘Indian nationalism’. The important takeaway really is that blanket, catch-all categorizations of Lajpat Rai’s nationalist thought have prevented us from properly understanding it, and from forensically examining its contours and textures as articulated in different phases of his life.

Dr Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav is Associate Research Fellow, Multiple Secularities Project, University of Leipzig.