Golwalkar's Idea of Culture as War Drives BJP's Scorn for Democracy and Minorities

"We stand for national regeneration and not for that haphazard bundle of political rights – the state," the RSS's key ideologue wrote.

In We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939), M.S. Golwalkar writes about the unending war of history:

“It is the fortune of war, the tide turns now to this side, now to that, but the war goes on and has not been decided yet.”

Till when does the fortune of war remain undecided? It does, till the war is won. The victorious outcome of war is when it is finally decided, when it finally ends.

The idea of such a war is made clearer when Golwalkar writes:

“The Race Spirit has been awakening. The lion was not dead, only sleeping. He is rousing himself up again and the world has to see the might of the regenerated Hindu Nation strike down the enemy’s hosts with its mighty arm.”

Golwalkar, who led the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) from 1940 to 1973, is dreaming of an unending race war. He uses a zoological metaphor for defining the race spirit, and joins it with the idea of a Hindu nation. In order to eliminate the enemy, the race spirit must wake up from sleep. Incidentally, the same lion reappeared in Mohan Bhagwat’s controversial speech in Chicago last year.

In order to establish such a permanent state of race war, Golwalkar takes the next, necessary step. He attacks the idea of democracy: “Wrong notions of democracy strengthened the view and we began to class ourselves with our old invaders and foes under the outlandish name – Indian and tried to win them over to join hands with us in our struggle. The result of this poison is too well known. We have allowed ourselves to be duped into believing our foes to be our friends and with our own hands are undermining true Nationality.”

To be Indian, a word that is etymologically Greek, is to other oneself historically and culturally. It means to lose sight of one’s racial identity. Democracy, for Golwalkar, is a mistaken notion as long as it encourages the politics of friendship. This friendship is poison, for it weakens the body’s spirit for war. For those who believe in war, the so-called friend is the enemy.

Having raised his central doubts about democracy, Golwalkar turns his attention towards the idea of the minority. He quotes from the League of Nations:

“The very definition of the word ‘Minority’ as a ‘class of people incorporated in the body of a Nation,’ ‘citizens who differ from the majority of the population in Race, Religion and Language are called minorities’ is clear on the point that every Nation has necessarily its own National Race, Religion and Language (culture needs no special mention for with the mention of the three Race, Religion and Language, culture also is implicitly there.)”

Ignoring the term, “citizen”, Golwalkar focusses on the word “incorporated” to understand that the minority are aliens, or outsiders, who do not comprise the nation’s body politic. For Golwalkar, minorities divide the grand, singular idea of the nation.

There are glowing praises of Nazi Germany by Golwalkar: “Modern Germany strove… to once again bring under one sway the whole of the territory, hereditarily possessed by the Germans but which, as a result of political disputes, had been portioned off as different countries under different states.”

National territory is a matter of racial heredity, whose history is determined by a premodern idea of empire. In fact, the idea of history itself is pseudo-history, where history is understood only in terms of the history of the race, or race history.  What Germany or India were before the advent of the modern nation state must be the basis of national territory according to Golwalkar. Golwalkar emphasises, that “for a people to be and to live as a Nation, a hereditary territory… is essential”.

What is important to note here is how the idea of heredity is woven around a racial idea. The matter gets further clarified when he says, “Germany has also 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.” Culture is understood in racist terms. There is no cultural assimilation possible outside racist boundaries. Golwalkar’s idea of culture is strictly segregationist and territorial.

Nehru and Tagore’s approach

Contrast this to what Jawaharlal Nehru writes in The Discovery of India:

“A Buddhist or Jain in India is a hundred per cent product of Indian thought and culture, yet neither is a Hindu by faith. It is, therefore, entirely misleading to refer to Indian culture as Hindu culture. In later ages this culture was greatly influenced by the impact of Islam, and yet it remained basically and distinctively Indian [my emphasis]”.

Nehru here is trying to correlate culture and nation. But his approach is diametrically opposite to Golwalkar. Instead of making race or religion the basis of how to define national culture, Nehru treats the history and presence of diverse religions as the basis of Indian culture. Nehru is simply defining a historical truism: Hindu is Indian, but Indian is not just Hindu. Buddhism and Jainism are as distinctively Indian as Islam in India.

The distinctiveness of Islam in India is precisely because of its encounter with these other religions. This encounter produced wars, but they also produced culture. Since Golwalkar is solely focussed on the problem of war, he refuses to define culture outside this war.

Let us take another example that differs from Golwalkar in defining culture. Rabindranath Tagore in his essay, ‘The Centre of Indian Culture’, writes:

“The modern European culture, whose truth and strength lie in its fluid mobility, comes to us rigidly fixed, almost like our own Sastras, about which our minds have to remain passively uncritical because of their supposed divine origin.”

Tagore welcomes the fluidity of culture, in contrast to the rigidity of traditional knowledge. In the same essay, he defines culture as “the life of the mind”.

There is a fundamental difference between mind and race. Race is a biological idea. It is a glorified idea of the body, which is partly based on prejudiced notions of the body of other (ethnically different) people. The mind is a combination of thinking and experience that cannot be purely identified with – or reduced to – someone’s ethnic identity. The mind processes what the body experiences, and reflects upon it. The life of the mind, in many ways, represents the life of culture. Mind and body, as reflection and experience, are part of what we call our cultural memory. This is where racial theories create a language of difference based on exaggerations taken from historical and cultural conflicts and turn knowledge (of the other) into war.

Tagore in the essay makes the perceptive observation, that “our notion of modern culture is limited within the boundary lines of grammar and the laboratory.” He uses two key words that plague modern xenophobia around language: grammar and laboratory. Grammar defines the rules of a language. But when grammar is used to develop a scientific idea of language based on purity, the open and organic nature of language is forced into a jar. In a laboratory, the scientific rules of language are used to develop a theory, where reason is reduced to race.

How does all this affect the idea of culture?

Culture, for Nehru and Tagore, is what transcends or overcomes the limitations of both tradition and history. For Golwalkar, tradition is the word for religion, culture and language put together. It defines racial difference. In Tagore and Nehru’s view, culture is what survives the war. Culture is what is left, after two sides violently encounter each other. Culture is the historical leftover of violence.

Golwalkar believes that the task of culture is to retain the idea of violence that it survived in history. In other words, Golwalkar wants to take culture back to what destroyed it. Golwalkar’s task is contradictory, dangerous and tragic. He defines and defends culture by the idea of war.

Culture as permanent war against minorities

In his fascinating series of lectures between 1975 and 1976, put together as Society Must Be Defended, the French thinker, Michel Foucault, traces the idea of war since the early 17th century as defining all institutions of power. I will borrow certain key passages from the text to show how closely Foucault’s description of the mindset that produces war, closely resembles Golwalkar’s.

Speaking about the emergence of the binary structure of power in the Middle Ages that privileged war against law (of a society), Foucault unpacks the mindset:

“In other words, the enemies who face us still pose a threat to us, and it is not some reconciliation or pacification that will allow us to bring the war to an end. It will end only to the extent that we really are the victors.”

Golwalkar is echoing a similar, 17th century European mindset, turning the racial idea of culture into a state of being in a permanent war against religious minorities. If you believe in war, peace is not just unreal but undesirable.

Since war is a policy, it must flow from the ideology of the state. The fascist state that believes in a state of war is a state at war with all those it imagines as enemies. Such a state does not like the word “minority”, because a minority demands and deserves political rights.

As Golwalkar clarifies, “We stand for national regeneration and not for that haphazard bundle of political rights – the state.” The tacit argument is, national regeneration based on the reified glory of the majority community, won’t need to bother about minority rights. But it also means something more.

Explaining the ideologists of war, Foucault says in Society: “The nation is therefore no longer a partner in barbarous and warlike relations of domination. The nation is the active, constituent core of the State. The nation is the State, or at least an outline State.”

Hindu rashtra is analogous to this idea of the nation taking over the state. It seeks to become the state. In concrete terms, it is a vigilante society playing the role of the state. The idea of society comes into danger at this point. If society is conceived as an entity whose prime historical motive is to wage war within, the idea of society is destroyed.

Golwalkar chides the founders of the Indian National Congress for diluting the cause of the Hindu nation with the idea of democracy: “… [We] have almost completely lost sight of our true Hindu Nationhood, in our wild goose chase after the phantasm of founding a “really” democratic “State” in the country.”

Democracy, for Golwalkar, is elusive, while a Hindu nation is both possible and desirable. He finds the idea of a religious state (Hindu rashtra) more preferable than a democratic state. He does not offer reasons about why the desire for a democratic state is a wild goose chase. But he makes the suggestion that a democratic state deviates from achieving Hindu rashtra. A nation needs to be more interested in the management of war than the (democratic) management of society, or our social and religious differences.

For Golwalkar, the democratic state has no guts to name the enemy. He blamed the Indian National Congress, for “letting our race spirit to fall asleep”. According to him, it “has been the root cause of our present unhappy condition… of hugging to our bosom our most inveterate enemies and thus endangering our very existence.” The political logic seems to be: Democracy must be abandoned, in order to drive out the nation’s enemies.

M​a​​nash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).