Why Hindutva Is a Racist Supremacism – Not Merely Communalism or Majoritarianism

The stakes of recognising Hindutva as a supremacism are significant. When we call it majoritarianism, we implicitly make it more acceptable: not only are most democratic regimes today majoritarian to a greater or lesser degree, but also, relatively speaking (though only relatively), majoritarianism is a much milder form of violence. 

The website of the ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ conference bluntly points out that ‘Hindu supremacists have made a concerted effort over several decades to equate their manufactured term “Hindutva” with Hinduism’. It counterpoints these efforts by offering one of the most concise descriptions of the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva:

“Hindutva is a political philosophy styled after European fascism of the early twentieth century, an ideology that privileges a cult of personality and authoritarian leadership. By contrast, Hinduism is a term used to describe a wide range of religious practices and beliefs that are heterodox, and like the practices and beliefs of any major religion with hundreds of millions of followers, continuously under contestation, and often contradictory. Hinduism has rightly been critiqued for the deep inequities in Indian society, most importantly for the caste system. Many Hindu reformers have also offered these critiques.”

The website also offers a link to Purshottam Agrawal’s luminous meditation on what it means to be a practicing or sahaj Hindu, and how Hindutva threatens to obliterate Hinduism.

In the spirit of and as a footnote to these observations, here I would like to specify the sense in which Hindutva is a supremacism. The stakes of recognising Hindutva as a supremacism are significant. When we call it majoritarianism, we implicitly make it more acceptable: not only are most democratic regimes today majoritarian to a greater or lesser degree, but also, relatively speaking (though only relatively), majoritarianism is a much milder form of violence.  Especially where majoritarianism occurs in the framework of political democracy, as was the case till the 1980s, there remains the possibility of questioning it.

Besides, we do ourselves no analytical favours by calling Hindutva majoritarian, for we are then not attentive enough to what is most distinctive about it. So here I would like to do three things: indicate why the word ‘supremacism’ is appropriate to describe Hindutva; show how supremacism as a form of racism is different from and related to communalism and majoritarianism; and ask what is distinctive about Hindutva as a form of supremacism.

If we are to understand these phenomena systematically, we have to start with nationalism, to which of course Hindutva is connected. One of the most important books of the 1980s was Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. With that book, Anderson carried out a Copernican revolution of sorts in the study of nationalism. True, there has been a virtual cottage industry of critiques of Anderson, and many of these critiques are valid. But like all classics, its implications have continued to unfold in ways that go far beyond Anderson’s own formulations; indeed, his formulations cannot adequately contain the implications of what he says.

What makes Anderson’s argument revolutionary is that it begins by saying that all communities are imagined, but nationalist communities are imagined in a distinctive way – they are imagined abstractly rather than particularistically. Now Anderson is of course far from the first to make the abstract-particular distinction, but its implications become especially powerful in the way he formulates matters. He describes particularistic communities as constituted by an indefinitely stretchable network of kinship, clientship or any other kind ties – say, my uncle’s wife’s father’s sister-in-law’s granddaughter. He seems to imply that particularistic communities are premodern, but I do not think this is the case at all. It is certainly true that particularistic ties were dominant in the premodern world, but they are crucial to the modern world too. One example of the persistence of modern particularistic communities is the apparent fact that we know everybody in the world through at most six degrees of separation. Again, when we talk of how much connections matter in maintaining structures of privilege, we are talking of particularistic relations.

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Anderson goes on to contrast particularistic communities with the abstract community of the nation. An abstract community is one where our relation with others is constituted by mediation through some symbol to which we have a shared allegiance, and onto which we can assign multiple levels of meaning, from the most immediate to the most general. Anderson’s examples of such symbols which concretise the nation are the map and the unknown soldier.  Thus, we know others in the nation not through particular ties with them but because we share an allegiance to the same entity. It is such an abstract community that Nehru is constituting when he famously tells farmers that ‘You are yourselves Bharat mata’.

Of course, today we would again both qualify and extend Anderson’s arguments.  We would stress that just as particularistic communities are part of modern societies too, so too did abstract communities exist in premodern times. The line between particular and abstract communities will never be a clear one – symbols are by their very nature empty, even if less so in some instances than in others. Moreover, if abstract communities are dominant today, this is because the abstraction involved in nationalism has been intensified by that involved in the working of capitalism.

Most importantly for our present purposes, we could say, extending Anderson, that the nation is a concrete or material abstraction. Concrete abstractions are different from formal abstractions. The classic examples of formal abstractions would be from mathematics or physics (though even here, not all abstractions are only formal), or even concepts such as ‘nationalism’. By contrast, concrete abstractions are more or less embodied. When we talk of ‘human rights’, for example, we are already beginning to invoke a concrete abstraction: we are concerned not with singular humans whom we know, but the rights that somebody has simply by virtue of being human – rights, moreover, which non-human animals would not have.

But ‘the human’ is still on the more abstract side of concrete abstractions, for the human as such does not seem to stir our passions and emotions overmuch. This is why Hannah Arendt famously remarks that “The conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

The nation, however, is a more passionately concrete abstraction – after all, for most people, it is the only entity left in the name of which it is legitimate to kill and die; those doing so for other entities are likely to be considered fanatics.  (Nobody, by contrast, will be willing to kill or die for ‘nationalism’.)

What makes the nation such a consequential abstraction is that it concretises within it several other abstractions. Two abstractions that it concretises within it I want to especially mention here. The first is that all the members of a nation are equal. This equality that one can claim as a member of one’s nation is part of what is so revolutionary about nationalism as a modern form of sociality. This symbolic equality was not at all meant to do away with other social inequalities, but it was still quite revolutionary, and upsetting to claims to hierarchies between citizens.

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During the Indian nationalist movement, for instance, khadi caps were very common. At least part of the power of these caps came from the equality they projected. Those who historically not been able to wear headgear could now claim the Gandhi cap. It levelled away the older hierarchies; it was a way to claim equality with all other Indians. And because it threatened hierarchies this way, there was a lot of hostility towards the Gandhi cap, especially from elites.  So what I am trying to stress is that there were concrete ways in which the symbolic equality of all members of the nation was performed already in its early years.

Jawaharlal Nehru and M.K. Gandhi. Credit: UN Photo

The other sense in which nationalism is a concrete abstraction is that it is democratic, using that word for now in its capacious sense, as simply that of claiming legitimacy from the demos or people. Even states ruled by bloodthirsty tyrants or elites have thus felt compelled to claim the word democracy and republic in this capacious sense, saying that they represent the true voice of the people, even if their states or societies are not representative democracies in any sense that we usually understand the word.


Having drawn out of Anderson this emphasis on the nation as a concrete abstraction, we must part company with him, and focus on the crucial role of other identities in constituting nationalism. In a thought-provoking essay in Race, Nation, Class, Etienne Balibar points out that nationalism as a concept “never functions alone, but is always part of a chain in which it is both the central and the weak link”. I want to stress this: both the central and the weak link. In other words, nationalism is constantly being supplemented by other phenomena, and if we are properly analysing nationalism as a phenomenon, then we have to pay attention to these supplements. And three supplements are especially important for getting a better sense of Hindutva: communalism, and racism in its two forms as majoritarianism and supremacism. (There is also a fourth supplement, radical democracy, which is especially important for fashioning nationalist alternatives to majoritarianism and supremacism, but that will have to be the subject of another essay.)

It has long been recognised that nationalism and communalism are connected. The word communalism itself is peculiar to the Indian subcontinent and gained purchase, as Gyan Pandey shows in his book, during the Indian nationalist movement. For the Congress nationalists, communalism represented the bad nationalism, a nationalism which placed community above the nation. To think of communalism as a bad nationalism is, of course, completely unhelpful, all the more so now in view of Balibar’s insight that nationalism is incomplete in itself, the weak link that must be supplemented and completed in some way or the other.

At the same time, the concept of communalism is not an error. It actually reveals something very important, which is the phenomenon of patriotism. If we are to sharpen the contrast that many have suggested between patriotism and nationalism – for example, in the Indian context, Chris Bayly – then we could draw on Anderson and say that patriotism is the notion of place and community sustained by particularism. Premodern Maratha or Sikh or Bhil identities were often patriotic in this sense of drawing on the particular. Nor does patriotism disappear with modernity: Rakesh Singh Tikait’s tears, for example, activated precisely a Jat patriotism. (Once again, we must remember that patriotism and nationalism are not exclusive of each. Abstraction is a process, not a thing, and the same phenomenon can become patriotic or nationalistic in a flash, depending on its context.)

If particularism is one criterion that distinguishes patriotism from nationalism, the other is that the emphasis on equality is recessive here, at least in comparison to nationalism.  Of course, Maratha, Sikh, Jat and Bhil polities arguably had a more egalitarian culture than other regions where the sense of patriotism was not strong, but let us not make too much of this egalitarianism.  This egalitarianism is quite compatible with hierarchy, can even be embodied in hierarchies between Maratha, Bhil or Sikh chiefs and their followers.

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That kind of hierarchical patriotism is undercut where nationalism becomes more prevalent. In the late 18th century, Edmund Burke’s fierce hostility to the French Revolution owes not a little to the patriotic opposition to nationalism.  For him, thus, Englishmen exercise their rights not through “abstract principles [such] as the ‘rights of men’ but as the rights of Englishmen, and as a patrimony derived from their forefathers”. Relatedly, the ‘noble equality’ of the English which he celebrates is distinctive because it also accepts the differences between different ranks of people: part of what horrifies him about the French revolutionaries is that they regard ‘the murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father’ ‘as only common homicide’.

Extrapolating from this contrast between nationalism and patriotism, one could suggest that communalism is best understood as a hybrid phenomenon – a patriotic uptake of the new phenomenon of nationalism. This patriotism coursed through and reconstituted broader identities of Hindu and Muslim from around the 17th century. Communal confrontations or “communal riots” till at least the 1970s at least were also largely particularistic, drawing on very specific (specific does not necessarily mean local) allegiances and hierarchies and associations to create far-flung networks. If I look back at my own reporting of communal violence in Vadodara in the late 1980s as a journalist with the Indian Express, I am tempted to say that even at this late date, a certain particularistic logic organised Hindu-Muslim conflicts; all these conflicts were about appropriating nationalist categories to conduct conflicts where patriotic identities were dominant. Nor has communalism, or for that matter, the broader phenomenon of patriotism, at all disappeared; while no longer dominant, it will always spring anew from the particular relations that we necessarily have with those around us, even if its historical manifestations change.


But to understand Hindutva, we have to start elsewhere – not with communalism but with racism. As several thinkers have pointed out, racism is a modern phenomenon, one that is structurally different from premodern forms of discrimination. The latter were without doubt as violent, but that does not make them racism. In the same essay, Balibar notes, drawing in part on Louis Dumont, that the societies “in which racism develops are at the same time supposed to be ‘egalitarian’ societies, in other words, societies which (officially) disregard status differences between individuals”. Central to racism, in other words, is the presumption of a certain equality amongst racists – whether this community of racists be whites, Aryans, Jews or Hindus, or even so abstract a category as rational citizens. This abstract equality – or at least the promise of it – amongst racists, and the inequality with other groups premised on this abstract equality, is the crux of racism as a form of domination and discrimination.

This abstract equality is also what makes racism such an inclusive and capacious form of community. I am aware of the deep irony of using these adjectives to describe racism, but they are nevertheless appropriate. Racism is an egalitarianism within the community of racists. In other words, by practicing racism, the racists can claim and even fashion equality between themselves. This is part of what happened in the making of whiteness in the US. By distancing themselves from the blacks, the Irish and other formerly marginal groups also claimed to be equals within a large and dominant white community. (James Baldwin notes this when he says: ‘No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.’)

Nationalism too involves, we saw, an abstract equality that officially disregards status differences. Perhaps this is why nationalism and racism have so often been tied together, why each has often been articulated in terms of each other.  It is all too easy to conceive and constitute the demos or people of the nation in racist terms – as an ethnicity, a culture or even a ‘religion’. I do not at all mean to suggest that nationalism is always racist. But racism is the spectre that haunts every nationalism. And in modern nationalisms, this spectre takes the form of ‘permanent majority’. to recall a phrase that Ambedkar activated to great effect.


We often think of democracy as simply the rule of the majority. That is not at all correct. Rather, its modern form is best summed by that slogan of the French Revolution which Ambedkar made his own – ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ (or ‘liberty, equality, friendship’ as it effectively becomes in his readings). In other words, even though representative institutions seek to install a majority, this is a majority that seeks to nourish liberty equality and friendship.

And to systematically nourish liberty, equality and fraternity or friendship, it is necessary to codify and nourish rights for the minor and the marginalised. The minor are not just minorities, though we often conflate the two terms. They are all those who face the violence of oppression: a violence directed at them whether as individuals or groups, because of who they are – for example, Dalits, women, Muslims, Adivasis, dissenters. The marginalised, by contrast, are those who face violence of exploitation: those who face violence because of what they are – for example, small farmers, migrant workers, labourers, the precariat most broadly. It needs hardly be added that the marginalised are almost always also minoritised.

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To affirm the rights of the minoritised, or to affirm the principle of the minor – this would create what Ambedkar calls a ‘political democracy,’ which is, amongst other things, democracy where we have only a ‘political majority,’ a majority that is fungible and temporary. And as Ambedkar also emphasised, ‘political democracy cannot succeed where there is no social and economic democracy,’ or a democracy that addresses the addresses the violence of exploitation and oppression simultaneously. Only a nationalism which strives for democracy in this sense can vigorously disavow racism – the abstract equality that is always nationalism’s potentially lengthening shadow, that always threatens to overcome nationalism itself.

States and Minorities, the 1945 book which Ambedkar submitted in 1947 to the Constituent Assembly’s subcommittee on fundamental rights, envisioned a democracy in precisely this triple sense. The Constitution that the assembly eventually adopted was more truncated in its scope and vision. Most of all, social and economic democracy became primarily an aspiration embodied in the Directive Principles. But it still did put in place the mechanisms for a political democracy that was attuned to the need for a social democracy. This it did through two crosscutting moves. On the one hand, it made the individual the anchor of Indian society, providing for a panoply of individual rights, including the various rights that guaranteed individual equality and liberty. On the other hand, by stipulating rights for minorities, as also by measures such as the banning of boycotts and the throwing open of temples, it sought to redress the violence that communities might face because of who they were.

Arguably Ambedkar settled for such a truncated political democracy for negative and positive reasons. Negatively, he recognised that while such a democracy would most often be taken over by a majoritarianism, this was at least a majoritarianism with the potentiality for autoimmunity, or the potentiality to question itself through various institutional and social mechanisms such as those embodied in rights. Positively, he perhaps recognised that, for all its limitations, it still did provide space for the principle of the minor, and so kept open the possibility of a social and economic democracy.

Still, these mechanisms by themselves, without a constitutional morality to accompany them, are hardly capable of sustaining a political democracy. To political majority, which is the majority proper to political democracy, Ambedkar contrasts ‘permanent majority’ – a majority that is so secure in its numerical or political strength and domination that it will always prevail.  Put in the terms that I have been drawing on here, a permanent majority obliterates the principle of the minor, and sometimes so thoroughly as to even to fail recognise the minor.

Members of the Hindu Yuva Vahini. Photo: Cathal McNaughton/Reuters

The permanent majority, one could well say, is the form of discrimination and domination distinctive to nationalism. The permanent majority rules by claiming that it represents the true nation, and does so moreover without remainder.  This rule need not only take the form of racism. For example, it is very much at work in barring the very possibility of treating the LGBTQ community as equal; conversely and ironically, it is often by adopting the language of the permanent majority that sections of that community claim equality.

But certainly, racism has been one of the most powerful manifestations of permanent majority. We saw how racism created a permanent majority of ‘whites’ in the United States. In India, analogously, while domination by savarna castes has prevailed for millenia, and has historically taken the form of what Ambedkar calls graded inequality, the caste order is quite reconstituted when it comes to be organised around a permanent majority. Caste as an order of permanent majority no longer rules by insisting on the ritual or social supremacy of Brahmans, by insisting on graded inequality. Rather, it folds – represses, really – that supremacy and inequality into the language of nationalism, by making savarna caste positions recessive as visible markers, but at the same time remaking savarna values into national ones.

As part of this remaking, caste often appears to be remade into ‘ethnicity’. If there is a difference between race and ethnicity, it is that the latter appears agnostic about inequality with other communities, insisting instead only on a difference from them. As such, it can often appear benign. I do not want to rule out the possibility that in some cases this is really so. Yet it is almost always the case that ethnicised identities bear within them in repressed ways an inequality with other communities. And caste specifically as an ethnic identity always bears within it graded inequality at least in repressed form.


Permanent majority as a form of racism works on two registers – majoritarianism and supremacism. What is distinctive about majoritarianism is that it often claims to speak for the true interests even of the minority, and actually often sincerely believes itself to be doing so; it does not usually think of itself as opposed to the interests and concerns of the minority. There is a phrase that has in recent times caught on in the US to describe racism after the end of the Jim Crow era – ‘racism without racists’.  That phrase is very apposite to describe majoritarianism, which arguably arrived in India in full-blown form much before it arrived in the US.

In other words, the striking thing about majoritarianism is that it claims to be inclusive, perhaps even convinces itself that it is inclusive. You can see this very clearly in the early and mid-20th pronouncements of the upper-caste Congress leaders on Dalit issues, or for that matter in the way that the possibility of reserved seats for Muslims was tossed aside in the Constituent Assembly debates on the grounds that such provisions were not needed in a ‘secular’ society (similar efforts to do away with reserved seats and other provisions for Dalits met with less success, as we know).

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So majoritarianism works through what could be called an ‘inclusive exclusion’ – it claims to speak for the minor too, and by doing so excludes the minor. If Ambedkar was so cautious about the Congress invocations of words such as ‘secular’ and ‘communal,’ this was in part because these invocations often concealed a majoritarianism. Thus, it was in the name of secularism that the Congress criticised the demand for demands for rights for Muslims or Dalits as ‘communal’. In many such cases, terms such as ‘communalism’ and ‘secularism’ were used to secure a permanent majority, and to tamp down demands for the rights of those who were minoritised by the workings of electoral or representational politics.

Majoritarianism was especially powerful in Indian politics till roughly the nineties. Certainly much of the mainstream Congress, especially its non-Nehruvian elements, were drawn to majoritarianism. I am also tempted to describe some of the early strands of the BJP, for example, Vajpayee, as closer to a majoritarianism, and this despite Vajpayee’s membership of the RSS. It is symptomatic of the pervasiveness of this majoritarian mindset that the BJP could, till just about a decade ago, claim to stand for a ‘true secularism’.

It would take us too far afield to trace the causes for the decline of this majoritarianism that worked framework of political democracy. But certainly, it would be simple minded to ascribe it to the deepening of democratic participation, as BJP ideologues are wont to. Rather, two factors account for it above all – the collapse of the older ideology of development or vikas, and its subsumption within a neoliberal ideology of vikas, one that combines a focus on economic development with the creation of a community centred around an excluded enemy. (The articulation of this new concept of vikas in Gujarat over the last decades awaits its ethnographer.)


But if we are describing the racism of BJP today, when it has come to be reconstituted by Savarkarite ideology, then the term majoritarianism is no longer enough. Rather, this ideology involves another and more virulent form of racism – one best described as supremacism. It is Savarkar who gives voice to this supremacist racism, rejecting both the religious understanding of Hinduism (what Gandhi sometimes calls Hindu dharma; a religious understanding would refract questions of personal and social conduct through a theological or mystical lens), and the civilisational or majoritarian understanding of Hinduism.

Thus his greatest innovation in Essentials of Hindutva is to provide a racist rather than a religious or sociological definition of Hindus. The book systematically considers and discards these other two ways of defining Hindus. He decides that it is not enough to try and identify Hindus as a group on the basis of basis of shared belief about divinity or transcendent matters. This is a symptomatic failure. To constitute the criterion ‘Hindu’ in terms of religious practice would have required him to engage with the non-abstractable messiness of the ways that religion is practiced in the subcontinent – the fact that so many sects classed as Hindu are fiercely anti-Brahminical, the fact that many of the oppressed castes reserved the term Hindu only for the savarna castes, the pervasiveneness of Islamic practices amongst those he would have preferred to classify Hindus, and so on. It is this very particularistic messiness that has made so many scholars throw up their hands and say that Hinduism is very difficult to define, that it is a way of life more than a religion.

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Instead, he works his way through four secular criteria. He begins with a common pitrubhu or fatherland, decides this is not enough, since many non-Hindus can claim it too. The same problem arises with two other criteria he considers—common blood and ‘common Sanskriti (civilisation)’. These two too can be claimed by non-Hindus, including Muslim and Christian converts.  Finally, he decides that these are necessary but not sufficient criteria, and adds the decisive one: Hindus are those who consider Bharat to be a punyabhu or holy land. Even punyabhumi is secular: its object is something immanent, a land. By this criterion, not only can Christians and Muslims be excluded, but also, projecting beyond the book itself to our present, all those who affirm ideas and ideologies deemed foreign – communists, democratic secularists, and even those who insist on fundamental rights.

Still, what makes Hindutva a racism – a supremacist racism, to be precise – rather than a communalism? It would be easy enough to show empirically the affinities between Hindutva and racism – say, the RSS and Golwalkar’s links to Nazism, or Savarkar’s own pronouncements about fascism. But what I want to stress here is that the very concept of Hindutva would remain aggressively racist and even supremacist, even if Savarkar and Golwalkar and others had managed to keep quiet about their admiration for genocidal leaders. This is because for Savarkar the Hindus are not only a community imagined abstractly, but one created by positing an inferior and excluded other. Moreover, by creating in this way an other who must be constantly excluded, the abstractness of his category becomes imbued with a concreteness, comes to have an urgency and a constant need for reiteration.

Savarkar. Credit: savarkarsmarak.com

Savarkar. Credit: savarkarsmarak.com

Indeed, what Savarkar accomplishes in Essentials is so remarkable for its systematicity that he deserves to be classed as a preeminent and even pioneering figure in any global pantheon of racist theorists – he is one of the very first to articulate and give full-throated voice to a supremacist racism. At the time he writes, most of Europe and North America is still caught in a blood based racism; only much later do they adopt a racism closer to that which Savarkar articulated.


One feature of this supremacist racism is especially important for understanding Hindutva’s current trajectory: its paradoxical “egalitarianism,” so to speak. We saw Balibar noting that societies in which racism is prevalent are egalitarian societies, and that this is first and foremost an equality in respect of nationality.  We saw how the making of whiteness was also part of a racist egalitarianism.

Something similar needs to be said of Hindutva.  True, Savarkar was in many ways quite a typical caste reformer: he was hostile to untouchability, but quite sympathetic to caste. Indeed, while prominent dominant caste Congress leaders at least accepted a moral responsibility for untouchability, he refused to do this. Martin Luther King writes in his Autobiography that when during their meeting in 1959, Nehru explained the system of reservations, ‘Professor Lawrence Reddick, who was with me during the interview, asked: “But isn’t that discrimination?” “Well, it may be,” the prime minister answered. “But this is our way of atoning for the centuries of injustices we have inflicted upon these people.” By contrast, Savarkar emphatic that upper castes bore no responsibility for the violence of untouchability (caste he did not consider violent), declaring in one speech: ‘every untouchable caste treats some other case supposed to be inferior to it as untouchable as ruthlessly as it is treated itself by others. The sin is common to all of us’.

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At the same time, Savarkar, we know, was quite sharply opposed to explicit practices of discrimination such as untouchability – part of his impatience with the RSS, as with more orthodox sections of the Hindu Mahasabha, was because they implicitly or explicitly endorsed these practices. For him, Dalits were Hindus, even if backward and less civilised, and so needing to be reformed. Unsurprisingly, the concerted effort to incorporate the lower castes and Dalits and Adivasis into Hindutva, as also to ‘uplift’ them by making them adopt Brahminical norms, is one of the most striking features of Hindutva today. This is why, as the brilliant social critic Anand Teltumbde (currently falsely imprisoned) notes, Narendra Modi ‘has been zealous in putting up gigantic memorials to him while curtailing the share accorded to dalits in successive budgets.’ Unless we recognise this effort to include Dalits and Adivasis, we do not understand Hindutva at all.

And this effort at inclusion should remind us also that it is too preliminary to simply call Hindutva Brahmanical. If, following Ambedkar, we understand the Brahminical order as founded on an explicit affirmation of graded inequality, then neither of the two racisms have, especially since the second half of the 20th century, been Brahmanical in the old way. In their own way, both disavow graded inequality. This is unsurprising. Even if they did not seek the like-mindedness of ‘social endosmosis,’ which Ambedkar strives for, they did desire the like-mindedness of nationalism.  And this like-mindedness too required disavowing graded inequality.

But these two racisms disavow graded inequality in a distinctive way – not by annihilating it, but by repressing it. And what is repressed, we know, only surges forth in new forms. Majoritarianism incorporates Dalits and Adivasis into an ‘Indian’ (read, unmarked Hindu or Brahminical) identity by instituting the abstract equality of citizenship. And while this abstract equality explicitly disavows graded inequality, it nevertheless mostly refuses to tackle this inequality head on, and so implicitly perpetuates it. By contrast, Hindutva institutes – as yet primarily socially, and maybe no more than that is necessary – the abstract equality of those who are ‘Hindu’ in the supremacist sense. This abstract equality too does disavow graded inequality. But far more than majoritarianism, it is centred around texts and institutions that would be impossible without graded inequality, that celebrate the Brahminical. Far more than majoritarianism, then, it must smuggle in graded inequality, usually hiding this fact from itself.

And because of this smuggling in, Hindutva intensifies the contempt for Dalits and Adivasis far beyond what was the case with either graded inequality or majoritarianism. Graded inequality, precisely because it limited interaction between castes, also left a space, even if a severely truncated one, for the oppressed castes. The angry but charged vitality of that space has been documented in innumerable memoirs and accounts – for example, Urmila Pawar’s The Weave of My Life. Similarly, majoritarianism, because it layered abstract equality onto graded inequality, often ended up turbocharging the potentialities of that Dalit space; Pawar’s memoir is in part an account of that turbocharging.

But where Hindutva’s abstract equality is instituted, a very different process gathers speed. Now, what must be extirpated is precisely those spaces where the language of Dalit and Adivasi self-respect rose to a roar. So it is that with the rise of Hindutva over the last three decades, there has also been a rapid escalation of violence against Dalits and Adivasis. And this violence, as we know from Bhima Koregaon and other instances, becomes especially frenzied where Dalits or Adivasis dare affirm the principle of the minor.

At the same time, for a price, it offers a marginalised and subjugated incorporation to Dalits and Adivasis. The price is that they abandon the principle of the minor, abandon any claim to a Dalit or Adivasi public sphere, and participate in the violence against Muslims above all, but also Christians and communists, who are all now redefined as the internal enemy. The seeking (and, unfortunately, in some cases, tendering) of that price was evident during the pogrom in Gujarat, as on several other occasions. So where majoritarianism is marked by an inclusive exclusion, one might say that supremacism is marked by a thoroughgoing exclusion that works on two registers – by making Muslims into an internal enemy, and including Dalits and Adivasis by making them perform an enmity to Muslims, and by refusing to recognise their minor position, and so minoritising and disempowering them even more.

Needless to say, the line that I am suggesting between majoritarianism and supremacism is a grey one, for the two bleed into each other, and the actors in both are often the same; the line can be firmly drawn only where Hindutva turns especially virulent, as it has in the last few years. But the line is an important one nevertheless, for it also describes two kinds of violence. Majoritarianism is characterised above all by a quiet and structural violence – a failure to recognise or reckon with the systemic discrimination that the majority practices (for example, the vastly higher incarceration rates for Dalits and Muslims, their economic marginality, and so much more), and a conscious or unconscious connivance with the physical and symbolic violence that the orthodox and the supremacists inflict on the minoritised.

With supremacism this structural violence is intensified, and is moreover accompanied now by a raucous physical and symbolic violence. Where this violence comes to be dominant, as it inarguably is in India today, then we are already in a Hindu rashtra. As Asim Ali observes in an indispensable essay, a “formal adherence to the principles of the constitution need not preclude a concerted attack, in practice, on the principles the constitution embodies”. Hindu rashtra “simply needs a transformation of the character of our state and the nature of our society”, and that transformation seems well under way. And this transformation almost always goes unmarked by those who can in untroubled ways claim to be part of the majority. So it was that white Americans in the slave-owning or Jim Crow eras could consider the United States to be a democracy, or that most Jewish citizens of the Israeli apartheid state would bristle at the suggestion that Israel is not a democracy. So it seems to be with those Indians who can claim in untroubled ways to be part of the majority, and who seem sometimes genuinely puzzled by the criticisms of Hindutva.

Ajay Skaria teaches at the University of Minnesota.  He is currently working on a book, tentatively titled, What is Political Democracy. The remarks here are extracted and revised from a longer set of remarks in a series of three video interviews he did with Kochi-Muziris Biennale.