Gandhi’s Hinduism Is Not What RSS Preaches. Why ‘Appropriate’ Him?

“Hindutva’s obsession with communal identity divides India, and so is fundamentally unpatriotic”: Dr Shashi Tharoor 

4 min read

(This article was first published on 04 January, 2021, and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary.)

Shri Mohan Bhagwat, whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting, continues to offer me much material to debate with — from his concept of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ to the differences between my celebratory ‘unity in diversity’ and his more grudging ‘diversity in unity’ — all of which I have challenged at length in my writings.

“If someone is Hindu, he has to be patriotic, that will be his or her basic character and nature,” Shri Bhagwat sagely declared earlier this year. “At times you may have to awaken his or her patriotism but he [a Hindu] can never be anti-India.”


The RSS chief was speaking at an event to release a book titled ‘Making of a Hindu Patriot: Background of Gandhiji’s Hind Swaraj’, so the religious colour of patriotism was on his mind. Releasing the book, he seems to have been conscious that he would be accused of doing so as part of the RSS’s ongoing attempts to appropriate a man they had demonised all his life — and for six decades after his death — Mahatma Gandhi. Shri Bhagwat said there is no need for speculation that he “is trying to appropriate Gandhiji, that is not the case, no one can appropriate great personalities like him.”

Can An RSS-Backed Govt Afford To Disparage The Mahatma Who Is Universally Revered?

Let us get that piece of disingenuousness out of the way: the Hindutva movement is indeed trying to appropriate the Mahatma. Many RSS shakhas distributed sweets upon hearing the news of Gandhiji’s assassination, and Shri Bhagwat’s long-serving predecessor MS Golwalkar was particularly scathing in his contempt for the Mahatma’s teachings of ahimsa and inter-religious harmony (“every Hindu god,” he famously claimed, “carries a weapon”!)

But Narendra Modi’s rise to prime ministership has forced a rethink. Can even an RSS-backed government afford to disparage a saintly figure who enjoys such universal admiration? Would the Hindutva movement not lose lustre globally as a result? Hence the desire to appropriate the name and image of the Mahatma, but not his teachings or values. Thus, there is no place for ahimsa or “Ishwara Allah tero naam” in Shri Bhagwat’s lexicon, but the Mahatma’s glasses can be used to adorn the Swachh Bharat campaign.

Finding ‘Hindu patriotism’ in Mahatma Gandhi is part of this effort.

Gandhiji’s All-Embracing Hinduism

The Mahatma was a proud Hindu, but the elements of Hinduism he took pride in were not the same as the Sangh Parivar’s. Like Swami Vivekananda, he celebrated Hinduism’s all-embracing attitude to spiritual truth, its acceptance of different forms of worship, its absorption of some of the teachings of other faiths (in particular Buddhism and Jainism, but not excluding Christianity or Islam). Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu and a patriot, but he would not have called himself a ‘Hindu patriot’. That is a label only Shri Bhagwat and his ilk could apply to him.

The RSS boss argued that Gandhiji’s struggle for ‘swaraj’ was for the reconstruction of society based on civilisational values, by which he meant Hinduism. The fact that Mahatma Gandhi saw Indian civilisation as a hybrid that had evolved since the days of the Vedas and the Puranas to embrace various non-Hindu influences also, escapes the Sangh Parivar’s ken.

Are Hinduism & Patriotism Synonymous?

But the key bone I have to pick with the RSS chief relates to his argument that Hinduism and patriotism are synonymous. This is the central argument I engage with in my new book The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism and What It Means To Be Indian.


The nationalism that inspired the long struggle for independence from colonial rule was rooted in India’s time-honoured civilisational traditions of inclusivity, social justice, and religious tolerance.

The nationhood enshrined in the Constitution reflects a society that allows individuals to flourish, irrespective of their religion, caste, language or place of birth.

It is today challenged by the new dominant narrative reflected in Shri Bhagwat’s speech, that contests this basic idea of India and thrives on an exclusionary, aggressive, sectarian nationalism based on cultural identity — the idea that India is a ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

In the process, the idea of ‘patriotism’ has been redefined by Shri Bhagwat and his cohort. I believe that ‘patriotism’ is about loving your country because it is yours, because you belong to it and it belongs to you. Under our Constitution, that has nothing to do with what religion you practise, or not. Whereas Shri Bhagwat’s patriotism is a totalising vision that comes naturally only to Hindus — that excludes those who do not subscribe to it, that demands allegiance and brooks no dissent.


Hinduism & Hindutva: Inclusiveness Vs Communalism

Hinduism is a religion which is the personal concern of every individual believer. Hindutva, on the other hand, is a political doctrine that departs fundamentally from the principal tenets of Gandhiji’s understanding of Hinduism. While Hinduism is inclusive of all ways of worship, Hindutva is indifferent to devotion and cares principally about identity. That obsession with communal identity divides India, and so is fundamentally unpatriotic.

We must continue to fight against this idea of ethno-religious nationalism, and prove that love and inclusivity remain at the heart of what it means to be a patriot. However hard Shri Mohan Bhagwat might try to redefine it, the simple fact is that it is entirely possible to be a Hindu and a ‘traitor’, and a Muslim and a ‘patriot’ — our national security archives are full of examples of each.

It was the Gandhian, Nehruvian, and Ambedkarite principles of secularism and acceptance of difference that are reflected in the Constitution that governs us today. Hindutva, unlike the spiritual and inclusive strain of Hinduism that Gandhi promoted, is a purely political ideology that appropriates Hinduism to bigoted ends.

These ideas’ current political dominance does not mean that Gandhian Hinduism is extinct; far from it. There are plenty of Indians still fighting to uphold these values, despite the Hindutva view of an exclusionary, aggressive, sectarian ‘patriotism’.

And in the process, we don’t need to appropriate Mahatma Gandhi — just to follow him.

(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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