POLITICS
03/08/2019 12:43 PM IST | Updated 03/09/2019 6:04 PM IST

How Biology Is Driving Hindu Nationalism: From Modi To The Zomato Delivery Guy

The author of Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindutva explains how a term first coined by Michel Foucault helps us understand Hindu nationalism in India.

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NEW DELHI — “Biology” is at the core of Hindu nationalism, and driving the Bharatiya Janata Party’s call to return to the Hindu way of life in India, says Banu Subramaniam, a professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In her book, Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindutva, Subramaniam, who is a trained plant biologist and a PhD in Zoology, writes, “One of the hallmarks of Hindu nationalism is the centrality of “biology” and the scientific within the imagination, teaching, and practices of political nationalism ― claims of common blood, indigenous DNA, unique theories, native ecologies and regimes of bodily discipline are all grounded in a vision of thoroughly scientific nationalism.”

While “bio-politics” was a term first coined by French philosopher Paul-Michel Foucault, Subramaniam, in an interview with HuffPost India, explains it in the context of Hindu nationalism, this prevailing sense of urgency to be a good “Hindu,” and the bigotry leveled at the Zomato delivery guy, this week.

What do you mean by the centrality of biology in Hindu nationalism?

Before I get into “biology” as one particular field within the sciences, let me talk about the sciences in general. One of the striking aspects of Hindu nationalism is its embrace of the sciences. This is unique and striking for a religious nationalist movement. So for example, the rising Christian white nationalism in the United States sees science as a godless threat to humanity, and as oppositional to religion. But, in India, science is comprehensively embraced in the nationalist vision. Unlike other religious fundamentalists, modern Hinduism has produced not a scriptural return to a singular sacred text as do most fundamentalisms, but rather a political nationalism through a melding of science and religion. Where other religious nationalisms refuse science, Hindu nationalism embraces science as a central project for Hinduism. But at the same time, they also support patriarchal and casteist values and power structures.

What I argue in the book is that this combination results in what I call an “archaic modernity” — Hindu nationalism brings together the past and present, modernity and orthodoxy, science and religion; they embrace capitalism, globalisation, science, and technology as elements of a modern Hindu nation. In the western schema this formation would seem oxymoronic and anachronistic, but within modern India, it is the reassertion of a very Indian modernity aptly captured in the slogan: “Be Modern, Not Western.”

So, Hindu fundamentalism embraces science. It’s fundamentalism all the same. Isn’t that dangerous? 

As I explain above, it’s best to understand it as Hindu nationalism rather than fundamentalism - there is no fundamental scriptural text for Hinduism. My project in the book is to describe and analyse the current situation. Yes, I think Hindu nationalism as it is developing is dangerous, but some of the emerging bio-nationalism isn’t necessarily so, and even has liberatory potentials.

Where other religious nationalisms refuse science, Hindu nationalism embraces science as a central project for Hinduism.

What is the biology of Hindu nationalism? 

“Biopolitics” is a term from the philosopher Michel Foucault who argued that the modern nation state consolidates its power through “biopower” — i.e., modern populations are controlled and regulated through bodies. Modern states use all kinds of popular instruments to control birth and death rates, illness and well being etc — so biology becomes centrally important. I’ve detailed the history and the idea much more in the book. Biology is important everywhere but is central to the Hindu nationalist imagination in very particular ways. 

To give you some examples – we see a call for a return to Hindu ways of life —resurgence in the importance of daily bodily discipline regimes — exercise regimes, meditation, and yoga are extolled because a central tenet is that “strong minds need virile bodies.” These practices form the cornerstone of training young cadres in local shakhas. Hinduism also has widespread laws of purity and pollution, regimes of body care, codes of endogamy, and metaphors of “pure” Hindu blood, and blood ties. Taken together, these are very striking. Body discipline, the centrality of biology and the body in the imagination of the “good” and pure Hindu are thus a core belief or ideology of Hindu nationalism. This is ubiquitous in the speeches of politicians and political platforms. 

Biology is important everywhere but is central to the Hindu nationalist imagination in very particular ways.

Again, isn’t this dangerous? 

Here, I would say not. All cultures have different ways of living. In many ways, one could argue that a model that understands the body and the mind as a connected whole is far more progressive than a western model that creates a mind—body split. In fact, much of modern biology is moving towards more integrated forms of knowledge. It is when these beliefs become violent, supremacist and intolerant of others that I think they become dangerous.

Have these beliefs become violent and dangerous in India right now?

Yes, some of them have been, I agree.

What you are describing asserts homogeneity.  Widespread laws of purity and pollution, regimes of body care, codes of endogamy, and metaphors of “pure” Hindu blood, and blood ties — sounds like Nazi Germany propaganda. How can this not be dangerous? 

These ideals of Hinduism have always existed — so in that sense, yes, it’s always dangerous when some people think they are superior, and other people are “impure” and pollute just through their presence. Some of this is not new in terms of belief — what is new is that we have a Hindu nationalist government in power, and with a majority. How much of this moves from individual and religious community beliefs into governance structures remains to be seen.

Is vegetarianism part of bio-politics? This man refused to get food delivered from a non-Muslim delivery guy because of a Hindu festival. Is this a fallout of bio-nationalism? 

Yes, I would agree. This is a particular understanding of the bio-ethical and moral role of the “cow” in India today that is driving politics to very dangerous and violent ends. Whether something is “beef” is being adjudicated both by a mob and then by “science.” 

Whether something is “beef” is being adjudicated both by a mob and then by “science.”

What are the similarities between Hindutva bio-nationalism and the Nazi race theory? For instance, RSS leaders like Gowalkar and Savarkar argued foreign races in Hindustan must adopt Hindu culture and language. Is bio-nationalism similar to Wilhelm Stuckart’s Nuremberg laws, which led to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany.?

At a very broad level, you could argue that all nationalist movements have common elements – all are trying to build and promote a “nation” of some kind. As you say, we could also see elements of an exclusive and nativist vision in both – Aryan and Hindu supremacy. In both, we have also seen violent tendencies – in India the rise of vigilante killings of rationalists, and violence against minorities’ places of worship, beef bans etc. – and these are worrying. More alarming are the direct homage paid to Nazi Germany by some Hindu nationalists. But in many ways they are not the same. 

What I describe in the book is a bio-nationalism in India that is very unique, one that emerges from the long, and very rich, pluralist and syncretic traditions of South Asia.  Sometimes bio-nationalism promotes progressive ends, and at others supremacist politics. The book is trying to explore the richness of the entanglements of science and religion in the subcontinent. As I argue in the book, we should be researching and promoting the rich and robust sciences emerging in the sub continent. Yet we are not.  

Sometimes bio-nationalism promotes progressive ends, and at others supremacist politics.

You write that the alleged hyper-fertility of minority women, especially Muslim women, continues to haunt Hindu nationalists? What does this mean?

If you look at the history of many conflicts in the world, women and women’s reproductive ability consistently become a key political target. Minority communities are always seen as reproducing too much and as threats to the majority community. Women, and their reproductive abilities become the “problem.” For example, India and the Indian population, and Indian women’s fertility have long been such a target to the world – which is why India has been such a central focus of world population control. Today, I point out that within India and the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism, we hear repeated concerns about the hyper-fertile Muslim woman.

But what do Hindu nationalists hope to gain by fixating on it? 

Fear of the “other” is a powerful motivation in many nationalisms. Creating religious minorities as “others” — as non-Indians, and unworthy of citizenship is powerful politics. Part of “othering” is claiming that religious minorities are increasing in numbers through high reproductive rates — so minority women become central sites of control. The same pattern is currently playing out in the United States as well — as it has during much of world history.

You write about Prime Minister Narendra Modi evoking Hindu mythology to talk about plastic surgery. Evoking Hindu mythology to claim that there was plastic surgery in ancient India or that planes were first mentioned in Ramayana seems unscientific and opportunistic. But you cite these examples in the context of science, religion and nationalism. Could you explain?  

What fascinates me in India is this effortless melding of the past and present. The “modern” is given a Hindu/Vedic prehistory in claims by some that modern inventions like airplanes, internet and satellite technology, atomic power, theory of evolution, plastic surgery, genomics and other modern sciences were already present in Vedic times. I use Prime Minister Modi’s statement — “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.” — to illustrate how modern science is invoked in the context of a mythological narrative.

Prime Minister Modi could well have claimed that a god could, through divine powers, connect the bodies of an elephant and human, or that god does not need circulating blood or a central nervous system. Rather, he invented a plastic surgeon to perform an operation to connect the two interspecies body parts. This is precisely the imagination of Hindu nationalism that I find fascinating and significant — science and technology and their practi­tioners mediate mythological and divine worlds. Even Hindu gods need doctors. Central to these claims is the idea that modern science was invented in and by Vedic India. It is interesting that these claims are always projected backwards – modern science prefigured in the Vedic period – never the other way around.

“May the force be with you.” PM Modi quoting Star Wars in NYC. How does this relate to science, religion and bio-nationalism? 

Here I was using the quote to signal how thoroughly modern and global Hindu nationalism is. There is much support for Hindu nationalism in the Hindu diaspora. This is not an insular parochial nationalism – but a nationalism that is expansive and open to embrace modern and popular culture to promote itself. 

A nationalism that is expansive and open to embrace modern and popular culture to promote itself.

But the plastic surgery and planes claims are not true. Isn’t this dangerous? 

Yes, it is dangerous for many reasons. It creates an imaginary and false history, it obfuscates what is true and false. Any politics that causes people to follow leaders or movements without questioning, and prevents people from critical thinking is dangerous, I’d agree.

Is science in India secular? Is this a western notion? Does it need to be?

We need to understand and explore why and how science in India plays out differently than science in other parts of the world. This is part of my project in the book – I am trying to move beyond the simplistic characterisations of science and pseudoscience. In India, I show through five case studies, how science and religion are thoroughly entangled – both in the everyday lives of people and at the national level. So for example, medical practitioners may encourage a patient to visit a holy shrine or explore alternative medicine alongside medical treatment. Individuals may go to multiple doctors and religious gurus, even though the systems are completely unrelated and even contradictory in some cases. The claims of whether Adam’s (Ram Setu) bridge is really the bridge that Hanuman built in the Ramayana go all the way up to the Supreme court for adjudication. Understanding this, it should not surprise us to hear that the head of ISRO offered pujas before the launch of the Mars orbiter in 2013. This resurgence of Hindu nationalism has also seen a rise in an exuberant consumerism of Vedic India today — ancient wisdom bottled into household products ranging from toothpastes, pulses and spices, to soaps, cleaners and insect repellents. 

We have seen a proliferation of Vedic sciences in Vaastushastra, Ayurveda, Yoga, and other medical technologies. Rather than science being seen as oppositional to religion, Hinduism and science are melded together into a formula that is seen as the best of the east and the west. At the same time, as I show in the book, western scientific technologies have been used by grassroots struggles, activist organisations, and nationalist groups, and the government to make various claims – for example, how genomics is used to make claims about the population genetics of India.  

This resurgence of Hindu nationalism has also seen a rise in an exuberant consumerism of Vedic India today.

Is it secular? 

About secularism, this is a complex question and much has been written about it. Indeed many scholars would argue that science is not secular anywhere in the world.  A case in point is the long history of debates around evolution in the U.S. But it is important here to recognise that secularism in India also isn’t the same as that in other countries. The founders of India constituted a democratic country with a secular and pluralistic vision that was to actively include, support, and encourage all religions (in contrast to an American model of a separation of church and state). 

Hindu nationalists have rather redefined both secularism and democracy – secularism as tolerance and democracy as majoritarianism. Thus, they argue that while the presence of religious minorities should be “tolerated,” the majority Hindus should define and govern India. Religious nationalists imagine a Hindu India for a Hindu people. This is what is at stake – how we imagine India. Ultimately, Indians define the India they want – at present through elected representatives in government. To what extent people voted for the BJP because of their Hindu supremacist agenda versus the promise of good and effective governance is something that time will tell. What is worrying is that the two – Hindu supremacy and good governance – may become the same thing.

Religious nationalists imagine a Hindu India for a Hindu people. This is what is at stake – how we imagine India.

How would Hindu supremacy and good governance become one thing? Could you explain? Would failure to generate jobs, grow the economy, improve the lot of farmers, not matter?

I’d agree that they shouldn’t but might they not? If religious minorities are constructed as THE problem facing the country, might not the two interests converge? This worries me. Also, there are plenty of periods in history where people vote against their economic interests in order to shore up the nation. Politics and political interests can be very complex.

What is worrying is that the two – Hindu supremacy and good governance – may become the same thing.

You write that understanding bio-nationalism is an attempt to understand modernity, but not in the superior mode that Modi invokes. What do you mean? 

The subcontinent does indeed have a rich and diverse history – to reduce that heritage to Hindu supremacy seems like an impoverished reading of the past. Hinduism itself is astonishingly heterogeneous and multifaceted. In addition, we have many ancient animist traditions, religions that were brought into India and several that emerged within India. These rich legacies did not appear yesterday but have coexisted in the subcontinent for centuries. There is a bountiful gift that India inherited in 1947. Yet postcolonial India has done little to draw on this legacy to imagine and develop the sciences. India has constantly looked westward to craft that future, and today, backwards. There is a tremendous opportunity here that I’m afraid has been squandered. Therein lies both my worry and hope. 

India has constantly looked westward to craft that future, and today, backwards.