In common understanding, nationalism draws its force from the distinct character of territorially anchored communities, even when it takes root beyond the nation or finds inspiration outside its borders (as is the case with Hindu nationalism’s debt to European fascism). In right-wing articulations of national identity, the distinctive character of the national community relies on a trope of unified territory and culture, where culture can stand for religion, ethnicity, linguistic group, or a combination of these. Online Hindutva, I suggest, should be understood as part of a global phenomenon: the majoritarian right-wing counterpublic, especially as it takes shape in cyberspace. In what follows, I outline a schematic of majoritarian right-wing online counterpublics and describe some aspects of online Hindu nationalism as an exemplar of such a counterpublic. My primary interest here lies in understanding the extent to which the discourse of online Hindu nationalism reflects and inhabits broader right-wing trends.
The concept of the counterpublic was first articulated as a critique of Jurgen Habermas’s idea of the public sphere, that is, a voluntary gathering of private citizens in a social space where something like a collective opinion emerges out of uncoerced deliberation. Habermas notes that public opinion so-shaped carries the potential for political change and that the main structures of communication and information in any age—in ours, print and electronic media—are essential to the viable functioning of the public sphere. The notion of the counterpublic is based on the argument that historically and structurally various categories of citizens have been, and are, excluded from participation in the public sphere. These groups, for example, members of the working class, form their own spheres of associative and deliberative life—counterpublics—through which they then seek to exert political influence, mobilize for rights, and so on.
Two essential characteristics of counterpublics bear noting here. First, counterpublics, as the term itself indicates, are informed by a deliberate sense of opposition to the public or publics from which members of counterpublics understand themselves as being excluded. Second, as Habermas’s and Warner’s theorizations propose, counterpublics are fundamentally shaped by logics of mediation, circulation, and representation. Habermas highlights the central role of print and television in the formation of publics—and by implication, of counterpublics—in our time. Warner argues that texts create and bring forth publics, in the sense that each text assumes and addresses a particular audience. Onlinecounterpublics, accordingly, would be influenced by the logic and modes of online communication, such as virality, and by significant ‘texts,’ whether a video, tweet, or meme, that would appeal to certain audiences.
Majoritarian right-wing counterpublics across different global contexts, like Hindu nationalist communities spanning the Indian diaspora or white nationalist groups in the United States, also share important features in common. In each case, the majoritarian counterpublic understands and defines itself as beleaguered or under siege, from a minority group, the state, ideology, or some combination of these. The counterpublic in question consciously defines itself in opposition to these perceived threats. In India, for instance, Hindu nationalist counterpublics define themselves as survivors of a genocidal colonial Muslim past, the ideology of secularism, and the legacies of the Nehruvian state. In the United States, overlapping counterpublics consisting of MAGA supporters, Trump loyalists, QAnon, and white nationalists who claim they are under threat from liberalism, globalists like Bill Gates and George Soros, racial minorities, liberal elites, radical Leftists, Islam, and, more recently, wokeness and the Woke. In Turkey, supporters of Erdoğan consider themselves to be victims of the Kemalist project of secular nationalism, which they see as hostile to Islam.
Rooted in a politics of grievance in each setting, different right-wing counterpublics frequently borrow themes, idioms, and vocabularies from one another, such that their arguments often seem to converge or closely resemble each other. The internet plays a significant role in these processes as the primary conduit though which ideological cross-pollination and the exchange of tropes occurs. Indeed, the discourse on social media spaces, partisan publications, and websites devoted to propaganda is similar enough across various right-wing counterpublics that we can speak meaningfully of a global majoritarian right-wing counterpublic discourse that exists online. These tropes then feed back into the discourse of right-wing counterpublics beyond the online realm. Importantly, such tropes may also be adopted by other counterpublics and become part of the political vocabulary of society at large. A brief examination of two elements of online Hindu nationalism—the idea of a Hindu holocaust and genocide and the notion of the deep state—also seen in other online expressions of right-wing ideologies will illuminate these dynamics.
Since the midnineties onward, the claim that Hindus have suffered a genocide or holocaust at the hands of Muslim invaders has been a staple of online Hindu nationalist rhetoric. The idea may have been expressed earlier in the English-language press in India, but it was amplified online as larger numbers of Indians gained internet access. As I have argued, terms like holocaust and genocide, which are part of the vocabulary of international civil society, have powerful purchase for the mobilization of political capital in cyberspace. In presenting their claims about a Hindu holocaust and genocide, Hindu nationalists also seek to bring Hindus into a universal history of suffering, granting Hindus their rightful place with other groups that have been victims of mass violence. Ironically, claims of Hindus as victims of genocide have ramped up in recent years, a time when Indian Muslims have repeatedly faced organized political violence from the Hindu right and Hindu right-wing leaders have been openly calling for a genocide against Muslims. In the very recent past, the release of The Kashmir Files, a shoddy work of anti-Muslim propaganda, has led to a resurgence of the idea that Hindus have been suffering an ongoing project of ethnic cleansing for centuries.
Along with other similarities, the theme of civilizational war finds an echo in white nationalist discourse. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi convicted of murdering 77 people in 2011, has found inspiration in the ideology and practices of the Hindu right and has spoken of “genocide against white nations.” Great Replacement Theory—the belief that white populations are being eradicated through non-white immigration and high birth rates among such immigrants—popular among white nationalists, including several mass killers in the United States, is another manifestation of the same underlying argument.
The idea of the deep state has a curious history. As with other terms, it is hard to tell exactly when it is first used by adherents of Hindu nationalism. We do have some sense of how it enters online right-wing discourse in general, though. Used first by spy novelist John le Carré, the phrase is associated closely with Turkey, to the extent that the nation is said to “hold patent rights over the term.” The deep state refers to a secret network of powerful government actors that functions independently of state structures of power and legitimate authority, often in illegal ways and to unlawful ends. A key mandate, or even the raison d’être of the deep state, is “eliminating threats deemed existential to the regime.” First adopted by progressives in 2014, the term caught fire during the presidency of Donald Trump, quickly becoming part of the political vocabulary of the American right. Fed by Trump’s belief and insistence that a deep state was at work subverting his policies and authority as president, the phrase was quickly picked up and repeated ad nauseam by Fox News and Breitbart during the course of the Trump years.
Starting in the Modi era, after 2014, one starts to see mentions of a deep state in Indian right-wing online discourse among prominent right-wing voices like the journalist Rajeev Srinivasan and the politician Subramanian Swamy. In a curious twist, it is not just the postcolonial Indian deep state, allegedly controlled by the Congress Party, that is a threat to Hindus and the Hindu nation-in-waiting but the American deep state as well. More than the frequency of the occurrence of the term, it is what the term signals that is significant here: a style of conspiracy-minded paranoid thinking that is grist to the mill of Hindu nationalists. In an interesting development, a recent book by an Indian journalist about the existence of the deep state under the current rule of the BJP has spurred Congress leaders to attack the Hindu right. We also see theories promoted by Hindu nationalists online about the American deep state working to destabilize India through Christian missionaries and opposition politicians in India. The idea of the deep state is now grafted onto well-worn staples of Hindu nationalist rhetoric and Indian political conspiracy culture alongside theories of an out-of-control CIA out to destroy India, evangelical movements seeking to convert masses of Hindus to Christianity, or the intrinsically anti-Hindu sensibility of the Congress Party, Nehruvian state, liberals and so on.
The sketch I have offered here underscores the need for a scholarly assessment of Hindu nationalism, online and more broadly, in terms of its similarities and differences from other majoritarian right-wing movements. All too often, the necessary emphasis on the particularity and distinctiveness of Indian ideological movements like Hindutva lapses into an Indian exceptionalism. In intellectual and political terms, this amounts to a free pass of sorts, seen, for instance, in arguments that minimize the role of violence as a core tenet of Hindu nationalism. As the Hindu right seeks to burnish its image in the West, through a massive PR campaign painting Hindutva as an inclusive, democratic, and egalitarian ideology unfairly calumniated by bitter Hinduphobes, it is imperative that Hindu nationalism be identified for what it is: a violent right-wing majoritarian ideology that cynically speaks the language of minority victimhood. Demonstrating and analyzing how Hindu nationalism as an online majoritarian right-wing counterpublic is both part of a wider global trend and resembles other majoritarian right-wing counterpublics online may be a step, small but useful, to that end.