Hindu nationalists frequently anoint themselves the Indigenous people of India. This identity claim—informed by upper-caste sensibilities and a core part of Hindutva mythology—is misleading and harmful to numerous minoritized Indian communities. It undermines the status of Adivasis, “first dwellers.” It also provides fodder for assertive Hindutva conversion campaigns and land grabs that seek to disenfranchise Adivasis and Muslims.
In this essay, I explicate the distorting Hindu nationalist claim of indigeneity, unpacking the expansive and exclusive notion of “indigenous status for all Hindus and only Hindus.” Hindu majoritarian mistreatment of religious minorities bears marked similarities to how white Christians have abused native communities in North America. More broadly, Hindutva ideology on indigeneity resonates with a global far-right agenda to enforce nativist policies and undercut multiculturalism. I explore Hindutva’s global links and North American parallels to help highlight the ethical and material implications of Hindutva aggressions that target others’ identities and land. Claiming indigeneity for the politically powerful, Hindu nationalists seek to disempower already precarious marginalized communities and use the implausible projection of themselves as oppressed to further harsh majoritarian goals.
Hindu nationalist ideology is roughly a century old and is propagated by the Sangh Parivar, a loose coalition (literally, “family”) of Hindutva organizations. The Sangh Parivar maintains that Hindus are the only true Indians, an exclusionary claim at odds with history. Indian history is a long and messy affair stretching back thousands of years, but arguably two rare points of consistency are diversity and migration. Continual movements into the subcontinent over millennia have resulted in India being home to many cultures. Most if not all Indian communities have been affected by non-Indian influence at some point. India’s incredible diversity and robust migration trends also present complications for speaking about Indigenous communities. As one scholar has suggested about identifying Indigenous versus non-Indigenous groups, “In places like India, with an ancient history of engagement between various civilizations, the problem is so difficult that to speak of indigenous peoples tends to confuse issues of identity rather than to clarify them.” Still, there is a world of difference between arguably imperfect terminology—such as describing Adivasis as Indigenous—and structurally appropriating others’ voices to disenfranchise them. Hindu nationalist indigeneity dogma falls into the latter category.
Replacing and homogenizing Adivasis
India hosts a robust set of Indigenous or “first dweller” communities, called Adivasis, whose rights are endangered by Hindu nationalist activities. In the first instance, Hindu nationalists seek to appropriate Adivasi indigeneity, with profound ethical and material consequences. As per the Indian census, Adivasi communities constitute more than 8 percent of the current Indian population. Adivasi religious and cultural traditions are internally diverse but generally emphasize connections with nature. They are distinct from mainstream Hinduism, especially upper caste practices that tend to dominate in Hindu nationalist discourse. Many Adivasis face discrimination from caste-privileged Hindus, such as segregation, untouchability practices, and sexual harassment. Despite community activism and some media attention to Adivasi struggles, these communities remain underserved in modern India, including by Hindu nationalists who reject even that Adivasis are a distinctive set of communities.
Hindu nationalists also aim to homogenize Adivasi communities—in a sense making their denial of discrete Adivasi identities retroactively true—through aggressive conversion campaigns. Hindu nationalists run one of the most extensive ongoing missionary efforts in the world, called “Ghar Wapsi” (literally, “returning home”). Ghar Wapsi is premised on the ahistorical ideas that all inhabitants of the subcontinent used to be Hindu, and so non-Hindus should “return home” to their original religion. In reality, Ghar Wapsi campaigns seek converts to Hinduism, full stop. To characterize this as “reconversion” without further qualification is to reinforce Hindu nationalist propaganda.
Adivasis have been among the primary targets for Hindu missionary activities dating back to the late colonial period, when two related things happened. One, Europeans coined the term “Hinduism” that was soon adopted by many Hindu communities to collectively refer to a diverse set of groups under a single label. Second, some Hindu groups, such as the Arya Samaj, formulated conversion protocols called “shuddhi” (purification) that allowed them to convert communities outside of the newly demarcated “Hinduism” through the adoption of upper-caste norms, such as wearing caste markers, eschewing liquor and meat, and worshipping certain gods. Hindu conversion missions led by the VHP and other Sangh Parivar groups are ongoing today, especially in India’s northeast where tribal communities are particularly strong.
Hindu nationalist efforts to convert Adivasis to Hinduism, India’s dominant religion, have strong parallels with Christian missionary activities vis-à-vis Native Americans. These Christian conversion attempts were especially robust in the nineteenth century and involved, like akin Hindu nationalist activities, an emphasis on Indigenous groups altering dress, gods, and lifestyle. Both missionary efforts have been accompanied by land grabs, with the Adivasi fight ongoing to prevent their lands from being seized by a Hindu nationalist state. In general, Hindu and Christian nationalists seek to exploit, rather than preserve, natural resources (despite some Hindutva rhetoric to the contrary). Both have also been plagued by patterns of abuse. In the past twenty years, many Hindu nationalist Ghar Wapsi campaigns have been credibly accused of using a wide range of intimidation tactics (e.g., here, here, here, here).
Hindus of the soil
Hindu nationalists define “Hindu” in a peculiar way that helps explain their zealousness for appropriating indigeneity. For Hindu nationalists, being “Hindu” is deeply tied to originating from India. As M. S. Golwalkar—a mid-twentieth century Hindutva ideologue most well-known for praising Nazis—put it, “Out of the heap of hypotheses we reject all and positively maintain that we Hindus came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of the soil always, from times immemorial and are natural masters of the country.” Here, Hindu nationalists again run into a problem with history. Specifically, among the many groups who migrated to India over time were the Aryans, an emic term for Indo-European speakers who moved into northwestern India (largely what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan) roughly 3,500 years ago. The Aryans soon composed the earliest hymns of the Vedas, the oldest Hindu texts. This is a fact of ancient history interesting primarily to scholars, and the definition of “Hindu,” while contested, centers on praxis rather than origins. But Hindu nationalists claims to be always and completely Indian. They paint themselves into the corner of denying the bland fact of ancient Aryan migrations in favor of championing a mythology wherein Hindus “past, present and future are most closely bound with the soil of Hindusthan.”
Positioning Hindus as children of the soil also serves an affective function, specifically to stoke aggressive nationalist pride in a Hindu ethnoreligious state. For example, an early twentieth-century Hindutva articulator, V. D. Savarkar, often invoked allegiance to the “Fatherland” (a term he borrowed from Nazi propaganda) to provoke an emotional, even violent, response in his followers. Savarkar also wrote about “indigenous Hindu power” in an overt tying of political will to a land-based Hindu identity. Critically, Hindutva ideologues treat land as something to be conquered and exploited, not preserved as is common among Indigenous communities.
Hindu nationalists often take an expansive view of the territory they desire to politically control, aspiring to the entire subcontinent. This ideal is sometimes called “akhand bharat” (undivided India) and imagines a Hindu ethnonationalist state that stretches across much of South Asia, enveloping currently independent and non-Hindu-majority nations. In 2022, Hindu nationalists announced that they were formulating a new constitution for this dystopic state that would include what is currently Pakistan and Bangladesh. Hindutva’s “akhand bharat” bears numerous similarities to the Christian concept of Manifest Destiny, popular in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries as a rallying cry for American territorial expansion west. To explore these parallels further, I center on Kashmir, a northern region of the subcontinent home to a majority-Muslim population and the most active site of the Hindu nationalist settler colonial agenda at present. India has denied the Kashmiri people their right to political self-determination for more than seven decades, and Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has significantly accelerated Indian land grab and displacement goals in Kashmir.
Like Manifest Destiny, Hindu nationalist objectives in Kashmir center around settlers occupying a specific area of land, incorporating that land into a nation state, and entrenching majoritarian religious norms. Hindu nationalists cloak these oppressive aims in superficially progressive language, promoting the disinformation that upper-caste Hindus alone are Indigenous to Kashmir. For example, in April 2022, a US-based Hindu nationalist group hosted a series of videos that repeatedly describe Kashmiri Brahmin pandits—who hold a place of privilege in the caste hierarchy—as “the Indigenous people of Kashmir” and, even, “aboriginals” (also see this podcast). The claims are false. Scholars have written about the migrations of Brahmins in (and, later, out of) Kashmir over centuries. But the videos were not designed to be historically accurate so much as emotionally compelling within a wider project to claim Kashmir as a land that will be liberated by a substantial movement of politically empowered Hindus into the region. Structurally, this vision is remarkably similar to how Manifest Destiny imagined the American West as a land that would be liberated by the movement of white Christian settlers into the region.
Contemporary Christian nationalists in Europe and elsewhere, too, see that they share much with Hindu nationalists and offer them support. For example, Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician, has echoed Sangh Parivar propaganda in describing India as a “Hindu territory” and a “Hindu homeland.” Other supporters of Hindu nationalism include the American Islamophobe Robert Spencer and the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who praised Hindutva extensively in his manifesto of violence. Such connections point to the place of Hindu nationalists within a global set of right-wing movements that view the world as characterized by clashing civilizations that are best kept separate. Hatred of Muslims is also a strong tether that connects Hindu nationalists with far-right groups across the world. Hindu nationalists have sometimes been embarrassed by their links with Christian nationalists and terrorists, even flatly denying Breivik’s fondness for Hindutva. Even in such hollow disavowals, however, Hindu nationalists partake in the global far-right tactic of favoring ideology over evidence.
Dismantling bad-faith tactics
Many Hindu nationalists try to seize the title of “Indigenous” in openly bad faith. A 2020 piece on a Hindu Right propaganda website admits as much, recommending that Hindu nationalists adopt the descriptor “indigenous” because it is a “woke” term with global cache that can avert criticism. It exhorts Hindutva followers, “All we have to do is learn ‘woke’ and give it back to them in their own language. Let’s do it.” Seemingly following this logic that the term’s rhetorical power can be useful sans meaning, a 2021 Hindu right-wing book uses the term “indigenous” dozens of times without any clear definition but with a decided agenda of whitewashing the violent Hindutva project. Here we can usefully see Hindu nationalist indigeneity claims as part of their larger penchant for inverting progressive concepts, like decolonization, to promote a far-right agenda and their own dominance.
As Hindu nationalists twist concepts meant to empower, like indigeneity, into tools for oppression, they impose robust material harms on Adivasis and other minoritized Indian communities. We should all keep those dire consequences at the forefront of our minds. Hindutva dishonesty regarding indigeneity is not a mere game of words but rather a blatant attempt to seize others’ land, identities, and rights.