Contested development imaginaries: Hindutva and the co-optation of ‘decolonisation’

By Kalpana Wilson, Giti Chandra and Lata Narayanaswamy

We live in a time where deeply embedded, historically entangled perceptions persist of a bifurcated world, made up of a civilised ‘developed’ or ‘rich’ world as set against a largely corrupt, ungovernable ‘developing’ or ‘poor’ world. The perniciousness of these ‘development’ imaginaries came into sharp relief in October 2022 when Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, in a keynote speech to the European Diplomatic Academy, described Europe as a ‘garden’ where ‘everything works’ and the rest of the world as a ‘jungle’, a metaphor that he extended to further suggest that the ‘jungle’, without political engagement, ‘could invade the garden’.

In this context, then, it does not seem unreasonable that political actors in the so-called ‘Global South’ would try to galvanise solidarity to re-align these sticky ‘development’ imaginaries that cast former colonial possessions as part of a barbarous jungle incapable of self-governance, echoing the racist, colonial justifications for Empire itself. At the same time we note that apparent attempts at re-alignment are also masking other trends that are worthy of our attention as academics and activists who identify broadly with the critical study of ‘development’.

As the Indian state uses its turn leading the G20 to position itself as a global development leader and representative of the Global South, we focus specifically on the ways in which these development imaginaries are being addressed in India. Ideas and concepts rooted in Hindu supremacism or Hindutva are increasingly circulating in critical development spaces and being accepted or even promoted on the grounds of decolonising, indigenising, and diversifying knowledge production. The conflation of Hindutva by its proponents with Hinduism is a particularly pernicious sleight of hand which has aided this process.

Increasingly, key Hindutva buzzwords such as Indic, Dharmic, and Vedic – divorced from any textual and philosophical complexity, and used to celebrate an imaginary past in which caste hierarchy is invisibilised and ‘Hinduism’ is produced as a singular, decolonial and monolithic narrative that is ‘pure’ and uncontaminated by syncretism – are the subject of uncritical papers accepted at international development conferences. Deeply oppressive historical practices such as the exclusive provision of learning to Brahmin boys in ‘gurukuls’ are not critically examined in the light of their historical, scriptural, or cultural contexts, but rather championed in the name of decolonising education for sustainable development. 

Hindutva in the mainstream …

Many were dismayed when a deeply Islamophobic book about India’s history written by a lawyer affiliated to India’s Hindu supremacist far-right came to be endorsed by leading decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo, whose work the author had extensively cited, although Mignolo later sought to withdraw his endorsement. This was just one, albeit particularly dramatic, example of the way Hindu supremacists aligned with the current dispensation in India are gaining legitimacy by adopting decolonial language, even while perpetuating an ideology drawing inspiration from European fascism and rooted in British colonial versions of Indian history. In fact, contemporary Hindu supremacism, far from being anti-imperialist, is inextricably entwined with global corporate capital, and far from rejecting mainstream notions of neoliberal development, reproduces these same dynamics thereby exacerbating inequality even more. The rise of Indian members of the billionaire CEOs club does not pose any challenge to the starkly racialised global distribution of resources, particularly when Indian corporates continue to be registered in, and enormously enrich, the financial markets of the City of London and Wall Street. Recent years have seen a marked fall in India’s position in the Global Hunger Index; hardly surprising when its current model of development involves the dismantling of labour and environmental regulations, swingeing privatisation and the selling of key assets to corporate cronies, and fossil fuel driven climate destruction.

Moreover, the Hindu supremacists’ claiming of the term ‘indigenous’ to refer to the dominant majority Hindu community, not only highlights the commonalities with today’s European far right, but erases the experience and resistance of India’s Adivasi (indigenous) communities who are facing the brunt of this corporate dispossession and violence. Experiences which Adivasi communities share with other indigenous communities globally extend to the setting up of massive residential schools for Adivasi children funded by mining corporates like Adani and Vedanta, in which pupils are indoctrinated in the superiority of Brahmanical Hinduism over their own indigenous beliefs and culture. 

Further, a consideration of the decolonial rhetoric of the contemporary Indian state cannot ignore India’s own ongoing occupation of Kashmir, which may be understood, particularly since the Indian government’s revocation of Kashmir’s limited autonomy in 2019, as a form of militarised settler colonialism. We should not be surprised that along with  new strategic alliances with Israel such as the I2U2 group, the Indian government and its supporters are drawing lessons from Israel’s redefinition of antisemitism to incorporate any criticism of the Israeli state, and are busy constructing and promoting the notion of ‘Hinduphobia’ to silence dissent, particularly in the diaspora.

The spread of Hindu supremacist discourses in critical development spaces is facilitated by an essentialist and ultimately racist understanding of decoloniality among Western academics and practitioners which proposes that any concept or approach which claims to be authentically rooted in communities in the Global South can be accorded ‘epistemic deference’ without any serious engagement with the politics underlying it. This approach assumes that people in the Global South are located ‘outside’ or ‘beyond’ politics, a well-established version of the racialised trope of the pre-modern ‘noble savage’. It is important to recognise that some, if not all, of these assumptions operate on a subconscious level for most academics and practitioners in the conference, critical, or public debate space. Often it is registered only as mild discomfort at having to be the ‘white person’ disputing the ‘indigenous’ speaker, or more explicitly the fear of reproducing discriminating and silencing practices and structures by demanding conventional, European/Western academic forms of evidence in support of the speaker’s arguments.

Perhaps the urgent question then, is how to respond to speakers and scholars that claim the language of decolonisation and indigeneity in a responsible and critical way while staying true to decolonial principles? We suggest that the only way to remain constructive rather than patronising is to engage as we do with speakers from any other geo-political space; with the same critical rigour that is the mark of respect for any colleague’s scholarship. 

This is easier said than done, given the large swathes of knowledge and knowledge bases of particular cultures and spaces that many of us in conference rooms lack. But if we are aligning ourselves with notions of decoloniality, we have a responsibility to engage with the politics of how they are used. There is no shortcut to this. And if we understand a decolonial approach to be anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and oriented towards social justice, this involves making a commitment to radical solidarity with those resisting fascism and oppression. In the Indian context, this would involve: engaging with the praxis which informs the iconic Shaheen Bagh occupations of public spaces by Muslim women protesting against laws which strip them of citizenship; the vast and diverse farmers’ movement which succeeded in forcing the Modi government to withdraw three laws which would have handed control over Indian agriculture to corporates; the protests of Adivasi women at the forefront of resistance to the dispossession of their lands and the violent militias which enforce it; or the Kashmiri women refusing to remain silent about army rapes and mass disappearances. The principles of anti-racism require structurally privileged critical development scholars located in the Global North to abandon their paternalistic valorisations of ‘authenticity’ and take the risk of critically engaging and exercising political judgement. At this critical juncture of rising global fascism, we should expect nothing less.

Kalpana Wilson teaches critical international development at Birkbeck, University of London. Her research explores questions of race and gender in development, labour movements, neoliberalism, imperialism, fascism and reproductive rights and justice, with a focus on South Asia and its diasporas. She is the author of Race, Racism and Development: Interrogating History, Discourse and Practice (Zed Books, 2012) and co-editor of Gender, Agency and Coercion (Palgrave, 2013). She has published in Development and Change, Third World Quarterly, Feminist Review, Antipode and other journals on racialisation in development, appropriation of feminism, collective agency in labour movements, population policies, visual representations, and diasporas in development. She is a founder member of the Race and Development Working Group and is currently Co-Chair of the Development Geographies Research Group.

Giti Chandra is currently Research Specialist with the Gender Equality Studies and Training Programme (under the auspices of UNESCO) in Reykjavik. Dr Chandra also teaches at the University of Iceland, and has been Associate Professor, Dept of English, at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. She is a member of the managing committee of the European Cooperation in Science and Technology, Decolonising Development action, and Principle Investigator of the Rannis funded project ‘Decolon-Ice’. Dr. Chandra is the author of Narrating Violence, Constructing Collective Identities: To witness these wrongs unspeakable (Macmillan UK/US: 2009) and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook on The Politics of the #MeToo Movement (Routledge UK: 2021). She is the recipient of an EDDA grant for a book length study titled In Visible Texts: Hidden and Spectacularised Violence in Colonial India and Africa (forthcoming) and is currently working on co-editing States of Division: Gender and Oral Narratives in Post-Partition Conflict. Other publications include articles and book chapters on issues of the body, gender, and violence.

Lata Narayanaswamy is currently Associate Professor in the Politics of Global Development in the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds, UK. Her research critically reflects on gendered/intersectional and post/decolonial dynamics of development knowledge and its perceived contribution to addressing global development challenges. She is currently involved in applied, interdisciplinary research related to gender and climate change, water security and decolonising development, as well as policy-oriented training, facilitation and awareness-raising around colonialism, anti-racism and structural inequality, working with a range of (I)NGOs, donors and multilateral organisations. She also works in a voluntary capacity as a Trustee for the Gender and Development Network, UK (GADN), with oversight of their work on racism and decolonisation.

This blog is based upon the authors’ partnership in COST Action ‘Decolonising Development’ CA 19129, supported by COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology)

Image: The Fatima Sheikh-Savitribai Phule Library at the Shaheen Bagh protest site, at what was formerly a bus stop. Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh were 19th century social reformers, champions of girls education and worked together against caste and gender oppression. © Kalpana Wilson

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.

2 Replies to “Contested development imaginaries: Hindutva and the co-optation of ‘decolonisation’”

  1. Thank you so much for this. I’m a 2nd gen British Indian, currently trying to understand and navigate Hindutva rhetoric in my family and friend circles. I’ve experienced family members using decolonial language to guilt-trip me when I try to argue against Hindu supremacist comments (but they’re not doing so consciously in an academic way). They have sometimes made me wonder whether my lefty views are actually infected with colonial thinking, but this article has given me confidence to not give in!

  2. Thanks so much for writing this really important piece. I couldn’t agree more. In case you are interested, there is an excellent collection of papers critically addressing some of these themes in the March 2023 volume of International Affairs (with a short introduction by me!).

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