Arenas of Service and the Development of the Hindu Nationalist Subject in India

Katan Alder

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The study of the relationship between Hindu nationalism and Hindu activist traditions of seva (selfless service) has been principally organised into three approaches: firstly, the instrumentalist deployment of the practice, secondly, the political appropriation of traditions of seva, and thirdly, that these related associational spaces are internally homogenous and distinct from alternative ‘legitimate’ religious arenas. These frameworks largely reflect approaches to Hindu nationalism which place emphasis on its forms of political statecraft and relationship to spectacular violence. These approaches raise manifold concerns.This thesis retheorizes the relationship between Hindu nationalism and seva with reference to primary and secondary sources, together with field research in the seva projects of the Vanavasi Kalyan Kendra (VKK), a Hindu nationalist association. Through deploying a reworked understanding of Fraser’s (1990) approach to associational space and Butler’s (1993, 2007) theorisation of performative acts and subject formation, this thesis contributes to rethinking Hindu nationalism and seva. I demonstrate firstly that the colonial encounter worked to produce a series of social imaginaries which were drawn upon to transform traditions of seva. Through their articulation in shared religious languages, practices of seva were productive of porously structured Hindu activist spaces in which the tradition was contested with regard to ‘radical’ and ‘orthodox’ orientations to Hinduism’s boundaries. Increasingly, articulations of seva which invoked a sangathanist ‘orthodoxy’ came to gain hegemony in Hindu activist arenas. This influenced the early and irregular Hindu nationalist practices of seva. Fractures in Hindu nationalist articulations developed as a result of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) sangathanist organisational idioms, allowing the association to inscribe its practices with pro-active meanings. In the post-independence period the alternative arenas of Hindu nationalist seva projects expanded greatly, a point evident in the degrees of dialogue between the Sangh and the sarvodaya movement. The importance of porous associational boundaries is further demonstrated through noting how engagement in visibilized arenas of popular Hindu religiosity worked to both broaden the fields of reference and vernacularize Hindu nationalist practices of seva. With reference to field research, I demonstrate that central to the expansion of the VKK’s arenas of service into spaces associated with Ayurvedic care is the incorporation of both refocused and transgressive practices. In the educational projects of the VKK, I note how seva works to inscribe daily practices of hygiene, the singing of bhajans and daily assemblies with Hindu nationalist meanings, and so works to regulate conduct through the formation of an ‘ethical Hindu self’. However, arenas of seva are also a location where we can witness subjects negotiating power. I demonstrate this through examining how participants in the VKK’s rural development projects rearticulate Othering practices of seva, with actors using the discourse to position themselves as active subjects, break gendered restrictions on public space, and advance an ‘ethically Hindu’ grounded claim on development and critique of power.This work illustrates that far from being of inconsequence to the circulation of Hindu nationalist identities, alternative arenas of seva operate as spaces where discourses are performatively enacted, refocused, transgressed and rearticulated. These acts contribute to the consolidation and disturbance of Hindu nationalist subject formations.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Manchester
Publication statusPublished - 23 May 2015


  • Hindu Nationalism
  • Nationalism
  • Seva, Selfless Service
  • Indian Politics
  • Indian Religious Traditions
  • Performativity
  • Counter Publics
  • Civil Society
  • Hinduism
  • Fundamentalism
  • Vanavasi Kalyan Kendra
  • Rashtriya Swayamasevak Sangh
  • Sangh Parivar
  • Jharkhand
  • Ethnography
  • Hindutva
  • Colonial India
  • Sangathan
  • Shuddhi
  • Banal Nationalism
  • Bhajan


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