On September 27, 2014, Narendra Modi delivered his maiden speech before the United Nations General Assembly as the newly-elected Prime Minister of India. The address, crafted to announce his arrival on the international arena, belaboured upon the usual talking points one expects of an Indian leader on the global stage: India’s civilizational glory and democratic vitality; commitment to global peace, development, and environmental sustainability, etc. Modi’s personal touch to this de rigeur mix was Yoga. Claiming national-civilizational ownership of Yoga, a “gift of [India’s] ancient tradition” to the world, he proposed instituting an International Yoga Day. The Assembly was listening. For just a couple of weeks after, on October 14, it announced that the 21st day of June had been designated for the purpose.
The BJP-led NDA government has since pulled out all stops to elevate this occasion to the status of a national festival in India. Prominent voices, including the Prime Minister’s, lead from the frontlines in proclaiming the significance of yoga for the world. Indeed, with government support, yoga has emerged as a fecund medium for generalizing Hindutva cultural politics, both within the national frame and beyond.
This year, the preparations for the International Yoga Day started exactly one month ago. The Union Minister for Sports, Rajyavardhan Rathore took to Twitter on May 22nd 2018 to invite Indians to participate in a #FitnessChallenge under the #HumFitTohIndiaFit. The challenge went viral. Soon all kinds of celebrities from were posting their own fitness videos on social media, particularly on Twitter, and tagging their counterparts. Most recently, Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Foundation—a leading Indian light of globalized entrepreneurial spirituality—has tagged the actor Rajnikanth, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Palaniswami, Deputy Chief Minister, Pannerselvam, and DMK acting President, M K Stalin.
On June 13, the Prime Minister joined the #FitnessChallenge by sharing on Twitter a video of his morning health and fitness routine, which primarily consisted of yoga-based exercises and a walkabout on a circular track inspired by the five natural elements or panchtattva. Then, on the day of the occasion, June 21, Modi once again turned to social media to broadcast his participation at the events held at the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun. In separate tweets, he sent out messages on the importance of yoga for world unity, fitness, and stress-relief.
#FitnessChallenge and its accompanying #HumFitTohIndiaFit campaign are not unrelated to the events that have been organized around the celebration of the International Yoga Day. Both fundamentally seek to tap into the ‘fitness fad’ amongst India’s urban middle-classes and recast it within a patriotic framework. Two things stand out the most: first, the issue itself, i.e., health and fitness of an entire nation; and second, the use of Twitter to turn this serious issue into a gladiator-style, social media driven ‘event’ amongst India’s digital media savvy citizens. These two are deeply imbricated with each other.
The Indian middle-class has wholeheartedly embraced a ‘fitness fad’ in recent years. From cycling enthusiasts on the incredibly crowded, polluted, and traffic-jammed roads of Bangalore to housewives who rush from Zumba to core strength training and pilates, run marathons and, of course, do yoga, all while their kids are at school(!), it seems like India is well on the path of some kind of a health revolution. Of course, the irony of the situation is that India ranks abysmally low on the global health and healthcare indices, and a vast majority of India’s population does not have access to even basic healthcare facilities.
A strong link between the body politic and the corporeal body has existed since the rise of anti-colonial nationalism in India. This link has been understood and articulated sometimes through the discourse of ‘fitness’ and at other times through that of a personalized askesis. For example, Vivekananda famously argued that “beef, biceps, and the Bhagavad Gita” were the panacea that would cure the motherland of all problems. He enjoined patriotic young men to embrace a muscular and, more specifically, bodily or somatic nationalism. Revolutionary anti-colonial groups in the early twentieth century of various ideological hues all accepted the importance of a strict physical regimen. On the other hand, M. K. Gandhi’s experiments with the body and bodily technologies, his advocation of self-disciplining both diet and desire, is yet another register on which the political and corporeal were coupled in nationalist discourse, even if the ‘body’ in this imaginary is constituted quite differently than in Vivekananda’s. Or that of the RSS.
Indeed, the RSS, too, started primarily as local groups of young men and boys that inculcated, in the first instance, physical fitness. There was, and still continues to exist, a strong connection between RRS shakhas and the institution of the akhada in north India.1 Even today, the primary recruiting grounds for the RSS remain its local and very rudimentary gymnasia that it runs in numerous lower middle-class and working-class neighborhoods in cities and towns across India. It is here, in these shakhas that are essentially transformed akhadas for a modern, democratic nation, where a regimen of physical fitness comes alongside a strict doctrinal education in Hindutva nationalism.
However, it is important to recognize that none of this can be easily transplanted into the context of an upwardly mobile, cosmopolitan, urbane India and the mediatized sociality that marks our times. In this new arrangement of the social, cultural, and the political, occasions such as the International Yoga Day and hashtags such as #FitnessChallenge and #HumFitTohIndiaFit have a key role to play. The latter’s most vociferous and visible supporters are white-collared workers in India’s corporate sector. A random sampling of the videos posted in response to #FitnessChallenge show individuals working out in well-equipped gyms, or out in lushly-laid gardens of urban apartment complexes—the same spaces where some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the International Yoga Day are also to be found.
We see here the secularization of Yoga as a fitness regimen. Fitness-as-commodity meets (yoga-derived) fitness as a euphemism for national pride and patriotism. These events represent social media driven somatic nationalism practiced by a consumer-citizenry at its best. It seeks to transform every casual moment in the gym, every ordinary morning walk, and every yoga session into an exercise in patriotism. In its most crass consumerist dimensions, it comes delivered to our doorstep as a package—sometimes in quasi-magical weight-loss potions and health drinks, at other times in televised workout routines, or in the numerous health clubs and yoga studios that have sprung up in every corner of metropolitan India today.
This convergence of an existing ‘fitness fad’ amongst India’s aspirational middle class with the #HumFitTohIndiaFit social media campaign as a precursor to the International Yoga Day, has helped to convert an exclusionary and violent somatic nationalism of the RSS into a secular principle. This appeals greatly to the Indian middle-class. It allows India Inc. to feel the rush of patriotic sentiment without having to get its hands dirty in a refurbished akhada. It allows those of us who live in comfortable high-rises with attached gyms and swimming pools to smell our own sweat and feel incredibly proud for having performed an immensely patriotic act.
This is lifestyle patriotism of the most insidious variety. It turns citizens into consumers, yoga into a collapsed 5-minute workout video, and the very real issue of both individual health as well as the health of a vast citizenry into nothing more than a social media gimmick.