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Them Again in India

by Chetan Bhatt, 27 May 2014

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Eidolon - May 21, 2014

A slightly updated, longer version of a piece that was published in Outlook India

Given the emphatic victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP in the recent Indian elections, should secularists, human rights activists, liberals, feminists be worried? While the BJP win is based on about 31% of the popular vote, the democratic mandate by the Indian electorate is a powerful one and, for the first time in its history, the BJP can govern India without being unduly constrained by coalition partners. How can secularists and human rights activists oppose this kind of democratic mandate?

Writing in 1995 on ‘Ur-fascism’, the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco wrote of ‘a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives’ that animate different fascist movements. I suggest that behind much of the international concern, and fuelling the qualifications that follow the congratulations, there lies a suspicion that Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh embody the same instincts.

Several religious nationalist movements exist today that have an unusual, unmistakeable primary orientation towards the world. The political languages of those movements are ones of permanent aggression and revenge, of special people and cosmic destiny, of majority friends and minority enemies, of traitors, betrayal, suspicion and malign international conspiracies, of individuals as nothing more than representatives of one adversarial group and one blood-soaked history, of the world divided into two main global armies. These movements have no home for genuine, authentic diversity of the kind in which one might seek to make a friend rather than an enemy of the person who is seen to be the most different to oneself. They can never unequivocally celebrate democracy or liberty since the latter are seen as licenses for disorder and ‘offence’. Since the permanent condition of societies and nations is that of eternal war, they value martial qualities: strength, power, order, uniformity, discipline, decisiveness. This orientation exists in the New Apostolic Reformation and other dominionist and reconstructionist tendencies that now control the American Christian Right and fuel its Taliban-like agenda for the US. It is there in salafi-jihadi militia like Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e Tayyaba. And this orientation towards the world has been definitive of the ideology of the RSS and its parivar.

This is one of the reasons why secular, feminist, human rights and democratic groups are deeply concerned. Their worry isn’t that India is about to succumb on in May to authoritarianism of the kind that Indira Gandhi inflicted on the people during the Emergency. It isn’t that Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS ‘supreme leader’ and his elderly top cadre are about to goosestep in formation into the Lok Sabha. But it is a genuine worry about a global rightward shift, often dominated by the most extreme religious and nationalist movements, and the rise of a divisive, extremist figure in Indian national and international politics, a figure who perhaps represents something like India’s ‘Berlusconi moment’. Of interest here are the individuals Modi is compared to - Berlusconi, Putin, Milosevic, Hitler. Where on the spectrum will he lie? Will he become ‘modified’ himself by the exigencies and realities of government and so his period will be one of largely business as usual, the best outcome that human rights activists can hope for? The reason for this uncertainty in political options - which range from authoritarian populist democracy to something akin to fascism - is because a wide range of repressive possibilities are thinkable in the Hindutva ideological universe.

Narendra Modi has managed to convert a few modest achievements in Gujarat into shiny spectacle, a mirror for the narcissist. ‘Pride’ has become debased by a thundering language of toughness and vengeance. A recent, gruesome history is erased by a fanatical cult of personality; in speaking about himself in the third person, Modi appears to be his most loyal fan. Most chillingly, some Gujaratis in the UK and India are consciously indifferent to the deaths, rapes and brutalities in 2002. For them, those deaths are just a necessary outcome of the Hindutva revenge against history that Amit Shah, Pravin Togadia, Giriraj Singh and Ramdas Kadam and other have all invoked in the election period – and the fact that they have shows a characteristic division of labour with Modi speaking about something he calls ‘development’ while the hate speech is left to others. Hence, Indian voters who disagreed with the fantastical vision of Narendra Modi and the RSS were told to go to Pakistan, were deemed traitors, foreign agents, international conspirators, haters of Hinduism. Political loyalty to Modi has become the measure of religious devotion; his fans are … fanatical.

Many liberals have concerns about Modi’s political discourse and style, since he knows no other world than that of the RSS and its parivar. Indeed, one wonders what he might say in a discussion about the US debt ceiling, the Syria conflict or the Ukraine crisis. How does one fully capture the callousness of a sensibility for whom an endless life of manual scavenging is simply a rewarding spiritual choice, refugee camps are Muslim baby-making factories, Hindu terrorism if born would wipe Pakistan off the map, severe malnutrition among girls is a consequence of dieting, that those killed in 2002 are like puppies under a wheel? How does one describe an orientation towards women that leads to the alleged use of public resources to undertake the surveillance of one young woman, while disguising a spouse for decades? Modi’s political style is known well enough – he was described by a former US ambassador as someone who hoards power and ‘reigns more by fear and intimidation than inclusiveness and consensus’. Yet the concern is also about more than Modi’s personal style.

Modi has treated legal and democratic institutions in Gujarat with contempt. He has acted with tenacious vindictiveness against journalists, human rights activists and police officers who have challenged him or his version of events. Modi’s choice of close personal aides are not examples of poor political judgement but egregious moral failures that are visible internationally: Maya Kodnani, elevated even when her involvement in the 2002 violence was known; Amit Shah, currently spouting hate-driven speech and alleged to be involved in fake encounter killings; another senior minister convicted for illegal mining; another for a fisheries scam and also alleged to have been involved in the anti-minority violence in Bombay in 1993. There remain the unsolved murders of BJP MLA Haren Pandya and environmental activist Amit Jethwa. The testimonies of police officers Rahul Sharma, Sanjiv Bhatt, R.B. Sreekumar and others, as well as the ignominious way they have been treated by the Gujarat state, speak volumes about what good governance and the rule of law mean in reality. And lurking in the shadows are the allegations of police officer DG Vanzara and others. No doubt, these investigations will continue. But if Modi does come to power in the Centre, which investigations are likely to be blocked and sabotaged? Given the vindictive political style of Modi’s Gujarat, which human rights activists and lawyers are going to be targeted even further? Moreover, the relation between Modi, the RSS and the older leadership of the BJP is a dynamic one - the territory is uncharted and Modi certainly has made many enemies with the RSS and BJP within and outside Gujarat. It is virtually axiomatic that the BJP in government has to maintain stability for economic growth and external investment and manage the consequences of the instability caused by its unleashing of violence periodically. Both the maintenance of order for domestic and international business and disorder for its Hindu supremacist followers are important. How then, will Modi navigate the Ram temple issue, Kashmir’s constitutional status, the ‘uniform’ civil code and the new Hindutva demands that will proliferate while projecting stability, investment and ‘good governance’. Moreover, what transformations are we likely to see as new, younger figures come to power in the Centre having learnt their skills in authoritarian Gujarat?

In addition to attacks on minorities, we have seen in recent years an emboldened Hindutva assault on other basic freedoms and liberties in civil society – from the policing of women and romantic love on streets and campuses by self-appointed Hindutva mutaween to the attacks on university curricula (the withdrawal at Delhi University of A. K. Ramanujan’s brilliant essay on the Ramayana traditions), the banning of books (the campaign against Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism by the RSS), the attacks on artists, filmmakers, journalists, writers, secularists. These and numerous other examples are a source of international concern. Many of Modi’s BJP/RSS supporters regularly distinguish themselves in public meetings, online forums and the like by their sheer vitriol, disruptiveness and obtuse style of argument – typically denial and ‘whataboutery’ – as if shrieking about other violations or corruptions loudly enough will make Gujarat 2002 magically disappear. Observers in the UK, US and elsewhere see and experience this and of course it makes them wonder that if the fanatical supporters behave like this, what will they be like in power? In the UK, the main south Asian groups who have opposed the Hindutva far-right have also been involved for decades in opposing political Islamists and the Christian Right and Sikh fundamentalism. They have been involved in campaigns for justice arising from the pogroms against Sikhs in 1984 and campaigns against ‘honour’ murders, sharia law and hate crimes. Often, they happen to be individuals from Hindu backgrounds. But this does not matter to the UK Hindutva lobby who see international anti-Hindu conspiracies everywhere, such is the paranoid, fragile conspiracy-driven world view that the RSS has instilled in them.

In the UK and US the RSS and its family undertake authoritarian campaigns against the ‘blasphemous’ use of Hindu iconography, against the teaching and academic representation of Hinduism that isn’t RSS-approved, against legislation that aims to outlaw discrimination based on caste, against what they consider to be the conversion of young Hindu women by Muslim men and many other such campaigns they have lifted from RSS and VHP agendas in India and transplanted abroad. A meeting in the UK Parliament which the important secular group Awaaz organised in February about Narendra Modi was attacked by the RSS lobby and the censorious Hindu Forum of Britain as ‘a desecration of Hindu sentiments’ – again debasing Hindu religion by making it equivalent to support of Modi. In each fundamentalist campaign, the claims of ‘Hindu hurt’ and ‘offence’ are mobilised aggressively. Like the political Islamist campaigns they mimic, the impulse is to police and discipline the boundaries of religious belonging and the legitimate spaces and behaviour for women and young people. A Modi-victory will only increase these authoritarian undemocratic efforts abroad.

These Hindutva efforts point to a deeper issue of concern that will outlive Modi’s political ambitions. As important as this election is for India’s history, it is also a momentous event in the history of the RSS, whatever the latter’s feeling about Modi himself. The RSS will see the election result as another milestone in its central, long-term aim to transform the entire society of India under its ideology of Hindurashtra. This aim is about the wholesale reconfiguration of Indian political culture, of the ethos of constitutional democratic governance, of the ethics of the way difference is given recognition. For the RSS, simply the existence of minorities is a polluting, grievous insult to its ‘Hindu nation’, just as the existence of neighbouring countries is an insult to the integrity of the sacred land originally bestowed upon ‘Aryans’. Hence, questions of political democracy are permanently reduced to those of religious demography. One important gift Modi has delivered to the RSS is the apparent, final conflation of Indian nationalism with Hindutva, because now he will speak for, assert the interests of, defend India and Indians on an international stage. The language of Indian nationalism now spouts from their mouths and they will aim to transform it, little by little, into their chauvinistic and exclusive vision. Modi managed this effortlessly at Varanasi simply by what he did and where he was. He didn’t need to even say anything.

This is also a different kind of turning point for the RSS - its economic nationalism does not have a future and the old guard that cling emotionally to it will in time be swept away by the tendencies in the RSS - particularly those influenced by the globalising, finance capital driven, international corporate-leaning members of the RSS, both in India and in the diaspora. This same battle was fought out in the pages of the BJP election manifesto as long ago as 1998. Now, the RSS will face this battle even more sharply within itself. Moreover, there are those in the RSS who can attune ‘its’ vasudhaiva kutumbakam towards a global, financial and service sector sensibility. Furthermore, the RSS is a deeply deceptive organisation - it has a carefully cultivated political language that seeks to mystify what it does in practice. Its claim that it is a cultural organisation removed from the pollutions of politics, even that it remains outside politics as the ’conscience of the nation’, is less a self-deluding myth than a strategic method of absolving itself from the negative consequences of any actions it takes, just as it is quick to dissociate from violent members when they are caught and charged. It is a well-tested method of unleashing hatred and violence without responsibility or accountability. As is often said about fascism, its different parts do not have to add up, it does not need to make sense - by definition fascism does not need to be coherent.

Two final global dynamics are important in understanding why Modi causes such concern among progressives: the global drift towards authoritarian religious extremism; and international corporate greed that is reliant on states allowing the private theft of public property, natural resources and peopled lands. The coupling of authoritarian populist extremism and corporate theft of the commons is a potent one. In the Berlusconi periods, we saw a dismal combination of criminality and corruption, extreme xenophobia, subversion of accountability and the rule of law, a compliant media empire, state patronization of rapacious corporate greed, and an electorate regularly voting against seemingly every material interest they had, just like those mobilised by the Christian Right and the Tea Party in the US. In the Hindutva movement, in its symbols and words, visions and hatreds, the ideas it uses, its intellectual resources, it remains sufficiently close to fascism that it demands international vigilance – not by those who ‘hate Hindus’, but by those who might care deeply about India.

Chetan Bhatt, London School of Economics


The above article from Eidolon is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use