Many definitions have been advanced to describe the disturbing surge of far-right nationalism in India today. One of those is that India under the rule of Mr Narendra Modi and the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is rapidly descending into a fascist state. It is one thing for political enemies of the BJP to criticise them, but when prominent mainstream politicians, academics, and activists in India and across the world, with no party-political axe to grind contemplate the spectre of Indian fascism, then one is compelled to listen. On 26th November 2020, prominent politicians, journalists and human rights activists, met in a roundtable discussion, that was co-sponsored by the New South Wales Parliament and Amnesty International, to discuss if India was turning into a fascist state?
Such discourses are taking place across the world and the worrying conclusion of many is, if not completely there, the BJP Government has certainly turned India into a proto-fascist state, i.e., one that is displaying many of the features of fascism. However, the question is, given that the idea of fascism emerged in Europe during the 20th Century, to what extend can we usefully deploy this idea to characterise the current political changes taking place in India? Though the discussion about Indian fascism is not new, the current farmers movement centred on the borders of the national capital Delhi, and the government’s heavy handed response, has raised the sense of concern and urgency amongst many observers. This article seeks to explore the question of Indian fascism within the context of the challenge from the Indian farmers movement.
THE FARMERS PLIGHT MEDIA WARS
Despite the BJP Governments attempts to diminish the plight of the Indian farmers and the scale of the movement, we have seen a groundswell of solidarity and support from citizens across India and the world, including prominent celebrities and public figures with huge followings on social media. One such figure is the environmental activist Greta Thunberg who, linked to a news article on heavy-handed measures being used against the protesting farmers, tweeted: “We stand in solidarity with farmers protests in India,” Prior to this US pop star Rihanna had tweeted an article on the crackdown against the farmers by asking: “Why aren’t we talking about this?!”
By drawing global attention to the plight of the farmers and Indian Government tactics of violence and intimidation, these interventions have without doubt turbo-charged the farmers’ campaign. But they have also drawn the wrath of the BJP Government. Along with the regular tirade of ‘official’ rebukes by the Indian foreign ministry, there has been the now familiar campaign of abuse and intimidation in the pro Modi media (referred to as ‘godhi media’) directed towards those who have the courage to ask questions about the plight of farmers. Displaying a degree of desperation, we have recently seen carefully choreographed public protests by BJP supporters where effigies of Greta Thunberg and Rihanna were burnt, and demands were made on the police to issue arrest warrants! But despite the government’s efforts, by for example, blocking internet facilitates where activists have been congregating, the hashtag #farrmersprotest has been drawing widespread attention. In a piece looking at the role that twitter is playing in denting India’s attempts at censorship, the activist blogger, Sukhraj Singh, argues that “Rihanna’s tweet was a huge setback for the Indian state and others trying to silence the farmer protests because it broke the monopoly of power and influence held by highly positioned stakeholders in the media and state apparatus, distributing it instead to those across the spectrum of impact and control.’
AN EMBOLDENED NARENDRA MODI
For sure, emboldened by his landslide victory at the last General Election in May 2019, where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 353 seats, PM Modi seems to be exuding a level of confidence (or perhaps arrogance) that was not evident during his first term. Modi’s growing assertiveness is manifest in some of the bold and cavalier policies he has enacted since his re-election, most notably, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. This was quickly followed by the revoking of Article 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution which annulled the semi-autonomous status of Kashmir.
But perhaps the boldest move of all was in June 2020, under the cover of the COVID 19 epidemic, the passing of three farmers ordinances, which opens the real possibility of the total control of Indian farming passing into the hands of large-scale corporate farming. The reason why this is the most significant is that, whereas the previous moves were targeted against specific minorities, the farming reforms, impact over 50% of the Indian population, cutting across religious, linguistic, regional, and caste-based differences.
Each of Modi’s audacious moves, as well as drawing praise from his sycophantic supporters, has drawn criticism and protest, but it is the scale and temperament of the farmers protest, and their ability to galvanise cross community support, that appears to have stopped the Modi RSS bandwagon in its tracks. In response, the government has distinctly ratcheted up is authoritarian stance targeting activists directly involved in the various occupations around Delhi, and most significantly through crack downs on journalists, intellectuals, cultural workers, and sympathetic ordinary citizens of all communities. In what is in effect an undeclared emergency, we can see tactics being deployed against the activists and those who seek to defend the right to peaceful protest, or simply expose the excesses of the state, that would not be out of place in a fascist dictatorship. But this raises an important question, namely, given it was elected with a massive majority in a democratic election, does it make any sense to describe Modi and his BJP government as fascists?
THE RISE OF EUROPEAN FASCISM
The term ‘fascism’ emerged in the context of the rise of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism and dictatorial power that emerged in Europe during the early part of the 20th Century. As a political ideology, fascism became associated with deployment of violent suppression of opposition, majoritarianism and centralisation of power by a small elite. The first fascist movements are identified with the rise of the Italian politician and journalist Benito Mussolini who founded and led the National Fascist Party.
This was followed by the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany led by Adolf Hitler, who notably came to power through a so called ‘democratic election’. On the 5 March 1933, the elections took place in Germany, the Nazi Party led by Hitler secured 43.9% of the vote, but not an overall majority in the German Parliament. However, in a bold move on the 23 March 1933, Hitler proposed the ‘Enabling Law’ which would give him the power to rule by decree. The cadres of Nazi supporters immediately embarked on a month-long campaign of violence to intimidate and even detain opponents to the party, along with offering bribes and patronage to the German Centre Party, a lay Catholic political party, whose vote was crucial. The Bill passed by a landslide of 444 votes for to 94 against. It is important to record this history, not least because it reveals the weaknesses of the democratic system, which Donald Trump exposed during the past five years. Given the system’s vulnerabilities to violent political forces, one can never take democracy for granted; it always must be fought for, and there is no doubt the struggle of the farmers is not only about the three ordinances, but the very future of Indian democracy.
One of the popular narratives about the Nazi period is that it was uncharacteristic with the general thrust of Western civilisation and the European enlightenment. This thesis also allows the European nations to conveniently characterise the rise of fascism as the work of a small group of well organised but essentially bad individuals. However, this argument was blown out of the water by German political thinker and Holocaust survivor Zygmunt Bauman, who in his prize-winning book, Modernity and the Holocaust, argued that far from being an aberration or even failure of the European enlightenment, the Nazi project was highly predictable. It was a product of the underlying culture of white Christian European moral supremacy coupled with scientific racism and the application of years of industrial and technological development, that Bauman argues made the project possible. In short, the Holocaust was a product of modernity, where the (Nazi) state was able to deploy its monopoly of violence to introduce effective technological solutions to social problems through a policy of ‘racial hygiene’, ‘social cleansing’ and genocidal violence.
THE UNIQUENESS OF HINDUTVA FASCIS
Coming back to India, though there are many common features between the rise of European fascism in the first half of the 20th Century and the present-day BJP Hindutva government, to really understand the uniqueness of Indian fascism, it is necessary to delve a little into the ideological thinking of the RSS.
Sidharth Bhatia, writing in the Wire on 4th Feb 2021 argues that a good place to start is with the iconic poster boy of the BJP Chief Minister of Utter Pradesh state and Godman, Yogi Adityanath. If one examines the kinds of rhetoric being put out by the Yogi, it becomes clear that the Hindutva fascists are fermenting something quite different. As Bhatia argues, “though it may be stating the obvious, it is important to realise that RSS fascism is classically Indian, completely homegrown and born out of Indian tradition and social conditions and psyche”.
The Hindutva/RSS founder V.D. Savarkar was indeed well read and, as an admirer Hitler, he did have a fascination with European fascist ideas of the 1930s, such as the Aaryan myth and theories of racial superiority, but his organisation had to be weaned on Indian mythology and history, especially if as the RSS claim, they are the guardians off ‘Indian civilisation’ – note the emphasis on the singular, implying there is such a thing as a bounded Indian cultural essence or civilisation. Interestingly, Yogi Adityanath is not from the RSS, he belongs to the Gorakhnath school of thought, which once was eclectic and syncretic, with even Muslim yogis among its adherents. It is estimated that Gorakhnath lived in 11th- to 12th-century. Most importantly his influence is found in the numerous references to him in the poetry of Kabir and of Guru Nanak within Sikhism. Some texts suggest Gorakhnath was originally a Buddhist influenced by Shaivism, but that he drifted towards Shiva and Yoga. One of the strategies of all ideologues of authoritarian nationalism is revisionism, that is to construct history to fit into their narrative of ethnic, religious, racial, or cultural purity. And just like the European fascists, who constructed all kinds of myths about racial types, lineage, heritage, and morality, we see amongst RSS ideologues, the plurality of traditions being erased, corrupted, and co-opted into one overarching Hindutva ideology.
Writing in the Wire, American scholar Christine Marrewa-Karwoskiis argues “While today Adityanath, the most recognisable face of the sampradāy, uses his clout to occlude the diverse history of the Nath yogis, the political shift towards the Hinduisation of the Nath sampradāy is very much a 20th century construct. Although Nath yogis had been involved in politics for centuries, it was only under the direction of Mahant Digvijay Nath (c.1934-69) that the Gorakhpur Temple Complex began to turn violently away from its inclusive political past.’ May I suggest that another staunchly inclusive and secular tradition, Sikhism, itself is currently being subject to the same treatment as the Nath tradition, through the establishment of the Rashtrya Sikh Sangat, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which according to Sanjeev Kelkarhas in his book Lost Years of the RSS has an estimated some ’450 units predominantly in the states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Amongst other claims, the RSS has been determined to portray the Sikh Gurus as ‘desh bhagats’ (Indian nationalists), whereas the whole essence of Sikh teaching is based universalism and humanism.
FAKE DECOLONISING CREDENTIALS OF THE HINDUTV
The RSS does not take its lead from Moscow, or historic Berlin, but from Nagpur. RSS was founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, who was a doctor based in Nagpu. He was active in the anti-colonial movement and he passionately believed that it was due to disunity amongst Indians that resulted in British hegemony. His solution was to (re) build unity by focussing on uniting Hindu and giving them back a sense of pride and organisation. Not dissimilar to the thinking behind Hitler Youth, he recruited energetic Hindu youth with revolutionary fervour, gave them a distinct outward identity in the form of a black cap, khaki shirt, and khaki shorts, and he ordered them to be taught martial arts. To instil emotional allegiance, he deployed Hindu ceremonies and rituals and discourses on the Hindu nation, it’s history, and heroes.
Inevitably, like most attempts to build a national identity, one needs to not only construct but also demonise the ‘other’; which for the RSS was not only the Muslims and British, but also their apparent corrupting influences onto an imagined pristine pure Hindu past tradition. In this regard, one key distinction between the European fascists and the Hindutva RSS is that, whereas the former saw the task was to scientifically build a super race, the latter was seeking to rediscover the super Hindu subject from the past.
The often-brutal methods of dealing with dissidence that we are seeing in India under the influence of the BJP are steeped in Indian patriarchal traditions, the caste structure, feudalism, and a strong anti-Muslim bias and the demonisation of inter religious marriage. Here we are specifically talking about a move by various BJP dominated states to introduce a law on “love jihad”, which is a derogatory term to describe inter-faith marriages involving Muslim men and Hindu women, the implication being that marriage is being used as a backdoor to conversion of Hindus into Muslims.
As well as religious chauvinism, another aspect of Hindutva fascist ideology is its defence of the caste system where we see the merging of Hindutva nationalism and caste-based oppression. For the RSS, the influence of Western egalitarianism has corrupted the natural order of Manu, where everybody has a divinely ordained place, and the task in hand is therefore to re-establish that ‘perfect balance’ and thus restore people’s sense of belonging! This bizarre regressive vision is one of a ‘free’, decolonised, self-confident and assertive India where, as Sidharth Bhatiae, suggests, “everyone knows their place – the oldest man in the house takes all decisions and his word is final. The others follow his instructions, no questions asked. He is supposed to be the font of all wisdom, kindly and fair and patriotic, and cannot be opposed or defied. The women do housework, tend to the cows, obey their husbands and male elders, and strive to please and satisfy. The men earn for the family. The children listen to their parents.”
RECONSTRUCTION OF AN IMAGINARY IDEALISED PAST NATURAL ORDE
It is such idealised conceptions of Indian society that resides at the centre of RSS Fascist ideology and, certainly on the question of gender one can see overlap between European fascism and Indian fascism. It was Hitler who proclaimed that the natural role for women was to serve and nurture their family while men were in charge and had to protect their family. Hitler said this was “the natural order”. For the RSS, Hindu society is built on rigid hierarchies and clearly defined roles, which are not derived from sociological or social scientific endeavours, but pre-ordained set of laws, that spell out the precise roles and tasks for everyone. It is the law of Manu that determines that the natural order is built around two fundamental and immutable divisions, that is the division between men and women, and the ‘varna’ system that determines human beings are divided into 4 main castes, from which any number of subdivisions exist. Thus, Brahmins are the repository of all knowledge and information, Kshatriyas rule and fight battles, Vaishyas trade and Shudras clean up everyone’s dirt. Everyone knew their place and were content as a result.
Once you establish this ‘natural order’, then constitutions and laws simply are a secondary matter; after all what can be greater than the law of Ram or God? In such a society, one should not be surprised if those perceived as ‘outsiders’ are an alien wedge, a threat either to be eliminated or assimilated. Those who question, dissent, who chose different lifestyles are labelled as deviant, dangerous, anti-national elements, Naxals, Khalistani, Islamist, Pakistani etc.
And the obvious facts that challenge this imagined Hindutva narrative, such as the fact that not all Mogul Emperors came to loot and destroy the indigenous culture, as illustrated by the great Emperor Akbar, or the wondrous Mogul architectural heritage. Another powerful example is the Sikh tradition whose sacred scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib ji, contains the writings of Muslim saints, and where history shows that some of the closest devotees of the Sikh Gurus were Muslims.
What we saw with the criminal and violent destruction of the ancient Babri Masjid in Ajodhya and its replacement with the ‘Ram Mandir’ by supporters of the RSS, is a perfect example of Hindutva revisionism manifest in such a brutal form. However, if this act could not be kept under the radar, one needs to ponder, what else have they been doing behind the scenes, and indeed, what else are they planning to do to further the cause of the absurd imaginary idealised Hindu nation?
Though fascism is directly linked to violence – the word itself means the use of force (fascia – stick) for political ends – often form it takes can vary, from psychological terror, through to deliberate and systematic state sponsored killings. It is this combination of often hidden emotion and physical violence with a self-celebratory populism that is the hallmark of Hindutva fascism. Take for example the introduction off the notorious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens, which, Narendra Modi sought to argue strengthened the rights of citizens, even whilst it stripped away citizenship rights to hundreds of thousands of people in Assam who have been rendered stateless. We saw a similar strategy with the removal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which was designed to undermine mainly Muslim Kashmiris, and thus wipe out their identity and their lands.
TO CHALLENGE THE HINDUTVA IS TO GO AGAINST NATURE
The farmers’ protest, too, flouts the ingrained Hindutva false sense of natural order. Indeed, even challenging the authority of the BJP Government is often characterised in the pro government media as an act of national betrayal, which can result in being arrested and worse. Take for example the eight journalists who were arrested, their crime being that they were seeking to report on the farmer protests in India and violence in Delhi on January 26, 2021. Human Rights Watch has argued that “The Indian authorities’ response to protests has focused on discrediting peaceful protesters, harassing critics of the government, and prosecuting those reporting on the events.”
Another characteristically authoritarian feature of the BJP is to criticise the farmers for ‘getting above themselves’, and that ‘as (simplistic) farmers, they don’t understand the new law and that are being manipulated by enemies of India’. The government in effect is saying, you do the labouring and leave it up to the higher caste corporates and money men to deal with the economics! It is this very same feudal mindset that is behind the inhumane behaviour of the notorious Delhi police. The liberal use of lathis (long brass tipped bamboo lances), the shutting down of the internet, setting up concrete barriers to stop traffic, the laying down of barbed wire fences and spikes in what is de facto now a protest site turned into a ghetto, all stem from an authoritarian impulse on how rulers should deal with a rebellion.
THE HINDUTVA IS THE REAL THREAT TO ORDER AND CIVILITY
RSS Hindutva fascism is no doubt a real threat to most of the citizens of India and indeed the peoples of the neighbouring states. Gone unchecked, given the size of India, and the unstable geopolitics surrounding the whole region, we could end up with a disaster that is beyond imagination. Through various strategies, including media censorship and manipulation, threats, and imprisonment of independent journalists, refusing to give broadcasting licences, control of large sections of the media and pressuring of social medial giants like Facebook and Twitter, the Hindutva fascists have a big hold on a large proportion of the population. Moreover, the RSS, an organisation that has been around for over 100 years, has a phenomenal network of cells and millions of devotees ready to blindly follow them. And like the white supremacist devotees off Trump, fed by half-truths, conspiracy theories and fabrications, many are equally out of touch but very angry and resentful of how the world excludes them!
But like all such regimes, it will end, and end badly for its perpetrators. As we saw with Trump, the sheer hubris and drunken power seen will ultimately consume them; the problem is, what damage will be caused in the interim? History will judge, but it does seem like with the devious passing of farming ordinances, they may just have made their most fatal error. In this respect, the continuous defiance of the Indian farmers, led by the Panjabis, who have a history of confronting imperialists and oppressors, and the growing global reaction to the BJP provides room for optimism.
[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.email@example.com]
* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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